work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Idioms of Islam – idioms of consumerism… a note on Mardin

09.02.2010 · Posted in Uncategorized

In his ground-breaking analysis of the emergence of the Nurcu movement in Turkey, Şerif Mardin operates with the concept of an “Islamic idiom” in order to explain how the receptiveness for Islamic legitimation has survived the secularist onslaught of Kemalism in the first decades after the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

‘Every author who has written about Islam has indicated that Islam is more than simply a religious belief, that it structures the social life of Islamic societies, that it provides the foundations for political obligation and that, in short, it penetrates the smallest interstices of daily life and of  social and political organization. What these authors have not elucidated is the process by which such a society is reproduced. What I suggest is that the reproduction of Islamic societies is linked to a common use of an Islamic idiom by the members of such societies.’ (Mardin 1989: 3)

This idiom is not  perpetuated by a continuity of  reading holy texts – the notion derives its use precisely from its independence of such scriptural tradition. What is to explained is the possibility of an Islamic resurgence after the most fundamental ideological re-orientation that any Muslim country has ever experienced.  Mardin himself does not entirely free himself from a scriptural basis. In the absence of Qur’anic studies he sees lesser (but still written) texts, taking over:

‘narratives of the lives and pious deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, biographies of Muslim holy men, poetry and love stories placed in an Islamic setting.’ (Mardin 1989: 5)

… all providing patterns of morality, scripted ways to behave and act, metaphors, justifications… maybe even not so much perpetuated by story-telling and reading but in its use in the everyday for practical purposes. So it does not come as a surprise that even for the laicists-to-be, the leaders in the Turkish “liberation war” (İstiklâl Harbı, later: Kurtuluş Savaşı), mobilising the population for the war effort to save at least Anatolia for a post-Ottoman Turkish state, use of the Islamic idiom was a natural choice, so:

‘The nationalist struggles of 1919-1922 were fought in Anatolia at the popular level as a war in defense of  the faith. In fact, the Islamic layer of identity was heightened and used by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to mobilize the population against the occupying  powers that sought to implement the Sevres Treaty of 1920, which divided much of what is now Turkey among European powers, and carved out an independent Armenia and Kurdistan in eastern Anatolia.’ (Yavuz 2003: 45)

And even later on in the early Republic there was a silent understanding that being a Muslim was a condition for being a Turk – not so much as an legal requirement but as a tacit assumption that only occasionally was openly stated:

‘Even for the secular intellectuals there has always been an ironic ambivalence surrounding the Islamic component of Turkish identity. For example, one “author” of secular Turkish nationalism, Ali Haydar, viewed Islam as a sine qua non for being a Turk; a non-Muslim, even one whose mother language was Turkish, could not be a real Turk.[1] He categorically said: “It is impossible to make non-Muslims sincere Turkish citizens. But at least we can make them respect the Turks.” Haydar’s ideas were not exceptional and indicate that, at a fundamental level, Turkish identity, even during the most doctrinaire Republican period, could not elude religion as an important component of its supposedly secular, national identity.’ (Yavuz 2003: 47f.)  [1] Ali Haydar, Milli Terbiye (İstanbul: Milli Matbaası, 1926), 21-23

This should serve as an indicator of how deep the Islamic idiom sits in the moral grammar of Muslim societies and communities. Haydar’s statement quoted here by Hakan Yavuz can in effect be read as saying: “we can’t trust them as they don’t have internalised the same ideas of legitimacy – all we can do is coerce them to accept the arrangements we arrive at on the basis of our shared ideas”. As it provides the justifications for behaviour and actions, social legitimacy, the Islamic idiom can be seen as the centre piece of Muslim collective and individual identities:

‘It is because this idiom is shared that there appears something which we could name “social legitimation” in Islamic societies, a legitimation that | derives from the widespread use of this idiom. As long as the common idiom is used by individuals to procure their needs, the social process functions smoothly, and it is legitimated by use. Anything that upsets this use of the idiom for everyday purposes becomes illegitimate.’ (Mardin 1989: 6f.)

One could even say that such undermining of legitimacy becomes an assault on Muslim identity, a questioning of the validity of a whole way of life – which explains the defensive reaction to such challenges.  To avoid them where they are not inevitable, recognising and understanding such religious idioms has been advocated under the banner of enhancing the “religious literacy” of multicultural society. As Tariq Modood emphasises, multi-faithism is a central feature of a

“multiculturalism that is happy with hybridity but has space for religious identities” (Modood 2003: 88)

Religious literacy  seems particularly urgent in a situation where religion

“marks a significant dimension of cultural difference between the migrants and British society. Not only did most of the migrants have a different religion to that of the natives, but the indications are that they, including Christians among them, were more religious than the society they were joining.” (Modood 2003: 80)

This concern reaffirmed in a recent EHRC research report (Woodhead/Catto 2009: 27f.) and has already lead to some pedagogical guidance issued for administrative use – for an example, see this brochure issued by the Yorkshire and Humberside Assembly.

While it may be true that in a multicultural society we need to develop a religious literacy, i.e. learn to understand various religious idioms in which (ethnic) minorities define themselves in religious terms, members of religious communities cannot avoid picking up the secular idiom of consumerism and human rights. I will come back (inevitably…) to the consumerism aspect – what is normally in the foreground is the question whether Islamic politics is reconcilable with secular constitutions in liberal democracies. And it certainly looks like there is a strong current within Islamism that fairly early on learned to formulate political aims in a secular language. Though doubtful about their genuineness, Niyazi Berkes detects politically secular literacy already in the Islamists challenging the early Turkish Republic, starting to make claims no longer solely based on religious righteousness but on constitutional principles:

‘To put it in a nutshell, Kemalist secularism was nothing but a rejection of the ideology of Islamic polity. The Islamist critics of this view of secularism became, ironically, the advocates of separationist secularism within the context of the Republic. Measures taken for an understanding of Islam that would not be voiced as a call to tradition, obscurantism, and reaction in times of political stress were, for them, both anti-Islamic and anti-secularist. Pretending to be true believers in “laïcisme,” they opposed the secularizing legislation, not on an Islamist principle but, strangely, on the grounds of the constitutional right to free exercise of religion so that they might reassert the political ascendancy of their own ideology. Resorting to democratic slogans such as “the will of the People,” they were bent upon restoring a polity under which the will, sovereignty, or law of the people would become nothing but heretical concepts.’ (Berkes 1964: 499f.)

What Berkes overlooks is that re-entering the public sphere under such terms fundmentally transforms political Islam. Even if the commitment to laiklik is only a rhetorical one – it is a submission under the terms of secular politics. It is not only the Military and the courts that will see to that – it is also the “will of the people” which is staunchly in favour of a secular state and has no appetite whatsoever to turn into a Şeriat state. Also, there might be an emerging honest commitment to a Western style democracy at least in some quarters, even though it may be primarily motivated by a utilitarian insight that such a system of government actually provides ample liberties for religious life:

‘A related aspect of the new “Muslimhood” in Turkey, and that of the Gülen movement, is its growing advocacy of Western-style democracy. One reason of this phenomenon is a significant discovery that Turkey’s observant Muslims – especially the ones who had a chance to know the West, such as the Gülen movement – had in the past quarter century: that the West is better than the Westernisers. What this means is that they recognized that Western democracies give their citizens all the religious freedoms that Turkey has withheld from its own. In fact, no country in the free world has secularism as illiberal as Turkey’s self-styled laicité.’ (Akyol 2007: 30f.)

The migration experience is crucial here – especially as much of the reflexivity in modern Islamic movements took place in diaspora where traditional assumption lost their immediate plausibility and expression of new ideas and interpretations was less restricted (Mandeville 2001: 115ff.). As Nilüfer Göle observes:

‘Islamism is the work of those Muslims who exist under conditions of social mobility and uprootedness; those actors who have left their families and small town to come to cities or to cross national boundaries, becoming migrants in Western countries in search of work, education, and better living conditions. Sociologists know that these displacements create fertile ground for social alienation and frustration, and for delinquency and terrorist actions. But social mobility is also a condition for modern definitions of individual choice and agency.’ (Göle 2003: 813)

In light of the post-secularism debate it is worth pointing out that this move from (in Mannheim’s terms) traditionalism to conservatism is a modernisation, and in its implication makes religious and political allegiances a matter of individual choice – a hallmark of secularity. In the Turkish case this was accentuated by the coercive pressures of an unparalleled programme of uncompromising “Westernisation” which, at least initially, deprived the Islamic idiom not only of its public but even its private power of justification. The Nurcus studied by Mardin therefore had to learn to accommodate to and learn to express their Islamic ethics and spirituality in a secular idiom.

