Skip to main content

The Idea of Culture and Civilization in Contemporary Turkish Politics: Public Debate, Policy and Foreign Relations

This conference that explored new ideas among Islamist and secular intellectuals in contemporary Turkey and inquired whether novel understandings exist about the relationship between Islam and modernity, East and West, and the position of Turkey itself within them. The conference also investigated the impact of these understandings on public debate domestically in Turkey and on its foreign policy, specifically its relations with the United States and Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. This event consisted of three panels.

Date & Time

Apr. 20, 2016
9:30am – 2:30pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Get Directions


Panel 1: The Emergence of the Concept of Culture and Civilization in the Late Ottoman and Early Republican Periods

A panel of three experts shared their analyses on the conceptualization of culture and civilization in the late Ottoman Empire and early Republican Turkey.

On April 20, 2016, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the British Academy hosted the event “The Idea of Culture and Civilization in Contemporary Turkish Politics: Public Debate, Policy, and Foreign Relations.” The first panel, “The Emergence of the Concept of Culture and Civilization in the Late Ottoman and Early Republican Periods,” featured speakers Carter Vaughn Findley, Humanities Distinguished Professor in the History Department at Ohio State University; Benjamin Fortna, Professor at the School of Middle Eastern & North African Studies at the University of Arizona; and Holly Shissler, Associate Professor in the Middle Eastern History Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, introduced the event, and Katerina Dalacoura, British Academy Mid-Career Fellow and Associate Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, moderated the panel.

Findley began the discussion by describing his research on Ottoman and Turkish discussions of culture and civilization spanning two centuries. He explained that the rise of Russia as a threat to the Ottoman Empire led Ottoman diplomats to realize that the Empire could better protect itself by gaining admission to the European alliance system. As such, the Ottomans strategically adapted their conceptualization of culture and civilization to fall in line with the rest of Europe. Findley also described the emergence of privately owned newspapers, technological innovations, the women’s movement, and medical advancements as influential factors that reshaped the Ottomans’ view of the relationships between modernity, secularism, and Islam.

Fortna offered three takes on culture and civilization in the late Ottoman and early Republican periods through the lenses of his research on education and identity. First, he explained that the Ottoman state prioritized post-secondary education as a way to shape an agenda for the future. Second, Fortna proposed that the development of early literacy education in Turkey during the late Ottoman and early Republican periods shows that the growth of culture and civilization was also happening in a non-state centered way. Third, he offered an analysis of the final years of the Ottoman Empire through the story of a controversial special forces officer in the Young Turks. This officer’s complicated views of the West are paralleled by the evolution of the Ottoman state’s conception of the West at the time.

Shissler continued the conversation with a focus on the role of religious reform in the conceptualization of culture, civilization, and progress in Turkey. The Ottoman state’s reform-minded religious sensibility, she said, was closely linked to social and political reform. Religious reform was encouraged by the state as an integral step toward progress and civilization. Shissler concluded by arguing that the aggressive republican secularism of the interwar period in Turkey should be seen less as an attack on religion and more as a forceful authoritarian interpretation of what modern religion should be.

In the question and answer portion of the event, the panel responded to a question about the motivations for the Ottoman Empire’s persecution of Christians during World War I. Shissler explained that the destruction of Christian communities was rooted in a complex array of historical factors, including the desire to create a homogenous nation-state and a suspicion of Christians having strategic connections to hostile foreign European powers.

By Veronica Baker, Middle East Program


Panel 2: Contemporary Islamist and Secular Debates on the Idea of Culture and Civilization

A panel of three experts shared their analyses about contemporary debates among both Turkish Islamists and intellectuals regarding civilization and culture.

The second panel of this event, “Contemporary Islamist and Secular Debates on the Idea of Culture and Civilization,” featured speakers Brian Silverstein, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of Center for Turkish Studies at The University of Arizona; Gunes Murat Tezcur, Jalal Talabany Chair of Kurdish Political Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Central Florida; and Berna Turam, Associate Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Northeastern University. Katerina Dalacoura, British Academy Mid-Career Fellow, and Associate Professor in International Relations, London School of Economics, moderated the event.

Silverstein began the conversation by discussing the state of civilization according to the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He said the AKP emphasizes how the national, regional, and universal characteristics of the party place it in a unique political position. The national characteristic focuses on the “glorious” past of Turkish history. The regional characteristic highlights how Turkey needs to play a larger role in the Muslim world. The universal characteristic of the AKP is its emphasis on justice. Silverstein discussed how the AKP believes that powerful Western institutions like the United Nations are discriminatory toward Muslim countries and is highly critical of the UN Security Council for not being representative of the world. He stated that because of these three characteristics, Turkey perceives itself to be in a unique situation where it can bridge the gap between the Muslim and Western worlds.

