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The religious face of secularism
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 02 - 2001

By Margot Badran
People in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey cannot stop talking about a man who talks religion. Yasar Nuri Ozturk is ubiquitous. Ozturk has written for Turkish newspapers for nearly four decades. He currently writes a Wednesday and Friday column called "Sobatlar" (Casual Conversation) for the Star Gazette. He also appears on television and radio.
The man with the persuasive tongue and the deft pen who communicates with thousands upon thousands is not simply a media personality. He is also dean of the Faculty of Theology at Istanbul University and author of vast numbers of scholarly articles and books. Ozturk, who speaks with equal ease to popular and learned audiences, has a huge following among secularists.
Who is this new religious hero? What is going on in what many see as the "motherland of secularism" in the Muslim world? I decided the best way to know was to go straight to the source. That was how I found myself sitting in an ultramodern air-conditioned office at the Star Gazette. I could have been anywhere in the slick world of modernity but a pencil minaret in the middle distance beyond the huge plate glass reminded me we were in Turkey.
Ozturk has the quaint idea -- at least for many -- that religion is about religion and not about politics. I was told this in no uncertain terms when I asked him point-blank, "Are you an Islamist?" He shot back an immediate and firm, no. "I hate the term Islamist because it becomes the name of a faction and an ideology. Islam is not an ideology, it is for all human beings."
So how do you define yourself? I asked. "If I have to label myself I would call myself a person belonging to the religion of the Qur'an. I am Muslim and I am trying to be Muslim. The Qur'an wants us to be Muslims, not Islamists."
Ozturk has a great following among Kemalists and secularists, not necessarily precisely overlapping categories. After nearly eight decades of official, public secularism there seems to be a yearning for religion -- not the religion of conservative tradition or folk "superstition," but religion that is relevant in the modern world. Social scientists Binnaz Toprak and Ali Carkoglu discovered in their recent national survey that 97 per cent of the Turkish Muslims questioned affirmed that they were believers. Among women who do not cover their heads, 86 per cent asserted that they were believers. The overwhelming majority of those surveyed did not want an Islamic state. But how can Turkish Muslims come closer to their religion? Conservative hodjas (religious teachers) and zealous Islamists cannot help them. Ozturk can.
Unlike conservative imams, Ozturk does not harangue fellow Muslims with "a fire and brimstone Islam" and endless dos and don'ts. Ozturk has a "glad-tidings" approach to Islam. Unlike followers of political Islam, he does not divide believers into (so-called real) "Muslims" and (so-called deviant) "seculars." Not for him is the policing of pieties, whether religious or political. Ozturk, who is called a "public theologian," draws circles of inclusivity, not lines of division.
Where did such a figure in modern Turkey come from? Yasar Nuri Ozturk was born in the eastern region of the Black Sea in 1945. He comes from a religious family. His grandfather was a sheikh of the Nakshi order of sufis. His father, pronouncing state elementary schools too easy and not worthy of his son, gave him a religious education at home and at the madrassa (religious school).
Ozturk was something of an oddity from the beginning. Two decades into the secular republic, and well after the start of the language reform, Ozturk learned to speak Turkish as his mother tongue while his "mother alphabet" was Arabic; he passed into literacy through Arabic, with the Qur'an as his primer. At seventeen Ozturk, who had never set foot in a state school, obtained his state elementary school diploma simply by sitting for the national examination. Next was a stint at the Imam-Hatip School (a nationwide system of religious schools) at Trabzon, where he witnessed the criticisms directed toward such religious schools. During this time Ozturk, like many Imam-Hatip students elsewhere, began to preach unofficially in mosques in Trabzon, especially during Ramadan, because of a shortage of religious personnel. It was also then that he began to write on religion for local newspapers.
In 1968 Ozturk travelled to Istanbul to attend the High Islamic Institute. At the same time he enrolled at Istanbul University's Faculty of Law, and went on to practise law for several years. He then returned to the university to do religious studies, wrote a dissertation on Islamic mysticism, and took his doctorate in 1980. He then started to write in the wide-circulation newspaper Hurriyet. Seven years later he made his debut on state television, appearing on TRT's World of Faith where he made three-minute presentations on religious themes. With his ability to speak directly to people, he soon attracted large numbers of listeners of varied backgrounds and walks of life. Starting off life early, shuttling between worlds -- between vernacular Turkish and Qur'anic-Arabic, and between religious and secular state schools -- he became a bridge between them. More than that, he began to narrow the gap.
Yasur Nuri Ozturk sees himself as part of a lineage going back to Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. "What I understand from Islam is almost exactly what they understood. But," he adds, "I am much more fortunate than the 19th century thinkers like Abduh and others as I was raised in the Turkey of Ataturk." He explained that Ataturk, whom he calls "a real revolutionary," saved Islam. That is, he helped rescue Islam in Turkey from the state and from obscurantism and populist superstition. Ataturk restored another dimension of religion; he returned to the "spirit of Islam which has to live in the people not in the state." Ozturk continues: "The Qur'an does not accept an ecclesiastical class. It does not accept the idea of a state mosque."
