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Volume 4, No 1, Spring 1994 [back]

Crisis of Modernity in Turkey

Tanju Çataltepe

and how to cure it in cambridge...

"As a political system in Turkey, socialism is possible, Turkism is probable, Islam is certain."
Ismet Özel, 1986

On the evening of March 10, we settled in our seats for a lecture by Ernest Gellner at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gellner, whose work as an orientalist has focused on North African Muslim societies with particular attention to the great scholar of the Maghrib, Ibn-i Khaldun, was there as the keynote speaker for the three-day conference titled, "Rethinking the Project of Modernity in Turkey." The conference was organized by a sociologist, Resat Kasaba, and an architect, Sibel Bozdogan under the auspices of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and MIT. The time of the first lecture being a few minutes before the iftar and the last day of the conference overlapping with the first day of the Eid-ul-fitr indicated what path this rethinking was going to take, or rather, was not going to take.

The announcement of the conference had the following preamble:

"This conference is conceived as an interdisciplinary forum, to bring together scholars and cultural critics from social sciences, humanities and architecture, for a rigorous and critical rethinking of the experience of modern Turkey. For a long time Turkey was typically heralded by social scientists as one of the most successful models of a universally defined modernization process that every "post-traditional" society was expected to go through. Recently, in the context of important changes in the world and the new theoretical, cultural and intellectual trends at large, this model is publicly debated and radically criticized by various groups ranging from feminists and Muslim intellectuals to advocates of liberal economy, civil society and popular culture. The cultural scene, especially literature, art, architecture, music and cinema, reflects an increasingly aggressive reaction to the official ideology, cultural norms and mental habits of the old bureaucratic elites as well as of the traditional left. At this juncture, by "rethinking the project of modernity", the conference aspires to question the country's "postmodern" predicament and perhaps to begin to suggest alternative outlets to the current impasse so that the initial critical force of modernity can be restored."

Almost all of the presentations focused or touched upon the criticism from the Muslims yet Muslims were the only ones among those mentioned in the preamble, "feminists and Muslim intellectuals to advocates of liberal economy, civil society and popular culture" that were not representing themselves.

Ernest Gellner describes himself as a "fundamentalist rationalist" and is a determined opponent of postmodernist critiques of modernity.

The introductory part of his lecture closely followed his recent book Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (Routledge, 1992). Then he discussed the "Turkish option of modernity" in the light of the uniqueness of the Turkish case.

Gellner examined the case from four aspects: Religion, state formation, type of nationalism, and type of modernity. His arguments and exposition went like this:

In terms of religion, Turkey is doubly unique because Islam is unique among religions in its response to modernity and Turkey is unique in the Muslim world in her secularism. The given wisdom dictates that under modernity role of religion diminishes. Not so in the case of Islam! On the contrary, the influence of Islam increased in the Muslim societies in the last hundred years and secularization has not occurred with the exception of Turkey. Modernity requires Protestant features in the religion: Symmetry, absence of hierarchy, simplicity, unitarianism, puritanism, and scripturalism. All of these are present in "high" Islam. (Gellner follows the recently fashionable categorizations of "high" Islam, i. e. the creed of the ulema, and the "folk" Islam, the practice of the masses.) According to Gellner, for the most part peaceful coexistence of these two practices ended up in the decisive victory of high Islam over the folk Islam in the process of responding to the challenges of modernity.

Yet he is puzzled by the case of Turkey which is set on a convincingly semi-secular path. This should not be the only puzzlement; his theory of "high" Islam overtaking "folk" Islam cannot account for the strong influence of sufi tendencies (which he classifies within "folk" Islam) in the Islamic rejuvenation in Turkey.

Gellner considers the Turkish experience in state formation unique in the Muslim world. He argues that for most of the Muslim world, the Ibn-i Khaldunian cyclical political and sociological pattern was true until the coming of modernity. Ibn-i Khaldun's description breaks down in the face of the long-lasting Ottoman dynasty. He insisted that the Khaldunian pattern was true in most parts of the empire in determining the local political power. But the center was an actualization of Plato's republic, a state sustained by the education of an elite. It is not obvious to us that the Ottoman case is an exception to the Khaldunian pattern; it seems rather like a successful social engineering based on the Khaldun's descriptions of the social dynamics. Cemil Meriç says that the Muqaddimah was like a Kaaba for the Ottoman statesmen.

Gellner views nationalism neither as universal nor as a disease. He thinks it is the consequence of an economy that is based on a literate culture. The literate culture requires that both to be employable and to be an effective citizen one must be comfortable in the official idiom that can only be achieved through formal education. (This emphasis on the linkage between literacy and nationalism reminded us Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities.)

Finally on the discussion of the types of modernity, Gellner proposed an analogy of bride (culture) and groom (state). According to him the passage to modernity can be divided into four time and space zones. The first three are European: The west -Atlantic coast and Britain- happiest marriage of all, bride and groom are ready at the same time. The center -Italy and Germany-, a difficult marriage at the beginning; bride was ready but it took a while for the groom to be found. The east -eastern Europe-, a painful union; neither bride not groom were ready, necessitating both cultural and political engineering -read "ethnic cleansing." (The various connotations of the bride and groom analogy was not lost on some of the audience members.)

The fourth zone is the unique case of Turkey. According to Gellner, none of the above typology applies to the Muslim world since nationalism has always been superseded by Islam. But again the Turkish case is eccentric within the Muslim world. The groom (state) was ready and chose a bride. The lack of a solid doctrine on the part of the state elite (latest manifestation, Kemalism) was lucky when compared to the recent fate of the Russian option in modernity according to Gellner. Drawing on an anecdote from a conference he attended in Turkey in the 60's, he said that the academics were "practising" Kemalism with an "ulema spirit."

