In its positive aims, however, this form of [petty-bourgeois] socialism aspires either to restoring the old means of production and of exchange, and with them the old property relations, and the old society, or to cramping the modern means of production and of exchange within the framework of the old property relations that have been, and were bound to be, exploded by those means. In either case, it is both reactionary and Utopian.
Marx and Engels, 1848, The Communist Manifesto.
In conclusion, let us say that to regret the good old days one must not know what they were like.
François-Jean de Chastellux, 1772, De la Félicité Publique.
In the West there is no East-West question. In Turkey and, before that, the Ottoman Empire, the question is and was one of the main preoccupations of statesmen, thinkers and reformers, as far back at least as the Tanzimat reforms of 1839, and probably before. It was often explicitly posed as the East-West problem, and even when it was not, it constituted the implicit backdrop of much social theorising, agonising and soul searching. It continues to do so today.
The Westerner may vaguely be aware of this if she is a careful reader of the novels of Orhan Pamuk, Nobel laureate in 2006. The Turk, not just the thinking Turk, every Turk, cannot but be aware of it: the national psyche is permeated by a tortured and unrequited love-hate relationship with Europe, and a sickly inferiority complex accompanied by an over-compensating and contradictory superiority complex. This awareness is not, of course, limited to Turkey. It shapes much thinking and debate throughout the Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world.
At the root of it all lie the questions: “Why did we fall behind? Why are we still behind? What can we do to catch up?”
In their introduction to Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives, John J Donohue and John L Esposito, two of the most serious American writers on Islam, put the question as follows:
From the 17th century onwards a long process of Western intervention and presence began which was to result in the most serious challenge ever encountered by the Islamic world. Gradual colonial economic control gave way to political and military dominance in the 19th century. Thus, for the first time in Islamic history, Muslims found themselves subjugated and ruled by the Christian West—foreign unbelievers who were their colonial masters and whose missionaries often claimed that their success was due to the superiority of Western Christian civilisation… What had gone wrong in Islam? Where was the divine guidance that had assured past success?… Was there any contradiction between revelation and reason, science and technology? Was the Islamic way of life capable of meeting the demands of modernity?… The beginnings of Muslim modernist thought resulted from this soul-searching inquiry and from the attempts of the “Fathers of Muslim Modernism”, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, Muhammad Abduh (Egypt), and Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (India), to provide a response and thus revive and renew their people.1
In the late 1930s Shakib Arslan, a patriotic Ottoman and cosmopolitan pan-Islamist born in 1869, son of a powerful Druze family and grandfather of the current Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, published a book entitled Why did Muslims Decline and Others Progress? (translated into English as Our Decline: Its Causes and Remedies).2 The book was Arslan’s response to “a letter from Shaykh Muhammad Bisyooni Umran of Indonesia requesting the author to explain the causes of Muslim weakness at the present and the causes of the strength of the Europeans, the factors behind their glorious empires and sovereignty, their power and wealth”.
Referring to the book in his own Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still, Dan Diner sums up Arslan’s—and others’—basic concerns as follows:
How did it come to this? How could this occur in the Arab-Muslim world? Is this lamentable situation exogenous, arising because of Western culture’s dominance and its subversive effects on the region? Or is it endogenous? Does it come down to economics or to politics? Or is it a result of religion or of culture? And is there a remedy? What needs to be done?3
Arslan’s and Diner’s books are far from unique. They are both typical, though of two separate but related ways of thinking. One of these, the one Diner belongs to, is thinking done by Westerners—or Westernised Easterners—who look at the Middle East, seeking to explain why the region has lagged behind Europe. As Bernard Lewis, perhaps the best-known exponent of this current, put it in the title of his famous book, What Went Wrong?4
Few of the serious thinkers in this group argue directly that the problem was or is Islam. In the final analysis, however, that is what they mean. Most are essentially Islamophobic, some more so and some less, some consciously and some unconsciously, some clearly waging the “war on terror” and some not. Diner, for example, argues that “it is instructive to try to explore such questions without instantly and automatically invoking religion as the cause”,5 and then goes on to write, instantly and automatically, that:
Secularisation implies an endless process of definition, interpretation, negotiation, transformation and conversion of the boundary between the modes of inner life and the outer world. It also means the decoding and appropriation of the world by human reason. Religion as a system of belief impregnating societies hampers this process. This is especially true in the case of Islam, a religion of law that claims to regulate all spheres of life. The arrested development in the Muslim world can be diagnosed, then, as a deficit of secularisation.6
The claim that Muslims are hampered by their religion in “decoding and appropriating the world by human reason” is quite breathtakingly silly. Except, of course, that it arises from political motivation, rather than simple silliness, and it is today widely shared in the West.
