Anthropologist: Turkish Muslimhood replacing Islamism

Jenny White (Photo: Today's Zaman, Turgut Engin)

July 01, 2012, Sunday/ 15:06:00

According to Jenny White, an anthropologist specializing in Turkey, Turkey's national identity has been in a process of redefinition, and during this process the notion of Muslimhood has replaced Islamism.

“Muslimhood implies a different understanding of personhood. If you are a pious Muslim and you enter politics, the assumption is that you become an Islamist. But the theologians behind the Muslimhood model ask: ‘Why should that be so? Do Christian politicians become Christianists when they enter politics?'” she told Today's Zaman for Monday Talk.

White's new book dealing with the issues related to Turkey's national identity, “Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks,” will come out in November.

She answered our questions last week on this issue and other topics in Abant, Bolu, where she was one of the participants, comprising both locals and foreigners, who debated Turkish democracy in a conference titled “Different Perspectives on Turkey.”

Where do you see Turkey today politically?

We have a top-down hierarchical, patriarchal party that is calling the shots. It represents the new elite although it claims to represent the population. It is autocratic and authoritarian in terms of the way it's forming policies. This is absolutely nothing new. Some of us were happy when the [ruling Justice and Development Party] AKP came to power in 2002 because we thought it was something new. And in part we thought that because there was a social movement that preceded it, women were involved. But it's all gone. The minute the party won and consolidated power, it became a Turkish political party and the social movement that was part of it is completely over. The women who thought that they were participating in a social movement were pushed out and don't really have any roles anymore. They are quite bitter about that. It's now business as usual.

You have been following Turkey since the 1970s, right?

Yes, half of Turkey's population is under the age of 30, so they don't actually remember anything. People who criticize the AKP for being authoritarian don't really have a very long memory. Now they put journalists in jail; before they would kill or torture the journalists. You really need to have the memory of not just the '80s but also the '70s. In comparison, this is an improvement in a lot of ways because there is at least a discourse going on about liberalism, individual rights, human rights, etc. Today you can talk about the Armenians and 1915, whereas in the 1980s you couldn't talk about it at all. There is a discourse now that makes it possible to imagine a different direction -- forward or backward, I don't know, but it was not possible before.

Do you think Turkey is in a period of transition?

Everything is always in a transition, especially in Turkey. If you compare Turkey now to the '70s, it's a different planet -- the way it looks, the way people interact, what's in the stores, etc. In the '70s, Turkey was very much like a poor Eastern European country behind the Iron Curtain in the way it treated its citizens, in the way people feared the state and the military. There are now more possibilities; people can shape their lives in many different ways. This is important, especially to the younger generation.

‘Despite polarizing rhetoric, identities less clear'

What does Islam mean in Turkey?

There are so many different ways of expressing that. There is a female sheikh [Cemalnur Sargut] on Bağdat Caddesi in İstanbul who does not cover her head and attracts a lot of professional women who are secular. The question is why? I think it's because if you don't know what it is to be a Muslim, if you don't know what it means to be Turkish anymore, then this happens. For a lot of youth, it is important to get ahead; they are not interested in sacrificing themselves for the state. Now, the state is mixed in with the government; it used to be separate. Despite the polarizing rhetoric, identities are less clear. You still want to be Turkish, but what does that mean? People are searching for authenticity. This female sheikh may be catering to this search for Turkish authenticity because I am told that she emphasizes that Islam is something Turkish and it appeals to people who are lost among international logos in malls. People feel unsettled and seek their roots. Where are their roots? Are they in the blood, in the flag? Maybe not so much anymore. Are they in Islam? Are they in possessions?

In your book “Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks,” which will come out in November, do you deal with issues related to Turkey's national identity and if the identity has been redefined?

Yes, in fact, the whole book is about that. Kemalism was very much based on race, blood and lineage -- you hear the word “soy” [lineage] used all the time. A year or so ago, a minister spoke at a university to a group of scientists to encourage them to improve the standard of Turkish science. In his speech, he said that this was important so that we can be aware of dangers like importing tomato seeds from Israel -- if you grow tomatoes from these seed and people eat them, it could negatively affect Turks' genetic lineage. This statement led to an explanation by the minister of agriculture that Turkey imports only 4 percent of its tomato seeds from Israel. Another example is that during the 1999 earthquake, one of the ministers rejected blood donations from Greece because he did not want to mix blood. This relates also to liberals who can be perceived as mixing everything and having no boundaries. They have no single group that they belong to. That's one reason why liberals are not so powerful. Who listens to the liberals here? The power is in the hands of people who have groups and who know where the boundaries are and are ready to defend them.

