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Uriel Heyd on Turkey’s Re-Islamization, Circa 1968: Over Four Decades Ahead of Today’s Vacuous “Analysts”

August 16th, 2010 by Andrew Bostom |
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Professor Uriel Heyd (d. 1968) described Turkey’s tenuous secularization and aggressive re-Islamization fully 42 years before todays “learned analysts” have finally come to the same pathetically belated realization…

Since the recent Mavi Marmara flotilla affair—facilitated, and perhaps even orchestrated by the Turkish government—we have been inundated with excruciatingly belated, if not downright delinquent hand-wringing assessments by so-called “expert analysts” of Turkey. These “experts” lament what they view as Turkey’s “precipitous” return to Islamic fundamentalism under the current Erdogan-led AKP regime—as if this dangerous phenomenon emerged suddenly and fully formed from the head of Zeus al-Zawahiri.

A sobering, highly informed corrective to this cacophony of ill-informed Johnny and Janey-Come –Lately “learned analyst” voices was provided by the Israeli scholar of Ottoman and Republican Turkey, Professor Uriel Heyd (1913-1968)—just over forty-two years ago!

First, a brief biography of Heyd, derived from Professor Gabriel Baer’s opening tribute and Preface (pp. 5-6) to Heyd’s “Revival of Islam in Modern Turkey,” The Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1968, pp. 5-27, and Professor Aharon Layish’s, “Uriel Heyd’s Contribution to the Study of the Legal, Religious, Cultural, and Political History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey,” Bulletin of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1982, pp. 35-54.

Born Uriel Heydt on July 26, 1913, in Cologne, Germany, Heyd learned Hebrew in secondary school, and subsequently Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. He also studied law and economics, before ultimately focusing on oriental studies. Immigrating to Palestine in 1934, Heyd studied Islamic culture, Arabic language and literature, as well as the history of Palestine at Hebrew University under the tutelage of Professors G. Weil, L.A. Meyer, and the great scholar of Muslim-Jewish relations, S.D. Goitein. Upon graduation, Heyd continued his studies by learning Turkish in Istanbul (1939/40), subsequently joining the Middle East Department of the Jewish Agency for Palestine in 1943. Transferred to the Agency’s London office, Heyd completed a seminal analysis of the influential Turkish nationalist Ziya Gokalp (which was accepted as a PhD thesis by Hebrew University), while also studying Old and Middle Persian, Old Turkish, and Urdu at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the University of London. At SOAS, in addition, Heyd researched Ottoman diplomatic institutions and history under the renowned Ottomanist Professor Paul Wittek. Before joining the Hebrew University faculty in 1951, Heyd, between 1948 and 1950 served as a diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, and the Israeli Legation in Akara, Turkey. At Hebrew University, Heyd ascended rapidly within the Department of the History of the Muslim Countries, which he would direct for some years, becoming the Eliyahu Elath Chair of the History of the Muslim Peoples in 1968, shortly before his sudden death May 13, 1968.

Heyd’s scholarly pursuits were broad, encompassing Ottoman history (including diplomatic history) and legal institutions, the mid-19th century Tanzimat reforms of the Ottoman Empire, and more generally, how Islamic religious and cultural institutions reacted to the processes of Westernization and secularization, particularly within the late Ottoman Empire, and modern Republican Turkey.

Abba Eban provided this assessment of Heyd’s contributions as both a scholar and diplomat during a eulogy delivered 30 days after Heyd’s death:

“To him [Heyd], Oriental Studies were not just an academic pursuit like any other. He regarded them as one of the conditions of integration in the region…He believed that we must understand the way the present is rooted in the past and the modes of thinking and expression of the peoples with our historical and geographical fate has perforce destined us to live in coexistence and proximity…”

But Heyd’s own candid words, from the remarkably foresighted 1968 lecture excerpted at length, below, reveal another quality almost entirely absent from our present era’s infinitely less substantial “academic experts” on Islam: self-critical humility, and the ability to express mea culpa. Taking his own measure, Heyd confessed—in 1968,

“Until a few years ago many foreign observers, including, I admit, myself, were inclined to think that this development [Turkey’s re-Islamization] was no more than a renewed expression of sentiments which for a long time could not be freely manifested and that the overall process of secularization was going on very slowly but irresistibly. Today I doubt whether this view is still tenable.”

The fact that 42 years later, today’s far less astute “experts on Turkey and Turkish Islam, etc.” nonetheless, offer no apologies for their distressingly belated recognition of Turkey’s re-Islamization, adds insult to irony.

