Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Tale Two of Hojas, or, the Mendacity of Alternative Modernity

The two pictures above come from a 1944 edition of the prayer manual Namaz Hocası, published by Bozkurt Press under the direction of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. At first glance it seemed like the perfect illustration of a particular late-Kemalist fantasy: a young man dutifully performing his prayers in a skull cap and smoking jacket. It only recently occurred to me that there is at least one person for whom this unique combination is a veritable uniform: Fethullah Gülen

The similarity in costume - particularly if you look at the cut of the lapels - hints at something deeply problematic about the "alternative modernities" rhetoric that has come to dominate so many discussions of 20th century Turkey. A number of authors have criticized Kemalism for its linear vision of modernity defined exclusively in reference to a singular Western model. This simplistic, out-dated idea of modernity then serves as a foil, implicitly or explicitly, for those who, whether in the late-Ottoman period or more recently, envisioned a more "authentic," "organic," or "natural" alternative form of modernity that would reconcile Turkey's Eastern and Western identities, synthesize Islam and technology and generally resolve all the contradictions supposedly facing the Turkish psyche.[1]

While it is, of course, good that scholars have recognized the fact that the passage of time and the evolution of technology has not transformed all societies into iterations of a single "modern" type, many of those discussing “alternative modernities,” in the Turkish context at least, remain unwilling to acknowledge the extent to which the modernizers they disparage recognized this as well. In fact, Kemalist modernizers regularly dismissed the late Ottoman modernization project on exactly the same grounds they are now criticized: it sought, they claimed, to superficially ape aspects of Western culture that were not truly understood while betraying the unique, authentic character of the Turkish people. Not surprisingly, it turns out just about everyone over the past century portrayed their own vision of modernity as the "authentic" alternative to the bastardized, hybrid modernities espoused by others. Globally, the twentieth century saw liberalism, communism and fascism all champion visions of modernity that, their supporters insisted, where superior to the others in reconciling the fundamental nature of mankind with the realities of technological society. In Turkey, the 1950s saw an intense competition between rival modernities. Adnan Menderes insisted that the Democratic Party's free-market, just a little more pious twist represented the final, most modern incarnation of Kemalism. Within the CHP, meanwhile, men like Bulent Ecevit sought to articulate a more egalitarian, more participatory kind of Kemalism which they believed embodied its most modern possible form. Sadly, to the extent that today's alternative modernities devotees have dealt with these mid-century modernities, they have refused to recognize them as legitimate alternatives in their own right. At best, the Democratic Party era get written off as an awkward, indeterminate stage in the passage from strict Kemalism to the legitimately "alternative modernity" represented by whatever contemporary movement the author prefers. Ironically, the most ardent champions of alternative modernities are the first to insist that there was something inherently unstable, contradictory or unresolved about earlier, mid-century articulations of Turkish modernity. I would argue that once we abandon the idea of a unilinear, positivist modernity, who are we to say that Menderes's modernity - one in which he could have camels sacrificed in his honor while having an affair with an opera singer - was any more or less legitimate than an "Islamic modernity" today that seeks to embrace piety alongside capitalist consumption or technology alongside creationism.

Which brings us back to Gülen and his lapels. At a moment when the future of Turkish democracy seems to hinge on a contest between rival religiously-inspired political movements, we would do well to acknowledge the continued influence of various forms of Kemalist modernity. Certainly Gülen’s movement has served many scholars as an exemplar of alternative modernity. As early as 1989, scholars such as Şerif Mardin discussed the modern nature of the Nurcu movement as well as its links with the origins of the Turkish state (perhaps Mardin’s most telling example involves the Committee of Union and Progress smuggling Said Nursi himself into Tripoli by submarine to contribute to the anti-Italian resistance in 1912). [2] After all, one of the first conflicts between the Gülenists and the AKP erupted over the Kurdish issue, when the Gülenist-controlled police opposed national Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan’s ongoing negotiations with the PKK. 

Naturally, it is those aspects of the Kemalist program that have been rejected, or are currently being contested, that draw the most attention, while elements of the program that have been universally accepted often pass unnoticed precisely because they seem so uncontroversial. Thus the early Republican effort to translate the call to prayer into Turkish stands out as an example of misguided secular over-reach. Yet from the 1930s through the 1950s, another Kemalist project, translating the Quran into Turkish, was just as controversial. Today, however, you would be hard pressed to find anyone in even the most conservative religious circles who objects to the nearly ubiquitous presence of books titled Türkçe Kuran-ı Kerim meali or The Meaning of the Sacred Quran in Turkish.

Revisiting the links between Kemalist and Islamist modernities serves as an important and timely warning against assuming that the triumph of any particular “Islamist”  modernity is any more inevitable than the  triumph of Kemalist secular modernity was in the 1930s. In today’s political debates, as in those of the 50s, Turkish citizens will chose, hopefully democratically, how to combine piety, nationalism,  materialism in defining modernity for themselves. Whether they want their modernity with raki or ayran, evolution or intelligent design, Erdoğan or someone else, all this remains  to be seen.

[1] See, for example, works such as Şükrü Hanioğlu’s Atatürk, or A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire, Benjamin Fortna’s Imperial Classroom and Gavin Brockett’s How Happy to Call Oneself a Turk.
[2] See Mardin’s Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey