Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Problem With a Turkish Revolution

Newsweek picked up on the hot Middle East storyline that's been in play all week ever since The New Yorker published Lawrence Wright 's article on Sayyid Imam al-Sharif's anti-al Qaeda hit.

Newsweek reports that this apparent revolution—this reevaluation of orthodox literalism, of 7th Century fetishism—is centered in Turkey:

Important Muslim thinkers, including some on whom bin Laden depended for support, have rejected his vision of jihad. Once sympathetic publics in the Middle East and South Asia are growing disillusioned. As CIA Director Michael Hayden said last week, "Fundamentally, no one really liked Al Qaeda's vision of the future." At the same time, and potentially much more important over the long run, a new vision of Islam, neither bin Laden's nor that of the traditionalists who preceded him, is taking shape. Momentum is building within the Muslim world to re-examine what had seemed immutable tenets of the faith, to challenge what had been taken as literal truths and to open wide the doors of interpretation (ijtihad) that some schools of Islam tried to close centuries ago.

Intellectually and theologically, a lot of the most ambitious work is being done by a group of scholars based in Ankara, Turkey, who expect to publish new editions of the Hadith before the end of the year. They have collected all 170,000 known narrations of the Prophet's sayings. These are supposed to record Muhammad's words and deeds as a guide to daily life and a key to some of the mysteries of the Qur'an. But many of those anecdotes came out of a specific historical context, and those who told the stories or, much later, recorded them, were not always reliable. Sometimes they confused "universal values of Islam with geographical, cultural and religious values of their time and place," says Mehmet Gormez, a theology professor at the University of Ankara who's working on the project. "Every Hadith narration has ... a context. We want to give every narration a home again."

It's not surprising that this big push for reform is cooking in Turkey. Ever since Kamal Ataturk ended the Caliphate in 1924, Turkey has been a driving force for modernity in the Islamic world. ( I also hold Turkey responsible for rock and roll!)

However, there's a flip-side to this, that may jinx Turkey's current push for reform. Turkey is a suspect messenger among conservatives in the Muslim world. Ataturk's secular revolution in the 1920s forever branded Turkey as a bad guy.

Ataturk hismself sparked a reactionary-utopia backlash (starting with Hasan al-Bana and the Muslim Brotherhood) that ended up drowning the push for modernity (see: Sayyid Qutb, Zawahiri, veiled university students in cosmopolitan Cairo in the late 60s, the siege of Mecca, the Iranian revolution, the Sadat assassination, the GIA in Algeria, al-Qaeda), often in blood. This heavy right-wing backlash has defined the contemporary Middle East. Ataturk's reforms backfired on a massive scale.

Any new revolution coming from Turkey may fall flat. It's like the "Nixon in China" rule. It's better for conservatives to reform conservative ideology than it is for pushy Turkish liberals.

No comments: