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Of skirts and scarves

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Iftekhar Sayeed       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   2 comments

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“I am a child of the Kamalist revolution”, declared 92-year-old Muazzez İlmiye Çığ of Turkey. Ms. Cig, an expert on Sumer, observed in her book My Reactions as a Citizen, that Islamic-style head scarves date back more than 5,000 years - several millennia before the birth of Islam - and were worn by priestesses who initiated young men into sex. As if that was not enough of a red rag before a bull, she went on to chide the Prime Minister’s wife for wearing a headscarf in public, and – in case anyone had missed the point - also criticized, “in quite a provocative style” according to the Turkish Daily News, the widespread practice among conservative Turks to marry in a religious ceremony performed by an imam, which the law does not recognize.


This puerile kerfuffle over skirts and scarves conceals more than it reveals. When the Muslim world was confronted by the west, and reduced to relative powerlessness, thinking and educated Muslims had recourse to other, secular religions: nationalism and Marxism. For a religious people, it was easier to choose another religion in secular costume than to renounce religion altogether. That nationalism and Marxism are religions has been amply demonstrated by Ninian Smart (Ninian Smart ,The World’s Religions, Engleood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989, pp 10 – 25). In a previous article(, I discussed the fact that religions have seven dimensions – the ritual, the ethical, the narrative, the material, the emotional, the doctrinal and the institutional – and that Marxism and nationalism share all seven.


Disloyalty to Islam and the ummah, the community of Muslims, was a live option only twice in the history of the faith – when the faith was being established and after the colonial encounter. After the encounter, the price of loyalty kept on rising – that is to say, one gave up more in terms of foregone benefits. In economic jargon, the opportunity cost of loyalty to Islam went up and up.  (This is even truer today, especially since 9/11: even before the event, the Turks purchased benefits from America by allying itself with Israel; indeed, the United States punishes severely any loyalty to the Palestinians, as Iran has known since the revolution and might learn a more bitter lesson in the near future.) 

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 The response was largely irrational, unlike that of the Japanese, who made a clear distinction between western ways and western things. They adopted some of the former, but only incidentally. With Muslims, the superficials counted for more; a wrenching change like that of the Meiji Restoration was out of the question: the masses would have never gone along, such was the claim of Islam to their loyalty.  Even China adopted nationalism and Marxism – both religions – and plumped for civil war (who can forget the last emperor cutting off his pigtail in the film by Bernardo Bertolucci: yet nobody has associated the Beatles’ long hair with inefficiency and backwardness!). While the Communists are beginning to give up their creed, the Taiwanese seem to be growing more pious every year.      




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The irrational element can be seen in the adoption of the principle of “secularism” (along with nationalism!) in the constitution. Ataturk abolished religious courts and schools, and adopted a purely non-Islamic system of family law; substituted the Roman for the Arabic alphabet in writing; adopted the Gregorian calendar that had been jointly used with the Hijrī calendar since 1917; replaced Friday by Sunday as the weekly holiday; adopted – no, I’m not making this up - surnames, and, the crowning touch, abolished the fez. For good measure, the wearing of clerical garb outside places of worship was forbidden.


And what about economics? How was the clerical garb or the Arabic alphabet retraining national income growth?  Ataturk adopted ”statism”: here, of course, was the nub. The mistake that the Chinese and Indians were to make, Ataturk anticipated.  Even today, his legacy stands: the economy remains weak, with 30% of GDP generated in the region around Istanbul and Ankara. In the eastern villages, one sees mud-roofed single-storey structures with improvised windows; water is drawn from wells and outside the doors there’s dung for fuel and straw for animals heaped up. In the richest part of Turkey, income per head is six times that in the poorest. And within Europe, Turkey has the lowest income per head (even lower than that of the newly admitted states). It may no longer be the sick man of Europe, but it is certainly the poor man of Europe.

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ˇBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ˇTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ˇHe is also a (more...)

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