Islamism Versus Islam
An Interview with Professor Ismail Kara
Turkish Islamists women attend 26 November 2006 in Istanbul a rally against the 
upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI.

By Nicholas Birch 

Published: Sunday 18 July 2010 Updated: Sunday 18 July 2010 

In this interview with The Majalla, Ismail Kara, professor of Turkish 
intellectual history, speaks about Islam's relationship with modernity and the 
state. Professor Kara discusses, among other things, political Islamism and its 
origins, and the increasing visibility of Islam in Turkey. 

Born in 1955 in the north-eastern Turkish province of Rize, the son of a 
village religious teacher, Ismail Kara is professor of Turkish intellectual 
history at the Marmara University Theology Faculty in Istanbul. An editor at 
Dergah Yayinlari, one of Turkey's most respected publishing houses, Kara is the 
author of 14 books, including Islamist Thought in Turkey, On Philosophical 
Language and, more recently, The Issue of Islam in Republican Turkey. Professor 
Kara spoke with The Majalla in his office at Marmara University, located on the 
Asia side of Istanbul. 

Istanbul, 15 June 2010

The Majalla: In the West, Islamism tends to be understood as political 
Islamism. How do you define it?

To a certain extent, Islamism can be seen as the antithesis of traditional 
Islam, or popular Islam. From the start, back in the very early 19th century, 
it has been a movement of intellectuals, the product largely of people who had 
a western-style education. In effect, it set out to find answers to the 
question "what sort of a relation should Islam build with modernity." That was 
its starting point.

Q: What were the main contradictions early Islamists saw between Islam and 

Here, I think there is an issue that European scholars have perhaps not 
sufficiently understood. The idea of laïcité-a state without religion-is quite 
literally incomprehensible to traditional Muslims. Among Turks particularly, 
the idea of the state is infused with what you might call a religious or 
spiritual meaning.

Q: How is that "spiritual" meaning expressed?

One of the expressions you find very frequently in the communications of 
Ottoman bureaucrats is din u devlet: in other words "religion and state." The 
two are inseparable. Among Ottoman intellectuals, meanwhile, one of the most 
common expressions for the same thing is din asil, devlet fer'idir: "religion 
is the foundation, the state one of its parts." These are ideas that were 
shared by ordinary people, and still are.

Q: So Islamism played a sort of bridging role, then?

In a sense, yes. Islamism started because modernization movements imported from 
the West proved unable to provide a religious legitimization for change. It is 
what made modernization of the Muslim world possible, because popular 
conceptions of Islam were not compatible with modernity. It also had a secular 

Q: In what way?

Let me give you a concrete example. In the 1970s, one of the most popular 
slogans of radical Turkish Islamists was "the Koran is our constitution." The 
slogan is a hybrid. Few words are more important to Muslims than the Koran. The 
word constitution is a key concept of modern, secular political thought.

Q: Can you give any other examples?

Think about that most Republican of concepts-milli hakimiyet-national 
sovereignty. It is a concept borrowed, again, from secular western political 
thought. But the word millet has a double meaning: It means nation, but it also 
means religious community. When a modern Turk says national sovereignty, the 
phrase contains both those meanings. Modernization in the Muslim world has been 
conceptualized in religious terms. That is perhaps the main reason why Islam 
has become more visible the more "modern" Muslim countries become.

Q: It would be wrong to see the increasing visibility of Islam in Turkey merely 
as a delayed response to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's radical secularizing reforms, 

Yes. It is a fundamental attribute of the whole modernization process in the 
Muslim world as a whole. Furthermore, I would question the description of the 
Republic as radically secular. It is true that it represented a serious break 
with earlier reform movements, particularly after 1924 [when the Caliphate was 
abolished and traditional religious schools and dervish lodges were closed]. 
But it also shared some similarities with Islamist thought.

Q: What sort of similarities?

Islamism is about trying to pull Muslims towards an interpretation of Islam in 
step with the modern world, open to modern ideas. It does that by going back to 
the sources, trying to excavate what it sees as an "unadulterated" 
interpretation of Islam. To a degree, Republican ideology has tried to do 
something similar. It opposed popular Islam, which it saw as backward and 
superstitious. Set up immediately after the abolition of the Caliphate, the 
Diyanet [the state department in charge of religious affairs] has always 
advanced an interpretation of Islam which emphasizes the Koran and the 
traditions of the Prophet.

Q: Are you talking about the Republican authorities' emphasis on Islam as a 
"religion of reason and science?"

That is part of it, but the real issue here is that, in the eyes of Islamist 
modernizers, the negative conditions of the Muslim world are not the result of 
Islam itself but of the fact that contemporary Muslims have misunderstood 
Islam's teachings. They blame the accumulated traditions and history of the 
Islamic world for its backwardness. In essence, their call for a return to the 
sources means pulling Islam out of its history altogether.

