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The Suppression of Sufism and the Trajectory of Secularization in the Turkish Republic

View from the outside of the Galata Mevlevi lodge
Thursday, March 2, 2023, 12:40 pm – 2:00 pm

This paper builds on Jose Casanova’s suggestion to examine the “diverse patterns of differentiation” and trajectories of secularization outside of Western Europe through an examination of the early Turkish republic and its abolition of Sufism in 1925. It asks: what does the abolition of Sufism tell us about the nature of the state’s relationship with Islam in Turkey? What kind of secularization does Turkish laiklik (laicism) represent and how does it compare with similar policies in other countries during the same period? I will examine discrete examples from the early republican period, namely the confiscation of Sufi lodges, the creation of Sufi museums, and political/legal measures related to leaders of Sufi orders. In some respects, the policies adopted by the Turkish republic appear authoritarian, arguably more so than the model upon which Turkish laicism was ostensibly based: French laïcité. In other ways, the implementation of the 1925 law that outlawed Sufi institutions appears porous and flexible in nature, allowing elements of Sufi tradition to continue and even play an important role in Turkish nation-building. This combination of suppression with flexibility and cultural integration has created a confusing portrait of the relationship between the state and Islam that I hope to clarify.

Brett Wilson is Associate Professor in the Departments of History and Public Policy and Director of the Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Central European University. He is the author of Translating the Qur’an in an Age of Nationalism (OUP, 2014) and the editor/translator of Nur Baba: A Sufi Novel of Late Ottoman Istanbul (Routledge, 2023).