Jeremy F. Walton, Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Jeremy F. Walton (JFW): Before I first traveled to Turkey in 2003, I was consistently struck by the compulsive omnipresence of “the State” in conversations with friends and colleagues from Turkey. A nexus of emotions—awe, anxiety, affection, apprehension—pervaded these accounts. For a citizen of the United States such as myself, nursed on the thin political milk of libertarian assumptions about state practice, this was fascinating and provocative. The face of the Turkish state—to adapt Yael Navaro-Yashin’s vivid phrase—had a strong profile, even abroad. Yet when I began to sojourn in Turkey more regularly, I recognized that the shadows cast by this profile could not entirely account for the array of initiatives that animated Turkish public life, particularly in my adopted home megalopolis, Istanbul. I found that the domain of activity and affiliation political theory comprehends as “civil society” was robust and multi-faceted, especially in relation to Muslim identity and community. The state was not absent from this domain, by any means, but its imperatives were not hegemonic or uniform. As I began to conduct more focused research, I discovered that even the figure of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose craggy features remain the most prominent face of the state, could inspire defensive admiration in one breath and sharp criticism in the next. I concluded that the emphasis on the state and its mandates in literature on Islam in Turkey—understandable though it may be—is insufficient. My book is a modest response to this insufficiency.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JFW: On a conceptual plane, my book delineates the constitutive relationship between two modes of political power, statist sovereignty and (neo)liberal governmentality, that saturate and orient the field of Turkish civil society, its discourses, and the initiatives of Muslim organizations within it. While (neo)liberal governmentality in relation to Islam registers the power of broader discourses of “religious freedom” in Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd’s sense, it is necessarily framed by political traditions of Kemalist statist sovereignty, which, in turn it has reframed. Accordingly, my theoretical ambit encompasses a plethora of literatures, ideas, and arguments: Foucauldian, Marxian, and Schmittean theories of political power; recent anthropological work on the affinities between civil society and neoliberal governance; critical studies of secularism, with their interrogation of liberal premises about religion and religious freedom; and, above all, ethnographic research on Islam in Turkey and beyond. As my exposition develops over the course of the book, I also plumb the distinctive spatial and temporal practices that have emerged within Turkish Muslim civil society. Such practices, ranging from conference-hosting to charitable aid, from novel forms of Qur’anic interpretation to the restorative nostalgia of Neo-Ottomanism, both mimic and destabilize statist ideologies of Turkish national space and history.
These abstract concerns shuttle through and invigorate my portrait of approximately twenty specific Muslim civil society organizations, based principally in Istanbul and Ankara. As a backdrop to my ethnographic narrative, I first survey the broader field of public Islam in Turkey in order to illuminate the continuities and tensions among a variety of modalities of Muslim religiosity: statist/bureaucratic Islam, mass Islam, partisan Islam, and consumerist Islam, as well as civil Islam. Following this, I focus on three distinct groups that have achieved institutionalization and prominence within civil society: the Nur Community (Nur Cemaatı), a loosely-knit piety movement centered on the theological oeuvre of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (1877-1960); the Gülen Movement (Gülen Hareketi, also known as “Service,” or Hizmet), a transnational network of NGOs, private businesses, and schools devoted to the teachings of Fethullah Gülen (b. 1941), now outlawed and demonized in Turkey as the “Fethullahist Terror Organization” (Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü, FETÖ); and Alevism (Alevilik), the political and civil movement dedicated to Turkey’s Alevis, who practice a distinct form of Islam that integrates aspects of Twelver Shi’ism with a unique tradition of practice based on communal participation in the ritual known as the cem. My explicit juxtaposition of Sunni Islam, in the form of the Nur Community and the Gülen Movement, and Alevism is one of the book’s defining features, as most scholars of Islam in Turkey tend to focus on either the dominant strains of Sunni Hanafi practice, including a variety of Sufi orders (tarikatlar), or on Alevism.