Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Is "Islamic Fundamentalism" on the rise in Turkey?

I was calmly reading an article yesterday about Turkish palaeoanthropology in last week's Nature. The article was titled, Disputed Grounds (you may need subscription to access it), and it is primarily focused on how bitter personal conflicts amongst Turkish palaeoanthropology community are holding back significant progress in research. And Turkey has amazing sites to offer - from providing clues about early humans to hosting tools and remains of Neanderthals. So it was unfortunate to read about this academic infighting. However, then I read this after the first few paragraphs:
On top of those issues, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey has made the working environment uncomfortable for palaeoanthropologists in much of the country.
Now, I know when writing science papers we have to be very careful not only with numbers but also with the language we use, so that we don't mislead readers or misrepresent our results. Journals like Nature or Science or the Astronomical Journal double-check each claim to ensure accuracy. If we go by that standard, this article in Nature (yes, I know this is not a regular research is a news feature) is casually mentioning the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (not just public piety) in Turkey.

Here is the problem I see with this statement: Islamic fundamentalism is a loaded term - and hard to exactly pin down (unlike American fundamentalism - that is rooted in the early 20th century publication of the Fundamentals pamphlets). Technically, Islamic Fundamentalism only means those who believe in the fundamentals of Islam. However, usually it is associated with ideas of al-Qaeeda, and/or the Muslim Brotherhood (Sayyid Qutb et al), and/or the Jamaat Islami (Maududi), and/or varied forms of violent political/religious movements. Is it accurate to use this term for Turkey? It is true that the current ruling party (AKP) has an Islamic identity and that there is a general rise in public piety, but does this constitute as a rise of "Islamic fundamentalism". In addition, the Muslim world is so broad that it is hard to justify the use of such a loaded term without at least some qualifications (none were offered in the Nature piece). For example, the religious "right" party of Turkey would still be to the left of most secular parties in Pakistan.

Later, the article spends two more paragraphs on the issue:
Recently, a new problem for palaeoanthropologists has emerged. As the country has grown more religious, particularly in its eastern and central regions, Islamic creationists are rejecting the work of anthropologists, particularly that relating to evolution.
This is creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for researchers and may be retarding Turkey's capacity to build up an anthropology infrastructure at central and eastern universities. Young graduates, who have studied and lived in cosmopolitan cities, are reluctant to move their families to these regions. Seventeen years ago, several dozen people died in Sivas, when Islamic extremists set fire to a hotel where intellectuals were staying. More recently, researchers have worried that local religious groups are watching dinner parties to determine whether scientists are violating Muslim tenets, for example, by drinking alcohol.
Couple of issues here. My impression was that Central and Eastern parts of Turkey were always more religious and conservative. I can imagine cosmopolitan scientists not willing to move to these areas because of its conservative nature (and public piety), in general, and it may also include people frowning over alcohol (minus the alcohol frowning, I can see the same problem for a New Yorker to move to Alabama or Mississippi). Now it is also completely possible that these Turkish areas have become even more religious over the last decade or so. However, again, does that warrant the label of "Islamic Fundamentalism"?

I know we have Turkish readers of the blog. May be they can let us know their thoughts on the subject.

Let me be clear: I would also be worried if Islamic fundamentalism (in its usual usage of the term) was on the rise in Turkey - and I want to get an idea if this is true. But I also want writers to be careful when using loaded terms like "Islamic fundamentalism" - and to be privy of the diverse political and cultural landscape of the Muslim world (at least when writing about the region). Plus, we want to represent the situation as accurately as possible. We often demand and appreciate nuance and complexity in science. We should extend the same courtesy to places where science and society interacts. What do you think?


Ali said...

Salman, you have good reasons to write to Nature, your concerns as a reader's comment on this article.

Anonymous said...

hi from istanbul. im not an expert on palaeoanthropology however its right to say that our goverment doesn't care about scientific issues at all. i am not suprised that they dont cooperate with researchers.

one of the known orators of islam in turkey recently made fun of CERN researchers, adding "God didn't ask us to research the origins" and "why dont they look Quran instead of spending billion-dollars in experiments"....

this orator is not from the government, but the mentality is quite the same within the islamic majority here. i wish best of luck to those in field..

emre said...

Maybe fundamentalism is not the best word, but we can safely say they're hot on science that might challenge their beliefs. Remember the debacle surround the Darwin issue of the TUBITAK monthly, Bilim ve Teknik?

Salman Hameed said...

Emre and Anon,

I'm actually not arguing in defense of the Turkish government. I can totally see the Turkish government being against science - especially against those aspects which may pose challenge to particular religious beliefs and this opposition may also be politically driven - but that is far from off from the label of "Islamic fundamentalism". I was identifying sloppy writing more than any thing else. And of course, the US had its own share of science problems under the recent Bush presidency and some of these were also directly related to religious beliefs and also politically motivated.

Kubra said...

