World Bulletin / News Desk
Nativism, Islamism, and Globalization
Q: You’re speaking about modern Islamic thought generally? Because your area of study is much more about Turkey, we are trying to ask questions connected to Turkey, but it seems as if the same problems are very much interconnected and related even across the Islamic world. At this stage, your arguments about “the local/native” (yerlilik) come to mind. To what degree are the problems of “the local” or “the particular” (yerlilik) and “the national” (millilik) an important dimension of modern Islamic thought? How do we deal with discussions of “the national” and “the local” in a time when these problems are globally debated and interacting with each other?
İK: This issue has a few sides to it. First and foremost, the categories of the universal (evrensellik) and the particular are presented as opposites of each other, but to show them as alternatives and to position them as such at the beginning of a work is to go down the wrong path. This is an oft-made and very clear mistake. Something may be local and national as well as universal. In fact, it can even be said that whatever is defined or shown to be universal today has particular and national sides as well. Going one step further, something may be global precisely because it has a strong national core. What about the seven wonders of the world, for example – are they national or global? Which one is first? What about the houses in Safranbolu, the Süleymaniye Mosque complex, or the poems of Yunus Emre, the city of Berat, İznik tiles, recitation of the Qur’an in the Istanbul style…
Secondly, a gradual perspective can also consider these two sets as different degrees of the same thing. In this case, the distance between them is not a matter of content but of degree. You start with the native and particular, but eventually try to universalize your experience.
Additionally, who can say that what is global is more significant or valuable than what is local or national, and how? In Turkey, those who formed an ideology based on the superiority of the universal over the particular-native rendered themselves, their concepts, and their place in Turkey undefined and weak. This happened first with socialist and Marxist language, then with radical Islamist language – they pulled themselves down and lost their appeal by putting the global in front of and against the local and national. There is a serious procedural error or perhaps even a deliberate political strategy at play here, like equalizing the local and particular through nationalist ideology, or trying to weaken and dissolve the local and the national through rejection of nationalism on behalf of the universalism of Islamic and left internationalism.
“In Turkey, those who formed an ideology based on the superiority of the universal over the particular-native rendered themselves, their concepts, and their place in Turkey undefined and weak.”
How can one who does not know his or her own self and society or culture recognize the universal? This question remains before us. Is it ideology?
Q: How local is Turkey’s Islamist thought? In other words, how deep does its roots lie? As with Westernization, can we talk of Islamist thought as if it has broken off from the local, become Arabized, made Iranian, etc.?
İK: This is a difficult and delicate question. We said at the beginning of our discussion: normally, the center of Islamist thought was Istanbul. Until about 1924, other important centers – let’s say Muslims in Egypt, India, Iran, and Russia – were influenced by Istanbul, they looked to Istanbul, they moved with it in mind; we can even say that some parts opposed Istanbul while looking at and being inspired by it. Yet, unfortunately, this is something unknown and forgotten, or purposely subjected to amnesia by those who actually know this fact. To that, I’d say: Despite all of its internal problems, Islamism in Turkey surely had local roots and arteries; it kept its links and openings to developments in the rest of the Islamic world and the world more broadly.
But in the single-party years and in the wake of the Second World War, these local roots and native currents of Islamist thought would occasionally be remembered from a political point of view, but its significance weakened and dwindled. In the years following the Second World War, especially in the 1960s, Islamism was revived in a different form according to the conditions of the time, mostly under the influence of translations from Arab, Iranian, and South Asian Islamists. What did not happen, but in fact should have happened, was that new Islamists could have read, translated, appropriated, and benefitted from translations in other languages of Islam outside of Turkey, all the while searching for their own local sources and undergoing constructive criticism.
“Despite all of its internal problems, Islamism in Turkey surely had local roots and arteries; it kept its links and openings to developments in the rest of the Islamic world and the world more broadly.”
This rupture brought on by changes in language [i.e. from Ottoman to modern Turkish written in Latin script known as the harf devrimi] was an important obstacle for Republican-era Islamists to inherit the legacy of earlier Muslim thought. Yet, this obstacle could have been overcome. It is clear that there are other political, intellectual, or psychological reasons; either the slogans and sentiments of the new Islamist versions would predominate, or they would be concerned that otherwise the nationalist/conservative/right-wing strand would be strengthened.
Even the Risâle-i Nur community, which hangs on to almost every word and gesture of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, wouldn’t sufficiently know or even be able to read or understand the texts he wrote before 1924. Even if they were able to read and understand Nursi before 1924, in order to save and preserve themselves and the community they could easily fall into willful misinterpretation.
Of course, at some level or another, international circles had influence over Ankara in strengthening these new strands that have broken with their own local intellectual traditions and sources. That’s why there are still serious issues before Turkey today, such as communicating with local strands of Islamism.
