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september, 2024

01sep00:0000:00Virtual EventMESA (Middle East Studies Association) 2024 Panel Presentations - IThe Predicament of Islamic Epistemic Delinking: Hegemony and Critique in Contemporary Islamic Thought in Turkey

Group Details


Panel I:  The Predicament of Islamic Decoloniality: Hegemony and Critique in Contemporary Islamic Thought in Turkey 

Organizer:  Alev Çınar
Chair/Discussant: Nora Fisher Onar


This panel seeks to demonstrate how the Islamic intellectual field (IIF) in Turkey, which consists of a variety of different, sometimes adamantly clashing Islam-based intellectual movements, is marked by a common struggle that seeks to break free from what is perceived as the hegemony of European systems of thought and knowledge. This struggle is primarily directed against the secular, Westernizationist founding ideology of the Republic, Kemalism, which has been termed as “self-colonization” by some of the Muslim intellectuals. Referring to this common motivation that drives contending movements as Islamic epistemic delinking, this panel focuses on Islamic intellectual movements that build on the emancipatory promise of epistemic decolonization to develop Islam-based perspectives, theories, and political projects, which came to constitute the intellectual foundations of Islam-based politics in Turkey, including the foundational ideology of Turkey’s current governmental regime established under the ruling AKP. While most Islamic movements in the IIF seek to stand up against the hegemony of Western paradigms of knowledge, some paradoxically use this emancipatory logic to establish themselves as the only viable political power whose project and understanding of Islam is superior to and unrivalled by others. This panel seeks to demonstrate how some of these movements raise claims to epistemic delinking to authorize their own alternative Islam-based political visions and projects while at the same time use such claims to justify new hierarchies and power relations based on Islam. The first paper in the panel looks at the Sufi-based political thought of Necip Fazıl Kısakürek to show how he is one of the pioneers of Islamic epistemic delinking in Turkey that emerged in the 1940s. The second paper examines Istanbul Sehir University, which was the first academic institution to be established by Muslim intellectuals active in the IIF as a case of “obedient resistance” against the hegemony of the Western academia. The third paper studies Ibn Haldun University that was established by President Erdogan’s TURGEV foundation to demonstrate the dilemmas of Islamic decoloniality, which result from seeking to end the hegemony of the Western academia while at the same time striving for international recognition, as well as the attempt to achieve a hegemonic status in the IIF. The final paper explores the work of former Marxist poet Ismet Özel in terms of his utopian goal to create an ideal Muslim society, which involves what the author refers to as “decoloniality as a lifestyle.


Panelists and Abstracts:

Epistemic Delinking in the Islamic Intellectual Field: “The Great East” Project of Necip Fazıl Kısakürek by Alev Çınar

This paper examines the work of Turkish Muslim poet and writer Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (1904-1983), who developed a Sufi-based intellectual paradigm and a political project in the 1940s as one of the first attempts in establishing an Islam-based political project that stands as an alternative to Eurocentric knowledge systems and modes of modernity which were adopted as part of Turkey’s founding ideology. The paper seeks to demonstrate that Necip Fazıl is one of the pioneers of what can be referred to as epistemic delinking from Western systems of thought, which became one of the key constitutive elements of the Islamic intellectual field in Turkey. My larger project seeks to demonstrate that this field emerged primarily as a reaction to Turkey’s founding ideology, Kemalism, which launched a West-oriented secular modernization project that framed the Ottoman system and Islam as inferior, backward, and uncivilized. Epistemic delinking emerged as an intellectual movement against this backdrop in the 1940s, and later branched out into diverse intellectual movements that seek to break free from what is perceived as the hegemony of European intellectual paradigms, and the Kemalist project that has been termed as “self-colonization” by some of the Muslim intellectuals. This paper focuses on Necip Fazıl’s work, who is current President Erdogan’s main ideological inspiration, and the founder and lead writer of The Great East journal (1943-1978), which is considered to be Turkey’s first Islam-based political journal that was instrumental in inspiring numerous future political and intellectual movements. In his books, Necip Fazıl provides a critical commentary on Western thought by contesting the reason-faith dichotomy that sustains Western systems of knowledge, and develops an alternative Islam-based model that he refers to as the “Great East Revolution,” which involves the creation of a totalitarian Naqshbandi-based state model and a tightly regulated social order. Based on the analysis of these sources, I argue that while Necip Fazıl seeks to dismantle the reason-faith binary by taking at the base of his political thought a conceptualization of “human” as primarily defined by a Sufi understanding of Islam, his singular and monolithic conceptualization of Islam results in generating the same power relations that are claimed to be the product of the hegemonic status of European paradigms of knowledge, and produces the same kind of totalizing politics attributed to colonialism and imperialism, which persecutes, represses, or silences voices that unsettle the authority of colonial modes of governance. The reproduction of the same binaries and hierarchies that sustain the contested colonial power relations, I argue, is the predicament of Islamic epistemic delinking.