‘Turks pushing aside Kemalist model'

And what would you say in regards to the change related to Turkey's national identity?

Being Muslim was also part of this racial category. For instance, if you meet someone whose name is İshak and who has been here since Byzantine times, a lot of people in Turkey would not consider him a Turk because he is Jewish. So you cannot be a Turk because you are not a Muslim. Where does that come from? It came from the late 1920s and 1930s when racial theories came to Turkey from Russia and Europe. Those ideas influenced the Kemalists. Being Muslim was part of your ethno-racial character. Today, this is becoming less relevant and moving toward an understanding of being Turkish under a broader category, but it's still unclear what it is. And that's why the references to the Ottoman Empire are so important. Alev Çınar wrote about the changing perception of the founding moment of the Turkish nation; it used to be 1923 but now it is 1453. You can go relive this period in a 3-D museum and watch the film “Fetih 1453.” It is important for identity because it tells that you are no longer defined by the 1923 borders. Along with that came the assumption which is taught in schools that in 1923 Turks saved themselves from Western enemies that were trying to destroy them, and these enemies are still trying to do so now using non-Muslim minorities within Turkey to do their dirty work. But this is irrelevant now as you can be friends with Armenians, Greeks, Arabs or anyone else. This is not neo-Ottomanism, this is post-imperialism -- that you have a new sense of who you are, where your boundaries are and what you are capable of, though romanticized and not always realistic. There is this conceptual opening to the world -- that was what [Turkey's late Prime Minister and President Turgut] Özal was doing -- which means pushing aside the Kemalist model that tells you who is Turkish and who is your enemy. There is a new notion instead that Turkey was an empire and could be a world power again.

What do you think lies behind Turkey's rise to international prominence?

First of all, opening up to the world economically was Özal's legacy. There has also been a conceptual opening up to the world, which has meant pushing aside the Kemalist model that says there are enemies out there trying to undermine us. There is also the notion that “we used to be an empire and we can be a world power again” -- which are the ideas of [Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu. Islamists, led by [Necmettin] Erbakan in various parties, talked about the Ottoman Empire as a model [for becoming a world power] but they were not open to globalization. Now, there is an embrace of globalization in Turkey, liberal economic policies plus the Ottoman period as a model. Altogether, this allows Turkey to be in the global arena as a political and economic power.

‘Muslimhood model appeals to Tahrir Square demonstrators'

There is a clichéd question: ‘Can Turkey be a model for the countries which were involved in the Arab Spring?' But what would you say about being a model for these countries? What does it mean?

It means different things to different people; they use it as justification for whatever it is that they want to do. The Egyptian generals believe they are using the Turkey model when they dissolve parliament and push back the Islamists. This is the Kemalist model with a strong army which keeps Islam out of government. But when [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan went to Cairo, he met with the Muslim Brotherhood, which thought that Turkey was a model of a Muslim democracy. However, Erdoğan told them that Turkey is not a Muslim democracy but a secular democracy. He said that they are Muslims who run a secular state or regime. In addition, the Ennahda Party in Tunisia explicitly models itself on the AKP, but Tunisia is like Turkey in many ways already so it's not so much a model for change but an expression of the state of affairs in Tunisia. There is a notion of Muslimhood now in Turkey that has replaced Islamism, or at least pushed it to the fringes of politics. Muslimhood implies a different understanding of personhood. If you are a pious Muslim and you enter politics, the assumption is that you become an Islamist. But the theologians behind the Muslimhood model ask, “Why should that be so? Do Christian politicians become Christianists when they enter politics?”

Can you elaborate more on this?

Their argument is that being a Muslim is a personal attribute, so when you enter politics, you take that with you -- perhaps as a set of ethics -- but it doesn't affect your work in the public arena or how you run the government. In fact, the AKP is a very Turkish party: top down, hierarchical, authoritarian, patriarchal, etc., all the things that the other parties are as well, more or less. People tend to blame these attributes on Islam because as a young population they have a very short memory and don't see the continuities.

