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Civilizationism and Islamic Decolonial Thought in Turkey - 1

Session XII-06, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel seeks to examine the concept of civilization in Turkish politics as it became one of the core elements of the AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) ideology since it came to power in 2002. Under the AKP rule, civilizationism was endorsed as the glorification of the Ottoman past, referred to as neo-Ottomanism, and seen as a way to contest Turkey’s secular, ethnic-Turkish founding ideology, Kemalism. The idea that the primary task of the government is to revive this Ottoman-Islamic civilizational heritage gained force after the AKP came to power. For the past two decades, civilizationism has informed governmental policies ranging from the economy to the restructuring of the education system, from urban development or foreign affairs to heritage and cultural policies. Most of the recent studies on AKP’s civilizational/neo-Ottomanist stance understand it as an alternative to nationalism, a response against Western civilization, or a way to cover up right-wing, religion-based, and populist impulses. In contrast, in this panel, we approach civilizationism as the common theme of a larger debate in the Islamic intellectual field (IIF) among different, sometimes contrasting views that not only forms the backbone of AKP’s political ideology, but also provides insight into some of the transformations and ruptures that the AKP went through in the last two decades. We are particularly interested in exploring how the AKP uses themes drawn from postcolonial criticism to justify its own Ottoman-Islamic variant of civilizationism. These decolonial themes include a critique of Turkey’s pro-Western orientation, a disavowal of European paradigms of knowledge, and an emphasis on restoring the country’s authentic and local institutions, traditions, and practices. In this panel, we examine both the dominant premises of civilizationism, while also attending to the ways in which this ideology is produced, contested, and negotiated by various actors, organizations, and intellectual formations. While some papers trace debates surrounding the concept of civilizationism in the IIF, others explore the manifestations of AKP’s civilizational ideology in various domains such as higher education policy, state-business relations, and the conduct of political authority. The findings of these papers contribute not only to debates about political Islam and Turkish politics, but also to broader conversations about the rise of civilizationism in countries like China, Russia, and India.
Political Science
  • This paper introduces the main framework and concepts of the two panels titled “Civilizationism and Islamic Decolonial Thought in Turkey - I and II,” which are part of a larger project that seeks to explore and map Islam-based intellectual movements and political ideologies by studying the Islamic Intellectual Field (IIF) in Turkey through an examination of leading periodicals specializing in political thought published since the 1990s. The project approaches the IIF as a diverse field of political theorizing that consists of dozens of publishers, non-academic institutes and associations that publish hundreds of periodicals from a wide variety of Islam-based political perspectives. This paper first introduces the main camps within the IIF that are defined by one or a combination of three main approaches to Islam: The rationalist Koran-based approach, which produces political projects based on current-day adaptations of the Koran; the traditionalist Sunni (hadith-based) approach, which produces projects that seek to restore practices and intellectual traditions from the time of the Prophet through the Ottoman times; and the Sufi approach, which cultivates a sense of political and/or social morality based on the Sufi notion of being on a path of love of God. Second, the paper focuses on how civilizationism is developed as part of what can be termed as “Islamic decolonial thought,” which refers to intellectual movements in the IIF that seek to defend and empower Turkey and/or Islam against what is perceived as the hegemony of European paradigms of knowledge and the “self-colonizing,” Westernizing, secularist reforms of the Kemalist Republic. This paper discusses how the term civilization is used by different intellectual and political movements, including the ruling AKP, as the key element of their ideological stance. The goal is to demonstrate that the debate on civilization is marked by a motivation common to all contending parties in the IIF to develop Islam-based political perspectives that debate and develop solutions to Turkey’s domestic or international problems, most of which are defined in relation to Westernization, Eurocentric modernization or imperialism. Building on a critical reading of postcolonial theory and current debates on decoloniality and the decolonization of knowledge, I argue that civilizational discourse is part of Islamic decolonial thought, which can broadly be defined as an attempt to produce non-Western forms of knowing and theorizing that build primarily on Islamic intellectual and theological schools of thought, but also on secular-Ottoman/Turkish as well as Western intellectual traditions.
