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Turkey Book Talk episode #86 – Ceren Lord, Research Fellow at Oxford University’s School of Global and Area Studies, on “Religious Politics in Turkey: From the Birth of the Republic to the AKP” (Cambridge University Press).

The book argues against the popular binary understanding of modern Turkish history, which pits a monolithic secular state against an authentic religious society. As Lord shows, the reality is much more complicated.

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Religious politics in TUrkey

Here is the episode mentioned in the conversation – Halil Karaveli on his book “Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdoğan” (Pluto Press).

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Turkey Book Talk episode #73 – Nazlı Alimen on her book “Faith and Fashion: Consumption, Politics and Islamic Identity” (IB Tauris).

Download the episode or listen below.

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Support Turkey Book Talk by becoming a member. Membership gives you full transcripts in English and Turkish of every interview upon publication, transcripts of the entire Turkey Book Talk archive (over 60 conversations so far), and access to an exclusive 30% discount on over 200 Turkey/Ottoman History titles published by IB Tauris (including the book we focus on in this episode!)

Turkey Book Talk episode #72 – Ahmet Erdi Öztürk of Strasbourg University on the past, present and future of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet).

Öztürk is author of the paper “Turkey’s Diyanet under AKP rule: From protector to imposer of state ideology?” He is also co-author of “Diyanet as a Turkish Foreign Policy Tool: Evidence from the Netherlands and Bulgaria.”

Download the episode or listen below.

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Süleymaniye_Mosque_prayer,_Istanbul,_Turkey,_Eastern_Europe_and_Western_Asia._22_July,2016

Support Turkey Book Talk by becoming a member. Membership gives you full transcripts in English and Turkish of every interview upon publication, transcripts of the entire Turkey Book Talk archive (over 60 conversations so far), and access to an exclusive 30% discount on over 200 Turkey/Ottoman History titles published by IB Tauris.

Turkey Book Talk episode #71 – Halil Karaveli, Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, on his stimulating new book “Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdoğan” (Pluto Press).

Against popular ideas that the division between secularism and Islam is the fundamental driver of Turkey’s modern history, Karaveli takes an uncompromisingly class-based perspective. He argues that the urge to protect dominant bourgeois class interests lies behind authoritarianism in its civilian and military guises.

Download the episode or listen below.

Read Halil’s most recent article at CACI’s Turkey Analyst: ‘Can Turkey Change?’

Why Turkey is Authoritarina

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Support Turkey Book Talk by becoming a member. Membership gives you full transcripts in English and Turkish of every interview upon publication, transcripts of the entire Turkey Book Talk archive (over 60 conversations so far), and access to an exclusive 30% discount on over 200 Turkey/Ottoman History titles published by IB Tauris.

I’ve written an article for World Politics Review ahead of Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary snap elections on June 23.

In it I try to take a longer view, suggesting that while President Erdoğan’s political grip continues to tighten, long-term social tides in the country are not necessarily moving in the religiously conservative direction many assume.

“Erdoğan towers over all areas of life in the country. State institutions have gradually been subordinated to his will since he first came to office in 2003 … He is almost constantly on television, often delivering three pugnacious speeches in one day, broadcast live on every news channel. Under the state of emergency he has been able to govern through decrees granted the full force of the law. His supporters refer to him as ‘reis,’ or chief.

“The government’s attempts to mold Turkish society have in recent years shaped education, family and cultural policy. Money has poured into the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which now has an annual budget of over 4 billion liras, dwarfing most other ministries. Erdogan has famously declared his aim to ‘raise pious generations.’ In right-wing populist fashion, he frames this as a return to a more authentic and harmonious Turkish order, denouncing liberal and secular currents as alien and unwelcome impositions.

“But despite the AK Party being at the apogee of its power, longer-term trends suggest that things may not be so simple. While the government’s religious-nationalist program, combining modern Islamic conservatism with a populist streak heavy on Ottoman nostalgia, appears firmly in place today, there are growing signs that social tides in Turkey are not necessarily moving in the conservative direction that many assume. The vaunted social revolution ushered in by the current government is not as deep as many observers inside and outside the country commonly assume.”

Click here to read the whole thing. If the link doesn’t bring up the whole article it means you’ll need need to sign up to WPR to read it. But if you write your email address in the box at the bottom right corner of the page you should be given access to read.

