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december, 2022

04dec13:3015:30MESA (Middle East Studies Association) 2022 Panel PresentationsMapping Civilizationism as an Islamic Decolonial Project in Turkey - 2

Group Details

In recent years, the concept of civilization has become increasingly popular with the advent of renewed official political discourses that build on civilizationism in countries like Russia, India, or China. Similarly, in Turkey, civilization has been one of the central elements of politics since the 1990s when R.T. Erdogan, who emerged as one of the leaders of the rising Islamic movement, started to refer to Turkey as an “Ottoman-Islamic civilization.” Most studies on this civilizational turn in global politics focus on it as a new ideology that is developed in relation to religious identities, nationalism or imperial restoration, such as Russian civilizationism, or Hinduism in India. In Turkey, civilization is one of the most debated concepts among contending movements in the Islamic Intellectual Field (IIF) that place discrepant emphasis on different conceptualizations of Islam, ethnicity, or the imperial past/Ottomanism. In spite of this diversity, contending parties have the common motivation to develop Islam-based political perspectives in response to what is perceived as the detrimental effects of the hegemony of European modernization, Eurocentric systems of thought, or Westernization. This panel brings together studies that draw on current debates on the decolonization of knowledge to explore the ways in which the notion of civilization is developed by different parties in the IIF as an Islamic decolonial project that attempts to produce non-Western forms of knowing and theorizing, and also to demonstrate how this debate is marked by internal antagonisms and clashing views that build on starkly different understandings of Islam. The papers examine the contemporary history of the concept of civilization in Turkey by focusing on leading Islamic journals and writers who have contributed to the development of the concept in the IIF.   The first paper focuses on the Journal of Islamic Civilization in the 1960s as one of the earliest publications that introduced the notion ‘Islamic Civilization.’ The second paper explores the writings of Sezai Karakoc, who is considered to be a pioneer in the transformation of the notion of civilization into a political ideology built around the notion of Islamic revivalism. The third examines the writings of an influential Muslim literary intellectual, Nuri Pakdil, who developed a notion of civilization based on a left-leaning criticism of Westernization. The final paper looks at the relationship between civilization and the Islamic city debated by Lutfi Bergen, who builds an ultra-traditionalist theory of civilization combined with what he refers to as “Anatolian-leftism.”

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: Alev Çınar
Chair: Alev Çınar
Discussant: Cemil Aydın
Talha Köseoğlu
Enes Ateş
İsmail Yazıcı
Fatma Murat Elmacıoğlu

Abstracts to be Presented:

“Cold War Origins of Civilizational Thinking in Turkey: Journal of Islamic Civilization”
by Talha Koseoglu

Analyzing the Journal of Islamic Civilization (İslam Medeniyeti-JIC), published between 1967 and 1982, this paper aims to understand debates around civilization as a key concept in Muslim intellectual responses to the discourse of modernization in Cold War Turkey (c. 1960’s-1980). The JIC is one of the first instances when the term “Islamic civilization” was publicly used in Turkey. Through a discussion on the conceptualization of civilization in the JIC, this paper seeks traces of the Muslim appropriation of the concept of civilization by adopting a genealogical approach to the concept. Building on the literature on decolonial thought, the paper argues that the JIC represents one of the earliest examples to Turkish-Muslim reactions and critique of the notion of modernization as westernization adopted by the founders of the republican regime since 1923. Although Turkey was never colonized, JIC authors perceived westernizing reforms of the republican regime as part of a process of Muslim people’s colonization. The defense of “Islamic civilization” in the JIC was a response to Turkey’s westernization as an ostensible “self-colonizing” act as well as the Western/imperial discourse on Islam, which was informed by colonialism and Orientalism. While civilization was hitherto used in singular as a universal phenomenon to refer to a series of technological developments and socio-political institutions devoid of any religious, national, or local connotations, Muslim intellectuals around the JIC started to use civilization in the plural to refer to different variations of an “Islamic civilization” that competes against or is superior to Western civilization. This paper focuses on how the JIC spearheads the emergence of civilizational thought in Turkey by adopting and re-defining the concept from an Islamic perspective, which was once an abstract Western category with claims to universality, to signify a different meaning that helps fighting with universality claims of Western modernity. How did the JIC authors define civilization? How did they conceive “the West” in relation to Islam? What kind of Islam they enunciate by adopting a notion of multiple civilizations (and modernities) in the Cold War context? While the paper acknowledges JIC authors’ effort to find their own voices qua Muslims in the modern world against Orientalist and modernist claims; the paper also aims to show how the JIC made its own boundaries by (re)defining Islam as a civilization, which disregards non-Muslim contributions to Islamic thought and excludes diverging voices within the Islamic Intellectual Field.

