World Bulletin / News Desk
Q: To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time you are giving an interview for the Western academic world. Since this is the case, would you mind quickly introducing yourself? What has been your academic journey? We’d like to learn a little about the academic issues that you are grappling with.
İsmail Kara: This could be considered my first interview for the academic world, although however rare, I’ve given some interviews for Western journals and newspapers…
It doesn’t please me at all to introduce myself, but out of a sense of duty I’ll say a few things: I came to Istanbul from a rural area. My father was the local imam at the bigger mosque of a village; he was fond of studying and teaching. I am a product of an Imam Hatip school. I did my advanced education in theological studies (İlahiyat) and history.
During my student years, I was introduced to Nurettin Topçu (1909-1975) and the journal Hareket. My interests in the areas of modern Islamic thought and modern Turkish thought, which until 1924 were entwined and centered in Istanbul, started during those student years. I accordingly prepared myself academically. I had wanted to work on the subject of kalam.
“I came to Istanbul from a rural area. My father was the local imam at the bigger mosque of a village; he was fond of studying and teaching. I am a product of an Imam Hatip school.”
Upon completing my advanced education, I worked for Dergâh Publishing for a long time as an editor and publishing director. There my interests both developed and deepened. I taught classes on religion at a French language high school in Istanbul. You could say that I became affiliated with a university later in life. I had produced my first works even before my academic studies had started.
My doctoral dissertation was in the field of political science, but the reason for this was that I could not find an adviser in the subject I wanted to work on. The fields I’ve wanted to work in since my childhood – and that I have worked in – are still not considered to be significant or profound topics in Turkish academia. Or, let me say that in my estimation, the state of academic research on modern Islamic thought in Turkey is much behind what it should be in a country like Turkey. Let’s hope that quantitative growth of academic books and articles also stimulates qualitative growth in terms of better understanding this important topic.
My first big work was the anthology Türkiye’de İslâmcılık Düşüncesi [Islamist Thought in Turkey] (3 vol., 1986, 1987, 1994). I decided to edit and republish major works of Islamic thought so as to consciously form a new foundation for scholarship by re-familiarizing the Turkish public with overlooked texts. Because I realized early on that the scholarly and intellectual, maybe even ideological, basis I found in the fields of modern Islamic and Turkish thought were full of very partisan, problematic, rigid, and provocative methodological shortcomings and mistakes.
In order to do things in this new manner and with higher accuracy, in other words approximating historical truth, it was necessary to put forth basic, foundational texts that were not in circulation in a clear chronology and system. As a next step, a new methodology was required to make sense of the legacy of modern Islamic and Turkish thought in terms of its priorities and points of view.
Q: What was the reaction to/reception of this approach? Was it appreciated in academia and the wider public?
İK: As a person who has been in the publishing world for many years, the responses I am looking for are slightly different. If you look at sales, then this anthology was significant and successful; one could comfortably say that there was a serious interest in it. The first print of the first two volumes – 5,000 copies – sold out before the year was up. If you take into account the book’s volume – the large version was 500-odd pages – and that it was the author’s first book, this is a high figure for a short amount of time.
However, whether there has been a scholarly or intellectual response, or if you are asking whether a new foundation for a better understanding of Islamic thought – which I was hoping for – has come about, to that I can’t entirely say yes.
Q: In the Western academy, the study of modern Islamic thought has been a very lively subject. However, these studies generally have been heirs to books on the subject like Charles Adam’s 1933 study, Islam and Modernism in Egypt. What I mean is that they have praised Muhammad Abduh and the forms of Islamic modernism that followed, seeing it as a type of Protestant reformation like in Christianity. Since the 1980s you have started to work from an alternative perspective to dominant paradigms. You have also established a scholarly tradition that critically evaluates Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and Ottoman modernist Islamism, which developed parallel ideas and whose extensions were reflected in the Republican period, but you also attempt to show problematic elements of projects like this.
İK: There are a few important interrelated questions here. Orientalists were interested in modern Muslim thought with many different assumptions and agendas. Maybe rightly so according to their own subjective perspectives and interests. However, for us, their points of view and priorities do not come off as accurate or acceptable and they shouldn’t. From my perspective, the most important and problematic question is how the Ottomans and Turkey were removed from the centers of modern Islamic thought as most of the scholarship shifted its center to Egypt and secondarily to South Asia.
Thus, we can say this ended up creating a reality that is itself contrary to reality.
I suppose it would not be wrong or unjustified to say that these orientalist studies, in addition to being academic, were related to political and ideological “operations,” such as British interventions and projects. You know that Albert Hourani, who was a Christian Arab, admitted as much at the end of his life. The name of his book is Arabic Thought (Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939) despite the fact that almost all of the individuals that he touched upon in his book were Ottoman citizens.
“From my perspective, the most important and problematic question is how the Ottomans and Turkey were removed from the centers of modern Islamic thought as most of the scholarship shifted its center to Egypt and secondarily to South Asia.”
Its name is not “Modern Islamic Thought.” Ottoman modernization and Turkey are excluded from the content. How come? Just to give another example: look at the Turkish translation of a book written by John Esposito and John Donohue, Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives (1986). It includes texts and commentaries on twenty-one Muslim thinkers from al-Afghani to Imam Khomeini without including anything from the Ottoman Empire and Turkey or by Turkish intellectuals. How can we explain this blatant omission, unless it is done on purpose?
We may find all kinds of excuses, such as not knowing Turkish. I find it equally intriguing and interesting that the translators and publishers of both Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, and various books of John Esposito are Islamists who are called radical due to their admiration for the Iranian revolution and other Islamist movements of Pakistan and Egypt. These Islamist publishers translate books on modern Islamist thought by European or American writers without feeling the need to make any comments, objections, or criticisms concerning the neglect of Islamic thought in Turkey in these works. But does that narrative of Islamic thought make sense?
