Sadaqah in Birmingham

Members of Birmingham's Muslim community got together this Ramadan to dish out food for the homeless and anyone feeling a bit peckish in the city centre every Wednesday evening. Unfortunately for one of the days it was cancelled due to the recent rioting, but continued for the rest of the month uninterrupted. A most touching site was the performing of the Maghrib (sunset) prayer to beckon the end of fasting, right in the heart of the city centre outside Waterstone's bookshop.


Istan-Dub: Reggae in the City

Top of my current list of things to achieve from September onwards, is to establish a frequent and (more importantly) well-frequented reggae night in a bar in Taksim called Seksek.
It must be a night with a difference, aiming to combine reggae crowd-pleasers with rootsy punk and lively ska, but will it draw enough of a crowd? Moreover, can I hope to unite two scenes already present in Taksim - reggae and punk rock without alienating either? Luckily there are some indications that this can be done, in the spirit of how well the two were fused in the late 70s and early 80s, and presently with Turkish groups such as ska-punk legends Athena. Also, the presence of reggae bars in Istanbul already, shows that people are ready to listen. However, it will need a good deal of preparation and good advertising (the collage on the left is my handy-work). Similar nights have also been done in the standard reggae bars quite recently, and took place on a typically busy Friday night, so i'm going to get in touch and see how it went.
There are at least two very good reggae clubs already firmly established in Taksim, Nayah and the African Club. I am going to keep in touch with them for tips and advice, and keep the door open for co-operation and co-ordination in the future.
Nayah is one of only a handful of clubs in Istanbul specialising in reggae, dub, dancehall and ska music. The bar is located a five minute walk from Taksim square on a top-floor terrace in the heart of the club district. It was originally the brain-child of the African community of the city and has grown into a unique, fun and relaxed atmosphere where locals, students and expats, as well as many regulars, can dance until the waking hours. The best nights out are consistently to be had on Fridays and Saturdays but it is not uncommon for bands to play during the week
İstiklal Cad. Kurabiye Sk. No:19 (Mis Sokağın Sonunda, Sağda Köşe Bina Teras Kat), Beyoglu, Turkey
The African Club
The African club is located further down the main İstiklal Avenue, next to the British Embassy and located in what seems to be an extensive renovated apartment building on the second floor. Inside is smaller as such, but comfortable for the size of the crowd it draws in as a niche club. The music is more tailored towards the African
community so those with only an interest in pop reggae may find it dull. However, if Afrobeat is your style, then you will find it offers something like nowhere else in Istanbul, and stays open until around 6-7am on weekends.
Update: Istanbul Explorations blog has given me an excellent tip on how not to attract the wrong sort of buzz around the night with unseemly decorations...


Izmir and its Discontents

This article, Encountering Fascism, by Beril Dedeoglu, reminded me of some of the more depressing aspects of my time in my beloved Izmir, where I spent a year before moving to Istanbul.

In some quarters, Izmir is know as the "Kemalist castle" as its populace is still fiercely loyal to the state apparatus, the founding regime and the personality cult of Mustafa Kemal. In this year's elections for example, where Turkey gave the AKP a record landslide of more than 50%, Izmir was one of only seven counties to vote for the CHP. When I asked their verdict on the results, most of my friends simply declared that the country was full of "uneducated" people dragging the country to an Islamic Republic, much like the woman featured in the report.

Criticism of the current government is by no means without reason, but in Izmir it is fueled by a fanaticism for the state unheard of elsewhere in Turkey. I have seen people cry at pictures of Ataturk, present on every wall and public space, I have been to Republic day ceremonies that overcrowd the largest stadiums and include hour and a hour speeches by the founder, accompanied by constant standing ovation. I have been faced with bewilderment by young students who assume my not loving the ex-dictator must only owe to my country's corrupt history books, and nothing to do with my stance of general criticism for public figures.

This is all rooted in recent history, and the nature of a populace whom, like many parts of western Anatolia, cannot trace their roots to the city back more than 80 years. Most of those living there are descendants of those Greek and Balkan Muslims who were transported across the Aegean during the tumultuous population exchange legitimised by the Lausanne treaty.