“Muslim Society” as Resistance: İsmet Özel’s Islamism as a Form of Islamic Decolonial Thought in Turkey by Enes Ateş

The reception of the concept of civilization within the Islamic Intellectual Field (IIF) has been of various types. Critical positions that directly oppose the concept itself in contemporary Islamic thought are one of these types. If it is possible to label this critical position as “anticivilizationism”, İsmet Özel can be one of the thinkers within the IIF who approaches the concept of civilization highly critical. İsmet Özel’s interesting life story, in which he evolved from a communist poet and writer to an “Islamist” thinker as he names it, is worth examining at the intellectual level. Considering his sort of popularity in public discussions as a public intellectual figure, Özel’s political thought may locate a sui-generis line within the IIF. This presentation will be based on Özel’s book Three Problems: Technique, Civilization, Alienation – Introduction to the Muslim Way of Thinking published in 1978 as proposing that it was one of the most attentive anti-civilizationist intellectual-political objection in the Islamic Intellectual field. Through the main theses of the book, the presentation tries to explain Özel’s anti-civilizationism. As a conceptual proposal, the presentation will foreground the instrumental compatibility of Özel’s critique of civilization with the conceptualization of Islamic decolonial thought. Based on recent literature on decoloniality, this paper argues that Özel’s proposal to establish a Muslim society is offered as a form of “living decolonially,” which refers to thinking and acting in ways that break free from the hegemony of Western knowledges and perspectives where everyday practices and lifestyles are shaped in accordance with Islamic standards of morality and through conscious efforts to “delink” from such Western standards. By drawing attention to the similarities of contemporary Islamic political thought in Turkey with the approaches of “decoloniality” theory, this proposal tries to be both an instrumental contribution to the theory itself and a small introduction of a new framework to the research field on Islamism in Turkey.


Higher Education, Ideology, and Politics in Turkey: An Islamic Decolonial Turn in Academia? by Seda Baykal

This study examines Ibn Khaldun University (IHU) to understand whether the civilizational ideology of AKP (Justice and Development Party) is being manifested as a decolonial academic paradigm at IHU. Higher education has been experiencing a worldwide transformation due to the advancement of globalism, neoliberalism, and technology. This transformation of the definition and function of higher education is not only quantitative, i.e., the increasing number of universities, students, and areas of study, but also qualitative such as the replacement of the academic administration offices by professional administrations, the increasing role of bureaucracy on academic decisions and such. One of the qualitative aspects which requires urgent attention yet does not get is the relationship between the state and higher education. Like others, studies on higher education in Turkey tend to address the problems of higher education in a vacuum without analyzing the prevailing state ideology, how it transforms higher education, and at the same time, is being reinforced or challenged by it. This incuriosity is not due to the insignificance of the phenomenon. Rather, the link between the state and higher education is mainly taken for granted as the prevailing ideology is undoubtedly effective in higher education and followingly justified and reproduced institutionally. On the other hand, this study questions this assumption and analyzes the link between AKP’s civilizationism and IHU, and examines whether civilizationism is being institutionalized and reproduced in IHU. This study follows a three-level analysis. First, I examine the civilizationism of the ruling party AKP and the founding principles of IHU, which are “Open Civilization” and “Open Science,” theorized by its founder and first president Recep Şentürk and discuss how these discourses overlap and reinforce each other. Second, I analyze the decolonial character of civilizationism based on the concepts of “Open Civilization” and “Open Science” and argue and discuss the hegemonic nature of this decolonial discourse. Finally, based on the analyses of the curricula, syllabi, interviews with the academic staff, and participant observation at the IHU campus, I discuss whether IHU, as the blueprint of the civilizational political paradigm, is actually reproducing and justifying it as a decolonial academic paradigm and how.


Between Assimilation and Defiance: “Obedient Resistance” in Academia, The Example of Istanbul Şehir University by Ayşe Ayten Bakacak

Istanbul Şehir University (ISU) was founded in 2008 by a group of Muslim intellectuals with the support of the AKP government. It was celebrated by Islamic circles as a step aimed at breaking the monopoly of a West-oriented approach to higher education that took Western academic modes and standards as the universal norm. However, after a decade-long span of being seen as one of the most successful examples of alternative knowledge production in higher education and inspired several other universities, ISU was dissolved via a presidential decree of Erdoğan in 2020. This paper argues that ISU represents a case of what Mustafa Özel, one of the prominent founders of ISU, calls “obedient resistance”. Being a scholar in economics and a prolific writer, Özel means by obedient resistance a repudiation of every form of domination by not refusing to benefit from the outcomes of it while at the same time resisting its hegemony. He specifically takes the position of non-Western societies against any form of colonial domination and defines obedience in reference to the attitude of benefiting from any Western-origin thing from ideologies, quality standards, or educational institutions, to literary genres, sources of knowledge, or the organization of social life. Resistance, on the other hand, refers to a struggle to maintain one’s authenticity and distinctive features as a manifestation of a desire not to be defined by others, particularly by the West. This paper seeks to demonstrate the ways in which Özel’s notion informed the structuring of ISU, in the institutionalization of its academic departments, curricula and course contents in social science disciplines. I argue that there is double obedient resistance in the case of ISU. The first one reveals itself as an epistemic struggle against West-centric education within an academic structure that was designed as a Western-style university which cares to meet Western quality standards. The second form of obedient resistance was performed against AKP’s hegemonic interventions: ISU refrained from AKP’s attempts aimed at instrumentalizing ISU’s religious identity and putting it at the full service of political ends. Within the framework of this argument, I focus firstly on the founding principles of the university and the course contents of social sciences departments to reveal the indicators of the obedient resistance against standardized West-centric contents. Second, I examine public statements of both the founders of ISU, and AKP officials to demonstrate the ways in which ISU obediently resisted AKP’s hegemonic interventions.


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