How far can Islamist thought in Turkey go with translations from other countries’ Islamist groups? I also doubt the accuracy of these translations from the Muslim Brotherhood or Pakistan’s Jamaat-e- Islami or from Iran, as many ideas remained untranslatable. As a result, contemporary Islamist thought in Turkey is unable to place its roots locally, and many of its followers cannot understand how they relate or correspond to what is happening in Turkey. In regards to this problem, it is important to focus on just how similar radical Islamists were to leftists on the issue of integration into the system and ties to capitalist liberalism, especially in the post-Cold War period and in the aftermath of the September 12th coup. The Islamists’ substantial advantage was that they were Muslims and were at least potentially open to channels of communication with broader religious and ethical concerns of their society in a certain way. But it is necessary for those who are educated and ambitious to realize the depth of this amnesia and to work on it under today’s circumstances.
Islamism, The JDP, Gülen, and Post-Islamism
Q: When you consider developments in Turkey over the past four to five years, what would you like to say about the future of this “umbrella-like category of Islamism” and all that has accumulated underneath it?
İK: I’m one of those who do not distinguish between the fate, future, and possibilities of Turkey and those of Islam, Muslims, and Islamism. Therefore, the actual course of events moving for Turkey in a harmonious direction towards integration to capitalist liberal hegemony and world order do not seem very promising from my point of view – neither in terms of ideals nor in terms of practical results. However, Turkey’s potential today, as always, still carries hope for us, the Islamic world, and for humanity.
Q: In the last 3-4 years, there have been some unprecedented dramatic changes occurring in Turkey that will reshape the dominant character and future of the relationship between the state and religious groups. What we have been witnessing seems to be a kind of rupture, especially with regard to the relationship between the Turkish government and followers of Fethullah Gülen.
It all started with a conflict and disagreement between an elected AK Party government and the Gülen community, but ended with with a very bloody coup and subsequent suppression. These events are of great significance in terms of your life-long research interests, namely the issue of secularism and Islam in Turkey. In your 2008 book, titled The Problem of Islam in Republican Turkey (Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi’nde Bir Mesele Olarak İslam, volume 1) you elaborate on the question of the Turkish state’s complex relationship with religious communities. Even though we are still in the midst of a rapidly evolving set of events, do you have any new considerations on this topic in light of what happened between the government and the Gülen community in recent years? Would not this experience bring about a departure from earlier modes of relations and the beginning of new political sensibilities with long term repercussions on the practices of Turkish secularism?
İK: There are two interrelated aspects of your questions which I want to separate: First is about the question of religious communities and tariqas in Turkey, their problems, and their future position in Turkish politics. The second aspect is about followers of Gülen and the grave situation and sad political destiny with which this community ended up.
Even though Sufi tariqas and other religious associations in Turkey may have a long history traceable to the Ottoman period, their current state took shape during the one-party rule of the Turkish Republic from 1924 to 1950 when they were under difficult conditions of state oppression and were officially banned. All the peculiar characteristics of Turkish religious communities such as their fear of state intervention, their timid and precocious attitude in demanding their rights from the central government, their special fine-tuned political strategies, and their double embrace of both tradition and a kind of republican modernity can all be understood in the context of their formative experience of single party authoritarian rule of the Turkish Republic.
Thus, if we see some problems and pathologies in the political vision of these groups, it is not just because of their own ideas, but was due to an oppressive Republican secular ideology and various policies that the central Turkish government implemented with regard to religious communities. Let alone the highly naive attitudes of Republican-era universities, intellectuals, military and civilian bureaucrats, and the Turkish press towards religious communities, which shaped the political mood of the religious community. The existential reasons and main goals of these communities can be summarized in two points. The first is to preserve their own traditions and their own understanding and practice of religion, to increase the number of their followers and sympathizers. The second, which is for them necessarily linked to the first goal, is their belief that they need to preserve their religion, and help people to be better believers and better Muslims.
“The dominant political behavior of religious communities in Turkey, which is shaped by their negative experiences and existential goals, often involved a compromising attitude towards state authority, and a desire to get close to government to receive favor.”
As part of this second goal, they tried to spread religious culture in society, teach people how to read the Qur’an, and thus tried to create a society that is more pious while respecting religious tariqas and communities and supporting and protecting them. The dominant political behaviour of religious communities in Turkey, which is shaped by their negative experiences and existential goals, often involved a compromising attitude towards state authority, and a desire to get close to government to receive favour. For example, even though Turkey’s religious communities disapprove of state secularism and the Diyanet (Turkish Religious Affairs directorate) as an organ of this secularism, they nevertheless try to infiltrate these institutions and undertake their activities under state patronage without directly challenging official ideology or the state itself. It is because of this state-infiltrating and compromising status of Turkey’s religious communities that I have been arguing that they never represent what people call “civil society.”
At the same time, the Turkish state and the Diyanet administration similarly have a dual and paradoxical strategy towards these religious groups. The state bureaucrats criticize the vision of religion represented by tariqas and religious communities, but instead of completely banning them, they try to transform and reshape them, to deform them with their interventions, and they often prefer that these groups function under their watchful eye of their patronage so that they can be controlled. This complex relationship created situations whereby sheikhs or imams of various Sufi tariqas and religious communities, as well as their members working within the Diyanet’s state sanctioned religious bureaucracy, were paid with government salaries. Both the pious citizens and state authorities are aware of this collusion between tariqas and the Diyanet. I found this mutually distrustful yet symbiotic relationship between state and religious communities very unhealthy and problematic for both sides, and I think what we have been seeing in terms of their long-term effects confirms these negative results.
