Saturday, September 8, 2012

Can the West believe in Islamic progress?

While the West has been largely indecisive about its position on the several recent experimental and violent renegotiations of Islam and power in the Middle East, its feelings on Islamic power have been rather clearly demonstrated over the years: The acquisition of power by Islamic entities is a cause for concern. By the same token, the Islamization of a powerful entity is also a cause for concern.

In Turkey’s case, the Western perception of the latter scenario has dominated the language of experts and journalists who are expressing worry by filling their assessments of Turkey’s political path in general, and the influence of the Gulen movement in particular, with sinister overtones. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is viewed as facilitating a “takeover” in which Islamic powers in Turkey have seized control of previously secular state institutions. The association of Turkey’s Islamization with depictions of aggression and radicalization has been boosted by the alarm sounded by Bernard Lewis, one of the most influential historians of the Middle East, who describes Turkey’s movement as “re-Islamization,” thus emphasizing a return to darker days and a form of rule that does not rule out future Iranization.

This movement, as viewed through Western eyes, presents what appears to be a baffling paradox, especially in light of Turkey’s economic growth: Turkey’s financial progress is coinciding with the ideological retreat of its secular identity. How on earth can more wealth be leading a country to become less Western? No wonder the West is bewildered.

Using Hegel to understand Turkey

It is here proposed that a helpful way to resolve the West’s Turkish cognitive dissonance is by employing one of the West’s own interpretive methods: the Hegelian dialectic. This philosophical technique was designed and developed by European thinkers in order to reconcile seeming contradictions similar to the one posed by modern-day Turkey’s tension between Islam and secularism. In such a framework of thought, Islam, in its original form in the Ottoman days, is likened to a thesis negated by its antithesis in the form of secularism, leading to the subordination and assimilation of the negation, resulting in a synthesis: an Islam that is self-reflective and self-conscious for having seen itself through the mirror of secularism and, hence, of an elevated degree of compatibility with the West. In other words, Turkey’s Islamization is not regressive, but progressive, motioning, as reason does, through the integration of contradictions into a more comprehensive unity.

This dialectic movement forward in Turkey is primarily propelled by the Gulen movement, which sprang in bottom-up fashion from Turkey’s Anatolian bourgeoisie, comprising Muslims who identify their social class in Western terms. These are Muslims who promote and optimize Turkey’s civil society through Western sensibilities. For instance, headscarves, which were previously banned in Turkey’s secular antithetical stage, are now not forced upon anybody, but simply allowed in the public space. In other words, the true Muslim wishes of key elements in Turkish society are no longer denied while at the same time Western constitutional freedoms are respected.

The political scientist M. Hakan Yavuz, whose fascinating upcoming book “Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gulen Movement” I was privileged to preview, considers the movement to constitute a genuinely Protestant Islam. This means the movement’s Islamic core is intertwined with an internalization of Western Weberian and Calvinist worldviews, highlighting the interconnectedness of religious principles and economic applications, believing, in the spirit of Capitalism, that socioeconomic prosperity is the most favorable way to bring about and reflect God’s pleasure. This is the main aspect of many other avenues in which the movement expresses a cognizant dialogue with Western thought and belief. Yavuz, a Turkish scholar in the United States, puts the movement under the magnifying glass of academic scrutiny, identifying both its promise and the stumbling blocks ahead. His earnest analysis of the movement’s subtleties does not offer predictions of the movement’s future, but sends an echoing message that has been overlooked: The Gulen movement is still in motion.

The path of the Gulen movement might not be perfect -- old contradictions are always replaced by new ones in humanity’s quest for betterment -- but it is nonetheless a road paved by a commitment to progress. The movement’s innovations in teaching must be continuously coupled with openness to learning even from its obvious detractors within Turkey. In particular, issues concerning freedom of expression and the judiciary have increased the number of the movement’s doubters, but doubt offers the best possible stage on which to show that perceived contradictions may be reconciled. The stage for showing the movement’s commitment to progress is also set outside Turkey, as tangible improvements in the lives of many Muslims would be readily noticeable. If this Turkish movement’s constructive focus on science and technology as well as love and community service could inspire the Arab world, then there would be hope of lessening the destructive worship of struggle in the region. Turkey’s ideological and actual fight against terrorism does not leave any room for comparison with Iran’s top-down, terror-sponsoring Islam.

The foreign Muslim Turk

Nonetheless, the portrayal of Turks in Western media is dominated by suspicion and alienation. The underwhelming reception of Islamic prosperity, especially of the kind that is not grounded in oil rigs but in economic ingenuity, is somewhat frustrating: While the West is adamant about stirring Islam away from violence, it is not terribly thrilled to see it flourish. Furthermore, the Armenian lobbies are trying to perpetuate Turkey’s defamiliarization in Western eyes by projecting past tragedies on Turkey’s modern-day image. The attempt to hold the current Turkish government accountable for Talat Pasha and the late Ottoman rule is as sensible as holding the Obama administration accountable for Jefferson Davis and the agenda of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War. The mere existence of such pressure is a banner of anti-Islamic double standards in the world today, standing atop unnecessarily highlighted divides between Muslims and Christians.