Salman, you have actually pointed out a very important issue: overusing terms with multiple meanings. As you said what is exactly meant by "Islamic fundamentalism" as a term itself is blurry at best. Assuming that they mean the likes of al-Qaeda or may be thoughts like those of Sayyid Qutub, it is simply wrong as a fact to say that there is a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey.

Unfortunately, history and current state of Turkish branch of political ideologies that you could sum up within the term "Islamic fundamentalism" are not well known neither to the West nor to most Turkish people who do not have personal history with these movements. Any person with good knowledge, whether academic (in terms of political science&history) or personal, of Turkish Islamic fundamentalism would know that ruling Muslim conservative party (which is usually the main reason why people assume/claim fundamentalism is in rise) didn't even have proper roots in Islamic fundamentalism. Personalities, such as Mr. Erdogan, have been in circles of Islamic movements but have stayed rather mainstream even through their youth. You could divide Islamic fundamentalism into two branches in Turkey: those who were inspired by Qutub and followed a more "Sunni" path, and those who were inspired by Iranian revolution and followed a more "Shiite" path (there were even converts from Sunni to Shia during 80's)... AKP doesn't really have roots in these two branches, instead was formed out of a more middle-way, rather nationalist and traditionally conservative group between these two; in fact Islamic fundamentalists in Turkey, yesterday and today, see AKP and Mr. Erdogan as "moderate Muslims who degenerate Islam"...

It is true that most people who vote for AKP and most political figures in AKP are religious people who have concerns about scientific ideas that they see as clashing with religion. Now, I do find those concerns silly personally, but acting upon those personal concerns isn't part of their party policy. Except the whole Darwin-anniversary-TUBITAK-magazine issue (which I'm still ashamed of), there haven't been any governmental interference with religious undertones in scientific community. On the contrary, especially within context of humanities and social sciences, there have been better funding since AKP.

The problem with sciences like phalentology, anthropology or archaeology in Turkey is the fact that Turkey is a developing country in which you simply can't find a job unless you're an engineer, doctor, or lawyer. Academic career pays very little. Plus, sciences likes anthropology and archaeology have been used with political purposes during the early Republican era (1930's-1940's), for instance they've promoted and tried to use these sciences to prove that several ancient civilizations, such as Sumer, had "Turkic roots".. this has further alienated new generations who are sick of overtly-political ("political" here meaning the status quo promoted by elites and army) nature of scientific initiative in Turkey.

This has been a bit long, but I hope it had clarified some details...

Salman Hameed said...


Thanks - your reply is very helpful!

Here is another article that addressed the complexity of Turkey's secular identity and its politics: "Secularist Turks grapple with vision of Modernity. What I found fascinating about the article was that the AKP is considered to be more in-tune with modernity rather than the CHP - the Ataturk's party - at least in the social and economic sense:
"Secular middle-class Turks -- engineers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats -- used to trust the CHP, which claims to guard Ataturk's legacy. But failure to modernise made it unelectable even for those who distrust Erdogan's AK Party.
While the AK has won plaudits among markets and in Europe for espousing change, the CHP entrenched itself behind an anti-Western, anti-religious and anti-liberal discourse.

Today, Turkey is a EU candidate nation with a vibrant and globalised $600 billion economy that attracts large sums of foreign investment and has gained the status of regional power.

While the westernised secularist elite of Istanbul and Ankara has in recent years seen its privileges and lifestyle threatened, the pious and once marginalised masses from the Anatolian heartland have risen to political and economic prominence in the wake of the privatisations of the 1990s."

I don't know how does science features in all of this. Is the evolution bit an exception or is it the symptom of a larger problem of government's attitude towards science? Nevertheless, all if this is fascinating...

Kubra said...

That last paragraph you cited actually perfectly explains it all; it's more of a class struggle, a shift in dynamics of the society, than a clash of religion with secularism. CHP and its followers actually question EU membership more, are against civil liberties and initiatives by the AKP, like plans to resolve Kurdish problem through changes in law&attitude or allowing women with headscarf to enter universities (they are currently not allowed to - funny, considering "fundamentalism" claims)... AKP is a new brand of Muslim politics resembling that of Christian democrats - as a social liberal I'm not in-line with their politics, but they can be considered even liberal compared to ultra-right-wing politics of others in Turkey.

May be going a bit off the topic here but, evolution is a bit of an exception, really. During the last centuries of Ottoman empire emphasis on science was overshadowed by emphasis on politics, then when Turkey was created you had a model directly imported from the French Jacobins: a staunchly "laïqué" ideal. The state accepted evolution because they saw it "anti-Islamic", and while it didn't get much attention before, after the rise of Adnan Oktar it has gotten a new attention. It is today still controversial at societal level: most religious people and even "non-religious but not secular either" population still see it "problematic" especially in terms of "human evolution". In high school I had a teacher who actually accepted evolution for all organisms except humans - and she wasn't even religious. Does this affect research in evolutionary biology? Probably yes, but it is more of a social problem than a political one created by the ruling party.