“In fact, this attempt to shift the center away from Istanbul, according to my reading of it, is a powerful and programmatic aspect of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, followed by distancing it from Islam and the Muslim world.”
In fact, this attempt to shift the center away from Istanbul, according to my reading of it, is a powerful and programmatic aspect of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, followed by distancing it from Islam and the Muslim world. For reasons we are familiar with, it was easy for intellectuals and elites of Arab origin to internalize this new post-1924 narrative.
There was Arab nationalism; there were independence pursuits from the Ottomans; additionally there were direct and indirect demands and serious efforts in this direction by colonialist and occupying European states, especially by the British.
It is partly surprising that Turkish intellectuals, the Turkish political elite (including founding members of the Republic), Turkish academics, and even Islamists radicals of the 1960s were appropriators of, apologists for, and as a result, instruments of the very view that did away with themselves, removed themselves from the central position in the formation of modern Islamic thought, and distanced themselves from the Muslim world.
The reasons for this are multiple and deep, of course. I say partly shocking because we know, in fact, that Republican ideology put forward and advocated a similar withdrawal from the story of Muslim experience in the modern world, but with different justifications and impositions. In Turkey, some “New Salafi” (Yeni Selefi) and radical Islamist ideas on this subject, at least in terms of their thinking that Arabs and some South Asians are the authentic representatives of Modern Muslim thought, come close to secularist Republican ideology. This is an interesting, yet unnoticed, phenomenon.
Secondly, positive views of Western scholarship and intellectual circles on modern Islamic thought and Islamist movements, i.e. seeing them from a lens of ‘Protestantization’ (protestanlaşma) and modernization (modernleşme), have not always been the most dominant ones. Distortions of this Protestant thesis on Muslim modernism indicate an incentive for development and stimulation for a supposedly declined Muslim world. Certainly, there are correct sides to this observation as some aspects of reformist Muslim thought itself were inspired by the model of the Protestant Reformation. But, we also know that, depending on the state of affairs and context, subject matter, or geography, the same person, idea, or movement (which may be praised as a modernizing force) whether in one period or in different time periods, are taken as a serious threat, a danger surrounding the world: reactionary positions, radicalism, fundamentalism, or terror.
Notice how ‘New Salafism’ associated with Rashid Rida, and once praised by Western scholarship, has been recently seen as the root of the Muslim Brotherhood’s radicalism and anti-Westernism.
There are clear shifts in the political assessments of central concepts of modern Islamic thought including jihad, Pan-Islamism, the Caliphate, anti-colonialism, and opposition to impiety. They could be praised or condemned depending on how this fits dominant Western political interests. The distinctions drawn between ‘official Islam’/‘folk Islam,’ ‘political Islam’/‘cultural or moderate Islam,’ ‘traditional Islam’/‘liberal Islam’ can acquire changing moral and political values. Depending on the context, the part that is emphasized, seen as positive or as negative, or condemned changes.
[For example, folk Islam in Central Asia was seen as reactionary compared to new modernist Islam (i.e. the jadid movement) during imperial Russia. But when we came to the Cold War and Soviet period, Western scholarship began to praise folk Sufi Islam as a basis of Muslim resistance to Soviet rule. “Notice how ‘New Salafism’ associated with Rashid Rida, and once praised by Western scholarship, has been recently seen as the root of the Muslim Brotherhood’s radicalism and anti-Westernism.” We all know how the viewpoints on Afghan jihad dramatically changed within 10 years from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s]. You can see reflections of these things in the same or highly similar forms in Turkey and other Muslim countries.
The same political reevaluation of the key Islamic concepts is not peculiar to Western Orientalism. “New Salafi” and radical Islamist movements have similar shifting positions especially when they make a distinction between “real” and “authentic” Islam versus historical Islam, which allows them to reject any aspect of contemporary Muslim practice that serves their political agenda.
Scholarly Interventions I: Modern Islamic Thought
Q: More or less 30 years have passed since your first publications and critical interventions in this subject. Meanwhile, have scholarly approaches to modern Islamic thought changed? How do you find these new studies?
İK: I can say that these partial changes and improvements are not at a level that I would consider significant, neither methodologically nor in content, especially taking into account the length of time that has passed. Personally, I think there are more problems in these studies in Turkey. If you consider the increase in the percentage of conservative and religious (dindar) people located in universities, intellectual life, and in the media, I think there is a deeply negative correlation and a real distance between their positive contributions (or labor) and the the depth of their pursuit on these issues. I’m of the opinion that solely numerical and institutional developments on this issue are misleading.
Q: What about the critical inquiry that you started… Did this line of thinking continue in the scholarship of others?
İK: From my perspective, modern Islamic thought, is, on one hand, a rejuvenating part of Islamic thought generally, and on the other hand, it points to a serious differentiation from Islamic thought or occasionally even a breakdown and departure from it. It expresses both a new idea of existence and defensive struggle under new conditions as well as a transformation of itself, an attempt at its own destruction at the same time. I think both sides of this are important. Strengths and weaknesses are nested together in a field that opens up to serious problems, but also some possibilities as well. Traditional circles in Turkey and the Islamic world see modern Islamic thought only as a deviation, a weakness, but for Islamists and radical circles it is once again a leap forward, an awakening, and a revival towards “real Islam” (gerçek İslâma doğru). These two viewpoints do not show the whole truth or the whole event to us. We emphatically need a new viewpoint and a new idea of criticism.
Modern Islamic thinkers’ distinctions between ‘real Islam’ versus ‘historical Islam’ are problematic and far from philosophical profundity both in terms of methodology and content. The idea of a return to an ideal time of the Prophet Muhammad (Asr-ı Saadet) and to original resources is an example of this. However there is an attractive element and in some areas even a refreshing side to it. Psychologically speaking, there are also calming elements… for large crowds psychological healing can be seen as a positive thing.
