Ismail Kara is arguably the foremost academic expert on Turkish Islamism. Although he is a prolific writer and a public intellectual, his work is little known among non-Turkish speaking audiences.The following interview with Kara aims to close this gap. Micah Hughes, a doctoral candidate at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill translated the original text of the interview from Turkish into English under supervision of Cemil Aydin (UNC Chapel Hill). Interview questions were prepared by Cemil Aydin, Huseyin Yilmaz (GMU), Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu (GMU), Peter Mandaville (GMU) and Ahmet Koroglu (Istanbul University). Ahmet Koroglu provided visual material from Istanbul as well as spearheading the project. Kara's detailed bio information and a list of his publications are presented at the end of the interview text. The Turkish original of this interview can be accessed on Maydan.
Q: To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time you are giving an interview for the Western academic world. Since this is the case, would you mind quickly introducing yourself? What has been your academic journey? We’d like to learn a little about the academic issues that you are grappling with.
İsmail Kara: This could be considered my first interview for the academic world, although however rare, I’ve given some interviews for Western journals and newspapers…
It doesn’t please me at all to introduce myself, but out of a sense of duty I’ll say a few things: I came to Istanbul from a rural area. My father was the local imam at the bigger mosque of a village; he was fond of studying and teaching. I am a product of an Imam Hatip school. I did my advanced education in theological studies (İlahiyat) and history. During my student years, I was introduced to Nurettin Topçu (1909-1975) and the journal Hareket. My interests in the areas of modern Islamic thought and modern Turkish thought, which until 1924 were entwined and centered in Istanbul, started during those student years. I accordingly prepared myself academically. I had wanted to work on the subject of kalam.
“I came to Istanbul from a rural area. My father was the local imam at the bigger mosque of a village; he was fond of studying and teaching. I am a product of an Imam Hatip school.”Upon completing my advanced education, I worked for Dergâh Publishing for a long time as an editor and publishing director. There my interests both developed and deepened. I taught classes on religion at a French language high school in Istanbul. You could say that I became affiliated with a university later in life. I had produced my first works even before my academic studies had started. My doc
toral dissertation was in the field of political science, but the reason for this was that I could not find an adviser in the subject I wanted to work on. The fields I’ve wanted to work in since my childhood – and that I have worked in – are still not considered to be significant or profound topics in Turkish academia. Or, let me say that in my estimation, the state of academic research on modern Islamic thought in Turkey is much behind what it should be in a country like Turkey. Let’s hope that quantitative growth of academic books and articles also stimulates qualitative growth in terms of better understanding this important topic.
“…the state of academic research on modern Islamic thought in Turkey is much behind what it should be in a country like Turkey.”
My first big work was the anthology Türkiye’de İslâmcılık Düşüncesi [Islamist Thought in Turkey] (3 vol., 1986, 1987, 1994). I decided to edit and republish major works of Islamic thought so as to consciously form a new foundation for scholarship by re-familiarizing the Turkish public with overlooked texts. Because I realized early on that the scholarly and intellectual, maybe even ideological, basis I found in the fields of modern Islamic and Turkish thought were full of very partisan, problematic, rigid, and provocative methodological shortcomings and mistakes. In order to do things in this new manner and with higher accuracy, in other words approximating historical truth, it was necessary to put forth basic, foundational texts that were not in circulation in a clear chronology and system. As a next step, a new methodology was required to make sense of the legacy of modern Islamic and Turkish thought in terms of its priorities and points of view.
Q: What was the reaction to/reception of this approach? Was it appreciated in academia and the wider public?
İK: As a person who has been in the publishing world for many years, the responses I am looking for are slightly different. If you look at sales, then this anthology was significant and successful; one could comfortably say that there was a serious interest in it. The first print of the first two volumes – 5,000 copies – sold out before the year was up. If you take into account the book’s volume – the large version was 500-odd pages – and that it was the author’s first book, this is a high figure for a short amount of time. However, whether there has been a scholarly or intellectual response, or if you are asking whether a new foundation for a better understanding of Islamic thought – which I was hoping for – has come about, to that I can’t entirely say yes.
Q: In the Western academy, the study of modern Islamic thought has been a very lively subject. However, these studies generally have been heirs to books on the subject like Charles Adam’s 1933 study, Islam and Modernism in Egypt. What I mean is that they have praised Muhammad Abduh and the forms of Islamic modernism that followed, seeing it as a type of Protestant reformation like in Christianity. Since the 1980s you have started to work from an alternative perspective to dominant paradigms. You have also established a scholarly tradition that critically evaluates Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and Ottoman modernist Islamism, which developed parallel ideas and whose extensions were reflected in the Republican period, but you also attempt to show problematic elements of projects like this.
İK: There are a few important interrelated questions here. Orientalists were interested in modern Muslim thought with many different assumptions and agendas. Maybe rightly so according to their own subjective perspectives and interests. However, for us, their points of view and priorities do not come off as accurate or acceptable and they shouldn’t. From my perspective, the most important and problematic question is how the Ottomans and Turkey were removed from the centers of modern Islamic thought as most of the scholarship shifted its center to Egypt and secondarily to South Asia. Thus, we can say this ended up creating a reality that is itself contrary to reality. I suppose it would not be wrong or unjustified to say that these orientalist studies, in addition to being academic, were related to political and ideological “operations,” such as British interventions and projects. You know that Albert Hourani, who was a Christian Arab, admitted as much at the end of his life. The name of his book is Arabic Thought (Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939) despite the fact that almost all of the individuals that he touched upon in his book were Ottoman citizens.
“From my perspective, the most important and problematic question is how the Ottomans and Turkey were removed from the centers of modern Islamic thought as most of the scholarship shifted its center to Egypt and secondarily to South Asia.”Its name is not “Modern Islamic Thought.” Ottoman modernization and Turkey are excluded from the content. How come? Just to give another example: look at the Turkish translation of a book written by John Esposito and John Donohue, Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives (1986). It includes texts and commentaries on twenty-one Muslim thinkers from al-Afghani to Imam Khomeini without including anything from the Ottoman Empire and Turkey or by Turkish intellectuals. How can we explain this blatant omission, unless it is done on purpose? We may find all kinds of excuses, such as not knowing Turkish. I find it equally intriguing and interesting that the translators and publishers of both Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, and various books of John Esposito are Islamists who are called radical due to their admiration for the Iranian revolution and other Islamist movements of Pakistan and Egypt. These Islamist publishers translate books on modern Islamist thought by European or American writers without feeling the need to make any comments, objections, or criticisms concerning the neglect of Islamic thought in Turkey in these works. But does that narrative of Islamic thought make sense?
“In fact, this attempt to shift the center away from Istanbul, according to my reading of it, is a powerful and programmatic aspect of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, followed by distancing it from Islam and the Muslim world.”In fact, this attempt to shift the center away from Istanbul, according to my reading of it, is a powerful and programmatic aspect of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, followed by distancing it from Islam and the Muslim world. For reasons we are familiar with, it was easy for intellectuals and elites of Arab origin to internalize this new post-1924 narrative. There was Arab nationalism; there were independence pursuits from the Ottomans; additionally there were direct and indirect demands and serious efforts in this direction by colonialist and occupying European states, especially by the British.
It is partly surprising that Turkish intellectuals, the Turkish political elite (including founding members of the Republic), Turkish academics, and even Islamists radicals of the 1960s were appropriators of, apologists for, and as a result, instruments of the very view that did away with themselves, removed themselves from the central position in the formation of modern Islamic thought, and distanced themselves from the Muslim world. The reasons for this are multiple and deep, of course. I say partly shocking because we know, in fact, that Republican ideology put forward and advocated a similar withdrawal from the story of Muslim experience in the modern world, but with different justifications and impositions. In Turkey, some “New Salafi” (Yeni Selefi) and radical Islamist ideas on this subject, at least in terms of their thinking that Arabs and some South Asians are the authentic representatives of Modern Muslim thought, come close to secularist Republican ideology. This is an interesting, yet unnoticed, phenomenon.
“It is partly surprising that Turkish intellectuals, the Turkish political elite (including founding members of the Republic), Turkish academics, and even Islamists radicals of the 1960s were appropriators of, apologists for, and as a result, instruments of the very view that did away with themselves, removed themselves from the central position in the formation of modern Islamic thought, and distanced themselves from the Muslim world.”
Secondly, positive views of Western scholarship and intellectual circles on modern Islamic thought and Islamist movements, i.e. seeing them from a lens of ‘Protestantization’ (protestanlaşma) and modernization (modernleşme), have not always been the most dominant ones. Distortions of this Protestant thesis on Muslim modernism indicate an incentive for development and stimulation for a supposedly declined Muslim world. Certainly, there are correct sides to this observation as some aspects of reformist Muslim thought itself were inspired by the model of the Protestant Reformation. But, we also know that, depending on the state of affairs and context, subject matter, or geography, the same person, idea, or movement (which may be praised as a modernizing force) whether in one period or in different time periods, are taken as a serious threat, a danger surrounding the world: reactionary positions, radicalism, fundamentalism, or terror. Notice how ‘New Salafism’ associated with Rashid Rida, and once praised by Western scholarship, has been recently seen as the root of the Muslim Brotherhood’s radicalism and anti-Westernism. There are clear shifts in the political assessments of central concepts of modern Islamic thought including jihad, Pan-Islamism, the Caliphate, anti-colonialism, and opposition to impiety. They could be praised or condemned depending on how this fits dominant Western political interests. The distinctions drawn between ‘official Islam’/‘folk Islam,’ ‘political Islam’/‘cultural or moderate Islam,’ ‘traditional Islam’/‘liberal Islam’ can acquire changing moral and political values. Depending on the context, the part that is emphasized, seen as positive or as negative, or condemned changes. [For example, folk Islam in Central Asia was seen as reactionary compared to new modernist Islam (i.e. the jadid movement) during imperial Russia. But when we came to the Cold War and Soviet period, Western scholarship began to praise folk Sufi Islam as a basis of Muslim resistance to Soviet rule.
“Notice how ‘New Salafism’ associated with Rashid Rida, and once praised by Western scholarship, has been recently seen as the root of the Muslim Brotherhood’s radicalism and anti-Westernism.”We all know how the viewpoints on Afghan jihad dramatically changed within 10 years from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s]. You can see reflections of these things in the same or highly similar forms in Turkey and other Muslim countries. The same political reevaluation of the key Islamic concepts is not peculiar to Western Orientalism. “New Salafi” and radical Islamist movements have similar shifting positions especially when they make a distinction between “real” and “authentic” Islam versus historical Islam, which allows them to reject any aspect of contemporary Muslim practice that serves their political agenda.
Scholarly Interventions I: Modern Islamic Thought
Q: More or less 30 years have passed since your first publications and critical interventions in this subject. Meanwhile, have scholarly approaches to modern Islamic thought changed? How do you find these new studies?
