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december, 2022

04dec11:0013:00MESA (Middle East Studies Association) 2022 Panel PresentationsMapping Civilizationism as an Islamic Decolonial Project in Turkey - 1

Group Details

This panel seeks to examine the concept of civilization in Turkish politics as it became one of the core elements of the AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) ideology since it came to power in 2002. Under the AKP rule, civilizationism was endorsed as the glorification of the Ottoman past, referred to as neo-Ottomanism, and seen as a way to contest Turkey’s secular, ethnic-Turkish founding ideology, Kemalism. The idea that the primary task of the government is to revive this Ottoman-Islamic civilizational heritage gained force after the AKP came to power. For the past two decades, civilizationism has informed governmental policies ranging from the economy to the restructuring of the education system, from urban development or foreign affairs to heritage and cultural policies. Most of the recent studies on AKP’s civilizational/neo-Ottomanist stance understand it as an alternative to nationalism, a response against Western civilization, or a way to cover up right-wing, religion-based, and populist impulses. In contrast, in this panel, we approach civilizationism as the common theme of a larger debate in the Islamic intellectual field (IIF) among different, sometimes contrasting views that not only forms the backbone of AKP’s political ideology, but also provides insight into some of the transformations and ruptures that the AKP went through in the last two decades. We are particularly interested in exploring how the AKP uses themes drawn from postcolonial criticism to justify its own Ottoman-Islamic variant of civilizationism. These decolonial themes include a critique of Turkey’s pro-Western orientation, a disavowal of European paradigms of knowledge, and an emphasis on reviving restoring the country’s authentic and local institutions, traditions, and practices. In this panel, we examine both the dominant premises of civilizationism, while also attending to the ways in which this ideology is produced, contested, and negotiated by various actors, organizations, and intellectual formations. While some papers trace debates surrounding the concept of civilizationism in the IIF, others explore the manifestations of AKP’s civilizational ideology in various domains such as higher education policy, state-business relations, and the conduct of political authority. The findings of these papers contribute not only to debates about political Islam and Turkish politics, but also to broader conversations about the rise of civilizationism in countries like China, Russia, and India.


Event Details

Organized by Alev Çınar, Panel session titled “Civilizational Thought in the Islamic Intellectual Field in Turkey” at the Middle East Studies Association Annual Conference, Denver, Colorado USA, 2-4 Dec. 2022.


Organizer: Gizem Zencirci
Chair: Halil İbrahim Yenigün
Discussant: Katerina Dalacoura
Alev Çınar
Gizem Zencirci
M. Nergiz Altınsoy
Seda Baykal
Ayşe Ayten Bakacak

Abstracts to be Presented:

“Contending Notions of Civilization in Islamic Decolonial Thought in Turkey”
by Alev Çınar

This paper compares leading journals in the Islamic Intellectual Field (IIF) in Turkey that have published special issues on civilization, to explore how the notion civilization is developed as part of what can be termed as “Islamic decolonial thought,” which refers to intellectual movements that seek to defend and empower Turkey and/or Islam against what is perceived as the hegemony of European paradigms of knowledge and what is often termed as the “self-colonizing,” Westernizing, secularist reforms of the Kemalist Republic. Examining civilization issues of two main journals (Ay Vaktiand Hece) published since 2010 from different sides of the political spectrum, this paper examines how the term civilization is used by different intellectual and political movements, including the ruling AKP, as the key element of their ideological stance. The goal is to demonstrate that the debate on civilization is marked by a motivation common to all contending parties in the IIF to develop Islam-based political perspectives that debate and develop solutions to Turkey’s domestic or international problems, most of which are defined in relation to Westernization, Eurocentric modernization or imperialism. Building on a critical reading of postcolonial theory and current debates on decoloniality and the decolonization of knowledge, I argue that civilizational discourse is part of Islamic decolonial thought, which can broadly be defined as an attempt to produce non-Western forms of knowing and theorizing that build primarily on Islamic intellectual and theological schools of thought, but also on secular-Ottoman/Turkish as well as Western intellectual traditions. Despite this common motivation that fuels civilizational discourse in the IIF, there are a variety of different and even clashing ways the concept is utilized by different intellectual movements. While some use the term as an alternative to ethnic nationalism – as in “Islamic civilization” – others contrastingly use it as a form of religious nationalism that posits a natural union between Turkishness and Islam – as in “Turkish-Islamic civilization.” The paper discusses how some of these different usages of the term pave the way for political projects that tend to aggravate different forms of ethnic or religious discrimination. For example, the term “Ottoman-Islamic civilization,” which is used as a religious alternative to secular nationalism, results in the exclusion of other religious communities, particularly the Alevite population. Whereas “Turkish-Islamic civilization,” which has increasingly become popular in the post-2016 AKP-MHP alliance, is often invoked to fuel ethnic discrimination, particularly against the Kurds.

“The Hidden Codes of Civilization:” Reviving Ottoman Ahi (Craft) Guilds and the Small Business Myth of AKP’s Civilizational Politics
by Gizem Zencirci

In 2016, praising the introduction of a new course on Ottoman ahi (craft) guilds in Karatay University in Turkey, a journalist wrote that this economic heritage gave access to the “hidden codes of our civilization,” and argued that the revival of the ahi model was as a necessary step for “solving our problems by returning to our own cultural values.” This account exemplifies, how, the revival of ahi (Ottoman craft guilds) is understood as an essential element of Turkey’s civilizational revival. In this perspective, ahi guilds are claimed to provide an indigenous, authentic, and Islamic model for governing economic affairs, ranging from the organization of business associations to the management of customers, and from pursuing economic growth to establishing a balance between the haves and the have-nots. In the past decade, the AKP regime and pro-government business groups, civil society organizations, think-tanks, and higher education institutions in Turkey have disseminated similar claims about ahism, promoting the view that reviving the ahi heritage was a form of restoring the Ottoman-Islamic civilization. This paper maps this intellectual field formed around the debate on the significance of ahi guilds and its relation to civilizationism, with an eye towards understanding the origins, claims, and themes of Ahism, and examines what these components tell us about the origins and limits of AKP’s larger civilizational politics. First, I demonstrate that attempts to revive this economic heritage are often expressed from a decolonial sensibility, often aligning reimagined features of the Ottoman-Islamic economy in opposition to the West. Ahism is promoted as a model of Islamic “small business” that combines free market principles with religious values and communitarian principles, and an alternative to Western economic institutions, practices, and theories. Second, I discuss the internal debates within this Islamic intellectual field particularly concerning disagreements about the scale of production and the proper management of class-based conflict. I substantiate this argument through a close reading of Ahism-related publications of the Turkish Trade Ministry, Chambers of Arts and Craftsman, and the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey; promotional materials printed as part of Ahi week celebrations, speeches given by AKP politicians in the past two decades, as well as publications—written by Muslim intellectuals as well as others—that criticize AKP’s discourse of Ahism from an Islamic standpoint.

“Islamist Contestation of Neo-Civilizationist Discourse: The Case of İktibas Journal”
by Ayşe Ayten Bakacak

In Turkey there is a tendency in the Islamic Intellectual Field (IIF) for staking a claim on civilizationism as a means of an anti-colonial struggle. On political level, AKP also uses an Islamic and neo-Ottomanist civilizational discourse and presents it as an indigenous alternative to Western civilization. However, there has been substantial opposition within the IIF itself against the use of the word civilization (medeniyet), among which İktibas journal, published since 1981, takes the lead. The paper examines how this prominent dissident Islamist publication has been criticizing the presentation of idea of “Islamic civilization” as a decolonial and indigenous alternative to Western civilization. Since defining both socio-political and Islamic concepts within the original ideological and historical context have been the essential concern of the journal since its inception, İktibas published several articles and even a special issue, in recent years, that addressed the debate on civilization, taking a critical stance against the use of the term civilization within an Islamic context. From the perspective of İktibas, the intellectual hegemony and epistemic colonization of the West cannot be defeated via using Western-originated concepts, which is why the journal depicts “Islamic civilization” phrase is an oxymoron at best.  The objective of this paper is to show that civilizationism has not been adopted by all Islamist intellectuals. I argue that İktibas’s contestation of the Islamic civilizationist discourse revolves around the journal’s claim of the deceptive Islamic appearance of the concept of civilization. I draw on recent debates on decoloniality to analyze Iktibas’s opposition as an example of decolonial critique due to its anti-Western and anti-Eurocentric stance on a conceptual and epistemic level. In addition, I reveal that Iktibas seeks to create an alternative non-Western paradigm based on Islam. Basically, I focus on the issues of the journal published between 2016 and 2022 to track debates around the concepts of civilization, Islamic civilization, coloniality and Western intellectual hegemony.



(Sunday) 11:00 - 13:00


Denver, Colorado, USA

The Middle East Studies Association’s 56th annual meeting will be held at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel.