Turkey: A Bridge
between Islam and the West
By Dr Muzaffar K. Awan
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)