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New Texts Out Now: Kabir Tambar, The Reckoning of Pluralism: Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey

[Cover of Kabir Tambar, [Cover of Kabir Tambar, "The Reckoning of Pluralism: Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey"]

Kabir Tambar, The Reckoning of Pluralism: Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Kabir Tambar (KT): The book centers on Turkey’s Alevi community—a numerical minority that reportedly constitutes anywhere from ten to twenty percent of the country’s total population. As I was conducting the research for the book, I was struck by the fact that over the past century, the community has been both an object of extraordinary political violence and of ideological valorization by statist elites. I came to view these seemingly opposed experiences—of violent exclusion and of ideological inclusion—not as distinct moments but as contradictory imperatives of the republican project in Turkey, establishing the terms of political belonging in the modern Turkish state. I realized that a study of Alevis was a privileged site for asking some very broad questions about modern politics: What are the conditions under which a social collectivity is permitted to participate in political life? How are forms of affective expression—of loyalty, belonging, desire—institutionally organized? What forms of political vulnerability arise in the process of becoming incorporated within a political community and in being granted a political voice?

I explore these questions by looking at the forms of knowledge and governance that have allowed state authorities, political parties, and intellectuals to recognize—to celebrate but also to discipline—expressions of Alevi religiosity, both in the present and in the past. The book examines the political impetus to studies of Alevism in the late Ottoman empire and throughout the republican era, what I refer to as a “demand for knowledge,” responsive to a context of rapid political disintegration and reorganization. Efforts at valorizing Alevism as an authentic form of Turkish cultural and linguistic life took place amidst the empire’s dismemberment and it occurred at the same time that other populations (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and so on) were being exchanged, exiled, deported en masse, and killed. The book explores how the very act of inscribing Alevis into Turkish history was enmeshed in the political reorganization of southeastern Europe, Anatolia, and the Middle East. I argue in the book that many of the tensions that continue to arise in today’s debates about religious pluralism are the result of this history of nation-state formation. These tensions reveal the essentially unsettled character of that project in the present.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

KT: The book engages critical scholarship on democracy and secularism, and more particularly on the regulation of socio-religious difference. In particular, I stress the aesthetic dimensions of this form of regulation. I am interested in the ways that public displays of Alevi religiosity are mediated by oral and textual speech genres and by forms of musical and dance performance. State officials, political parties, news media outlets, and some Alevis themselves often valorize these aesthetic styles as living instances of Turkey’s rich folkloric heritage, and in the process Alevi ritual is often posited as a sign of the Turkish nation’s historical past. These practices inscribe Alevi rituals within available narratives of national belonging, but they are also premised on tacit silences. What ways of relating to the religious past are discredited or delegitimized in the process? To flesh out these silences ethnographically, I pay particular attention to moments of hesitation—hesitations, for instance, around displaying certain religious icons or around expressions of religious mourning. I am also interested in the work of Alevi communities who, flouting the folklorization of Alevi ritual, cultivate alternative relationships to the religious past, which do not find their coordinates from within official narratives of the nation’s history.

J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this book?

KT: The book is largely grounded in long term ethnographic fieldwork, mostly undertaken in Ankara and in the provincial central Anatolian town of Çorum. I also worked with textual materials, including writings by late Ottoman and early Republican ethnographers and books more recently written by Alevi intellectuals. Beyond questions of materials and evidence, I found it necessary to ask more fundamental methodological questions about how to recognize what constitutes the data for analysis, especially because scholarly discourses themselves have become key elements of the social domain that I was studying. As alluded to above, historical discourses often play an important mediating role in the public display of Alevi religiosity, and in this regard, “history” is not simply a source of disciplinary knowledge that supplies a ground for scholarship; it needs to be explored as social form (or set of forms) and thus as an object of anthropological investigation. The book looks at “history” in terms of certain narrative practices and the institutional settings that authorize them. I also look at how this history is publicly displayed in the present day in cultural festivals attended by state officials, in folkdance competitions, or even at the opening of shopping malls as a form of publicity. When viewed in relation to these performances, “history” emerges not simply as intellectual knowledge about social practice, but as a set of practices in its own right, mediated by particular spaces of public assembly, forms of iconographic adornment, and styles of spectatorship. In this regard, history itself arises as an object of ethnographic inquiry.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

