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CEMIL AYDIN, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, speaks to Turkey Book Talk about “THE IDEA OF THE MUSLIM WORLD: A GLOBAL INTELLECTUAL HISTORY” (Harvard University Press).

It is a bracing book. Aydin argues that the idea there is a discreet “Muslim world” with a set of shared essential, civilisation-defining characteristics is little more than “ahistorical romanticism,” a fantastical illusion that has never existed.

Download the episode or listen below.

My review will be published in the coming weeks in the Times Literary Supplement, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

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The idea of the muslim world

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My review/interview double-header this week was based on “The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey: Urban Poverty, Grassroots Activism and Islamic Fundamentalism” by Kayhan Delibaş, who works at Kent University and Turkey’s Adnan Menderes University.

The book is well worth reading for anyone looking for a deeper look into the political context of the emergence of Islamist parties in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s. While it’s true that political Islam is an intrinsically transnational phenomenon, it’s always worth remembering the specific conditions that have facilitated it’s emergence, which of course differ everywhere.

Here’s my review of the book in the Hurriyet Daily News.

And here’s my conversation with its author Kayhan Delibaş.

The Rise of politicl islam

In May, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced to the Turkish media his desire to see a “giant” mosque built on Istanbul’s Çamlıca Hill. In his latest “crazy plan” for the city, Erdoğan said he wanted it to be a mosque that could “be seen from everywhere,” and declared that construction would begin within two months. Çamlıca is situated on the Asian side of the city, and despite currently being the site of a number of enormous television and radio reception towers, the hill is one of Istanbul’s few remaining green, unpopulated spaces. On June 8 the Environment and City Planning Ministry announced that a 250,000 square metre area on Çamlıca Hill had been identified for the project.

The Turkish press is predictably divided along secular/religious lines on the issue. There are, however, a few voices amongst government-supporting newspapers questioning the necessity of a mosque when there are no residents nearby for it to serve. Such objections miss the point that a new mosque on Çamlıca would undoubtedly afford TOKİ developers a golden opportunity to roll up their sleeves in the area(!)

An appropriately crude impression of how a mosque on Çamlıca Hill might look.

Late in June, liberal daily Radikal featured an interview with Ahmet Turan Köksal, professor of architecture at Gaziantep’s Zirve University, to discuss modern tendencies in mosque-building and his thoughts on the Çamlıca plans. He is skeptical: “A mosque should be for the community, not for show. For me, being a mosque architect means only doing work that has a function for the community …. If they want to make a mosque like an Olympic stadium on Çamlıca Hill and want to show off to their friends and rivals, then I’m against this,” he said.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of July, Milliyet included an interview with architect “Hacı” Mehmet Güler, who said he had been charged by the prime minister to make preparations for the new mosque. Güler said it would be designed in a “classical style,” and – in a fine example of “Muslim modesty” – that plans were being drawn up to have it feature the world’s tallest minarets, even surpassing those of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.

Following this interview, the issue seemed to fall off the agenda. It was thus quite a surprise to find a number of Turkey’s religion-friendly newspapers recently carrying advertisements announcing: “Çamlıca is searching for its architect!”  The advertisements appeal to architects to submit their design ideas, in a competition to find an architect for the new mosque.

The competition opened on July 23, and will be accepting submissions until Sept. 3. According to the website of the organization in charge of the project – the rather clumsily named “Association to Build and Maintain Istanbul Mosques and Educational-Cultural Services” – the winning design will be “suitable for Istanbul’s silhouette and texture, reflect the Ottoman-Turkish style, extend traditions to the future, add value to Istanbul, and become one of Istanbul’s symbols.” The winner, the association has announced, will be awarded the honour of designing the ‘Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’ as yet unnamed mosque, as well as 300,000 Turkish Liras in prize money.

As declared in advertisements for the ruling AKP at the last parliamentary elections, alongside a picture of a vatic looking Erdoğan: “It was a dream, it came true!”

The massacre that took place in the Central Anatolian town of Sivas in 1993 is one of the darkest episodes in modern Turkish history. On the morning of July 2, a large group of radical Sunni Islamists descended on the Madımak Hotel in Sivas town center, protesting its hosting of an Alevi cultural festival. The mob attacked and set fire to the hotel, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people. Autopsies at the time concluded that the deceased had either died of burns or smoke inhalation.