The second group, that to which Arslan belongs, consists of Middle Easterners, some religious, some secular/socialist, who seek answers to the same questions with the express aim of finding ways to correct “what went wrong”. I shall not here concern myself with the first group, its Islamophobia and racism. These are crucial issues of the first two decades of our century, but it is the second group and, more specifically, the answers it has provided that I wish to discuss in this article.
My argument is that the impact of imperialism was so all-encompassing, powerful and very often so violent and damaging, that once it was suffered, and then grappled with and theorised (in whatever terms, and regardless of whether it was thought of as “imperialism” or not), and once the search started for ways to put things right, it was well nigh impossible to imagine the future “better world” except in terms of one of two frameworks: either emulating the foreigner’s ways or expelling the foreigner and his influence, and returning to the past, to the days before his arrival, to an invented “golden age”.
The emulators, generally thought of as “modernisers” by themselves and others, essentially agreed with the imperial commentators that the problem was indigenous, something inherent to their society holding it back, a result of something that the West had succeeded in doing but they had failed to do. The solution, therefore, was to reshape society in the Western image. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the modernisers were members of the actual or aspiring local ruling classes. It is interesting, however, that the modernisers, most notably Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, were often considered to be “progressive”. I shall be less concerned here with these than with the oppositional/reforming/revolutionary movements that arose in the last century.
Movements for social change in the 20th century “third world” have all suffered from “golden age syndrome”, from being stuck in the second framework referred to above, to a greater or lesser degree. On the left, this has meant that the “independence” of the past outweighs any vision of future socialism, anti-imperialism outweighs anti-capitalism, nationalism outweighs internationalism. In the various Islamic movements, it has meant that a return to the “purer”, “unsullied” Islam of “the past” outweighs all others as the way to go forward. In both cases there is an easily visible, tangible enemy: the foreigner, the Christian, the imperial/colonial administrator and/or soldier and/or company. Get rid of these, return to “the way we were” before they arrived, and all will be well. Imperialism has, everywhere in the world except its original homelands, thus condemned those fighting for change to a backward-looking view of the future. It has robbed these fighters not only of resources, but also of the unfettered political ability to imagine a future other than the past.
North west Europe and the rest
Once capitalism emerged in the small north western corner of Europe, the history of the rest of the world could no longer happen—and cannot be understood—except in its relations with this corner of the second smallest continent. Nothing that now took place anywhere on the globe could take place completely unrelatedly and in complete independence of the economic, political and cultural processes in the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain and, later, the whole of Western Europe.
As Eric Hobsbawn has put it:
Change was the name of the 19th century: change in terms of, and to suit the purposes of, the dynamic regions along the shores of the Northern Atlantic seas which were at this time the core of world capitalism. With some marginal and diminishing exceptions, all countries, even the hitherto most isolated, were at least peripherally gripped by the tentacles of this global transformation.7
The tentacles, which, in their totality, we may more accurately if not quite so evocatively call imperialism, did not simply suck the economic blood of these countries. The economic effects of direct colonialism and the later, more complex, forms of imperialism have been studied and documented in great depth and detail—the political effects less so.
For the Ottomans, never colonised and never subject to anything like the ravages of the Dutch or British East India Companies, “the West” nevertheless became a problem in the 18th century as they began, for the first time in many centuries, to suffer military defeats in Europe. The awareness that they were doing so, and that “Christians” now seemed to be stronger than “Muslims”, was traumatic. The more thoughtful among the Ottoman statesmen and intelligentsia began to look into the reasons why and to think about how the situation could be reversed, starting a tradition, now nearing the end of its second century, of Turkish thinking on “how to save the state”.
