The Turkish Reformation

The Islam of Today Lacks a Philosophy

Turkish Islam has arrived in today's world, writes Zafer Senocak in his essay. But, he says, the Islam of today still lacks a philosophy, and it avoids the fundamental issues

Five years ago, the AKP came to power in Turkey – a party whose leading politicians were Muslims who believed and practised their faith. The party's victory raised many questions: how democratic was the new party? Would Turkey join other countries and be sucked into the Islamism which was spreading around the region? Were Muslims not always primarily committed to their holy book, the Koran, so that the best they could be would be Trojan horses in society, disguised as democrats?

The Koran includes a large number of rules for the ordering of a clan-based society. The relationship between the sexes is patriarchal, the criminal justice code is martial. The holy book of the Muslims does not just include theological and ethical principles, it includes rules for daily life, and provides the Muslim community with guidelines which it must follow when it organises the way people live together.

Instrumentalising Islam

Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Turkish republic, was aware of this and ensured clarity in the matter: he provided himself with dictatorial powers and imposed a strict division between state and religion, between the world of politics and the world of faith, following the example of French laicism. Compared to the Turkish system, Germany is almost a theocracy. In Turkey something like the German church tax, collected by the state on behalf of the churches, is quite unthinkable.

On the other hand, the Turkish state is not neutral when it comes to religion. It exercises control. There is a state-run religious authority which controls Islam, and other religions are restricted by a large number of rules which make life hard and missionary activity difficult, if not impossible. The system is seriously in need of reform, and it serves now as a façade for an Islam which has been instrumentalised by nationalist forces.

One-party rule ended in Turkey some sixty years ago. Since then there have been more or less free parliamentary elections. And the people are clearly moving in a consistent direction. They are weakening the Kemalist camp and bringing elements to power which recall Turkey to its Muslim roots. In Turkey, more democracy means more influence for Islam.

But what kind of an Islam is it? It is not the same kind of Islam which the Mullahs preach in the mosques of Pakistan, Iran and the Arab countries. Some people speak of a moderate Islam. But it would be better to speak of an Islam of today, an Islam which claims to reconcile democracy, open society, liberal ideas and Muslim faith.

Turkey's contemporary Islam

This is not such a new claim in Turkey. Eighty years ago there were moderate reformers among the opponents of Mustafa Kemal who wanted to establish a liberal social model on the lines of that of Great Britain. The French model they found too rigid, too centralised, and inappropriate for the heterogeneity of post-Ottoman Turkey. Mustafa Kemal quashed that opposition. His justification was the activities of the supporters of the Sharia, the traditionalists, who stood in the way of any reform.

The supporters of Sharia are now a small minority. And that means that the warnings of the Kemalists are no longer convincing. Turkish Islam has arrived in today's world, largely thanks to the women, who are taking an ever more important role in society.

But the Islam of today still lacks a philosophy. Since the late eighties there has been a flood of publications dealing with the challenge of today's world from a religious perspective. But most of them are worthless tracts, taking positions on one side or another on debates such as that over the headscarf, but they do not deal with the fundamental issue.

Islam turned into a private matter

And the fundamental issue is this: can a Muslim orientate himself in social and political terms on anything other than the Koran? And how would such an orientation look in his private life? Can he support equal rights for men and women, equal rights for all citizens whatever their religious convictions, without offending against Muslim principles?

In fact, he can't. At least, not yet. If he stands up for a social order different from that of Islam, he has at least to explain himself. That is one reason why the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a committed Muslim, finds himself under pressure. But neither he nor his party can solve the problem. A party cannot educate people how to think.

The AKP is not in the process of Islamising Turkey. The reforms it has set in train have more to do with the Copenhagen criteria for accession to the European Union than with legal principles from the days of Mohammed. The party's voters expect further modernisation of Turkish society, an opening-up of the political system, the establishment of legal norms and economic growth. They do not expect the introduction of Sharia; they live according to an Islam which has largely turned into a private matter.

But is such a leisure-time Islam even possible? This is a question which has faced Muslim theologians and philosophers for many years, ever since the start of the modern era over a hundred years ago. In Turkey at least it has been overtaken by the reality of people's lives. The theory which limps along behind the developments offers a weak and unclear picture.

The Muslims in Turkey no longer find themselves in the closed society in which many people believe them to be. Not just in Istanbul, even in the larger Anatolian cities a middle class has emerged whose value system is subject to rapid change. The world of those who are moving up in society is often subject to crisis, but such people could not move up without taking a risk with the new.

A culture of individualisation

Some sociologists see Muslim women, who have been subject to change in their role, as the avant garde of Turkish modernisation. Education and professional advancement are no longer the sole preserve of men. They have become the usual pattern of social development.

In the end, the closed society can only be opened by a culture of individualisation. That will challenge and transform society. This transformation will be evident sooner or later in the arts. The Turkish novel, the Turkish film, are where the modernisation of Turkish society ought to show itself.

Orhan Pamuk in Berlin, Germany (photo: AP)
Going beyong the dichotomy between Western modernity and oriental tradition: Orhan Pamuk and the country's younger generation of writers are exploring new Turkish identities

​​It is not a matter of writing a "Muslim" novel. This would be as fruitless as any other attempt to produce art in the name of a religion or an ideology. But the mental and psychological geography of people who are undergoing social and cultural change is an important topic. Spirituality in a post-Muslim society has not yet found its voice, for example.

Orhan Pamuk and writers of the generation after him are providing portraits of a mood which can no longer be interpreted using simple patterns based on a polarisation between Western modernity and oriental tradition.

Modern Turkish literature has long ceased to be a portrayal of a Western civilisation, but has become an environment where exchange can take place between Turkey's Ottoman heritage and the present, and the national culture of the founding days of the Turkish republic can be challenged by the processes of globalisation.

Reviewing the relationship between reason and faith

This location is much frequented and remains continuously in a state of tension, and its potential has not yet been exhausted. The modernisation of Islamic culture will little by little create an appropriate discourse which will deal with its neuroses and contradictions.

The so-called reconciliation of Islam with democracy cannot take place at the ballot box. Such a reconciliation is above all a matter of thought. The pulpits and the professorial chairs are among the places where something must happen. The theological faculty in Ankara, for example, is working at a reformed Islam, with a humanistic view of the individual which can be derived from Islamic sources, and with a new view of the relationship between reason and faith.

Those who make the effort to study the thought of the Muslim philosophers of the Middle Ages will find themselves richly rewarded. They will also discover that the European Judeo-Christian heritage is in fact a Islamo-Judeo-Christian heritage, for which the Greeks were midwives.

But the question remains, whether these elitist exercises of the mind performed by Turkish scholarly institutions will one day gain more public significance than the traditionalist interpretations of the scholars in Cairo and elsewhere. The answer to this question will determine the extent and persistence of what has so far been the highly promising Turkish experiment.

Zafer Senocak

© Zafer Senocak/Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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