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Nation and Islam in modern Turkey

Saturday 19 May 2007, by Hans-Peter Geissen

Already last year (at the occasion of demonstrations following the “court-shooting” in Ankara) I insisted that, though the occasion may have been manipulated by certain “dark forces”, the adherents of marginal ideologies and profiteers of state- or rent-capitalism by definition cannot make for such a large crowd and that, thus, there are (were) definitely sincere concerns behind that event.

- Hans-Peter Geissen lives in Koblenz (Germany), at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Interested in all what concerns faunistics (data about animal species) of the Midrhine region, he is the author of many scientific publications on these issues. He bent on the Turkish issue with a very specific approach so as “to prevent a self-definition of Europe on the grounds of historical or religious mythologies.”

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At that point, the most obvious concerns I could make out were related to women’s rights, which I guess was similarly obvious in the recent Istanbul rally. In fact, however, this is not the only theme.

There are so many fundamental problems that it’s hard to find a key or a systematic of it, though, or because, they’re all interconnected.

Millet or nation ?

From one angle, the key problem seems to be with the nation. Is it a millet ? This would be a religious community designed to obey to a spiritual authority (a religious class designed to support autocratic rule, or some sort of theocracy - depending on interpretation and real power-relations). There are deep historical grounds for this I do not intend to touch here further than the general fact that Turkey was de facto meant as a last strongholt of the “dominant (nominally”Muslim“, in fact Sunni) millet” of the Ottoman Empire (for quite acceptable reasons, see for instance McCarthy 1996, below).

Or is it a nation? This would mean that it is designed to be a collective sovereign of a state, implying that no definition by religion is possible as the member of the nation is sovereign to chose or change belief and world view at any given moment. Democracy is closely linked to the concept of nation.

Empirically, “democratization” in Turkey after Atatürk was linked to (re-)Sunnitization and slow-pace religious cleansing, though it was hardly an organized action but an accidental outcome - of what? Perhaps, simply the fact that in Turkish the terms nation and millet, though absolutely incompatible as regards content, are considered synonyms.

This however is by no means a merely Islamist misunderstanding. It goes through the bureaucratic and centralist tradition of Ottoman-Turkish authoritarian rule as well. After all, the “millet” is subject to both a religious and a worldly version of obedience. The “secular”-positivist version is now known as “Kemalism”, then we have Islamism, and third, the national-religious “synthesis” - each of them non- or even anti-democratic and authoritarian.

Everybody may use the term in any meaning, so it’s difficult to know what is meant. Perceived content depends on a variety of connotations, giving immense room for suspicions of various sorts.

Veiling issue

Another ground suspicions dwell on is the traditional Islamic obsession with veiling. Perhaps more significant than hijab- or headscarf-issues is the so-called interest-free banking, which of course is not interest-free but veiling interest so as to let it appear like trade gains. This may of course be related to various issues.

Whereas we are constantly told that female veiling is a matter of free choice, we have innumerable witnessed examples that it is frequently not, including the case of Ermine Erdogan herself. Of course, you may suppose that everybody, and especially every woman, knows that. Even more unfortunate, this veil is a tool defending “honour”, a term which in traditional gender relations carries connotations of submission and obedience and the most horrible kind of murder and threat - a nominally moral duty veiling the absence of moral values. (Basically, this “honour” is a measure of market value of a group’s (tribe’s, family’s) girls.)

Germany-Turkish girls petitioned to German authorities not to allow veiled teachers, because this tissue, once placed in an authoritative position, would increase already existing pressures on them to veil themselves. These pressures are told to have included veiled and barely veiled threats of killing. In Germany, such threats are connected to the very same “Milli Görüs” which is the origin of many AKP leaders, including Gül and Erdogan. Of course, MG defends the “freedom of choice”, though we have yet to see a case in which they defend the freedom not to veil. And Gül? I have yet to become aware of any sign that he is not happy with the practice in Saudi-Arabia, for instance. Though this may appear as a reasonable behaviour of a foreign minister, I remember their cartoon politics; he didn’t hesitate to attack Denmark and freedom of the press in a concerted diplomatic action with Saudi-Arabia - so igniting a major crisis which he then demonstratively helped to contain. Impressive, but by no means convincing, as far as I am concerned. We may well guess that the insistence of the AKP to place “a headscarf” in Cankaya is not innocent, but an informal way of pressure..

