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Piecing together Turkey's intellectual puzzle

Turkey was founded as a secular nation-state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. In the early stages of Turkey’s existence, its Islamic heritage was marginalised as the country looked to Western civilisation for progress. But rapid social and economic development in recent years has prompted renewed questioning of its national identity and interest in history and culture.  

Dr Katerina Dalacoura of the Department of International Relations has spent several years investigating contemporary Turkish discourses on culture and civilisation, most recently for a project funded by the British Academy. Dr Dalacoura said: “One of the starting points of this project was to reject some of the stereotypes associated with Turkish society and thought. I see this reflected in the richness of the ideas I have encountered, which I feel deserve a greater audience.”

The project aimed to go beyond conventional categories of Islamic culture and Western culture, to find common understandings and locate new ideas. Dr Dalacoura said: “My intention was to go beyond the confines of Anglo-Saxon disciplinary boundaries in international relations to explore Turkey in different contexts and settings.”

“In academia, barriers between languages can be high, and I was interested in breaking these down. I have always had a view that Turkey is much more complex and varied than simple representations of it allow. I have been visiting Turkey for over 35 years and have first-hand experience of how it has changed enormously in that time.” Dr Dalacoura added.

Mosque Istanbul 480 360

One of the most controversial features of Dr Dalacoura’s current study is its focus on contemporary ideas from less well-known intellectuals: “One of the reasons I think the project was funded by the British Academy was its focus on individual intellectuals who are not necessarily in the limelight. These people are vital to understanding contemporary Turkey.” Dr Dalacoura said.

“It was fascinating to look at the array of individuals, discover their personal histories, class settings, and own intellectual traditions. It was like piecing together a puzzle.” Dr Dalacoura added.

Due to Turkey’s secular history, for a long time Islamist intellectuals were confined to the margins of national life. But in the era of the Justice and Development Party, which has ruled Turkey since 2002, they have gained new prominence.

Dr Dalacoura said: “These intellectuals were the opposition until a decade ago. But they now have the freedom to push the boundaries more than other traditions. In fact, the Islamists seem to be making the greatest effort to engage with the big questions.”

Although they are not always succeeding in overcoming conventional thinking, Dr Dalacoura found that interesting elements can be gleaned in some of their thought.

One case, for example, is İsmet Özel, an Islamist and Turkish nationalist who is a strong critic of the idea of ‘civilization’. Dr Dalacoura said: “Özel maintains that the Muslim way of life is not reflected in Muslim states, and for him the only true Islamic society is the era of the Prophet Muhammad, around the year 570. He contends that Western civilization has dominated other cultures since the 19th century, and promotes an essentialist understanding of Islam, questioning the concept of universal values.” 

This analysis points to the idea that the very idea of ‘civilisation’ is a modern concept which shapes and constrains the way we think about identity. However, Özel – like many of his contemporaries – is still thinking along the lines of East versus West, Islam versus secularism.

During the project Dr Dalacoura discovered that contemporary Turkish literature, rather than individual intellectuals, presented a richer reflection of Turkish society and a wider range of perspectives. She said: “Literature is where I found a unification of modernism, a questioning of Eurocentrism and a re-examination of Turkey’s cultural history and identity, including Islam and the Ottoman past.”

The project is a reminder of Turkey’s central role in global history – the country’s economic growth and geography is increasingly making it a vital regional power, despite the enormous problems it also faces.

Dr Dalacoura said: “Turkey has always been an important country. To Europe, the Middle East, and Russia, it is a seminal country, straddling many regions, and it is rising again due to its prosperity.”

“The ideas I have studied have great power within Turkey. But looking at how they interact is important as it will help us move beyond the extreme positions which rigidly pit the secularists versus the Islamists. The closer you look at Turkish society, the more this approach makes sense. Turkey is such a complex and hybrid place.” Dr Dalacoura added.

Posted September 2016

Useful links

Dr Katerina Dalacoura works in the Department of International Relations at LSE. Her research focuses on human rights, democracy and democracy promotion, in the Middle East; political Islam; and the international politics of culture and religion in relation to Islam.

Read about workshops organised in the context of Dr Dalacoura’s British Academy funded project on ‘Alternative Universalisms? Contemporary Turkish Discourses on Culture in International Relations’.

Image: Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I interior Istanbul