İK: I can say that these partial changes and improvements are not at a level that I would consider significant, neither methodologically nor in content, especially taking into account the length of time that has passed. Personally, I think there are more problems in these studies in Turkey. If you consider the increase in the percentage of conservative and religious (dindar) people located in universities, intellectual life, and in the media, I think there is a deeply negative correlation and a real distance between their positive contributions (or labor) and the the depth of their pursuit on these issues. I’m of the opinion that solely numerical and institutional developments on this issue are misleading.
Q: What about the critical inquiry that you started… Did this line of thinking continue in the scholarship of others?
İK: From my perspective, modern Islamic thought, is, on one hand, a rejuvenating part of Islamic thought generally, and on the other hand, it points to a serious differentiation from Islamic thought or occasionally even a breakdown and departure from it. It expresses both a new idea of existence and defensive struggle under new conditions as well as a transformation of itself, an attempt at its own destruction at the same time. I think both sides of this are important. Strengths and weaknesses are nested together in a field that opens up to serious problems, but also some possibilities as well. Traditional circles in Turkey and the Islamic world see modern Islamic thought only as a deviation, a weakness, but for Islamists and radical circles it is once again a leap forward, an awakening, and a revival towards “real Islam” (gerçek İslâma doğru). These two viewpoints do not show the whole truth or the whole event to us. We emphatically need a new viewpoint and a new idea of criticism.
Modern Islamic thinkers’ distinctions between ‘real Islam’ versus ‘historical Islam’ are problematic and far from philosophical profundity both in terms of methodology and content. The idea of a return to an ideal time of the Prophet Muhammad (Asr-ı Saadet) and to original resources is an example of this. However there is an attractive element and in some areas even a refreshing side to it. Psychologically speaking, there are also calming elements… for large crowds psychological healing can be seen as a positive thing.
“Modern Islamic thinkers’ distinctions between ‘real Islam’ versus ‘historical Islam’ are problematic and far from philosophical profundity both in terms of methodology and content. The idea of a return to a Golden Age (Asr-ı Saadet) and to original sources is an example of this.”But this is not the whole story; I think that the degree to which new ideas or new interpretations developed by Muslim intellectuals depend on their claim and assertion that they represent a return to ‘real Islam” should be questioned. The sources and evidence of this assertion are open to debate. Modernist Muslim thinkers want to condemn themselves and us to a literal reading (literal/lafızcı) of Islamic texts, deprived of depth and breadth, and to a uniform understanding of religion. To put this in terms favorable to their intention, modernists see the salvation of Muslims (or some kind of exit from the decline of Muslim societies) in this new interpretation.
There is a whole set of problems in the modernists’ attempt to seriously separate out real Islam from the Islamic historical experience, or from weakened institutions, styles, Islamic scholarly traditions, and art forms that spread over vast periods of time and diverse geographies. Modernists thus developed a fragmented vision of science, culture, and history that is deprived of integrity because it denies the whole historical experience of Muslim societies and their future-oriented claims to go back to early Islamic authenticity. Their capacity to understand modern European experience and Orientalist scholarship, as well as the way they communicate with them, is also highly problematic and subpar. In this view, the particular and universal are left undifferentiated.
“The way that modern Islamic thought has been addressed in the West as well as in the Islamic world, or to put it another way, the writing of modern Islamic thought, lies within my field of criticism and analysis.”
By taking into account the last two to three centuries of Muslim experience and accepting it as part of our own experience, I maintain that it is necessary to submit it to new kinds of criticism and evaluation and sometimes I do this in a manner that can be considered harsh. The way that modern Islamic thought has been addressed in the West as well as in the Islamic world, or to put it another way, the writing of modern Islamic thought, lies within my field of criticism and analysis. I am saying that existing methodologies, viewpoints, the main topics [of study] and their hierarchical orderings, and/or their prevalent interpretations are neither sufficient nor correct. However, my critique is a process, and with the scholarly-intellectual environment in such a weak place, we cannot expect to find the immediately desired or sought after response to these critiques and new propositions – because a scholarly critique means new proposals and possibilities.
I can say this: I know that Western scholars working according to a certain academic and political paradigm, and think tanks or Muslim scholars trying to gain ground in the West persistently avoid my invitation to change the paradigm, or purposely ignore my critiques and try not to quote me, even though they do use some of my scholarship and draw from my perspective. This is a matter of politics of scholarship and I do understand that.
Q: In your newly published The Problem of Islam in Republican Turkey vol. II (Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi’nde Bir Mesele Olarak İslâm 2), there are important themes such as secularism and democracy that you have been addressing for some time as central to modern Islamic thought. The problem of secularism is the most important one. Similarly, the concept of democracy is still being debated from many vantage points. Since the beginning, you have stated that modernist Islamist thought has experienced and instigated its own secularization process, yet one that is separate from Kemalist secularism in the Republican period. If we look at debates on Modern Islamist thought specific to Turkey, how have these debates acquire a sense of certainty or determination? Or have they been brought to a state of ambiguity or insolubility? What are your views on this topic with reference to the work you have done?
İK: There is a vein of modern Islamic thought, Islamism, and the discourse of ‘true Islam’ that has been amenable and open to notions of secularism and secularity. Isn’t it ironic that what looks like a demand for more Islamization (İslâmlaşma) and religiosity (dinîlik), and a demand to be against secularism and modern Western thought ends up complicit in the secularization process? This is a powerful paradox, but it is something the extent of which is left unanalyzed and unrealized. There are many reasons for and sources of the interrelations of religiosity (dinîlik) and secularism (laiklik). Perhaps first is the idea and claim that Islamism, like other intellectual movements in the Muslim world, was capable of and needed to bring the processes of religion and modernization together, because for the Islamic world modernization – that is, the idea of reform – was acceptable to the extent that it was an absolutely necessary tool for the salvation and survival of religion and state.
“Isn’t it ironic that what looks like a demand for more Islamization (İslâmlaşma) and religiosity (dinîlik), and a demand to be against secularism and modern Western thought ends up complicit in the secularization process?”The transcendental aim of Islamic reform was not acceptable by itself, but rather what it was supposed to serve, namely the revival and salvation of Muslim polities, made it acceptable. So, at the same time as the Muslim reformist of that era is seeking to establish harmonious relations with modern European thought, there was also opposition to the colonial West, or Europe, which was considered to be “diyar-ı küfür” or “darü’l-harp”. We can put it another way: the idea of Europe as an enemy developed alongside the idea of Europe as an authoritative object of imitation; opposition and hostility functioned together in the same lines of harmony and integration. The second reason was the proximity of some strands of Islamism to the idea of “reform in religion.” However, it is not important whether one says this openly or not. I address the issue of reform together with strands of secularism in the book.
“The transcendental aim of Islamic reform was not acceptable by itself, but rather what it was supposed to serve, namely the revival and salvation of Muslim polities, made it acceptable.”
I often put forward a few slogans as examples [of the double function of Islamism and secularization] in my publications and in my courses: “Our constitution is the Qur’an,” “Sovereignty belongs to God,” “Islam is a rational and logical religion,” “Market economy in Islam,” “Islam is in harmony with science,” or “The Islamization of knowledge/science,” “the sun of Islam rises on Europe,” meaning Islam brought modern Europe to light and is therefore not foreign to Islam. So, we should ask: are these powerful slogans, which were popularized by modern Islamic thought and their movements, religious or are they secular?
The establishment and maintenance of Islamist thought and Islamist movements increasingly since the twentieth century was influenced – at least in transformations of language and logic – by intellectuals, litterateurs, academics, and teachers, e.g. by those who were products of modern (or secular!) educational institutions rather than religious schools (medreseler) or Sufi lodges (tekkeler). It is necessary here to recognize the very close proximity of radical and “intellectualist” Islamist movements to Marxist parlance since the Second World War and in Turkey since the 1960s as another explanation of their powerful influence.
“It is necessary here to recognize the very close proximity of radical and ‘intellectualist’ Islamist movements to Marxist parlance since the Second World War and in Turkey since the 1960s as another explanation of their powerful influence.”
Q: The experience of Modern Islamic thought or Islamist thought in Turkey, whether at the level of people or of texts, doesn’t seem to be too well known in Western academic circles. We have talked about the reasons for this at some length. With this in mind, what might you put forward as a possible roadmap for what is missing and what can be done in the future?
İK: There is much work that can be done on the topic. Specifically, Turkish academics working in the West need to gradually produce more studies. We have been hearing for a while that there were reserved funds for a variety of efforts from organizations like the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of National Education, and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), but I don’t know whether they were used or where they were used. Perhaps these organizations can be contacted. Translations of intellectual and academic studies, alongside literary works, must be carried out through the translation of original sources. In fact, new anthologies and research compilations should be prepared in accordance with the needs and realities of the linguistic and cultural resources awaiting translation. What is important here is to see the significant gaps – e.g. first, identify them in advance and then subsequently fill them in as accurately as possible.
“New anthologies and research compilations should be prepared in accordance with the needs and realities of the linguistic and cultural resources awaiting translation.”
For example, there are Turkish research centers in America that are financed by direct or indirect contributions of Turkish businessmen. Isn’t it striking that even up to today these organizations have not shown any serious interest in the issue of translation from Turkish?
In fact, one area that Turkish academics and intellectuals should pay attention to and work on is that similar translation work should be done first into Arabic, and then Persian, Urdu, and Russian. It is not only America and Europe that is unfamiliar with Turkey and the resources of modern Islamic thought there, the entire Islamic world either doesn’t know about or is unfamiliar with these resources. Actually even those in Turkey do not know about this scholarship, especially since 1924… There are some translations based in Egypt, but these are very, very limited and are not at the level of sufficiently providing ideas or of transferring what has been accumulated.
As you know, this is somewhat related to the “market” and the atmosphere at the moment. For example, one would expect foreign scholars who work on Turkey to care about translation work. For the most part, however, they work on Turkey, yet they don’t do anything significant about the issue of translation from Turkish to their own language or to transfer information into their own academic fields. Why?
Islam in Turkey
Q: In the newly published second volume of your book, just like in the first volume, it seems as if a basic claim comes to the fore; you occasionally mention it in various places: You say, “We cannot talk about anything in Turkey without either making religion the center or skipping over it.” What do you mean exactly? Is this situation only specific to Turkey? Or is it possible to talk about relations between religion and state more generally in these terms? Maybe if we pare it down, can we at least say this about Islamic countries?
İK: Yes, this is an important issue. There are historical and cultural reasons for this. Turks in Turkey have no histories outside of Islam and Muslims in Anatolia. For them it is Islam which is the constituent and sustaining element of their experience in Anatolia. The establishment elite that founded the Republican ideology was cognizant of this even when they sought to isolate Islam. Thus, in population exchanges brought about by the Treaty of Lausanne, groups of people in the eastern Black Sea region who were Turkish speaking, ethnically Turk, but non-Muslim (gayrımüslim) were sent to Greece; yet tens-of-thousands of people from the Balkans and the Aegean islands who were not Turks, many of whom didn’t know Turkish, yet were Muslims, came to Anatolia where they settled and became equal citizens.
