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Anthropological Quarterly 76.3 (2003) 497-517

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Islam and Modernity in Turkey:
Power, Tradition and Historicity in the European Provinces of the Muslim World

Brian Silverstein
University of California, Los Angeles


Dis-enchanting the Orient

In 1962 Michel Foucault delivered a paper entitled 'Le Désenchantment oriental' in Ankara, Turkey. 1 It seems Foucault never published the paper (and it does not appear in the posthumous collection of his works), but the theme announced by its title is symptomatic of a certain diagnosis of the status of the present. Désenchantement, the inexorable process whereby 'society' is constituted as a distinct object separate and following different laws and temporalities from the cosmic or 'religious,' is central to the series of effects attributed to the proliferation of the Enlightenment mode of knowledge as critique. 2 The connection between the 'Orient' and Enlightenment has recently been brought to the fore again in the context of Turkey by the elections of November 2002, in which the party that emerged victorious, brushing away the near totality of the country's political establishment in the process, was the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma, or AK) Party. The party's acronym 'ak' also means 'white' or 'clean,' while its emblem is a light bulb, connoting enlightenment ('aydinlatma'). 3 The fact that this party is led by figures formerly associated with the Islamist 'National View' (Milli Görüs) movement and its repeatedly banned and reincarnated parties only serves to heighten the [End Page 497] sense that 'Oriental disenchantment' is a field about which we are still quite a bit in the dark.

The AK Party finds itself in power at an extremely pivotal moment as the economy is haltingly emerging from its worst crisis since World War II; a U.S.-led war in neighboring Iraq has changed the regime there, after the Turkish parliament rejected U.S. troop movements through the country, leading to concerns that Turkish companies may not get a significant share of the contracts to rebuild Iraq; speculations have not abated that Turkish forces might increase their presence in Northern Iraq to defend Turkey's 'interests'; and relations with the European Union are coming down to concrete particulars and time tables, all linked to the urgency of major breakthroughs on Cyprus. It is clear that the current Turkish leadership did not calculate that they might better guarantee their future by the nature of their participation in events in Iraq; they have rather planned all along to do this through entry into the European Union. Meanwhile some prominent Western European politicians have declared publicly that the entry of Turkey into the Union "would mean the end of Europe." 4 While questions of Turkey's relationship to Europe and of the status of Islam and modernity in Turkey have taken on even more of a sense of urgency than they normally command, there seems to be something more deeply troubling about Turkey, troubling to established and emerging frameworks for thinking about the relationship between Islam, Europe and modernity.

What became the Republic of Turkey in 1923 was heir to the institutional structures and administrative experience and apparatus of the Ottoman Empire, the longest-lived and most powerful Muslim polity the world has seen. 5 Today, with a population of over 65 million Turkey is one of the world's most populous Muslim-majority countries and also a NATO member. Those administrative elites who were instrumental in the establishment of this Republic had been born and launched their careers in the late Ottoman environment, i.e. the reign of Abdülhamid (r. 1876-1909) and the subsequent Young Turk regimes of the Committee of Union and Progress, or CUP (1908-1918). What transpired in the transition from Empire to Republic, what does this entail for the status of the Turkish present, and what are the implications of the structure of this present for our understanding of Islam and modernity? 6 In these pages I address these questions by outlining a genealogy of the Turkish present...


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