Tag Archives: Turkey

Tittensor, “The House of Service: The Gulen Movement and Islam’s Third Way”

Next month, Oxford will publish The House of Service: The Gulen 9780199336418Movement and Islam’s Third Way, by David Tittensor (Deakin University, Australia). The publisher’s description follows.

David Tittensor offers a groundbreaking new perspective on the Gülen movement, a Turkish Muslim educational activist network that emerged in the 1960s and has grown into a global empire with an estimated worth of $25 billion. Named after its leader Fethullah Gülen, the movement has established more than 1,000 secular educational institutions in over 140 countries, aiming to provide holistic education that incorporates both spirituality and the secular sciences.

Despite the movement’s success, little is known about how its schools are run, or how Islam is operationalized. Drawing on thirteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Turkey, Tittensor explores the movement’s ideo-theology and how it is practiced in the schools. His interviews with both teachers and graduates from Africa, Indonesia, Central Asia, and Turkey show that the movement is a missionary organization, but of a singular kind: its goal is not simply widespread religious conversion, but a quest to recoup those Muslims who have apparently lost their way and to show non-Muslims that Muslims can embrace modernity and integrate into the wider community. Tittensor also examines the movement’s operational side and shows how the schools represent an example of Mohammad Yunus’s social business model: a business with a social cause at its heart.

The House of Service is an insightful exploration of one of the world’s largest transnational Muslim associations, and will be invaluable for those seeking to understand how Islam will be perceived and practiced in the future.

Will the Hagia Sophia Again Become a Mosque?

When I heard the rumors this fall, I have to confess, I dismissed them. And maybe it is only political posturing. But leading Turkish officials are actually talking about converting the famed Hagia Sophia in Istanbul back into a mosque.

The Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom, was built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. (“Solomon,” the emperor cried when he saw the completed church, “I have surpassed thee!”). For 1000 years, it was the largest Christian cathedral in the world and the emblem of Byzantium. After the empire fell in 1453, the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque. About 500 years after that, the secular Kemalist government made it a museum. And so it has remained.

Now, however, a nationalist party has introduced legislation to reconvert the building to a Muslim place of worship. The idea has support at very high levels. In October, the imam at the neighboring Sultan Ahmet Mosque–a government official–called for Hagia Sophia to reopen as a mosque. Last month, at a public event in Istanbul, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, referred approvingly to two other churches-turned-mosques-turned-museums-turned-mosques-again, one in Trabzon and one in Iznik (once known as Nicea). And he made this comment about the Hagia Sophia itself: “We currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque. We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”

Arinc’s implication is unmistakable. According to the Religion News Service, Turkey’s ruling party, the Islamist AKP, is trying to shore up its base ahead of March provincial elections. It’s smart politics. AKP rank-and-file see Kemalism as a huge historical mistake and wish to return to the pan-Islamism of the Ottoman Empire. Converting Byzantine and other historical Christian monuments from museums into mosques is a way of rejecting secularism and returning to Turkish roots. The Hagia Sophia is the greatest symbol of all. That’s why, in the words of one observer, “Supporting the reopening of Hagia Sophia has become the litmus test of the true believer.”

When it comes to appropriating the temples of the vanquished, no great religion is innocent. Historically, Christians often built churches on the ruins of pagan shrines. One of my favorite sites in Rome, the Basilica of San Clemente, sits atop a Mithraic temple, the ruins of which are still visible. After the Reconquista, Rod Dreher writes, Christians converted the great mosque of Cordoba into a cathedral. The point of such conduct is obvious. The victor wishes literally to squash the altars of the vanquished, to humiliate and demoralize followers of the old way. Our god is greater than yours.

But this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore in the civilized world. As Dreher writes, converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque now, after it has been a museum for decades, would be “a stunning act of cultural aggression” against Christians in Turkey, particularly the handful of Greeks who somehow have managed to hang on there. It would put the lie to claims of pluralism. And it would underline, as few other acts could, what Samuel Huntington famously called “the clash of civilizations.”