“Beyond Epistemic Disobedience: Şehir versus Kent in the Civilizational Thought of Lütfi Bergen”
by Fatma Murat Elmacıoglu

The concept of civilization has been widely debated in the Islamic intellectual field in Turkey since the 1950s with the goal of conceptualizing civilization in Islamic terms as an alternative to the singular and Eurocentric conceptualization that has it is roots in Western epistemology and was championed by the modernizing Republican elite. The concept is closely tied to notions of urban and the city, which is evident in the Turkish version of the term medeniyet that is derived from the Arabic word medina, meaning city. In the contemporary Islamic intellectual field, many prominent names joined the debate on the relationship between civilization and city, marking a shift in civilizational thought that can be interpreted as the urban turn. In this paper, I examine how Lütfi Bergen, a prolific and controversial figure known for a heavily traditionalist-Islamic criticism of modernity, and his books such as The Moral Uprising, Underdevelopment is Superiority, or Civilization-The Construction of Muslim Communitarianism, develops his understanding of civilization in relation to the city. Bergen offers a unique contribution to this debate by making a distinction between two concepts şehir, which stands for a place where life is organized in accordance with the social, political, and economic practices of Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, in short, the Sunnah, and kent, which is where Western materialist culture prevails at the expense of Islamic tradition and denotes the failure of modernity in organizing urban life. Bergen establishes an immanent connection between şehir and civilization by defining civilizationalso in relation to the Sunnah and severs its ties to Western epistemology. The literature on decoloniality describes such efforts of delinking from Western epistemology as epistemic disobedience. Further, Bergen states his aim as to create an Islamic epistemological basis through which Muslims can discuss social, political, and economic matters in their own terms, and develops an urban model for a Muslim community. By doing this, Bergen reclaims civilization as a singular Islamic concept, differentiating himself from many figures in Islamic intellectual field who are for the idea of the multiplicity of civilizations. I argue that, by studying Bergen’s work, it is possible to unravel a part of the complexity arising from clustering together the intellectual accounts criticizing the epistemic dominance of the West. The part presenting how Bergen’s understanding of civilization conflicts with his contemporaries attests to the diversity in the Islamic intellectual field.

“The Thesis of Resurrection in Islamic Decolonial Thought in Turkey: The Civilizationism of Sezai Karakoç” by Enes Ates