‘Between 1923 and 1938 the entire cast of Turkish society was penetrated by some of these reforms carried out under the aegis of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Nur movement had, therefore, to accept as a datum of social life those reforms – such as universal education – which, gradually, had become part of the birthright of modern Turks.’ (Mardin 1989: 25)

And it is not only institutional entitlements like education that – if you like – feed into a secular idiom. The cultural reforms of the 1920 and 30s not only challenged the Islamic idiom but, despite the failure to establish a coherent secular/nationalist ideology to rival Islamic belief, it established idiomatic facts. The Islamic calendar gave way to the Gregorian, Sunday became a weekly holiday, and the Ottoman clock to the 24 hours day – all synchronising life in the Turkish Republic with that in Europe. (Lewis 1961: 265) The old Arabic/Ottoman person names – which through isim, künye, nesep, lakap and nispet located the individual within a wider family, tribal, occupational, hierarchical and geographical context – made way for European style surnames (Lewis 1961: 283) which stipulate an idea of nuclear family relations which postulate the adult person as beyond the family of origin, as (alienated) individual rather than representative of a community. Of course – the practice of referring to others in the language of family relations has survived this move to an extent, alongside with some expressions of respect of social position (you still address a teacher as hoca), but a secular idiom of egalitarian civility has also been introduced and taken hold as

‘… non-military ranks and titles surviving from the old régime were abolished, and replaced by the new words Bay and Bayan – Mr. and Mrs.’ (Lewis 1961: 283)

C. Wright Mills’ notion of a “vocabulary of motive” (“vocomot” in the following) captures quite well what’s at stake here. Mills (1963) suggests that the justification by the naming of a legitimate motive and its link to an intended outcome is maybe more important (and definitely more available!) for understanding an action than its “actual” psychological motivation. It thus makes a great difference whether someone is used to justify political decisions in terms of Islamic tradition, custom, and theology or in terms of a discourse of efficient provision, human rights, electorial demands etc. At first sight – and certainly in the eyes of both Islamim traditionalists and secularising modernists the two are mutually exclusive. But there is another understanding of secularism in the (minimalist) terms of the cult of the individual as human rights where the overarching vocabulary of motive is – adequacy in expression of individually important motives. Such a secular idiom – in contrast to the quasi-religious modernist secularism… see the postscript for an example – becomes a metavocomot of the overarching democratic public sphere: one that creates empty spaces to be filled in by sub-publics that feed into the general debate, but when doing so need to translate their internal vocomots into the metavocomot… In such a metavocomot the single vocomots that lead to the formulation of claims in segregated public spheres have the same status as “actual motives” in a vocomot: they may be drivers, but the outcome is justified by legitimate motives which may or may not differ. It hence makes not much sense to dismiss a claim that it is a human right to express one’s religious identity in attire with the argument that this is not the real reason why that claim is made and it’s really about taking a step into the direction of re-establishing the şeriat… even if that were the “true motive”. Mills emphasises that the parallel existence of different vocomots is a perfectly normal state:

“However, there are other areas of population with different vocabularies of motives. The choice of lines of action is accompanied by representations, and selection among them, of their situational termini. Men discern situations with particular vocabularies, and it is in terms of some delimited vocabulary that they anticipate consequences of conduct. Stable vocabularies of motives link anticipated consequences and specific actions. There is no need to invoke ‘psychological’ terms like ‘desire’ or ‘wish’ as explanatory, since they themselves must be explained socially. Anticipation is a subvocal or overt naming of terminal phases and/or social consequences of conduct. When an individual names consequences, he elicits the behaviors for which the name is an integrative cue. In a social situation, implicit in the names for consequences is the social dimension of motives. Through such vocabularies, types of societal controls operate. Also, the terms in which the question is asked often will contain both alternatives: ‘Love or Duty?’, ‘Business or Pleasure?’ Institutionally different situations have different vocabularies of motive appropriate to their respective behaviors.” (Mills 1963: 442f.)

Such pluralism is embraced by the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) [Justice and Development Party] – the Islamist party currently in government in Turkey – which presents itself as a European-style conservative party, and whose

concern to limit state and governmental power is connected to a related acknowledgement of naturally occurring social diversity (toplumsal çeşitliği), cultural difference and local values, as well s to its desire to have these reflected in the political sphere. Here “variety is richness” (AKPARTİ’ye göre de farklılıklar tabii bir durum ve zenginliktir.).’ (Houston 2006: 166)

Of course, the suspicion formulated by Berkes was not and still is not entirely groundless: There has been a slow erosion of secularism in Turkey (e.g. in the reintroduction of Sunni religious education in state schools – naturally marginalising Alevi pupils) so that, particular given that Ahmadinejad’s Iran is just round the corner, anxieties fuelled by some actions of more zealous AKP politicians and administrators are quite understandable – as formulated here by Binnaz Toprak

The Islamist project, on the other hand, is largely based on the segregation of sexes. Although political Islam in Turkey is to be distinguished from radical Islamist movements elsewhere, and although it does not argue for same-sex public life, its understanding of the place of men and women in the public sphere differs from the republican understanding. This difference is most vividly apparent in the covering of young girls and women There has been heightened press coverage of numerous attempts by municipal governments, public educational institutions and other government offices controlled by the Islamists to introduce changes that might indeed suggest the “Islamization of public life,” such as to include Islamic or ‘intelligent design” texts in primary and secondary school curricula, to permit the covering of young girls in certain extra-curricular activities even at the primary school level, to relocate restaurants that serve liquor to the outskirts of cities or refuse to give them licenses, to open “women only” public parks, to ban alcohol in municipal-owned recreational or art centers, etc.