Yet, we can not look down on this complicated arrangement and compromise reached by both the state and religious communities; it is better to try to understand how it works and what results it produces for both sides. Even though the relationship between religious communities and state organs like the Diyanet improved after the transition to multi-party politics in 1950, the pathologies of this peculiar relationship has continued up to present. After all, tariqas are still illegal in Turkey, and all the religious communities function without any legitimacy according to Turkish law. In order to avoid the awkwardness of banned tariqas having relationships with the secular state, their sheikhs are now addressed by a vague term such as “public opinion leaders/moral guides” (kanaat önderleri). Whatever that term means is a mystery to me.
Nevertheless, my observation on this problematic relationship between religious communities and the Turkish state does not change the fact that they functioned as important agents of religious life, religious thought, public piety, and the institutionalization of religion in the Republican period. More importantly, these groups played a crucial role during the process of mass internal migration from rural areas to urban centers after the 1950s. Poor and more pious new emigrants to big cities found opportunities for socialization, education, economic empowerment, and social mobility thanks to the networks provided by these religious communities. Eventually, they perpetuated a pious life-style in urban environments and led to the strengthening of conservative and later Islamist political groups in new poor suburbs of the big cities, thus transforming Turkish bureaucracy and business communities during this process. We have to recognize the different aspects of this phenomenon.
Q: What about the position of Gülen Community within this spectrum? How are they different?
İK: Yes, until very recently the Gülen community, which was seen a faction of the larger Nur community, behaved and were perceived as very similar to other tariqas and religious communities in Turkey. As far as I can observe the particular path that the Gülen community took, which brought them to their current despicable condition, started after the September 12 (1980) coup in Turkey; this was particularly influenced by the strategic alliances and moves of the late Cold War and post-Cold War period. They began to establish branches and initiated activities with encouragement from bigger Cold War political forces in Central Asia, the Balkans, and former Soviet Republics. They were blessed by the support and protection of various political authorities both within Turkey and internationally. They received serious support from foreign powers and groups, especially from the US and England.
“As far as I can observe the particular path that the Gülen community took, which brought them to their current despicable condition, started after the September 12 (1980) coup in Turkey; this was particularly influenced by the strategic alliances and moves of the late Cold War and post-Cold War period.”
Of course, this international support was not given to them as a charitable and humanitarian act. They were expected to fulfill some roles and functions. As the Gülen community became more and more powerful with this international support, this led to a toxic confidence and corruption among the members and leaders of this community. They assumed that their global spread and influence was due to their own efforts and strategic genius, denying the fact that sources of that power belonged to others’ encouragement and promotion. Especially after 2013, I could make sense of their arrogance, corruption, and their confidence that they have all the global power they need and thus do not need to compromise with others and with the Turkish state. This was a serious departure from their own historical modes of behavior and political sensitivity, and from common patterns of behavior of other tariqa political strategies. The Gülen community eventually became a giant force that does not respect any rule of law or legitimacy, believing that all the support they received is because of their own achievements and thus under their own control. Their ambition made them more blind. Thus they went out of control and ended up committing all the horrible crimes of the coup. This is as horrible and grave result for them.
Q: What do you think will happen next then?
İK: I think the destiny of this group in Turkey is sealed and they will not have an important role or future here after what they did in recent years. At least for the next couple of decades. But, their future outside of Turkey is not yet certain. I am worried that they will turn into an important diasporic community working against the interests of the Turkish state. There are also repercussions and side effects of this Gülen experience for other religious communities in Turkey. The relationship between these communities and the state have always been problematic and difficult. Now, after the Gülen incident, this situation will be further troubled and deformed. For example, we can say that Diyanet institutions eventually made peace with Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, and even published his works after the 1980s, yet only after many decades of criticizing his ideas and his religious vision. This was a positive change. But we may expect the Diyanet to return to a more negative attitude towards non-state sanctioned religious leaders in Turkey.
“I think the destiny of this group (Gulenists) in Turkey is sealed and they will not have an important role or future here after what they did in recent years. At least for the next couple of decades. But, their future outside of Turkey is not yet certain.”
I have been hoping that the Turkish public will reach a level of maturity when we can finally discuss serious issues of religious life and tradition, reflect on past mistakes, and allow for a deliberative and healthy conversation among different actors. I think this will not be possible in the near future due to what happened with the Gülen community, and we will keep having short sighted conversations.
Q: When you look at Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political exploits, how and from what perspective do you evaluate his representation of Islamism.