The recent article by Maximilian Popp in the popular German weekly Der Spiegel epitomizes the ethnocentric chauvinism that is bent on defamiliarizing the progressive Turk. Unfortunately, that article, which will likely be read by many, is based on the erroneous belief that the author’s preferred secular culture sets the universal norm; the author’s own culture, upon its own preferred categories, is followed as if it were the exclusive determiner for judging other cultures. The article reveals an intention to take what volunteers of the movement feel are familiar standards, and give them a strange and unfamiliar appearance. This type of defamiliarization, which looks to present another culture through an aggressive biased devotion to one’s own cultural beliefs, should be rejected outright for its use of exaggeration, pretense objectivity and maneuvered context. In fact, it has already been criticized and even mocked by responsible anthropologists for quite some time now. Horace Mitchell Miner’s brilliant satirical essay “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” from 1956 shows that even American culture can be defamiliarized if such is the author’s intent as, for instance, brushing one’s teeth is described as a private mouth ritual and dentists are holy-mouth-men.

Specifically, when Popp defamiliarizes the Gulen-inspired schools by highlighting the authoritative role of the elder brother and the restrictions on watching TV, listening to music or reading books that are not approved, he is trying to depict the movement as an adversary of freedom, failing to recognize that the concept of discipline is not so foreign, or exclusive to these schools, but rather is common in many quality private schools, professional sports or military academies. However, Popp will not be defamiliarizing the English Eton College, the FC Barcelona youth academy or the US Marine academy for their different emphases on discipline. Similarly, the article defamiliarizes a religious group’s right for self-preservation. If Der Spiegel finds it strange and newsworthy that volunteers of the movement are encouraged (or “pressured” as Popp puts it) to marry other volunteers, does that mean that the magazine is culturally uncomfortable with other religious or social groups who do the same, and even in a more explicit manner, such as the Jews? Furthermore, the endeavor to align one’s religion with science is not an invention unique to Gulen, but rather a continuation of efforts over centuries by Islamic mutakallimun, Jewish thinkers and Christian theologians. Correspondingly, Gulen does not deny scientific facts, as the article states, but rather he concedes that the survival of Islam is dependent on a successful assimilation of scientific theories into the faith. Indeed, the article defamiliarizes religion, as it even considers the long practiced and biblically sanctioned concept of tithing to be “murky finances.”

Wording goes a long way, especially in cases of first impression. If, as the article claims, the German public knows nothing about the Gulen movement, then such articles will likely present the movement’s volunteers, Turks and Muslims as a foreign threat. The pronounced negativity of such articles is clear if one gleans the harmful words carefully placed in it to describe the movement: references to the movement being “shadowy,” “secretive,” “mafia”-like and “dangerous” lead to unequivocal and immediate vilification; describing volunteers as serving Gulen rather than serving the community leads to impressions of self-service and self-aggrandizement; saying that the movement inspires volunteers to “idolize” creates a strong sense of a blind, rather than sober, worship; suggesting that the book collection of a proud volunteer is a mere exhibition with no substance is a reflection of painfully distrusting cynicism; comparing the movement to Opus Dei and Scientology creates an association with groups perceived in Germany as being controversial, cultish, and threatening; reporting that Gulen seeks “control,” “power,” and “influence” as part of a strategy to dominate the West, is appealing to old xenophobic fears; and, most disturbingly, printing words to ascribe the Gulen movement the image of a spider that lays webs for innocent Germans, as the article in Der Spiegel does, is too reminiscent of the notorious anti-Semitic caricature in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer in which the Jews are represented as a spider that is about to devour the people caught in its web.

Turkey’s Islamization is an opportunity, not a concern. There are those who pin America’s low popularity among Turks on Islamization, but this rate is only as low as the retrospective approval rate of the war in Iraq among Americans themselves; others pin the conflict with Israel on Turkey’s Islamization, but when viewed without prejudice it is purely a matter of pragmatic offensive realism, as would be expected of any power in Turkey’s situation, secular or religious. Turkey’s Islamization should not be vilified, but rather appreciated for the synthesis it presents between Islam and West. Turkey’s Protestant Islam, not secularism, is a much stronger foundation for a bridge between Islam and Christianity. The current wrong assessments and under-appreciation of Turkey’s role in politics and interreligious dialogue can be smoothly corrected with adequate study and gestures by secularists and Westerners. At a time when the West is greatly tested by tumultuous developments in Muslim countries, it is not less important for it to focus on how to handle the test posed by real Islamic capitalistic success.

Tal Buenos, an Israeli, has a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School (2005).

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