Radical Islamist daily Yeni Akit’s July 23, 2012 front page carried a large headline declaring “The 19 Year Lie,” accompanied by two photos tastefully showing the morgue full of corpses from the massacre. Aside from the pleasure the paper obviously derived from showing off the photos on its front page once again, the ostensible reason the story was to expose what it called the “lie” that those in the hotel had been killed by the flames. In one of the pictures, a young girl lying on a morgue table, Belkıs Çakır, bears what the paper says is “clearly” a gunshot wound in the chest. This apparently proves that most of the deceased actually killed each other inside the hotel.Unfortunately for Akit, closer inspection reveals that the “blood” from Çakır’s “bullet wound” is simply a braid of hair hanging down from her head.

Akit’s charming July 23 front page

Akit’s piece aroused immediate opprobrium from a number of other Turkish dailies. The next day’s Taraf responded with the headline: “Akit sets fire to Madımak again,” Cumhuriyet said: “One more black publication from Akit,” while leftist-nationalist Yurt bluntly stated on its front page: “A Bigoted Lie.” All included the dismayed reactions from the families of those who died in the tragic incident, as well as their representatives.

Akit said the morgue photos had been hidden for 19 years before passing into their hands, but lawyer Şenal Sarıhan explained to Taraf that the photos were in fact included in a book on the event written by herself, “Madımak Yangını Sivas Davası.” “This book was published in 2002, and it had its third print run in 2011. Akit’s reporter Murat Alan clearly has it. The photos are included on page 97, 100, and 102. To claim that this is the first time they have been seen is completely untrue,” Sarıhan said. Çakır’s original autopsy, she added, was conducted at Sivas’s Numune Hospital, under strict observation. It unambiguously concluded that she had died of burns and from carbon monoxide poisoning. “The definite cause of death was burns and smoke inhalation. There is no dispute on this subject … Neither bullet wounds nor knife wounds can be seen in the photos,” Sarıhan said, adding that the only two people who died of bullet wounds on the day were shot outside the hotel by the demonstrators.

Zeynep Altıok, daughter of the poet Metin Altıok who was killed in the Madımak attack, was quoted as saying that the news did not come as a surprise from Akit. “They have written similar things before. They used to say it was the work of the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK. Their aim is to distort the truth. Before, they said it was the PKK, now they’ve gone in completely the opposite direction. I can’t take it seriously.”

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to reason with fanatical Islamists, and Akit’s July 24 front page headline followed on from the previous day, declaring: “Let the autopsies be conducted again”! On July 25, following the condemnations that the earlier pieces had aroused, the paper retreated into comforting victimhood,complaining that the other newspapers constituted a “dirty alliance against Akit … a panicking cartel.”

Yeni Akit is notorious in Turkey as the most vitriolic of the country’s Islamist newspapers. It was established in 2010 after its forerunner, “Anadolu’da Vakit,” was closed down following its failure to pay a fine incurred in 2003 for a piece deemed “insulting to the Turkish Armed Forces” (still officially a crime). Sane-minded observers view Akit with a mixture of incredulity and contempt, and think of it as not much more than a marginal voice on the lunatic fringe. Nevertheless, the fact that it enjoys significantly higher circulation figures than a number of far more respected newspapers must be chastening indeed!

[Published on openDemocracy (20th June 2012): http://www.opendemocracy.net/william-armstrong/turkey-as-test-case-in-multipolar-post-cold-war-order]

Much is made of Turkey’s ‘difference’ in the Middle East. Why is it being identified an inspiration to the region? Why is there talk of Turkey as a model for Egypt, and not the other way around? In a recent interview with Turkish Policy Quarterly, historian Bernard Lewis makes much of Turkey’s republican history of independence and self-criticism since the Ottoman era, which he says accounts for the country’s regional pre-eminence today. Whilst these differences are indeed significant, a reasonable case can be made that they were not nearly so pronounced as Lewis claims. In fact, after the Second World War, Turkey was no more immune to the hard choices that had to be made in a bipolar world order than other Eastern European and Middle Eastern states. As such, like many others, it was only ever nominally independent.The difference between Turkey and the other countries in the region, however, is that it was able to emerge much more quickly in the post-Cold War era, when states previously under Soviet influence became independent, and the ‘protection’ of those under U.S. sway was rendered unnecessary. This emergence can be ascribed to Turkey’s higher economic, educational, industrial and institutional development, as well as its important narrative of national sovereignty and proud republican history. Its regional pre-eminence today is therefore closely linked to its status as a pioneer of the new, multi-polar post-Cold War era. The sense that the country is now defining itself, as opposed to being defined by outsiders, is a crucial psychological hurdle.