İK: Erdoğan and the JDP strand is one possible continuation and actualization of the potentials available within Islamism in Turkey in the post September 12, 1980 coup. JDP’s links to multiple anticipated possibilities of Turkey’s 1980s Islamism must be seen. This is a version of Islamism that is leading in terms of integration and has made peace with the system. Erdoğan himself expressed this idea with a metaphor. He described it as, “removing the shirt of National Vision (Milli Görüş),” and thus abandoning the radical critique of the system to create a more Islamic utopia. As you may know, I don’t think that it was Erdoğan and the JDP who were the first to step away from and abandon the Islamist project of National Vision that inspired many people during the 1980s. It was instead Necmettin Erbakan himself and the Welfare Party leadership who departed from confrontation with the secular establishment, and tried to reform themselves by making peace with the system.
“As you may know, I don’t think that it was Erdoğan and the JDP who were the first to step away from and abandon the Islamist project of National Vision that inspired many people during the 1980s. It was instead Necmettin Erbakan himself and the Welfare Party leadership who departed from confrontation with the secular establishment, and tried to reform themselves by making peace with the system.”
In fact, the entire history of Islamism has been the history of the intertwined alternation between an opposition strand that challenges the existing secular order, and an integration/collaboration strand, both of which either move together or follow each other. Perhaps one of the factors that promotes the durability and appeal of Islamism is this flexibility and capacity to adapt to existing political conditions. Certainly the periods of integration into and collaboration with the system are more problematic intellectually and philosophically, creating a low profile in terms of ideas and visions in return for success in the national political system. Because the visibility of actual and political achievements of JDP are much higher, this intellectual weakness is not sufficiently recognized. However, both pragmatic political success and coexisting poor ideas need to be evaluated together, because there is a social and cultural, even psychological, context and background to it.
Q: Could you give us your views on how, in some studies, certain movements are being described as post-Islamist, and how, in some circles, the concept of Islamism is being put forward as a pejorative term?
İK: This is nothing new. In the West, since the second half of the nineteenth century, this strategy was used to condemn pan-Islamism, Islamism, and maybe even Muslims (müslümanlık), to show them to be dangerous, illegitimate, and concomitantly to demonize Muslim leaders and administrations as a threat to a civilized West. Pejorative labels are attributed to Islamism claiming that they are fanatically interested in imposing sharia, or that they are counter-Republican reactionary groups, both of which are examples of conceptualization and description that would reject and condemn Islamism. For the period after the Cold War, terror and violence would be comfortably used (and is still used) for some Islamist groups. It has come to a point where politicians, academics, and journalists almost use the same dehumanizing language about Islamists. Above all, in periods of crisis, this conceptual alliance against Islamism seems as if it is gaining strength. There were also occasional moments or periods in which Islamism was presented in a good light by outside observers, building a reputation and receiving support, explicitly and implicitly, from foreigners and from different imperial and national regimes. “Civil Islam,” “cultural Islam,” and “moderate Islam” are terms that are being used to give Islamism a good name. All of these naming strategies need to be evaluated in their political contexts, taking into account their backgrounds and the processes that created them.
Recently, there has been a debate in Turkey under the slogan-like title “Islamism is dead,” precisely because JDP’s achievements integrated former Islamist-oriented citizens into supporters and beneficiaries of the Turkish state. Those who started this debate threw it out there in order to oppose the JDP policies. What they did was an overt display of reductionism and political provocation. There was nothing analytical and scholarly behind it; it was empty and unpersuasive. Those who embraced this slogan that “Islamism is dead” could not recognize the fact that, at no point in Islamism’s history could the visionary content of Islamism be limited by its political successes or defeats. This critique, of course, led to self-reflection and critique of JDP and other Islamist groups, and it was effective in producing a kind of pessimism and intellectual dead-end. Yet, these outcomes cannot eliminate Islamism, because all of the problems and issues that produced and maintained the conditions for the emergence of Islamism, especially those of colonialism, occupation, and Orientalism, still exist and continue to shatter the lives of many Muslims. In short, I think propagating pejorative and demonizing language around Islamism aims to justify repression of Islamism and attempts to intellectually distort it or push for its absorption into the system with the hope that under this intellectual pressure, Islamism will weaken and become deformed.
Q: Do you think that Islamism has the potential to provide a meaningful political alternative in multicultural, multi-religious places, especially where Islam is a minority religion?
İK: Look, until very recently in a large swath of the Ottoman Turkish and Islamic world, many non-Muslim populations lived together alongside different religious groups or alongside those from different traditions and of different dispositions; this has already been actualized.
Until very recently, members of other religions and non-Muslims could direct their lives according to their own particular laws, which has approximately been the experience of those in different parts of the Islamic world. This has been the case in history for a long time and in different places, including the period in which the politics of pan-Islamism (İttihad-ı İslâm politikaları) were being implemented. While these things were taking place in Muslim societies, those who did not belong to dominant religious traditions in the Christian West were marginalized, placed in prisons, pushed into ghettos, and destroyed.
Today, these structure and forms of intercommunal relation, which were established by Islam and Islamic culture, does not really exist in large measure due to the removal of significant Islamic forms of governance including the Ottoman State, but Islam certainly has an advantage in its ability to protect the rights of minorities because of this historical experience. Don’t forget that important strands of Islamist thought were intensely preoccupied with how to totally equalize relations between non-Muslim citizens and Muslims under new conditions.
