Research in the Spotlight | PhD Graduate Dorjana Bojanovska Popovska on: “Reversed Secularization and the Limits of Constitutional Secularism”

Recent PhD graduate Dorjana Bojanovska Popovska, from CEU’s Department of Legal Studies, received one of the university's Best Dissertation Awards this year, in recognition of her thesis research, titled "Reversed Secularization and the Limits of Constitutional Secularism: Reevaluating Models of Separation in France, Italy and Turkiye". Popovska, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute, defended her thesis in January 2023. 

Popovska's project examines how the levels of separation between religion and state in the jurisdictions of France, Italy and Turkey are negotiated and either strengthened or weakened by changing political and social conditions. Her research found that, while the original constitutional position sets the frame, it does not preclude adaptation from such shifting conditions, in particular the influence of politicized religion. At the level of courts, her research observed that parallel processes of strengthening and weakening of the principle of secularism occur, and that such negotiations were found especially in the domains of education and the state funding of religion.

CEU spoke with Popovska about her research to find out more about the weaknesses of separations between state and religion, and "reversed secularization", which she introduces to describe the process of political renegotiation rearranging the landscapes of state-religion relationships. This is part of the university's series, "Research in the Spotlight", which features the projects recognized in CEU's 2023 Best Dissertation Awards.


What is your research aim?

In the last twenty years, there has been a vivid discussion on the definition and functions of the principle of constitutional secularism. Examples such as the headscarf debate in France, and the enactment of laws and court decisions that restrict individual liberties especially for women and the LGBTQ+ communities by operationalizing religion, further ignite these discussions.

My research aim was to look at secularism as a constitutional principle, and to contribute to the debates which criticize or expose the weakness of the principle and what it has or has not managed to do from the perspective of liberal constitutionalism. What I wanted to do was to look at the weakness or salience of secularism as a constitutional principle, and to understand its practical meaning in the real world, and how it is (re)interpreted and when under contextual pressures.

What were your key findings?

I studied constitutional secularism as a specific arrangement that determines the level of separation of religion and state within a certain jurisdiction, by looking at its establishment through a historical and contextual prism. I found that the level of separation between religion and state is contingent upon the level of constitutional consolidation of power of the state at the specific moment when foundational legal institutions are determined, and the organized strength of the majority religion. Thus, as a negotiated principle it is bound to be renegotiated when contextual considerations change. To help frame how this occurs, I introduce "reverse secularization" to describe the process of political renegotiation rearranging the landscapes of state-religion relationships towards greater cooperation and entanglement.

What was the significance of selecting Italy, France, and Turkey for this work?

Since I was writing about constitutional secularism, I had to find certain countries that are committed to the principle of secularism, meaning where the principle is either constitutionally entrenched - as we see in France and Turkey, where it is not only entrenched, but enjoys the highest protections - or in Italy where even though it's not specifically included in the constitution, through the development of the Italian Constitutional Court it's considered a supreme constitutional principle. The comparative value of the jurisdictions also lies in the similarity in context from which secularism emerged – through the struggle for centralization and consolidation of state power against strong religions refusing to give up their political influence.

When we look at these three countries, we can see a spectrum, a grayscale of how the principle of secularism is entrenched and (re)negotiated. I took France as an initial model, and then, on one side is Turkey where, with the exception of the last ten years, the principle of secularism was interpreted more restrictively and, as a model, established stricter control over religion. On the other side of the French model is Italy, where laicitá, the Italian form of secularism, has a completely different meaning and, as a model, establishes a looser contractual relationship between the state and religious organizations. Not to be confused is that all three countries are committed to the principle of secularism, but they represent three models that are different and compose a spectrum of how the principle operates in real life.

Can you say more about the lens used in your research, which you refer to as the "thickening" and "thinning" of secularization?

My research operates on three levels: I first looked at how the principle of secularism was coined on the constitutional level. Then, I examined how the normative content of the principle of secularism has been developed or challenged on the legislative level. Third, I observed what happens at the level of adjudication, specifically by looking at decisions from high and constitutional courts in cases where courts are testing the permissibility of laws and state action, directly or indirectly under the principle of constitutional secularism.

