The parochialization of Turkish Islam

The parochialization of Turkish Islam

There is a naïve view of history which assumes that as time goes by, societies become more mature. I have never shared that optimist “progressivism” and have gradually come to believe that history is rather chaos with no traceable destiny. Moreover, my own experience with my own society seems to confirm that latter view, especially in the past few years. For Turkey has not progressed into a brilliant “New Turkey,” as the government and its admirers tell us. It rather went back to the same old nonsense, after a short period of “opening.” 

One curious and sad part of this story is the change that “Turkish Islam” went through in the past 15 years. By Turkish Islam, I do not mean the daily practices in mosques or rituals performed by individuals and communities. What I mean is Islamic thought. There was an era that this thought was promisingly becoming open-minded, globalist, and sophisticated. But we ended up, at least at this point, with an Islamic thought that is as parochial, insular and shallow as anything can be.

The bright era I am talking about was the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then, Turkey was under the thumb of hardcore secularist generals, and Islamic intellectuals were seeking a way out from that suffocating regime. They wanted the freedom to be able wear a headscarf on a campus. They wanted freedom from the “social engineering” that the secularist state had imposed on society. Hence they wanted to Turkey up to the world, including the West.

That is how the European Union became a much-desired destiny. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government made accession to the EU its main goal. This was not a mere political choice; it was also an intellectual inclination. I remember countless numbers of panels and conferences in those years where Islamic thinkers of Turkey ruminated on the liberal values represented by the EU and found its echoes in their own tradition. Some praised “Anglo-Saxon secularism” instead of the French one. Others were quoting Habermas, Derrida or Baudrillard in almost every talk. 

It is amazing how all of that has been thrown away in the past five years. Today, the liberal-leaning Islamic voices of the early 2000s are producing nothing but childish conspiracy theories about imagined “plots” against Turkey, or cheap shots, if not insults, against their opponents. All their energy is spent demonizing “the enemies within” and venerating the Supreme Leader (i.e., President Tayyip Erdoğan). There is nothing left from their critiques of the authoritarian state or the totalitarian mind, or their enthusiasm for civil society or pluralism. What they produce is shameful bilge that “sells” in Turkey, but is laughing matter for the rest of the world.

There is one single major reason for this change: The Islamic thinkers of the late 1990s and early 2000s did not have power. (The AKP was elected to power in 2002, but it was still threatened and checked by the military for a while thereafter.) After 2010, they assumed full power, only to become bureaucrats, officially or unofficially. While condemning the evils of the old regime, they quickly became “the new class,” creating their own hall of shame. Their urge to protect this newfound power unleashed their most unrefined instincts. As a result, all the sophisticated narratives of the past about “Islam and democracy,” were replaced by the most parochial forms of chest-beating. 

So, here is a lesson for all other power-seekers in the world: Be careful about what you are asking for. Power will not just corrupt you. It will also dumb you down.