Islamisation as Westernisation?

Reading and learning for a proposal on Turkish/European Muslim Consumer Identifications I am still going through the literature – I am intrigued by what I just found in Hakan Yavuz’sIslamic Political Identity in Turkey on Islamic revival and liberal capitalism (which makes particular sense in the light of how Turkey managed to weather the credit crunch). Yavuz sees the emergence of a Muslim parallel to the Protestant ethic that helped to bring about Western capitalism – facilitated by Turgut Özal’s economic reforms in the 1980s and incorporated by the Islamic business association MÜSİAD,

‘The MÜSİAD represents the complex intersection of religion and economics among the new Anatolian bourgeoisie. This process could only have been consolidated with the help of Özal’s economic liberalization. This policy also promoted the construction of an Islamic “Protestant ethic” by stressing puritanical, this-worldly values that seemed to anticipate rewards for a virtuous life in the hereafter as well. This new bourgeoisie, organized around either Nurcu or Nakşibendi groups, criticized “superstitious” beliefs, stressed a surprisingly rational understanding of faith, and defined Islam (in MÜSİAD publications) as the religion of progress. The dynamic interaction between contemporary Islamic movements and market forces, however, indicates that Turkish modernization is not necessarily a carbon copy of Westernization. Whereas in the West, the embourgeoisement of religion led to the process of disenchantment, the Turkish case indicates that disenchantment and reenchantment can coexist. For example, in the case of the MÜSİAD, religion has become intertwined with the market economy. […] The utilization of religious practices and idioms to justify the market economy has become the major source for the inner secularization of Islam.’ (Yavuz 2003: 95)

I think the only point that Yavuz has got wrong here is that this pathway into neoliberal capitalism contrasts with what happens in “the West” – which doesn’t quite square with his assertion that we are seeing an “Islamic Protestant ethic” at work here. While there certainly is a marked disenchantment in the West, the persistence of religious practice and belief in the USA (as opposed to the relatively low figures in the UK, France and some other European countries), indicates that one could see the Turkish transformation as a move from the imposition of a French-inspired state secularism to an American-inspired market secularism which allows for a wide range of religious self expressions. Also, the “reenchantment” Yavuz cites can be understood as a consumerisation of religion (he acknowledges the role of consumption for the newly emerged Islamic bourgeoisie – Yavuz 2003: 97ff.), and the West (and particularly the US) is no stranger to such reenchantment – George Ritzer framed a whole book on consumerism in those terms (Ritzer 2005). Of course that doesn’t make the Turkish path a “carbon copy” – but neither is there necessarily an essential difference beyond the differences we find between country that much too easily are thrown into the big category “the West”.

Further, Yavuz states that contrary to a traditional sociological belief, in the Turkish case Islam does not promote quietist acceptance of fate but rather encourages individual initiative

‘Turkey has experienced the growth of an entrepreneurial spirit that has had an important impact on Islamic identity. Risk taking, the emergence of group individuality, and joint venturism are features of this entrepreneurial spirit. Willingness to take risks is significant because it involves liberation from blind submission to a higher order. The spirit of risk taking brings to the Turkish identity debate an approximation (protoindividualism) of the idiomatic character of individualism as understood in the West.’ (Yavuz 2003: 97)

If that’s the case Islamic revival in Turkey is not only not anti-Western or non-Western – Islamisation of business may be seen as straightforward Westernisation or even Americanisation. Try this: In the following quote replace references to Muhammad and Islam with references to Jesus and Christianity, references to the two Sufi-inspired movements with references to Protestant denominations and then ask yourself whether the statement could not be about the USA

‘The existence of a “market” of religious ideas is a requirement for achieving a pluralistic democracy. Muslim merchants in the MÜSİAD compete to offer an economic basis for the sustenance of a moral community. They tend to see Islam as a pool of ideas and strategies that can be employed to justify social acts in the market environment. Thus religious enthusiasm, along with earning profits, are the main motivating forces behind the expanding Turkish market. The Nakşibendi and Nurcu communities emphasize the merchant ethics of the Prophet Muhammad and try to fuse these with the values of modern capitalism.’ (Yavuz 2003: 95)

If still unconvinced, have a look at Bruce Barton’s best-selling 1925 The Man Nobody Knows in which the American master advertiser sets out the idea of Jesus as a role model for the successful business man (also see Elzey 1978).

Barton, Bruce (1925): The Man Nobody Knows, London: Constable

Elzey, Wayne (1978): ‘Jesus the Salesman: A Reassessment of The Man Nobody Knows‘, InJournal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol.46, No.2, pp.151-77.

Ritzer, George (2005): Enchanting a Disenchanted World, London: Sage.

Yavuz, M. Hakan (2003): Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, Oxford: Oxford University Press

update 13th october 2010

Further down the book I found this about Esad Coşan’s views of Islam and the market – Coşan took over as leader of the Nakşibendi Gümüşhanevi order whose leader until 1980, Mehmet Zahid Kotku, was the spiritual inspiration of, among others, Turgut Özal and Necmettin Erbakan:

Indeed, some of his speeches and articles were very similar to the speeches of presidents of corporations informing shareholders about the economic condition of a company. Worship of God, for a follower of Coşan, can be realized in the marketplace. Coşan says: “Trade is real and permanent in an individual’s life. Other activities are utopian, hypothetical, and imaginary; whereas trade is the most realistic. As far as I am concerned, those who do not have trade experience do not turn out to be good humans. The most pragmatic and realistic people are businessmen and merchants. If a businessman is also a Muslim, he is the most in tune with his religious situation in life.” In other words, Qur’anic verses were turned into slogans as a project in economic competition. The market conditions of the 1980s led to the process of recreating a new, abstract, highly centralized and economically conscious Islam, which was embraced by the modern urban population.’ (Yavuz 2003: 143)

While even the notion that ‘Muslims would view the liberating and rationalizing “hidden hand” of market forces as a reflection of divine wisdom.’ (Yavuz 2003: 142) does not necessarily mirror what Weber portrays as the Calvinist dilemma in which the market becomes a source of divine signs of grace, it is clear that it stipulates a logic of economic probation in which personal moral value is reflected in economic success – clearly a functional equivalent…

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