The Islamic Intellectual Field and Political Theorizing in Turkey

Project Coordinator: Alev ÇINAR
EU Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska Curie Action Global Fellowship Grant 2021-2024
Project Acronym: IslamPolTheory (No 894197)
External Host: Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, CA, USA (2021-2023)
Local Host: Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey (2023-2024)

This project examines the current Islamic intellectual field in Turkey that consists of hundreds of journals, publishers, bookstores, research institutes, and since 2010, universities. The research focuses on political and intellectual periodicals published since the 1990s to discern and categorize different Islam-based intellectual movements, ideologies, and schools of thought. This project is funded by an H2020 MSCA-IF Global Fellowship award, which includes an outgoing phase at Stanford University, Department of Anthropology, under the sponsorship of Thomas Blom Hansen during the 2021-2023 academic years, and an incoming phase at Bilkent University, under the sponsorship of İlker Aytürk during the 2023-24 academic year. This website is designed to publicize information on all events, activities, calls, participants, and output related to this project. We welcome any FEEDBACK, COMMENTS and SUGGESTIONS you may have on any part of this project.


Project Goals

The main aim of this study is to explore and map Islam-based intellectual movements and political ideologies by conducting an interdisciplinary study of the Islamic Intellectual Field (IIF) in Turkey through an examination of leading periodicals specializing in political thought published since the 1990s. This intellectual field is a unique, rigorous, diverse field of political theorizing that brings together both classical and contemporary Turkish, Islamic and Western intellectual traditions and themes ranging from politics, sociology and economics to philosophy, theology, and the arts. This diverse field is formed around predominantly non-academic institutes, associations, and publishers that produce hundreds of journals and magazines, publish books, offer courses and certificates, and organize conferences and symposiums. It consists of a wide variety of Islam-based political perspectives, ranging from orthodox Muslim conservatism to Islamist progressivism, or Islamic statism to Muslim anarchism. These intellectual movements express themselves in numerous periodicals and publications that address issues and themes common to political theory ranging from political authority, obedience, and justice, to legitimacy, citizenship, modernity, or capitalism, within a broadly defined Islamic frame of reference.

Despite the breadth, dynamism, and theoretical relevance of this field, only a few of its elements are academically studied, which are predominantly confined to Islamic Studies and rarely also to Turkish intellectual history. What is more disconcerting, which is one of the core motivations behind this project, is that this vast field of political theorizing is not recognized as a legitimate field of knowledge production either by international academic circles or by the academia in Turkey. Not even the recently established universities that aspire to develop curricula around Islamic knowledges, which are mainly confined to traditional Islamic disciplines such as Fiqh or Hadith Studies, recognize this field as a viable field of knowledge production that is worthy of academic study. It is for this reason that the primary goal of this project is to explore and present the IIF in Turkey to the academic world and call for its recognition as a legitimate site of knowledge production in the field of political thought.

Conceptual Framework
Building on a critical reading of Postcolonial Theory and current debates on Decoloniality and the decolonization of knowledge, this project seeks to examine the IIF  in Turkey as a field that is fundamentally motivated by a desire to develop Islam-based political perspectives, visions, theories, and programs that debate and develop solutions to Turkey’s existing political, historical, social, cultural, economic, or international problems, most of which are defined in relation to different aspects of Westernization, Eurocentric modernization or imperialism. The critical reading of Postcolonial Theory involves its failure 1) to consider Islamism that emerged in the second half of nineteenth century as an intellectual and political movement against the colonization of Muslim societies,  and an internationalist alternative to anti-colonial nationalism; and, 2) to sufficiently and critically examine the anti-Western and/or anti-colonial movements that emerged in postcolonial contexts, and to provide the conceptual and analytical tools with which these movements can be studied. One of the goals of this project is to develop these tools and approaches that will allow the study of the IIF in Turkey, which emerged as an intellectual and political movement that sought to defend and empower Turkey and/or Islam against what was perceived by the intellectuals of the IIF as the colonizing and Westernizing reforms of the secular, Westernizationist ideology of Republic.