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!”

[Hürriyet Daily News (15th June 2012): http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ataturk-an-intellectual-biography.aspx?pageID=500&eid=101]

M. Şükrü Hanioğlu – Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography, Princeton University Press, 2011, 280pp

One of the first things guaranteed to strike any newcomer to Turkey is the inescapability of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – the statues, the portraits in every shop, the street names, the fact that every bookshop has an “Atatürk section,” the fact that every classroom has an “Atatürk Corner.” Whatever truth there is in the concern amongst secular Turks that the founder of the Turkish Republic’s memory is being eroded by a new religious order, it certainly – at least superficially – doesn’t feel that way to the Turkey neophyte.

Of course though, if that neophyte is going to stay for a longer stretch of time, he or she will sooner or later have to get a firmer handle on the Atatürk fundamentals, and Professor M. Şükrü Hanioğlu of Princeton University is the latest to take on the daunting task of producing a biography on the man. As Hanioğlu himself says in the preface to the book, it’s daunting because in Turkey: “For many years, the scholar who aspired to portray Atatürk as he really was resembled the pre-modern historian rash enough to attempt a depiction of the historical Jesus.” Though restricted in scope to the influences that shaped the “intellectual” character of its subject, (rather than filling in details of the personal life story), “Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography” is a sane, fair-minded primer to the ideological forces that shaped the “Father of the Turks.” Unlike so many titles in that “Atatürk section” of the local bookshops, it is resolutely a biography – not a hagiography.

The first step to challenging any holy text is to read it as a product of its historical context. The major objective of this book is to do the same with Atatürk, presenting him as an intellectual and social product of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ottoman Empire. The influences affecting the elites of the late Ottoman period are thus given ample space, demonstrating the essential continuity that Mustafa Kemal represented. Even though politically he was to become the symbolic figurehead of the sudden rupture between the old imperial order and the new republic, in crucial respects Atatürk was simply the inheritor of the late Ottoman reformist legacy. This historical continuity is one of the central themes that emerges from almost all serious contemporary historical writing on the period. Hanioğlu summarises:

“it is imperative to realize that Mustafa Kemal emerged from within a specific social milieu … many of the radical ideas destined to become central planks in his reform program were widely held in intellectual circles at the turn of the century … Despite the radical changes that it brought about, the Turkish transformation led by Atatürk was not a rupture with the Late Ottoman past but, in important respects, its continuation.”

While official Turkish historiography considers the founder of the TurkishRepublica kind of omniscient leader for all times, untrammelled by the age in which he emerged, this book paints a convincing alternative picture.

In this respect, the discussion of nineteenth century German military theorist Colmar van der Goltz’s idea of “the Nation in Arms” is particularly illuminating. Goltz held that a state’s military elite should be afforded an exalted role as the ultimate guide of society, a “superior position” being “the natural due of officers as a class.” Such ideas found fertile ground in the lateOttoman Empire, and Goltz was chosen to lead a restructuring of the Ottoman Royal Military in 1883-84. His theories had an obvious effect on the Committee of Union and Progress, (the group of military officers later known as the Young Turks), which swept to power in 1908, and were clearly significant in justifying the military’s later elite position in the Turkish Republic. Equally important to Ottoman thinking of the time – and consequently to Atatürk – was another German import, the concept of Vulgarmaterialismus:

“a vulgarized version of the doctrine of materialism, fusing popular notions of materialism, scientism, and Darwinism into a simplistic creed that upheld the role of science in society. The late Ottoman version of this materialism was a further simplification of the German original and a medley of highly disparate ideas.”

Hanioğlu remarks on the inherent irony of the self-contradictory, one-dimensional worship of scientific materialism by the era’s elites, a secular creed held on to with as much unquestioning zeal as the most pious of religious believers. The early republican fetish for the all-encompassing power of science was clearly a direct inheritance from this late Ottoman tendency.