Based on historic Islamic concept of inseparability of  dîn ve devlet – religious and political affairs which secularism challenges, Islamicist  Fuess speculates about the discomfort of Muslim migrants and minorities in the West

‘Not surprisingly Islam accompanies the devout Muslim throughout his daily routine also in Europe and it is certainly not as easy to keep religion in the private sphere as it is for most “part-time” Christians. Therefore some Muslim immigrants will find it hard to deal with everyday secularism, known in the West.’ (Fuess 2004: 70)

But is that a valid observation – particularly (as it was made in a German context) for Turkish/Muslims who hail from a country whose separation of “church” and state is stricter? After all, in Germany the Christian Democrat Union are in power while the AKP would be closed down straightaway should they decide to follow a European pattern and call themselves the “Müslüman Demokratlar Birliği”. (The potential objection that, as mentioned, Islam as part of national identity in Turkey does not hold here as the same could be said about Germany where being of Christian extraction was long considered to be a condition for being German and far into the 19th century speaking an old German dialect (Yiddish) or High German didn’t earn Jews German nationhood – until today the idea that Jews or Muslims can be “proper” Germans is by no means universally accepted although at least institutionalised). A German Christian Democrat politician of Turkish descent, Aygül Özkan,  found this out by receiving support from within her party for her view that Islamic headscarves should be banned in state schools, but got much flak for stating that, as the reason for this is that schools should be neutral ground – crucifixes should also be removed from classrooms. John D Boy in his post on The Immanent Frame rightly points out that she has underestimated the entanglement of this symbol of Christianity and German national identity (although his explanation that this is to do with the crucifix as symbol of redemption after the Third Reich does not seem very plausible to me – less so than the formula of a (Christian) abendländische Kultur/Occidental culture that pops up in German political discourse again and again).

Apart from the fact that, as Akyol (see above) underlines, many Muslims – and particularly more pious Muslims – experience Western secularism as more conducive to the expression of Islamic identity and spirituality than the more regulated and controlled religious life in Turkey: Is this really about politics at all?

Indications are that the public presence aimed for is more of an aesthetic nature – a yearning for the possibility to perform Islamicity without a sense of being out of place. Heiko Henkel reports how his key informant in his study on Islamic life in contemporary Istanbul refers to this aesthetic frame as “natural propaganda” for Islam.

‘I asked him to explain what he meant by the phrase “natural propaganda” that he had used in our first conversation. He paused for a moment, then pointed at the trousers of his suit, which displayed a neatly pressed crease and said, “I don’t remember” (hatırlamıyorum). Seeing my puzzled expression, he explained, “When I wear Western clothes, suit and tie and so on, I don’t remember God. But when I am in the old city, or in the mosque, they remind me (hatırlatıyor), then I remember God.” In a telling linguistic move, Nevzat switches here from the intransitive hatırlamak (to remember) to the transitive hatırlatmak (to remind). This grammatical shift relocates the agency from the remembering subject to the reminding physical and social structures of the lifeworld. The ease with which Nevzat performs this grammatical shift underlines the correspondence and close connection between both aspects of the invocation.’ (Henkel 2007: 65)

While in the old quarters such natural propaganda is still in operation, for most of the city there is no more of it than in London or Paris (and therefore needs to be substituted by consumerist practices such as tourism, acquisition and display of nostalgic goods, etc.):

‘For many religious Muslims in contemporary Turkey […] what once may have appeared as the obvious correlations between, for instance the old neighborhood of Fatih, Muslim culture and the neighborhood’s inhabitants has become problematic. As it becomes more difficult to simply assert the “Muslim identity” of Turkish society – or even of individual neighborhoods – the question of how Muslim space, and, indeed Muslim society is generated comes to the fore.’ (Henkel 2007: 58)

The professed pluralism of the Müslüman Demokratlar does not necessarily aim at a unitary Muslim public sphere, but definitely at least at reinstating some of the aesthetic frame for Islamic life – Alev Çınar analyses these efforts looking at projects of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when still mayor of Istanbul (then still in Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Partisi/Welfare Party), such as a major mosque at Taksim Square (which never made it) or the revamping of the municipal Çamlıca Restaurant along an Ottomanesque aesthetics – which like all “themed” restaurants showed cracks in its “authenticity” from the start. Typically, controversy kicked off centring on consumer items – in this case notoriously: Coca Cola and similar