From my observations, the population exchange demonstrates the city's loyalty to the state for three reasons, 1) the people's links to their homelands were severed instantly and finally, making the nationalisation policies successful as the only means of forming an identity, 2) despite much racial/religious tolerance in the former Ottoman territories, the threat of ethnic violence was real and made reversion to former identities impossible, 3) due to much interaction with other religions/communities in their former lands, the in-coming Muslims were much less strict in their new Anatolian neighbours and, 4) due to point 2, Ataturk's image as a saviour of the nation was very literal and personal in connotations, and due to point 3, there was not much challenge to his aggressive challenges to religious practices and cultural heritage.

Although parts of the city, like my old stomping ground of Bornova, have developed into booming clubbing districts in the last ten years, for most Izmirians "istisnalar kaideyi bozmaz"; new regulations like those governing internet usage and age of consumption, reveal the government's sinister Islamist plot in spite of a relaxed drinking culture.

At least Izmir's citizens are better informed than most on the downsides to socially conservative reforms made to appease the distinctly non-Kemalist AKP's Anatolian base, but because any and every government move is instantly repelled, the nature of the attacks inevitably tend towards hypocrisy. Any notion that Izmir's 'European' way of life should not come under attack from government, fails to translate to empathy for those ways of life transgressed by Kemalist regimes (namely ethnic minority rights and religious/women's rights).

Another more frequent example comes in the exploitation of idolation of Mustafa Kemal, when posited against the criticisms lodged towards those who blindly vote for religious parties. One example I will give is when I was sitting in the staff room of my old school whilst another teacher was reading the newspaper.

It was the spring of 2010, and Izmir's public enemy number one - Prime Minister Erdogan - was due to appear in Argentina for trade talks. In line with the visit, Erdogan was to unveil a statue of Ataturk erected in Buenos Aries. However, due to pressure from the Armenian community, hostile to all things Turkish, the project was cancelled and so, in a display of faux-autrage, the whole visit was cancelled and relations were momentarily put on ice.

My colleague, having read the story aloud, then emphatically exclaimed "afferin sana" - go you! It should be emphasised that this was 1) a teacher, and 2) an Izmirian. She was thus making the point that this was a splendid and logical move, despite striking many (me included) as rather false.

In the Izmirian view, the crass use of religion for political purposes can be identified from a mile off, however it is a given fact that the attachment for Ataturk is always a genuinely emotive one. If someone exploits the fetishisation of Ataturk for political purposes they can go on undetected. Who would doubt their commitment to the dear leader?


Turkish-Kurdish Unity on the Streets

Even the most nationalist newspapers had to applaud the Turks and Kurds of Stoke Newington Road in Dalston for being the first significant example of people grouping together and fighting back to defend their property. The best part of this clip comes at the end with one passer by informing the camera, ‘the Turks kicked them out of the scene, bruv. That's it. All done.'

Bloody foreigners, coming here, defending our boroughs & communities...


Book Review: An Intellectual Biography of Bediuzaman Said Nursi

Şükran Vahide is truely a historian of high calibre. Her Intellectual Biography of thinker and mufassir, Said Nursi is the first of its kind that explores the intellectual developments and phases of his life. In all probability no other historian is currently better qualified for the task, this study is the product of years of rigorous investigation and the range of sources is incredible.