Turkey Admits Having Secret Identity Codes for Religious Minorities

This story will strike many readers as odd, but it is nonetheless true. For decades, religious minorities in Turkey, especially Christians, have complained that the state assigns them secret identity codes. Christians maintain that government officials use the codes to discriminate against them when it comes to jobs, licenses, building permits, and so on. Of course, such discrimination would be illegal under Turkish law, which has banned religious discrimination since the Kemalist revolution. And complaints about secret identity codes surely must seem a bit paranoid to outsiders, a kind of conspiracy theory–though, given the genocide of Armenians and other Christians in Turkey 100 years ago, one could forgive Christians for being anxious.

Armenian Church in Istanbul

The rumors turn out to be true, however. This month, for the first time, Turkey’s interior ministry acknowledged that the secret identity codes do, in fact, exist. When an Istanbul family tried to register its child at a local Armenian school recently, officials asked the family to prove it had the so-called “2” code. The family had never been notified of any code and inquired what the officials meant. The education ministry passed the buck to the interior ministry, which eventually acknowledged that it indeed categorizes religious minorities by secret numeric codes: “1” for Greek Orthodox Christians, “2” for Armenian Apostolic Christians, “3” for Jews, and so on. The family’s lawyer states that his clients are now “waiting for an official document saying, ‘Yes, your race code is ‘2,’ you can register in an Armenian school.’”

In acknowledging the secret classification system, the interior ministry said the information about religious identity comes from Ottoman records, which the ministry uses in order to help religious minorities exercise their rights under the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. With respect to education, for example, the ministry supplies the codes to school officials so that Armenians can attend Armenian schools. The government no longer collects information about religious or racial identity, the ministry claims.

Minority communities in Turkey are skeptical. If this was all on the up-and-up, why deny for so long that such codes exist? And why hide their existence from the so-called beneficiaries? After all, if the codes are meant to help minorities, you’d want to let the minorities know about them, not wait for local officials to reveal them by accident. And, given twentieth-century history, can anyone blame Christians in Turkey for thinking the codes are used to discriminate against them? The main opposition Republican People’s Party has threatened to make the issue of the secret codes a problem for the ruling AKP. “If this is true,” an opposition leader said, “it is fatal. It must be examined.” We’ll see.

Hart, “And Then We Work For God”

0804786607Last month, Stanford University Press published And Then We Work For God: Rural Sunni Islam in Western Turkey by Kimberly Hart (State University of New York College at Buffalo). The publisher’s description follows.

Turkey’s contemporary struggles with Islam are often interpreted as a conflict between religion and secularism played out most obviously in the split between rural and urban populations. The reality, of course, is more complicated than the assumptions. Exploring religious expression in two villages, this book considers rural spiritual practices and describes a living, evolving Sunni Islam, influenced and transformed by local and national sources of religious orthodoxy.

Drawing on a decade of research, Kimberly Hart shows how religion is not an abstract set of principles, but a complex set of practices. Sunni Islam structures individual lives through rituals—birth, circumcision, marriage, military service, death—and the expression of these traditions varies between villages. Hart delves into the question of why some choose to keep alive the past, while others want to face a future unburdened by local cultural practices. Her answer speaks to global transformations in Islam, to the push and pull between those who maintain a link to the past, even when these practices challenge orthodoxy, and those who want a purified global religion.

The Economist on Christian Sorrows

Photo from The Economist

The Economist has a couple of interesting stories this week on the continuing plight of Christians in the Middle East. First, from the magazine’s valuable religion blog, Erasmus, is this story about the continued disappearance of two bishops in Syria. One hundred days ago, Islamists in the Syrian opposition kidnapped the two clerics, one from the Greek Orthodox and the other from the Syriac Orthodox Church. Their whereabouts have not been revealed; some reports say they have already been murdered, though that is very unclear.  A Jesuit priest from Italy, who has been working in Syria for 20 years, has also gone missing recently. Meanwhile, the magazine reports that a court in Trabzon, Turkey, has agreed with Turkey’s ruling AKP party that the Byzantine Church of the Holy Wisdom (above) in that city should be reconverted to a mosque. The church had been converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in the 15th Century; in the 20th Century, under the Kemalist regime, it became a museum. Turkey’s tiny Greek Orthodox population worries that another Byzantine church by the same name, Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia, may be next.