‘After the secular media made a huge fuss about banning carbonated beverages at a tourist site, the city responded in its bimonthly publication: “Our goal here was to create a truly authentic place. Tourists coming from Europe and other places are mostly interested in such authentic, original sites. Surely they will be interested in seeing other cultures, not standardized five-star hotels or night clubs … They do not have to come all the way here to see [their own cultures]” This justification does not express a sense of the danger posed by cultural imperialism and a need to protect the local cultures from its erosive effects. It does not reflect a concern with preserving the self against destructive threats. Had such a concern been the case, the city would certainly not been eager to attract more tourist’ (Çınar 2005: 131)

So this is a far cry from the rejection of an alleged American cultural hegemony as in the promotion of Mecca Cola as the Islamist’s and the radical Leftist’s counter drink to Coca Cola. (Littler 2009: 33) Quite the contrary: while Mecca Cola needs to disguise its commodity status by means of political (anti-American, antizionist) rhetoric, the legitimacy of an Ottomanised Islamic nostalgia is provided by the fact that (among others) American tourists may find it pleasantly consumable. Tourism here is not just a rationalisation or fig leaf – it is the tourist gaze bent back on oneself and constituting one’s own “authenticity” in the same way that romantic tourists in the 19th century (and overseas tourists today) through their gaze construct an British (nostalgic/idyllic) identity that is then sold back to (and at least partly accepted by) an educated British public (e.g. by David Dimbleby presenting a picture of Britain)

What I’m edging slowly towards here is that the idiom of legitimacy has changed: while the Islamic idiom is recreated and revitalised it is not the legitimising element: Legitimation is drawn from a consumerist imperative of aestheticisation.

Like with the maintenance of cathedrals and village churches by the Church of England – which Grace Davie (2006) understands of part of a ‘vicarious religion’ – the creation of an Ottoman/Islamic atmosphere by local authorities and others can be seen as the public performance of religiosity for a consuming but not necessarily actively participating population. Such performance is by no means imposing (again: where it does not violate the constitutionally guaranteed and generally accepted secularist imperative of non-coercion) as this aestheticisation is obviously evocative, fictitious – nobody who doesn’t actively want to be transposed into an Ottoman atmosphere will fall for the simulacrum. As Mike Featherstone (1991: 24f. and 72) points out, aestheticisation requires controlled de-control on the side of the consumer – better captured earlier in Colin Campbell’s (1987) adaptation of Coleridge’s notion of “willing suspension of disbelief”. Like vicarious consumption vicarious religion only works for an autonomous imaginative hedonist – and notoriously such hedonists can use an atmospheric creation for all sorts of revelries, not just those intended by the creators. As Nilüfer Göle writes:

‘Each time I cross the Galata bridge, I never tire of contemplating with wonder the panorama of Istanbul in which emerge, like drawings, the silhouettes of its longilineal minarets. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, the minarets, multiple and discreet, are not erected as symbols of the city of Istanbul. Nevertheless, Istanbul, without its slender minarets, which symbolize the spiritual elevation of man towards God, would lose a part of its soul. The minarets, in the eyes of the inhabitants—pious and secular, Muslim and non-Muslim—are part of the familiar landscape, of the common heritage.’

All indications are that while there is a loud battle between modernist secularism based on an Enlightenment optimism around science and progress and religious revivalism, there is a silent supersession of religious idioms by a no less secular (or civil-religious) idiom of the cult of the individual – human rights and even more powerful as lived on a quotidian level: consumerism. I will expand on this in a later post in more detail. Here I simply re-emphasise the dominance and civilisational potential of Durkheim’s cult of the indivdiual as human rights theology and consumerist folk piety. My (Plessnerian) point is that, while rigid civility/secularity as strict separation of private person and public role/mask already is liberating in comparison to less alienating traditional community in that it allows a development of personality beyond the mask; consumer masks drive this further – I paste in the relevant passage from my earlier post:

Ceremonial roles are insufficient in an individualistic culture – they remain necessary! – there is a shift to prestige in a trivialised artistic, creative existence

‘The rigid masks of an arbitrary and interchangeable office, which imparts to the most different personalities the same aura, gives way here to a counter-picture appearing in the unique work brought to permanent form of the person who created it.’ (Plessner 1999: 141)

Such objectification (e.g. as a facebook entry) necessarily creates a distance – and hence establishes a subject that is not to be defined by the sum of their performances. The struggle for prestige as “struggle for a true face” hence still constitutes an “unrealisation” – the true face just as another role. This is not a repetition of the medieval situation where “man never was alone” – it is a performance of a private self that is detached from and thereby constitutes a subjectivity ‘behind’ the private self, thereby realising even further the potential that lies in the anthropologically given eccentric positionality.

