Saturday, December 22, 2007

What is 'Turkish Exceptionalism' ?

The dean of Turkish social scientists, the venerable Şerif Mardin, was interviewed by Asharq Al Awsat newspaper recently.

(H/T Erkan's field diary)

Mardin gave his learned opinion on Turkish Islam and seems to have coined a new term echoing Alexis de Tocqueville’s American Exceptionalism .

He is calling it Turkish Exceptionalism. What is this Turkish Exceptionalism ?

Well, according to Mardin, it arises from the observation that :

"[t]he state takes precedence over religion by 'one millimeter'(...) Throughout its history the Ottoman Empire was cautious to distance the religion from the state(...) and was founded on the power of the state  which is a concept that is difficult for many Arabs to apprehend. ".

Actually, to get a complete picture of Ottoman governance and "power of the state" one needs to go further back in history to the point where Turks were a nomadic people constantly advancing and conquering territory. By doing so, one finds a continuous strand from that period to the very present day namely a style of governance marked by expedience.

Expedience requires that one is not diverted too much by abstract notions such as human rights and human values.

The reason the Arabs don't apprehend or see themselves in the Ottoman state is because the latter is based on Turkish not Arab nationalism. Mardin says :"It is important to affirm that the religious orders in Turkey are always related to the Turkish state, (...)" How very true it is that in Turkey Islam is subservient to the state and so subservient to the principle of expedience.

Moving on, Mardin curiously makes the claim that Turks and Iranians are somehow 'philosophical'. It's not clear why or in what connection he interjects this comment but empirical study would probably reveal this philosophical aspect is seldom integrated with governance . Such philosophical traditions, for Turkey, have always been irrelevant to the state. After all, who ever heard of a Sufi Sultan ?

Perhaps what Mardin is really trying to say is that for the Turks (and the Iranians) Islam is not about ethnicity and tribalism since we are dealing with an Arab religion 'revealed' in the Arab tongue.

Sociology is a science based on real facts, real history and real evidence. Unfortunately, these elements are strangely absent from in the responses Mardin has given in this interview.Nevertheless, if we wanted to be as faithful as possible to the most coherent fragments of Mardin's analysis, we would have to conclude that the Ottoman view of the state and religion is to be summarised as a secularism of praxis and of race. Just consider that while racist supremacist parties form the fringe of politics in all Western European countries, in Turkey they are part of the mainstream.

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