Bayir, “Minorities and Nationalism in Turkish Law”

As Walter Russell Mead notes, the recent falling-out between Germany and Turkey over Turkey’s accession to the EU confirms what Samuel Huntington wrote in the 1990s: Deep civilizational divides continue to exist and are impossible to ignore. Notwithstanding Kemalist dreams of transformation, Muslim-majority Turkey and liberal, secularist Europe represent different ways of being. It was never clear how the two could successfully merge in one political entity. Under Erdogan’s AKP, the marriage seems further away than ever.

A recent book from Ashgate, Minorities and Nationalism in Turkish Law, seems like it would provide helpful background to today’s events. The author, Derya Bayir, is a lawyer who specializes in international human rights and the Turkish legal system. Here’s the publisher’s abstract:

Examining the on-going dilemma of the management of diversity in Turkey from a historical and legal perspective, this book argues that the state’s failure to accommodate ethno-religious diversity is attributable to the founding philosophy of Turkish nationalism and its heavy penetration into the socio-political and legal fibre of the country. It examines the articulation and influence of the founding principle in law and in the higher courts’ jurisprudence in relation to the concepts of nation, citizenship, and minorities. In so doing, it adopts a sceptical approach to the claim that Turkey has a civic nationalist state, not least on the grounds that the legal system is generously littered by references to the Turkish ethnie and to Sunni Islam. Also arguing that the nationalist stance of the Turkish state and legal system has created a legal discourse which is at odds with the justification of minority protection given in international law, this book demonstrates that a reconstruction of the founding philosophy of the state and the legal system is necessary, without which any solution to the dilemmas of managing diversity would be inadequate. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, this timely book will interest those engaged in the fields of Middle Eastern, Islamic, Ottoman and Turkish studies, as well as those working on human rights and international law and nationalism.

Powell on Islamic Law in Turkey

Russell Powell (Seattle University School of Law) has posted Evolving Views of Islamic Law in Turkey. The abstract follows.

The tradition of Kemalist secularism (laiklik) in Turkey is often cited to distinguish Turkey as an exceptional case among predominantly Muslim countries. While it is true that the Turkish Constitution, laws, and legal opinions approach the relationship between the state and religion very differently than those of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or even Indonesia, it would be wrong to underestimate the role that religion plays in the formation of Turkish legal norms, including citizen understanding of those norms. There is a wealth of literature describing the nature of Turkish secularism and its evolution. A number of both quantitative and qualitative studies inquire about the preference for Shari’a among Turkish voters. The typical question asks whether respondents favor the establishment of a Shari’a state. Over the past fifteen years, these surveys have received response rates ranging between five and twenty-five percent in favor of such a state. However, these results are extremely problematic, because they do not provide any context or meaning for “the establishment of a Shari’a state,” either for those who favor it or for those who oppose it. This study begins to unpack the range of possible meanings attributed to Shari’a within Turkey, both among voters and among intellectuals, as a framework for future empirical studies and as a basis for deeper understandings of the role of Islam within Turkish law and politics.

What’s Next for Syria’s Christians?

This week, the United States recognized the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella organization of groups opposed to the Assad regime, as the government of Syria. Now, as everyone knows, the SNC relies heavily on fighters from the al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group that the United States has designated as a terrorist organization. There is very little chance that al-Nusra and other Islamists won’t play a major role in a post-Assad Syria, and the fact that the US calls them terrorists isn’t likely to change things. Already, in fact, the head of the Syrian opposition has called on America to reconsider its designation of al-Nusra as terrorists – and this while the SNC still needs American support in a life-or-death struggle with Assad.

What does all this mean for Syria’s Christians? Frankly, nothing good. Although the Syrian opposition has pledged to respect the rights of religious minorities, the minorities do not appear persuaded. And for good reason. All Christians have to do is look to Egypt, where, in the aftermath of a democratic revolution, Islamists have pushed aside Christians and secularists to draft a new, pro-Islamist constitution. Why should Christians believe that Syrian Islamists will behave differently? The fact that the Syrian opposition has made common cause with the Islamist government of Turkey, the historical persecutor of many of the Christian communities in Syria, only makes Christians more worried about their future.