Q: You are an outspoken critic of the Islamist movement. Is this why you 
criticize it?

What differentiates me from Turkey's Islamists is that I am interested in the 
internal dynamics of change and they are not. Ideologically, they are 
internationalist, to use a Marxist concept. They defend a vision of Islam which 
has its roots outside Turkey.

Q: You are talking now about the radical political Islamists influenced by the 
Muslim Brotherhood, I assume?

I am talking about them, but I am also talking about an attitude shared by many 
of the products of Turkey's state-controlled religious education and many 
educated members of religious orders.

Q: When did this view arrive in Turkey?

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood began to radicalize immediately after the 
Second World War. Egypt was closer to the Soviet Union than the West, as you 
know, and the Muslim Brotherhood borrowed concepts from Marxism, became more 
rebellious, even revolutionary. Turkey had meanwhile allied itself with the 
United States. In the 1940s, the new radical rhetoric of the Egyptian 
Brotherhood had no equivalent here. It only began to grow in Turkey after the 
1960 coup.

Q: Radical Islam contained an implicit criticism of the traditional idea of the 
state as defender of the faith, din u devlet. Is that why it took so long to 
put down roots in Turkey?

In part, yes. But it is also, as I implied before, because the Islamist vision 
of Islam clashed with the Islam practiced by many Turkish Muslims. Religious 
brotherhoods [tarikat] are powerful in Turkey. Radicals see them as the worst 
form of blasphemy. As far as they are concerned, the attachment a follower of 
one of these brotherhoods feels for his sheikh is idolatry.

Q: Are you saying religious brotherhoods are closer to popular Islam than the 

In terms of their structure and their rituals, yes. This is perfectly 
comprehensible. These are movements that address themselves to the masses. They 
are not particularly open to exceptional ideas. They seek a homogeneous style 
of person, a vision of the world. And that brings them closer to the views of 
your average Turkish Muslim.

Q: The most powerful Muslim group in Turkey today is the Fethullah Gulen 
Movement, a conservative group opposed to political Islam. Is its popularity a 
sign that radical Islamism was a blip, that Turkey is settling back into its 
traditional, conservative ways?

Political Islam was a product of a period when ideologies were everything. It 
grew after the 1960 coup, along with the other ideological movements of the 
time, socialism and right-wing nationalism. After 12 September 1980 [Turkey's 
third military intervention], they fell together. But today's conservatives are 
not the same as the conservatives before 1960. Indeed, it is questionable 
whether they are conservative at all. Look at the AKP government. It calls 
itself a "conservative democratic" party. It is a good slogan. But the party 
behaves as though there isn't very much in need of conserving at all.

Q: More radical Islamists criticize the AKP for having "taken its [Islamist] 
shirt off" and taken on a stance indistinguishable from liberalism. Is that 
your criticism?

I am making a broader point. Since 1980, the ideological heart of all the major 
political movements in Turkey has been emptied out-the left, Islamism, 
Kemalism. The current clash between the AKP government and secularists is an 
argument over bones. What worries me is that seems to me that a country needs 
to have an idea, an identity, if it is to carry itself forward. That requires 
reflection, self-criticism. I see neither.

Q: So what needs to be done, in your opinion?

A recent article I wrote was entitled "remembering what we have forgotten." 
Turkey is a country whose language has changed so fast that the speeches of the 
man who founded it are now understood with difficulty by the younger 
generation. Ottoman Turkish, because the Republic introduced the Latin 
alphabet, is a foreign country. What is needed is a conscious effort to 
recuperate the past. You can only know where you are going if you know where 
you come from. Otherwise all you can do is to move in the direction the 
international or national wind is blowing.

Q: Every religious brotherhood has a silsile, a kind of family tree going right 
back to the time of the Prophet. Is this the sort of unbroken chain you are 
referring to when you talk about recuperating the past?

Sufism is an important aspect of this recuperation of the past, yes, but it is 
not enough. The silsile is a concept you find in religious schools too from the 
12th century onwards. There is a concept of icazet starting with you and going 
all the way back to the Prophet himself. The point I am making is that 
Islamists' criticisms of Sufism and the culture of the religious schools shares 
the same logic. Both are a critique of Islamic history. Early Islamists 
believed, wrongly in my opinion, that the traditional Islamic world they had 
grown up in was incapable of building a new world, and they made a deliberate 
decision to cut themselves off from this web of connections and obligations. 
When you do this, the only thing left is you and the sources. And you can get 
them to talk as much as you like.

Interview conducted by Nicholas Birch - Worked as a freelance reporter in 
Turkey for eight years. His work has appeared in a broad range of publications, 
including Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London.

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