  • In Turkey there is a tendency in the Islamic Intellectual Field (IIF) for staking a claim on civilizationism as a means of an anti-colonial struggle. On political level, AKP also uses an Islamic and neo-Ottomanist civilizational discourse and presents it as an indigenous alternative to Western civilization. However, there has been substantial opposition within the IIF itself against the use of the word civilization (medeniyet), among which İktibas journal, published since 1981, takes the lead. The paper examines how this prominent dissident Islamist publication has been criticizing the presentation of idea of “Islamic civilization” as a decolonial and indigenous alternative to Western civilization. Since defining both socio-political and Islamic concepts within the original ideological and historical context has been the essential concern of the journal since its inception, İktibas published several articles and even a special issue, in recent years, that addressed the debate on civilization, taking a critical stance against the use of the term civilization within an Islamic context. From the perspective of İktibas, the intellectual hegemony and epistemic colonization of the West cannot be defeated via using Western-originated concepts, which is why the journal depicts “Islamic civilization” phrase is an oxymoron at best. The objective of this paper is to show that civilizationism has not been adopted by all Islamist intellectuals. I argue that İktibas’s contestation of the Islamic civilizationist discourse revolves around the journal’s claim of the deceptive Islamic appearance of the concept of civilization. I draw on recent debates on decoloniality to analyze Iktibas’s opposition as an example of decolonial critique due to its anti-Western and anti-Eurocentric stance on a conceptual and epistemic level. In addition, I reveal that Iktibas seeks to create an alternative non-Western paradigm based on Islam. Basically, I focus on the issues of the journal published between 2016 and 2022 to track debates around the concepts of civilization, Islamic civilization, coloniality and Western intellectual hegemony.
  • This study focuses on “civilizationism” as a political ideology through exploring the academic and political texts and discourses of Prof. Ahmet Davutoğlu and Prof. İbrahim Kalın both of whom foster the intellectual roots and long-term state policies of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi-AKP). This subject is worth of inquiry to understand the proliferating political and social interest in civilization in contemporary Turkey, which has been ruled by the AKP governments since 2002. While the AKP initially manifested its political ideology as conservative democracy, civilization, has been the main driving ideological concept when the political elites’ discourses and the policies of the AKP governments are considered. Civilizationist ideology shows up in various state policies like the national higher education, social and cultural policies, urban policy, architecture, arts, and foreign affairs. This study aims to explore the intellectual roots of civilization as an ideology by analyzing the textual and discursive materials by Davutoğlu and Kalın, both of whom have served in state bureaucracy, while the former was banished from prime ministry and the party in 2016, the latter still serve for the state as Presidential Spokesperson. Davutoğlu served as a chief advisor to Erdoğan, was an ambassador, prime minister, and the chairperson of the AKP, along with his academic positions as a professor of political science. This paper focuses on Davutoğlu’s and Kalın’s conceptualizations of civilization to explore how they develop the term in different ways particularly in relation to identity formation, sense of belongingness, nationalism, and Turkey’s national identity. While Davutoglu’s account defines civilization as a sense-of-self that shapes an individual’s sense of existence in relation to one’s own society based on space, time, knowledge, and nature, Kalin defines civilization from a cosmological perspective, as manifestation of a particular worldview and an idea of existence in a particular time and space. Kalın’s account paves the way for identity politics. I argue that while Davutoğlu’s approach leads to the revival of Ottoman civilization endorsed as an Ottoman-style multicultural system that is more inclusive of religious and ethnic minorities, Kalın’s approach allows for a more nationalistic conceptualization of civilization. This difference became significant in 2016 when Davutoğlu was banished from the party, whereas Kalin stayed on as one of the chief advisors whose views allowed the AKP to adopt ethnic nationalism.
