Stephen Chan: After World War II there was a great dri­ve towards sec­u­lar­i­ty and mod­ern­iza­tion in a range of Islamic soci­eties. A num­ber of Islamic states had rev­o­lu­tions that turned them in a par­tic­u­lar post-war direc­tion. And in this post-war direc­tion the empha­sis was on two key things. The first was mod­ern devel­op­ment. In this sense it meant catch­ing up with the met­ro­pol­i­tan Western world. And the sec­ond dri­ving force behind all of this was the assump­tion that this would be best done by insti­tut­ing sec­u­lar states. It wasn’t that reli­gion was being done away with, but reli­gion was made delib­er­ate­ly sub­or­di­nate to the insti­tu­tions of the state.

Now, this was a very very bold move. It was some­thing that took place not only in Middle Eastern Islamic states but in far-flung cor­ners of the world—in Indonesia for instance, under­neath President Suharto. Certainly in the Middle East what you had were the very very rad­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion­ary steps tak­en by the free offices under­neath Colonel Nasser in Egypt. And you had the efforts of the Ba’ath par­ty in Syria and in Iraq to accom­plish some­thing of the same vision for the future. In fact at one point in time there was a propo­si­tion on the table that Egypt and Syria should form a United Arab Republic, and the co-joined coun­try would go for­ward along these lines of sec­u­lar moder­ni­ty.

This was very very bold, but it was not some­thing which was new. Basically what these coun­tries were seek­ing to do was to emu­late the orig­i­nal tem­plate estab­lished after the First World War in Turkey. But there, the Turkish vision for the future was dri­ven not only by a desire for sec­u­lar moder­ni­ty but also a desire to res­cue some­thing of a nation­al project. Because in World War I, the Ottoman Empire had been defeat­ed. It had been regard­ed by the Western allies as a deca­dent pow­er, and this was not true. Because what you had for instance in the writ­ings of some­one like Lawrence of Arabia in his great book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, where you had exploits con­duct­ed by Lawrence against the Ottoman army. You had accounts of every time that Lawrence and his Bedouin guer­ril­las blew up Turkish or Ottoman rail­way lines, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and tele­graph poles, the very next day the Ottoman sol­diers and engi­neers would be out repair­ing them. There’s no ques­tion about a cer­tain tech­no­log­i­cal capac­i­ty. They field­ed a mod­ern army that in fact at great cost, but also at even greater cost to Allied troops at Gallipoli, had defeat­ed Allied armies. 

But the idea of deca­dence was that the Ottoman gov­ern­men­tal sys­tem was anti­quat­ed. That even if they were the arti­facts of moder­ni­ty and tech­nol­o­gy, the sys­tem of gov­ern­ment could not con­tin­ue to pro­mote these in a dynam­ic way because it was look­ing towards the past. So the idea of deca­dence very very much accom­pa­nied the pic­ture of the Ottoman part of the world, which at one point in time had been a vast empire.

The idea of defeat­ing the Ottomans along with Germany (it had been a German ally) was also accom­pa­nied by the idea of reduc­ing it so it could nev­er be a threat again in the future. And so much of the ter­ri­to­ry that was occu­pied by the Ottoman empire was tak­en away. They became colo­nial pos­ses­sions, for instance British, the French. But also parts of it went to Iraq, part of it went to what became known as the Transcaucasian states sur­round­ing Russia—the Soviet Union. And what emerged after pro­longed nego­ti­a­tion was a small­er Turkey.

Now, the idea that once upon a time Turkey was larg­er, once upon a time Turkey had greater geo­graph­i­cal spread, and par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en that many of the sur­round­ing areas are Turkic in terms of their lan­guage affil­i­a­tion, that has nev­er left the Turkish imag­i­na­tion. But Atatürk, who launched a rev­o­lu­tion after World War I—he was the leader of the so-called Young Turks. Young Turks, that’s a phrase which has entered into our own usage in English lan­guage. People who are inno­v­a­tive, rev­o­lu­tion­ary, want­i­ng to set up a new start. This idea of mak­ing that new start, tak­ing moder­ni­ty even fur­ther for­ward than had been pos­si­ble before, but doing so with­out the deca­dent and degen­er­ate con­straints of a con­ser­v­a­tive inward-looking Islamically-based soci­ety. Keeping Islam but sub­or­di­nat­ing it to a very stri­dent, almost mil­i­tant sec­u­lar­ism to be safe­guard­ed by the army. 

Younger offi­cers, younger tech­nocrats, this was the vision of Atatürk. This is what was emu­lat­ed by Egypt, Syria, to an extent by Iraq, by Indonesia after World War II. But the Turkish exper­i­ment was a very very sig­nif­i­cant one. And it was one that the army in par­tic­u­lar very jeal­ous­ly safe­guard­ed as its con­sti­tu­tion­al man­date for many many years into the future beyond Atatürk, right up to almost the present day.