The Muslimhood model might be one which the demonstrators at Tahrir Square would have appreciated. They are not interested in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood -- which is top-down, hierarchical, authoritarian, patriarchal and ideological. They want to be modern in their own way and they want to have upward mobility. The women want opportunities that they did not have under the old regime. They are not interested in the Islamist ideologies which go back 50 years; they are interested in having a better life. The Muslimhood model would be a more productive model for Middle Eastern countries. But to have Muslimhood, these countries would have had to go through the process that Turkey did, in which Islam was a personal attribute, rather than the property of Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood.


‘Turkish state feels it has ownership of women's bodies'

What's been happening to women in Turkey? You touched on the topic of how they were disregarded after the AK Party's election.

People are still uncomfortable using the word “kadın” (woman) even though Parliament has just changed the names for restrooms from “hanım” (lady) to “kadın.” We did the same thing in the 1960s and the '70s in the United States. Until then we had ladies' toilets, not women's toilets. The idea was to disentangle women from their social context and make them individuals. If you are defined as a member of a group, whether this group is your family, “aşiret” (clan), community or nation, those groups define who you are and claim ownership of women's bodies. Even the state gets involved; Turkey used to have forced virginity tests. Why would the state be interested in that? The state is the mirror image of an authoritarian and patriarchal society.

So you are not surprised by what Prime Minister Erdoğan said in regards to abortions and C-sections.

It is not surprising that the state feels it has ownership of women's bodies. Erdoğan talks about cesarean sections, which are a medical procedure. He feels he has a right to say, “I'm going to ban this.” Why is that not absurd? It's because it follows the old tradition of the state having an interest in women's bodies, women's virginity, women's moral status or women's honor, because that reflects the integrity and honor of the state. And the discourse of the nation is very much sexual -- the honor of the nation and the penetration of the nation's boundaries are made equivalent to the penetration of women, so women are symbols of danger to the nation. The only place for women in the nation is really as mothers of martyrs. And mothers are not sexual. This is a desexualized role for women, and that role is also militaristic.


‘Gülen movement not traditional Islamic movement'

If you look at the Gülen movement, they are not organized as a traditional Islamic movement would be. They are organized as a series of networks, of foundations. They are very interested in education and supporting young people to better themselves and be upwardly mobile, which is exactly what a Muslimhood model could bring to Tahrir Square and what the Muslim Brotherhood likely cannot.

It's not the old-fashioned Islam of rituals and text-based Islamic practices. It's a different kind of Islam; it's not your grandfather's or grandmother's Islam. And there are people who I encountered during the research for my book, young men and women, who came by Islam in unusual ways.

For instance, one young woman was reading a novel by the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho. The main character in Coelho's book needed a spiritual guide to lead him to where he could find meaning in life. The search for meaning and social justice, however it develops, can lead to membership in religious networks, or to faith and participation in civil society groups, which are another kind of network.

The young woman I mentioned earlier started to cover her head and started to read the Quran, but she didn't join an Islamic community. What she did was to join a secular NGO that works for social justice. When I say Muslims can now choose how to be a Muslim and what group to belong to, she is a perfect example of someone who chose to do something which was probably not possible before. The aim was not to be a good Muslim; the aim was social justice. This is an entirely new way of being a Muslim.

But to be able to do that you have to have gone through the process that I described before -- globalization, commercialization and formation of a devout middle class that has the self-confidence to say, “Yes, I am a Muslim but I'm going to define what that is.”

The Muslimhood model would be a great model for Egypt, but I don't think they can get there yet. There is hope that the military would step back, but it is unlikely to happen; they run a lot of the economy in Egypt. There is not the economic process to open things up.


PROFILE

Jenny White

Jenny White, a writer and social anthropologistWhite teaches social anthropology at Boston University as a tenured associate professor. She has published two scholarly books on contemporary Turkey. “Money Makes Us Relatives,” a description of women's labor in urban Turkey in the 1980s, was published in 1994. “Islamist Mobilization in Turkey” was published in 2002 and explains the rise of Islamic politics in Turkey in the 1990s. It won the 2003 Douglass Prize for best book in Europeanist anthropology. Her first novel, “The Sultan's Seal,” was published in 2006. It was translated into 14 languages and is available in paperback and as an audiobook. Booklist has named it one of the top 10 first novels of 2006 and one of the top 10 historical novels of 2006. It was shortlisted for the 2006 Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award. The sequel, “The Abyssinian Proof,” was published in 2008 and the third Kamil Pasha novel, “The Winter Thief,” in 2010.

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