Turkey as a Laboratory of Islam?

Synthesis of Islamic Thought, Secularism, and Modernity

In June, the highest Islamic authority in Turkey caused surprise by announcing that it will define a new, modern Islam. At least as far as the subject of women is concerned, the Diyanet, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, wants to present a modern image. Volker S. Stahr reports

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul (photo: dpa)
Could Turkey be the prototype for a synthesis of Islam and democracy, and thus also a model for the wider Islamic world? Volker S. Stahr takes a look

​​Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs says it intends to filter the hadith, the traditional sayings and deeds of Muhammad, for misogynist statements and delete them from the collection. The passages to be stricken include those in which the woman is discriminated against or even subordinated to the man.

Thus, the second most important source of Islamic law, after the Koran, would become pro-woman, at least in Turkey, and Islam would, in turn, have come a good part of the way into modern times. The project is unique in the Islamic world, however.

Theological reform debate

Turkey as a test case for a synthesis of Islam and democracy, even a model for the Islamic world? A look at several recent publications proves that these deliberations are not taking place in a vacuum. Three books shed light on a lively reform debate in which the redefinition of the hadith is only the visible tip of a scarcely noticed iceberg. As is so often the case, however, it is the small publishers that call attention to such changes early on.

The Germany-based Ergon Verlag, in particular, has been issuing several series on classical and modern Islam for years. Ergon recently published Bülent Ucar's "Recht als Mittel zur Reform von Religion und Gesellschaft" (English title: "Jurisprudence as the Means to Reform of Religion and Society") and Felix Körner's Revisionist Koran Hermeneutics in Contemporary Turkish University Theology. Despite their unwieldy titles, two very informative books on the Turkish Islam debate.

Particularly interesting is the work by Körner, a Jesuit priest who has lived in Ankara for several years and is a regular visitor at the distinguished theological faculty. As a result, he has carried on a lively discourse with leading Turkish theologians. His dialogue partners are the exponents of the "Ankara School," a group of young reform theologians who, with the approval of the Diyanet, are working toward a modern Islam. The focus of their work is a reinterpretation of the Koran and other sources of Islamic law, also using western critical methods.

One of them is Professor Mehmet Paçaci, who was born in 1959. He believes that, although the Koran has a universal, timeless character, its text must be understood in the historical context of the seventh century. Since it dates from this period, today it must be read anew word by word for the twenty-first century – a project which the "traditionalists" among Islamic theologians categorically reject.

Historical interpretation

Paçaci follows in the tradition of the Pakistani-born reform thinker, Fazlur Rahman. Rahman understood the Koran merely as a collection of specific examples, behind which a "true meaning" must be sought. Expressed in simple terms, cutting off extremities in case of theft becomes simply the punishment of property offenses.

Like his colleagues, Paçaci, who studied in the West, also makes use of modern methods, for example, the application of historico-critical Biblical exegesis to the Koran, reads works of the Jews and Christians, which were assumed to be known at that time, in the original languages (in order to discover common figurative language of that era), and incorporates western philosophies, such as the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer's, a German 20th century philosopher.

In addition to Paçaci, Körner introduces Adil Çiftçi, Ömer Özsoy, and Ilhami Güler. Earlier "thought leaders" of the Ankara School, such as Hüseyin Atay and Mehmed Said Hatiboğlu, appear indirectly throughout the book. Körner declares all of them to be "astute and bold" thinkers. The subtitle of Körner's book is Rethinking Islam, which could also have served as its main title.

A Who's Who of Turkish Islamic thinkers

The same applies to the second book referred to as well. In Jurisprudence as the Means to Reform, Bülent Ucar basically describes the antecedents of the independent projects in Ankara. His book concerns the extremely spirited debate taking place in Turkey on whether reinterpretations are desirable in the first place. It focuses on the "legal schools," the four schools of thought within the Sunni Muslim majority, which were actually responsible for bringing Islam somewhat into line with modern times after the death of the Prophet.

