The end of the ‘Turkish Enlightenment’

The end of the ‘Turkish Enlightenment’

Since the beginning of this new century, Turkey has been going through an amazing but also puzzling transformation. And that is why it might be helpful to explain this course by using some universal theoretical frameworks.

To offer one, let me first name the transformation that I am talking about: This is a slow-yet-steady deconstruction of Kemalism, the official ideology of the Turkish Republic. This is not happening in a let’s-take-the-Stalin-statues-down moment, as it was in the former Soviet Union in 1991, but rather more gradually. Not only the authoritarian institutions that have guarded the official ideology are being defanged, but also the public square is being de-Kemalicized in a Gramscian way: peacefully and democratically.

But what in the world was this thing called Kemalism? Well, its founders and fans, including Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself, have proudly defined it as “the Turkish Enlightenment.” With a direct inspiration from the French Revolution, and its philosophical fathers such as Voltaire or Diderot, Kemalists openly said they were simply extending the Enlightenment to this part of the world.

This conceptualization might have alarmed some readers, especially European ones. Some radical proponents of the Enlightenment – such as, say, Ayaan Hirsi Ali – can even raise calls for a military coup in Turkey, in order to save the country from brink. For if an Enlightenment project fails, especially in a Muslim-majority country, what can there remain other than “darkness”?

But, well, let’s stop there and think for a minute. And let us remember that the Enlightenment was hardly a monolithic and rosy process. It created not only democracies, but also dictatorships. It paved the way for not just human rights, but also the guillotine and the gulags. The advocates of “science and reason” not only produced libraries and clinics, but also chemical weapons and gas chambers.
In other words, there was also “the dark side of the Enlightenment,” as it is called in the West, besides its bright achievements.

Now let me go back to Turkey, and tell you this plainly: Do not weep for Kemalism, for it was the Turkish version of none other the dark side of the Enlightenment. Just like French Jacobinism or Russian Bolshevism, it was inherently illiberal, anti-democratic, intolerant and violent. It did help the society in some ways, such as advancing women’s rights, but it also suppressed dissidents, Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Jews, and basically any one who is not a Kemalist.

That is why the rare people in Turkey who embrace the bright side of the Enlightenment – the liberals – have always fought Kemalism, and got oppressed by its heavy hand. Intellectually they used to be very strong, but otherwise they were very weak. That is also why these liberals had to rely on the power of Islam, which turned out to be the real victor against Kemalism – a bit like Catholicism’s role in defeating communism in Poland.

But what does this bring us to? Did a pre-Enlightenment force defeat the dark side of the Enlightenment by using the bright side of the Enlightenment only as a disposable tool? Were the liberals, in other words, only the useful idiots of the Islamists, as some argue these days?
If mainstream Turkish Islam were something like Salafism in Egypt, that would indeed be the case, and the future of Turkey would look very bleak. But mainstream Turkish Islam is much more modern than that. Arguably, it has even been influenced by liberal ideas, suggesting that, in the decades to come, Turkey might become the stage for the emergence of an Islamic Enlightenment – of the bright type, of course.

It is only understandable if you still see reasons to worry in this picture. I rather just see a fascinating experiment.

For all of Mustafa Akyol’s works, including his recent book, ‘Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,’ visit his blog, On Twitter, follow him at @AkyolinEnglish.