Secularism and Modernity

In the contemporary Middle East, there is only one state — Turkey — that performs civil marriages. If, for example, Middle Easterners in other states want to get married they must go to their local clergyman and not to a nondenominational marriage license bureau. This, in effect, both discourages and obstructs interfaith marriages in the region. Thus, at a recent conference on marriage held in Beirut, one topic of discussion was whether interfaith marriages have the same chance of success as “normal” marriages.

Issues of personal status such as marriage are not the only ones in which religion matters. Article three of the current Syrian constitution specifies that the president of Syria must be a Muslim. Before the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, article four of the Iraqi constitution defined Islam as the religion of the state (now, it's article two). What makes this all the more surprising is the fact that both constitutions were written by a political party whose official publication had once stated that “God, religions, feudalism, capitalism, imperialism, and all other 'isms' that had dominated society in the past are like mummies in a museum.”

Many in the West look at the Middle East and decry the role religion plays in the public sphere. They claim that secularism is an essential part of modernity and that states that are not secular cannot be considered modern. Those who do this, however, assume that the attributes of Western modernity can be generalized for the entire world. Another interpretation of the relationship between secularism and modernity is possible, however. It might be argued that secularism developed in the West as a result of idiosyncrasies associated with that region's historical experience. Europe suffered from bloody religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Over the course of the centuries that followed, many in the West came, to believe that the way to prevent a recurrence of that bloodshed was by severing the connection between politics and religion. In the process, they made the state, not religion, the ultimate source of authority. And since European modernity became the gold standard for “civilization” throughout the world, secularism tagged along for the ride.

The historical experience of Middle Eastern states was quite different from that of European states. As a result, their evolution was also quite different. The prominent role religion plays in politics and political discourse of Middle Eastern states does not mean these states are not modern; rather, it means these states subscribe to an alternative form of modernity.

The role religion plays in contemporary Middle Eastern life emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century. The transformation of the Middle Eastern state in the nineteenth century fostered a corresponding transformation of religious institutions and doctrines. As the region was integrated into the modern state system, the meaning and function of religion in society changed. Those Islamic institutions and beliefs that political and religious elites and nonelites found appropriate for changing circumstances grew stronger. Others diminished in value.

The influence of nineteenth-century events on religion was not restricted to Islam or to the Middle East. A similar institutional and doctrinal transformation occurred in the Roman Catholic Church as a result of its competition with the nineteenth-century European state, the emergence of mass politics, and the spread of market relations. After the Vatican Council of 1869, popes became infallible on issues of faith and morals (but not, significantly, on other issues that were consigned to the state). The church sanctioned the formation of mass-based Catholic political parties, and church institutions were redesigned to parallel or complement those of the modern state. In other words, both church structures and church doctrines came to reflect the social and political world in which the church functioned.

In the Ottoman Empire, where the “church” was not as centralized as in Catholic Europe, the transformation of religious institutions and doctrines occurred in two ways. Sometimes it occurred as a result of state initiative. At other times it emerged from below, as citizens of the empire reacted to new state structures or to European models.

As discussed in Chapter 5, historians have commonly divided the responses of the nineteenth-century Ottoman state to European economic, political, and military expansion into two periods. During the first, the so-called tanzimat period, the Ottoman state attempted to foster a notion of a political community made up of equal citizens bound together by their commitment to a common set of legal norms. This form of osmanlilik failed for a number of reasons, also described earlier. Under Sultan Abdulhamid II, the state introduced a new form of osmanlilik. In place of the idea that all Ottoman citizens were to be equal regardless of their religion, the Ottoman state under Abdulhamid II promoted an ideology that gave pride of place to an Ottoman/Islamic identity.

There were two reasons why the new interpretation of osmanlilik became feasible. First, the new interpretation would have been impossible had it not been for the intellectuals and political activists who had laid the foundation for it over the course of the nineteenth century. Islamic modernists and others discussed in the previous chapter picked up on European social theories and applied them to understand their own history and current circumstances. One of the first Middle Easterners to do this was Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi, an Egyptian ‘alim. In 1826, Mehmet Ali sent al-Tahtawi to Paris at the head of an educational mission. When al-Tahtawi returned to Egypt five years later, Mehmet Ali appointed him director of the School of Languages, an institution where European books were translated into Arabic. Under al-Tahtawi's directorship, the school not only translated European military manuals, but works on geography and history as well. As a result, the concepts and vocabulary of European philosophy and social theory entered the lexicon of the region.