Understanding this diverse field of political theorizing in its own terms requires that these different intellectual movements and schools of thought are mapped out in terms of the concepts, parameters, norms, and standards that are developed in the IIF itself. For this reason, this study stands at the intersection of intellectual history, which traces the advent of political thought within its political, historical, intellectual context; anthropology, which offers the tools and approaches needed to study such a field in its own terms by prioritizing locally produced and contextually grounded meanings, definitions, concepts, and systems of thought; and Decolonial Theory, which seeks to open the way for the recognition of non-Western knowledges and systems of thought as equally legitimate and viable sources of knowledge production as other intellectual schools and disciplines established in the Western academia.

Mapping the Islamic Intellectual Field

Even though the intellectual movements that constitute the IIF are united by a common understanding of the human as primarily defined by religion, the way each conceptualizes and cultivates Islam as part of their theorizing is fundamentally different from each other. For example, while, for rationalist Islamists, Islam primarily means the Qur’an, for orthodox conservatives it means Naqshbandi Sufism, or for neoliberal Muslim conservatives it means Islamic civilization. Also, even though all these movements develop a political perspective or ideology based on their unique conception of Islam, their understanding of politics and political change also differs profoundly from each other. For example, while progressive Islamists embrace a bottom-up approach to politics which seeks to bring about change through the empowerment of social movements and civil society, orthodox monarchists advocate a top-down approach that envisions a totalizing state based on orthodox Sunni rule which derives its legitimacy and authority from the tenets of Naqshbandi Sufism. Due to this diversity of the ways in which both Islam and politics are conceptualized in their own terms and in relation to one another, it is necessary to first develop a conceptual map of the IIF so as to discern where a particular movement or school is positioned within the larger spectrum of alignments and camps, all of which are integrally connected to Turkish and Ottoman social, political and intellectual history, the unique features of Ottoman and Turkish modernization and Westernization, theological aspects of Islam, Islamic history and thought, as well as the variety of ways in which they have interacted with both Western and other Islamic intellectual traditions and systems of thought. In particular, the focus will be on the rationalism/reason (aql) – testimonialism/empiricism (naql) divide, which constitutes the two epistemological camps rooted in Islamic philosophy and theology that mark the two sides of the spectrum of alignments along which different movements and schools stand. A third epistemological camp, Sufism, is also an integral part of this spectrum that is mostly fused with the naql approach, due to the dominance of the Mujaddidi Naqshibandi order in Turkey, which combines Sufism with Orthodox Sunnism. The aqlnaql distinction acts not only as the fundamental epistemological divide that lays the foundations of Islamic thought, but also informs the current debates in the IIF by providing the terms (“akıl” vs. “nakil” in Turkish) that are often used to mark the differences between contending intellectual movements and for different groups to position themselves vis-à-vis others. One of the priorities of this study is to show how it is impossible to discern the positioning of current movements and schools in the IIF with regard to their unique conceptualization of Islam and politics without a due account of these epistemological categories.

Through textual analysis of a select group of leading periodicals, I seek to discern the philosophical and ideological features of the main intellectual movements that constitute the IIF, with a particular focus on the aqlnaql divide, and Sufism, which operate almost akin to the left-right divide of the conventional political spectrum. The project also seeks to determine how these schools of thought interact with their political, social, global, and intellectual milieu to shape and influence existing Islam-based political movements, ideologies, groups, identities, public debates, and the overall language of politics within which these take shape.

The preliminary conceptual framework and the main research sample of this study were developed during my previous TUBITAK (Turkish Scientific and Technological Research Association)-sponsored research (2015-17), which attempted to map the main alignments and divides that comprise this field by surveying and cataloguing more than 100 Islamic periodicals published since 1990. This study will analyze the intellectual output of a select group of 5 or 6 periodicals chosen to represent different sides of the political spectrum, and their affiliated associations, and conduct an intellectual ethnography of their lead writers. These periodicals are selected out of a group of 30 periodicals, which constitute the main sample of this project. The selection criteria for these are that it 1-is currently published, 2-has been in circulation for at least 10 years, and 3-addresses issues and themes that are common to the field of political thought. Additional periodicals that do not fit these three criteria, but have significant impact on the field, are also included as supplementary sources.