Later on, as political thought assumed greater complexity, particularly at the beginning of the last century, the Ottoman statesman’s original question also evolved to take on a variety of forms, though I shall argue that these were essentially variations on the same theme. I propose to look at two particular individuals, both with an Islamic worldview, and a movement that, for the sake of simplicity, we can call the Turkish left.
Mehmet Akif Ersoy (1873-1936) is best known as a poet and the man who wrote the words to the Turkish national anthem. He was a member of parliament in the first Republican assembly (1920-3), though he then emigrated to Egypt, probably in protest at the wholesale Westernisation of Turkey. He is today ignored by the left and revered by the right, both Islamist and nationalist. Said Halim Pasha (1863-1921), a foreign minister and grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, and an Islamic thinker of some note, grappled, more seriously than Ersoy, with the issues of Islamic and national decline and crisis, relations with the West, and solutions to Ottoman/Islamic problems.
The Turkish left, starting with the Communist Party established in the early 1920s, remained illegal and largely ineffective until the late 1960s. The student movement then gave rise to a variety of organisations, most of which still exist in some guise or other, and all of which fought for a national democratic (rather than socialist) revolution, on the basis that Turkey was a semi-feudal country under the yoke of imperialism.
“Take the West’s science, but reject its immorality”
Mehmet Akif’s view of the West, and how “we” should deal with it, is clearly and didactically expressed both in his poetry and his prose. The following lines present his argument in a nutshell:
Take the West’s science, take its craft,
Get this labour done with greatest haste.
Only, let it only be their science you seek,
For no longer can we survive without it,
For only craft and science have no nationality.
Or the following, taken from the National Anthem:
A steel-armoured wall may surround the horizons of the West,
But bursting with faith, my chest defends the borders of our nation!
You are supreme, do not fear! How could faith such as this
be defeated by the single-toothed dragon called civilisation?
“Civilisation” here clearly refers to Western civilisation, and “faith” to Islam. The same view finds more prosaic expression in Mehmet Akif’s following words:
The Europeans’ sciences, their scholarship and learning, their advances in civilisation, in industry cannot be denied. However, their humanity/kindness, their treatment of human beings cannot by any means be measured in terms of their material advances. We must take their sciences. But we must never believe them, never be impressed by them.
Mehmet Akif was very much part of a national argument which had been raging for a century, certainly among the thinking classes, and reached fever pitch as the empire suffered its death throes and a new republic was born in the first quarter of the 20th century. The argument, basically, was between the Westernisers and the Islamists. Mehmet Akif put it thus:
We see two classes of people in our country. There are those who say: “Whatever there is is in the East, we must close our windows to the West”. Then there are those who go as far as to say: “Whatever there is is in the West, we must open even our family homes to the Westerner”. It seems to me that the former are ignorant not only of the West but also the East, and the latter are unfamiliar not only with the East but also the West.
Similarly, Said Halim Pasha wrote as follows of the Westernisers: “This class of intellectuals has lost its personality under the influence of Western civilisation and has become addicted to an extreme degree of admiration for the West. What is worse, these intellectuals see our national salvation in the spreading of this disease they suffer from to the whole of the country.” Having written several books, including Why Has the Islamic World Lagged Behind?, Our Social Crisis, Our Intellectual Crisis and Islamisation, which neatly summarise his concerns, he too, like Mehmet Akif, believed that the Islamic lands had fallen behind the West in terms of science and technology, in spite of the fact that Islam does not stand in the way of scientific progress, and that this should be remedied. It was precisely because Muslims had drifted away from the principles of Islam and the Islamic way of life, he argued, that they had fallen behind. The solution, then, was Islamisation (or, perhaps, re-Islamisation), which he defined as “the full implementation of Islam’s principles concerning beliefs, morals, life and politics”. Islam, he wrote, has a specific set of beliefs, a moral order based upon these beliefs, and a view of life arising from that morality. He opposed movements for reform and renewal, on the basis that these led to the abandonment of a system of beliefs, ideas, views, traditions, feelings and morals established over the centuries and that abandonment of these took the empire to the threshold of “spiritual anarchy”. The sources of Ottoman institutions, he argued, are the Islamic worldview and principles, and as the latter are abandoned, the institutions themselves face collapse. Islamic morals are indubitably and infinitely superior to those of the West; return to these, abandon beliefs and morals based on imitating the West, and things will once again be fine.
