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Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity: A History, 1789-2007 (review)

By Metin Heper

From: The Middle East Journal
Volume 65, Number 2, Spring 2011
pp. 343-344 | 10.1353/mej.2011.0034

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This is an ambitious monograph and, on the whole, well achieves its goal: coming up with a comprehensive account of history, economy, domestic politics, foreign policy, ideology, culture, and society in the Ottoman Empire and the Republican Turkey from the last two decades of the 18th century to the first decade of the 21st. Particularly concerning the Republican period, the emphasis is on ideology, culture, and society. One interesting characteristic of the monograph is that at the end of every chapter (from chapter two onwards), there are relatively extensive summaries of some relevant novels by Namik Kemal, Ahmet Midhat, Fatma Aliye, Halide Edib, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, Orhan Kemal, Adalet Agaoglu, and/or Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, in that order. The reason offered by the author for this rather original format in an otherwise history-cum-social science monograph is that "writers of imaginative literature ... surpass scholars in conveying what it was like to live through tumultuous times" (p. 341). As a consequence, the concluding chapter almost entirely draws upon Pamuk's novel Kar (Snow). It is impossible to disagree with the author that such systematic straying to the literary works does enable the readers to have a better grasp of the ideological, cultural, and societal dynamics in different periods, although at times the message is "lost in translation," because the author has often gone into too much detail.

Be that as it may, the basic argument of the book is that both in the late Ottoman and in the entire Republican periods two currents clashed with each other: the radical secular one, which earlier tried to salvage the Empire and later enabled the Republic to catch up with the contemporary civilization, and the Islamic conservative current, which perceived the "scientific materialism" of the first current as a threat to the time-worn traditions and Islamic morality of the people. It is noted that the three high points in the Islamic conservative current were religious awakenings made possible by Khalid al-Naqshbandi (Mevlana Halid) (1776-1827) from Iraq in the late 18th and early 19th century, Sa'id Nursi (1873-1960) in the early 20th century, and Fethullah Gülen (1938-present) in the late 20th and the current century. Findley points out that at critical moments, the "two currents could become starkly antagonistic" (p. 18).

One may argue that these three religious awakenings were indeed conservative, but not radical because none of them targeted the state and modernization as such; they only had, in fact, favorable approaches toward them. Mevlana Halid was the "renewer" [mujaddid], who opposed the strict 'ulema' (p. 70). Sa'id Nursi's message was that the "Master of the universe is the Master of modernity" (p. 291). Fethullah Gülen has aimed at achieving "a constructive engagement of Islam with modernity" (p. 390). Thus it should not come as a surprise that between 1970 and 2001, five religiously-oriented political parties in Turkey gradually became increasingly system-oriented. Moreover, from 2002 onward, the country was ruled by a government whose leadership cadres were practicing Muslims who nonetheless essentially pursued secularist policies. Given these historical and recent developments, the author's "aspirations to overcome the secularist biases of the foundational studies on Ottoman and Turkish modernity" (p. 3) would be considered as quite justified.

There is a well-known Turkish saying: "Even the daughter of a kadi cannot be entirely faultless!" Concerning only factual matters, the following remarks may be made in this regard. Nationalism may be not only offensive, but also defensive (p. 15). In 1878, Abdülhamid II "prorogued" the parliament; he did not "dismiss" it (p. 84). "Hukuk Devleti" should be rendered as "rule of law," not as "law state" (p. 94). It would have been more appropriate to refer to elite groups in the Ottoman Empire as "stratum" rather than as "bourgeosie" (p. 8 and elsewhere) or "class" (p. 75 and elsewhere). On page 305, too, it should have been noted that beginning with the 1960 military intervention,...