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JFW: Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey is the final avatar and outcome of my extended research on Islam, secularism, and civil society in Turkey, which began with my dissertation fieldwork in 2005-2007. As such, it is an integration and elaboration of the welter of commitments, puzzles, dilemmas, and concerns that coursed through and structured my relationship to Turkey. In earlier articles, I focused on two topics that receive a more fine-grained, exhaustive treatment in the book: the waxing of Neo-Ottomanism as an ideological lens through which to comprehend the past and present of both the Turkish nation and the city of Istanbul, and what I have called “the civil society effect” the utopian conception of civil society as an inherently apolitical domain that is uniquely suited to social and religious authenticity and autonomy. In the final chapter of my book, I forward a new critique of Neo-Ottomanism by tracing how Neo-Ottoman images of Istanbul exclude Alevi residents of the city in both systematic and tacit ways. My development of the civil society effect in the book also benefits from extensive “concept work” in relation to the temporal and spatial practices and characteristic chronotopes that emerge within the domain of civil society.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JFW: While scholars of contemporary Turkey are the most immediate audience for the book, I hope that it will speak to a capacious readership for whom Turkey is not merely an “example,” but a provocative site within which global political debates over Islam and the public sway of religion are highly textured and tensile. Hopefully, anthropologists of religion and Islamic Studies scholars will find much to ruminate on and to appreciate in my exposition. More expansively, I hope that my overarching concern for the relationships among state practice, civil society, and religion in neoliberal times will interest and inspire all readers who aspire to comprehend the complexities, contradictions, and settlements of religion and public life today.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JFW: Just as Turkey’s trajectory shifted with jolting rapidity in recent years, so too did my own. Both the geographic and temporal horizons of my life and research have become more expansive—they now incorporate not only Turkey, but much of the Balkans and central Europe as well. In 2016, I began a position as the leader of the Max Planck Research Group, “Empires of Memory: The Cultural Politics of Historicity in Fromer Hapsburg and Ottoman Cities,” at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. The kernel of this ambitious project was my interest in Neo-Ottomanism; this seed has since sprouted into an interdisciplinary evaluation of the forms of memory, amnesia, duration, and lapse that define the legacies of imperial pasts in the present. In a recent publication, I initiate this endeavor through a comparative examination of Ottoman “sites of memory” both within and outside of contemporary Turkey.
J: How do you expect your book to be read in the future?
JFW: A final word on the context of the book’s publication is apposite, even urgent. I set out to write an ethnography, but I find that I have written a history. In the wake of the coup attempt of 15 July 2016, many of the institutions with which I conducted research—all of those affiliated with the Gülen Movement—have been declared illegal and dismantled, their assets seized by the Turkish state. More generally, Turkish civil society, both Muslim and otherwise, has been severely curtailed in the ongoing state of emergency, a phrase that amounts to an ironic pun at this point. It is far beyond my capacity to evaluate the causes and consequences of the coup attempt without succumbing to the pitfalls of speculation. And while I have not been directly affected by the coup attempt and its aftermath, the public smearing, summary dismissal, and, in several cases, imprisonment of friends, colleagues, and former interlocutors has fundamentally changed my relationship to a place that I continue to admire and esteem passionately. In retrospect, my ethnography took place in a Turkey that no longer exists, and my book is a chronicle of this Turkey, less than a decade gone, which shimmers mirage-like today. I hope that readers in the future will seek out my book in order to explore and comprehend the Turkey that recently was, in order to meditate on the Turkey that is, and that might have been.
Excerpt from the book:
On a wind-swept afternoon in March 2014, a dolmuş (shared taxi) conveyed me to the sleepy central Anatolian town of Hacıbektaş, located on the northern periphery of Cappadocia, the lunar landscape of carved rock churches, antique underground cities, and Daliesque lithic formations that is one of Turkey’s premier tourist destinations. Hacıbektaş is not a typical stop on the itinerary of the international trekkers who traipse across Cappadocia throughout spring, summer, and autumn, a fact that its built environment clearly reflects: It is a modest conurbation of single family homes and apartment buildings, bereft of the tourism-fueled glitz and luxury found elsewhere in the region. On one weekend each August, however, the town overflows with visitors, who arrive to participate in the annual Hacı Bektaş Veli Celebrations, a commemoration of the 13th Century Sufi saint who bestowed his name on the town, and whose tomb complex remains its central site and sole claim to distinction.
