Turkey: A Bridge between Islam and the West
By Dr Muzaffar K. Awan
Michigan, USA

Wth ancient heritage, sprawling land, and fascinating people, Turkey is literally at the crossroads of the East and the West. Sitting astride the Bosporus, Turkey bridges Asia and Europe. Modern Turkey is not only situated in two continents but historically has been the centre for the physical and intellectual struggle of two civilizations - Islam and the West. It has been an uneasy actor balancing between Western secularism and traditionalist Islam since Kemalist revolution.
Over three-quarters of a century ago Mustafa Kemal, launched a sweeping Cultural Revolution in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, abolishing the Caliphate and other Islamic institutions to create the modern secular Republic of Turkey. Ever since, this has often provoked anti-Kemalist Islamic resurgence and counter movements against the Kemalist trajectory of nation-making, leading eventually to the institutionalization of a Turkish-Islamic synthesis in the state structure.
An ongoing shift to an Islamic conception of nationhood has had its origins in the Ottoman Empire. The objective was to re-establish Islamic sources of nationhood in modern Turkey. Over the decades, through the consistent attempts and by analyzing the world-view of Islam from a civilizational perspective, the Turkish Muslim scholars/intellectuals have laid the foundations for a true revival of moderate Islamic enlightenment thought in Turkey. The notion is indeed civilizational: the scholars see Islam not just as a religion and culture but as a civlization (political structure, social organization, a way of knowing - science, a way of doing - technology, a way of being - art and culture) intact and waiting to be rediscovered. Moreover, they regard Turkey as the arena where the battle between the civilizations of Islam and the West originally started and will be eventually settled through a dialogue.
Over the decades since the Kemalist revolution, there have developed two competing concepts of modernity/secularism in Turkey. One is the top-down concept known as Kemalism, the ideology of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. This ideology has had nationalism and extreme secularism as its pillars. Kemalist secularism has been equated with modernization and Westernization that was very much laicism in the French secular sense. This meant that there was no room for Islam in the public sphere and the public domain needed cleansing from Islam. Science was to become the sole guide, while Islam was something negative and to be gotten rid of. Kemalism thus became the legitimizing ideology of the governing elite. But as it increasingly came to define the identity of the ruling elite, it generated major reactions from the Turkish masses and the periphery. This reaction articulated itself against secularism.
The second conception in Turkey has been a bottom-up modernity/secularism that is neither alien nor negative. Most Turks have welcomed it, but it has been negotiated and redefined. It has been also internalized by the masses rather than imposed by the state from within or by the West from without.
This bottom-up modernity/secularism allowed space for Islam in the public sphere. This conception of secularism was in line with the Islamic notions. Here Islam has been seen as a source of morality and ethics. It did not see Islam and politics as being necessarily in conflict or mutually exclusive. However, it did not want Islam to become a tool of corrupt politics.
The Nursi Islamic movement, over the decades, has emphasized Islam to remain above politics. Nursi was concerned that politics would corrupt Islam.Buddiuzzaman Said Nursi (1873-1960), was a prime-mover and one of the most influencial intellectuals in Islamic thought early in the Republic’s history. He attempted to empower Turkey’s Muslims by updating Islamic terminology and language. He tried to provide them with a new vocabulary in order to allow them to participate in modern discussions and debates on issues like constitutionalism, science, freedom and democracy. So one of his primary goals was to empower Muslims with a new cognitive path. Secondly, he tried to provide a new, flexible Muslim identity. Thirdly, he stressed the idea that sacred and science were not in tension or mutually exclusive, but were to be integrated. In a way, he tried to vernacularize science and modern discourses in an Islamic idiom, to facilitate the dissemination of scientific knowledge in Muslim countries. These were the goals of Said Nursi’s works. (To be continued)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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