Interview with Zafer Senocak
"The Reductionism of Islam Must Stop"

In times gone past, Turkish elites were purely secular, purely western, and had absolutely nothing to do with Islam. But this is beginning to change, and a Muslim intelligentsia is forming in Turkey, says Zafer Senocak. An interview by Joachim Güntner

​​In articles for German newspapers, you are an ardent supporter of western values and a severe critic of Islam. Is this the renegade inside trying to get out?

Zafer Senocak: No. In my literature, I am doing what Turkey has been doing for 150 years: combining completely different cultural backgrounds to form its own new identity. It is an exciting Muslim country. If you think this is renegade, it's probably because you have a one-sided image of Turkey in your head.

Your family history is very exciting: you mother was secularly oriented; a teacher; a working woman in the 1950s. Your father was a publisher, a more traditional man who as the publisher of a magazine was very involved in the Islamic revival movement and later an opponent of the politicisation of Islam. In 1970, at the age of eight, you moved with your family from Ankara to Germany.

Senocak: Every writer has a well from which he draws his personal motivation and drive. In my case, this involves the culture of my childhood: the Muslim religion, tradition, and a modernisation of this tradition. Today the images emanating from the Islamic world only show one orientation. I am writing against this current; not for ideological reasons, but because this is quite simply my life.

Both worlds were present in my parents' house: elements of a very secular, western world and a mysterious, mystical world that was rooted in religious tradition, but never became dogmatic. I draw my literature from this well. In other words, my texts are not a reaction to events. For me as a writer, there is absolutely no question of making statements in reaction to attacks, terrorism, or other, similar events.

Are Islam and democracy compatible?

Senocak: I hope so. Otherwise we are all lost. Not only Muslims; we in Europe would also have huge problems.

What is your opinion on current developments in Turkey? Are the worries about islamicisation that are being voiced in this country justified?

Senocak: To be more accurate, what is happening is that the Muslims are changing the way they think. It is a cleansing process that has begun within the elites: in former times there was no such thing as big-city elites that were rooted in Islamic culture. In times gone past, Turkish elites were purely secular, purely western, and had absolutely nothing to do with Islam. As a matter of fact, they were very removed from the country. While the old elites have not disappeared altogether, new elites have now appeared: intellectuals, writers, columnists, and television people who are trying to initiate critical self-reflection. These are very important beginnings.

A new intellectual class that is in a position to combine democratisation and modernisation. This is a class that doesn't always call on the military, but has its own forces to protect the country against becoming too radical. As a matter of fact, this is important in every country. And I think the Muslims have already taken this on board too. However, it is early days yet. It will be interesting to see how the Muslim intelligentsia affects the fields of art and music. I don't see any great movement in this regard. At the moment, the debate is more philosophical than anything else. There is, for example, a Muslim-tinted critique of Hegel. I think that's great, but I haven't seen any novels that have been born out of this new culture.

The moderate, urban Islam that you mentioned, how will it have to prove itself?

Senocak: By banishing reductionist perceptions and images of itself. Radical criticism of Islam follows exactly the same pattern as fundamentalism: symbols, or phenomena that have been reduced to symbolism, are picked out of the Islamic tradition and defined as Islam. But when I think of the Islamic tradition that shaped my childhood, I think of music, mysticism, philosophy, aesthetics. What remains of all that today? Nothing. And that is exactly the point that I am trying to make in my articles and books; this reductionism, this critical development of culture that is based on ignoring the variety of history.

My second point is this: people have to be allowed to ask questions. A tradition that is self-satisfied locks people in a cage. I find many instances in Islamic culture where questions were asked: great humanistic texts that are also great poetry; or philosophers from Andalusia who together with Jewish philosophy influenced the renaissance.

What would happen if the humanistic traits of Islam not only disappeared from the debate, but died out, became nothing more than a dead past?

Senocak: Nothing that was alive in the past can really ever become extinct. Some influences are virulent; sometimes they fade into the background. History is always present. If it wasn't, one could easily disarm the arguments of the fundamentalists by telling them that everything in which they believe – Mohammed's Golden Age – is dead. But it influences people.

You often say harsh things about backward Muslims who are too lazy to think. Have you experienced any hostility?

Senocak: Not yet, which most probably has to do with the fact that I am arguing from inside Islam. My volume of essays entitled Was Hitler an Arab? has been translated into Turkish and got a very varied reception, in the Muslim press too. For example, I defended Salman Rushdie and his right to blaspheme. This wasn't a popular thing to do, but people discussed it.

Do you have allies?

Senocak: There are thinkers who share my views in the Islamic world and not only in Turkey. More than anywhere else, Paris is increasingly developing into a centre for reformatory thoughts about Islamic culture. Thinkers like Mohammed Arkoun have really had a great influence on me. In Turkey, there is an affinity with a generation of young writers that include similar ideas to mine in their books. I am thinking here of novel-writers like Orhan Pamuk or the writer Elif Safak, who is quite a bit younger than I am.

Are these people not in difficulty? Are they not being threatened?

Senocak: It depends on where they are. They are safe in Turkey. Even though in the 1990s several critical intellectuals were the target of murderous attacks – and I hope that those days are now gone – Turkish society is characterised by a lively discussion. This discussion should also be transplanted over here.

We need more substance in order to be able to talk to one another. Atheist books are also being written in Turkey; the Muslim thinker Ali Bulaç is calling for atheism to be accepted by Muslims as a persuasion. Radical Muslims are even meeting with professed atheists to try and establish a level on which they can talk. Unfortunately, such initiatives are limited to Turkey, or at a stretch to countries like Azerbaijan or Bosnia. They can't be found in the Arab world, or in Iran either for that matter.

Not in Iran?

Senocak: OK. People are speaking out in Iran, but they are confronted with unpleasant consequences.

What do you think of your role as the "quintessential enlightened Muslim"?

Senocak: It is, among other things, a source of inspiration. I would not write a single line about this subject if it were not an aesthetic one for me. It is not a reaction to recent events. I have been writing about it for twenty years now. It is just that it has only recently been discovered.

Final question: the murder of Theo van Gogh intensified the debate about Muslims in Europe. Is the discussion in proportion to the event that provoked it?

Senocak: It was important that people reacted. Regardless of how insulting a person is, it is simply not acceptable to murder that person for his remarks. That is a truism, but unfortunately one that we have to formulate again these days. The question is: how do we take this forward? In my most recent texts, I focussed on Turkey's last caliph: a caliph that painted extremely beautiful pictures, including nudes; a caliph that was further along in the debate at the start of the last century than we are today. And he was more liberal. These are the points of Islamic history that I try to highlight.

Naturally, I have no sympathy with people who want to reduce this fantastic culture to dogmas. Moreover, I see the oppression of women less as a religious element and more as an unmistakable male reaction to a loss of power. You have to look at what is happening in families: when women get the chance to go to school and study, they are more successful than men. And that is a shock for men.

Interview Joachim Güntner

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

© NZZ/ 2005

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

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