Whilst I take issue with some of the Vahide's judgements, and would have benefitted from more details, (specifically some samples from Nursi's life work, the Risale-i Nur) for those interested in the great thinker, late Ottoman/Republican history or Islam in the early 20th century, this is a recommended read.
Nursi's Life
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1876-1960) was a seminal Islamic activist and theologian, who strongly believed in peacefully coexisting between all peoples of faith, choosing as his main tool "Jihad of the Word". Vahide chooses to use her subject's own words as a guide for catagorising the development of his life; simply the "Old" and "New" Said.
The "Old Said" was a young man with a mystifying ability to absorb knowledge. He made a name for himself in the East as an expert negotiator, and travelled to Istanbul earning notoriety (and a fair dosage of envy) as unbeatable in debate and upstanding in morals, never accepting gifts or bribes in his struggle for constitutionalism, national unity and representative government. His main objective throughout, was educational reform and the foundation of a university in the east (the Madrasa al-Zahra) which would unite a rapidly divergent Ottoman society through a combination of Islamic philosophy and ethics, with Western science.
The "New Said" returned from the First World War and War of Independence ready to abandon public life. However, with the founding of a new 'modern' republic knowing no distinction between secularism and irreligion, totalitarian in the face of a weary public susceptible to either indifference or fury, Nursi set about writing an interpretation of the Qu'ran fir for the modern masses as the only means to effectively re-engage Muslims with the basics of faith. For his effectiveness in this, he suffered twenty years of exile, imprisonment and poisoning.
Setting the Story Straight
Aside from simply telling the story, Vahide's book has a number of aims, some necessary, some distracting. Firstly, it is an active defence of Nursi for those brought up to believe the charges lodged against him, from which he was aquitted three times. He was accussed of being an incitor of unrest, exploiter of religion for political purposes and - most contentiously, a Kurdish nationalist.
The latter point is contradicted most irrefutably as it has formed the backbone of Kemalist attacks on his memory. Also, it served the original pretext for his internal exile and subsequent imprisonment immediately after the Said Nursi revolts of 1925, which was followed by a brutal clampdown on all opposition in the country through legal and military measures.
When asked directly by Sheikh Said to lend his support to the revolts, Nursi wrote in reply, "the Kurds and Turks are brothers. The Turkish nation has acted as the standard-bearer of Islam for centuries. .. The sword may not be drawn against the sons of Islam's heroic defenders, and I shall not draw mine!
Another thing highlighted well, but not to excess, is the general background of oppression and misery that characterised the CHP's time of one party dictatorship in Turkey. Because of the enthusiasm of state lawyers in seeking to ban historical and political pieces, and the learnt self-censorship of many academics, any great or small attempt to discredit the official narrative in this way is healthy.
Another revelation in the book is that Nursi was not against the concept of a republic, nor even particularly aposed to the abolition of sultanate and caliphate, in line with his argument that such institutions had become despotic and that the virtues of constitutional rule were right to meet the demands of the age, with or without them. However, upon visiting Ankara after the war, he was dismayed by the 'worldliness' of its moral compass, and foresaw that as the inheritors to the caliphate’s powers, the people would either "copy their [irreligion] or hate them for it". In the end he was right on both counts – the country was divided in a way it still is today.
One feels that Vahide has had to be extremely disciplined in not allowing the focus to drift too much towards the dramatic events of the era. Very little is actually mentioned of either wars but for Nursi's experience of them. In most places this is appropriate, but in some parts, a working knowledge of Turkish history is assumed of the readership.
However, it is telling of one intention on the part of the writer that, given the details of so many events and currents are skimmed over, that such care is not taken on any occasions to emphasise the Armenian's as main culprits in the violence in the east. This is normal in Turkish historiography depending on the passions and views of the author, but as the only reoccuring element which diverts from the narrative it becomes distracting. This especially as, whilst Vahide's views are made clear on the historical fact of the Armenian atrocities against Muslims, a literal white-washing is given to Ottoman figures complicit in the mass killing of Christians.
No less is this so than in the case of Enver Pasha (pictured), who is interpreted as a foreboding anti-Imperialist. This is to neglect his subservience to German military attaches, disasterous leadership in the First World War and desire to totally wipe out minorities and their (heritage) through the Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa. This organisation lay beyond the directive of the government but included vast swathes of officials, commanders and police in its mission to, "maintain the integrity of the empire and to furthur the causes of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism". However Vahide pushes aside the fact that, to this aim, it was highly involved in political assasinations of the Unionist opposition, and in the war years directed the mass killing and forced exile of Anatolia's Christian population to the desert.
Another case of unfair dismisal by the writer, is perhaps less forgivable. Vahide raises an extremely interesting question regarding whether Nursi's support from the public was due to his integrity and character in a time of great distress and oppression, or was it due to the Risale-i Nur.
Without pondering further, Vahide simply talks of her subject's humility, for which he certainly earnt his reputation, even saying, “I hate people who love me”. By concluding as such, the author achieves her aim of only concerning herself with Nursi himself, however of all historians, Vahide is equipped enough to broach this interesting question whilst retaining relevance and it is unfortunately she did not indulge in starting a debate.
Followers of Nursi and his magnum opus, the Risale-i Nur, are many and misunderstood. A set of patient, researched clarifications on the facts of Nursi's accomplishments are thus always in need. This biography provides a good backdrop for those students of his work, and encourages potential students on their way to seeking it.


