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Turkish Exceptionalism: Interview with Serif Mardin | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat – Turkish thinker Serif Mardin is considered a star in Turkey; his books fly off the shelves and he enjoys a wide renown among the Turks. He was the man who coined the concept of ‘Turkish Exceptionalism’ in his attempt to analyze and elaborate upon the reasons behind the different manner by which the Turks dealt with Islam and their vision of the state.

For Mardin, the separation between religion and the state in Turkey was not born out of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s movement to found a Turkish republic following the end of the First World War and the war for independence; in fact, Mardin maintains that this secularism and separation between the state and religion began with the Ottoman Empire.

According to Mardin, the meaning of secularism for Turks then, and even now, does not mean adopting a hostile attitude towards religion. Instead, it means that for the Turks, the state takes precedence over religion by “one millimeter”. By virtue of the standing that the concept of the ‘state’ occupies among the Turks; the symbol of the state is the Turkish flag, which you can see everywhere in the streets, restaurants, on cars, buildings, sailboats and inside shops and popular markets.

When he speaks, Mardin echoes the phrases “Ottoman Empire”, “Ottoman traditions” and the “Ottoman way”. Born in 1927, Mardin believes that modern Turkey during Ataturk’s era and in its pursuit for modernity, has wholeheartedly embraced the West and neglected the particularities of the Ottoman experience, which he upholds must be re-examined and studied.

Following is the text of the interview that was conducted in Istanbul:

Q: What differentiates the Turkish state from other states in the region?

A: Cultural exceptionalism is a concept that was developed through the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, a 9th Century philosopher who wrote about “American Exceptionalism” and the unique way in which American society had evolved. He stated that American society did not have to go through a period of ‘Middle Ages’, which European states had to endure before emerging into the Renaissance. As such, the struggle between the state and religion in the US does not exist on the same scale as it did in Europe.

In other words, American society took a “shortcut” in what was an exceptional form of development, because the state and the religion did not have to confront one another or struggle, such as was the case in Europe during the conflicts between the kings in France, Italy and England and their respective churches.

Turkey constitutes an “exceptional case” in the region in terms of its relationship with religion. Throughout its history the Ottoman Empire was cautious to distance the religion from the state. During that period, the state was of greater importance to the Ottomans in comparison to the significance of the states in any other part in the region. This is why Turkey developed the concept of religion, with its own peculiarities as opposed to other states in the region, and was founded on the power of the state  which is a concept that is difficult for many Arabs to apprehend. For Arabs, religion comes first then it is followed by the state.

This has been the exceptional case in Turkey even prior to the advent of Islam. There was a large bureaucratic class and a sophisticated bureaucracy, in addition to an effective state system. For the Turks, the concept of ‘state’ was a powerful one before the emergence of Islam, and this continued to be the case even after it was introduced. This is what I mean by Turkish exceptionalism. What is strange is that no one in the Islamic world or the Western writers who write about Turkey realizes this truth when they analyze the situation in Turkey with regards to the state and religion.

Somehow this Turkish exceptionalism still continues to the present day; the state continues to come before religion by “one millimeter”. As such, the concept of secularism that was approved in the Turkish constitution in 1924 during Ataturk’s regime is not alien, unfamiliar or unexpected if considered within the context of Turkish history. It is a continuation of a practice that existed since the Ottoman Empire  however; it has not been esteemed as it should be.

Q: This is with regards to the state, what about the society? Has the ethnic and linguistic diversity in Turkish society impacted the understanding and the manner in which religion was dealt with?

A: That is true as well. This aspect merged with the special nature of the Turkish state and together, they formed Turkish exceptionalism. The Turks’ social experience and the ethnic diversity over the past centuries have affected their understanding of religion. Religion and the state of Turkey always used to run parallel to one another. The current regime may be regarded as a continuation of the Ottoman solution in terms of the relationship between religion and the state.

Q: Does this implicitly mean that the possibility of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) taking over the government, presidency and parliament is not a concern? According to your view secularism developed historically in a natural manner to defend the state and religion in Turkey and that it was not a Western concept that was exported or imposed, and as such it would be difficult for any political faction to eliminate it?

A: (Laughs) When we talk about the AKP, it is not a reference to one big entity; rather, it represents an admixture of multiple layers and groups, which is a natural thing when dealing with any social or political phenomenon. There are several layers within the AKP; some figures are more secular whilst others adopt a more hard-line approach.

The AKP is comprised of various groups that have become allied together, thus naturally, not everyone was in agreement over everything and there are differences in viewpoints. But of course social phenomenon such as the AKP can sometimes evolve in unprecedented ways that are hard to predict. I truly do not know what the future holds, however I do not think that the hardliner groups have the upper hand now.