“Don’t forget that important strands of Islamist thought were intensely preoccupied with how to totally equalize relations between non-Muslim citizens and Muslims under new conditions.”
Equality as well as the politics and ideas of equality in modern Muslim thought are essentially comprised of this preoccupation with the rights of others. It could be said that this orientation toward creating norms of equality meant opening Islamist thought to all of humanity and the world. In fact, under the culture-civilization distinction that became popular for Islamists, there has been an ongoing search for new legitimate lines of communication based on mutual respect and equality between separate intellectual worlds and civilizations. Even the highly problematic modernist idea of “the universality of Islam” is partly about rethinking conditions of equality between Muslims and non-Muslims in the modern age.
The situation is a little bit different in places where Muslims are a minority. With regards to Islam in these places, those who are effective in proselytizing or creating respect for Islam are Muslim individuals and groups who live in modest conditions and, to some extent, are from structures of Sufi orders (tarikat) and other congregations (cemaat) who aren’t openly advertising themselves and not the activist Islamists who maintain high levels of visibility. I once heard an anecdote about an elderly [Turkish] woman in a German town who didn’t know a word of German, but had received the admiration of the whole neighborhood by offering them kuru fusulye (a white bean dish).
Islam embodied in a way of life and a prophetic style… In a world where visibility, such as a fist in the air and a loud voice, often prevail over modest behavior, I can say that I value [that woman’s style] and find it to be very important. In Europe, behind efforts to equate Islam and Muslims with violence and terror, I actually think that the opposite is the case; the majority of Muslims live their lives in modesty, peace, and dignity. It seems like the contemporary media has no interest in showing this exceptionally peaceful picture of the majority of Muslim minorities in the West.
Moreover, we need to separate out the situation and psychological state in regions where Muslims have lived as minorities for a long time (like China) from more recent experiences of Muslim minorities in Europe or in America composed of colonial and postcolonial-era immigrants. Both are minorities, but I think that between the two there are many differences.
Q: Does Islamist thought have anything on the agenda outside of Islam and Muslims? For instance, what does it have to say about global problems involving humanity, such as global warming, pollution of the environment, sustainable urban planning, child workers, women’s rights, etc.? Similarly, to what degree is it related to or in conversation with social activism and with intellectual, academic, and cultural circles outside of Muslim ones?
İK: It is undeniable that Islamists are concerned with issues like that. It can only be discussed if it is adequate and balanced. What makes this question plausible and a necessary inquiry is that Islamism is the product of an essentially defensive mechanism. This defense causes it to close up and turn inward. In a situation like this, opening up means more of a fragmentation and gives indications of weakness. While this is the situation, it is unthinkable that, when it comes to Islam, one can see it as indifferent to humanity and totally broken off from people’s problems. This is because the idea of success, victory, or salvation, whether in this world or in the next, by necessity invites one to save and serve. There is no such thing as salvation by oneself. What needs to be saved is generally the one across from you, the enemy, or the problems faced by other people. In this context, proselytization, guidance, and the call to take the right path confronts us as a strong impulse. The direction of Islamism, which extends from individual humans to humanity to modern human problems, ferments here.
“…Islamism is the product of an essentially defensive mechanism. This defense causes it to close up and turn inward.”
Q: Let’s continue on this topic: How authentic and original are Islamist thought’s criticisms of and reactions to global problems like imperialism, income inequality, poverty, etc.?
İK: The question of originality is relative and open for debate – between you and me, I’m not one for narratives of originality or authenticity. It comes across to me as a language and vehicle of domination, whether it is coming from inside or outside it makes no difference. But we must not forget that almost all of the Islamist movements have continued to be, at the same time, movements fighting injustice as well as movements of solidarity with and protection for the oppressed. This attention to injustice and inequality in the rest of the world increased precisely in periods when Muslim societies’ own needs and impossibilities seem to be increasing. To see this, I think it is enough to look at elements of pan-Islamist thought and politics.
But in order to comprehend this in another way, we need to look at the big picture as well. It’s like this: the modern world and modernity, which claims to be secular and distant from all religions, carries the Eurocentric stamp of Judaism and Christianity on it. For this reason and for others, modernity and modern World order contains within itself an antagonism towards Islam. Islam and Muslims have been the victims and opponents of this world order and global modernity. I do not think the situation is much different today. If Muslims are alienated and distant from the problems caused by the very nature of global modernity and the modern world order, then all of this needs to be understood in connection with this historical background of exclusion and alienation. You mentioned imperialism, injustice, and poverty as our shared global problems. Islamists and other Muslims are victims of these destructive and negative forces, and even when they are focused on their own issues, they are, of course, dealing with global problems that are faced by others.
Q: How come Islamist thought is so politics-centric? Has it always been this way?
İK: It is only partially true that Islamist thought is politics-centric, partially this is manipulative labeling by others, and partially a stigmatization. The part that is true is: the idea of Islamism started to emerge at a time when the Islamic world was politically weak, defeated, and overwhelmed, and it continued like that. According to [the Islamists’] interpretation, the reason for this negative situation of decline did not originate in religion and in Islam. It was a result of misunderstanding Islam, the inadequate practice of Islam in daily life, and the incomplete implementation of Islam. At the same time there was a strong notion that the survival and empowerment of the Muslim state (whether empires or nation-states) was necessary to defend the rights of Muslims, and it depended on a true understanding of religion. This idea of the Muslim state’s preservation from the hostile assaults of the Christian, imperialist Western powers (or their domestic collaborators) necessitated the search for a new strength, power, and potential in politics and foregrounded this as normal for the political arena. This encouraged highlighting practical and pragmatic elements. Philosophical and theoretical approaches, deep intellectual pursuits, and big picture interpretations of religious traditions were all left aside or given secondary priority. Islamism was a quest for immediate solutions.
These things are true, but it’s not everything that happened. Islamism is a new kind of interpretation of Islam and Muslim history that wanted to encompass all spheres of, or the entirety of modern Islamic thought. What we call “New Salafism” incorporates all areas related to religion, from faith to ethics and from worship to law; these ideas and beliefs largely overlap with Islamism. If you look at it this way, politics stays in the background. It is understandable why national and international centers may only read Islamism from the perspective of the political and thus see them as a threat at their door. This is nothing new and will most likely continue. The concept of “political Islam” was created, fabricated, and fictionalized for this purpose. Yet, if scholarly and intellectual analysts persist in reading Islamism from the perspective of politics alone, overlooking its other cultural, religious, and social dimensions, they can only produce manipulative analysis with a particular political agenda and not a genuine attempt at understanding.
Q: How competent is Islamist thought vis-à-vis the traditions of thinking it has placed itself in opposition to? How informed is Islamist thought when you think about it in the context of general categories like the West, Europe, Orientalism, the Enlightenment, Christianity, Zionism, and the world system?
İK: It seems you’ve kept the difficult questions for last; whereas journalists save the interesting and surprising questions for the end and even take their headlines from there. You have all but returned to the beginning. Anyways!
This is a valid and suitable question. It is absolutely the case that Islamists have long been trying to understand and be familiar with these new concepts and movements. They talk and write about these topics, and try to make their perspectives dominant so as to challenge Western perspectives. As you know, there are many texts written and many talks given on these subjects. More attention needs to be given to it in terms of creating a discursive tradition and in gaining legitimacy in the hearts and minds of Muslim populations while keeping their consciousness and sensibilities alive about injustices in the modern world. In terms of the functionality of these Islamist discourses and their effect on their enemies and global problems, they are, no doubt, very successful.
But if we come to the question of interpreting, knowing, and encompassing these concepts and intellectual traditions (such as the West, Orientalism, Enlightenment, nationalism, etc.) with competence and rigor, I have doubt about its quality and success. I think it is beyond dispute that there is a huge gap between the Islamists’ current level of intellectual competency and the level where they should be when Islamists talk about these rival ideologies and movements. This gap existed in the past and it continues to be a problem still today.
“I think it is beyond dispute that there is a huge gap between the Islamists’ current level of intellectual competency and the level where they should be when Islamists talk about these rival ideologies and movements.”
Of course, there are exceptional Islamist intellectuals who did offer brilliant analysis of the West or the Enlightenment. What comes to my mind in terms of incompetency and low intellectual level now, for example, is interest-free banking; if you look at the literature on this, you can see how the issue has been addressed on an instrumental and passive level as a technical matter limited to Islamic jurisprudence (fıkıh). You can also see that it has been discussed as a consequence of a lack of depth and systematic thought about global capitalism, financial systems, and historic changes in the nature of money, trade, commerce, and consumption. But Islamist discourses on interest-free banking expressed the search for a quick solution; we can sympathize with this desire for practical and immediate solutions. Islamist writings on the issues of science, technology and enlightenment have similar superficiality born out of the necessity to find ready answers and the desire to talk back to Western Orientalism. Islamist discourses on Zionism, above all, are highly insufficient in terms of theoretical and analytical grasp in terms of what they need to know about it! There could be an independent study, or even a thesis topic, on why Islamists all over the world, including in Turkey, talked so much about Zionism without engaging a comprehensive analysis and deeper study of it.
“Islamist writings on the issues of science, technology and enlightenment have similar superficiality born out of the necessity to find ready answers and the desire to talk back to Western Orientalism. Islamist discourses on Zionism, above all, are highly insufficient in terms of theoretical and analytical grasp in terms of what they need to know about it! “
Q: To what degree does Islamist thought reflect the ideological and cultural diversity of Muslim societies both in Turkey and in the world?