There were some interesting presentations in the two full days and a rather amusing closing discussion on the first day of the Eid.

On Friday, Serif Mardin complained about the laziness of Turkish intellectuals, lack of any existential concern in them, and missing self-examination. The world of the Turkish intellectual is standing on three poles of "devlet", power, and positivism according to Mardin. He also pointed out the importance of "everyday" and the organization of time by examples from Necip Fazil, "whose understanding of the French poetry unequalled in Turkey."

Anthropolog Michael Meeker from the University of California, San Diego, walked us through Anitkabir and Kocatepe by his slides, juxtaposing of these two monuments of Ankara and the worldview they frame. He pointed out, even though ostensively classical Ottoman, how Kocatepe's architecture compromised with the Modernity.

At the end of these sessions, discussant Marxist Indian historian Feroz Ahmad expressed concern that the "class analysis" was getting a short rift in all these analyses. The following day sociolog Haldun Gülalp tried to remedy this but by a rather un-memorable presentation.

On the Saturday morning session, architect Aydan Balamir from Middle East Technical University gave the standard Modernist line about the unimaginatively copied Ottoman mosque architecture in Turkey, and how these "mosque-building committees" in the slums were funded from Saudi Arabia etc. She also showed two rather horrendous "modern" mosques, one in Kinaliada and the other in the airforce base in Etimesgut. She did not see any problems in agreeing with the diagnosis of "Oriental repose and slovenliness" -the trademark of Orientalist discourse- of the pre-republican society.

Later in that day, discussant Nasser Rabbat, an Egyptian architect from MIT, provided a clue to why the Ottoman mosque is being reproduced with persistency in Turkey: The European powers promoted a French-developed style called "neo-Mamluk" for Muslim public buildings when they got hold of Sarajevo and Baku to counteract the Ottoman traces.

Sibel Erol from the literature faculty of Washington University gave an excellent expose on Latife Tekin and her novels. Resistance of Latife Tekin's narrative to the center's modernizing and dominating discourses reminded us why Nabi Avci called Tekin's novels "the first Muslim novel" in Turkey.

Meral Özbek from Mimar Sinan University gave an entertaining presentation on arabesk. Even while she was pointing out the common misconceptions of the official dogma about arabesk, the audience was responding with silly laughter to the translations of some of the lyrics.

On Saturday afternoon, journalist Murat Belge spoke and dropped a proverbial bombshell by alleging that "we" were the inventors of "ethnic cleansing." (We should mention that Belge was given an extremely adulatory introduction by Resat Kasaba; maybe it was the thrill of the "real world" coming to the academics.) Expect a book from Belge on our recent -II. Mahmud on- history this year. He identified the "paranoid state" as the biggest stumbling block to the civil society in Turkey. He traced this paranoia to the Ittihad ve Terakki tradition which is where the republican leadership came from. Using Gellner's bride and groom analogy, he painted a rather unstable and abusive but goal-oriented groom. According to Murat Belge the course of events went like this: When the men of Ittihad ve Terakki decided on Turkish nationalism as the way to salvation in a rather cynical way, they first tried to create a Turkish bourgeoisie through economic assistance. Realizing that this would take a rather long time, they started to terrorize the Greek landlords and farmers in Western Anatolia, and when the cover of the First World War provided the opportunity, Armenians were murdered and exiled to get their property. Thus, Belge claimed "we" did the first ethnic cleansing. And the collusion between the "people" and the "state" in this crime muted at a subconscious level any potential resistance to the iron-handed state later on.

His rather easy use of the "we" as the subject of this crime showed either that Belge is rather out of touch with the postmodern sensibilities regarding the stability of the subject or that he was identifying with the state elite that he was complaining about. Moreover, as an historian in the audience later remarked, he left out the events in the Balkans that preceded the "ethnic cleansing" in Anatolia. Nevertheless Belge's was a courageous presentation.

He also made fun of the devotional antics of the Kemalists; he likened the visits to Anitkabir to complain or ask assistance to the religious rituals. He dwelled upon the presumably continued influence of the Teskilat-i Mahsusa as a secret society. His allusions to this secret structure that is allegedly running the state reminded us in its style the conspiracies that are associated with the Freemasons. But then again, Ittihad ve Terakki had been entangled with the masonic lodges from its beginnings.

Nilüfer Göle from Bogaziçi University stood out with her sensible presentation on the interaction of the Muslim elite with modernity in Turkey. She did not agree with the existence of a postmodern situation in Turkey since the two outstanding characteristics -according to Göle- of a postmodern society, playfulness and relativism, are not visible. Rather she described the condition in Turkey as pessimistic and absolute claims on truth via ideological warfare. She pointed out that the Islamic movements are typically analyzed as reaction to some kind of deeper malaise in the transition to modernity, be it economical or ontological; and the Islamists are painted as frustrated, marginal fanatics. She attempted to correct these misconceptions in her presentation.

She mentioned the need to approach the Islamic movements not as a reaction to the given order but as an elaboration of the self-definition, a new critique of modernity.

The last day was set aside for general discussion. Organizer Resat Kasaba pleaded with Serif Mardin, Nilüfer Göle, and Murat Belge for more of these first hand information about the Islamists as if he was asking for the interesting stories of the natives from the colonial anthropolog. The irony of the situation did not escape the panelist Deniz Kandiyoti. She advised these young social scientists to go back to the basics and do some field work before theorizing about these "exotic" people. If they could not get Islam out of their minds, she suggested to do work on China. Who knows next year we may have conference in Cambridge on the Confucian critique of modernity in China?
©1994 anadolu
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