On the right-side of my sight, at arm’s distance, a restless text sits upon my bed. It agitates in a place of rest and rejuvenation, indeed a domain of solace; it disturbs me by the conjugation of the words ‘Islam’ ‘Authoritarianism’ and ‘Underdevelopment’. It challenges me, my intellectual honesty and integrity, indeed by filial piety and communal loyalty. Might anything other than a polemic reveal latent doubt, even subversion, to the collective, to one’s ancestry and the very real struggles of today – both political and spiritual? Better take up arms and pontificate with a rhetoric that constructs an ignorant supercilious enemy of nefarious intent. And yet, to construct is to project an image of ‘self’ – the true self? Such enemies would only be those that reside within me, where might I hide from them?

Ahmet Kuru, Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment, Cambridge University Press, 2019.

I am of the fortunate, insofar as in my formative years I was imbued with a deep warmth and loving faith, one potent with the demand to seek truth and realise compassion in the world around me. My suspicion is that this is the overwhelming experience of people of faith; one that reflects the love one develops towards one’s parents and that which is most closely associated with them. In this vein we can think of the judgement one has towards one’s tradition, where tradition is simply the world one was born into and the cultural framework of values and references cultivated within us by that very world, as simply a reflection of the experience one has with one’s parents. 

This experience, so emphasised by the psychoanalytic traditions, is formative and goes beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’. For the notions of good and bad are themselves often products of these experiences, rather than objective categories through which judgement is being made. In elementary textbooks on logic we are taught that logic is thought thinking about itself, and yet what is it to think about thought thinking about itself? To evaluate the values that are oh so arbitrary and dependent on the culmination of the forces of formation is to attempt, in the proverbial sense, to take God’s eye. An eye constitutionally denied to us. As such, given that beliefs are readily explained simply by an investigation into the origins of the believer, the question posed is ‘is truth possible?’ A question the great al-Ghazali asked himself when in existential doubt – himself reflecting on the fact that the children of the Christians are Christian, and the children of the Muslims are Muslims. I, a Muslim, am indeed the child of Muslims. My romantic faith a reflection of the romance of those dear parents. 

This majestic love for Islam, the source of meaning with iridescent sheen, is precisely a love with a face of my mother on it. A defence of it filial love … Islam, was deemed a matter of honour. And yet, in this understanding there is revelation. Where the world itself is transformed in the very moment of this understanding. The universal is in the particular, insofar as our particularity, the world we were born into and the forces of our formation, is universally experienced as a rule in that all others are as accidental as we are. To understand the other, as such, is to understand that they too are a construct whose only difference is in the expression of the world of formation and forces in their existence. As such, whereas I conjugate Islam with a deep romanticism, I respect and embrace Ahmet Kuru’s conjugation of Islam with authoritarianism and underdevelopment. Indeed, his brief autobiographical notes and dedication to his family, make it clear that the text comes from warmth, as dear a love as can be. It is with this that I disabuse my reactionary Self and it is also because of this that I despair at the inability of many of my co-religionists to take seriously the relationship between Islam and the depressing state of politics in the Islamicate world.

Indeed, although the non-equivalence of causation with correlation is basic, it is at the very least worthy of serious thought as to why democratic systems have not emerged in the Muslim world in more pluralistic and institutionally respected forms. His argument, as I understand it, is that through a series of historical events, the traditional thinking class, the Ulema, and the militaristic state has entered a symbiotic/co-dependent alliance. That it is this alliance that retards the emergence of a middle class, defined in terms of intellectualism, creativity and economic productivity. And that this continues till today. 

The book is divided into two parts, Part I, Present, I read in terms of a conceptual framework and methodology; the second and lengthier Part II, History, I read in terms of the historical narrative. Two questions immediately arise. First: is the historical deliberately woven in order to explain the present in terms of the role of Islam, or whether Kuru came to his understanding of the present through his historical investigations? Second: why isn’t this a book about Turkish Islam, exploring the understanding of Islam as it has come about through the Turkish experience? In fact, it is my contention that the book renders itself liable to broad stroke critiques by maintaining the precarious assumption that the ‘Islamic world’ exists. 

Though, at an abstracted level, the category ‘Islamic world’ may have some utility, in the case of supporting an argument though a granular historical narrative, as is exhibited in Part II, the category becomes cumbersome and liable to simple, albeit effective, critique. For one, we can point to examples of scholarly communities and militaristic states aligning in the historical experience of nations that Kuru rightfully refers to as developed. A clear example of this is Aquinas, exemplified in Summa contra Gentiles, who birthed a Thomasitic tradition crucial to Iberian development and colonialism, that is, the alliance of scholarship with power does not straightforwardly lead to authoritarianism and underdevelopment. Second, with respect to authoritarianism the context with which Kuru is using the term is one of political power rather than authoritarianism of personality or paternalistic cultures.