According to his hagiography, Hacı Bektaş was a direct descendant of the Seventh Shi’a Imam, Musa Kazim, and, therefore, a sayyid, a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, as well. The eponymous Bektashi Sufi Order, which remains prominent in the Balkans—especially in Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania—stems directly from his influence, although the order itself was founded by one of his later disciples, Balım Sultan. In Turkey today, Hacı Bektaş is the cardinal patron saint of Alevis—one of the most prominent Alevi institutions in Turkey, the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Culture Foundation (Haçı Bektaş Veli Anadolu Kültür Vakfı; HBVV), bears his name—and the annual summer festivities in the town of Hacıbektaş are equally a public pageant of and for Alevism.
The effervescent atmosphere that descends on the town briefly each summer was absent on the late winter day of my visit to Hacıbektaş, although a mixed chorus of rowdy street dogs and campaign buses blasting political jingles in anticipation of nation-wide municipal elections later in the month created an incongruous din in the near-empty streets. I headed directly to the tomb complex, which dominates the center of the town. As I walked up the slight incline toward the mausoleum, I gazed with mild curiosity at a battery of souvenir shops, which offered every variety of Hacı Bektaş- and Alevi-related curio for sale, including some surprisingly politicized fare, such as small rugs featuring the iconic image of the Turkish socialist revolutionary Deniz Gezmiş, who was executed by the state in 1972. In response to my curiosity, a clutch of merchants raised their eyes hopefully from lukewarm cups of tea—clearly, I was one of the only potential marks that day. In the square opposite the entrance to the tomb complex, an elderly woman insistently pressed a “wishing stone” (dilek taşı) into my hands, which, she promised, would guarantee my future good fortune under the auspices of Hacı Bektaş, provided that I offer her a few lira in exchange. A few moments later, a middle-aged man hailed me in broken French, and continued enthusiastically to proclaim his devotion to Hacı Bektaş in Turkish once he recognized my fluency; before parting, he rolled up the shirt sleeve of his left arm in order to display a tattoo of Zülfikar, Ali’s famous scimitar, with pride.
As I passed through the oversize aperture of the entrance to the tomb complex, I was keenly aware that I was entering a space of the state, as well as a religious space. The bronze plaque above the archway announces this explicitly: The official name of the site is the “Hacıbektaş Veli Museum of the Culture and Tourism Ministry of the Turkish Republic” (T.C. Kültür ve Türizm Bakanlığı Hacıbektaş Veli Müzesi). The status of the tomb complex as a museum, under the administration of the Culture and Tourism Ministry, is a major of complaint for many Alevis, especially due to the admission fee required of all visitors. Although admission is nominal—the charge in March 2014 was three lira, approximately 1€/$1.25—many Alevis object to the symbolic indignity of having to pay to enter a space that is, for them, one of pilgrimage (ziyaret) and devotion. After making my own deposit of three lira at a kiosk in the outer courtyard, I entered the museum, where a curious congeries of spatial practices occupy the same place.
The complex is broadly divided into two sections: the rectangular inner courtyard of the tekke, or dervish lodge, and the cemetery surrounding the mausoleum of Hacı Bektaş. For the most part, the warren of rooms that forms the tekke is now recognizably a museum. Within this section of the complex, glass vitrines display distinctive ritual objects of the Bektashi dervishes, including lutes, oil lamps, the ceremonial axe of the dedebaba (the highest ranking dervish, or halife, of the order at a given time), and the distinctive headwear of dervishes, the Hüseyin-i Taç, or “Crown of Hüseyin,” which is divided into twelve sections to represent the Twelve Shi’a Imams. Bilingual panels in Turkish and English describe the central beliefs and practices of Bektashism and Alevism, including the cem and other forms of ritual circumambulation (semah); elsewhere, black-and-white photographs depict the final generation of Bektashi dervishes, prior to the prohibition of Sufi orders and closure of dervish lodges during the early Republic. One of the larger rooms of the lodge still hosts occasional cems and other types of semah, although these events are explicitly framed as “folkloric performances” as opposed to religious rituals. A plaque on the wall indicates that museum visitors can arrange in advance to see a semah, but only if they can assure that no less than forty audience members will be in attendance. On the opposite side of the lodge, the museum curators have created a simulacrum of the lodge’s kitchen, complete with several mannequin cooks, who stoically stir a formidable cauldron beneath poorly-simulated candle light.