“Turks in Turkey have no histories outside of Islam and Muslims in Anatolia. For them it is Islam which is the constituent and sustaining element of their experience in Anatolia.”
Look, in Arab nationalist movements, Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs were able to come together; it was also like this in Albanian nationalism. In Turkish nationalism, there was not a strong strand like this, and Muslim-ness defined Turkish-ness. Outside of a few token, unconventional exceptions there is no basis to be found for a non-Muslim Turkish national identity. Our national struggle was not a “national” struggle, but a religious one; it was jihad. Despite this fact, much has changed with secularization policies in Turkey over half a century, the 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation (military intervention by the Turkish government in Cyprus against the unification of Cyprus with Greece) showed the role of Islam in the secular Turkish military.
“…the 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation (military intervention by the Turkish government in Cyprus against the unification of Cyprus with Greece) showed the role of Islam in the secular Turkish military.”In those days actions taken by Turkish soldiers were all called jihad, including the pilots in flight, the captains at sea, and the soldiers on the fronts. There were many oral legends about saints who came to their aid, saved them from death, or secured their victory. I followed these stories closely and with great interest both in Istanbul and in rural areas. When I did my military service ten years later in 1983, “secular and Kemalist” officers who had participated in the Cyprus operations were still talking about these stories.
It was not without reason that the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) under the leadership of Alpaslan Türkeş (who came from a Racist-Turanist line) revised their party slogan in 1969 to “We are as Turkish as the Mountain of God (Tanrı dağı) and as Muslim as Mount Hira.” Even in the period of secular politics that saw its most crude and lowest level during the Republican period, the elites facilitated the circulation of notions such as “Turkish Muslim identity” (Türk Müslümanlığı), “The Prophet Muhammad’s Turkishness” (Hz. Muhammed’in Türklüğü), and “the Turkish Qur’an” (Türkçe Kur’an) and allowed it to exist in official discourse.
There are more practical examples as well: when and if you cannot get a fatwa for family/population planning, for organ donation, or for interest-free financial institutions (whatever that means!), or when you cannot give Friday sermons in mosques on these issues which requires the blessing of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, you don’t have legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
“In Turkey there is no other source of legitimacy that is as big or as encompassing as religion and Islam – not even today.”
In Turkey there is no other source of legitimacy that is as big or as encompassing as religion and Islam – not even today. We must clearly understand and conceptualize this as a matter of fact that comes from historical experience. Of course, not every Muslim country is this way, because the historical, geographical, and cultural conditions are different. Post-eighteenth century is there any other Muslim country that receives Muslim migrants from very different geographies and from all walks of life like Anatolia? Why is it like this? And how does Anatolia easily incorporate such vastly different elements when their only common ground is that they are Muslim? This exceptional situation needs to be mulled over. The latest big example of this is the Syrian refugees. Take a look at how many Syrian refugees other Islamic countries were able to take and also why they couldn’t take them…
Q: If we look at the debates on the concept of jihad, we see that it is of central importance in both Western Orientalist controversies on Islam and internal debates within Islamic movements in the 20th century. Yet, despite this, jihad does not seem to be significant or controversial theme for Islamism in Turkey. How did the evolution of the idea of jihad occur in Turkey before and after the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan jihad against the Soviet invasion? What is the trajectory of this term in Turkish Islamic thought, both in scholarly writings and non-scholarly public perception?
IK: There is a close correlation between the rise and decline of Islamist thought on the one hand, and the strength or weakness of the ideal of Jihad on the other hand. This is not only true for Turkey, but for the whole Islamic world. If I can over-generalize a little, I can say this: When the oppositional, resistance-based, and radical strands of Islamism are on the rise, we see more significance given to the concept of jihad, highlighted in the struggle against and resistance to imperialism, oppressive regim
es, and infidel rule. But when there is so much oppression that the opposition can not even raise its voice, or when there are other reasons for integration or compromise with the system, slogans of jihad are subdued and become weaker. Instead of being utilized as an ideal of struggle against oppressive infidelity, jihad is then interpreted as a struggle against one’s ego and ambition, as mentioned in a hadith.
We can follow these two interpretations of jihad in Turkish history. During the War of Independence and Second Constitutional period, the concept of jihad was very popular. It was used as a strong weapon against occupying forces, colonialists, and infidel invaders of the country. There are tens of books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of media reports and writings on jihad from this period. Yet, during the one-party, authoritarian rule of the Republic, it was not even legal or legitimate to talk about jihad, and thus it was not a lively concept. Then, only after the 1960s, we see a revived interest in the concept of jihad parallel to the development of radical and intellectualist Islamism and the successes of conservative/Islamist groups in politics. Most of the publications about the topic of jihad after the 1960s were actually translations from the writings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. Perhaps this period ended with the September 12th coup, although the Iranian Revolution of 1979 energized and radicalised Islamists and kept the idea of jihad relevant for several additional years. The very fact that most of the Islamist groups, tariqas, and religious communities supported ANAP (Anavatan Partisi, or the Motherland Party) as the governing party led by Ozal during the 1980s and into the early 1990s shows that they were not interested in a militarist notion of jihad at all and that they were trying to integrate into the system.
“The very fact that most of the Islamist groups, tariqas, and religious communities supported ANAP (Anavatan Partisi, or the Motherland Party) as the governing party led by Ozal during the 1980s and into the early 1990s shows that they were not interested in a militarist notion of jihad at all and that they were trying to integrate into the system.”There were sporadic and occasional spikes in discourses on jihad with reference to the legitimacy of the resistance in Afghanistan and in Bosnia, but overall, the general mood has been accommodationist and participatory for the political context of Turkey. When you think about it, there is nothing surprising about seeing someone advocate moderate Islam, cultural Islam, liberal Islam, democratic Islam, or even secular Islam, or those who have good relations with business and financial elites to interpret jihad as only a struggle against one’s ego and ambitions.
I think we can see the interpretation of jihad in modern Islamic thought as a kind of litmus test to predict the political orientation of a group and then use it to figure out what is the dominant political vision at that particular moment. Yet, we should not forget that this is a tactical strategy. Interpretation of jihad as a military struggle can weaken in a certain period, but then it never disappears and can be revived again in a new context. We need to think about why these shifts in meaning occur, (which is mainly about the fact that jihad has a place in both the Quran and the tradition of Prophet Muhammad) and what contexts and conditions prompt a difference of interpretation.
I want to add a last point about this issue: The shifting meaning of jihad in modern Turkey – its militarist and pacifist interpretations – is happening among political activists, young Islamists and some pious people. For the majority of Turkish society, there is not much affinity or engagement with this concept, and their knowledge is limited to what they hear in Friday prayer sermons and the speeches of politicians.
Scholarly Interventions II: Islamism and Its Paradoxes
Q: You are working on modern Islamic thought generally and Islamist thought in Turkey specifically, and you have written and published quite a lot in this area. In Turkey, when someone says “Islamism,” yours is the first name to come to mind in academia. We want to ask you some questions in reference to this. Islamism has been heavily debated in Turkey for over a century and it seems that this will continue. When you look at the past from today’s vantage point, what did Islamism’s journey in Turkey generally offer? What were the questions posed in earlier periods, and why have today’s questions changed? Were they resolved for social or intellectual reasons, or were they abandoned because the conditions changed?
İK: In my opinion, Islamism emerged out of questions and subsequent answers to how the Islamic world and Muslims could remain themselves yet survive – that is how to maintain their existence, continue to spread, in whatever form, their determination and resolution to the entire world, and protect themselves and Islam in an environment in which modern Europe was strengthened by both its ideational and material power and its politics. The first place one looked for answers was undoubtedly in Islam, but this was a new understanding and interpretation of Islam that tried to reframe itself in connection with the earliest generation of Muslims and through the Qur’an and sunna, the prophetic traditions, as its main sources.
“One of the issues that I argue is that Islamism represents and offers a new, bold, holistic, and modern, even modernist, interpretation and practice of Islam.”The second place was modern Western thought, specifically in science and technology. This was because defeat at the hands of the West, the colonialism that followed, and the multifaceted forms of political and cultural oppression had a powerful impact on Islamism, as in all of the philosophies that emerged in the Islamic world in the modern period. The separation between culture and civilization is born from these two sources. Therefore, one of the issues that I argue is that Islamism represents and offers a new, bold, holistic, and modern, even modernist, interpretation and practice of Islam. On one side, [Islamism] is turned towards the early period of Islam, on the other, it faces modern Western thought either implicitly or explicitly. In the most general sense we can say that these are intertwined, opposing branches of Islamism that simultaneously seek some harmonious coexistence. Of course, there is also a bifurcation and a kind of cleavage that emerges here even within a struggle to find a solution amidst these contrasting tendencies.
Islamism redefined, via instrumentalized interpretations, the meanings of many concepts and practices in Muslim societies, such as the tradition of Israiliyat, superstition (hurafe), folk belief (bâtıl inanç), innovations in matters of religious tradition (bidat), pre-Islamic narratives (esâtîrü’l-evvelîn), and associating partners with God (şirk). In this new interpretation of Islam, Islamic history and the experiences of Muslims for thirteen centuries were by and large bracketed and relegated to irrelevance within the new reinterpretation of the Islamic intellectual tradition; the colossal heritage of Islamic science, culture, arts, and institutions lost their reputation and significance, and were pushed out of contemporary vocabulary of Muslim life. Certainly, this is true for only Islamist thought. In more traditional Muslim structures and forms of thinking or practice, their existence and weight was maintained.
These changes were not all in the same period or occurring at an equal level. Most probably, the first crisis and interpretations came into being in the field of science and scholarship. The reason for this was the positivist and secular understanding of science that came with the new military schools, and quickly embraced and internalized by Muslims as a solution to their problems, though they led to new problems due to serious changes that they brought forth. Even today, ideas of progress and development accompany central themes in modern Muslim thought. Discourses about the need to bring together factory chimney stacks (science, industry and technology) with minarets (namely beliefs, ethics and faith) is its vulgar outcome in the modern Turkish political scene.
Following the seemingly benign adoption of Western science, debates about the appropriateness and reform of systems of government began. Here, there is a line running from the changing Caliphate-Sultanate system to abolishing it in order to create the constitutional, republican, and democratic systems. Political thought and institutions as well as political methods have all been undergoing important changes in Muslim societies since the nineteenth-century. Following that, or perhaps parallel to it, we see new religious interpretations; Islamist thought’s insistence on making the distinction between “real Islam” and “historical Islam” became the foundational intellectual move to justify these changes.