Take, for example, the concept of “civilization.” Before al-Tahtawi, Arabic books used the term “civilization” to indicate the high culture, refined manners, and luxurious trappings of urban life. Borrowing from the writings of the fourteenth-century scholar and traveler Ibn Khaldun, they contrasted civilization with the harshness and rusticity of desert and rural life. In the nineteenth century, the concept of “civilization” began to take on a new meaning in the region. Upon his return from Paris, al-Tahtawi introduced the notion of separate ”Western” and “Eastern” civilizations then in vogue in Europe (as it is now in the United States). Like his European contemporaries, al-Tahtawi believed that each civilization possessed a distinguishing characteristic that differentiated it from the other: While science defined Western civilization, Islam and Islamic law defined its counterpart. Later writers developed this notion of “civilization” further, and even introduced the notion of a “clash of civilizations.” Thus, according to al-Afghani,

The problem facing the “East” is its struggle with the “West.” Both cloak themselves in the armor of religion. The Westerner is an adherent of Christianity and the Easterner of Islam, and the people of the two religions are like a hard projectile in the hands of their throwers.

For both al-Tahtawi and al-Afghani, then, Islam was not only a divine message but also an expression of a culturally and geographically distinct civilization. Since the Ottoman Empire was the preeminent Muslim power of its time, it was logical that Sultan Abdulhamid II and his associates would link Islam and imperial identity. As the semiofficial newspaper La Turquie put it, “Islam is not only a religion, it is a nationality”

The second factor that made an Islamic osmanlilik feasible was the changing religious composition of the empire. The steady retreat of the Ottoman Empire from Europe during the nineteenth century naturally decreased the number of Christians under imperial rule. In addition, as Balkan nationalisms spread in southeastern Europe and Russian expansionism continued to the north and east, Muslim immigrants from Europe and the Caucasus flooded into the empire. As a result, the proportion of Muslims to Christians within the empire increased decidedly. In the 1860s and 1870s, more than two million Circassian, Chechen, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Greek Muslims immigrated into the empire. The Ottoman government dispersed these immigrants throughout its domains. It encouraged Circassian and Chechen immigrants to settle and pacify the unruly frontier that is now Jordan, and so many Muslims from outside the empire took up residence in Damascus that one of the districts of the city is still known as Muhajirin (literally, “emigrants”). Identified by their persecutors outside the Ottoman Empire as members of an inassimilable minority group, many of these immigrants themselves had come to associate religious affiliation with national identity. After all, why would displaced Chechens and Bosnians be consigned to the same fate except that members of both groups were Muslims? And why should the Ottoman Empire take them in, except for the fact that it was the foremost Muslim power?

Taking all this into account, it should be obvious that it was not a stretch for Abdulhamid II to champion an Islamic osmanlilik. Abdulhamid II asserted his role as caliph in a manner that was rare among Ottoman sultans. His government attempted to standardize Islamic belief, intermix state and religious institutions, and associate loyalty to the state with loyalty to Islam. Among the activities the Ottoman government undertook to achieve these goals during the Hamidian period were the following:

1. Missionary Activity within the Empire: During the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman government worried about the threat posed by Christian missionaries operating in the empire and about Wahhabism, which had established a foothold in the Arabian peninsula. It also worried about the rapid spread of Shi‘ism among the tribes of southern Iraq. Shi‘ism was, after all, the state religion of Persia, the Ottoman's rival to the east, and its spread in Iraq endangered Ottoman control there. The Ottoman government thus sought to reduce the threat posed by potentially subversive sects housed in the empire by sending out missionaries to convert members of those sects — Alawites in Syria and eastern Anatolia, Yazidis in Iraq, select sufi groups throughout the empire — to a form of Islam it regarded as orthodox.

2. Dissemination of Propaganda and Official Islamic Texts: In an attempt to make Islamic doctrine uniform and foster the idea of a unified Islamic “culture,” the Ottoman state made the printing of the Qur´an a state monopoly and established a Commission for the Inspection of Qur´ans. The state also supported the publication of over four thousand books and pamphlets in the first fifteen years of Abdulhamid II's reign alone. These books not only included “classic” Islamic legal and religious texts, but books and pamphlets depicting the exploits of Muslim heroes such as Saladin, who had fought the enemies of Islam.

3. Imperial Patronage and Employment of Religious Scholars: In addition to expanded imperial patronage, ulama of all ranks from throughout the empire were integrated into imperial institutions, from municipal and provincial councils to the network of imperial schools. Ulama thus participated in the Military Council, the Council of Public Works, the Council of Finance, the Council of Agriculture, the Council of the Navy, the Council of Police, the Council of the Arsenal, and the Council of State, the central legislative body of the empire.

4. Support for Religious Endowments and Infrastructure: To bolster the Islamic credentials of the Ottoman government and the caliphal pretensions of the Ottoman sultan, the imperial government undertook the construction and restoration of Islamic monuments and expanded its contributions to religious endowments. For example, the imperial government supervised the reconstruction of the famous Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, partly destroyed by fire in 1893. These activities received extensive coverage in the official gazettes published in provincial capitals.