“Modern Islamic thinkers’ distinctions between ‘real Islam’ versus ‘historical Islam’ are problematic and far from philosophical profundity both in terms of methodology and content. The idea of a return to a Golden Age (Asr-ı Saadet) and to original sources is an example of this.”
But this is not the whole story; I think that the degree to which new ideas or new interpretations developed by Muslim intellectuals depend on their claim and assertion that they represent a return to ‘real Islam” should be questioned. The sources and evidence of this assertion are open to debate. Modernist Muslim thinkers want to condemn themselves and us to a literal reading (literal/lafızcı) of Islamic texts, deprived of depth and breadth, and to a uniform understanding of religion. To put this in terms favorable to their intention, modernists see the salvation of Muslims (or some kind of exit from the decline of Muslim societies) in this new interpretation.
There is a whole set of problems in the modernists’ attempt to seriously separate out real Islam from the Islamic historical experience, or from weakened institutions, styles, Islamic scholarly traditions, and art forms that spread over vast periods of time and diverse geographies. Modernists thus developed a fragmented vision of science, culture, and history that is deprived of integrity because it denies the whole historical experience of Muslim societies and their future-oriented claims to go back to early Islamic authenticity. Their capacity to understand modern European experience and Orientalist scholarship, as well as the way they communicate with them, is also highly problematic and subpar. In this view, the particular and universal are left undifferentiated.
“The way that modern Islamic thought has been addressed in the West as well as in the Islamic world, or to put it another way, the writing of modern Islamic thought, lies within my field of criticism and analysis.”
By taking into account the last two to three centuries of Muslim experience and accepting it as part of our own experience, I maintain that it is necessary to submit it to new kinds of criticism and evaluation and sometimes I do this in a manner that can be considered harsh. The way that modern Islamic thought has been addressed in the West as well as in the Islamic world, or to put it another way, the writing of modern Islamic thought, lies within my field of criticism and analysis. I am saying that existing methodologies, viewpoints, the main topics [of study] and their hierarchical orderings, and/or their prevalent interpretations are neither sufficient nor correct.
However, my critique is a process, and with the scholarly-intellectual environment in such a weak place, we cannot expect to find the immediately desired or sought after response to these critiques and new propositions – because a scholarly critique means new proposals and possibilities.
I can say this: I know that Western scholars working according to a certain academic and political paradigm, and think tanks or Muslim scholars trying to gain ground in the West persistently avoid my invitation to change the paradigm, or purposely ignore my critiques and try not to quote me, even though they do use some of my scholarship and draw from my perspective. This is a matter of politics of scholarship and I do understand that.
Q: In your newly published The Problem of Islam in Republican Turkey vol. II (Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi’nde Bir Mesele Olarak İslâm 2), there are important themes such as secularism and democracy that you have been addressing for some time as central to modern Islamic thought. The problem of secularism is the most important one. Similarly, the concept of democracy is still being debated from many vantage points. Since the beginning, you have stated that modernist Islamist thought has experienced and instigated its own secularization process, yet one that is separate from Kemalist secularism in the Republican period. If we look at debates on Modern Islamist thought specific to Turkey, how have these debates acquire a sense of certainty or determination? Or have they been brought to a state of ambiguity or insolubility? What are your views on this topic with reference to the work you have done?
İK: There is a vein of modern Islamic thought, Islamism, and the discourse of ‘true Islam’ that has been amenable and open to notions of secularism and secularity. Isn’t it ironic that what looks like a demand for more Islamization (İslâmlaşma) and religiosity (dinîlik), and a demand to be against secularism and modern Western thought ends up complicit in the secularization process? This is a powerful paradox, but it is something the extent of which is left unanalyzed and unrealized. There are many reasons for and sources of the interrelations of religiosity (dinîlik) and secularism (laiklik). Perhaps first is the idea and claim that Islamism, like other intellectual movements in the Muslim world, was capable of and needed to bring the processes of religion and modernization together, because for the Islamic world modernization – that is, the idea of reform – was acceptable to the extent that it was an absolutely necessary tool for the salvation and survival of religion and state.
“Isn’t it ironic that what looks like a demand for more Islamization (İslâmlaşma) and religiosity (dinîlik), and a demand to be against secularism and modern Western thought ends up complicit in the secularization process?”
The transcendental aim of Islamic reform was not acceptable by itself, but rather what it was supposed to serve, namely the revival and salvation of Muslim polities, made it acceptable. So, at the same time as the Muslim reformist of that era is seeking to establish harmonious relations with modern European thought, there was also opposition to the colonial West, or Europe, which was considered to be “diyar-ı küfür” or “darü’l-harp”. We can put it another way: the idea of Europe as an enemy developed alongside the idea of Europe as an authoritative object of imitation; opposition and hostility functioned together in the same lines of harmony and integration. The second reason was the proximity of some strands of Islamism to the idea of “reform in religion.” However, it is not important whether one says this openly or not. I address the issue of reform together with strands of secularism in the book.
I often put forward a few slogans as examples [of the double function of Islamism and secularization] in my publications and in my courses: “Our constitution is the Qur’an,” “Sovereignty belongs to God,” “Islam is a rational and logical religion,” “Market economy in Islam,” “Islam is in harmony with science,” or “The Islamization of knowledge/science,” “the sun of Islam rises on Europe,” meaning Islam brought modern Europe to light and is therefore not foreign to Islam. So, we should ask: are these powerful slogans, which were popularized by modern Islamic thought and their movements, religious or are they secular?
The establishment and maintenance of Islamist thought and Islamist movements increasingly since the twentieth century was influenced – at least in transformations of language and logic – by intellectuals, litterateurs, academics, and teachers, e.g. by those who were products of modern (or secular!) educational institutions rather than religious schools (medreseler) or Sufi lodges (tekkeler). It is necessary here to recognize the very close proximity of radical and “intellectualist” Islamist movements to Marxist parlance since the Second World War and in Turkey since the 1960s as another explanation of their powerful influence.