“In recent history, and even today, Islamism is not of one type, color, or on one frequency.”New interpretations of Islamic ethics and pursuits of new forms of everyday life have followed these earlier changes, producing dramatic transformation in terms of women’s rights, dress codes, observing privacy in gender relations, architecture, personal and public etiquette (adab-ı muaşeret), cities, houses, eating and drinking habits, educational institutions, and methods of education. Orientalist writings on Islam, and the ideas of new Muslim intellectuals, journalists, and littérateurs who have studied the West in their own countries or in Europe have made serious contributions as well as having a negative influence on these processes. These were already the educated classes that are new, influential, and transformative in Muslim societies.
Q: And the change of questions…
İK: The questions and problems that were deemed urgent and essential changed over time as well as the answers given during the last two centuries. This is a natural consequence of major political, economic and social turbulence and transformations, dramatic shifts in climate of opinion, and economic necessities, which highlighted some new concepts and ideas while making others lose popularity and appeal. In recent history, and even today, Islamism is not of one type, color, or on one frequency. Yet, I don’t think that the reasons for its emergence, its approximate forms, or its style of interpretation have categorically changed.
If you look at this issue from the perspective of ordinary religious people (dindar halk) or more traditional-conservative structures like religious communities (cemaatlar) and Sufi orders (tarikatlar) that are resistant to Islamist interpretations, understanding of religion, and lifestyles, it seems that they are outside of Islamism, even in opposition to some of its viewpoints. You must be cautious when following this partially true case about the resistance of traditional Muslim structures against Islamist agendas, because, at once, these structures are the main sources and support of Islamist thought and movements, whether directly or indirectly, and at the same time, on some occasions, they may offer a view that is in accord with Islamism and will make alliances with Islamists. Whether they accept this or not, traditional Muslim groups and ordinary Muslims are open to innovation and renewal. For instance, rumor has it that in Konya new styles of cutlery were first used in Mevlevi Sufi Order of that city and then spread to the rest of the population.
“…there are commonalities between Islamists and leftist movements in Egypt, Algeria, and Iran. Even if their priorities and goals differ, we should see this indirect and implicit relationship (and alliance) between Islamists and other modernist intellectual currents as an aspect that strengthens Islamism’s appeal in those societies.”Yet, there is something more; currents outside of Islamism in the Islamic world also have Islamist ideas and strains. In Turkey for example, we can see in Westernist and Turkist-nationalist movements some of these ideas are shared by Islamists concerning progress, reform and reinterpretation of Islam. Or, there are commonalities between Islamists and leftist movements in Egypt, Algeria, and Iran. Even if their priorities and goals differ, we should see this indirect and implicit relationship (and alliance) between Islamists and other modernist intellectual currents as an aspect that strengthens Islamism’s appeal in those societies.
Scholarly Interventions III: Studying Islamism in Turkey
Q: If we now come to academic studies done on Islamism in Turkey up to today, at what phase are they? Qualitatively and quantitatively, how would you evaluate these studies?
İK: This is a large issue, but let’s touch on it briefly. From the perspective of Islamist thought, after 1924 Turkey broke from the rest of the Islamic world, from its shared experiences with the Islamic world, and all that it had accumulated. It might seem as if Turkey reestablished connections [with the Islamic world] in the 1960s and 1970s, but I don’t think that this connection was at a level comparable to what it was before 1924, or it had any impact in recovering the memory and tradition of Turkey’s own Islamist thought tradition. There was in fact a rupture in the tradition of Islamist thought from Caliphate-era to post-Caliphate, Republican-era.
Beginning with the move to the multi-party system in Turkey (1946-1950), studies on Islamism really came to life. Simultaneously, studies produced outside Turkey also began. As for today in Turkey, we can talk about two key strands of engagement with Islamism. The first strand is that of academic scholarship, which continues to influence contemporary thinking, that sees Islamism as a threat to secularism and attempts to condemn Islamism by associating it with stigmatized labels like pro-Sharia (şeriatçılık), pro-ummah (ümmetçilik), and reactionary politics (irtica); it also tries to render it illegitimate, pull it down, and place it in opposition to Republican ideology. These interpretations also asserted that democracy and multiparty life would clearly empower Islamism and the Islamist threat – enabling them to grow with each election. Thus, this stigmatized interpretation or demonisation of Islamism is used to control pro-democracy movements and the democratic process in Turkish politics by fueling an eternal fear of Islamism’s reactionary politics, hoping to persuade democrats to ally with authoritarian Kemalism. Tarık Zafer Tunaya can be given as one example in the academy of that strand that seeks total fidelity to Republican ideology and which sees the survival of Kemalist secularism as the only criteria by which to evaluate Islamism. Unfortunately, in this strand there has not been much analytical depth or scope of content or academic contribution other than polarizing Turkish society as good secularists versus evil Islamists, and hardening each side against the other by creating distance between them.
“When I published my book on Islamist thought in late Ottoman period in mid-1980s, Islamists in Turkey at that time were surprised to see the richness, diversity, and content of their predecessors in their own country. Sometimes early Islamist thought in Turkey was downplayed and rejected in order to open a space for Cold War-era imported Islamism from Egypt, Pakistan, or Iran.”
The second main strand is composed of radical, intellectualist, Islamist interpretations of Islamism that emerge in the 1960s and are sustained by translated texts coming from the Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, and later from Iranian Islamists. It is unquestionable that this strand engendered
an interest in the revival of Islamism in Turkey, but it is at least open to debate whether it established a connection between Islamism and Turkey. These individuals did not seek a historical rootedness or sources coming from within Turkey. This is because this strand prioritizes the Islamist historical narratives of authenticity articulated in Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan, which all had amnesia and a deliberate obfuscation of the late Ottoman period as well as the Caliphate. Turkey’s Islamists during the Cold War themselves were cut off from late Ottoman-era Islamism due to language reform and alphabet change, and they were not even familiar with the basic texts of Ottoman Islamism. Thus, aspects of Islamism that had a history with roots in Turkey did not enter into the new academic narratives of global Islamism or Islamism in Turkey. When I published my book on Islamist thought in late Ottoman period in mid-1980s, Islamists in Turkey at that time were surprised to see the richness, diversity, and content of their predecessors in their own country. Sometimes early Islamist thought in Turkey was downplayed and rejected in order to open a space for Cold War-era imported Islamism from Egypt, Pakistan, or Iran. Perhaps for these reasons, after the 1980s, many Islamists of the post-1970s period would struggle to adjust their ideas to notions of democracy, human rights, secularism, liberalism, postmodernism, and capitalism with new fusions and syntheses without being aware of the long intellectual traditions of Islamist writing on these concepts for over a century.
There are other scholarly and intellectual traditions of interpreting Islamism between and beyond these two main strands. On one side, there are those like Nurettin Topçu, Necip Fazıl, and Sezai Karakoç that nourished and influenced nationalist conservative thought as well as Islamism. They are outside of and above these two main lines of Kemalist secularism versus Cold War Islamism [that we’ve been tracing]. İmam Hatip schools and those who frequented circles of the High Islamic Institutes (Yüksek İslâm Enstitüleri) and Theology Faculties (İlahiyat Fakülteleri) were relatively distant from radical, intellectualist forms of
Islamism in terms of conservatism, all the while being close to them in terms of their interpretation and understanding of religion. On the political stage, perhaps there is a strand from the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi, or MSP) and Erbakan that we can extend as far as the Justice and Development Party (JDP, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). They are considerably close to the modernists and the capitalist world on topics of love of technology and science, progressivism (ilerlemecilik), developmentalism (kalkınmacılık) while holding to typical nationalist, conservative, and religious thought.
The more nuanced scholarly writings of Sabri Ülgener and Şerif Mardin should be considered separately in academia as they tried to engage Islamism within the field of religion in social and political analyses as a significant component for understanding Turkey. I am saying that despite what I have said about the level of their academic sophistication – their usage of source materials and methods of observation – but ultimately their conclusions were still very limited.. It could be said that these two scholars, Mardin and Ülgener, did not have any serious followers who continued their line of inquiry or revised and advanced their scholarship. In my opinion, the most significant and distinct recent contribution to interpretations of Islamism in Turkey, methodologically and in terms of content, comes from İsmet Özel, also perhaps with the interpretations of the traditionalist school (via translations of Rene Guenon and Seyyed Hossein Nasr). All of these different strands need to be evaluated individually as well as comparatively. It hasn’t happened as of yet, unfortunately.
Secularism and Islamists
Q: In your publications you often address the relationship between religion and state in Turkey. We understand that taking up and understanding this relationship both has many layers horizontally and vertically, doing this is, in fact, not very easy. When you look at the Islamic world, what do you think about the nature of religion-state relations and the ways things are going, specifically in reference to Turkey’s experience? Is it in a position where creative yet realistic paths can be found?
İK: I would emphasize this: the relationship between religion and state in Turkey cannot only be understood as [a choice between] secularism and its opposite, either pro-sharia positions (şeriatçılık) or “new Salafi Islam” and interpretations of Islamism. Beginning with March 3, 1924, and constitutionally since 1937, Turkey has really been a kind of secular country. From this perspective, it is the only example of its kind in the Islamic world. But, today we are asking: Is Turkey really a secular country?
“…the relationship between religion and state in Turkey cannot only be understood as [a choice between] secularism and its opposite, either pro-sharia positions (şeriatçılık) or ‘new Salafi Islam’ and interpretations of Islamism.”Why didn’t the administration and ideology of the Republic choose a path that separates matters of religion from matters of state and politics instead of adopting a style where religion and state coexist while suppressing and controlling religion? Why does Turkish-style secularism stand in a place where ambiguity and confusion prevail? I discuss these problems in the chapters on the Diyanet and secularism in [volume one of] my book Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi’nde Bir Mesele Olarak İslâm.
We need to comprehend this particular form of secularism by focusing on its religious and cultural-historical background. Once we comprehend this, we see that in the interpretation of Sunni Islam and in Turkish political culture religion and state are essential component parts of each other. Theoretically you can separate these two elements, but historically and culturally, separating them or thinking of them separately is impossible. Said another way, culturally when you cut religion out, the state’s legitimacy and standing is lost and religion is left empty. I think the particular form of Turkish secularism adopted by the Republican administration has merit in its core idea, although I do not think this solution had the capacity to respond to Turkish society’s needs or to fulfill its vision. I find it significant in this context, that since 1924, no state official has uttered a sentence such as “the Turkish State has no religion.” Whereas, these same state officials have been very impolite and harsh in their pronouncements about religion and religious people. In Western, secular cultural settings a sentence such as this would come across as normal, but in Turkey and in Turkish it has no legitimacy (meşruiyet) or intelligibility (anlaşılabilirlik). How come?
“I think the particular form of Turkish secularism adopted by the Republican administration has merit in its core idea, although I do not think this solution had the capacity to respond to Turkish society’s needs or to fulfill its vision. I find it significant in this context, that since 1924, no state official has uttered a sentence such as ‘the Turkish State has no religion.'”
