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Gökhan Bacık
Jan 09 2019

How traditionalists kill Islamic thought in Turkey

The traditional orthodox interpretation of Islam is very much in the ascendant in Turkey, but a burgeoning reformist Islamic narrative is gaining traction.

Not unexpectedly, orthodox Islam employs every available strategy to denigrate reformists, firstly by labelling them Orientalists. Any reformist Muslim who speaks out about problems in Muslim societies is accused of having Orientalist views.

Edward Said was a very influential Christian Arab scholar. Orientalism, a key element of his intellectual legacy, has ironically become a fundamental concept of contemporary Islamic and even Islamist thought. Rarely is there an Islamic movement that has not incorporated Said’s concept of Orientalism into its rhetoric.

Turkey is no different. Any reformist scholar or author who comes up with some sort of self-criticism of Muslim societies is promptly blamed for having an Orientalist view. Orthodox Islamic narrative thus shrewdly uses Orientalism to discredit self-criticism of reformist Muslims.

The second tactic is the cultural relativity thesis. When reformists bring their standard criticism in various topics like the status of women or polygamy, orthodox Islam defends its traditional stance on such issues by references to cultural relativity. It helps traditional Islam defend its interpretations on such issues by providing some sort of immunity.

As a third tactic, orthodox Islam argues that modern paradigms fail to understand Islam and Islamic history. Accordingly, basic Islamic texts as well as some key historical events came into being before modernity. Thus, a modern understanding of such phenomena would mislead us. In fact, most of the ideas and arguments that reformists propose were nothing but misunderstandings about Islam and Islamic history due to the incompetence of modern methods.

By referring to this argument, orthodox Islam argues that the truth about Islam is something a modern approach can never grasp. So, questioning why thousands of Muslims have killed each other in civil wars is a typical modern illusion since the truth behind such events requires a different level inquiry.

The purpose of this method is simple. Like all other great traditions, Islam has some absurd episodes or events in its past which contemporary Muslims always want to hide. Instead of facing up to them and proposing alternative narratives, orthodox Islam prefers to defend such cases by providing absolute immunity.

The fourth tactic is sheltering orthodox Islam behind some key historical scholars like Al Ghazali and Al Buhari, who are held in great esteem by Muslims for their role in shaping the mainstream Islamic narrative.

Undoubtedly, such great scholars cannot be ignored. But like any other religious or secular traditions, Islam needs some sort of intellectual dialogue. However, in its debate with reformists, Islamic orthodoxy presents such great names as a way to refute any argument.

The problem of this strategy is simple, no matter how great their contributions, scholars like Al Ghazali had some ideas that are no longer relevant today. But a reformist view of Islam requires some sort of critical re-reading of the works of scholars like Al Ghazali, who played a key role in the formation of orthodox Islam. A critical Islamic narrative is not possible unless it challenges the great names of Islamic tradition.

The fifth strategy is to propose piety as a prerequisite for any intellectual endeavour on Islam. Accordingly, Islamic orthodoxy calls Muslims to ignore reformists for not being religious enough. For example, reformists are criticised for not praying five times a day, or not having a proper religious life.

The fallacy of this tactic is also obvious. One cannot argue that only good communists can criticise communism, or only good liberals can criticise liberalism. Making a linear correlation between profession and personal characteristics is a medieval form of thinking. Many people Islamic orthodoxy would find immoral, impious or even irreligious, have produced brilliant ideas. Similarly, there are pious people with a shocking personal record of criminal activity.

By contrast, the modern approach does not prioritise personal characteristics, instead it focuses on the veracity of the arguments. We are not interested in whether the proposer is religious or not, but whether the proposition is valid and useful.