Said Nursi on Social Unrest

I’ve just been watching the BBC’s nightly current affairs programme Newsnight. The main focus tonight of course, has been the riots engulfing estates on the outskirts of London (and since 6pm - my own city of Birmingham, where someone was sent from London to talk like a besieged war reporter on a foreign mission).
On the discussion segment, debate went back and forth between politicians, community leaders and police spokesmen on the causes, the usual key words and phrases getting repeated like a dull drinking game: ‘Cuts’ = one shot. ‘Disaffection’ = two shots. ‘Return to family values’ = kiss the person next to you. You can see how these things can quickly get out of hand.

How auspicious that today I finished Şükran Vahide's Islam in Modern Turkey: An Intellectual Biography of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. The enigmatic thinker shedded a light on the dangers of unfettered materialism (or ‘worldliness’) around which modern society is soley concerned, and which precludes dissatisfation (one shot again).

Nursi (1877-1960) saw the early processes of modernisation and capitalisation settling into the vacuum left by an abandonment of faith and virtue. His observations on the benefits and pitfalls of the western social and economic order demonstrate his long-sightedness and genuine concern for humanity.

What first alerted me to the relevance of Nursi’s critique, which I will quote below, was a report by the Guardian today in which they quoted a youth culture expert pointing out that most rioters and looters are low-income youths from council estates with high unemployment and form

"A generation bred on a diet of excessive consumerism and bombarded by advertising… “Where we used to be defined by what we did, now we are defined by what we buy. These big stores are in the business of tempting [the consumer] and then suddenly these people find they can just walk into the shop and have it all”

Whilst the welfare state has plugged the gaps of difference with some success on a superficial level, the unabated promotion of desire and excessiveness in life-style, a product of capitalism and materialism is too powerful and all-encompassing to prevent discontent. Nursi states the two problems facing society were 1) the promotion of ‘appetites of the flesh’, which has embedded impulses for ‘instant gratification’ into society, and 2) ‘the appalling inequality in the means of livelihood’, which means that new needs or rather must have's, can't be obtained.

For your reading pleasure, below is transcribed part of a letter to Prime Minister Adnan Menderez in which Nursi refers to the Qur’anic verses “Eat and drink, but waste not in excess” (7:31) and “Man possesses nought save which he strives” (52:39)

A ‘general tranquillity and a happy worldly life – the true aims of modern civilisation, have been destroyed. And wastefulness and extravagance have taken the place of frugality and contentment…desire for ease has overcome endeavour and sense of service, it has made unfortunate humanity both extremely poor and extremely lazy… Mankind’s happiness in life lies in frugality and endeavour, and it is through them that the rich and poor will be reconciled, I shall here make one or two brief points to explain this:

In the nomadic age, man needed only three or four things, and it was only two out of ten people who could not obtain them. But now, through wastefulness, abuse, stimulating the appetites, and such things as custom and addiction, present-day civilisation has made inessential needs seem essential, and in place of the four things of which he used to be in need, modern civilised man is in need of twenty. And it is only two out of twenty who can satisfy those needs in a totally licit way; eighteen remain in need in some way…

It perpetually encourages the desolate lower class to challenge the upper classes. It has abandoned the Qur’an’s sacred fundamental law instructing for the payment of zakah [a percentage of one’s income to charity] and prohibition of usury and interest, which ensured that the lower classes were obedient toward the upper classes and the upper classes were sympathetic toward the lower classes, and encouraged the bourgeoisie to tyranny and the poor to revolt. It has destroyed the tranquillity of mankind.
-Said Nursi, Emirdağ Lahikası, 1957

Many of the looters' choice targets included mobile phone shops and big clothing brands, which one witness said they performed with the “nonchalance of someone doing their shopping at 4:30pm.” The Guardian's expert noted that the rioters "feel they can rationalise it by targeting big corporations. There is a sense that the companies have lots of money, while they have very little." Adding to the chorus of those noting excessive consumerism, one sociologist bluntly added that “there are simply more desirable, portable consumer goods to steal than ever before”.

Nursi nominally accepted the existence of different classes as long as their duties and burdens were equally shared, with the benefit of society as a whole in mind. Nursi does not hold all the answers to today’s dilemmas, but it is interesting to note his concerns with where the pursuit of modern civilisation based on worldliness and human philosophy would take humanity.

Nursi's points can offer insight from the past to the dangers of a mix of social inbalance and materialism today.