This subject has not really preoccupied the minds of defenders of secularism or Islamists; they are content with hackneyed phrases or with approaching the exclusionary ideological language of their opponents from the reverse. At times, there are symbolic and emotional yet meaningful ideas like Necip Fazıl’s “Supreme Sovereign State” (Başyücelik Devleti), but in terms of content, they are highly abstruse and problematic.
Q: And what about the same issue of secularism in the rest of the Islamic world?
İK: Other Muslim countries outside of Turkey are not constitutionally secular but in truth they are either secular or in limbo. Concerning relations between religion and state, I don’t think that there is any particularly interesting development or interpretation that requires specific attention. The idea of Islamic democracy, which developed in the line of constitutional monarchy, republicanism, and democracy (meşrutiyet-cumhuriyet-demokrasi) became stronger after the abolition of the Caliphate.
“The idea of Islamic democracy, which developed in the line of constitutional monarchy, republicanism, and democracy (meşrutiyet-cumhuriyet-demokrasi) became stronger after the abolition of the Caliphate.”Because these ideas about harmony between Islam and democracy have not sufficiently or seriously considered the long, Muslim, political thought tradition, its innovations, or its principles, they didn’t go very far in terms of finding appropriate solutions or gaining larger appeal. It repeats itself with almost the same arguments. Meanwhile, the pro-Caliphate movement of today, which runs on a much more emotional basis, only finds a response within the discourse of marginal groups, like Hizb ut-Tahrir, or in some traditional structures like madrasa circles, without much awareness of the long and rich historical experience of the Caliphate. Thus, contemporary discourses and emotions in regards to the Caliphate has largely broken off from historical experience and actual political thought of Muslim societies in the last several centuries.
Nativism, Islamism, and Globalization
Q: You’re speaking about modern Islamic thought generally? Because your area of study is much more about Turkey, we are trying to ask questions connected to Turkey, but it seems as if the same problems are very much interconnected and related even across the Islamic world. At this stage, your arguments about “the local/native” (yerlilik) come to mind. To what degree are the problems of “the local” or “the particular” (yerlilik) and “the national” (millilik) an important dimension of modern Islamic thought? How do we deal with discussions of “the national” and “the local” in a time when these problems are globally debated and interacting with each other?
İK: This issue has a few sides to it. First and foremost, the categories of the universal (evrensellik) and the particular are presented as opposites of each other, but to show them as alternatives and to position them as such at the beginning of a work is to go down the wrong path. This is an oft-made and very clear mistake. Something may be local and national as well as universal. In fact, it can even be said that whatever is defined or shown to be universal today has particular and national sides as well. Going one step further, something may be global precisely because it has a strong national core. What about the seven wonders of the world, for example – are they national or global? Which one is first? What about the houses in Safranbolu, the Süleymaniye Mosque complex, or the poems of Yunus Emre, the city of Berat, İznik tiles, recitation of the Qur’an in the Istanbul style…
Secondly, a gradual perspective can also consider these two sets as different degrees of the same thing. In this case, the distance between them is not a matter of content but of degree. You start with the native and particular, but eventually try to universalize your experience.
Additionally, who can say that what is global is more significant or valuable than what is local or national, and how? In Turkey, those who formed an ideology based on the superiority of the universal over the particular-native rendered themselves, their concepts, and their place in Turkey undefined and weak. This happened first with socialist and Marxist language, then with radical Islamist language – they pulled themselves down and lost their appeal by putting the global in front of and against the local and national. There is a serious procedural error or perhaps even a deliberate political strategy at play here, like equalizing the local and particular through nationalist ideology, or trying to weaken and dissolve the local and the national through rejection of nationalism on behalf of the universalism of Islamic and left internationalism.
“In Turkey, those who formed an ideology based on the superiority of the universal over the particular-native rendered themselves, their concepts, and their place in Turkey undefined and weak.”How can one who does not know his or her own self and society or culture recognize the universal? This question remains before us. Is it ideology?
Q: How local is Turkey’s Islamist thought? In other words, how deep does its roots lie? As with Westernization, can we talk of Islamist thought as if it has broken off from the local, become Arabized, made Iranian, etc.?
İK: This is a difficult and delicate question. We said at the beginning of our discussion: normally, the center of Islamist thought was Istanbul. Until about 1924, other important centers – let’s say Muslims in Egypt, India, Iran, and Russia – were influenced by Istanbul, they looked to Istanbul, they moved with it in mind; we can even say that some parts opposed Istanbul while looking at and being inspired by it. Yet, unfortunately, this is something unknown and forgotten, or purposely subjected to amnesia by those who actually know this fact. To that, I’d say: Despite all of its internal problems, Islamism in Turkey surely had local roots and arteries; it kept its links and openings to developments in the rest of the Islamic world and the world more broadly. But in the single-party years and in the wake of the Second World War, these local roots and native currents of Islamist thought would occasionally be remembered from a political point of view, but its significance weakened and dwindled. In the years following the Second World War, especially in the 1960s, Islamism was revived in a different form according to the conditions of the time, mostly under the influence of translations from Arab, Iranian, and South Asian Islamists. What did not happen, but in fact should have happened, was that new Islamists could have read, translated, appropriated, and benefitted from translations in other languages of Islam outside of Turkey, all the while searching for their own local sources and undergoing constructive criticism.
“Despite all of its internal problems, Islamism in Turkey surely had local roots and arteries; it kept its links and openings to developments in the rest of the Islamic world and the world more broadly.”
This rupture brought on by changes in language [i.e. from Ottoman to modern Turkish written in Latin script known as the harf devrimi] was an important obstacle for Republican-era Islamists to inherit the legacy of earlier Muslim thought. Yet, this obstacle could have been overcome. It is clear that there are other political, intellectual, or psychological reasons; either the slogans and sentiments of the new Islamist versions would predominate, or they would be concerned that otherwise the nationalist/conservative/right-wing strand would be strengthened. Even the Risâle-i Nur community, which hangs on to almost every word and gesture of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, wouldn’t sufficiently know or even be able to read or understand the texts he wrote before 1924. Even if they were able to read and understand Nursi before 1924, in order to save and preserve themselves and the community they could easily fall into willful misinterpretation.
Of course, at some level or another, international circles had influence over Ankara in strengthening these new strands that have broken with their own local intellectual traditions and sources. That’s why there are still serious issues before Turkey today, such as communicating with local strands of Islamism.
How far can Islamist thought in Turkey go with translations from other countries’ Islamist groups? I also doubt the accuracy of these translations from the Muslim Brotherhood or Pakistan’s Jamaat-e- Islami or from Iran, as many ideas remained untranslatable. As a result, contemporary Islamist thought in Turkey is unable to place its roots locally, and many of its followers cannot understand how they relate or correspond to what is happening in Turkey. In regards to this problem, it is important to focus on just how similar radical Islamists were to leftists on the issue of integration into the system and ties to capitalist liberalism, especially in the post-Cold War period and in the aftermath of the September 12th coup. The Islamists’ substantial advantage was that they were Muslims and were at least potentially open to channels of communication with broader religious and ethical concerns of their society in a certain way. But it is necessary for those who are educated and ambitious to realize the depth of this amnesia and to work on it under today’s circumstances.
Islamism, The JDP, Gülen, and Post-Islamism
Q: When you consider developments in Turkey over the past four to five years, what would you like to say about the future of this “umbrella-like category of Islamism” and all that has accumulated underneath it?
İK: I’m one of those who do not distinguish between the fate, future, and possibilities of Turkey and those of Islam, Muslims, and Islamism. Therefore, the actual course of events moving for Turkey in a harmonious direction towards integration to capitalist liberal hegemony and world order do not seem very promising from my point of view – neither in terms of ideals nor in terms of practical results. However, Turkey’s potential today, as always, still carries hope for us, the Islamic world, and for humanity.
Q: In the last 3-4 years, there have been some unprecedented dramatic changes occurring in Turkey that will reshape the dominant character and future of the relationship between the state and religious groups. What we have been witnessing seems to be a kind of rupture, especially with regard to the relationship between the Turkish government and followers of Fethullah Gülen
It all started with a conflict and disagreement between an elected AK Party government and the Gülen community, but ended with with a very bloody coup and subsequent suppression. These events are of great significance in terms of your life-long research interests, namely the issue of secularism and Islam in Turkey. In your 2008 book, titled The Problem of Islam in Republican Turkey (Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi’nde Bir Mesele Olarak İslam, volume 1) you elaborate on the question of the Turkish state’s complex relationship with religious communities. Even though we are still in the midst of a rapidly evolving set of events, do you have any new considerations on this topic in light of what happened between the government and the Gülen community in recent years? Would not this experience bring about a departure from earlier modes of relations and the beginning of new political sensibilities with long term repercussions on the practices of Turkish secularism?
İK: There are two interrelated aspects of your questions which I want to separate: First is about the question of religious communities and tariqas in Turkey, their problems, and their future position in Turkish politics. The second aspect is about followers of Gülen and the grave situation and sad political destiny with which this community ended up.
Even though Sufi tariqas and other religious associations in Turkey may have a long history traceable to the Ottoman period, their current state took shape during the one-party rule of the Turkish Republic from 1924 to 1950 when they were under difficult conditions of state oppression and were officially banned. All the peculiar characteristics of Turkish religious communities such as their fear of state intervention, their timid and precocious attitude in demanding their rights from the central government, their special fine-tuned political strategies, and their double embrace of both tradition and a kind of republican modernity can all be understood in the context of their formative experience of single party authoritarian rule of the Turkish Republic. Thus, if we see some problems and pathologies in the political vision of these groups, it is not just because of their own ideas, but was due to an oppressive Republican secular ideology and various policies that the central Turkish government implemented with regard to religious communities. Let alone the highly naive attitudes of Republican-era universities, intellectuals, military and civilian bureaucrats, and the Turkish press towards religious communities, which shaped the political mood of the religious community. The existential reasons and main goals of these communities can be summarized in two points. The first is to preserve their own traditions and their own understanding and practice of religion, to increase the number of their followers and sympathizers. The second, which is for them necessarily linked to the first goal, is their belief that they need to preserve their religion, and help people to be better believers and better Muslims.
“The dominant political behavior of religious communities in Turkey, which is shaped by their negative experiences and existential goals, often involved a compromising attitude towards state authority, and a desire to get close to government to receive favor.”
As part of this second goal, they tried to spread religious culture in society, teach people how to read the Qur’an, and thus tried to create a society that is more pious while respecting religious tariqas and communities and supporting and protecting them. The dominant political behaviour of religious communities in Turkey, which is shaped by their negative experiences and existential goals, often involved a compromising attitude towards state authority, and a desire to get close to government to receive favour. For example, even though Turkey’s religious communities disapprove of state secularism and the Diyanet (Turkish Religious Affairs directorate) as an organ of this secularism, they nevertheless try to infiltrate these institutions and undertake their activities under state patronage without directly challenging official ideology or the state itself. It is because of this state-infiltrating and compromising status of Turkey’s religious communities that I have been arguing that they never represent what people call “civil society.”