“It is necessary here to recognize the very close proximity of radical and ‘intellectualist’ Islamist movements to Marxist parlance since the Second World War and in Turkey since the 1960s as another explanation of their powerful influence.”
Q: The experience of Modern Islamic thought or Islamist thought in Turkey, whether at the level of people or of texts, doesn’t seem to be too well known in Western academic circles. We have talked about the reasons for this at some length. With this in mind, what might you put forward as a possible roadmap for what is missing and what can be done in the future?
İK: There is much work that can be done on the topic. Specifically, Turkish academics working in the West need to gradually produce more studies. We have been hearing for a while that there were reserved funds for a variety of efforts from organizations like the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of National Education, and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), but I don’t know whether they were used or where they were used. Perhaps these organizations can be contacted. Translations of intellectual and academic studies, alongside literary works, must be carried out through the translation of original sources. In fact, new anthologies and research compilations should be prepared in accordance with the needs and realities of the linguistic and cultural resources awaiting translation. What is important here is to see the significant gaps – e.g. first, identify them in advance and then subsequently fill them in as accurately as possible.
“New anthologies and research compilations should be prepared in accordance with the needs and realities of the linguistic and cultural resources awaiting translation.”
For example, there are Turkish research centers in America that are financed by direct or indirect contributions of Turkish businessmen. Isn’t it striking that even up to today these organizations have not shown any serious interest in the issue of translation from Turkish?
In fact, one area that Turkish academics and intellectuals should pay attention to and work on is that similar translation work should be done first into Arabic, and then Persian, Urdu, and Russian. It is not only America and Europe that is unfamiliar with Turkey and the resources of modern Islamic thought there, the entire Islamic world either doesn’t know about or is unfamiliar with these resources. Actually even those in Turkey do not know about this scholarship, especially since 1924… There are some translations based in Egypt, but these are very, very limited and are not at the level of sufficiently providing ideas or of transferring what has been accumulated.
As you know, this is somewhat related to the “market” and the atmosphere at the moment. For example, one would expect foreign scholars who work on Turkey to care about translation work. For the most part, however, they work on Turkey, yet they don’t do anything significant about the issue of translation from Turkish to their own language or to transfer information into their own academic fields. Why?
Islam in Turkey
Q: In the newly published second volume of your book, just like in the first volume, it seems as if a basic claim comes to the fore; you occasionally mention it in various places: You say, “We cannot talk about anything in Turkey without either making religion the center or skipping over it.” What do you mean exactly? Is this situation only specific to Turkey? Or is it possible to talk about relations between religion and state more generally in these terms? Maybe if we pare it down, can we at least say this about Islamic countries?
İK: Yes, this is an important issue. There are historical and cultural reasons for this. Turks in Turkey have no histories outside of Islam and Muslims in Anatolia. For them it is Islam which is the constituent and sustaining element of their experience in Anatolia. The establishment elite that founded the Republican ideology was cognizant of this even when they sought to isolate Islam. Thus, in population exchanges brought about by the Treaty of Lausanne, groups of people in the eastern Black Sea region who were Turkish speaking, ethnically Turk, but non-Muslim (gayrımüslim) were sent to Greece; yet tens-of-thousands of people from the Balkans and the Aegean islands who were not Turks, many of whom didn’t know Turkish, yet were Muslims, came to Anatolia where they settled and became equal citizens.
Look, in Arab nationalist movements, Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs were able to come together; it was also like this in Albanian nationalism. In Turkish nationalism, there was not a strong strand like this, and Muslim-ness defined Turkish-ness. Outside of a few token, unconventional exceptions there is no basis to be found for a non-Muslim Turkish national identity. Our national struggle was not a “national” struggle, but a religious one; it was jihad. Despite this fact, much has changed with secularization policies in Turkey over half a century, the 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation (military intervention by the Turkish government in Cyprus against the unification of Cyprus with Greece) showed the role of Islam in the secular Turkish military.
“…the 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation (military intervention by the Turkish government in Cyprus against the unification of Cyprus with Greece) showed the role of Islam in the secular Turkish military.”
In those days actions taken by Turkish soldiers were all called jihad, including the pilots in flight, the captains at sea, and the soldiers on the fronts. There were many oral legends about saints who came to their aid, saved them from death, or secured their victory. I followed these stories closely and with great interest both in Istanbul and in rural areas. When I did my military service ten years later in 1983, “secular and Kemalist” officers who had participated in the Cyprus operations were still talking about these stories.
It was not without reason that the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) under the leadership of Alpaslan Türkeş (who came from a Racist-Turanist line) revised their party slogan in 1969 to “We are as Turkish as the Mountain of God (Tanrı dağı) and as Muslim as Mount Hira.” Even in the period of secular politics that saw its most crude and lowest level during the Republican period, the elites facilitated the circulation of notions such as “Turkish Muslim identity” (Türk Müslümanlığı), “The Prophet Muhammad’s Turkishness” (Hz. Muhammed’in Türklüğü), and “the Turkish Qur’an” (Türkçe Kur’an) and allowed it to exist in official discourse.
There are more practical examples as well: when and if you cannot get a fatwa for family/population planning, for organ donation, or for interest-free financial institutions (whatever that means!), or when you cannot give Friday sermons in mosques on these issues which requires the blessing of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, you don’t have legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
“In Turkey there is no other source of legitimacy that is as big or as encompassing as religion and Islam – not even today.”
