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Book Review

Sympathetic but misguided view of Turkey

Laila Juma

Turkey Today: A Nation Divided over Islam’s Revival by Marvine Howe. Pub: Westview Press, Boulder, CO, USA, 2000. Pp: 310. Hbk: $26.00.

Reading this book, one is reminded of a particular kind of intelligent non-Muslim friend: open-minded, curious, sympathetic, good company, better conversation, ever-ready to engage with and learn about a culture and a world-view so totally different to his own. In some cases, such friends take their interest so far as to travel to Muslim countries. Almost without exception, however, the end result is the same: a Westerner unable to see the world through any other framework than a Western one, and often uninterested in doing so; a Westerner thus totally unable to understand the other point of view, however many places he may have visited, however many Muslims he knows, and however well-informed he may be.

This is not an academic book of history or political analysis. Rather, it presents the impressions, experiences and opinions of a Western journalist who has spent a great time in and writing about Turkey, having been bureau chief in Ankara for the New York Times. It ranges from general introduction to travel-book to popular history to simple reportage, and is written in a highly-readable style. Just as many children find it easier to learn from information presented in novels, so many readers will indeed get a better impression of Turkey from a book such as this than from any amount of newspaper coverage or scholarly studies. But that impression will be flawed for being filtered through the eyes of a Western writer deeply ignorant of and prejudiced against Islam.

The tone for the book is set in the introduction. Howe opens with a hackneyed image of Turkey as being “between two worlds”, which (like so many clichés) is at least partly rooted in truth. The coming together of Europe and Asia, the West and Islam, Howe links to the political division between the secular state and Islamists. The questions facing Turkey, she says, are whether

“violent struggle [is] inevitable between defenders of the secular state and militant believers? Or will one side simply subdue the other, as we have seen since the days of Ataturk? Or is it just possible that through a dynamic dialogue, some kind of accommodation can be reached and Turkey can become the first true Muslim democracy?”

To set the scene for answering these questions, Howe’s first meeting is with Mehmet Ali Sahin, a Refah leader in Istanbul and now a member of parliament. He is presented as almost a caricature of a modern Islamic fundamentalist. The Refah’s Istanbul headquarters, in the working class Topkapi district, is compared to an exclusive men’s club, with not a woman— “not even secretaries”— in sight. He cannot speak English, telling Howe that he and his wife speak Arabic at home, and denies receiving money from Iran or Saudi Arabia. Then Howe gets straight to the point:

“What were the Islamist party’s long-term aims? I asked. If it came to power on its own, without the constraints of a coalition, would it seek to impose Sharia? (The Islamic code regulates everything from hairstyle and dress to divorce and polygamy, providing brutal punishment for crimes of adultery and theft and death for apostacy.)”

Sahin’s answer is diplomatic — bearing in mind that calling for shari’ah is a criminal offence in Turkey — but that is not the point. It is the wording and tone of Howe’s question (and the accompanying note to her readers) which is telling. Anyone reflecting even briefly on the range of cultures represented in the Muslim world, and even in countries which aspire to implementing (not ‘imposing’) shari’ah, should know better than to present it as a harsh, rigid, never-changing code. And anyone who has spent time in any Muslim country, and is aspiring to discuss Islam in the modern world, should at least have a better idea of what Islam really is.

In contrast to her representation of Sahin, Howe introduces Kemalism sympathetically, if with unintentional irony. Her guide here is a Turkish American friend who “lives in California but goes back to Turkey every year as her roots run very deep. Slender and blonde and very Californian, [she] is a dedicated Kemalist”. For her,

“Ataturk is... defender of the land against foreign domination, liberator of women from subservience, [and] charismatic leader who restored national pride... With obvious pride [she] translated Ataturk’s words: ‘Power belongs to the people... if people can’t find their power in themselves as a nation, they will become slaves of another nation.’”

Yes, quite.

Developing the theme of the clash between Kemalism and Islam in Turkey is the main trajectory of the book. In practice, this means exploring Islam broadly, as the secular perspective is largely taken for granted. Howe begins, reasonably enough, by looking at former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan and the Refah Party which he led until he and it were banned in 1998 (although Howe’s research seems to have taken place before the ban). The hostility that she showed at the outset is not generally evident. Her journalistic style is to interview key characters and allow them to speak, which works well, even though some of her accompanying comments are loaded. The result is that we hear people such as Erbakan, Recep Erdogan (then mayor of Istanbul) and Abdullah Gul setting out their understandings of Turkey’s situation in reasonably clear terms.

A similar approach also works well for other Muslim voices, including sufis and modernist intellectuals. Interspersed throughout the book are thematic chapters exploring other aspects of Turkish life, including the Kemalist cult, discussions of the Kurdish situation in south-eastern Turkey (that chapter is ludicrously called ‘The Kurdization of Turkey), the situation of other minorities (such as the Jews and the Armenians), Turkey’s economy, its relations with Europe, and — in a chapter that reads like a travel companion — Turkey’s rich and varied history. Throughout, Howe’s writing is impressive and very informative, even for those with some knowledge of the country. Unfortunately, the effect — intentionally or unintentionally — may be to give her discussion of her main theme, Islam, a credibility that it does not deserve.

Throughout, however, there are hints of her essential hostility to Islam and Muslims, not least in regular barbed comments about the position of women. When it comes to discussing her core topics, the ‘Islamic Agenda’ and the ‘headscarf war’ for example, her bias becomes very obvious. Throughout, her assumption is that the secularists are right to fear Islam because it is backward and oppressive of women. At no stage does she question the right of Turkey’s secular establishment to demand that women expose themselves, and it is difficult to believe that none of the mahjubahs that she talked to did so either. Instead, they are protrayed largely as subservient to Muslim men, demanding the right to wear hijab either at their behest or for no apparent reason.

The same balance of apparent objectivity off-set by occasionally blatant anti-Islamic bias defines Howe’s accounts of the political developments of recent years, including the ‘marriage of convenience’ between Erbakan and Tansu Ciller and the virtual military coup that ended it in 1997, and her analysis of the prospects for democracy (ie. secular rule) in the future.

The result is a book that reads and looks excellent but is deeply flawed by the author’s inability see and understand the Islamic point of view on any question. Whether this is inadvertent or intentional is difficult to tell, but it blights a book that might otherwise prove an excellent introduction to Turkish affairs for a lay Western audience. Perhaps, however, no more can be expected from any Westerner.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 3

Muharram 07, 14222001-04-01

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