On the other hand, we are enlightened about the religious tolerance of the so-called millet system of the Ottoman Empire. The idea was indeed progressive in medieval and early modern times, despite the fact that it was finally proven less attractive for the non-Muslims if compared with the idea of national sovereignty. Nonetheless, historically it was also an inspiration for the development of European secularism, and we may find it inspiring today as an example of multiculturalism. So far, it must be considered a valuable contribution to European mental evolution. But it has a certain backyard.

Let’s listen to Ebusuud, the eminent seyhülislam of Suleiman the lawgiver, who besides giving law about interests is quoted with the following legal advice:

"... If they retain their believes, their heresy is confirmed, and thus they must be killed. ... Of course, the mass-wise killing of the Kizilbash is allowed by our religion. It is the greatest and holiest war...
... those godless, perverted traitors. ... it is necessary to eradicate all redheads irrespective of age, and their towns (or sites?, hpg) and deeds with them. Those who doubt their godlessness become godless themselves ...
(quoted from Gümüs 2001)

It not only recalls the Inquisition or Counter-Reformation of Christian Europe. To battle the “redheads”, the Ottomans relied on troops from Christian Balkan peoples. It wouldn’t probably have been wise for the Ottomans to be intolerant against these very sources of their own power. Though in turn they could also be quite tolerant towards “heterodox” Muslims if they intended to use them as raider troops against the Christian borderlands in SE Europe. In their own ranks, the Ottomans obviously preferred a gradual proceeding: They co-opted non-Muslims in a quite liberal manner if necessary, even as near-equals, but once in the Ottoman ranks they were supposed to become Muslims or lose their positions sooner or later. While this feature seems to accompagny the Ottoman dynasty from the beginnings, their society seems to have (been) slowly changed from more egalitarian to more hierarchical constellations - see Lowry 2003 and other sources quoted below).

My aim is not to judge history here, but to assess some current sermons about history. And to recall that there still are people both in Anatolia and Thrace whose identity is linked to the memory of the “backyard” mentioned. They tend to interpret the history of democracy in Turkey as a history of increasing Sunnitization, which may include all the heirs of the “Democratic Party” and the “National View”.

So far, I’ve mentioned some reasons why it may be reasonable to be suspicious about the goals of the AKP and worried about their increasing power in state institutions. Unfortunately, the fact that they hitherto did not openly attempt to impose their ideas on the general public is inconclusive. They may simply wait until they are in control of the military. With support of the European Union?
(The EU institutions will of course oppose such a move. But it might be too late when they realize the threat.)

Democratization or sunnitization ?

The question remaining is wether a policy of democratization may, under these circumstances, be distinguished from one of Sunnitization.

Systematically, it depends on the discussion and proper definition of what is meant with the terms of a (Turkish) nation, of secularism, of sovereignty and of democracy (representation), and about their interdependence. Naturally, this cannot be restricted to the AK-party, but relates to the state itself and any political force.

Pragmatically, it is not possible to decide about which is the ultimate goal by using anything related to Sunni traditions. To allow for “Islamic” headscarfs in universities and all the more in the parliament may well be a necessity of democracy, but also a means of Sunnitization. (I think that both is the case.)
But one may use anything that is related to “heterodox” traditions. So, a policy which effectively promotes equal rights of Alevis and Alevism is in all probability democratizing, whereas a policy which falls short of this feature probably is not.

A similar criterion is gender policy. Promoting gender equality both symbolically and in daily practice, a political force is engaged in democratization, whereas a lack thereof must be regarded as a sign that we may have to do with something different.

So far, Turkey’s political scene lacks an unequivocally democratic force, which I think is reason enough for anybody to be scared and/or angry.

And indeed, the most obvious handicap is the lack of an authentic Social-Democratic party (as the AKP may, while it still is not fully, become the corresponding democratic center-right party - I really don’t think that they’re irreparably Islamist).