Such oversimplification also gave rise to some of the more eccentric, often troubling republican intellectual predilections. The scientistic cult logically led to scientific racism and theories of exclusivist Turkish racial superiority, (the body of 16th century imperial Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan was exhumed in 1925 to confirm the brachycephalic shape of his skull, in order to prove beyond all doubt that he was, indeed, an ethnic Turk). It also fed into the aberration of the various Turkist language theories – which resulted in the brutal purging of all “foreign elements” in order to form a new “purified” Turkish language, with artificial replacements dredged up from ancient Turkic languages. In the words of Geoffrey Lewis, the reforms were a “catastrophic success,” and meant that Atatürk’s famous 36-hour speech of 1926 had already become unintelligible and had to be rendered into modern usage by 1963. There was also the new Turkish history thesis that found its way into official Turkish textbooks, which involved a comprehensive effort to prove that all ancient civilisations, including Greece and Rome, came from a central Asian Turkish wellspring. Despite obviously being nonsense, this revisionist interpretation of human history was seductive because it served a number of practical purposes. Firstly, it helped bypass the awkwardly religious Ottoman past; secondly, it helped pre-empt claims by rival nationalisms that Turks were latecomers to Anatolia; and thirdly, in the Turks’ mission civilisatrice, it also sought to solidify Turkey’s position as an integral part of the West, (although even this may have been a step down for some, with one contemporary text claiming that “Turks lived clothed during the stone age in 12000 BC, while Europeans reached that stage 5,000 years later.”) Atatürk never feels further from the figure of the high Enlightenment – and closer to his own, authoritarian age – than when we read of these quixotic social engineering projects. (I was struck recently when my neighbourhood plumber, Ali, while repairing some piping in my bathroom, began expounding something that sounded suspiciously close to the “Sun Language Theory.” I used to think of such things as being not much more than an eccentric footnote, representing the lunatic fringe of the early republican age, but perhaps I was being too generous.)

Nevertheless, despite the fact that it was personally one of his central intellectual pillars, Atatürk tended not to emphasise the more esoteric expressions of his Turkism until the future of the republic had been properly secured. Until this time, Hanioğlu stresses, Atatürk displayed an often underappreciated pragmatism as a politician. This is especially the case with regard to religion, which is far from the black and white picture that is often assumed. Atatürk was never averse to invoking Islam, particularly early on, when seeking to mobilise the masses in the struggle against the Allies and the non-Muslim populations, which were seen as a mortal threat to the very independence of the nation. Despite his contempt for communism, he also made use of a “purely rhetorical Socialism,” largely aiming to maintain the young republic’s alliance of convenience with theSoviet Union. “This pattern of dissimulation,” Hanioğlu writes:

“was undoubtedly part of a deliberate strategy to align the nationalists with the most powerful and broad-based ideologies of resistance, while obfuscating the exclusionary objectives of the movement. This ideological mishmash was crucial to Mustafa Kemal as he performed his difficult role as political leader, diplomat, and supreme military commander.”

Although he was the leading figure behind the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate and, soon after, the Islamic Caliphate, this too was achieved in an extremely careful, gradualist way. As is often the case, what seems now like a sudden jolt and break with the past can, in many senses, be seen as merely the logical culmination of tendencies that had been developing for decades.

Westerners tend to view the Turkish adoration of Atatürk in rather narrow, technocratic terms, without understanding that the emotional resonance his image has across Turkish society couldn’t possibly be accounted for by his intellectual convictions alone. Like all icons, his image is still powerful in today’s Turkey because it has been effectively divested of all meaning, and the viewer can invest it with whatever symbolism he or she wishes to. As in any personality cult, Atatürk’s image must necessarily mean different things to different people. Depending on the context, Hanioğlu says, Atatürk “may be invoked in support of ideas that are étatist or liberal, nationalist or socialist, religious or scientistic, elitist or populist.” A westernised Turk on the Aegean coast might revere him for his secularizing, modernising vision, whilst a religious conservative in Central Anatolia can selectively ignore this, and instead place the emphasis elsewhere – perhaps instead respecting the strongman who successfully defended his homeland and gave the West a bloody nose. He probably sees no contradiction at all in praying five times a day while also passionately admiring Atatürk.

Shared by both caricatures is a veneration for the redeemer of the nation, and it is this aspect more than anything else that lends Atatürk the emotional impact needed to endure. This is the reason why detached and technical books like this, while welcome, can really only ever have a minor impact. The majority are guided by impulses rather less rational and rather more emotional. Atatürk himself understood that, even though it is this paradox that perhaps ultimately illustrates the limits of his ultra-rational, positivist intellectual convictions.

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