Q: Some uphold that the AKP has reinforced its relationship with the religious orders in Turkey and that this constitutes one of the sources of its strength?

A: Yes, that is true. However, the religious orders in Turkey are unlike those in North Africa. It is important to affirm that the religious orders in Turkey are always related to the Turkish state, they are also part of the force that formed the AKP and they are unlike the religious orders that formed in the Horn of Africa at the end of the 19th Century.

Religious orders in Turkey, for example, are organized and modern and moreover have their own special views on internal and international political issues. Their influence surpasses the borders of Turkey to various regions around the world. There are organizations that are affiliated to the orders that operate abroad.

Upon considering all the phenomena in Turkey, including the religious orders, consider the past that has shaped Turkey’s exceptionalism, and this applies to religious orders that still continue to have a political presence today among the political circles of authority.

Q: What does the phrase “Turkish Islam” mean to you?

A: It means that Turkish exceptionalism differs from all other experiences in the Islamic world. There are many practices, traditions and ideas that lend Turkish Islam its exceptional and unique nature since the beginning of the Turkish Empire. Turkish Islam has absorbed the ideas of the enlightenment era (rational thinking, modernity and democracy) through mysticism at the end of 18th Century.

For example, the Naqshbandi tariqa (discipline) supported the Turkish enlightenment movement as well as the Ottoman state’s religious and constitutional reforms rather than opposing them. It should also be pointed out that when the Ottomans founded their state they referred to themselves as the people of Rome and the Balkans. This is very important because the Ottomans always looked towards the Balkans in Austria and Hungary, and there were linguistic, cultural and geographical interaction and exchanges.

This Balkan element is a fundamental component in the Ottoman Empire’s culture and is essential to understand the manner in which it dealt with Islam, which is different from the experience of most Islamic countries. The Turks had been exposed to Christianity from the start since there had been contact and exchanges with the Balkan community, which was predominantly Christian, whereas the rest of the Arab and Islamic world did not have that Balkan element in its history. This Christian component was responsible for changing the understanding of the concept of the ‘other’ for the Turks, which was different from the perception held by the rest of the Islamic states. For the Turks, the ‘other’ does not mean the enemy.

Q: The Iranians also uphold that their political philosophy was influenced by mysticism, in your view; are there any similarities between the Iranians and the Turks in this regard?

A: Yes, there are a lot of similarities. Many are unaware of how Iranian philosophers and philosophical ideas that came from Iran, such as ‘al Ishraq’ were inspired by and assimilated many ideas from the Turks during the Ottoman Empire. The Iranians are a highly cultured and philosophical people, and there are points of convergence between them and the Turks, which is why I believe that this “Islam Shaabawi” (populist Islam) will not last much longer in Iran. The Iranians are a philosophical people by nature; there are philosophers today who are a testimony of that, such as Abdul Karim Soroush who is a model for contemporary Iranian thinkers and philosophers.

Q: What is the Turkish perception of Arabs? Is there a particular image?

A: This is an intricate and complex topic; there is no single fixed image of the Arabs throughout the times. The Arabic language is a difficult language and there was no communication between the Turks and the Arabs as a result of the lack of a common language. Those who did not learn Arabic in school find it difficult to learn the language, and 99 percent of the Turkish population did not interact with the Arabs during the Ottoman Empire period. Knowledge of the Arabic language was confined to the elite since the Ottoman Empire, thus language was an obstacle.

As such, with time, fewer and fewer people could speak Arabic to the extent that the great reformist Jawdat Pasha was looking for someone who was proficient in the Arabic language whom he could trust to translate his work between 1850-1860, and it proved to be difficult to find someone who was qualified.

There is something mechanical here; it has nothing to do with the Turks liking the Arabs or not  when language is absent, communication becomes absent too. There are cases where even the judges did not know Arabic and when they visited areas where the people spoke Arabic, they had to take interpreters with them to court.

If communication between the Arabs and Turks depended on the elite that could speak Arabic, then this meant that the majority of the Turkish and Arab people did not communicate. With the exception of the holy Quran there was no linguistic, and thus no cultural, exchange. No matter how well a person had memorized the Quran, his/her understanding of it is an entirely different matter. Understanding the Quran requires a lot of time and study because its meaning is elaborate. It was normal to find eight year old children in Anatolia who had memorized the whole Quran; however, their understanding of it is limited.

This was a factor from the start and is still ongoing today; although there is communication between the two elites, there is none between the general public. However, in general there is a respect for the Arabs; the Quran was revealed in Arabic  however; the question is how can there be exchanges with the Arabs when the Arabic language is so difficult?