The most famous building project during the Hamidian period was the Hijaz Railroad. The government intended the railroad to connect Istanbul with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (it eventually reached the latter but not the former). Since the railroad was built to assist Muslims in making the annual pilgrimage to the two holy cities, the government presented the Hijaz Railroad as an Islamic railroad and financed it by encouraging Muslims throughout the world to underwrite its costs.

The Islamic osmanlilik promoted by Abdulhamid II survived beyond his reign. The Young Turks deposed Abdulhamid II in 1909. Once in power they attempted to restore the secular osmanlilik of the tanzimat to bind together what remained of the empire. They did this not only to differentiate themselves from Abdulhamid II, but because they believed that the “constraints imposed by the modern age had made religiosity a weaker influence in building social and political nations over time,” as a Syrian newspaper put it a few years later. Eventually, they returned to the Islamicosmanlilik of the deposed sultan. Policies and institutions created over the course of the previous three decades were not easily abandoned, particularly since the goals of the Young Turks — development and centralization — so closely matched those of Abdulhamid II.

There was another reason why the Young Turks had to change course: Abdulhamid II's policies had struck a chord with many in the empire. Soon after the Young Turk Revolution, soldiers, religious students, and others in such cities as Istanbul and Damascus went out into the streets in support of a countercoup on behalf of the sultan launched by an association called the Muhammadan Union. Inhabitants of the Maydan district of Damascus, for example, decorated and illuminated their streets in honor of the occasion, and marched through the streets of their quarter chanting, a bit prematurely, “God has granted victory to the sultan.” Echoing the sentiments of La Turquie, a spokesman for the Muhammadan Union defended the failed countercoup by reaffirming his association's commitment to Abdulhamid II's Islamic osmanlilik: “The strongest bond of Arab, Turk, Kurd, Albanian, Circassian, and Laz [a people originally from the Caucasus inhabiting the Black Sea area]—and their nationhood — is nothing other than Islam” In the end, the countercoup failed.

Members of the short-lived Muhammadan Union were not the only ones who attempted to take the Hamidian blend of Islam and politics to the street. Two years after the Young Turks deposed Abdulhamid II, a group of ulama in Damascus began publishing a periodical, al-Haqa’iq, that urged both the Young Turks and the citizens of the empire not to abandon the policies of the former sultan. The members of this group were neither Westernizers nor Islamic modernists. They did not seek to reform Islam, nor did they seek to throw out the work of Islamic scholars who had interpreted the law for centuries. In fact, they claimed to be upholding religious tradition. Nevertheless, the Islam for which these ulama agitated was in fact an Islam that had been retooled for the modern age. Like the Young Turks and their Westernizing and Islamic modernist supporters, the ulama who wrote for al-Haqa‘iq embraced such European notions as the progress of nations, universal standards of civilization, and the division of the world into an “East” and a “West.” They integrated these notions into their polemics. Unlike their opponents, however, they distinguished themselves by their defense of “traditional values” and by their incessant denunciations of “the corruption of morals,” which, they maintained, their opponents encouraged by attempting to separate religion and politics.


Istanbul, 1909: Soldiers loyal to the Young Turks march “mutineers”—participants in the Muhammadan Union uprising — off to prison. (From: The Collection of Wolf-Dieter Lemke.)

Nations could only be strong and progress, these ulama claimed, if they remained true to the religion and customs that engendered and defined them and that bound together their citizens in a common struggle. “If one thinks that religion orders inactivity and laziness,” one contributor toal-Haqa´iq wrote, “he is a base, bigoted, ignoramus, or a treacherous Westernizer. Does he not understand that religion is our path to civilization and progress?” The ulama associated with al-Haqa´iq thus called on their fellow citizens to safeguard the empires Islamic character and to shun foreign influences that could only lead to its weakening. At the same time, they demanded that the Young Turk government continue Abdulhamid II's policies of defensive developmentalism to safeguard Islam from European imperialism. To accomplish both these goals, these self-proclaimed traditionalists called for the establishment of an Islamic political party to compete in the arena of the new mass politics.

That the ulama associated with al-Haqa´iq would even think of founding an Islamic political party to guarantee the “progress” of the “nation” demonstrates the extent to which the nineteenth-century cultural, social, and political transformation had influenced religious doctrines and institutions in the Ottoman Empire. And since this transformation was not limited to one city or region of the empire, associations such as the Muhammadan Union and the al-Haqa´iq group could be found throughout the empire. In the aftermath of World War I, when a collection of independent states came to replace the Ottoman Empire, associations and political parties committed to ideas similar to those recounted here forced their way into the political fray and extracted concessions from the new rulers. Thus, while many of the states that emerged from the Ottoman Empire did so under the supervision of European imperial powers, they did not produce a simple duplication of the public/private, religious/secular boundaries found in most states of Europe or North America.

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