Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Kemalism and its brittle secularism

LRB · Perry Anderson: Kemalism


"Though it broke, sharply and abruptly, with Ottoman culture in one fundamental respect by abolishing its script and so at a stroke cutting off new generations from all written connection with the past, in its distance from the masses Kemalism not only inherited an Ottoman tradition, but accentuated it. All premodern ruling groups spoke idioms differing in one way or another, if only in accent or vocabulary, from those they ruled. But the Ottoman elite, for long composed not even principally of Turks, was peculiarly detached from its subjects, as a corps of state servants bonded by command of a sophisticated language that was a mixture of Persian, Arabic and Turkish, with many foreign loan words, incomprehensible to the ruled. Administrative Ottoman was less elaborate than its literary forms, and Turkish remained in household use, but there was nevertheless a huge – linguistically fixed – gulf between high and low cultures in the empire.

"Kemalism set out to do away with this, by creating a modern Turkish that would no longer be the despised patois of Ottoman times, but a language spoken alike by all citizens of the new republic. But while it sought to close the gap between rulers and ruled where it had been widest in the past, at the same it opened up a gap that had never existed to the same extent before, leaving the overall distance between them as great as ever. Language reform might unify; religious reform was bound to divide. The faith of the Ottoman elites had little in common with the forms of popular piety – variegated cults and folk beliefs looked down on by the educated. But at least there was a shared commitment to Islam. This tie was sundered by Kemal. Once the state started to target shrines and brotherhoods, preachers and prayer meetings, it was hitting at traditional objects of reverence and attachment, and the masses resisted it. At this level, the cultural revolution misfired. Rejected by the rural and small-town majority, Kemalist secularism was, however, adopted with aggressive zeal in the cities by modernised descendants of the Ottoman elite – bureaucrats, officers, professionals. In this urban stratum, secularism became over time, as it remains today, in its blinkered intensity, something like an ersatz religion in its own right. But the rigidity of this secularism is a peculiarly brittle one. Not just because it is intellectually thin, or divorced from popular feeling, but more profoundly because of a structural bad faith that has always been inseparable from it."

No comments: