Portrait Ali Bulaç

Beyond Conservatism and Nationalism

For some, the Turkish intellectual Ali Bulaç is a pioneering thinker of a backward-looking political Islam, whilst for others he represents a modern reformed Islam that renounces political ideology of any kind. By Guenter Seufert

For some, the Turkish intellectual Ali Bulaç is a pioneering thinker of a backward-looking political Islam, whilst for others he represents a modern reformed Islam that renounces political ideology of any kind. By Guenter Seufert

Ali Bulaç (photo: www.kultur.gov.tr)
Ali Bulaç integrated non-religious intellectuals into Islamist debates

​​When political Islam in Turkey is on the agenda, its is politicians who first come to mind: Necmettin Erbakan, who has founded (or arranged the foundation of) five Islamist parties over the past 35 years, all of which were banned one after another.

Or one thinks of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who grew up in the tradition of Erbakan's parties, and whose post-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now in government.

Turkish Islamist intellectuals, by contrast, are far less well known. They stand in the shadow of the politicians, write in Turkish, which is read little outside the country, and tend to be critical companions to politics rather than leaders of any political movement.

And the same goes for Ali Bulaç, who represents the intellectual strand of the Turkish Islamism of our times more than any other. Three times, Ali Bulaç has initiated fundamental and critical political discussions in Turkish Islam, and Erdogan's AKP is now also facing Ali Bulaç's critique.

Bulaç's influence is closely linked to the fact that he reflects the intellectual generation of his age in many ways, yet at the same time differs from this generation on important points. Like other Islamic intellectuals, he comes from a simple, pious background in Anatolia, receiving his first religious instruction in an unofficial Qur'an course and later attending the state theological school.

Ambassador for youth

And like the other Muslim thinkers, he primarily addresses the young people of a formerly rural population now exiled in the cities of Turkey, faced with the dissolution of communities and isolation, the loss of tradition and the breakdown of moral norms, secularisation and politicisation.

But unlike the majority of Islamist academics and activists, Bulaç possesses both solid theological training and a semi-academic university education: he attended the "High Islamic Institute" and gained a degree in sociology at the University of Istanbul alongside it.

No less important is the fact that Ali Bulaç, born in 1951, has Arabic rather than Turkish as his native language, and that he grew up in the religiously and linguistically heterogeneous setting of the South Anatolian town of Mardin, close to the Syrian border.

The latter factor almost certainly played a role in Bulaç's rejection of a purely Turkey-centred orientation at the beginning of his career, and his later rejection of Turkish nationalist circles of Turkish Islamism.

Refutation of political ideologies

Following a stretch writing for Nurettin Topçu's "Hareket" (Movement) magazine, he set up his own periodical "Düşünce" (Consideration) in 1976, which bridged the gap from national to international Islamism in Turkey.

The publishing house of the same name that he founded simultaneously also published a number of translations: from the works of the Afghani Gulbeddin Hekmatyar to those of the Iranians Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Khomeini, from the books of the Egyptians Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb to those of the Indian Mawlana Abu Ala Mawdudi.

After a translation of the Qur'an and a book on the relationship between the Qur'an and the Hadith, Bulaç's first explicitly political work "Çağdaş Kavramlar ve Düzenler" (Modern Concepts and Systems) was an attempt – in line with al-Banna and Mawdudi – to refute competing political ideologies such as liberalism, Marxism, socialism and fascism.

Manifesto of the young Islamist movement

The book laid out a draft of Islam beyond conservatism and nationalism, and portrayed religion as a means for solving class conflicts and an antidote to imperialism. It became the manifesto of the young Islamist movement in Turkey, selling over 500,000 copies.

In 1980 came "İslâm'ın Anlaşılması üzerine" (On the Understanding of Islam), which on one hand attempted to anchor political Islam more firmly, and on the other hand criticised the modernist Islamism of the 19th-century Ottoman intellectuals as a capitulation in the face of European thought.

The 1980 coup spelled the end of the magazine and the publishing house, and by the time Ali Bulaç next addressed a broad audience in 1986 with the foundation of the daily newspaper "Zaman" (Time), the ambiguity between Islam as an ideology and Islam as a modernism-critical standpoint was already determined in Bulaç's thought.

Bulaç rejected all attempts to understand religion in the terms and parameters of political ideologies and thereby stylise it as an alternative ideology, along with all efforts to reconcile the humanities and sciences with Islamic positions.

Islam as the sole alternative to the modern age

For him, Islam was now the sole alternative to the modern age, its parameters and concepts, its ideologies and state model. This perspective was put into specific political form in his draft of an ideal societal order, derived from the Medina document laying out a constitution (Medine Vesikası) from the time of the Prophet.

In it, Bulaç sees a "confederation of autonomous communities" as the alternative to the modern nation state, which creates "modern religions" in the name of such modern and artificial units as "the nation" and with the aid of the modern social sciences, making these "religions" more or less obligatory for all citizens.

Bulaç worked on the theoretical side to his approach on the pages of the magazine "Bilgi ve Hikmet" (Information and Wisdom) from 1993 to 1996, integrating non-religious intellectuals into Islamist debate and formulating mutual aims with Muslims for the first time in Turkey.

Guenter Seufert

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire


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