Islamist intellectuals in modern Turkey

Islamist intellectuals in modern Turkey

Islamist intellectuals in modern Turkey ‘Muslims in Modern Turkey: Kemalism, Modernism and the Revolt of the Islamist Intellectuals’ by Sena Karasipahi  (I.B. Tauris, $30, 247 pages)

The resurgence of religion in Turkey’s public identity, particularly since 1980, has naturally thrown up a cadre of ideologues and thinkers rooted in Sunni Islam. Spreading their ideas and influence through books and newspaper columns, television and conference appearances, these figures have not automatically shared the political goals of the various Islamist parties in Turkey, but they do have a similar interpretation of the country’s modern history. This study by Sena Karasipahi, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University, focuses on six of the most prominent of these contemporary Turkish Muslim intellectuals - Ali Bulaç, Rasim Özdenören, İsmet Özel, İlhan Kutluer, Ersin Nazif Gürdoğan and Abdurrahman Dilipak - considering both their (fairly unoriginal) ideas and their (much more important) socio-historical significance.

HDNWhile Turkey’s Muslim intellectual scene certainly isn’t blessed with many Karl Popper-like liberals, the six conservative figures under Karasipahi’s microscope are among the most ideologically uncompromising. Though all have distinct personal approaches and diagnoses, the author focuses on what they share and describes them as a “single, coherent school.” All are preoccupied by the threat to traditional values of modernity and industrialization, and the danger that the moral cement of religion may wane in society. Karasipahi doesn’t state it, but her subjects are actually wholehearted subscribers to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” typically denouncing “the West” as the “source and reason of all the ills and problems of the contemporary world.” As Ali Bulaç has written: "[The West] is for us the destruction of our culture, denial of our personality and identity, the continuation of political society, recession of civil demands, and annihilation of fundamental rights and liberties … It is not just ‘humanism’; at the same time, it is crime, robbery, exploitation, filth, and destruction."

For the dyspeptic Dilipak, “the basis of Western civilization is colonialism,” while Westerners are “despicable colonialists, plunderers, torturers, and terrorists, who have destroyed the dignity of humanity.” Such crude simplifications do as much (self-) harm as any Western orientalist. Comparing them with more subtle foreign Muslim intellectuals such as Hossein Nasr and Mohammed Arkoun, Karasipahi concludes that none of her six are “original ideologues or deep philosophers.”

Still, while their ideas may offer little original or even interesting, it is important to understand them as a historical phenomenon emerging from a particular set of social, political and economic circumstances. Indeed, why the Muslim intellectuals have risen to prominence and struck a chord at this moment in Turkish history is as much Karasipahi’s concern as the content of their work. Alongside the exhaustion of the Kemalist modernization project, chief among the reasons suggested is the mass urban migration that has accelerated since the 1970s and affected every aspect of modern Turkey. The opening of provincial cities and swelling of the country’s metropolises with rural migrants resulted in the formation of new “mental maps”:

In contrast to their experience of a given personal identity in a moral community, [migrants] were faced with choosing who to be, with whom to associate, what to think, even with choosing how to dress, what to eat, where to go, and what to see, all matters that were more or less socially given in Anatolian villages and towns. Consequently, these young people were pressured to work out for themselves a new form of identity, one that required the ideologization of experience.

This process created the kind of environment that would be receptive to the Muslim intellectuals’ message, as well as fertile ground for political Islam to plant seeds (also helped by the transformed attitude of the state, which I touched on a few weeks ago). As the “ideologues of the Islamists,” it is the Muslim intellectuals, part of a similar “class of uprooted, migrated urbanized people” - despite often having secular upbringings - who have been most “successful in appealing to and shar[ing] their sufferings with a wide mass of people … who experience the same feelings of alienation and disillusionment.” Karasipahi therefore suggests that they are “organic intellectuals” in the Gramscian sense of “every social class need[ing] its own intelligentsia to shape its ideology.”

Their ideas may be clumsy, but it is Muslim intellectuals like the subjects of this book who have resonated most effectively with modern Turkey’s masses of deracinated lower-middle classes. Hurled into disorienting urban modernity over recent decades, Islam has provided a defensive identity crutch for many people to cling to in a period of rapid and sometimes alienating change. With the current Islamist government simultaneously charging ahead with huge modernizing projects but also indulging reactionary conservative reflexes in cultural and social areas, the issues explored in this book seem particularly germane. Indeed, considering Turkey’s contemporary Muslim intellectuals and their origins provides an important perspective on the country’s angry ongoing Kulturkampf.

Notable recent release


‘Disengaging from Terrorism – Lessons from the Turkish Penitents’ by Kamil Yılmaz

(Routledge, £95, 256 pages)