  • In 2016, praising the introduction of a new course on Ottoman ahi (craft) guilds in Karatay University in Turkey, a journalist wrote that this economic heritage gave access to the “hidden codes of our civilization,” and argued that the revival of the ahi model was as a necessary step for “solving our problems by returning to our own cultural values.” This account exemplifies, how, the revival of ahi (Ottoman craft guilds) is understood as an essential element of Turkey’s civilizational revival. In this perspective, ahi guilds are claimed to provide an indigenous, authentic, and Islamic model for governing economic affairs, ranging from the organization of business associations to the management of customers, and from pursuing economic growth to establishing a balance between the haves and the have-nots. In the past decade, the AKP regime and pro-government business groups, civil society organizations, think-tanks, and higher education institutions in Turkey have disseminated similar claims about ahism, promoting the view that reviving the ahi heritage was a form of restoring the Ottoman-Islamic civilization. This paper maps this intellectual field formed around the debate on the significance of ahi guilds and its relation to civilizationism, with an eye towards understanding the origins, claims, and themes of Ahism, and examines what these components tell us about the origins and limits of AKP’s larger civilizational politics. First, I demonstrate that attempts to revive this economic heritage are often expressed from a decolonial sensibility, often aligning reimagined features of the Ottoman-Islamic economy in opposition to the West. Ahism is promoted as a model of Islamic “small business” that combines free market principles with religious values and communitarian principles, and an alternative to Western economic institutions, practices, and theories. Second, I discuss the internal debates within this Islamic intellectual field particularly concerning disagreements about the scale of production and the proper management of class-based conflict. I substantiate this argument through a close reading of Ahism-related publications of the Turkish Trade Ministry, Chambers of Arts and Craftsman, and the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey; promotional materials printed as part of Ahi week celebrations, speeches given by AKP politicians in the past two decades, as well as publications—written by Muslim intellectuals as well as others—that criticize AKP’s discourse of Ahism from an Islamic standpoint.
  • Through the examination of the AKP government’s initiative to inaugurate the Alliance of Civilization Institute (ACI) at Ibn Haldun University (IHU), this study aims to explore how the (re)conceptualization of the term civilization (medeniyet) by Muslim conservatives led to a new approach to higher education in contemporary Turkey. With Islam’s increasing presence in political and social discourse since the 1990s, the term civilization was reintroduced as the revival of Islamic-Ottoman values, becoming a key term under the new political ideology of the AKP in contestation with the secular, Western values of Kemalism. The political reconstruction of civilizationism was accompanied by the opening of various civilization studies programs under different academic institutes and foundations, and the establishment of new universities around the country in the last decade. At the inauguration of the IHU campus, President Erdoğan stated that Turkey lost its intellectual power due to the “invasion” of Western ideologies and claimed that higher education must be restructured to raise generations in line with Turkey’s civilizational heritage. This statement exemplifies how the term civilization is being used by the AKP to establish a new approach to higher education. In similar speeches by Erdoğan and other party officials, the aim of higher education is stated as the continuity of the Islamic civilization, knowledge, tradition, and heritage in a “modernized” way. This study examines the relationship between AKP’s Civilizationism and the restructuring of institutions of higher education in Turkey. As one of the architects of this restructuring, the founders of the IHU and its first president, Recep Şentürk uses the term “open civilization,” which refers to the need for resurrecting Islamic scientific inquiry in an inclusive, global, and universalist manner, and incorporating it under academic institutions as a new discipline This paper focuses on the founding of ACI and the IHU, which is presented as the pioneering institution of this new type of university and the launching of Civilization Studies as a new field of academic inquiry. Based on the analysis of the speeches, public statements, and other addresses of president Erdoğan and Recep Şentürk during the inauguration of the IHU, I argue that the concept of Islamic-Open Civilization is part of a larger political project of the civilizationist ideology of the AKP and its neo-Ottomanist policies, which restructured the higher education system by bringing back Ottoman Islamic schools of higher education (madrasa) in a modernized, cosmopolitan fashion.