Comparative Studies in Society and History

Religion in the Modern

Islamist Critique in Modern Turkey: Hermeneutics, Tradition, Genealogy

Brian Silverstein a1
a1 Carnegie Mellon University

What is the status of Islamic traditions of discourse and practice in Turkey as it is ever more self-consciously heir to the Islamic heritage of the Ottoman Empire, and yet has seen such dramatic social, economic, and political transformation during the last two centuries? In recent years a considerable and ever-increasing proportion of scholarly and popular effort has been directed on the part of self-identifying Islamist (Islâmci) writers in Turkey toward addressing these issues by way of genealogies of contemporary social forms and practices—critical histories of the present. Simultaneously, methodological debates about the nature of sources and interpretation have begun to appear with increasing regularity in monographs, journals, and even dailies. These two concerns with the status of the present and correct method are not solely the concern of Islamist writers in Turkey; indeed, they are arguably the prevailing mode of history and social science writing in Turkey today. As we shall see, informing both of these currents is an interrogation of the grounds from which authoritative, normative discourses on Islamic practice can be elaborated in the wake of empire and sovereign reform on the near-margin of industrial capitalism. At stake are not only discourses, or ‘representations’ of Islamic tradition. Like other traditions, central to Islam is the discursive elaboration of normative judgments about correct practice; indeed, these discursive elaborations are important Islamic practices. The critical work currently flourishing in Turkey is thus conceived by its practitioners as an important form of contribution to the elaboration of Islamic traditions and entails important diagnoses of the status of enabling conditions for Islamic practice in the contemporary world. This article argues that attending to these interrogations indicates how the study of changes in Islamic discourse and practice in Turkey has profound implications for the issues of power and agency in modernity and Islam more broadly. Particularly in the context of Turkey's intensified juridical, economic, and political restructuring in dialogue with the European Community, an understanding of these currents in the Islamic discursive culture of Turkey offers insight into the oft-commented but poorly understood structure of the relationship between Turkey, Europe, and modernity.