In Turkey there is no other source of legitimacy that is as big or as encompassing as religion and Islam – not even today. We must clearly understand and conceptualize this as a matter of fact that comes from historical experience. Of course, not every Muslim country is this way, because the historical, geographical, and cultural conditions are different. Post-eighteenth century is there any other Muslim country that receives Muslim migrants from very different geographies and from all walks of life like Anatolia? Why is it like this? And how does Anatolia easily incorporate such vastly different elements when their only common ground is that they are Muslim? This exceptional situation needs to be mulled over. The latest big example of this is the Syrian refugees. Take a look at how many Syrian refugees other Islamic countries were able to take and also why they couldn’t take them…
Q: If we look at the debates on the concept of jihad, we see that it is of central importance in both Western Orientalist controversies on Islam and internal debates within Islamic movements in the 20th century. Yet, despite this, jihad does not seem to be significant or controversial theme for Islamism in Turkey. How did the evolution of the idea of jihad occur in Turkey before and after the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan jihad against the Soviet invasion? What is the trajectory of this term in Turkish Islamic thought, both in scholarly writings and non-scholarly public perception?
IK: There is a close correlation between the rise and decline of Islamist thought on the one hand, and the strength or weakness of the ideal of Jihad on the other hand. This is not only true for Turkey, but for the whole Islamic world. If I can over-generalize a little, I can say this: When the oppositional, resistance-based, and radical strands of Islamism are on the rise, we see more significance given to the concept of jihad, highlighted in the struggle against and resistance to imperialism, oppressive regimes, and infidel rule. But when there is so much oppression that the opposition can not even raise its voice, or when there are other reasons for integration or compromise with the system, slogans of jihad are subdued and become weaker. Instead of being utilized as an ideal of struggle against oppressive infidelity, jihad is then interpreted as a struggle against one’s ego and ambition, as mentioned in a hadith.
We can follow these two interpretations of jihad in Turkish history. During the War of Independence and Second Constitutional period, the concept of jihad was very popular. It was used as a strong weapon against occupying forces, colonialists, and infidel invaders of the country. There are tens of books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of media reports and writings on jihad from this period. Yet, during the one-party, authoritarian rule of the Republic, it was not even legal or legitimate to talk about jihad, and thus it was not a lively concept. Then, only after the 1960s, we see a revived interest in the concept of jihad parallel to the development of radical and intellectualist Islamism and the successes of conservative/Islamist groups in politics.
Most of the publications about the topic of jihad after the 1960s were actually translations from the writings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. Perhaps this period ended with the September 12th coup, although the Iranian Revolution of 1979 energized and radicalised Islamists and kept the idea of jihad relevant for several additional years. The very fact that most of the Islamist groups, tariqas, and religious communities supported ANAP (Anavatan Partisi, or the Motherland Party) as the governing party led by Ozal during the 1980s and into the early 1990s shows that they were not interested in a militarist notion of jihad at all and that they were trying to integrate into the system.
“The very fact that most of the Islamist groups, tariqas, and religious communities supported ANAP (Anavatan Partisi, or the Motherland Party) as the governing party led by Ozal during the 1980s and into the early 1990s shows that they were not interested in a militarist notion of jihad at all and that they were trying to integrate into the system.”
There were sporadic and occasional spikes in discourses on jihad with reference to the legitimacy of the resistance in Afghanistan and in Bosnia, but overall, the general mood has been accommodationist and participatory for the political context of Turkey. When you think about it, there is nothing surprising about seeing someone advocate moderate Islam, cultural Islam, liberal Islam, democratic Islam, or even secular Islam, or those who have good relations with business and financial elites to interpret jihad as only a struggle against one’s ego and ambitions.
I think we can see the interpretation of jihad in modern Islamic thought as a kind of litmus test to predict the political orientation of a group and then use it to figure out what is the dominant political vision at that particular moment. Yet, we should not forget that this is a tactical strategy. Interpretation of jihad as a military struggle can weaken in a certain period, but then it never disappears and can be revived again in a new context. We need to think about why these shifts in meaning occur, (which is mainly about the fact that jihad has a place in both the Quran and the tradition of Prophet Muhammad) and what contexts and conditions prompt a difference of interpretation.
I want to add a last point about this issue: The shifting meaning of jihad in modern Turkey – its militarist and pacifist interpretations – is happening among political activists, young Islamists and some pious people. For the majority of Turkish society, there is not much affinity or engagement with this concept, and their knowledge is limited to what they hear in Friday prayer sermons and the speeches of politicians.
Scholarly Interventions II: Islamism and Its Paradoxes
Q: You are working on modern Islamic thought generally and Islamist thought in Turkey specifically, and you have written and published quite a lot in this area. In Turkey, when someone says “Islamism,” yours is the first name to come to mind in academia. We want to ask you some questions in reference to this. Islamism has been heavily debated in Turkey for over a century and it seems that this will continue. When you look at the past from today’s vantage point, what did Islamism’s journey in Turkey generally offer? What were the questions posed in earlier periods, and why have today’s questions changed? Were they resolved for social or intellectual reasons, or were they abandoned because the conditions changed?
İK: In my opinion, Islamism emerged out of questions and subsequent answers to how the Islamic world and Muslims could remain themselves yet survive – that is how to maintain their existence, continue to spread, in whatever form, their determination and resolution to the entire world, and protect themselves and Islam in an environment in which modern Europe was strengthened by both its ideational and material power and its politics. The first place one looked for answers was undoubtedly in Islam, but this was a new understanding and interpretation of Islam that tried to reframe itself in connection with the earliest generation of Muslims and through the Qur’an and sunna, the prophetic traditions, as its main sources.
“One of the issues that I argue is that Islamism represents and offers a new, bold, holistic, and modern, even modernist, interpretation and practice of Islam.”
The second place was modern Western thought, specifically in science and technology. This was because defeat at the hands of the West, the colonialism that followed, and the multifaceted forms of political and cultural oppression had a powerful impact on Islamism, as in all of the philosophies that emerged in the Islamic world in the modern period. The separation between culture and civilization is born from these two sources. Therefore, one of the issues that I argue is that Islamism represents and offers a new, bold, holistic, and modern, even modernist, interpretation and practice of Islam. On one side, [Islamism] is turned towards the early period of Islam, on the other, it faces modern Western thought either implicitly or explicitly. In the most general sense we can say that these are intertwined, opposing branches of Islamism that simultaneously seek some harmonious coexistence. Of course, there is also a bifurcation and a kind of cleavage that emerges here even within a struggle to find a solution amidst these contrasting tendencies.