Hacı Bektaş Veli’s mausoleum is located in a shady graveyard directly behind the lodge. Here, the definitive spatial practice of the museum—pedagogic display—is less evident than it is in the rooms of lodge. Like the burial grounds of countless other prominent Sufi sheikhs, especially those who established or inspired their own orders, the tomb of Hacı Bektaş is surrounded by the graves of other prominent dervishes and devotees of the order. A large number of Bektashi sheikhs are buried within the mausoleum that houses Hacı Bektaş’ tomb, and one of his most prominent disciples, Balım Sultan, who was responsible for organizing the Bektashiyya as formal Sufi order, is interred in a separate mausoleum just steps away.
Upon entering the mausoleum, the spatial practices of tomb visitation (ziyaret) partially supersede those of the museum. Shoes are removed at the mausoleum’s entrance, replaced by blue plastic bags. Women cover their heads with shawls, if they are not already veiled. Voices become muted as visitors pass through the anteroom of the mausoleum and emerge into the central chamber. Here, both the distinction between and the mutual configuration of religious spatial practices and those of the museum are dramatic. The walls of the mausoleum feature photographs and exhibits similar to those located in the lodge, though the commentary that accompanies them is much more subdued. At the hour of my visit, there were some ten to fifteen other people present in the mausoleum. Singly and in pairs, they crowded the small space directly in front of Hacı Bektaş’ coffin and quietly recited devotional prayers (dualar), their arms bent at the elbow and hands curled upward in characteristic fashion. Simultaneously, however, the museum guard stationed in the mausoleum answered my questions about the history of the town in a loud voice, unaffected by the otherwise devotional context. As I was about to depart, a middle-aged man approached the guard with his two young sons. He gingerly began to formulate a question (which I recorded in my field notes later that day): “We were going to perform prayer here (namaz kılacaktık)…” “No,” the guard replied, “that’s forbidden here. This is a museum, not a mosque (Yok, yasak, burası müzedir, cami değil).” And yet, remarkably, the museum does include a functioning mosque, the lodge mosque (tekke camii), located in one corner of the rectangular inner courtyard; when I arrived at the museum, approximately fifteen elderly men were in the midst of performing the noonday prayer in the mosque, led by the resident imam, a trained religious functionary appointed to the mosque by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı; DİB) in Ankara. I corralled the imam after the collective prayer had ended, and ultimately spoke with him for well over an hour—he estimated that approximately ten to twenty men, including several Alevis, perform prayer in the lodge mosque daily.
The simultaneous prohibition on prayer (namaz) in the mausoleum of Hacı Bektaş and its sanctioning in a different place, the lodge mosque, gesture to the dense nexus of spatial practices that cohabit the museum-tomb complex. Both museum and mosque are spaces of the state in Turkey, but they are also very different places in Michel de Certeau’s sense, which authorize different modes of spatial practice. In the mausoleum/museum, practices that would normally be appropriate to Muslim tomb visitation (ziyaret) are explicitly monitored by the guard, an avatar of state authority. Although a certain type of individualistic, prayer-like invocation, dua, does occur within the mausoleum, this type of prayer, unlike namaz—the routinized, mandatory prayer that Muslims perform five times daily—is not subject to state circumscription and regulation. In other words, dua, the type of prayer that is allowable within the space of the museum-mausoleum, is not a spatial practice defined by a certain type of place, the mosque. Namaz, on the other hand, is inextricable from the place of the mosque. To perform namaz in a space of the state that is not a mosque is unthinkable, forbidden, yasak; therefore, within the museum complex as a whole, the spatial practice of namaz can only occur within a place that is explicitly defined as a mosque. The sequestration of namaz within the lodge mosque of the Hacı Bektaş Veli Museum dramatically expresses the spatial logic of laicism in Turkey. Within this hybrid place, both museum and mosque, statist sovereignty in relation to Islam achieves expression both through the prohibition of a practice (namaz) and through the exceptional sanctioning of this same practice in a different place. Rarely does the logic of sovereignty as a that the principle which “decides on the exception,” in Carl Schmitt’s famous formulation, achieve such articulate spatial illustration in relation to religious practice.