In such difficult cases, courts cannot simply apply the law and they must be somewhat creative. The outcome in specific cases often results in either the "thinning" or "thickening" of secularism. Thinning transpires when its significance is "watered down". A thickening of the principle of secularism emerges when there is an overinflation of its existential meaning at the expense of liberty, which has allowed for the state power or interference to penetrate where it was not permitted to do so before. An example of this is the prohibition of wearing ostentatious religious symbols by students in French public schools.

Through my project, I found that in most instances thickening and thinning occurs in the spirit of catering to the majority religion.

What are some of the issues in education and state funding of religion where negotiations related to secularism and interpretation of the law have occurred?

Issues related to secularism have been prevalent in education and financing of religion for centuries, and especially after the state started taking over functions in which the church was previously prevalent.

Today, the most pressing issues related to constitutional secularism in education concern the presence of religious symbols in classrooms, whether mandated by the state, as we see in the case of the Italian crucifix, or as prohibited by the state as we see in the widely known and previously mentioned restriction in France. Other issues revolve around educational curriculums in public schools and the teaching of religion, and concern questions of how religion should be taught so that it's inclusive and respects the beliefs of all students in the classroom. These issues are not new, but with rising pluralism, they bring out new aspects that play out in the legal universe throughout different contexts across the world.

What I have found is that the framework governing religious education in public schools has been an area that has remained reflective of the established model of secularism in specific jurisdictions. On the other hand, the shift in the interpretation of constitutional secularism has been most evident in issues surrounding the presence of religious symbols in public schools.

With financing, we have the question of how much the state can subsidize religion, how the money is used, and for what it can be used. This comes up regarding indirect financing as well and the issue of taxation in terms of what exemptions from taxation should be available to religious bodies and for which activities. These domains raise a lot of questions.

What motivated you to carry out this research?

As a constitutional lawyer, I'm most interested in functionalities related to the limitation of government and state power. I have also been interested in religion and state relationships, perhaps because I come from the Balkans and this is something that has followed me throughout my life. I think research on constitutional secularism is the perfect crossroads between these two interests. My master's thesis was also on the principle of constitutional secularism, so this is an extension of my work on another level and in terms of depth of the research.

What challenged you the most in the research process?

I think almost every PhD student would agree that it is difficult to learn that you must work with the person that you are each day, because you're not the same person when you wake up every morning. Even though it's a scientific process, it's still a creative process. Some days you may write for sixteen hours straight and be amazed by what comes out of your mind. Other days and even weeks you may stare at your computer and be completely stuck. It's important to learn to live with these variations and feelings and to be kind to yourself through these cycles. The psychological aspect - the overcoming of these self-imposed obstacles - was the biggest challenge for me.

How did your three months at the University of Milan’s Ecclesiastical Law Department shape your research? 

I used a lot of primary sources: laws, constitutions and case documents, and documents related to the constitution drafting processes. Just before the pandemic, I was lucky that I was able to go to Milan to work on my project through the CEU Doctoral Research Support Grant, since Italy was one of the jurisdictions in my research. The University of Milan has a great collection, and the department supported my research not just with materials, but also through conversations with professors who specifically work on law and religion. That exchange of ideas was valuable and shaped my Italian chapter, which eventually shaped all of my other chapters. Because my research is quite interdisciplinary, I also looked at a lot of secondary sources from other fields, including sociology, history and political science. 

Why is your research topic important?

I think constitutional secularism is important today because we see an increasing number of laws enacted by operationalizing religious arguments to crack down on individual rights, even though they're sometimes translated into neutral language. Even though my research exposes the normative weakness of constitutional secularism, it also urges us to consider that, if taken seriously within its liberal understanding, the principle can serve as both a check on government power and - within its counter-majoritarian function - can bring upon more egalitarian outcomes.