For the duration of the Cold War, the Middle East was an object region acted upon by outside forces, rather than a subject acting for itself. In practice, this meant states being pulled into the influence of either the U.S. or the Soviet Union. Turkey was no different in this sense, and was considered by Washingtonan essential bulwark against communism on the south-eastern fringe of Europe. In order to anchor Turkey to the west, the U.S. bankrolled the Turkish military through the Truman Doctrine in the post-war era, and it was made a full member of NATO in 1952 (at the same time as Greece, the other subject state of the Truman Doctrine). U.S. support – tacit or otherwise – was crucial in the three military coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980, all of which helped to maintain the status quo order. Like so many others, during the Cold War period Turkey was barely democratic, with its western allies preferring a stable, reliable partner to one that genuinely reflected its people’s unpredictable wishes. The 1980 coup is particularly instructive, being seen by the U.S. at the time as necessary to prevent any danger of the country sliding towards communism, as the Turkish left was extremely mobilised throughout the 1970s. CIA Ankara station chief at the time, Paul Henze, is on record as saying that he cabled Washington – shortly after the coup had been carried out by the Turkish military – to say ‘our boys did it’. Gossip perhaps, but illuminating gossip.

The 1980 coup therefore illustrates the old Turkish model, and its similarities with the systems that have also characterised the Arab world in the recent past: U.S./western support for an essentially non-democratic state, in return for the guarantee of stability. Turgut Özal, who became Prime Minister in 1982, could therefore be seen as a kind of non-military Turkish version of General Pinochet. Coming to power shortly after an American-backed coup, Özal was pro-U.S., anti-communist, and neo-liberal – significantly opening up the Turkish economy to international market forces with U.S. support. It’s an interesting irony that in many ways it was these very reforms that helped prepare Turkey to develop economically in the post-Cold War era.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, it also – perhaps paradoxically – became increasingly clear that the old U.S.-dominant model had also become redundant, with much of the previous justification for U.S. support to stable but undemocratic regimes having been lost. Slowly, it became possible for new, popular movements to emerge in the region, and this goes some way to explaining both the revolts sweeping across the Arab world today as well as Turkey’s (less violent) development of a strongly independent government representing popular will. There are, however, significant differences that may legislate against post-Cold War Arab countries following the same trajectory as Turkey. Not least of these is the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-confessional nature of most of these countries – none can really be considered ‘nation states’ in anything like the organically-evolving western European sense of the world. Turkey’s own early 20th century nation-building project relied on an enormous amount of violently imposed state-directed social reorganisation, essentially imitating the western model, (in terms of the uniform cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious cohesiveness that was stressed). On its own terms, the Turkish model of modernisation was successful – taking a multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic population and forging out of it a unitary, monolingual, officially mono-cultural state. In the modern nation states of the Arab world, with their fragmented and multifarious social, ethnic, religious, linguistic, sectarian structures, it is difficult to see how the same results can be achieved in the early 21st century – or even how such results would be desirable. The new Middle East is perhaps more likely to be one where – instead of two great outside powers seeking to impose their influence and maintain an unthreatening stability – a regional struggle will play out between multiple competing local forces. This struggle will be based on old fissures that the old Cold War order had previously kept an uneasy lid on.

[Published on openDemocracy (11th May 2012): http://www.opendemocracy.net/william-armstrong/temporary-alliance-akp-fethullah-g%C3%BClen-and-religion-in-turkish-politics]

With the ‘Turkish model’ commonly cited as one of the inspirations for the revolts sweeping the Arab region, and with much speculation about the role of Islam in the newly emerging political systems in those countries, a closer look at religion’s potential future role in Turkish politics seems appropriate. Of course, it’s perilous to look into the crystal ball and make predictions about the medium to long term political future of any country, and this is particularly so in a place with such a volatile political landscape as Turkey. However, at the risk of inviting egg on my face at some point in the future, I would fairly confidently suggest that Turkey will not simply ‘evolve away’ from politicised Islam any time soon – as many hailing the apparent civilianisation of Turkish politics and liberalisation of the country’s economy often tacitly assume. With roots deeply planted – most notably through the Gülen movement of reclusive religious preacher Fethullah Gülen – it’s clear that religion will continue to play a significant role in Turkish political life, as in social life, for the foreseeable future. Whether its vehicle will remain the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, is not quite so certain.