For a sense of how Syria’s Christians perceive things, it’s worth reading this article from the New York Times about Syria’s Armenian community. Armenian Christians have been in Syria in numbers since the Genocide of 1915, when they fled or were forced out of neighboring Turkey. They have integrated into Syrian society and feel that Syria is their home. Yet they worry that the religious toleration they have known will cease if Assad falls and Islamists come to power. They could stay to see what happens, but, as one member of the community tells the Times, referring to the 1915 Genocide, “We lost 1.5 million people to this mentality that it will all work out.” Armenians feel they have no choice but to leave. Many have relocated to Armenia, a place which most of them have never seen and where cultural adjustments can be very difficult.

Or watch this elegiac documentary from Swiss television about the Syriac Orthodox community across the border in eastern Turkey. In the film, a Syriac Orthodox family that fled Turkey for Switzerland in the 1980s returns to see what has become of their village. What few Christians remain keep their heads down. They explain about phony land disputes and other strategies the Turkish state has adopted to make their life difficult. “Turkey is supposed to be secular,” someone explains, “but in practice it’s not like that.” Christians who can do so have escaped – to Europe, mostly. If this is the model for the future of Christian communities in Syria, it’s no wonder Christians are trying to get out while they can.

According to the New Testament, the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch, in Syria. It is hard to escape the feeling that one is witnessing the end of one of the world’s oldest religious civilizations in the place of its birth.

Gulalp & Seufert, “Religion, Identity, and Politics: Germany and Turkey in Interaction”

This April, Routledge Publishers will publish Religion, Identity, and Politics: Germany and Turkey in Interaction edited by Haldun Gulalp (Yıldız Technical University) and Günter Seufert (senior researcher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs). The publisher’s description follows.

This book examines the long history and unrecognized depth of German-Turkish relations, particularly with regard to the mutually formative processes of religious identities and institutions. Opposing the commonly held assumption that Europe is the abode of secularism and enlightenment, while the lands of Islam are the realm of backwardness and fundamentalism, the authors observe that, Germany, as the case in point, both historically and contemporarily has treated religion as a core aspect of communal and civilizational identity and framed its institutions accordingly. Further, there has been, and continues to be, a mutual exchange in this regard between Germany and both the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Definition of identity and regulation of communities have been explicitly based on religion until the early and since the late twentieth century. The period in between, often treated as normative for being identified with secular and national communities, now appears as an exception.

Deringil, “Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire”

Conversion is a problematic concept for Muslim-majority societies. Classical  Islamic law makes conversion from Islam a capital offense, and many Muslim-majority countries today, even those that do not apply classical fiqh, fail to recognize a right to convert.  Turkey’s current draft constitution for the first time grants such a right, although the right’s contours are uncertain. A forthcoming book by Turkish historian Selim Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire (Cambridge 2012) situates the subject historically, describing the pressures on Christians to convert in the nineteenth- century Ottoman Empire. These pressures coincided, ironically, with a secularization campaign known as the Tanzimat, which, as a formal matter, made religion irrelevant to Ottoman political identity. Deringil, a professor at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, no doubt deals with the ironies in his forthcoming book, which looks like a very worthwhile read. The publisher’s description follows:

The commonly accepted wisdom is that nationalism replaced religion in the age of modernity. In the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, the focus of Selim Deringil’s book, traditional religious structures crumbled as the empire itself began to fall apart. The state’s answer to schism was regulation and control, administered in the form of a number of edicts in the early part of the century. It is against this background that different religious communities and individuals negotiated survival by converting to Islam when their political interests or their lives were at stake. As the century progressed, however, and as this engaging study illustrates with examples from real-life cases, conversion was no longer sufficient to guarantee citizenship and property rights as the state became increasingly paranoid about its apostates and what it perceived as their “de-nationalization.” The book tells the story of the struggle for the bodies and the souls of people, waged between the Ottoman state, the Great Powers, and a multitude of evangelical organizations. Many of the stories shed light on current flash-points in the Arab world and the Balkans, offering alternative perspectives on national and religious identity and the interconnections between the two.