Tezcur shifted the conversation toward the contemporary discourse of civilization, noting that people are not aware of the crucial distinctions within the current rhetoric about civilization in Turkey. He said the first goal of Islamists in Turkey is to overcome the secular state. Furthermore, he added that some Islamists have a strong sense of victimhood, and therefore it is difficult for them to develop positions independent from the government’s policies. Tezcur indicated that the AKP’s foreign policy on Syria has had a negative effect on Turkish domestic politics because it has intensified sectarian divisions in Turkey. Moreover, he discussed how the brutal treatment the Assad regime has inflicted on its Sunni Muslim population has fostered resentment from the Turkish Sunni Muslim population onto the Alawite Turks. Tezcur then expanded on how Western apathy to the Syrian crisis has furthered the Islamist perception that there is a division between them and the West. Consequently, Tezcur suggested this has blurred the lines between violent and non-violent Islamist political positions. He then said he is pessimistic about the Turkish Islamists’ ability to take an explicit stance against the government and develop their own independent positions.

Turam began by discussing how urban life has contributed to the civilization debate in Turkey. She stressed that Turkey has become a case study for polarization and posed the question, “are these controversies cultural or civilizational?” She argued that the “axis of clash” is shifting from Islamism and secularism. She stated that many people believe the most contested debate between Islamists and secularists relates to gender. However, she noted this is not a contested issue among women because women from both camps align themselves with each other. In her view, the contested debate is the issue of urban lifestyles; there is a deep division between the urban lifestyle of secularists and Islamists. Turam said secularists believe they are being attacked as Erdogan targets museums, nightclubs, and cafes. On the other hand, pious Muslims feel their places of religious significance are being attacked by secularists. She discussed how Erdogan regards secularists as deviant and cosmopolitan Istanbul as a threat to his regime. Turam concluded by asking the audience her initial question: Is this clash about culture? She indicated that democracy is not about overcoming conflict but about the ability to form new alliances out of conflict.

During the question and answer portion of the event, Tezcur was asked about why there were so many Kurds joining Islamist parties. He answered that not only are the Kurds joining ISIS, but they have been joining jihadist groups since the 1980s. This is because of Kurds not feeling connected to the Turkish national identity and the Kurds’ desire for independence. Dalacoura posed a question to Turam, in which she asked if there were other cities in Turkey that present a more hopeful picture than what is seen in Istanbul. Turam said she believes that Istanbul is better equipped than most Turkish cities to deal with contestation.

By Sherin Zadah, Middle East Program


Panel 3: Conceptions of Culture and Civilization in Turkey and Foreign Policy

A panel of three experts shared their analyses on the state of culture and civilization with regard to Turkey’s current foreign policy.

The third panel of this event, “Conceptions of Culture and Civilization in Turkey and Foreign Policy” was comprised of speakers Behlül Özkan, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Marmara University; Aaron Stein, Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council; and Ömer Taşpinar, Professor, Strategic Studies Department, National Defense University. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the panel.

Özkan began the panel’s conversation by explaining Islamist ideology in Turkey. He addressed what he believes to be the primary issue with political Islam in Turkey today: its idealization of the past without understanding or acknowledging its pitfalls. Özkan stressed that although Turkey has often been seen as a model of Islamism in the Middle East, it must work to change with the times. To expand on this, he noted that five years after the Arab Spring, Turkey now faces many issues, particularly border conflicts. The country has ended up isolated in the Middle East region after embarking on its mission to unite the Islamic world, Özkan concluded.

Stein also looked to Turkey’s past to explain today’s situation, discussing how after the Cold War there was a sense that Turkey needed to play a larger global role. He noted how Turkey’s position post-Cold War as both a “rimland” and “heartland” state gave it a unique, central understanding in geopolitics and an ability to influence world power and structure. But Stein also addressed the divergence in Turkey regarding how to go about projecting such influence. He then moved forward in time to discuss how the current political model in the Middle East is untenable, providing Turkey with space to capitalize on this by engaging in diplomacy for its longer-term foreign policy game. In the short term, Stein said Turkey is trying to manage its border crises.

Taşpinar turned the discussion back to culture and civilizations, and commented on how rare it is in academia to focus on these topics. He noted the disdain many academics have toward them and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, seeing these as lazy ways to explain change. But he also said this shifted after 9/11, leading to a revival of orientalism and literature supporting the view that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Suddenly, noted Taşpinar, there was a need to prove that the United States was not at war with Islam, but rather an ideology, and also to find a country that showed Islam as compatible with democracy, secularism, and pro-Western values. Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the AKP (Turkey’s Justice and Development Party) emerged as political models that were moderate and friendly toward EU policies, said Taşpinar. He addressed the backlash from Kemalists who turned increasingly angry and anti-Western at a time when the AKP was pro-European Union. Taşpinar discussed how culture can explain the AKP’s success, but it is limiting, and institutions and economic factors are more explanatory.

Barkey asked the panelists to think back to 2002 when the AKP was coming to power and to imagine that Turkey was not a member of NATO. He asked what would have happened to foreign policy, whether institutional ties are important to Turkey, and if the AKP finds itself constrained by these ties. Stein commented that institutional ties were broken in 2008 over the strains of the Iraq War, but that the relationship between the United States and Turkish military is what is now missing. Taşpinar addressed Turkey’s value in its position within the Western “club,” being the only Muslim country in both this club and NATO. Turkey values this because, he said, they are able to speak on behalf of Muslim countries and believe strongly in Turkey’s superiority within the Muslim world. Özkan added that if people were to believe that Turkey may soon gain membership into the European Union, they are dreamers. All agreed that Turkey is not so much the democratic model that it was once believed to be.

By Elena Scott-Kakures, Middle East Program

Event Feedback

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.