Islamic Political Theory and the Ottoman Heritage of Civil Society in Turkey

By Gizem Zencirci
Submitted to Session P4726 (Provincializing Political Theory: Islamic Intellectuals and the Production of Knowledge in Turkey, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
Since the 1970s, Islamist intellectuals in Turkey have turned to the Ottoman Empire in order to find a foundation for theorizing about political, economic and social issues. For many of these intellectuals, rethinking the heritage of the Ottoman Empire was closely linked to the Islamic political project. In the past decades, various books and articles were published, conferences were organized, and seminars were held seeking to rethink, conceptualize and reimagine the Ottoman Empire as an Islamic civilization that is distinct from the West. These explorations resulted in a concerted effort towards restoring and reviving Turkey’s Ottoman heritage with its accompanying ideas, institutions and imaginations.

In this paper, I argue that these explorations into the political foundations of Ottoman heritage need to be considered as a form of political theory because they are motivated by a desire to address contemporary issues that confronts Turkey such as inequality, poverty and justice as well as the state’s responsibility towards the welfare of its citizens. More specifically, by analyzing the intellectual activity of Islamist intellectuals on the issue of Ottoman heritage in general and the function and significance of Ottoman endowments in particular, I argue that these intellectuals are producing what can be referred to as a political theory of civil society. These contemporary political concerns are addressed by advocating a return to the “Ottoman civilization” in which, it is argued; welfare needs were met through the voluntary contributions of Ottoman pious endowments (vak?fs). In these writings, Islamist intellectuals reject the Euro-centric view which often blamed vak?fs for the economic backwardness of the Muslim world, and instead argue that these Ottoman institutions ought to be seen as an authentic example of “civil society” capable of addressing societal needs without the supervision or support of the state. As a result, this mode of political theorizing articulates “civil society” as a sphere of societal collaboration instead of political confrontation, thereby resulting in the depoliticization of Islamic activism in Turkey. Grassroots Islamist movements are encouraged into social service provision and are expected to work in partnership with the state in order to govern a market society. This argument is substantiated by qualitative data, primarily books and articles that have been published about Ottoman vak?fs that have been published between 1980-2013.