Islamism redefined, via instrumentalized interpretations, the meanings of many concepts and practices in Muslim societies, such as the tradition of Israiliyat, superstition (hurafe), folk belief (bâtıl inanç), innovations in matters of religious tradition (bidat), pre-Islamic narratives (esâtîrü’l-evvelîn), and associating partners with God (şirk). In this new interpretation of Islam, Islamic history and the experiences of Muslims for thirteen centuries were by and large bracketed and relegated to irrelevance within the new reinterpretation of the Islamic intellectual tradition; the colossal heritage of Islamic science, culture, arts, and institutions lost their reputation and significance, and were pushed out of contemporary vocabulary of Muslim life. Certainly, this is true for only Islamist thought. In more traditional Muslim structures and forms of thinking or practice, their existence and weight was maintained.
These changes were not all in the same period or occurring at an equal level. Most probably, the first crisis and interpretations came into being in the field of science and scholarship. The reason for this was the positivist and secular understanding of science that came with the new military schools, and quickly embraced and internalized by Muslims as a solution to their problems, though they led to new problems due to serious changes that they brought forth. Even today, ideas of progress and development accompany central themes in modern Muslim thought. Discourses about the need to bring together factory chimney stacks (science, industry and technology) with minarets (namely beliefs, ethics and faith) is its vulgar outcome in the modern Turkish political scene.
Following the seemingly benign adoption of Western science, debates about the appropriateness and reform of systems of government began. Here, there is a line running from the changing Caliphate-Sultanate system to abolishing it in order to create the constitutional, republican, and democratic systems. Political thought and institutions as well as political methods have all been undergoing important changes in Muslim societies since the nineteenth-century. Following that, or perhaps parallel to it, we see new religious interpretations; Islamist thought’s insistence on making the distinction between “real Islam” and “historical Islam” became the foundational intellectual move to justify these changes.
New interpretations of Islamic ethics and pursuits of new forms of everyday life have followed these earlier changes, producing dramatic transformation in terms of women’s rights, dress codes, observing privacy in gender relations, architecture, personal and public etiquette (adab-ı muaşeret), cities, houses, eating and drinking habits, educational institutions, and methods of education. Orientalist writings on Islam, and the ideas of new Muslim intellectuals, journalists, and littérateurs who have studied the West in their own countries or in Europe have made serious contributions as well as having a negative influence on these processes. These were already the educated classes that are new, influential, and transformative in Muslim societies.
Q: And the change of questions…
İK: The questions and problems that were deemed urgent and essential changed over time as well as the answers given during the last two centuries. This is a natural consequence of major political, economic and social turbulence and transformations, dramatic shifts in climate of opinion, and economic necessities, which highlighted some new concepts and ideas while making others lose popularity and appeal. In recent history, and even today, Islamism is not of one type, color, or on one frequency. Yet, I don’t think that the reasons for its emergence, its approximate forms, or its style of interpretation have categorically changed.
If you look at this issue from the perspective of ordinary religious people (dindar halk) or more traditional-conservative structures like religious communities (cemaatlar) and Sufi orders (tarikatlar) that are resistant to Islamist interpretations, understanding of religion, and lifestyles, it seems that they are outside of Islamism, even in opposition to some of its viewpoints. You must be cautious when following this partially true case about the resistance of traditional Muslim structures against Islamist agendas, because, at once, these structures are the main sources and support of Islamist thought and movements, whether directly or indirectly, and at the same time, on some occasions, they may offer a view that is in accord with Islamism and will make alliances with Islamists. Whether they accept this or not, traditional Muslim groups and ordinary Muslims are open to innovation and renewal. For instance, rumor has it that in Konya new styles of cutlery were first used in Mevlevi Sufi Order of that city and then spread to the rest of the population.
“…there are commonalities between Islamists and leftist movements in Egypt, Algeria, and Iran. Even if their priorities and goals differ, we should see this indirect and implicit relationship (and alliance) between Islamists and other modernist intellectual currents as an aspect that strengthens Islamism’s appeal in those societies.”
Yet, there is something more; currents outside of Islamism in the Islamic world also have Islamist ideas and strains. In Turkey for example, we can see in Westernist and Turkist-nationalist movements some of these ideas are shared by Islamists concerning progress, reform and reinterpretation of Islam. Or, there are commonalities between Islamists and leftist movements in Egypt, Algeria, and Iran. Even if their priorities and goals differ, we should see this indirect and implicit relationship (and alliance) between Islamists and other modernist intellectual currents as an aspect that strengthens Islamism’s appeal in those societies.
Scholarly Interventions III: Studying Islamism in Turkey
Q: If we now come to academic studies done on Islamism in Turkey up to today, at what phase are they? Qualitatively and quantitatively, how would you evaluate these studies?
İK: This is a large issue, but let’s touch on it briefly. From the perspective of Islamist thought, after 1924 Turkey broke from the rest of the Islamic world, from its shared experiences with the Islamic world, and all that it had accumulated. It might seem as if Turkey reestablished connections [with the Islamic world] in the 1960s and 1970s, but I don’t think that this connection was at a level comparable to what it was before 1924, or it had any impact in recovering the memory and tradition of Turkey’s own Islamist thought tradition. There was in fact a rupture in the tradition of Islamist thought from Caliphate-era to post-Caliphate, Republican-era.
