“‘The analogies are deadly’ had by now become one of his recurrent, decisive phrases.”
Thomas Bernhard, Gargoyles
As a child my first political memories date back to the Bosnian war. There was a mosque and a square, I was sitting on my father’s shoulders, chants calling for the end of Muslim suffering were grim. Growing up Islamist, I knew it was not the ‘first time’, indeed, the temporality of Muslims was one of emergencies and urgencies without someone to dial. From Syria to Burma, suffering is there and it has a name: Muslim. I was fifteen and irate when I read Qutb’s Milestones (1964). You cannot understand what that book means if you did not grow up in the desperation of a post-colonial Muslim society that is divided between what Sayyid calls Kemalists, on the one hand, and what Islamists call traditional ‘potato’ Muslims, on the other. Life itself was exhausted, and Qutb was the particle accelerator for us, for ‘carrions that live on’.(1) Above all, it was a DIY guidebook for the ‘truly new life’. In the Cold War lingo, Islamic Man was to emerge by getting free of both homo economicus and homo sovieticus. Both were corrupt, two faces of the same coin, there was nothing new. Like a state, Islam was to declare its New Man by coining anew.
Salman Sayyid’s book is indeed too familiar. I can think of a shelf of books and writings for each chapter in Turkish. I read A Fundamental Fear (1997) a decade ago with great awe. He represented back then a new way of speaking politics, a new style of enunciation: steeped in postmodernism, Sayyid was a sign that the language of social sciences can no longer censure ‘us’. I remember around the same time talking to a new philosophy professor, a brother. How lucky we were, for him, for we had now our own Feyerabends, paradigm shifts… Back in 80s, he said, it was impossible for us to be Muslim and speak the language of humanities for Science was too strong and everything was a monolith. Perhaps, Sayyid’s Critical Muslim Studies is a spadework for an Islamic Humanities to come that Islamists have been yearning for over a century. Recalling the Caliphate is, I argue, a resemanticization of Milestones in a post-Soviet world at the high time of American imperialism. Whether it will gain the same status as its predecessor is left to its readership.
Let’s slow down. Frankly, I am disappointed, and I will be bitter–for that is what friends do in Turkish. I am not at ease with the tediousness of the West and the Rest, nor his designation of Kemalism. I am sure Sayyid is aware of his reductionism; for brevity’s sake these ideal-types can be defended. However, the absence of history is striking and quite characteristic at the same time. Like Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State, Sayyid’s work too suffers from a theoreticism without a world. Without history, it is easier to bend facts to fit one’s argument. Everything fits perfectly in Sayyid’s narrative, and it is too good to be true.
Let’s stay within the limits of the book. Nathaniel Berman (2012) recently wrote about the Durkheimian debate around right and left religion: religion as a supplement to the nation state vs. the sacred of Bataille that disrupts hierarchies and nationalisms.(2) If Kemalism reduced the religion to the former, Sayyid wants to restore Islam as a sacred force to destabilize the nationalist enclosures. Caliphate is the name of the tear that will bring down both coloniality and the religion as a state institution. Thus, it is not the historical caliphate we are talking here. Sayyid’s caliphate is unprecedented, and for this reason it is unexpected and contentless. Toward this end, how Sayyid’s book differs from the idealistic accounts or prophecies about the Islamic governance he finds benign yet useless is a mystery to me. Its anti-foundationalism only makes the account reticent, but no less obscure.
Islamists often argue that Islam is the only force that was able to resist the West, the only civilization to challenge back the West. Like Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s Alternative Paradigms: Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory (1990), or the volumes written by his clones, Sayyid is involved in the building of an archive that makes Islam universally recognizable and irreducible. Islam is the only opponent refusing to play the game, and fight back.
But above all, the fundamental problem for me in this book and in his first was Turkey. In the preface we are told “Yasin Aktay, Cemal Haşimi and Nuh Yilmaz have done much to show that decolonisation is not only theoretical speculation but a lived practice.” (ix). Let me quickly introduce the crew of this spiritual road trip,
Yasin Aktay is one of the leading Islamist intellectuals emerging from 90s, an academician with numerous publications, he was also the editor of Vadi Press, the Turkish publisher of Sayyid. His PhD thesis Body Text Identity: The Islamist Discourse of Authenticity in Modern Turkey (1997) theorizes Islamic politics after caliphate in terms of diaspora. Especially in the last five years, Aktay emerged as a champion of Justice and Development Party, and became one of its main apologists. He is currently running for MP and lately he repurposed a religious chant for Erdogan propaganda (Heval Tayyip Erdoğan, Serok Tayyip Erdoğan Salli Ala Muhammed, Ak Parti u Ak Parti Salli Ala Muhammed) – after public outrage, he defended himself as an authentic organic intellectual on cultural grounds.