In both cases civility and personal development/human flourishing (or whatever you would call it) are safeguarded by alienation between authentic self and performance of a role (the latter offering the chance of constituting authentic selfhood in the first place) – a society of Simmelian strangers. Göle invokes this figure of the permanently resident but also permanently different other in characterising the position of self-assertive Muslims in secular societies:

‘Instead of giving up the attributes of “undesired difference,” Muslim actors voluntarily adopt stigma symbols; expose their embodied difference (through dress codes, modes of address, eating habits) and claim public visibility (in schools, universities, workplaces, parliament). The disturb because they represent ambivalence, being both “Muslim” and “modern” without wanting to give up one for the other. One can almost twist the argument and say that they are neither Muslim nor modern. The ambiguity of signs disturbs both the traditional Muslim and the secular modern social groups.’ (Göle 2003: 824)

Göle illustrates this ambiguity with the case of an Islamist career women with an engineering degree from a US university, fluency in English, versatile in modern gadgetry and fashionable: ‘light-colored headscarf and frameless eyeglasses’ – all ‘distinct cultural symbols in a non-Western context of modernity’ (Göle 2003: 823f.). This ambiguity is maybe most prominent in ex-prime minister Necmettin Erbakan (then Refah Partisi, now Saadet Partisi/Felicity Party – his fifth Islamist outfit after the other four have been successively banned). As Alev Çınar recounts:

‘During the mid-1990s, when the Refah Pary was rising to prominence, its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, started to appear before the media in fashionable suits, noting his Versace ties, which soon became his trademark. Similar to Atatürk, who had made a public appearance wearing a suit and a top hat, thereby inscribing on his own body the norms of “civilized” modern governance, Erbakan also used his own body to create an image of modern and competent Islamist statesmanship. Erbakan’s suits and trademark ties served a twofold function. First, they served to vest the Islamist elite with agency and ascribe to it the qualities of a competent leader who was capable of ruling and transforming society toward a new Islamist nationalist ideal […] Second, this intervention with regard to the male body of the Islamist leadership served a crucial function toward unsettling the dominant view of Islamism as backward, “uncivilized,” fundamentalist, incompetent, and lacking taste and culture. ’ (Çınar 2005: 88)

In short, just like the early Republicans needed to adopt an Islamic idiom to mobilise the Anatolian population, thus acknowledging its pervasiveness, contemporary Islamists, at least in Turkey, adopt a modernist/secular idiom not just in political discourse but also in their sartorial decisions.

This leads over into the mentioned literature on consumerist veiling – a form of veiling that contrasts markedly with a uniform 1980s “banner of Islam” style veiling as it

has begun to lose its homogenizing feature, its uniform, and embraces esthetic values and suggests a symbol of distinction and prestige for pious women. If in the case of Turkey it is by means of democratic politics, market forces, and fashion that stigma symbols are turning into symbols of prestige […].’ (Göle 2003: 821)

Islam clearly is compatible as such with the estranged civility, as Göle (2003: 826) points out – it is very much about boundary maintenance – and the individualisation of the mask in consumerist veiling is one way (among others) to maintain boundaries in a less ceremonial and more artistic way. There is a wide space of  option between the rigidity of a 1980s style fundamentalist and a 1990s and 2000s style fashionable veil – just how wide can easily be gauged by looking at the cases of contemporary performers/artists studied by Emma Tarlo (2007).

Does that mean that the idiom of Islam is now subordinated to consumerism and hence has lost some of its power and meaning? I don’t think this is the case. It certainly has lost its politically legitimising power to secular justifications – constitutional and consumerist. But this loss is also the loss of a burden which allows a reconnection with the spiritual needs of people who consider Islam as their heritage and/or spiritual home, but also inhabit a modern world which is not reconcilable with the social order projected by the şeriatçiler . One could say that there is an historic opportunity to see the intention of Kemalist secularisation realised which had been buried under a very formalistic institutional practice:

‘In accordance with its own principle which was accepted as a fact (without recourse to the Şeriat of legitimization), the new regime would accept the freedom of religion not because religion should be implememtned as the basis of the state, but because it was the duty of the state to safeguard freedom. Freeing the conscience could be effected only when and insofar as the theocratic concept was eliminated from the body of the religious outlook.’ (Berkes 1964: 482)

Akyol, Mustafa (2007): ‘What Made the Gülen Movement Possible?’ in: Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gülen Movement. Conference Proceedings, Leeds: Leeds Metropolitan Unversity Press, pp.22-32

Berkes, Niyazi (1964): The Development of Secularism in Turkey, Montreal: McGill University Press

Çınar, Alev (2005): Modernity, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey: Bodies, Places, and Time, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Davie, Grace (2006) ‘Vicarious religion: A methodological challenge’, in N. Ammerman (ed): Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 21-37.

Featherstone, Mike (1991): Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, London: SAGE.

