Fusing Islam and Modernity in an Ambivalent Nation

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Alev Cinar, the assistant professor of political science at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, spoke today about the strange and complicated marriage between Islam and modernism in Turkey. She took us on a tour through the political and societal fabric of Turkey, starting with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War through the AK Party coming into power in 2002 as the first ever Islam-based political party ever to rule the nation. The moral of the story is that Islam and modernism can successfully coexist.

In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was born from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. From the onset of the Republic, nearly every bit of policy enacted was a direct opposite reaction to the way that the Ottomans ruled. The most obvious change made was the abolition of Islamic institutions and the origin of a secular government; Islam was brought under direct control of the government. As a result, the government enacted many new laws for the modernization and liberalization of the country, particularly as pertained to the role of women in society. The new Turkish government aimed to emancipate women and make them more visible and free in society. In fact, the ‘Miss Turkey’ pageant was started in the mid 20s, and women were told that it was their duty to their country to enter. By 1932, a ‘Miss Turkey’ had become ‘Miss World.’

Feminism was a theme that was present throughout Mrs. Cinar’s lecture. A gut reaction when one thinks of Islam is to think of a misogynist society. According to Mrs. Cinar, a barometer of modernity in an Islamic society is the image of women. Thus, her PowerPoint presentation included a Turkish poster from the 20s depicting a woman in a bathing suit. Later, we were shown slides of modern Turkish ads depicting beautiful women in form-fitting dresses and make-up, and also with head scarves; a marriage of traditional Islam and modern concepts of the image of women. “The woman?s body has become the field for this political fight,” said Cinar.

In 2002, the AK Party won the election in Turkey and became the first Islam-based party to ever rule the nation. Ironically, the head of the AK (meaning justice and development) said that his party “were the true secularists.” They called for Islam to be totally separated from the state. Up to that point, Islam had been under control of the state, specifically the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which said that Islam should be practiced at home and not be an open part of the public sphere. It was the AK party that was involved in the aforementioned ads depicting the beautiful women. Their goal is to destroy the notion of Islam as a backwards or barbaric. The AK party wants to institute Islam not for traditional Islamic laws and codes, but as a national identity. Many shades of Islam exist in Turkey, and the AK wants all of them to have some voice. “The argument is not for or against Islam,” said Cinar, “but about how we will interpret it in modern life.” This is an argument that the entire world, not just Turkey, will have to deal with.

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