İK: My answer somewhat depends on how you draw the framework of Islamism. The answers you give when you equate Islamism with either radical or intellectualist Islamism, or when you confine it to a narrow framework, will likely be different from the answers you would give when you add structures and popular practices of Sufi orders and congregations, mosques, Friday gatherings, minarets in Turkey, and tomb visitations to the discussion. I think that generally the capacity of Islamism to reflect the diversity of Muslim societies is high. At minimum, one can say this: the idea or movement that has the highest capacity for representing diversity in their societies, in the broadest – yes, broadest – sense, in Turkey and in the Islamic world is Islamism. I don’t know whether you will see that as problematic with what we talked about already, but if you ask me, even an attempt at creating Islamic democracy, Islamic secularism, Islamic liberalism, Qur’anic Islam, Islamic socialism, or Islamic humanism reflects and adds to diversity.
All of these different versions of modern interpretations of Islam sustain and keep Islamism alive. This must be seen. Of course, at the same time, diverse, divergent, and even competing ideological inclinations of these movements weaken Islamism. One of the subjects that I work on, as you know, are the serious problems that these modern tendencies such as democracy, socialism, etc., produce for Muslim faith and intellectual traditions. But to do justice to your question, we can try to keep my reservations about these new ideological interpretations and their challenges to Muslim tradition on a separate side for now. I had said this somewhere in our conversation – in the modern Islamic world and in Turkey there is an Islamist program present even in Westernist (batıcılık), nationalist, and socialist movements. For example, there is Ziya Gökalp’s book titled Turkification, Islamization, and Modernization (Türkleşmek İslâmlaşmak Muasırlaşmak), where he evaluated the nationalist-Turkist-Turanist line. Today, we remember Ziya Gökalp as a secular nationalist and pro-Western intellectual but why did he write about Islamization?
The author who wrote the most voluminous work on the subject of pan-Islamism (İttihad-ı İslâm) and evaluated it, Celal Nuri Ileri, was a leading intellectual of the Westernist and secularist current. Another question: Is the Turkish National Anthem, which was penned by Mehmet Akif [Ersoy] in the spring of 1921 – that is in the early Republican period – a religious text or a nationalist one? Who or which strand of thought would be content with that piece of poetry that turned into the secular Turkish nation’s national anthem? In the national parliament in Ankara during the Independence War, those deputies who accepted Mehmet Akif’s poem as the national anthem and who were in agreement about its content and symbolism were members of different ideologies, but they all agreed to pick this very Islamist looking poem as the national anthem; these people were even activists on behalf of these different ideas… from the ulema, the sheikhs, the Islamists, the Westernists, the socialists, and some from the small group of military staff around Atatürk that founded the Republic.
“I think that generally the capacity of Islamism to reflect the diversity of Muslim societies is high. At minimum, one can say this: the idea or movement that has the highest capacity for representing diversity in their societies, in the broadest – yes, broadest – sense, in Turkey and in the Islamic world is Islamism.”
And yet, once again in regards to your questions, we are left in an ambiguous and vague place. I think the origin of this ambiguity is that Islamism and Islam (Müslümanlık) are formations irreducible to each other. Here we can talk about the problem of inadequate representation. But it must not be forgotten that the strong relationship between Islamism and Islam has sustained and kept both alive.
Maydan: Professor Kara, thank you very much for answering our questions. We hope to continue this conversation in the coming months.
- Türkiye’de İslâmcılık Düşüncesi-Metinler/Kişiler [Islamist Thought in Turkey: Texts/People, (3 volumes, 1986, 1987, 1994)]
- İslâmcıların Siyasi Görüşleri[Political Opinions of Islamists, 1994],
- Şeyhefendinin Rüyasındaki Türkiye[Turkey in the Dream of the Shaikh (essays, 1998)],
- Amel Defteri [the Book of Deeds (essays, 1998)],
- Biraz Yakın Tarih Biraz Uzak Hurafe [ Recent History, Distant Superstition (essays, 1998)],
- Kutuz Hoca’nın Hatıraları-Cumhuriyet Devrinde Bir Köy Hocası [Memories of Kutuz Hoca: A Village Teacher in the Republican-era (2000)],
- Bir Felsefe Dili Kurmak-Modern Felsefe ve Bilim Terimlerinin Türkiye’ye Girişi [To Establish a Philosophical Language: Introduction of Modern Philosophical and Scientific Terminology into Turkey (2001)],
- Güneyce-Rize Sözlüğü-Bir Doğu Karadeniz Köyünün Hafızası ve Nâtıkası [The Güneyce-Rize Dictionary: Memory and Speech of an Eastern Black Sea Town (2001)],
- İslâm Siyasî Düşüncesinde Değişme ve Süreklilik-Hilafet Risâleleri [Continuity and Change in Islamic Political Thought: The Caliphate Letters (6 volumes 2002-2014, 2 volumes forthcoming)],
- Din ile Modernleşme Arasında Çağdaş Türk Düşüncesinin Meseleleri [Problems in Modern Turkish Thought between Religion and Modernization (2003)],
- Sözü Dilde Hayali Gözde [The Word is on the Tongue,
- Imagination is in the Eye (portraits, 2005)],
- Aramakla Bulunmaz [It Can’t Be Found By Searching (essays, 2006)],
- Hanya/Girit Mevlevihanesi – Şeyh Ailesi – Müştemilatı Vakfiyesi – Mübadelesi [The Mevlevihane of Hanya/Crete: The Family of the Shaikh – Waqf Annex – Exchange (2006)],
- Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi’nde Bir Mesele Olarak İslâm [The Problem of Islam in Republican Turkey (2 volumes: 2008, 2016)], İlim Bilmez Tarih Hatırlamaz-Şerh ve Haşiye Meselesine Dair Birkaç Not [Ignorant of Knowledge,
- Forgetful of History: Some Notes on the Problem of Islamic Commentaries (2011)], Nurettin Topçu-Hayatı ve Bibliyografyası [Nurettin Topçu: His Life and Bibliography (2013)],
- Müslüman İstanbul’a Mahsus Bir Gelenek: Mahya [A Tradition Specific to Muslim Istanbul: Messages on Minarets (2016)],
- Müslüman Kalarak Avrupalı Olmak-Çağdaş Türk Düşüncesinde Din Siyaset Tarih Medeniyet [Being European, Remaining Muslim: Religion, Politics, History, and Civilization in Modern Turkish Thought (2017)].
