Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Turkish Islam and the Middle Eastern Revolution

At a recent panel discussion, a Palestinian colleague pointed out that when a dictator falls, with him disappears his imagined enemies. The fact that the Egyptian, the Tunisian and now the Lybian revolutions did not have Islamic fundamentalism as their common denominator suggests that most of this so called global Islamic fundamentalism was in fact imaginary. Historically speaking, global Islamic fundamentalism was similar to the phenomenon of the Eastern Question, meaning that it was mainly cultivated in the Western minds and turned into a practice with Western financial aid in order to fend off socialism and communism. When the Cold War ended, the economic and political data still indicated that the cooperation of capitalism and democracy wouldn’t be tenable forever. Western civilization was forced to re-imagine itself in this conjecture, unfortunately with a renewed emphasis on domestic authoritarianism, so as to hush and tame its native critics. At that stage, global Islamic fundamentalism emerged as a newly discovered evil half brother of global capitalism. It became the leading hero of all fear factors and justified domestic authoritarianisms.

Among the critics of the West, Muslim thinkers always had a special status. They challenged the most central tenet of Western civilization, its so-called secularism. Muslim thinkers argued that democracy was not exclusive of religious expressions of morality, and the idea of secularism was an illusion. They were pretty much right on both accounts, since most Western governments maintained capitalistic alliances with the religious institutions of their citizens and allowed room for religiously motivated parties to take part in democratic elections.

The explicit attack these Muslim thinkers waged on Western civilization made them ideal candidates to become the new nemeses of the West. Many of them were educated in the West, developed their theories with a mixture of Western ideas and grew into strong ideological lobbies through the financial help of British, Israeli and US authorities. They did not represent the majority of the Muslim people among whom they organized themselves but readily accepted to be pitted against the socialist and communist fractions of their native communities.

It is in this context interesting to listen to the ongoing argument in the Western media, that there is something called Turkish Islam, and it is a valid alternative to global Islamic fundamentalism. ‘What is Turkish Islam?’ one wants to know. When did it become an antidote to other Islams? And, at a time when a number of revolutions proved that global Islamic fundamentalism is not the common denominator of popular discontent in Muslim societies, who needs an Islamic antidote?

To begin with, the argument that a Saudi Arabian, Egyptian or Tunisian community should practice Turkish Islam is akin to suggest that these people do not need their customs and reason. In my classes, to explain the process of Islamic jurisprudence and its Ottoman/Turkish variants, I often refer to Abu Hanifa, an 8th century orthodox Muslim jurist from Iraq. It is reported that Abu Hanifa refused to eat things that Qur’an and the Hadith didn’t approve. Given that he was a truly orthodox judge, and text oriented, it is reported that he never relied on local tradition or speculative precedents either. Thus, it seems, he never consumed a watermelon in his life, which must have been a remarkable feat in a place like Iraq. Abu Hanifa’s teaching also argued against the consumption of shellfish, based on very similar grounds. Today, the majority of the Turkish Muslims describe themselves as Hanafi, the Sunni sect founded upon the teachings of Abu Hanifa. However, they regularly enjoy watermelon, and a deep fried clam sandwich made with fresh bread and tartar sauce is one of their most popular late night snacks. This raises no controversy among the Turkish Muslims because the practice of sharia allows room for local customs and speculative reason to be practiced as well. For obvious reasons, it would be ridiculous to ban shellfish in a country surrounded by Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Similarly, watermelon, which arrived to Egypt in second millennium BC and soon afterwards made itself to Anatolia, is traditional delight in Turkey.

Meanwhile, what is called Turkish Islam in the Western media is nothing more than a metropolitan conservative middle and lower class religiosity. It is not a theological school but a pseudo-ideological stand, cultivated in reaction to the Turkish state nationalism. Although most nationalist movements embrace the religious sensitivities of the masses they desire to represent, Turkish nationalism was of a different kind. For example, to my knowledge, Arab nationalism, in all its forms, was more willing to recognize its mainly Muslim profile. Turkish nationalism, on the other hand, emerged in confrontation with the Ottoman Empire’s Muslim religious imperialist image, which the sultan/caliph used fervently. In its various forms, Turkish nationalism always argued that it was a modern and secular nationalism. This was particularly so for its state sponsored variant, which used the separation of religion and state as the central tenet of its ideology.

This so called Turkish Islam is a conservative religiosity, postulated as a viable ethical alternative to conservative nationalism. It is a substitute for nationalism, and it appeals to the Turkish speaking middle classes who are tired of state nationalism. These middle classes are not theologically superior moderate citizens; they are religious conservative consumers who follow the Western economic recipes for capitalist prosperity and happen to be Muslims. Thus, anyone who is familiar with the history of Islam should know that all Muslim societies have their own version of this so-called Turkish Islam. What they do lack is the pro-capitalist democracies in which their moderate religiosity could imagine itself as a voting block.

At a time when we are witnessing a chain of revolutions, arguing that Turks have invented an ideal Islamic model highlights the fact that the West is still looking for an Islam of its own version rather than observing the existing trends. Those who argue that a moderate Islamic conservatism is an antidote against fundamentalist Islam, and want to export it to the Muslim people should take a look at the European outlet stores in the Middle East or observe the duty free liquor stores of their home town international airports. Most Muslims already live their lives according to their customs and speculative reason. Orthodox men like Abu Hanifa remain the kings of their own dinner table. Most importantly, revolutions do take place for moderate reasons


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