Beginning with the move to the multi-party system in Turkey (1946-1950), studies on Islamism really came to life. Simultaneously, studies produced outside Turkey also began. As for today in Turkey, we can talk about two key strands of engagement with Islamism. The first strand is that of academic scholarship, which continues to influence contemporary thinking, that sees Islamism as a threat to secularism and attempts to condemn Islamism by associating it with stigmatized labels like pro-Sharia (şeriatçılık), pro-ummah (ümmetçilik), and reactionary politics (irtica); it also tries to render it illegitimate, pull it down, and place it in opposition to Republican ideology. These interpretations also asserted that democracy and multiparty life would clearly empower Islamism and the Islamist threat – enabling them to grow with each election. Thus, this stigmatized interpretation or demonisation of Islamism is used to control pro-democracy movements and the democratic process in Turkish politics by fueling an eternal fear of Islamism’s reactionary politics, hoping to persuade democrats to ally with authoritarian Kemalism. Tarık Zafer Tunaya can be given as one example in the academy of that strand that seeks total fidelity to Republican ideology and which sees the survival of Kemalist secularism as the only criteria by which to evaluate Islamism. Unfortunately, in this strand there has not been much analytical depth or scope of content or academic contribution other than polarizing Turkish society as good secularists versus evil Islamists, and hardening each side against the other by creating distance between them.
The second main strand is composed of radical, intellectualist, Islamist interpretations of Islamism that emerge in the 1960s and are sustained by translated texts coming from the Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, and later from Iranian Islamists. It is unquestionable that this strand engenderedan interest in the revival of Islamism in Turkey, but it is at least open to debate whether it established a connection between Islamism and Turkey. These individuals did not seek a historical rootedness or sources coming from within Turkey.
This is because this strand prioritizes the Islamist historical narratives of authenticity articulated in Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan, which all had amnesia and a deliberate obfuscation of the late Ottoman period as well as the Caliphate. Turkey’s Islamists during the Cold War themselves were cut off from late Ottoman-era Islamism due to language reform and alphabet change, and they were not even familiar with the basic texts of Ottoman Islamism. Thus, aspects of Islamism that had a history with roots in Turkey did not enter into the new academic narratives of global Islamism or Islamism in Turkey.
“When I published my book on Islamist thought in late Ottoman period in mid-1980s, Islamists in Turkey at that time were surprised to see the richness, diversity, and content of their predecessors in their own country. Sometimes early Islamist thought in Turkey was downplayed and rejected in order to open a space for Cold War-era imported Islamism from Egypt, Pakistan, or Iran.”
Perhaps for these reasons, after the 1980s, many Islamists of the post-1970s period would struggle to adjust their ideas to notions of democracy, human rights, secularism, liberalism, postmodernism, and capitalism with new fusions and syntheses without being aware of the long intellectual traditions of Islamist writing on these concepts for over a century.
There are other scholarly and intellectual traditions of interpreting Islamism between and beyond these two main strands. On one side, there are those like Nurettin Topçu, Necip Fazıl, and Sezai Karakoç that nourished and influenced nationalist conservative thought as well as Islamism. They are outside of and above these two main lines of Kemalist secularism versus Cold War Islamism [that we’ve been tracing]. İmam Hatip schools and those who frequented circles of the High Islamic Institutes (Yüksek İslâm Enstitüleri) and Theology Faculties (İlahiyat Fakülteleri) were relatively distant from radical, intellectualist forms of Islamism in terms of conservatism, all the while being close to them in terms of their interpretation and understanding of religion.
On the political stage, perhaps there is a strand from the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi, or MSP) and Erbakan that we can extend as far as the Justice and Development Party (JDP, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). They are considerably close to the modernists and the capitalist world on topics of love of technology and science, progressivism (ilerlemecilik), developmentalism (kalkınmacılık) while holding to typical nationalist, conservative, and religious thought.
The more nuanced scholarly writings of Sabri Ülgener and Şerif Mardin should be considered separately in academia as they tried to engage Islamism within the field of religion in social and political analyses as a significant component for understanding Turkey. I am saying that despite what I have said about the level of their academic sophistication – their usage of source materials and methods of observation – but ultimately their conclusions were still very limited..
It could be said that these two scholars, Mardin and Ülgener, did not have any serious followers who continued their line of inquiry or revised and advanced their scholarship. In my opinion, the most significant and distinct recent contribution to interpretations of Islamism in Turkey, methodologically and in terms of content, comes from İsmet Özel, also perhaps with the interpretations of the traditionalist school (via translations of Rene Guenon and Seyyed Hossein Nasr). All of these different strands need to be evaluated individually as well as comparatively. It hasn’t happened as of yet, unfortunately.
Secularism and Islamists
Q: In your publications you often address the relationship between religion and state in Turkey. We understand that taking up and understanding this relationship both has many layers horizontally and vertically, doing this is, in fact, not very easy. When you look at the Islamic world, what do you think about the nature of religion-state relations and the ways things are going, specifically in reference to Turkey’s experience? Is it in a position where creative yet realistic paths can be found?
İK: I would emphasize this: the relationship between religion and state in Turkey cannot only be understood as [a choice between] secularism and its opposite, either pro-sharia positions (şeriatçılık) or “new Salafi Islam” and interpretations of Islamism. Beginning with March 3, 1924, and constitutionally since 1937, Turkey has really been a kind of secular country. From this perspective, it is the only example of its kind in the Islamic world. But, today we are asking: Is Turkey really a secular country?
“…the relationship between religion and state in Turkey cannot only be understood as [a choice between] secularism and its opposite, either pro-sharia positions (şeriatçılık) or ‘new Salafi Islam’ and interpretations of Islamism.”
Why didn’t the administration and ideology of the Republic choose a path that separates matters of religion from matters of state and politics instead of adopting a style where religion and state coexist while suppressing and controlling religion? Why does Turkish-style secularism stand in a place where ambiguity and confusion prevail? I discuss these problems in the chapters on the Diyanet and secularism in [volume one of] my book Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi’nde Bir Mesele Olarak İslâm.