In addition to these, Dr. Kara has prepared and edited many other works.
 [Translator’s note:] Kara uses both a French cognate – laiklik – which I translate as secularism as a gloss on laïcité, and an English cognate – sekülerlik – a less common form that I translate as secularity: “laikliğe ve sekülerliğe açılan bir damarı var.” There is not a hard distinction between the two in Turkish, with laiklik connoting both state secularism as well as secularity. However, the word sekularizm exists in Turkish as a cognate as well, which forces the reader to consider the possible differences between the uses of sekülerizm and sekülerlik, yet the possibility stands that Kara is using both interchangeably.
 “diyar-ı küfür” and “darü’l-harp” (literally, “land of the unbelief” and “abode of war”) are Islamic legal categories that refer to those lands, territories, or peoples that are not under control of Muslim rulers and thus are considered licit objects of warfare, treaties, and other forms of legal relations.
 For more on the issue of Turanism and Pan-Turkism, see Landau, Jacob. Pan-Turkism: From Irredentism to Cooperation, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1995; Atabaki, Touraj. “Pan-Turanism” in Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, ed. Richard C. Martin. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. pp. 521-522; Kayalı, Hasan. “Pan-Turkism” in Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa, ed. Philip Mattar. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. pp. 1800-1801. See also Yusuf Akçura (1876-1935), Üç Tarz-i Siyaset, published in 1904. For an English translation, see: David S. Thomas http://vlib.iue.it/carrie/texts/carrie_books/paksoy-2/cam9.html
 The Mountain of God, or Tanrı Dağı, is a peak in a mountain range in Central Asia and China, which supposedly played a significant role in pre-Islamic Turkic mythology. The cave in Mount Hira is where the Prophet Muhammad was reported to have received the first revelations from the angel Gabriel.
 During the 1970s, the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi) led by Necmettin Erbakan argued that his party would merge a return to Islam with a radical overhaul of Turkish economy by building hundreds of heavy industry facilities such as steel production. The slogan of harmonizing mosque and minarets with heavy industry factory chimneys became popularized during this period.
 Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011) was a leader of multiple Turkish Islamist parties and the the first politician within this tradition to hold high office. He is credited with bringing Turkey’s peripheral Muslims to the center of political, business, and social circles. MSP was the first party to be founded which gave birth (often as a result of political arm-twisting) to multiple off-shoots. JDP is seen as the most recent off-shoot of this tradition, formed as a result of disagreements with Erbakan’s political choices and style of leadership. For more information, see: Hale, William. “Erbakan, Necmettin”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Three, Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Reference Online, 2016; Gülalp, Haldun. “Political Islam in Turkey: the rise and fall of the Refah Party”, The Muslim World vol. 89, no. 1 (1999), pp. 22–41.
 Established in 1953, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party) is a transnational, pan-Islamic organization that is best known for advocating and propagating the establishment of a caliphate. While the group is banned in multiple countries, it is a non-violent group. For more information, see: Hanif, Noman. “Hizb ut Tahrir: Islam’s Ideological Vanguard,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, (2012), pp. 201-225; Pankhurst, Reza. Hizb ut-Tahrir : The Untold History of the Liberation Party. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2016; Mandaville, Peter. Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma. London: Routledge, 2002.
 Safranbolu is a city in the Black Sea region of Turkey known for its old Ottoman structures. It has been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994.
 Berat is a city in Albania and an UNESCO World Heritage protected site.
 Milli Görüş (National Vision) was a religious and political movement started by Necmettin Erbakan, which sought to unite Islamist parties in Turkey as well as globally. The movement’s title comes from a 1969 publication of the same name. Turkish: “Milli Görüş gömleğini çıkarmak,” or “to take off the cover of National Vision,” as one does a jacket or shirt, means to dispense with the former’s goals and method of bringing religion and politics together.
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