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Turkish Islam According To Adam Smith

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] We Turks hotly debate the role of religion in public life all the time. But our frame of reference hardly goes beyond a few clicheŽs that have been planted in our minds by the official ideology, education system, and other national narratives. That'™s why it would be a good idea to raise our heads a bit and look at other sources which bring different perspectives to the same question. One person whose wisdom is worth consulting at this point is Adam Smith. Most of us are familiar with this 18th century Scottish thinker as the pioneer of the liberal theory of economics. Yet Smith was also a "moral philosopher" who contemplated the ethical foundations of a just society, in which he attributed an important role to religion. Religion and Capitalism One of Smith's crucial insights was that religion could help the painful transformation from pre-modernity to modern capitalism. As he observed the social change in 18th century Britain, he realized how religious organizations helped the immigrants from villages to big cities cope with the new and challenging environment they find themselves in. In his enlightening book, "God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World," Walter Russell Mead summarizes Smith'™s interpretation as follows: "The common people need the support of a strong religious community, especially when they join the great capitalist migration from the countryside to the city. In the country, the poor workman has a reputation to uphold: he is known by all and the community judges him according to his acts... In the new condition of the city, however, the workman has less certainty about his role, and he needs more than ever to maintain personal discipline and to resist the temptations that from Smith'™s time to present day can be found in cities." "The small religious congregation (the sect)," therefore "replaces the social discipline of the home community." This means, according to Mead, "Religion no longer opposes the modernization process. It provided the psychological strength and support that eventually allowed tens of millions of bewildered, hopeful, frightened peasants to find a place in the teeming cities and crowded industries of the new capitalist world." In such a social setting, religion and capitalism even become mutually supportive dynamics. "The rise of capitalism, while destructive of religious ideas firmly based in village realities, does not subvert religion in general, but can lead to a new era of religious revival." Now, these interpretations that Adam Smith made about the 18th century Britain makes a lot of sense vis-a-vis contemporary Turkey. Big waves of migration from the traditional countryside to modern cities is what Turkey has been experiencing since the 1950'™s. The newcomers, just like in the British case, needed the support of religious communities and hence formed many of them. This process brought in elements of quasi-rural and overtly conservative lifestyles to the cities, and that'™s why the conventional city elite perceived it as a threat to their modern way of life. But, quite the contrary, this was modernization itself, because the newcomers were being integrated into, and even bolstering the scope of, capitalism. That should explain to you why the political party they typically prefer, the incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is also the most pro-capitalist party in the country. Here is one possible catch, though, and Adam Smith saw that as well. "An acceleration of capitalist growth," he noted, "could lead to a dangerous increase in the power of religious fanaticism." And he suggested policies to the government to overcome this problem, such as providing high levels of education and even promoting "public amusements as an antidote to the gloomy fantasies of religious enthusiasts." To avoid fanatical religion Yet the more important emphasis of Smith on the ways to avoid the dominance of fanatical religion was pluralism. "The danger of religious dictatorship is much less where a multitude of religious groups already exist," he noted. "[And] the real danger of theocracy exists when a large and established church, supported by the government, can impose conformity on dissenters." On that regard, Turkey seems to be on the safe zone. Although the secularists perceive the whole Islamic camp as one single Sunni block, it is actually quite diverse. There are all sorts of Islamic communities, including the Fethulah Gulen followers, more classical "Nurcu"s, "Suleymanci"s, various sorts of conservative Sufi orders such as the Naksibendis, theologians with modernist views, pundits with their own sympathizers, and millions of non-sectarian, mainstream observant Muslims. They might all agree on some political issues, such as the freedom to wear the headscarf, but if they try to define religion as they see it, they will never be able to agree with each other. Thus, if Adam Smith'™s ideas are a guide to the interaction between religion and modernization, Turkey should be doing fine. The trouble is that very few secularists in Turkey are open-minded enough to consider seeing the matter from new perspectives such as the one presented by this wise philosopher.
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