Or, as Mehmet Akif put it:
If they wish not to be trampled upon by time onrushing,
Now Muslims must return to Islam as it was at the beginning!
Said Halim Pasha was grand vizier in 1913-17, a time when the Ottoman Empire was visibly crumbling under the assault of imperialism. Mehmet Akif Ersoy’s poetry abounds with references to the barbarity of the Western armies tearing the empire apart. (He wrote as follows of the multi-ethnic British troops at the Dardanelles: “Their faces differ, and their languages, their skin of many colours/Some are Hindu, some cannibals, some who knows what evil/But one thing is clear for all to see: their unchanging savagery”). The two men draw the same conclusion: a barbaric and immoral, but scientifically and militarily advanced West is attacking the Islamic world, and succeeding. What neither was able to do was to understand, or even think it necessary to understand, what “the West” is, given that being located to the west of the Islamic lands says very little about anything, and why the West is scientifically and militarily advanced while Islamic countries are not, what the historical, social and economic processes were (in “the West” and “the East” and in the relations between the two) that led to this state of affairs.
As a result, their analyses and proposed solutions are superficial, shallow and unrealistic. Firstly, science is a good thing, it has made the West superior, therefore we need to take that. But why did science develop in the West and not the East? Is it an autonomous entity which just (unfortunately) happens to have appeared there and not here? Can it be borrowed/imitated independently of the socio-economic package that gave rise to it? None of these questions were even posed by the two men or any of their contemporaries and co-agonisers. For instance, al-Afghānī, referred to above as one of the “Fathers of Muslim Modernism”, wrote in almost exactly the same terms about science:
The Europeans have now put their hands on every part of the world. The English have reached Afghanistan; the French have seized Tunisia. In reality this usurpation, agression and conquest have not come from the French or the English. Rather it is science that everywhere manifests its greatness and power. Ignorance had no alternative to prostrating itself humbly before science and acknowledging its submission.8
Secondly, Islam gave us everything we needed and made us great (while the West’s religion makes them, or at least allows them to become, immoral and inhuman), we have abandoned many of the aspects of the Islamic way of life and this has led to decline and crises, therefore we need to return to a purer Islam, to the way we were, and this will enable us to re-assert our inherent superiority. Once again a superficial and purely religious/spiritual view of the world is offered, with no interest in the underlying socio-economic processes. There is no questioning of why pure Islam has been abandoned, nor of how, in concrete terms, a return to it may be possible.
For the Ottomans, the hand of a glorious past, not imagined but true, weighed particularly heavily on their minds. But for all Muslims, the time of the Prophet and the four khalifs who followed him, known as the “Age of Happiness” (Asr-ı Saadet), represented a model to be striven for. The “return to pure Islam” was therefore so obvious a solution as to be called for by thinkers, reformers and religious figures throughout the Islamic world again and again through the centuries. As Donohue and Esposito put it, a century after Ersoy and Said Halim Pasha were writing: “new Islamic responses and perhaps fresh syntheses are emerging. The formative period of Islam can serve as an inspiration, as Muslims look to their early history and the sources of Islam. For once again the Islamic community faces the challenge of a creative interpretation (ijtihad) and reapplication of Islamic values”.9 But how can the formative period of Islam (or the glory days of the Ottoman Empire) serve as an inspiration unless an analysis is provided of why, how and through what social processes success was achieved in this period, and what socio-historical processes then led to decline? It is hardly an explanation simply to claim that Islam led to success and its abandonment to decline. And it is certainly not self-evident how a return to the Islam of the 6th and 7th centuries will affect the world created by imperialism and carry the Islamic world to its former glory. If the means could be found to turn all 1.8 billion Muslims in the world into true mumins with the faith firmly established in their hearts, the world would no doubt be a somewhat nicer place, but it is hard to see how this would bring about socio-economic or geopolitical change, deal with Western (and reactionary Muslim) military forces, or restrain American imperialism.
The fact remains, however, that three centuries of Islamic thinking about a better future seem to have yielded little more than a rather abstract and impractical proposal to return to a “golden age”, the very reality of which is rather dubious.
The left, anti-imperialism and nationalism
When the left emerged out of the 1968 student movement (the Communist Party having been illegal, hounded, mainly in exile and completely ineffective for 40-odd years), it came equipped with a theory of imperialism and a vision of socialism. It might be thought, therefore, that it was easier for the left, compared with Islamic thinkers, to develop a critique of capitalism and a strategy for change. Alas, it was not.
Arguments raged within the Turkish Workers Party (TİP), which brought together trade unionists, socialists and the radical student movement, and had considerable success in the 1965 general election, between those who argued for a reformist version of “socialist revolution” and those who thought the way forward in Turkey was a “national democratic revolution”. Inspired by Mihri Belli, an old communist hugely respected by the leaders of the revolutionary youth movement, supporters of a national democratic revolution won the day. They left TİP, taking the dynamic and impatient youth movement with them. Within a few years several revolutionary organisations had emerged from this movement, all of which considered Turkey to be a semi-feudal semi-colony where socialist revolution could not be on the agenda. Therefore, what was required was an alliance between the workers and peasants on the one hand, and the “national bourgeoisie” on the other, against imperialism and its local ally, the “comprador bourgeoisie”. That is, the first (and, for all practical purposes, only) task was anti-imperialist: to get rid of the foreign oppressor/exploiter to achieve full national independence.
Belli was an important figure on the Turkish left from 1940, when he joined the Communist Party, to the day he died in 2011. Having fought in the Greek Civil War and spent many years in Turkish prisons, he was a larger than life, venerated figure when a generation of young, radical, impatient revolutionaries emerged in 1968. While he failed in his attempts to organise the leading figures of the ’68 movement into a political party under his leadership, Belli was nonetheless hugely influential in shaping their politics.
His understanding of Marxism is well summed up, in his own words, by the following anecdote:
Mustafa Kemal’s landing in Samsun to start the War of Liberation on 19 May  was first celebrated as a Youth and Sports Holiday in 1935. Schools and sports clubs came together at the Fenerbahçe Stadium in İstanbul. A parade was to be held. We were there as representatives of our College’s gymnastics club. I was at the head of our group, carrying a huge Turkish flag… Officials came to us and said, “The flag has to be at the head of the parade, give us the flag.” I refused. “I will not,” I said, “we will carry the flag”. In the end, they consented. Yes, I was the one who carried the red flag with the crescent and star at that first Youth and Sports Holiday… The slogans of those years that stoked national pride were expressions also of our feelings. I cannot say the same of my school mates, but that national pride carried me over to a deep anti-imperialist viewpoint. And from that to Marxism is but a small step.10
Throughout his long life Belli never abandoned his nationalism, love of the flag and belief that Kemalism, having liberated the country from imperialist occupation and set up a secular republic, was a progressive force. As late as 1989, he wrote:
At a conference on “Counter-revolution in Turkey” at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Ankara in 1968, I said, in the context of commitment to the spirit of the War of Liberation [led by Kemal Atatürk in 1919-23], that “There is no impenetrable wall between Kemalism and Marxism…” I repeat: in today’s world and in a country like Turkey, if he is to avoid diluting his patriotism, a consistent Turkish patriot must sooner or later adopt our epoch’s revolutionary thought, he must become a Marxist.11
Belli’s views, and the consequences of the belief in the national democratic revolution, infused the whole of left politics, making nationalism an essential and respectable part of the revolutionary struggle, and anti-imperialism its true kernel. This had a number of direct consequences: It simplified imperialism to mean, basically, “what the foreigner does to us”, cutting off any relationship between capitalism and imperialism. It postponed anti-capitalism to some unknown future, after the achievement of national independence. It introduced nationalism into “socialist” discourse as a fundamental and positive element. And it put a “left” veneer onto Kemalism, seen as a successful and glorious anti-imperialist struggle.