Much has been made of the role and importance of the Fethullah Gülen movement, or cemaat (‘community’), both inside and outside Turkey. It emerged as a significant force in the 1980s, initially coalescing around the personality of religious preacher Fethullah Gülen in the western Turkish city of Izmir. The movement now aims to promote conservative social values, with a soft, public face emphasising ecumenism, tolerance and inter-faith dialogue. Gülen now resides on a ranch in Pennsylvania, his cemaat having evolved into a multi-million dollar global network, sustained by donations from members and numerous commercial enterprises. It has been at least passively supported by the U.S. since the 1990s as an apparently moderate, relatively liberal expression of Islam. The Gülen movement is now active in 140 countries, with interests including boarding schools, universities, banks, media companies, newspapers, charities, and think tanks. There is also much evidence that its sympathisers have infiltrated into the higher positions of power within the Turkish police force. As the recently “wikileaked” Stratfor intelligence agency cable put it in 2009, the Gülen brotherhood is “perhaps the best-organized grass roots movement in Turkey … [with] a vast social and economic organization, intelligence assets, a global network”. The cable goes on to give an idea of how it sustains and expands itself:

“FGC [Fethullah Gülen Community] businesses advertise heavily on FGC media, while FGC-owned media runs human interest stories and profiles of FGC sympathisers, businesses and schools. FGC members and sympathisers take holidays in FGC-owned hotels and shop at FGC-owned stores and invest in FGC financial institutions. Graduates of FGC cramming schools funded by FGC businesses often serve as teachers in FGC schools overseas. Finally, FGC media, funded by FGC businesses, reacts sharply to any criticism directed at Fethullah Gulen.”

In a country in which conspiracy theories find such fertile ground, the growth of this far-from-transparent and apparently unaccountable religious movement is alarming for many secular Turks. It would be wrong, however, to automatically equate the Gülen movement with the current Islamist government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), as many observers tend to do. In fact, the two have significantly different origins. The AKP, which was established in 2001 and has been in government since 2002, evolved out of the Sunni orthodox Milli Görüş/Nakshibendi school, which found primary expression in the various political parties established over the years by the late Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan. The Gülenists, on the other hand, stem from the ‘Nurcu’ movement, whose origins go back to the late-Ottoman/early-Republican-era Islamic theologian Bediuzzaman Said Nursî. In contrast with the Nakshibendis, the Nurcus have always emphasised refraining from direct involvement in politics, and stayed largely non-partisan, their main aim being the rather more vague imana hizmet or ‘service to the faith’. Thus, the Gülen movement has only ever lent passive support to political parties over time, and it’s significant that this support was never extended to Erbakan’s Refah (Welfare) Party in the 1980s and 90s, out of the ashes of which the AKP emerged.

Both the Gülen movement and the AKP share socially conservative values based in Sunni Islam, and have therefore experienced a kind of alliance of convenience or symbiotic coexistence during the AKP’s term in power. The 2007 “e-memorandum” affair (in which the Turkish military attempted a “post-modern” coup similar to that of 1997), as well as the 2008 closure case at the Constitutional Court against the AKP for alleged anti-secular activities, brought the two even closer together. However, there are increasing signs of a growing divergence of interest. The din surrounding the recent reforms to compulsory education generally portrayed the developments as simply another round in the familiar secular-religious tug-of-war in Turkey. However, a more subtle interpretation was outlined in a recent piece by M. Kemal Kaya and Halil M. Karaveli, suggesting that the reforms were in fact – at least partly – the latest episode in the ongoing covert power struggle between the AKP and the Gülenists. Marked differences of opinion have also been apparent on such contentious topics as the recent Turkish football match-fixing investigation, the Kurdish question, and the continuing friction with Israel.

It would thus be wrong to consider the Sunni religious community in Turkey a homogenous whole. Inevitably, there are fissures and power struggles contained within it, and it seems reasonable to suggest that the outcome of these shifting allegiances will be the dynamic that determines the future direction of Turkish politics, rather than the divided and ineffectual secular opposition. The Gülen brotherhood now has roots deeply planted in many of the institutions of public life inTurkey, and its sensitivities must be taken into account by any political group hoping for electoral success. In a largely pious and conservative country, it seems clear that religion will continue to play a significant role in the political sphere in Turkeyfor a while yet. However, with recent indications of high-level schisms, far less clear is whether the AKP, or some other party that understands and is comfortable with this reality, will be the leading political force to harvest its energies.

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