Nuh Yılmaz was an analyst for the Government’s IR gongo ‘SETA’ and a former journalist-hitman, currently the head of the Turkish Intelligence Service’s Press unit. He is known publicly for trying to place his daughter in a high-ranking lycee without an exam, and in a leak he informs Erdogan’s right hand about the blacklist for opposition’s businessmen. He co-translated Sayyid’s A Fundamental Fear into Turkish in 2000.
Cemal Haşimi was pursuing a PhD degree in IR theory from JHU, he is currently the head of the Prime Minister’s Public Diplomacy office. Other than whitewashing government’s lies, he systematically forestalls journalists who are not from Erdogan controlled ‘media pool’ accessing information.
Sayyid is a regular in Turkey. He speaks at conferences in government friendly universities. He is a favourite of the new conservative intellectuals who celebrate their hegemony by self-flattery. Indeed, as the “Order” chapter implies, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party actualized a successful hegemonic project that brought back Islam to the center of the political. Sayyid is not, well, was not alone. For a time, Erdogan’s Turkey was precious to the post-9/11 US as a model of moderate Islam.(3) How did the War on Terror’s ‘good Muslims’ end up here celebrated for their disruptive practice? There are numerous critical works on JDP(4) documenting its relentless neoliberalism, pesky patriarchalism, and other terrors. Describing its opponents as infidels and as cronies of an Imperialist-Jewish-Armenian alliance right before the national elections that will take place this sunday, JDP pushes for an ‘authentic’ Presidential system to perpetuate its rule.
If Turkey exemplifies Sayyid’s Islamic rule, the step before the Islamicate, then we have a huge problem. Sayyid’s practicing decolonialists are nothing but opportunists who are collaborators in a veritably corrupt interest group. Like Ahmadinejad, who drained the oil revenues for years to come while enriching his partners, the Erdogan government transformed armchair Islamists I knew personally into bureaucrats of a repressive and conservative hegemony and is using state power to relocate wealth in the hands of its loyals. The grass is always greener on the other side, and Turkey enthralls with its spectacle of power. ‘Islam’ is far from the sacred that uproots: it is the order-word of the day.
I do not have answers myself, but as a historian working on the Khilafat movement in India, I see a missed opportunity, a road not taken, for people were spellbound by Islam as an order-word. People who called themselves Bolshevik Muslims, from Sultan Galiyev to Obeidullah Sindhi, imagined a new Islamic politics that does not bow to Sultans, zamindars, the elite, the ulema, or mollahs but converged with the proleteriat, the poor, and the subaltern. Muslim suffering was and is a fact, but ‘hegemonic projects’, I argue, can only end up proliferating/displacing suffering. Muslim nationalism and Soviet authoritarianism then smothered back this communism of dissensus, but a politics of the weak without a proper name is still our best chance.
(1) From Islamist-conservative poet and ideologue Necip Fazıl’s famous poem ‘Sakarya’: “Man is two-three droplets of blood, rivers are two-three droplets of water, / We ended up with a life that laid an ambush for the life. / Death came by, and immortal truth departed, / You, carrions that live on, who will resurrect you?” (my translation).
(2) Nathaniel Berman, “‘The Sacred Conspiracy’: Religion, Nationalism, and the Crisis of Internationalism,” Leiden Journal of International Law 25, no. 01 (2012): 9-54.
(3) See Ibrahim Kalın’s article ‘The Ak Party in Turkey’ in The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics (2013, ed. Esposito). A student of Davutoglu and a scholar of Molla Sadra, he is currently the spokesperson for Erdogan. His last book ‘Reason and Virtue’ is an exercise in multiple modernities. In a most cliche way possible, Kalın suggests that Western Civilization limited itself with reason, and now it is time for virtue for a cosmopolitan world.
(4) See Tugal’s Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism (Stanford University Press, 2009) and Turkey Reframed: Constituting Neoliberal Hegemony, edited by İsmet Akça, Ahmet Bekmen and Baris Alp Ozden (Pluto Press, London, 2014).