This creates a greater tension with the notion of the ‘Islamic world’, when there is substantive and lengthy experience of Muslims living in context where they do not have ‘power’ with which authoritarianism can be meaningfully realised. Indeed, in the last two centuries, it is perhaps the exception (Turkey and possibly Iran) and not the rule given the history of colonialism, to speak of meaningful Muslim expression of power in the form of state structure. Furthermore, consider my position as a Muslim who is from, and writes in the context of, a majority non-Muslim nation. What is the relationship between our Islam – Muslims in non-Muslim majority states – and the question of Islam and authoritarianism and underdevelopment? Indeed, Muslims in these contexts often suffer from non-Muslim majority authoritarianism.

If we streamline Kuru’s arguments as Turkish specific, the question remains as to whether Islam is fundamental to authoritarianism and underdevelopment. At this point, a tension emerges between Islam-in-essence and Islam-in-existence, where the former relates to ‘true’ Islam, whatever that may be, and the latter to the describable way in which people understand and practice Islam. This distinction allows us to pose more precise questions, namely, is there a negative relationship between Islam-in-essence and authoritarianism/underdevelopment? And, is there a negative relationship between Islam-in-existence and authoritarianism/underdevelopment? Whereas the former question is speculative, fortunately for me (and Kuru) the operative question is the latter, and to this question, surely the answer is wholeheartedly ‘yes’. Indeed, ironically, both those who are motivated by a desire to disabuse Islam/faith from society, let’s call this militant secularism, and those who are motivated by a desire to bring about an ‘enlightened’ faith, within which development is fostered and democratic pluralism flourishes, there is the shared assumption that Islam-in-existence-in-contemporary-Turkey is regressive. Ergo something needs to be done about the understanding of Islam. Importantly, this allows us to remain agnostic with respect to the essential truth of Islam. Instead the shared premise is that a toxic matrix exists of the current understanding of Islam-in-existence and authoritarianism/underdevelopment and so we ask ourselves whether this is a description and factual claim about the world as it is. 

By construing the core intuition in this way as an observation that something needs to be done about a regressive state of affairs, a number of interventions are possible. Kuru’s intervention is to say that Islam in its current existence is the problem and the medicine is implied in the diagnosis, that is, tear the alliance between the religious thinking class and state/political regimes. The historiographic form of his argument I read as underpinned by a desire to emancipate – genealogy as revealing that the current state is contingent and historical, rather than necessary and metaphysical. More explicit it is a position that Islam is not necessarily allied with authoritarianism. 

This intervention is explicitly a political act – Kuru speaks from the subjectivity of a nation where historical truth is the battle field that confers legitimacy. In this sense, it is myth-making and note that I use this term in a neutral non-pejorative sense, with the purpose of affecting the world of ‘meaning’. By meaning I am referring to the value system of people. If Kuru is effective, by altering this meaning a new reality will come about, a reality conducive to his emancipatory and pluralistic vision for society. While it would be beyond the remit of this review to survey theories of social causation, Kuru’s arguments lean heavily on the notion that meaning, read as ideas, beliefs, values, is the centre of social agency. In other words, that a change in the value system (bought about by cleaving the Ulema-State nexus) will be reflected in a (positive) change in state structure and development. The principal contention is that the cause-effect here of regressive Islam (cause) – authoritarianism/underdevelopment (effect) can readily be inverted, showing regressive Islam as an effect of authoritarianism/underdevelopment. 

Because of this, from a methodological perspective, should it be the case that Kuru is committed to a straightforward view that meaning is the agency of social causation, then I would read Kuru’s work as a polemic. Indeed, a principle reason why the text is so difficult to satisfactorily critique is because there is a tension between Kuru the academic (the historiographer, Part II) and Kuru the activist (Part I). Kuru the academic is scholastic, tempered, and precise. Kuru the activist is sweeping, polemic and rhetorical. This is a precarious position rendering the text unstable, however, it is also the reason why the text challenges the community of scholars (get out of the academy!) and the community of activists (be diligent in your historical knowledge and claims!) so much. It is also why the polemic is forgivable – leveraging his academic credibility, his own subjectivity, and the current reality of politics in his home nation, I read Kuru as focusing our attention on the structures of thought itself.

At this point, it is necessary to address the elephant in the room – the book is a political commentary on the situation in Turkey as it stands. Indeed, strong reactions to this text are almost certain because they have been read precisely in this vein. Not only a commentary but a call for change. Only Kuru can explicitly state this, however, allowing myself the liberty of reading the text in his vein, I enthusiastically celebrate Kuru’s intervention.

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