Impact of the West vs Islamic Tradition: Continuity in Turkish Political Thought

By Alp Topal
Submitted to Session P4726 (Provincializing Political Theory: Islamic Intellectuals and the Production of Knowledge in Turkey, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire; Turkey;
19th-21st Centuries;
One of the most persisting assumptions informing the historiograpgy of political thought from the late Ottoman Empire to the Turkish republic is the definitive role attributed to the impact of Western ideas. Reflecting both persistent Orientalistic trends and lack of due methodological reflection, the literature prioritizes Western impact and ascribe only a passive role to the Islamic tradition in political thought. The pervasive argument is that references to Islamic tradition merely serve the purpose of legitimizing whatever is borrowed from the Western tradition; the problems involved in the interaction of these two traditions are not addressed. However, a careful comparative reading of political texts reveals the active persistence of classical Islamic sources, concepts and definitions into the modern era.
Based on my research on Ziya Gökalp, I argue that late Ottoman political thought drew on Islamic tradition as much as Western tradition and interaction of the two cannot be reduced to a simple case of translation. Indeed, one has to consider the fact that political thinkers encounter Western languages and canon later in their lives, after their education in classical Islamic texts. Hence, their understanding of the Western texts was conditioned by their reading of Islamic classics. For instance, in Ottoman political writing one can observe a long standing engagement with the work of Ibn Khaldun in an effort to explain the decline and demise of the empire. With Ziya Gökalp, this engagement defines his famous twin concepts civilization and culture as much as the influence of Emile Durkheim, which, in the literature, has been emphasized as the most definitive source of his thought.
I propose to suspend the role of Western influence, if only for analytical purposes, and I argue that such an approach would be illuminating not only for the late Ottoman period but also for contemporary Turkish Islamic political thought. From 1980s onwards, we can observe a revitalization of Islamic political thought around themes such as revivalism, restoration and civilization. These recent debates draw on similar classical sources, including but not limited to Ibn Khaldun and Ottoman literature, and publicize them. While the attitude towards and appropriation of Western thought in current intellectual debates may follow somewhat different patterns compared to late Ottoman debates, the central problems, sources referred to and the definitions and solutions suggested demonstrate a striking resemblance and continuity.