But I am hopeful; you can find even Islamic scholars who are considered "radical" to stand up for theory of evolution (even if not perfectly in line with Darwinian model - they always link it with Social Darwinism in their minds and hate Social Darwinism) and criticise likes of Adnan Oktar... more voices are being heard today on the topic of evolution, people are for instance interested in works of Al-Jahiz or Ibn Miskawayh - it is easier for them to accept the concept of evolution and its contemporary model then directly approach it through Darwin, who they still link with atheism and Social Darwinism due to historical reasons I mentioned related to Turkish politics, and the works of Adnan Oktar. Did you actually know that Adnan Oktar sees these Muslim scholars who researched evolution as threat and has started to defame them using weird methods? Lately he has been trying to promote that Ibn Miskawayh was a racist who hated Turks; he intends to invoke nationalistic passion in people so that they would disregard Muslim contributions to evolutionary thought.

Salman Hameed said...


Okay - this context is making a lot more sense. I haven't seen Oktar's recent attacks on Ibn Miskawayh (it is hard to keep track of his rants...), but this nationalist angle is very interesting.

As far as the government is concerned, I'm curious to know about their attitude towards stem cells research. This is not exactly evolution, but this is another area that may provide an insight into the government's attitude towards (possibly) religiously sensitive topics.

Kubra said...

Turkish Ministry of Health actually has a commission that oversees both scientific and ethical aspects of continued stem-cell research, which is legal. Ministry has approved several therapies based on stem-cell research in the recent years and the research is going well. In conclusion, there isn't much attention or religion-based opposition to stem-cell research in Turkey. Nevertheless, Office of Religious Affairs had previously given a "fatwa" on the issue that was a rather reluctant "yes" to stem-cell research&therapies including cases where embryonic stem-cells ("those left-over from in-vitro fertilisations" to quote them exactly) are used. So even religious authorities&scholars don't really oppose to stem-cell research much as long as a basic code of ethics is applied.

dr conners said...

I will try to summarize the situation from my point of view as much as possible.

-"AKP = Christian Democrats" analogy is perfect, except the understanding of democracy

-AKP is a conservative party, liberal on economic issues, conservative on social,scientific, moral ares.

-"there have been better funding since AKP" statement is right. but on the other hand, AKP is trying to convert universities according to its politics by changing rectors by the hand of President Gül (antidemocratic way). So this seems to me a penetration attempt to academic life to expand its political and social effects.

-AKP allows and supports science if it does not interfere its political aims (Ali Nesin "one of the greatest mathematicians in Turkey" is rejected by TUBİTAK for his "Mathematic Village" project where he would like to teach maths to poor/uneducated people. Because he is dangerous, he is the son of Aziz Nesin "victim of Sivas")

-Lastly, I think AKP is not sincere about supporting science but these kind of news would not take place so often few years ago (until "Mavi Marmara").
AKP was a "model partner of values" for the West and especially the US but since "Mavi Marmara" Israel and Israel supporters in the US are trying to create an atmosphere in Turkey, that there is a huge and dangerous conversion. Here is just one example:

To sum up: I think AKP do harm academic and scientific life in Turkey in most aspects(there are of course good things done). But everybody should be carefull. If these kind of news bloom like mushroom, that will be a sign for the decrease of support of WEST to AKP

Tom Rees said...

Superb - Thanks Salman! Carl Sagan was a master. I have a copy of 'Pale Blue Dot' on my shelf, but this excerpt brings it alive.

Anonymous said...

Hello there,

I am Turkish, in fact, a Turkish linguist. Yes, I agree with you on ALL counts. One thing I would like to express, however, is that the claims of those people who claim there is "Islamic fundamentalism" in Turkey are contributed to by the Turkish ultra-secularists. I am secular myself, perhaps more so than 90% of American people, but I am not an ultra-secularist, like at least 20% of Turkey is. According to these ultra-secularist Turks, anyone who is religious enough to practice is an Islamic fundamentalist. Now, when Western researchers get such info from Turkish ultra-secularists (who they assume are normal secularists like themselves), they think this supports their claim that Islamic fundamantalism is an issue in Turkey.
Hope this is clear: The point is that this term, or any other term related to Islam or practicing Islam has different connotations in Turkey vs. USA or Europe. Just think about the following: These ultra-secularists are the very people who banned covered girls from attending universities or being officers in state buildings. To day, it is still not permitted. Now, according to a Turkish ultra-secularist, a covered woman is a threat to secularism, and represents radical Islam and such, when US or EU universities have no problems allowing women to be covered on campus. To these people, aka the ultra-secularist Turks, anyone who practices religion is a fundamentalist, and that is why they really love it when Western press calls the PM Erdogan an Islamist. Erdogan is, in fact, nothing more than a pious muslim.