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Islam And Modernity, History Running Backward From Cairo To Berlin

A fully veiled woman using her smartphone in Istanbul
A fully veiled woman using her smartphone in Istanbul
Zafer Åženocak*


BERLIN There are photographs of Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul, taken in the 1960s, that show elegantly dressed women sitting in street cafés. There are similar photos from the period shot in Ankara, Cairo, Damascus and Karachi.

A half-century later, comparable scenes are nowhere to be found in many of these cities.

Ankara is the last city whose inhabitants have not been overtaken by an obscure Islam that involves civil war, destruction and fully veiled women. The former joy of life in Middle Eastern cities has been replaced by a kind of hostility to life that began with a devaluation of metropolitan bourgeois culture.

In the Orient, this Western-oriented culture developed after 1800. Educational institutions as well as cultural centers were reformed based on Western models. Turkish culture took this furthest, but Cairo too was for a long time a major hub of modernization in the Islamic world.

Today, this world that brought equality for Muslim women, educational opportunities to young people, and bridged the gap between city culture and rural areas is now endangered, even in Turkey. The threat of a collapse of civilization looms, the consequences of which would be just as significant as the collapse that took place in Germany in 1933, and finally ended up overshadowing nearly all of Europe.

But the break in the Islamic world is by far the more dangerous because the antidote is seen by parts of the population as foreign and destructive to their own culture and beliefs. Before World War II, some Germans had a tendency to want to separate themselves culturally from the West, but the tendency was very narrow, and could only be pursued by negating large parts of their own literature, music and art.

But how far can a Turk, an Iranian or an Egyptian adapt to Western bourgeois culture? How strong is resistance when the pillars of the modern Muslim, based in Western culture, are attacked? Most Muslim-dominated societies are confronting that question today.

Gaza cause, Turkish flag

As political Islam based on the Arab Muslim Brotherhood gains strength, the devaluation of Turkish culture is mainly playing out on the political stage. Culturally, attempts to do away with all things modern in Turkey seem doomed to failure.

The traditional novel, Islamic poem, neo-Ottoman architecture can only exist now as plagiarism. Compared to cultural creation in the language of the modern, such things have no staying power. Large parts of Turkish youth also now seem to be immune to the devaluation of modern life and its freedoms. Their creative energies are directed not only toward consumption but also to individual definition and arrangement of their spheres of life.

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Biology class at Kabul University in the early 1960s — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But there has been a dangerous devaluation of modernity in Turkish political culture, and it stands out particularly clearly in the context of the Middle East conflict. A one-sided alignment on the part of Turks for Palestine is a symptom of this development. At the German demonstrations against Israel’s Gaza war, there are more Turkish flags visible than usual.

For a long time now, hatred of Jews hasn’t been just an Arab phenomenon. Nor is it a feeling that can be traced to chronic conflict, a historical and lasting disenfranchisement. Turkey’s engagement against Israel is an expression of Turkish alienation from its own history.

In Turkish self-perception there is no room for anti-Semitism. The Turkish Enlightenment made it possible for Turks to build a good relationship with modern Judaism. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the state of Israel. All that means nothing, however, to Turkish Islamism. Hatred of Israel is a welcome pretext in the devaluation of modern Turkish culture.

Sultan and Ben-Gurion

Political islam has no room for people who feel the joy of life. It wants nothing to do with elegantly dressed women who sit with men in sidewalk cafés. A culturally hostile ideology has been fashioned from Islam to hide what amounts to an inability to put down roots in the modern by building up notions of the enemy — be it Israel, the United States or the entire West.

Even in Turkey, where for a while it appeared that politicians from the Muslim spectrum would be able to modernize the country, it has now become clear from their political dealings that their movement is hostile to civilization — to such an extent that a break now threatens Turkish culture.

Here in Germany, we don’t take this development seriously. And then we’re surprised when anti-Semitism pops up at demonstrations. We must urgently think about how we can counter this devaluation of our civilization. Bringing German and European history in as reference sources won’t be enough. History can’t simply be exported.

But there are also those moments in history that transcend cultures. Do we talk about these points enough? About Kaiser Wilhelm’s trip to Jerusalem and Damascus? And Theodore Herzl’s visit to the Ottoman Sultan? Who today knows that Israel’s primary founding father David Ben-Gurion studied law in Istanbul?

Part of the conversation would include the photo of the 1960s street scene in Kabul; the reconstruction of Turkey after World War I; and people like Ernst Reuter, who spent the 1930s and 1940s exiled in Turkey and then became post-war mayor of Berlin. He was an ambassador of human civilization.

*Zafer Åženocak is a writer of Turkish origin who lives in Germany.

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