Finally, before providing Heyd’s pellucid and self-explanatory March, 1968 insights on Turkey’s re-Islamization, it is important to add his independent acknowledgment (from Uriel Heyd, “The Later Ottoman Empire in Rumelia and Anatolia,” in Holt, p. 366, The Cambridge History of Islam Series: The Cambridge History of Islam (No. 1) Edited by P. M. Holt) that the so-called mid-19th century Tanzimat reforms of the religio-political status of Ottoman Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities were, “…brought about by western pressure, not an increasingly liberal public opinion in Turkey.” Moreover, Heyd concludes with this characteristically unapologetic assessment that no legal equality was possible under the Sharia-based Ottoman legal system:

“The religious axiom of the superiority of Islam and the centuries-old tradition of Muslim domination over unbelievers, had created an attitude that did not easily lend itself to change. The transformation of the Ottoman empire, spearhead of Islam, into a secular state where non-Muslims were granted complete equality was inconceivable.”

What follows are a series of extracts from Uriel Heyd’s March 28, 1968 lecture, “Revival of Islam in Modern Turkey,” at the dedication ceremony for the Eliyahu Elath Chair of The History of the Muslim Peoples.

For six centuries the Ottomans devoted their main efforts to the jihad, the holy war against Christendom…

The Ottoman State was the last great Muslim empire in history; its ruler was recognized by Sunni Muslims as the caliph of all true believers. In no other Muslim state of importance was the Sharia, the holy law of Islam, so firmly established and were the men of religion, the ulema, given so influential a place in government and public administration…When from the late eighteenth century onwards the Ottoman sultans began introducing Westernizing reforms, most of the leading ulema for various reasons supported them, while the men of religion in the lower ranks by and large strongly and violently opposed their measures. The fight for and against modernization and secularization has been going on in the Turkish state and society ever since.

Ataturk was able to execute these drastic reforms against much less resistance than many observers had expected. This was not due, as has sometimes been claimed, to a lack of deep religiosity in the Turkish people. The reason for Ataturk’s relatively easy victory over his conservative opponents are others. His so-called “revolution” was in fact but the final and logical conclusion of the long process of modernization and Westernization which during the preceding century had created a secular outlook in large sections of the upper class.  The decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire had thoroughly discredited the traditional Islamic institutions, while the brilliant victories of Mustafa Kemal and his collaborators in the War of Independence against the4 Greeks and at the ensuing Lausanne Peace Conference in 1923 had gained them unrivalled prestige. The Turks, a nation of soldiers more disciplined than any other great Muslim people, were used to obey orders and now loyally followed the lead of their president as they had in the past accepted that of their Sultans. Agreement to, or at least acquiescence in, the secular reforms was made easier for them by Mustafa Kemal’s judicious policy of introducing them one by one over a period of years. As far as nevertheless there was resistance to the changes, it was checked by Mustafa Kemal’s authoritarian regime and in a few cases, such as the Kurdish rebellion of 1925, suppressed by draconian countermeasures.

When Ataturk died in 1938, many people believed that he had not only succeeded in transforming Turkey into a modern secular state but that Islam was doomed as a vital force in Turkish social and cultural life. It soon, however, became manifest that this judgment was premature, if not altogether wrong. Following the end of World War II both internal and external factors brought about great changes in the Turkish body politic. New parties were permitted to challenge the hitherto exclusive rule of Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party. In conformity with their ideology and in the hope of winning the votes of the predominantly conservative masses of the population, some of these parties demanded a less rigid application of the principle of secularism or even an openly favorable attitude towards Islam. Under the pressure of the opposition, the party in power had to make some concessions in the late forties. Limited and optional religious functionaries were organized and the University of Ankara established a Faculty of Theology.

A new phrase in the retreat from secularism opened with the victory of the Democratic Party in the general elections of May 1950. Significantly, one of the first measures of the new government headed by Adnan Menderes was to permit again the ezan, the call to prayer from the minarets, to be delivered in Arabic…In the following years the Turkish Government made further concessions to conservative public opinion. During the ten year rule of the Democratic Party innumerable new mosques were built and old ones repaired, partly with private contributions. Qur’an recitations and religious sermons were introduced into the program of the State-owned broadcasting stations, and for the first time large-scale financial and other support was given to those going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Religious education was enlarged in the primary and extended to the lower secondary schools. (As from the current year [i.e., 1968] the upper secondary schools, lise, have also resumed religious instruction.) Most important, Menderes authorized the opening of a large number of religious secondary schools….As a result of the great increase in the number of new mosques and the rapid expansion of religious instruction after World War II there was…an acute shortage of competent religious functionaries and teachers of religion…After the training of men of religion had practically ceased for almost a generation, there existed a grave danger that the vacancies would be filled by illiterate obscurantists…In these schools…“religious” subjects, such as Arabic and Persian, Qur’an and its exegesis, Hadith, Islamic law, theology and philosophy, etc., amount to over 40 percent of the curriculum…Whether they will succeed in producing the desired type of graduates who are both good Muslims and enlightened modern men, loyal to both the precepts of religion and the secular principles of the Turkish Republic, is still to early to say

The importance of these schools and institutes for the future religious and cultural development of Turkey is considerable. They train a new generation of religious-minded men, whose education and outlook will be markedly more Islamic than Western. It is noteworthy, for instance, that compared with the very many hours a week they devote to the teaching of Arabic and Persian, the time set aside for that of a European language is negligible. Though the overwhelming majority of the students are village boys, many of them after graduation find employment in the cities and smaller towns. Repeatedly demands have even been made to permit graduates of these schools to serve also as teachers of general subjects in primary schools.

