Book Review: Islam, Kurds and the Turkish Nation State

Christopher Houston is an anthropologist possessing exceeding insight into Turkey's Kurdish and Islamist 'communities.' The apostrophic wrapping I've given the term should go some way to revealing just how much the book has increased the level of sensitivity I now give the tangled and mangled-up world of Turkish, Kurdish, statist, laicist and carnival Islamists, pushing around the debate on the nature of the state and modernity.

This multi-faceted and convoluted subject is expanded moving out steadily from Houston's alienated Islamist friends who are introduced sipping tea on the park benches of Kuzguncuk. Subsequent chapters expand to the national before returning back. For this reason the book is highly accessible, although prior knowledge of the characters and the Turkish political scene will only enrich appreciation.

Once Islamism's internal dynamics and differences are interrogated, the problem of the Kurds' position in modern Turkey forms a pivot with which to explore these differences.

The problem facing the Kurds is explained as succinctly as possible on all levels:

"For the state the Kurds are a problem to its guardianship of the cultural homogeneity of the nation. For the armed forces the Kurdish guerrilla resistance presents a threat to their instituted aim of defending the country's territorial and national integrity. For the civilizing bureaucracies Kurds constitute an enormous challenge to the efficient carrying out of their duties (lanugage problems, problems of access, of cultural difference [and post-PKK to their very presence in the region]). For intellectuals, especially those employed at state universities, the Kurdish problem represents an uncomfortable taboo that picks away at the scab formed over the post-coup reorganization of the tertiary education sector and the self-aggrandizing discourse of the independence of science and research. For the political parties, pulling in the vote (by local candidates, patron-client ties, populist policies, lentil crop price-rises, religious manipulation, circumcision ceremonies, ect.) subsumes their interest in the Kurdish problem. For conscientious citizens the effects of the Kurdish situation (and the states reactions to it) on the very checks and balances meant to safeguard democracy in the republic as a whole must dominate their concerns. For human rights workers the Kurdish problem translates as a bottomless well of human suffering."

I had considered myself a subscriber to the simple notion that Islam was the only thing that brought Kurds and Turks together in the good old days, and thus a state whose temporal depth has been based on the superiority of ethnic Turks (as reflected in the school books, mantras and psychological hold on history seen especially strongly since the French recognition of the genocide) is destined for failure.

(Grey) Wolves in Sheeps Clothing

Houston portrays the downfalls of this typically Turkish Islamist view in practice, by explaining that while Islamism's hopes are for Kurds to conveniently tuck away their national identity in the name of the ummah, a similar thing is in no way expected of Turkish Muslims. In short, Islamism in Turkey has left Kurdish Muslims the choice to simply be discontent at the states' mistreatment and manipulation of Muslims (and Islam), rather then the double discontent of the state's mistreatment of practicing Muslims and ethnic Kurds. For Houston, if this is the best Islam can offer, then its procurement is no different to the assimilating discourse offered by Kemalism. The high electoral gains of Islamist parties in Kurdish regions is explained as being due to the respite offered by the cosmopolitan Islamist ideal, even if the corporatist and nationalist-guided reality is different.

The writer shows a great degree of precision in research and effectively asks the right questions from the right people. Some interviewees include Kurdish shiekhs and even on of the ancestors of 1926 rebel leader Shiekh Said and the Gulen movement's response is pushed aside with key soundbites.

Houston also shows great personal passion with the subject. Personal notes in stream of consciousness provide an introduction and epilogue to the discussion, and we see rare glimpses into the theological value Houston places on the discussion towards the end when one is reminded, to paraphrase relevant the Qu'ranic verses "Allah delights in diversity."

For many commentators and political observers, the rifts in Turkish society are simply the back and forth of temporal political actors. It is nice to be reminded of the beauty that fuels their albeit misdirected zealotry. By giving equal weight to the input of friends, people on the street, and at one point - his barber, Houston demonstrates an appreciation of the social-ness of social science, and the benefits of immersion.

From my experiences working in an institute schooling a great many Turkish Islamists, Houston has enhanced, reinforced and refined my views on 1) the deficiencies of State and 'Carnival' Islam, and 2) the Kurdish Islamist critique. I have also gained a interest in the value of architecture in the ideological battle with city space in Turkey. I aim to follow this up with further investigations.

As Turkey emerges from a repressive modernizing project, various political identities are emerging and competing for influence. The Islamist movement celebrates the failure of Western liberalism in Turkey and the return of politics based on Muslim ideals. However, this vision is threatened by Kurdish nationalism and the country's troubled past.

Is Islamist multiculturalism even possible? The ethnic tensions surfacing in Turkey beg the question whether the Muslim Turks and Kurds can find common ground in religion. Houston argues that such unification depends fundamentally upon the flexibility of the rationale behind the Islamist movement's struggle.

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