At the same time, the Turkish state and the Diyanet administration similarly have a dual and paradoxical strategy towards these religious groups. The state bureaucrats criticize the vision of religion represented by tariqas and religious communities, but instead of completely banning them, they try to transform and reshape them, to deform them with their interventions, and they often prefer that these groups function under their watchful eye of their patronage so that they can be controlled. This complex relationship created situations whereby sheikhs or imams of various Sufi tariqas and religious communities, as well as their members working within the Diyanet’s state sanctioned religious bureaucracy, were paid with government salaries. Both the pious citizens and state authorities are aware of this collusion between tariqas and the Diyanet. I found this mutually distrustful yet symbiotic relationship between state and religious communities very unhealthy and problematic for both sides, and I think what we have been seeing in terms of their long-term effects confirms these negative results.
“Even though the relationship between religious communities and state organs like the Diyanet improved after the transition to multi-party politics in 1950, the pathologies of this peculiar relationship has continued up to present. “
Yet, we can not look down on this complicated arrangement and compromise reached by both the state and religious communities; it is better to try to understand how it works and what results it produces for both sides. Even though the relationship between religious communities and state organs like the Diyanet improved after the transition to multi-party politics in 1950, the pathologies of this peculiar relationship has continued up to present. After all, tariqas are still illegal in Turkey, and all the religious communities function without any legitimacy according to Turkish law. In order to avoid the awkwardness of banned tariqas having relationships with the secular state, their sheikhs are now addressed by a vague term such as “public opinion leaders/moral guides” (kanaat önderleri). Whatever that term means is a mystery to me.
Nevertheless, my observation on this problematic relationship between religious communities and the Turkish state does not change the fact that they functioned as important agents of religious life, religious thought, public piety, and the institutionalization of religion in the Republican period. More importantly, these groups played a crucial role during the process of mass internal migration from rural areas to urban centers after the 1950s. Poor and more pious new emigrants to big cities found opportunities for socialization, education, economic empowerment, and social mobility thanks to the networks provided by these religious communities. Eventually, they perpetuated a pious life-style in urban environments and led to the strengthening of conservative and later Islamist political groups in new poor suburbs of the big cities, thus transforming Turkish bureaucracy and business communities during this process. We have to recognize the different aspects of this phenomenon.
Q: What about the position of Gülen Community within this spectrum? How are they different?
İK: Yes, until very recently the Gülen community, which was seen a faction of the larger Nur community, behaved and were perceived as very similar to other tariqas and religious communities in Turkey. As far as I can observe the particular path that the Gülen community took, which brought them to their current despicable condition, started after the September 12 (1980) coup in Turkey; this was particularly influenced by the strategic alliances and moves of the late Cold War and post-Cold War period. They began to establish branches and initiated activities with encouragement from bigger Cold War political forces in Central Asia, the Balkans, and former Soviet Republics. They were blessed by the support and protection of various political authorities both within Turkey and internationally. They received serious support from foreign powers and groups, especially from the US and England.
“As far as I can observe the particular path that the Gülen community took, which brought them to their current despicable condition, started after the September 12 (1980) coup in Turkey; this was particularly influenced by the strategic alliances and moves of the late Cold War and post-Cold War period.”
Of course, this international support was not given to them as a charitable and humanitarian act. They were expected to fulfill some roles and functions. As the Gülen community became more and more powerful with this international support, this led to a toxic confidence and corruption among the members and leaders of this community. They assumed that their global spread and influence was due to their own efforts and strategic genius, denying the fact that sources of that power belonged to others’ encouragement and promotion. Especially after 2013, I could make sense of their arrogance, corruption, and their confidence that they have all the global power they need and thus do not need to compromise with others and with the Turkish state. This was a serious departure from their own historical modes of behavior and political sensitivity, and from common patterns of behavior of other tariqa political strategies. The Gülen community eventually became a giant force that does not respect any rule of law or legitimacy, believing that all the support they received is because of their own achievements and thus under their own control. Their ambition made them more blind. Thus they went out of control and ended up committing all the horrible crimes of the coup. This is as horrible and grave result for them.
“As the Gülen community became more and more powerful with this international support, this led to a toxic confidence and corruption among the members and leaders of this community.”
Q: What do you think will happen next then?
İK: I think the destiny of this group in Turkey is sealed and they will not have an important role or future here after what they did in recent years. At least for the next couple of decades. But, their future outside of Turkey is not yet
certain. I am worried that they will turn into an important diasporic community working against the interests of the Turkish state. There are also repercussions and side effects of this Gülen experience for other religious communities in Turkey. The relationship between these communities and the state have always been problematic and difficult. Now, after the Gülen incident, this situation will be further troubled and deformed. For example, we can say that Diyanet institutions eventually made peace with Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, and even published his works after the 1980s, yet only after many decades of criticizing his ideas and his religious vision. This was a positive change. But we may expect the Diyanet to return to a more negative attitude towards non-state sanctioned religious leaders in Turkey.
“I think the destiny of this group (Gulenists) in Turkey is sealed and they will not have an important role or future here after what they did in recent years. At least for the next couple of decades. But, their future outside of Turkey is not yet certain.”
I have been hoping that the Turkish public will reach a level of maturity when we can finally discuss serious issues of religious life and tradition, reflect on past mistakes, and allow for a deliberative and healthy conversation among different actors. I think this will not be possible in the near future due to what happened with the Gülen community, and we will keep having short sighted conversations.
Q: When you look at Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political exploits, how and from what perspective do you evaluate his representation of Islamism.
İK: Erdoğan and the JDP strand is one possible continuation and actualization of the potentials available within Islamism in Turkey in the post September 12, 1980 coup. JDP’s links to multiple anticipated possibilities of Turkey’s 1980s Islamism must be seen. This is a version of Islamism that is leading in terms of integration and has made peace with the system. Erdoğan himself expressed this idea with a metaphor. He described it as, “removing the shirt of National Vision (Milli Görüş),” and thus abandoning the radical critique of the system to create a more Islamic utopia. As you may know, I don’t think that it was Erdoğan and the JDP who were the first to step away from and abandon the Islamist project of National Vision that inspired many people during the 1980s. It was instead Necmettin Erbakan himself and the Welfare Party leadership who departed from confrontation with the secular establishment, and tried to reform themselves by making peace with the system.
“As you may know, I don’t think that it was Erdoğan and the JDP who were the first to step away from and abandon the Islamist project of National Vision that inspired many people during the 1980s. It was instead Necmettin Erbakan himself and the Welfare Party leadership who departed from confrontation with the secular establishment, and tried to reform themselves by making peace with the system.”In fact, the entire history of Islamism has been the history of the intertwined alternation between an opposition strand that challenges the existing secular order, and an integration/collaboration strand, both of which either move together or follow each other. Perhaps one of the factors that promotes the durability and appeal of Islamism is this flexibility and capacity to adapt to existing political conditions. Certainly the periods of integration into and collaboration with the system are more problematic intellectually and philosophically, creating a low profile in terms of ideas and visions in return for success in the national political system. Because the visibility of actual and political achievements of JDP are much higher, this intellectual weakness is not sufficiently recognized. However, both pragmatic political success and coexisting poor ideas need to be evaluated together, because there is a social and cultural, even psychological, context and background to it.
Q: Could you give us your views on how, in some studies, certain movements are being described as post-Islamist, and how, in some circles, the concept of Islamism is being put forward as a pejorative term?
İK: This is nothing new. In the West, since the second half of the nineteenth century, this strategy was used to condemn pan-Islamism, Islamism, and maybe even Muslims (müslümanlık), to show them to be dangerous, illegitimate, and concomitantly to demonize Muslim leaders and administrations as a threat to a civilized West. Pejorative labels are attributed to Islamism claiming that they are fanatically interested in imposing sharia, or that they are counter-Republican reactionary groups, both of which are examples of conceptualization and description that would reject and condemn Islamism. For the period after the Cold War, terror and violence would be comfortably used (and is still used) for some Islamist groups. It has come to a point where politicians, academics, and journalists almost use the same dehumanizing language about Islamists. Above all, in periods of crisis, this conceptual alliance against Islamism seems as if it is gaining strength. There were also occasional moments or periods in which Islamism was presented in a good light by outside observers, building a reputation and receiving support, explicitly and implicitly, from foreigners and from different imperial and national regimes. “Civil Islam,” “cultural Islam,” and “moderate Islam” are terms that are being used to give Islamism a good name. All of these naming strategies need to be evaluated in their political contexts, taking into account their backgrounds and the processes that created them.
Recently, there has been a debate in Turkey under the slogan-like title “Islamism is dead,” precisely because JDP’s achievements integrated former Islamist-oriented citizens into supporters and beneficiaries of the Turkish state. Those who started this debate threw it out there in order to oppose the JDP policies. What they did was an overt display of reductionism and political provocation. There was nothing analytical and scholarly behind it; it was empty and unpersuasive. Those who embraced this slogan that “Islamism is dead” could not recognize the fact that, at no point in Islamism’s history could the visionary content of Islamism be limited by its political successes or defeats. This critique, of course, led to self-reflection and critique of JDP and other Islamist groups, and it was effective in producing a kind of pessimism and intellectual dead-end. Yet, these outcomes cannot eliminate Islamism, because all of the problems and issues that produced and maintained the conditions for the emergence of Islamism, especially those of colonialism, occupation, and Orientalism, still exist and continue to shatter the lives of many Muslims. In short, I think propagating pejorative and demonizing language around Islamism aims to justify repression of Islamism and attempts to intellectually distort it or push for its absorption into the system with the hope that under this intellectual pressure, Islamism will weaken and become deformed.
Q: Do you think that Islamism has the potential to provide a meaningful political alternative in multicultural, multi-religious places, especially where Islam is a minority religion?
İK: Look, until very recently in a large swath of the Ottoman Turkish and Islamic world, many non-Muslim populations lived together alongside different religious groups or alongside those from different traditions and of different dispositions; this has already been actualized.
Until very recently, members of other religions and non-Muslims could direct their lives according to their own particular laws, which has approximately been the experience of those in different parts of the Islamic world. This has been the case in history for a long time and in different places, including the period in which the politics of pan-Islamism (İttihad-ı İslâm politikaları) were being implemented. While these things were taking place in Muslim societies, those who did not belong to dominant religious traditions in the Christian West were marginalized, placed in prisons, pushed into ghettos, and destroyed. Today, these structure and forms of intercommunal relation, which were established by Islam and Islamic culture, does not really exist in large measure due to the removal of significant Islamic forms of governance including the Ottoman State, but Islam certainly has an advantage in its ability to protect the rights of minorities because of this historical experience. Don’t forget that important strands of Islamist thought were intensely preoccupied with how to totally equalize relations between non-Muslim citizens and Muslims under new conditions.