To finally mention a strategical problem relating to the definition of the nation : the most basic features of a nation are that a population (a) assumes to be the sovereign (b) of a state (c) with a defined territory (d). “a” is basically defined by the state territory, but in order to be its single sovereign the many must agree to be virtually united. As any agreement, this one, too, depends on negotiations among the (major) segments of the population. Though they finally cannot replace the state and territory as the measure to define the nation, there are certain possible facilitators of unity, such as a common language/ethnicity or a common religion (or a railway net, etc.) which determine a common social and historic space. It may even be a symbolic royal family who represents this historic space. It depends on specific conditions which feature may work, and when, in a given country.

In religiously and politically divided Germany, it was language/ethnicity that worked best, especially when the Habsburg empire was excluded from what remained of the “Holy Roman” Empire. This was even more pronounced in the Balkans, because the hierarchy of millets prevented the equality needed for successful negotiations about shared sovereignty (in the empire, which moreover may have been too big and too diverse with its large Arab block), while religion was bound to autocratic rule, and at the outset there were no defined territories either. Thus, the only political capital to start with was ethnicity, as shared language and customs define a certain social and historical space, too..

In Turkey, one segment has special importance for the connection of territory and nation: the Kurds. As they are an ethnicity (or rather two) different from Turks, in the absence of a negotiated agreement with the ethnic Turks about the terms of their shared sovereignty ethnicity becomes a dividing force. Moreover, common religion becomes a surrogate of common sovereignty.

In the end, religion cannot replace a basic political agreement defining a sovereign nation, and thus, it cannot replace political negotiations. But in these conditions (the absence of political negotiations) the population may remain a millet, which in turn requires a spiritual authority - it may be more theocratic or more autocratic, but the social “glue” will in fact be religion and an effective democracy is excluded. So far, Kemalist anti-Kurdism is supporting and legitimating Islamism, probably a case of unintentional or rather counter-intentional consequences. In turn, it may itself be a consequence as well as a cause of incorrect definition of what makes a possible nation an actual nation. So, one may well be suspicious, but hardly fully convinced, wether the “Kemalist” (or the military’s) insistence on a non-political solution for the Kurdish “issue” is a self-serving strategy of autocratic rule.

At any rate, from an operational viewpoint the Kurdish “issue” may be the “Archimedian” point. Was it this what Kenan Evren finally had understood ?

- Some sources concerning related Ottoman history :

AYDIN, Mahmut (2001): Religious pluralism: A challenge for Muslims – A theological evaluation. – Journal of Ecumenical Studies 38: 330-352. Philadelphia, Pa.

BALIVET, Michel (1995): Islam mystique et révolution armée dans les Balkans Ottomanes. Vie du Cheikh Bedreddin, le « Hallaj des Turcs » (1358/9-1416). – 175 S., Istanbul (Les Éditions Isis)

GÖCEK, Fatma Müge (1996): Rise of the Bourgeoisie, Demise of Empire. – 220 S., New York, N.Y. (Oxford University Press)

GOFFMAN, Daniel (2002): The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. – 273 S.. Cambridge (Cambridge University Press; New approaches to European History 24)

GÜMÜS, Burak (2001): Türkische Aleviten vom Osmanischen Reich bis zur heutigen Türkei. - 262 S., Konstanz (Hartung-Gorre) (Konstanz University)

KARAMUSTAFA, Ahmet T. (1994): God’s unruly friends. Dervish groups in the Islamic later middle period 1200-1550. – 159 S., Salt Lake City (University of Utah Press)

KITROMILIDES, Paschalis M. (2003) : An Enlightenment perspective on Balkan cultural pluralism : the republican vision of Rhigas Velestinlis. – History of Political Thought 24 (3): 465-481. Thorverton.

KREISER, Klaus & Christoph K. NEUMANN (2002): Kleine Geschichte der Türkei. – 519 S., Stuttgart (Reclam)

LOWRY, Heath W. (2003): The Nature of the Early Ottoman State. – 197 S., Albany (State University of New York Press).

McCARTHY, Justin (1996): Death and Exile. The ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Muslims 1821-1922. - 368 S., Princeton, New Jersey (The Darwin Press).

PEIRCE, Leslie P. (1993) : The Imperial Harem. Women and sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. – 374 S., Oxford, New York (Oxford University press).

QUATAERT, Donald (2005): The Ottoman Empire 1700-1922. – 212 S., 2nd ed., Cambridge (Cambridge University Press; New approaches to European History 34).

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