Deniz Gezmiş, one of the most charismatic and radical leaders of 1968, who set up an armed organisation and was hanged by the military regime in 1972, is still revered today by the left and, indeed, left-Kemalists. He wrote to his father as follows from prison:
I am always grateful to you. You brought me up to believe in Kemalist thought. I grew up hearing memories of the War of Liberation. And ever since then I have hated foreigners.
Father, we are the warriors of Turkey’s Second War of Liberation. Of course we will be jailed and shot at. Just as was the case in the first War of Liberation. But we will not abandon this land to the foreigner. And without doubt we will one day beat them.
Think of it father, the government today does nothing other than fighting us. That’s because there is no real opposition left other than us. And they have all abandoned the Kemalist path. And they have been condemned by history. We have long thrown them into the dustbin of history.
Motherland or death!
In 1968, Gezmiş and others organised a “Mustafa Kemal March for Full Independence”. The march was to start in Samsun, the city on the Black Sea coast where Kemal landed in 1919 and, according to Kemalist historiography, started the War of Liberation. And it was to end in Ankara at Kemal’s mausoleum on 10 November, the anniversary of his death. On the day, one minute’s silence was observed in front of the Atatürk Monument, the National Anthem was sung, a Turkish flag was unfurled and the march set out. As the leaflet publicising it explained:
The Mustafa Kemal revolution that started in 1919 was derailed by the administrators who followed him. Today, our country has come under the sway of counter-revolutionaries supported by foreigners, in spite of Mustafa Kemal who carried out the world’s first anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist revolution. We, the Mustafa Kemal youth, are determined to put the revolution back on track. That is the aim of the march that starts today.
Later, at the trial of the 24 marchers, one of them said to the judge: “You are not here trying 24 young people. You are trying Mustafa Kemal and his principles.”
There can be no doubt that the youth of 1968, who laid the foundations of practically all the organisations of the left currently active in Turkey, were extremely committed, self-sacrificing, almost heroic revolutionaries. Three were hanged and many killed in armed battles with the security forces. But it is hard not to note the contrast between their devotion to the “Second War of Liberation” and a “fully independent Turkey” with the slogans of their comrades in the streets of Paris: “Pouvoir à l’imagination” (Power to the imagination), “Vivez sans temps morts—jouissez sans entraves” (Live without dead time—enjoy without chains) or “Cours, camarade, le vieux monde est derrière toi!” (Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!) For Turkish revolutionaries, the future, le nouveau monde, would start not with l’imagination or, indeed, the working class, but with the expulsion of the hated “foreigner”. The aim was a return to “full national independence”, achieved in 1923 and then lost.
This view of the world and of Turkey’s problems (the country’s problems, not those of a particular class), and the placing of anti-imperialism at the top of the agenda (as a national issue, rather than one arising from capitalism) inevitably meant that nationalism was a robust element in the Turkish left’s socialism.
No one on the left would put forward quite so crude an argument today, except for the Maoist Motherland Party led by Doğu Perinçek, one of the marchers from Samsun to Ankara. But old habits die hard. The primacy of anti-imperialism, the view of Kemalism as essentially a progressive force, and the determination to put the “revolution” of 1923 “back on track” remain among the defining features of much of the left in Turkey today.
Ron Margulies is a writer and journalist, now of course unemployed, and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSİP) in Turkey.
1 Donohue and Esposito, 1982, pp5-6.
2 Arslan, 2004.
3 Diner, 2009, p1.
4 Lewis, 2002. Originally sub-titled Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, the paperback edition of Lewis’s book was given a sexier and more fashionable sub-title: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.
5 Diner, 2009, p4.
6 Diner, 2009, p17.
7 Hobsbawm, 1989, p26.
8 Quoted in Donohue and Esposito, 1982, p17.
9 Donohue and Esposito, 1982, p7.
10 Belli, 2003, p155.
11 Belli, 1989, p86.