We need to comprehend this particular form of secularism by focusing on its religious and cultural-historical background. Once we comprehend this, we see that in the interpretation of Sunni Islam and in Turkish political culture religion and state are essential component parts of each other. Theoretically you can separate these two elements, but historically and culturally, separating them or thinking of them separately is impossible. Said another way, culturally when you cut religion out, the state’s legitimacy and standing is lost and religion is left empty. I think the particular form of Turkish secularism adopted by the Republican administration has merit in its core idea, although I do not think this solution had the capacity to respond to Turkish society’s needs or to fulfill its vision. I find it significant in this context, that since 1924, no state official has uttered a sentence such as “the Turkish State has no religion.”
Whereas, these same state officials have been very impolite and harsh in their pronouncements about religion and religious people. In Western, secular cultural settings a sentence such as this would come across as normal, but in Turkey and in Turkish it has no legitimacy (meşruiyet) or intelligibility (anlaşılabilirlik). How come?
“I think the particular form of Turkish secularism adopted by the Republican administration has merit in its core idea, although I do not think this solution had the capacity to respond to Turkish society’s needs or to fulfill its vision. I find it significant in this context, that since 1924, no state official has uttered a sentence such as ‘the Turkish State has no religion.'”
This subject has not really preoccupied the minds of defenders of secularism or Islamists; they are content with hackneyed phrases or with approaching the exclusionary ideological language of their opponents from the reverse. At times, there are symbolic and emotional yet meaningful ideas like Necip Fazıl’s “Supreme Sovereign State” (Başyücelik Devleti), but in terms of content, they are highly abstruse and problematic.
Q: And what about the same issue of secularism in the rest of the Islamic world?
İK: Other Muslim countries outside of Turkey are not constitutionally secular but in truth they are either secular or in limbo. Concerning relations between religion and state, I don’t think that there is any particularly interesting development or interpretation that requires specific attention. The idea of Islamic democracy, which developed in the line of constitutional monarchy, republicanism, and democracy (meşrutiyet-cumhuriyet-demokrasi) became stronger after the abolition of the Caliphate.
“The idea of Islamic democracy, which developed in the line of constitutional monarchy, republicanism, and democracy (meşrutiyet-cumhuriyet-demokrasi) became stronger after the abolition of the Caliphate.”
Because these ideas about harmony between Islam and democracy have not sufficiently or seriously considered the long, Muslim, political thought tradition, its innovations, or its principles, they didn’t go very far in terms of finding appropriate solutions or gaining larger appeal. It repeats itself with almost the same arguments. Meanwhile, the pro-Caliphate movement of today, which runs on a much more emotional basis, only finds a response within the discourse of marginal groups, like Hizb ut-Tahrir, or in some traditional structures like madrasa circles, without much awareness of the long and rich historical experience of the Caliphate. Thus, contemporary discourses and emotions in regards to the Caliphate has largely broken off from historical experience and actual political thought of Muslim societies in the last several centuries.
TO BE FOLLOWED BY PART 2...
İsmail Kara was born in Güneyce/Rize, Turkey in 1955. After completing primary school, he studied and memorized the Qur’an with his father, who was known locally as Kutuz Hoca. In 1973, he completed his studies at Istanbul Imam Hatip school and (after completing additional coursework) in Rize High School. He graduated from the Istanbul High Islamic Institute (İstanbul Yüksek İslâm Enstitüsü) in 1977 and from the Department of History at Istanbul University’s Literature Faculty in 1986. After receiving his education at the Istanbul High Islamic Institute, he began working at Dergâh Publishing, where he was editor and publishing director. He also served on the board for various publications such as the journal Fikir ve Sanatta Hareket [Action in Art and Thought], Türk Dili ve Edebiyatı Ansiklopedisi [Encyclopedia of Turkish Language and Literature], İslamî Bilgiler Ansiklopedisi [Encyclopedia of Islamic Knowledge], and the journal Dergâh [Sufi Lodge]. Between the years 1980-1995, Kara worked as an instructor in religion at the French Sainte Pulcherie All-Girls school. In 1987, he completed his MA in Political Science at Istanbul University’s Social Sciences Institute. He wrote his doctoral dissertation “The Constitutional Administration According to Islamists (1908-1914)” [İslâmcılara Göre Meşrutiyet İdaresi (1908-1914)] in the same program in 1993. He was given a position as Instructor in the Faculty of Theology at Marmara University in 1995. He was promoted to Associate Professor in the History of Turkish-Islamic Thought in 2000 and then to Professor of Islamic Philosophy in 2006. He retired from the Faculty of Theology at Marmara University in 2015. His research areas include modern Turkish and Islamic thought. His research on Ottoman-Turkish intellectual history, the relations between religion and modernization, and religion and politics have been published in various journals such as Hareket, Dergâh, Tarih ve Toplum, Toplum ve Bilim, İslam Araştırmaları Dergisi, Marmara Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Dergisi, Kutadgubilig, İslamiyat, Toplumsal Tarih, Türklük Araştırmaları Dergisi, Diyanet İlmî Dergi, and Derin Tarih.
The continuing part of the interview with Dr. Ismail Kara
Ismail Kara is arguably the foremost academic expert on Turkish Islamism. Although he is a prolific writer and a public intellectual, his work is little known among non-Turkish speaking audiences.The following interview with Kara aims to close this gap. Micah Hughes, a doctoral candidate at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill translated the original text of the interview from Turkish into English under supervision of Cemil Aydin (UNC Chapel Hill). Interview questions were prepared by Cemil Aydin, Huseyin Yilmaz (GMU), Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu (GMU), Peter Mandaville (GMU) and Ahmet Koroglu (Istanbul University). Ahmet Koroglu provided visual material from Istanbul as well as spearheading the project. Kara's detailed bio information and a list of his publications are presented at the end of the interview text.
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