“Don’t forget that important strands of Islamist thought were intensely preoccupied with how to totally equalize relations between non-Muslim citizens and Muslims under new conditions.”Equality as well as the politics and ideas of equality in modern Muslim thought are essentially comprised of this preoccupation with the rights of others. It could be said that this orientation toward creating norms of equality meant opening Islamist thought to all of humanity and the world. In fact, under the culture-civilization distinction that became popular for Islamists, there has been an ongoing search for new legitimate lines of communication based on mutual respect and equality between separate intellectual worlds and civilizations. Even the highly problematic modernist idea of “the universality of Islam” is partly about rethinking conditions of equality between Muslims and non-Muslims in the modern age.
The situation is a little bit different in places where Muslims are a minority. With regards to Islam in these places, those who are effective in proselytizing or creating respect for Islam are Muslim individuals and groups who live in modest conditions and, to some extent, are
from structures of Sufi orders (tarikat) and other congregations (cemaat) who aren’t openly advertising themselves and not the activist Islamists who maintain high levels of visibility. I once heard an anecdote about an elderly [Turkish] woman in a German town who didn’t know a word of German, but had received the admiration of the whole neighborhood by offering them kuru fusulye (a white bean dish). Islam embodied in a way of life and a prophetic style… In a world where visibility, such as a fist in the air and a loud voice, often prevail over modest behavior, I can say that I value [that woman’s style] and find it to be very important. In Europe, behind efforts to equate Islam and Muslims with violence and terror, I actually think that the opposite is the case; the majority of Muslims live their lives in modesty, peace, and dignity. It seems like the contemporary media has no interest in showing this exceptionally peaceful picture of the majority of Muslim minorities in the West.
Moreover, we need to separate out the situation and psychological state in regions where Muslims have lived as minorities for a long time (like China) from more recent experiences of Muslim minorities in Europe or in America composed of colonial and postcolonial-era immigrants. Both are minorities, but I think that between the two there are many differences.
Q: Does Islamist thought have anything on the agenda outside of Islam and Muslims? For instance, what does it have to say about global problems involving humanity, such as global warming, pollution of the environment, sustainable urban planning, child workers, women’s rights, etc.? Similarly, to what degree is it related to or in conversation with social activism and with intellectual, academic, and cultural circles outside of Muslim ones?
İK: It is undeniable that Islamists are concerned with issues like that. It can only be discussed if it is adequate and balanced. What makes this question plausible and a necessary inquiry is that Islamism is the product of an essentially defensive mechanism. This defense causes it to close up and turn inward. In a situation like this, opening up means more of a fragmentation and gives indications of weakness. While this is the situation, it is unthinkable that, when it comes to Islam, one can see it as indifferent to humanity and totally broken off from people’s problems. This is because the idea of success, victory, or salvation, whether in this world or in the next, by necessity invites one to save and serve. There is no such thing as salvation by oneself. What needs to be saved is generally the one across from you, the enemy, or the problems faced by other people. In this context, proselytization, guidance, and the call to take the right path confronts us as a strong impulse. The direction of Islamism, which extends from individual humans to humanity to modern human problems, ferments here.
“…Islamism is the product of an essentially defensive mechanism. This defense causes it to close up and turn inward.”
Q: Let’s continue on this topic: How authentic and original are Islamist thought’s criticisms of and reactions to global problems like imperialism, income inequality, poverty, etc.?
İK: The question of originality is relative and open for debate – between you and me, I’m not one for narratives of originality or authenticity. It comes across to me as a language and vehicle of domination, whether it is coming from inside or outside it makes no difference. But we must not forget that almost all of the Islamist movements have continued to be, at the same time, movements fighting injustice as well as movements of solidarity with and protection for the oppressed. This attention to injustice and inequality in the rest of the world increased precisely in periods when Muslim societies’ own needs and impossibilities seem to be increasing. To see this, I think it is enough to look at elements of pan-Islamist thought and politics.
But in order to comprehend this in another way, we need to look at the big picture as well. It’s like this: the modern world and modernity, which claims to be secular and distant from all religions, carries the Eurocentric stamp of Judaism and Christianity on it. For this reason and for others, modernity and modern World order contains within itself an antagonism towards Islam. Islam and Muslims have been the victims and opponents of this world order and global modernity. I do not think the situation is much different today. If Muslims are alienated and distant from the problems caused by the very nature of global modernity and the modern world order, then all of this needs to be understood in connection with this historical background of exclusion and alienation. You mentioned imperialism, injustice, and poverty as our shared global problems. Islamists and other Muslims are victims of these destructive and negative forces, and even when they are focused on their own issues, they are, of course, dealing with global problems that are faced by others.
Q: How come Islamist thought is so politics-centric? Has it always been this way?
İK: It is only partially true that Islamist thought is politics-centric, partially this is manipulative labeling by others, and partially a stigmatization. The part that is true is: the idea of Islamism started to emerge at a time when the Islamic world was politically weak, defeated, and overwhelmed, and it continued like that. According to [the Islamists’] interpretation, the reason for this negative situation of decline did not originate in religion and in Islam. It was a result of misunderstanding Islam, the inadequate practice of Islam in daily life, and the incomplete implementation of Islam. At the same time there was a strong notion that the survival and empowerment of the Muslim state (whether empires or nation-states) was necessary to defend the rights of Muslims, and it depended on a true understanding of religion. This idea of the Muslim state’s preservation from the hostile assaults of the Christian, imperialist Western powers (or their domestic collaborators) necessitated the search for a new strength, power, and potential in politics and foregrounded this as normal for the political arena. This encouraged highlighting practical and pragmatic elements. Philosophical and theoretical approaches, deep intellectual pursuits, and big picture interpretations of religious traditions were all left aside or given secondary priority. Islamism was a quest for immediate solutions.
“What we call ‘New Salafism’ incorporates all areas related to religion, from faith to ethics and from worship to law; these ideas and beliefs largely overlap with Islamism. If you look at it this way, politics stays in the background. “
These things are true, but it’s not everything that happened. Islamism is a new kind of interpretation of Islam and Muslim history that wanted to encompass all spheres of, or the entirety of modern Islamic thought. What we call “New Salafism” incorporates all areas related to religion, from faith to ethics and from worship to law; these ideas and beliefs largely overlap with Islamism. If you look at it this way, politics stays in the background. It is understandable why national and international centers may only read Islamism from the perspective of the political and thus see them as a threat at their door. This is nothing new and will most likely continue. The concept of “political Islam” was created, fabricated, and fictionalized for this purpose. Yet, if scholarly and intellectual analysts persist in reading Islamism from the perspective of politics alone, overlooking its other cultural, religious, and social dimensions, they can only produce manipulative analysis with a particular political agenda and not a genuine attempt at understanding.
Q: How competent is Islamist thought vis-à-vis the traditions of thinking it has placed itself in opposition to? How informed is Islamist thought when you think about it in the context of general categories like the West, Europe, Orientalism, the Enlightenment, Christianity, Zionism, and the world system?
İK: It seems you’ve kept the difficult questions for last; whereas journalists save the interesting and surprising questions for the end and even take their headlines from there. You have all but returned to the beginning. Anyways!
This is a valid and suitable question. It is absolutely the case that Islamists have long been trying to understand and be familiar with these new concepts and movements. They talk and write about these topics, and try to make their perspectives dominant so as to challenge Western perspectives. As you know, there are many texts written and many talks given on these subjects. More attention needs to be given to it in terms of creating a discursive tradition and in gaining legitimacy in the hearts and minds of Muslim populations while keeping their consciousness and sensibilities alive about injustices in the modern world. In terms of the functionality of these Islamist discourses and their effect on their enemies and global problems, they are, no doubt, very successful. But if we come to the question of interpreting, knowing, and encompassing these concepts and intellectual traditions (such as the West, Orientalism, Enlightenment, nationalism, etc.) with competence and rigor, I have doubt about its quality and success. I think it is beyond dispute that there is a huge gap between the Islamists’ current level of intellectual competency and the level where they should be when Islamists talk about these rival ideologies and movements. This gap existed in the past and it continues to be a problem still today.
“I think it is beyond dispute that there is a huge gap between the Islamists’ current level of intellectual competency and the level where they should be when Islamists talk about these rival ideologies and movements.”
Of course, there are exceptional Islamist intellectuals who did offer brilliant analysis of the West or the Enlightenment. What comes to my mind in terms of incompetency and low intellectual level now, for example, is interest-free banking; if you look at the literature on this, you can see how the issue has been addressed on an instrumental and passive level as a technical matter limited to Islamic jurisprudence (fıkıh). You can also see that it has been discussed as a consequence of a lack of depth and systematic thought about global capitalism, financial systems, and historic changes in the nature of money, trade, commerce, and consumption. But Islamist discourses on interest-free banking expressed the search for a quick solution; we can sympathize with this desire for practical and immediate solutions. Islamist writings on the issues of science, technology and enlightenment have similar superficiality born out of the necessity to find ready answers and the desire to talk back to Western Orientalism. Islamist discourses on Zionism, above all, are highly insufficient in terms of theoretical and analytical grasp in terms of what they need to know about it! There could be an independent study, or even a thesis topic, on why Islamists all over the world, including in Turkey, talked so much about Zionism without engaging a comprehensive analysis and deeper study of it.
“Islamist writings on the issues of science, technology and enlightenment have similar superficiality born out of the necessity to find ready answers and the desire to talk back to Western Orientalism. Islamist discourses on Zionism, above all, are highly insufficient in terms of theoretical and analytical grasp in terms of what they need to know about it! “
Q: To what degree does Islamist thought reflect the ideological and cultural diversity of Muslim societies both in Turkey and in the world?
İK: My answer somewhat depends on how you draw the framework of Islamism. The answers you give when you equate Islamism with either radical or intellectualist Islamism, or when you confine it to a narrow framework, will likely be different from the answers you would give when you add structures and popular practices of Sufi orders and congregations, mosques, Friday gatherings, minarets in Turkey, and tomb visitations to the discussion. I think that generally the
capacity of Islamism to reflect the diversity of Muslim societies is high. At minimum, one can say this: the idea or movement that has the highest capacity for representing diversity in their societies, in the broadest – yes, broadest – sense, in Turkey and in the Islamic world is Islamism. I don’t know whether you will see that as problematic with what we talked about already, but if you ask me, even an attempt at creating Islamic democracy, Islamic secularism, Islamic liberalism, Qur’anic Islam, Islamic socialism, or Islamic humanism reflects and adds to diversity. All of these different versions of modern interpretations of Islam sustain and keep Islamism alive. This must be seen. Of course, at the same time, diverse, divergent, and even competing ideological inclinations of these movements weaken Islamism. One of the subjects that I work on, as you know, are the serious problems that these modern tendencies such as democracy, socialism, etc., produce for Muslim faith and intellectual traditions. But to do justice to your question, we can try to keep my reservations about these new ideological interpretations and their challenges to Muslim tradition on a separate side for now. I had said this somewhere in our conversation – in the modern Islamic world and in Turkey there is an Islamist program present even in Westernist (batıcılık), nationalist, and socialist movements. For example, there is Ziya Gökalp’s book titled Turkification, Islamization, and Modernization (Türkleşmek İslâmlaşmak Muasırlaşmak), where he evaluated the nationalist-Turkist-Turanist line. Today, we remember Ziya Gökalp as a secular nationalist and pro-Western intellectual but why did he write about Islamization? The author who wrote the most voluminous work on the subject of pan-Islamism (İttihad-ı İslâm) and evaluated it, Celal Nuri Ileri, was a leading intellectual of the Westernist and secularist current. Another question: Is the Turkish National Anthem, which was penned by Mehmet Akif [Ersoy] in the spring of 1921 – that is in the early Republican period – a religious text or a nationalist one? Who or which strand of thought would be content with that piece of poetry that turned into the secular Turkish nation’s national anthem? In the national parliament in Ankara during the Independence War, those deputies who accepted Mehmet Akif’s poem as the national anthem and who were in agreement about its content and symbolism were members of different ideologies, but they all agreed to pick this very Islamist looking poem as the national anthem; these people were even activists on behalf of these different ideas… from the ulema, the sheikhs, the Islamists, the Westernists, the socialists, and some from the small group of military staff around Atatürk that founded the Republic.
“I think that generally the capacity of Islamism to reflect the diversity of Muslim societies is high. At minimum, one can say this: the idea or movement that has the highest capacity for representing diversity in their societies, in the broadest – yes, broadest – sense, in Turkey and in the Islamic world is Islamism.”
And yet, once again in regards to your questions, we are left in an ambiguous and vague place. I think the origin of this ambiguity is that Islamism and Islam (Müslümanlık) are formations irreducible to each other. Here we can talk about the problem of inadequate representation. But it must not be forgotten that the strong relationship between Islamism and Islam has sustained and kept both alive.
Maydan: Professor Kara, thank you very much for answering our questions. We hope to continue this conversation in the coming months.
İsmail Kara was born in Güneyce/Rize, Turkey in 1955. After completing primary school, he studied and memorized the Qur’an with his father, who was known locally as Kutuz Hoca. In 1973, he completed his studies at Istanbul Imam Hatip school and (after completing additional coursework) in Rize High School. He graduated from the Istanbul High Islamic Institute (İstanbul Yüksek İslâm Enstitüsü) in 1977 and from the Department of History at Istanbul University’s Literature Faculty in 1986. After receiving his education at the Istanbul High Islamic Institute, he began working at Dergâh Publishing, where he was editor and publishing director. He also served on the board for various publications such as the journal Fikir ve Sanatta Hareket [Action in Art and Thought], Türk Dili ve Edebiyatı Ansiklopedisi [Encyclopedia of Turkish Language and Literature], İslamî Bilgiler Ansiklopedisi [Encyclopedia of Islamic Knowledge], and the journal Dergâh [Sufi Lodge]. Between the years 1980-1995, Kara worked as an instructor in religion at the French Sainte Pulcherie All-Girls school. In 1987, he completed his MA in Political Science at Istanbul University’s Social Sciences Institute. He wrote his doctoral dissertation “The Constitutional Administration According to Islamists (1908-1914)” [İslâmcılara Göre Meşrutiyet İdaresi (1908-1914)] in the same program in 1993. He was given a position as Instructor in the Faculty of Theology at Marmara University in 1995. He was promoted to Associate Professor in the History of Turkish-Islamic Thought in 2000 and then to Professor of Islamic Philosophy in 2006. He retired from the Faculty of Theology at Marmara University in 2015. His research areas include modern Turkish and Islamic thought. His research on Ottoman-Turkish intellectual history, the relations between religion and modernization, and religion and politics have been published in various journals such as Hareket, Dergâh, Tarih ve Toplum, Toplum ve Bilim, İslam Araştırmaları Dergisi, Marmara Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Dergisi, Kutadgubilig, İslamiyat, Toplumsal Tarih, Türklük Araştırmaları Dergisi, Diyanet İlmî Dergi, and Derin Tarih.
Türkiye’de İslâmcılık Düşüncesi-Metinler/Kişiler [Islamist Thought in Turkey: Texts/People, (3 volumes, 1986, 1987, 1994)], İslâmcıların Siyasi Görüşleri [Political Opinions of Islamists, 1994], Şeyhefendinin Rüyasındaki Türkiye [Turkey in the Dream of the Shaikh (essays, 1998)], Amel Defteri [the Book of Deeds (essays, 1998)], Biraz Yakın Tarih Biraz Uzak Hurafe [ Recent History, Distant Superstition (essays, 1998)], Kutuz Hoca’nın Hatıraları-Cumhuriyet Devrinde Bir Köy Hocası [Memories of Kutuz Hoca: A Village Teacher in the Republican-era (2000)], Bir Felsefe Dili Kurmak-Modern Felsefe ve Bilim Terimlerinin Türkiye’ye Girişi [To Establish a Philosophical Language: Introduction of Modern Philosophical and Scientific Terminology into Turkey (2001)], Güneyce-Rize Sözlüğü-Bir Doğu Karadeniz Köyünün Hafızası ve Nâtıkası [The Güneyce-Rize Dictionary: Memory and Speech of an Eastern Black Sea Town (2001)], İslâm Siyasî Düşüncesinde Değişme ve Süreklilik-Hilafet Risâleleri [Continuity and Change in Islamic Political Thought: The Caliphate Letters (6 volumes 2002-2014, 2 volumes forthcoming)], Din ile Modernleşme Arasında Çağdaş Türk Düşüncesinin Meseleleri [Problems in Modern Turkish Thought between Religion and Modernization (2003)], Sözü Dilde Hayali Gözde [The Word is on the Tongue, Imagination is in the Eye (portraits, 2005)], Ara
makla Bulunmaz [It Can’t Be Found By Searching (essays, 2006)], Hanya/Girit Mevlevihanesi – Şeyh Ailesi – Müştemilatı Vakfiyesi – Mübadelesi [The Mevlevihane of Hanya/Crete: The Family of the Shaikh – Waqf Annex – Exchange (2006)], Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi’nde Bir Mesele Olarak İslâm [The Problem of Islam in Republican Turkey (2 volumes: 2008, 2016)], İlim Bilmez Tarih Hatırlamaz-Şerh ve Haşiye Meselesine Dair Birkaç Not [Ignorant of Knowledge, Forgetful of History: Some Notes on the Problem of Islamic Commentaries (2011)], Nurettin Topçu-Hayatı ve Bibliyografyası [Nurettin Topçu: His Life and Bibliography (2013)], Müslüman İstanbul’a Mahsus Bir Gelenek: Mahya [A Tradition Specific to Muslim Istanbul: Messages on Minarets (2016)], Müslüman Kalarak Avrupalı Olmak-Çağdaş Türk Düşüncesinde Din Siyaset Tarih Medeniyet [Being European, Remaining Muslim: Religion, Politics, History, and Civilization in Modern Turkish Thought (2017)]. In addition to these, Dr. Kara has prepared and edited many other works.
 [Translator’s note:] Kara uses both a French cognate – laiklik – which I translate as secularism as a gloss on laïcité, and an English cognate – sekülerlik – a less common form that I translate as secularity: “laikliğe ve sekülerliğe açılan bir damarı var.” There is not a hard distinction between the two in Turkish, with laiklik connoting both state secularism as well as secularity. However, the word sekularizm exists in Turkish as a cognate as well, which forces the reader to consider the possible differences between the uses of sekülerizm and sekülerlik, yet the possibility stands that Kara is using both interchangeably.
 “diyar-ı küfür” and “darü’l-harp” (literally, “land of the unbelief” and “abode of war”) are Islamic legal categories that refer to those lands, territories, or peoples that are not under control of Muslim rulers and thus are considered licit objects of warfare, treaties, and other forms of legal relations.
 For more on the issue of Turanism and Pan-Turkism, see Landau, Jacob. Pan-Turkism: From Irredentism to Cooperation, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1995; Atabaki, Touraj. “Pan-Turanism” in Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, ed. Richard C. Martin. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. pp. 521-522; Kayalı, Hasan. “Pan-Turkism” in Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa, ed. Philip Mattar. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. pp. 1800-1801. See also Yusuf Akçura (1876-1935), Üç Tarz-i Siyaset, published in 1904. For an English translation, see: David S. Thomas http://vlib.iue.it/carrie/texts/carrie_books/paksoy-2/cam9.html
 The Mountain of God, or Tanrı Dağı, is a peak in a mountain range in Central Asia and China, which supposedly played a significant role in pre-Islamic Turkic mythology. The cave in Mount Hira is where the Prophet Muhammad was reported to have received the first revelations from the angel Gabriel.
 During the 1970s, the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi) led by Necmettin Erbakan argued that his party would merge a return to Islam with a radical overhaul of Turkish economy by building hundreds of heavy industry facilities such as steel production. The slogan of harmonizing mosque and minarets with heavy industry factory chimneys became popularized during this period.
 Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011) was a leader of multiple Turkish Islamist parties and the the first politician within this tradition to hold high office. He is credited with bringing Turkey’s peripheral Muslims to the center of political, business, and social circles. MSP was the first party to be founded which gave birth (often as a result of political arm-twisting) to multiple off-shoots. JDP is seen as the most recent off-shoot of this tradition, formed as a result of disagreements with Erbakan’s political choices and style of leadership. For more information, see: Hale, William. “Erbakan, Necmettin”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Three, Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Reference Online, 2016; Gülalp, Haldun. “Political Islam in Turkey: the rise and fall of the Refah Party”, The Muslim World vol. 89, no. 1 (1999), pp. 22–41.
 Established in 1953, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party) is a transnational, pan-Islamic organization that is best known for advocating and propagating the establishment of a caliphate. While the group is banned in multiple countries, it is a non-violent group. For more information, see: Hanif, Noman. “Hizb ut Tahrir: Islam’s Ideological Vanguard,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, (2012), pp. 201-225; Pankhurst, Reza. Hizb ut-Tahrir : The Untold History of the Liberation Party. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2016; Mandaville, Peter. Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma. London: Routledge, 2002.
 Safranbolu is a city in the Black Sea region of Turkey known for its old Ottoman structures. It has been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994.
 Berat is a city in Albania and an UNESCO World Heritage protected site.
 Milli Görüş (National Vision) was a religious and political movement started by Necmettin Erbakan, which sought to unite Islamist parties in Turkey as well as globally. The movement’s title comes from a 1969 publication of the same name. Turkish: “Milli Görüş gömleğini çıkarmak,” or “to take off the cover of National Vision,” as one does a jacket or shirt, means to dispense with the former’s goals and method of bringing religion and politics together.