In addition to these institutions private instruction in religion, disapproved in Ataturk’s time, seems to increase from year to year, often with the blessings and even the support of the authorities. Local imams in towns and villages teach children, both boys and girls, the rudiments of Islam, the Arabic script and the traditional recitation of the Qur’an in Arabic, often, as I noticed without teaching them to translate a single verse into Turkish. The earnestness and single-minded fervor of the students in those religious schools and courses are well known. I personally remember a visit, a few years ago, to a derelict small mosque in a remote part of Istanbul. There I found a small group of obviously poor Anatolian youths engaged in the study of a medieval compendium of Arabic grammar. The devotion with which they tried to learn by heart its rather dry and uninspiring rules, as if they were a scared text, was quite moving. The graduates of these religious schools and private courses will in due course form a new class of Turkish men of religion. How strong and influential they will be and what attitude they will adopt towards the modernization and Westernization of their society are crucial questions for the future of the Turkish Republic.

The latter trend (…viz. to withdraw more into themselves, to increase their self-confidence by turning to their religious and cultural traditions and the greatness of their national past…), the relative strength of which cannot yet be assessed, is facilitated by the very nature of Islam…Even for a secularist Muslim Turk attachment to his religious community retains therefore considerable social and political significance…[F]or most Turks only a Muslim is a real Turk. It is not easily forgotten that for many centuries being a Muslim meant membership in the ruling class. The fact that, unlike many Arab countries, Turkey has today [1968] no sizable Christian and Jewish minorities and that the latter took almost no part in the Turkish national movement further strengthens the identification of Turk with Muslims…[D]espite the solemn guarantee of freedom of conscience and religious belief in the Turkish Constitution (Art. 19), Christian missionary activities are restricted in modern Turkey…[U]ntil this day another Muslim nation, even if it has no particularly cordial relations with Turkey, is styled in the Turkish press kardes millet, “sister-nation.” On the other hand, any tension between Turkey and a Christian country still evokes in the Turkish public memories of the age-long struggle of Islam with Christendom…

[O]ne of the foremost authorities on modern Islam W.C. [William Cantwell] Smith, tends to believe that because of the separation of state and religion by Ataturk and for other reasons the modern Turks may be expected to play a leading role in Islamic reform. For the time being, however, there is little to justify this hope. Turkish books and pamphlets published in recent years on Islam, its past and future, are generally of poor quality, most of them being destined for the uneducated masses of the population. The fact that the religious problem is so closely linked with day-to-day party strife explains the violently political character of the discussions…

Ataturk’s secular reforms had not penetrated very deeply into the religious masses of the urban and particularly the rural population. Their political consciousness and influence has been constantly growing since the establishment of a multi-party regime and as a result of the economic development of the village and especially of the small town, the traditional center of religious conservatismTurkish nationalism and Western civilization, the two main pillars of Ataturk’s cultural orientation, have proved incapable of filling, even for many educated Turks, the spiritual vacuum created by the elimination of Islam.

[I]n the last twenty years or so there has been an impressive resurgence of religious feeling and interest in Turkish society. An increasing number of people—unfortunately no breakdown according to classes and age-groups is available—go to the mosques, fast in the month of Ramadan and take part in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The tombs of great Islamic mystics, such as Celaluddin Rumi at Konya and Hacci Bektashi Kirshehir, attract many thousands of visitors (or pilgrims) who come to witness the traditional dances, music and singing. Reference has been made before to the rapidly growing number of children who go to religious schools or receive private instruction in Islam and the Arabic language. Very many women again put on the carshaf, the traditional garb draped over the head, and some even dare veil their face completely. Inscribed religious mottoes in Arabic are once more publicly displayed in shops, taxis, and elsewhere. Religious books, tracts and periodicals appear in ever increasing numbers and many newspapers almost daily publish popular stories of Islamic heroes and saints. Due to the loudspeakers recently installed in most minarets the calls to prayer  five times a day drown the traffic sounds in the cities. These and many other phenomena of the same kind, all forbidden or at least disapproved until the late forties, do much to restore Republican Turkey the aspect of a distinctly Muslim country.

Can all this be truly called a religious revival? Until a few years ago many foreign observers, including, I admit, myself, were inclined to think that this development [Turkey’s re-Islamization] was no more than a renewed expression of sentiments which for a long time could not be freely manifested and that the overall process of secularization was going on very slowly but irresistibly. Today I doubt whether this view is still tenable.

This survival and –if my interpretation is correct—revival of Islam in Turkey, the most secular of all Muslim countries, are obviously a fact of great significance for the future in the modern world.


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