As for the image of Turks among the Arabs, there has always been, as evident in the history books and research, a hostile tendency towards the Turks since they were an imperialistic power. But this perception is changing now, a number of contemporary Egyptian historians who have emerged recently and others who specialize in the history of the Ottoman Empire are seeking to reevaluate the relationship between the Arabs and the Ottoman Empire. This is being reassessed on the basis that the historical relationship between the Arabs and the Ottoman Empire was not a conflicting or hostile one, and I believe that these efforts are beneficial.

There is a need for more translations between the Arabic and Turkish languages, especially in terms of daily events and people’s lives not just books on ideologies etc. But there is a reason for this deficiency in translation and it is that the Turks like to read novels in Turkish, while the Arabs like to read them in Arabic. When you read Naguib Mahfouz in Turkish, it evokes different thoughts and feelings than reading it in the original language. Perhaps that is due to a weakness in the translation.

Q: Is it true that the prevalent image that the Turks hold of the Arabs is that they are ‘traitors’, by virtue of their support for the English during the First World War, while the common image of Arabs among Turks is that of “crude colonialists”?

A: The perception overlaps between these two images. In the 19th Century, there were two aspects to the image, when the Sharif of Mecca [Ibn Ali Husayn] allied with the British against the Turks and Damascus fell at the hands of the British General Allenby, the Turks regarded it as treason. This is a sentiment that is perhaps still prevalent among many Turks. There was a book that was published recently that discusses the Arab betrayal of the Turks and their alliance with General Allenby.

However, the matter is very complicated; on a popular level that perception was somewhat better though. My grandfather used to speak Arabic, Farsi and French, aside from Turkish, of course. He was well-read in Arabic culture and as a young child I remember hearing Arabic around the house, which my grandfather would speak. Also, there was the prevailing atmosphere at that time which was the birth of the nationalistic state in Turkey after World War I  and that did not help.

Q: Whenever a crisis would erupt in Turkey, analysts would mechanically attribute it to the so-called identity crisis between the East and Islam on the one hand, and the West on the other… Does Turkey suffer from an identity crisis?

A: It is not a crisis and there is no need for it to become an identity crisis (laughs). It only becomes a crisis under certain circumstances: when a party tries to exploit or use the situation for its own benefit. We have the capabilities in Turkey so that our cultural, geographic and political existence between East and West does not transform into becoming an identity crisis.

In Turkey, secularism is not an ideology; rather, it is the way through which people live every day. There are citizens who do not drink alcohol inasmuch as there those who regularly drink and they coexist without any problems. Those who drink alcohol do not say that they are not religious, they are Muslims and they say that they are Muslims. The Turks have reached an agreement and problems erupt when one party rejects this consensual solution.

Q: What remains in Turkey today of the cultural and social heritage of the Ottoman state?

A: Unfortunately, not much. This is because culture is in need of rejuvenation and research and further knowledge of its essence and background. Nowadays in Turkey there is a significant presence of clerics, and they were not nurtured on the culture and ideology of the Ottoman period but rather on today’s teachings.

There is a substantial amount of discussion about the Ottoman culture, but there is very little written today about Ottoman architecture, for example. To have a culture around a particular topic it is necessary to have an accumulation of knowledge about the subject in question and unfortunately this is not happening in Turkey today.

This ‘cut-off’ happened due to the prevalent idea in Turkey that in order to become modern, which has become a primary concern for the Turks, the nations that had become advanced must be studied. This takes time; however this also meant that the Turks no longer study the Ottoman history in depth, which has resulted in a lack of understanding of that period today.

Q: Whenever anyone refers to Turkish exceptionalism they refer to Ataturk and hold him in high esteem and give him credit and recognition for it. Why does Ataturk still have such a strong presence on the political stage today?

A: Ataturk is a legendary figure for the Turks, much in the same way that Thomas Jefferson is in the US. He is the founder, the leader and commander; he is the person who saved the remnants of the Ottoman Empire  which was an incredibly difficult task. Many of the Turks regard Ataturk as “loyal” and a “savior” to them and to what remained of the empire’s territory.

Another dimension is that he was the one who founded modern Turkey and many Turks view him as the man who advanced Turkey when it was emerging from its weakest stage, and moreover introduced enlightened ideas of modernization.

Ataturk was characterized by an enormous propensity for planning and one of the traits of being a resolute planner is to have a capacity for foresight and the ability to think about the future. What will be suitable for the Turks, how will it be possible to entrench these new thoughts and principles?

Ataturk was an exceptional figure. It is not difficult to find exemplary generals around the world, but for a general to be driven towards modernity and to set a constitution and set up a democratic state is a very rare occurrence. And, when we take into consideration that all this took place in the twenties and thirties, it makes Ataturk a more compelling and impressive figure. This is in addition to his ability to accurately predict and access events that were likely to happen in the future.