An adaptation which largely came to an end later, however, with the "closing of the door of ijtihad" (the "struggle," the Islamic word for the use of independent reasoning to arrive at modern solutions).

There has been intense discussion among leading theologians in Turkey recently on whether and to what extent that "door" has opened further. Ucar develops a kaleidoscope of largely unknown Islamic thinkers of every shade in Turkey during the 20th century and introduces several reformers, including Atay and the highly prominent Yaşar Nuri Öztürk and Fethullah Gülen – a Who's Who of Turkish Islamic thinkers, and proof of the complexity of this Islam and its intellectual basis. Ucar's work is thus an excellent complement to Körner's book, which focuses strongly on reform.

New national ideology

The fact that the debate on a modern Turkish Islam is not merely academic has already been suggested by Körner. The Ankara theological faculty which he introduces is considered a model for the country's 24 theological faculties and trains 100 religious officials, teachers, and imams annually. The Diyanet's project to expurgate the hadith is only one example of the influence of the Ankara School.

Another new publication reveals, however, that the thinking of the "Islamic modernists," as they are already called, could also have made its appearance on the political level long ago. That is suggested by the Ankara political scientist, Alev Çinar, in Modernity, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey. Referring to the situation since the 1990s and under the current Erdogan Islamist government, she specifically postulates the compatibility of secularism and Islamism in Turkey and the creation of a new national identity and ideology on these two pillars which is also modern, although with a slight priority to the secular order over pure Islamism.

Çinar describes the gradual change in the country, for example, the way the Islamists, by harking back to the capture of Istanbul in 1453, little by little established a national Islamic tradition alongside national secular traditions such as the glorification of Atatürk and the founding of the republic in 1923, the symbolic centering of the republic in Ankara (as opposed to "old" Istanbul), and the "unveiling" of women as a symbol of laicism, the centering of Istanbul (owing to the fact that Erdogan had gained his popularity as the successful mayor of the ancient Ottoman capital), and the emphasis on the veil as a symbol.

If the secularists perceived this as a threat and rejected any debate on a new identity ("An intellectual cannot be Islamist, and an Islamist cannot be an intellectual"), this situation changed gradually around the turn of the millennium. The willingness of the Islamists, who became increasingly modernist under Erdogan, not to replace the system but rather to create a new one out of secularism and Islamism, brought the arguments of the secularists to public attention.

Secular politics

Çinar describes a subtle distinction, however, which in the end actually paved the way for this process. Unlike his predecessor Erbakan, with the first Islamist Refah Party, Erdogan established his new AK Party as a kind of secular Islamic party within the secular system and strictly separated ideology and party.

Whereas the AKP and the government devoted themselves to national goals such as EU accession, liberalization of the economy, fighting corruption, democratization, and decentralization, the intellectual discussion about a secular Islamic alternative for Turkey was spurred by the independent but partisan daily Yeni Şafak, which "endorse(s) a liberal-Islamist perspective in which economic and political liberalism is combined with conservative social values and a sense of national identity and culture that takes Islam as its essential defining value."

Çinar thus characterizes Turkey as already almost a model for the development of modern Islamic democracies which can evolve from secular systems into a type of secular-Islamic synthesis and concludes with the observation that Islamists "find innovative ways to merge Islamic thought and practice with secularism and modernity, further advancing the emergence of Islamic modernism."

From the periphery to the center?

Whether Turkey could in fact become a sort of laboratory for the Islamic world remains to be seen, however. At any rate, the developments emphatically underscore two essential aspects in the history of Islam.

In its "fringe areas," such as the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Africa, or Southeast Asia, Islam was always remarkably open to synergy in developing new systems and cultures from itself and discovered traditions. At the same time, the Islamic center of Arabia was always extremely resistant to these new forms at its periphery. And to this day, the non-Arab Turkey is part of the "Islamic periphery." But perhaps things are different in a globalized (Islamic) world.

Volker S. Stahr

© NZZ/Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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