KT: I hope the book reaches readers interested in thinking critically about the nation-state and its imposed narratives of modernity, history, and religion. My focus on aesthetics provides a particular entry into these otherwise large themes. It allows us to explore how the audible and visible of politics (“having a voice”) are shaped by acts that render-mute and conceal. In trying to examine the forms of silence that enable public voice and the forms of concealment that undergird public visibility, I aim to understand what may otherwise seem to be perplexing dynamics: for instance, how assertions of cultural difference can remain complicit with aggressively nationalist discourses on state unity, or how displays of secular-national heritage can require and remain dependent on performances of religious history. Ultimately, in depicting some of these paradoxical situations, I want to open a space for thinking about democratic politics in moments where communities not only challenge the terms of their exclusion, but also scrutinize the conditions of their incorporation and inclusion.

Excerpt from The Reckoning of Pluralism: Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey

Zehra teyze was an Alevi woman in her mid-fifties when I met her. I introduced her in chapter two as an individual who viewed ritual lament as part of her biographical past and the village life of her youth, but which she had long since left behind. I return to her now in order to explore the social significance of another semiotic absence, this time concerning the image of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son in law of the Prophet Muhammad.

At the time of my fieldwork, Zehra teyze lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Çorum with her husband and two of her three children. Most of my conversations with Zehra teyze and her family circled around her youngest son’s inability to get a job and his subsequent dissatisfaction with Turkey’s system of educating and employing its citizens. None of Zehra’s family was particularly engaged in contemporary Alevi political action, nor were they active participants in the sorts of religious activities organized by urban Alevi groups, so it was only on occasion that our discussions veered toward topics that seemed, at the time, to be tied to my explicit research objectives. Yet the relative silence on such topics was neither incidental nor peculiar, and it would take me some time to realize that it was just this silence with regard to their religious participation that warranted my attention. The ethnographic significance of this silence hit home for me when Zehra teyze informed me that she owned several images of Ali ibn Abi Talib, but kept them buried in a cardboard box in her closet.

As noted earlier, Ali is a figure honored by most Muslims as one of Muhammad’s closest companions. Alevis in Turkey share with many Shi‘i Muslims elsewhere a particular reverence for Ali and a line of eleven of his male descendants, referring to this lineage as the Twelve Imams. Shi‘i communities in many regions of the world, such as Iran and India, have long produced images of the Twelve Imams, incorporating them into public, domestic, and ritual contexts.

Why, then, had Zehra teyze consigned the image of Ali to a box? She explained her discretion by relating a story that took place several decades earlier when the family lived in a different Anatolian province, whose inhabitants are predominantly Sunni rather than Alevi. At that point, Zehra teyze had displayed one modestly sized image of Ali in their living room. Soon after they had first moved into their apartment, several neighbors, all Sunni in religious orientation, paid a visit to welcome her, but they were visibly discomfited by the image of Ali. The image was not one that would be commonly found in Sunni households, in part due to a religious proscription on depicting the likeness of Muhammad and his companions. It is common, however, to find images of Ali in Alevi and Shi‘i communities. Zehra teyze indicated that in a Turkish context, the portrait of Ali could easily be interpreted as a sign that her family was Alevi. In the context of the 1970s, when sectarian tensions were mounting into episodes of violence, such signs could condense a tremendous amount of social and psychic energy. Zehra teyze explained that she felt pressured to take the image down. She felt a certain anxiety about the public visibility of the icon, an anxiety that has persisted up to the present, despite the fact that her family now lives in a predominantly Alevi neighborhood.

By the time of my conversation with Zehra teyze, several decades had passed since the day she felt compelled to remove the image of Ali. Since that time, Alevi communities have begun to elaborate an entirely new cultural iconography, characterized by a distinctly public circulation. The familiar image of Ali has not been thrown out, but rather has become a key emblem of Alevi identity within this newly public iconography. From street protests to summer festivals, it is increasingly common to see the image of Ali displayed openly. The mobilization of such images addresses a public audience, at once national and global, consisting of journalists, political officials, foreign anthropologists, and observers from the European Union. It was during this span of time that Alevis began to experience a dramatic growth in the number of organizations and intellectuals capable of publicly representing the community. One result was that the image of Ali acquired legitimate footing in public space.