As one of the influential names of the Islamic Intellectual Field in Turkey after 1945, the civilizationist view of Sezai Karakoç and his Resurrection thesis (Diriliş) will be discussed. As a poet-thinker, Sezai Karakoç (1933-2021) is an Islamic idealist who put forward his Islamic-civilizationist theses in his complete works that he started at the beginning of the cold war. Placing civilizations as a unit of analysis at the center of his historical thought, Karakoç combined “Islam as a religion” with “Islam as a lifestyle and ideology” and followed the method of Islamic exceptionalism. Karakoç, dealing with the concept of Islamic civilization in line of historical philosophy, realizes his “historical-sociological” method with the thesis of Resurrection (Diriliş), which emerges as a political program. In this study in a word, the Resurrection Thesis has been put forward as the politicized program of Karakoç’s civilizationist thinking. In this sense, Karakoç is taken for granted as a political thinker.  The study focuses on the specific works of Sezai Karakoç which are only published during the 1960s. These works, in chronological order, are Islam (İslam), Columns 1-Differences(Günlük Yazılar 1-Farklar, abbr. GY1), Around Resurrection (Dirilişin Çevresinde, abbr. DÇ), the Economic Structure of Islamic Society (İslam Toplumunun Ekonomik Strüktürü, abbr. İTES), Resurrection of Islam (İslam’ın Dirilişi, abbr. İD), and Columns 2-Pillar (Günlük Yazılar 2-Sütun, abbr. GY2). These 6 books contain almost all the journal articles published by Karakoç from 1960 to 1970. His other 4 books published in the same years were not included in the research as they were not directly related to the concept of civilization and the resurrection thesis. All the articles in these books were reviewed one by one and a classification was made around the concepts of civilization (Islamic civilization, western civilization), the west (westernization, Marxism, communism, two World Wars, colonialism) and the concept of resurrection (emancipation, revivalism). With this method, the aim is to emphasize the founding character of the 1960s in Karakoç’s thought and to deal with the establishment forms of civilization-resurrection conceptualizations. In this context, the article aims to deal with the Resurrection Thesis, which proposes to realize Karakoç’s understanding of civilization as a political program, as it was fictionalized in the 1960s.

“Anti-Westernism, Internationalism, and Nativism in Islamic Civilizational Thought: Reflections on Nuri Pakdil’s Writings” by Ismail Yazıcı

Islamic literature in Turkey has become the central axis of Islamic political thought from the 1950s onwards. During this period, a newly emerging class of poets, novelists and playwrights contributed to the reinvigoration of Islamic intellectual movements in Turkey with a completely new agenda that broke away from late Ottoman thought. They formulated an influential critique of Western modernity, which eventually turned into an attack on the official Westernizationist modernization project. As the founder of one of the pioneer literary journals of the period, Edebiyat (Literature) published in 1969-84, Nuri Pakdil is one of the leading intellectuals from this group who holds sway over contemporary Islamic political thought and particularly leftleaning Islamic ideologies in Turkey. This paper scrutinizes the anti-Westernist approach in Nuri Pakdil’s literary work and investigates the intellectual genealogy of his notion of Islamic civilization as an alternative to the secular modernization project. He has been the vocal exponent of the idea of the revival of what he claims to be Islam’s authentic civilization and a fervent critic of putative Western civilization. This paper examines Pakdil’s civilizational thought and his critical conceptualization of the relation between Islam and the West to demonstrate what has been grouped under “Islamism” is in fact contending intellectual movements that have taken on different approaches to Islam and its relation to the West. By analyzing his articles that were mainly published in Edebiyat, I argue that civilizational thought promoted by Pakdil in engagement with Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim intellectual movements, was developed as a leftist-inspired Islamic alternative modernity project to Westernization, which uniquely positioned him as a bridge between the nativist and internationalist interpretations of contemporary Islamic thought in Turkey. Based on an analysis of how the concept of civilization is debated in his writings, this essay argues that Nuri Pakdil attempted the production of counter-knowledge what he framed as “nativist thought” that seeks to dismantle perceived coloniality and to open up an alternative epistemological stance. His unique approach which stands for a fusion of internationalist language of Islam and nativist aspects of Turkish-Islamic political thought articulated around the concept of Ottoman-Islamic civilization offers a new epistemic delinking in order to challenge the Westernizationist interventions of the secular state. Nuri Pakdil’s civilizational thought thus can be taken as an example of how the Islamic intellectual field in Turkey strives to move beyond the criticism of Western modernity by reconstructing subalternized knowledges


(Sunday) 13:30 - 15:30


Denver, Colorado, USA

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