Ozturk is a man of religion, and highly educated in Islam, he is not a man of politics. He is antagonistic to Islamism. "The distinction between the secular and the religious is the product of political Islam. You can be a Muslim and secular. You cannot take secularism as opposed to Islam, nor to any religion." Ozturk is anathema to the Islamists, while for his part he has no time for their proprietary approach to religion and their political agenda. "Islamists have an ideological approach to religion. They are adherents of political movements." With the exception of someone like Ali Bulac (who, like Ozturk, also graduated from the Faculty of Theology at Istanbul University) most of the Islamists are not highly educated in religion, he said.
"The Qur'an says there is only one Islam. God is one. That's it. There can be many shari'as. The relation betweeen the shari'a and religion is part of religious discourse. First they equate the shari'a with Islam and then they equate their own interpretations with the shari'a... That is the worst sin you can commit in the name of Islam -- and of humanity... The Qur'an cannot be a constitution. It can only be an inspiration"
Ozturk is well aware that Muslims in other countries, along with most Westerners, often perceive secularism in Turkey as outside of or beyond religion, and as opposed to religion. The term lailak derives from the French laique, pertaining to ordinary believers or the people, rather than officials of "the church." He becomes impatient with the idea that Turkish secularism means "no religion." "At the beginning of the republic, the Directorate of Religious Affairs was created to deal with administration of mosques and religious education. During the republican period 100,000 mosques were built, exceeding the number built during the whole Ottoman period. Religious officials working outside Turkey received salaries that were sometimes higher than those of diplomats."
The notion of an Islamic state is un-Islamic to Ozturk. "The Qur'an says there is only one Islam. God is one. That's it. There can be many shari'as. The relation betweeen the shari'a and religion is part of religious discourse. First they equate the shari'a with Islam and then they equate their own interpretations with the shari'a. They justify their own positions. The Taliban, as Khomeini before, equate their own interpretation with religion as a whole. That is the worst sin you can commit in the name of Islam -- and of humanity. Look at the "Islamic" countries that put religion in the constitution and reject others under the name of the shari'a. The Qur'an cannot be a constitution. It can only be an inspiration."
How does the secular republic (with space for religions) accord actual space for freedom of religion, for free public expression of religion? Turkey claims to be a democratic republic, so why can't people dress as they please? Specifically, why can't women veil? Ozturk explains: "Generally speaking, we want people to wear what they want anywhere. Here in Turkey the state does not forbid people to wear what they want in the streets or at home, but in official places veiling is forbidden because as a religious symbol it is used for political purposes. Some veiled people in official places might force others to do likewise, accusing them of being unreligious. The state wants to protect itself. It does not allow people to cover themselves in official places. When it comes to the point that people do not interfere with others, I believe there will be no problem and the state will allow people to wear what they want. The state had to take a stand on this issue. The state wants to stop the oppression of political Islam. It wants to keep religious symbols out of public official space. It is a religious attitude, not a secular attitude." For Ozturk the problem is caused by political Islam, not by the state. Aware of an "up against the wall" situation, he ended this part of our discussion by repeating: "I am a Muslim and I want to live my religion."
It is not difficult to see why the secular state would find the views of Ozturk congenial. But what explains his appeal for secular society? The secularism of Ataturk and republican Turkey was bound up with a version of modernity which claimed that to be modern was to be secular. There was no space for the religious and the modern in the official public discourse at the centre.
People like Ozturk forged a new modernity. For them it was possible to be modern and Muslim or Muslim and modern. Moreover, they brought another gloss to secularism. Ozturk helped people to see that to be secular and religious were not two coins but two faces of the same coin. That Islam includes the secular and the religious. That Islam is deen wa dunya (religion and the world).
If one wants to be modern and not religious that's up to the individual (there is no compulsion in Islam), but as a Muslim one can be modern, religious and secular. It seems that Ozturk has cleared the air for many people by illustrating this equation. He makes Islam accessible to those distanced from religion through a kind of cultural break, to those secularists who went beyond religion and want to come back. He also opens up a space for Muslims with closer links to "traditional Islam" (or the traditional culture of Islam) to be religious and modern outside the paradigm of political Islam with its own agenda.
Ozturk is inundated with invitations to speak. He often finds himself talking to secular groups. Islamists have seized on such opportunities to slam him. They claim that these invitations have taken him to inappropriate places. Losing patience, he once snapped back acerbically: "Is the Sheraton's Allah different from yours? Out of your own interests you want to imprison Allah in the mosque." Not only does Ozturk himself venture into "inappropriate places," but his books have found their own way into unlikely places. You could find his Reconstruction of Religious Life in Islam (which sold more than one and a half million copies when it first came out, and is now in its 12th printing) in the supermarkets when shopping for detergents, as one journalist observed, rather than in bookshops run by the Directorship of Religious Affairs as might be expected.
In a country where conservative secularism is on the defensive and political Islam on the offensive, the middle space that Ozturk and others inhabit is expanding. It is a space where old vocabularies do not work and old polarities are dysfunctional. When thinking and living Islam the words modern, secular, and religious need to be re-inflected and reconfigured. This is what Ozturk, with his mother alphabet of Arabic, his mother tongue of Turkish and his schooling in the deen and dunya, is up to.
I would like to thank Efra Ozcan, who has written an insightful MA theses on Yasur Nuri Ozturk and is one of the school of young scholars forming around the Turkish sociologist Nilufer Gole, for acting as interpreter during the interview.
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