But although Islam was sub­or­di­nat­ed to the insti­tu­tions of a sec­u­lar state, it nev­er went away. It remained very very much as part of the cul­ture of Turkey. A very very dif­fi­cult type of Islam in the sense of its efforts to fuse ele­ments of both Sunni and Sufi Islam togeth­er. The rev­er­ence giv­en to peo­ple who were essen­tial­ly Sufi poets, like Emre for instance. People like the oth­er great writ­ers of that 13th cen­tu­ry peri­od, who were charis­mat­ic in terms of the visions that they tried to write about. The cul­ti­va­tion as a cul­tur­al arti­fact of the Whirling Dervishes, a group prac­tice of tran­scen­den­tal link­age with God. Very much a cer­e­mo­ni­al Sufism, which sat ill at east with a stri­dent, mil­i­tant, and text-based Islam, which is the hall­mark of very strict Sunni belief.

So this uneasy blend of Islam, all the same sub­or­di­nat­ed to the state, kept bub­bling away under­neath the sur­face. So that when we had the tri­umph in recent days of Erdoğan and his par­ty, and final­ly what was regard­ed as a mild and mod­er­ate Islamic par­ty took charge of Turkey up to that point in time, since World War I a sec­u­lar state, every­one won­dered what the future would hold. Would it become stri­dent? Would it become mil­i­tant in a jihadist way? Would it become part of the great prob­lems of the Western world and its rela­tion­ship with the Islamic world? Or could it remain a bridge between the two, giv­en the great moder­ni­ty that a very great deal of Turkey has man­aged to achieve?

Now in fact, one of the hall­marks of the Erdoğan gov­ern­ment, quite apart from accu­mu­lat­ing more and more pow­er in the per­son of President Erdoğan him­self, has been the desire to reestab­lish the kind of out­reach of the Ottoman Empire. The slow but very steady involve­ment of Turkish for­eign pol­i­cy in Middle Eastern the­atres of con­flict, in Syria for instance, in the bat­tle­fields of Mosul for instance, and try­ing to be a pow­er to coun­ter­bal­ance Israeli out­reach in the Palestinian area, and try­ing to make incur­sions against Russian expan­sion­ism in the Transcaucasian states, all of this looks to a vision of Turkey as recap­tur­ing if not in geo­graph­i­cal terms but cer­tain­ly in influ­en­tial terms the kind of out­reach that was pos­si­ble dur­ing the Ottoman peri­od. Mosul for instance, the bat­tle­ground now between ISIS and a coali­tion of forces includ­ing Turkish forces in the back­ground, was once part of the Ottoman Empire. It is now part of Iraq—it is now con­test­ed. But I think the sense in Turkey, cer­tain­ly under­neath Erdoğan, is that this was once part of the Turkish prove­nance in that very key strate­gic and crit­i­cal part of the world.

But the per­co­la­tion of Islamic influ­ence in soci­ety at large that allowed Erdoğan to rise to the top in a wave of pop­u­lar demo­c­ra­t­ic momen­tum was prob­a­bly accom­plished by a very very curi­ous schol­ar and thinker called Gülen. Erdoğan now has essen­tial­ly out­lawed Gülen. The recent coup attempt in Turkey was blamed fair­ly and square­ly on the fol­low­ers of Gülen. Gülen was seen as the dark force that ani­mat­ed this upris­ing against Erdoğan.

But with­out Gülen and his influ­ence in almost every sec­tion of soci­ety, this per­co­lat­ing Islamic influ­ence, there would have been no Erdoğan. So whether or not this was a pow­er strug­gle to set­tle scores of debt that were accu­mu­lat­ed in the past, whether it was a pow­er grab for one man only at the expense of the oth­er, or whether there was a real dif­fer­ence between the two in terms of polit­i­cal or even doc­tri­nal terms, remains open to debate.

Certainly what Gülen stood for is some­thing worth remark­ing upon. The terms like mod­er­ate Islam” are overused and have been overused to the sense of being banal. But he real­ly did stand for a schol­ar­ly ver­sion of Islam which was ecu­meni­cal and com­pas­sion­ate. So that a very great deal of the social work accom­plished by the Gülenist move­ment was very much the kind of pub­lic good that munic­i­pal coun­cils and gov­ern­ments could not pro­vide. When I was last stay­ing in Istanbul, for instance, the park out­side my apart­ment was looked after by Gülenists who would give up their time vol­un­tar­i­ly to do some­thing as sim­ple as water­ing the plants. Everywhere you went you could see the social good that they were accom­plish­ing, and you could feel the good will that this was build­ing up.

But the idea that Islam could be, in a schol­ar­ly and thought­ful way, a bridge between East and West was some­thing which was a hall­mark of what Gülen stood for. His exile now, in North America, is almost emblem­at­ic of this kind of bridge. A bridge at oppo­site ends of which he felt at ease. His out­law and his exile from Turkey is a big risk for Erdoğan. He may con­sol­i­date pow­er in his own per­son and in the office of the pres­i­dent. It’s not as if the pres­i­dent, like a king, wears no clothes. But the under­pin­ning of all of this, the way he rose to pow­er, is it going to be a case of the fact that the king has no under­wear?

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course information


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