What I wish to explore is the newfound legitimacy of Ali’s portrait in Turkey’s public spaces without, however, ignoring Zehra teyze’s ongoing anxiety about displaying it in her own home. The legitimacy of displaying Ali’s image is contingent on certain conventions of portrayal and arrangement—what we might call an iconographic dispensation that governs how the portrait is publicly presented. Zehra teyze’s reluctance to take her portraits of Ali out of the closet does not simply reflect an outdated anxiety in an era of pluralist tolerance; it reveals, rather, her awareness of the institutional scrutiny that accompanies Ali’s public portrayal, along with the boundaries and limits that tacitly regiment that presentation.

In this iconographic dispensation, Ali’s image rarely stands alone. It is almost always juxtaposed to images of two additional figures: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of the nationalist forces that created the Turkish republican state in the 1920s, and Hacı Bektaş-ı Veli, a medieval Anatolian saint. The conjunction of images cuts across a variety of historical moments, creating a linear series only through some rather unwieldy narrative jumps, moving from early Islam (with the image of Ali) to medieval Anatolia (represented by Hacı Bektaş) and up to the modern, secular Turkish Republic (iconized by Atatürk). The juxtaposition of these three icons has become so common a feature of Alevi public events that it tends not to be commented upon or questioned, either by participants or by outside observers. For the sake of analysis, it is worth denaturalizing this presentation of Alevi identity and decomposing the interrelation of its component parts.

The insertion of Atatürk into this sequence of images may strike an outside observer as unexpected. The act of publicly displaying the portrait of Ali, after all, is one manner in which Alevis are publicly asserting their particular identity. Yet the public presence of Ali, as an emblem of that particularity, is anchored in this iconography by the paradigmatic icon of the modernist nation-state—a state that, as discussed in earlier parts of this book, stipulated terms of citizenly belonging that often rendered Alevis vulnerable to nationalist suspicion and aggression. The image of Atatürk is by no means unique to this context. It is ubiquitous across the country. The state mandates that all government offices prominently display a photograph of his bust, and city centers frequently contain statues in his honor. Yael Navaro-Yashin (2002) has aptly referred to this iconic ubiquity as a “cult of Atatürk,” which has been promoted by the state and therefore predominates across Turkey.

One explanation of the use of Atatürk’s portrait in Alevi settings is that many Alevi communities not only supported Mustafa Kemal as a political leader but “mythologized” him, comparing him to and even identifying him with figures from religious history, such as Ali and Hacı Bektaş (Kehl-Bodrogi 2003). However, this argument begs a number of historical questions about how a religious tradition that is centuries-old came to accommodate a modern political figure. Which Alevi groups made this accommodation possible, and, equally important, who opposed it? What institutional powers allowed for opposition to be overcome? If there was no opposition to the religious incorporation of Atatürk, a claim that would assume considerable homogeneity among an internally differentiated community, then what accounts for the ease and rapidity of this transformation? Most important, the claim that certain Alevis have felt an intimate, perhaps even religious, connection to Atatürk does not in itself explain why this connection is expressed in the form of specific visual icons, familiar from spaces dominated by state authority, such as public schools and government offices. Alevi portrayals of Atatürk’s image reveal a fealty not simply to his political vision or his mythological aura but to the practice of portrayal itself. The iconographic practice carries strongly statist resonances. It is one manner of inscribing Alevi publicity within the cultural politics of the Turkish state.

The tension in this iconography—that it at once emblematizes Alevi difference and mobilizes the statist symbolics of the nation—echoes the dilemmas of modern political authority examined in previous chapters. It derives from the efforts of late Ottoman intellectuals and governing authorities to generate knowledge of Anatolia’s variegated cultural geography but to grasp it within the terms of a unilinear historical evolution; that is to say, to identify traces of cultural plurality as elements of the Turkish nation’s developmental trajectory. Yet in the iconographic dispensation that I am discussing here, the social actors deploying these signs are not primarily state officiants. Alevis themselves—individuals participating in street marches and organizations that sponsor public events—mobilize the iconography. In contrast to the late Ottoman and early republican periods, contemporary Turkish cities host large populations of Alevis capable of addressing the national public. The fact that the representational and iconographic modes of Alevi public address extend the forms of political authority established in earlier periods deserves greater attention. What institutional impetus encourages the continued salience of the republican state’s cultural politics at a time when Alevis have become political agents in their own right?

[Excerpted from Kabir Tambar, The Reckoning of Pluralism: Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey, by permission of the author. © 2014 The Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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