Fuess, Albrecht (2004): ‘Islam’s Compatibility with Secularism’, in: Peter Graf (ed.): Der Islam im Westen, der Westen im Islam: Positionen zur religiös-ethischen Erziehung von Muslimen, Göttingen: V&R unipress, pp.69-76.

Henkel, Heiko (2007): ‘The Location of Islam: Inhabiting Istanbul in a Muslim Way’, in: American Ethnologist, Vol.34, No.1, pp.57-70.

Houston, Chris (2006): ‘The Never Ending Dance: Islamism, Kemalism and the Power of Self-institution in Turkey’, in: Australian Journal of Anthropology, Vol.17, No.2, pp.161-78

Littler, Jo (2009): Radical Consumption: Shopping for Change in Consumer Culture, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Mandeville, Peter (2001): Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma, London: Routledge

Mills, C. Wright (1963): ‘Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive (1940).’ In: Irving Louis Horowitz (ed.): Power, Politics and People, London: Oxford University Press, pp.439-452.

Modood, Tariq (2003): ‘New Forms of Britishness: Post-Immigration Ethnicity and Hybridity in Britain’, in: Rosemarie Sackmann/Bernhard Peter/Thomas Faist (eds): Identity and Integration: Migrants in Western Europe, Aldershot: Ashgate, pp.77-89.

Tarlo, Emma (2007): ‘Hijab in London’, in: Journal of Material Culture, Vol.12, No.2, pp.131-56.

Woodhead, Linda; with Rebecca Catto (2009): ‘“Religion or Belief”: Identifying Issues and Priorities’, Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report Series, Manchester.

Yavuz, M. Hakan (2003): Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yorkshire & Humber Assembly/The Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and Humber (2005) (4th edition): Religious Literacy: A Practical Guide to the Region’s Faith Communities,


The “scientific rationality” of the modernist-secularist idiom does not necessarily reflect the rational pursuit of scientific inquiry but regularly descends into a quasi-religious messianic cult – Atatürk, in his 1925 speech at İnebolu pronounces

Medeniyetin coşkun seli karşısında mukavemet beyhudedir, ve o, gafil ve itaatsizler hakkında çok biammandır. Dağları delen, semalarda uçan, göze görünmeyen zerrelerden yildizlara kadar her seyi gören, tenvir eden, tetkik eden medeniyetin kudret ve ulviyeti karşısında kurunuvusta zihniyetile, iptidaî hurafelerle yürümeğe çalışan milletler mahvolmağa veya hic olmazsa esir ve zelil olmağa mahkûmlardır

This extract, which can also be found on the What-Atatürk-said-about-medeniyet page of the Turkish Ministry for Culture and Tourism, roughly translates as

Against the gushing torrents of Civilisation resistance is futile – Civilisation knows no mercy for the heedless and disobedient. It penetrates the mountains and flies in the skies, it sees everything from the atoms invisible to the naked eye to the stars. Nations that, guided by medieval mentality and primitive beliefs, try to march against the might and superior power of illuminating and investigating Civilisation are doomed to disappear, or at least to be enslaved and humiliated. [any suggestions for a better translation welcome, mzv]

If my attempt at translation is only approximately correct: the quasi-religious fervour for the messianic cause of scientific civilisation that is presented as at least by tendency omniscient and omnipotent can hardly be denied – Medeniyet takes the place of God in this discourse – using (deliberately?) and Islamic idiom (e.g. the term “itaatsiz” is normally used in conjunctions like “Allah’a karşı itaatsiz” “disobedient against God”) . A secular eschatology is outlined that identifies those who will find Grace and Mercy and those who will be crushed by the ire of almighty Civilisation. But at the same time this discourse is conducted in a way that not only tries to expropriate the Ottoman Islamic idiom, but (in a way that Mardin does not include, but Yavuz hints to) keeps it alive even in the most committed secularists.


The notion of “itaat” derives from the theological notion of āʿa – which denotes an act in obedience to God. While it doesn’t appear in the Qur’ān it is frequently used in Ḥadīth where ‘so far as one can judge, obedience to God is expressed exclusively in the explicit formula āʿat Allāh‘ (Gimaret 2010)

Gimaret, D. “Ṭāa (a., pl. ṭāāt ).” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2010. Brill Online. EXETER UNIVERSITY. 17 August 2010 <>


One prominent function of idiomatic expressions is in ritualised greetings, openings to social interactions that define the relation between the people entering the communication (Oevermann 1983). The Arabist, Turkologist, Aramaist… linguist Otto Jastrow (1991) in a handbook article points out the infusion of greetings with Islamic/Arabic expressions throughout the Islamic world – and also the way that expressions of Islamicity pervade everyday talk with expressions like bismillah (“in the name of God” – expressing surprise, joy, anger and more)  (all given here in their modern Turkish spelling), inşallah (in şaa Allah “God willing”) as acknowledgement that the future is not in one’s own hands – etc. Of course, like the occurrence of “God” and “Christ” in various English expressions (“OMG” and worse), such expressions can lose their religious connotations. So, an atheist Turkish intellectual may still use the occasional maşallah without really wondering what God is willing. Conscious Muslims will distance themselves from such casual use by being more careful with the pronunciation of these expressions and by giving them more prominence. E.g. they would insist that it’s Allah’a ısmarladık (“we entrust (ourselves) to God”) or at least allahaısmarladık, but not the more colloquial contraction allahasmarladık or even allasmarladık.

This is not just about stating a difference between believers and non-believers – if it were, the expressions wouldn’t have made sense during the Ottoman period when their use was more or less universal among Turks. As Wittgenstein insisted, language is to be understood through the practice it is functional in, by what it does. Obviously, these expressions are of a different order than the classic example (the word “Platte”, “slab”, which in the language game of primitive builders is a command on which the addressed brings another slab…) – but that they don’t immediately elicit actions in others does not mean they don’t do anything. Believers use idiomatic expressions, which now compete with secular alternatives, to infuse their lives with religious meaning, to invoke the presence of a higher power and remind themselves and others of the nature of the universe they act in. A shared idiom creates legitimacy by reassuring those sharing the idiom of the shared world they inhabit – in a way they are a means of creating such a cosmos (see, classically, Berger 1967 and Luckmann 1967). As I argued earlier, secular idioms around human rights and consumerism can fulfil similar functions (though the cosmos constituted is of a peculiar nature here: for practical purposes it encompasses religious cosmoi, from the religious perspective it is a parallel cosmos that constitutes a meeting ground with inhabitants of other cosmoi… also the consumerist approach is much more contentful but makes good for it by not constructing one shared cosmos but an infinite number of ephemeral micro cosmoi, see Varul 2008: 243ff.)

The existence and (towards the believer:) benevolence of God is crucial in this. It is, for the religious practitioner, not enough to believe in his existence and benevolence – it needs to be constantly represented (from an atheist perspective: recreated) by referring to God as (from an atheist perspective: as if) personally present. As Wittgenstein says in his Philosophisch Untersuchungen I.36.:

‘Wo unsere Sprache uns einen Körper vermuten läßt, und kein Körper ist, dort möchten wir sagen, sei ein Geist.’ (Wittgenstein 1995: 259) (also

Any meaningful investigation into Muslim life under secularised conditions must look at everyday idioms and practices – they are more significant than any programmatic statements of this or that organisation or scholar who claim authority to speak for those they represent.

Berger, Peter (1967): The Sacred Canopy, New York: Anchor Books

Jastrow, Otto (1991): ‘Ein islamischer Sprachraum? Islamische Idiome in den Sprachen muslimischer Völker’, in: Werner Ende/Udo Steinbach (eds): Der Islam in der Gegenwart, Munich: C. H. Beck

Luckmann, Thomas (1967): The Invisible Religion, New York: Macmillan

Oevermann, Ulrich (1983): ‘Zur Sache’, in: L v. Friedeburg/J. Habermas (eds): Adorno Konferenz, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, pp.234-89

Varul, Matthias Zick (2008): ‘After Heroism: Religion versus Consumerism’, in: Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol.19, No.2, pp.237-55

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1991): ‘Philosophische Untersuchungen’ in: Werkausgabe Band 1, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp


Jastrow (1991: 585) is quite mournful about the demise of Ottoman Turkish, which he characterises as a language of many sources and high complexity, allowing for the finest nuances of expression, not least because it combines original Turkic vocabulary and grammar with Arabic and Persian, which remain a constant source for neologisms. Although I fully appreciate what the language reforms have done for literacy, I agree, to an extent, with Jastrow: Imagine English purged of Latin and French influences, its orthography fully phoneticised … surely easier to learn, but much less expressive and much less worth learning. However, Jastrow’s claim that Turkish has been reduced to ‘the one-dimensional steppe language from which it once emerged’ clearly is unjustified. After all, as he notes, the purge has let to a new import of foreign words – this time of European origin. His examples are instructive as they show up that indeed it is also a matter of adopting different idioms: “common sense” used to be the Arabic aklıselim and was replaced the French bonsans… do the two really mean the same while invoking two different literary traditions? Quite obviously, Turkish is stilled nuanced enough a language to lend itself to Nobel-prize winning novels… but it has to be acknowledged that in this case the writer is versatile in both discourse universes and many idioms… I’m sure it can only be a good thing to have both an Arabic and a French expression at hand – it’s a matter of sağduyu.

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