الثلاثاء، 29 يونيو، 2010

Sufism has new allure for secular Turks - The Irish Times - Mon, Jun 28, 2010

Sufism has new allure for secular Turks - The Irish Times - Mon, Jun 28, 2010
Sufism has new allure for secular Turks

A nationalist protester burns a poster of Turkish novelist Elif Shafak during her 2006 trial in Istanbul regarding a book on the massacre of Armenians. Photograph: Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty ImagesIn this section »
Immigration cap will not hit professionalsIrish tourist injured in Thai boats collision€600,000 scam as Fifa says fans were warnedGuernsey remembers hardship endured during German occupationNine killed in Mexico after gunmen fire on drug rehab centreThousands march in Taiwan over trade dealA Turkish novelist has again raised hackles – this time about the sensitive issue of Sufism, writes NICHOLAS BIRCH

IT LOOKS a typical summer evening scene on the Prince’s Islands, a popular haunt for wealthy Istanbuliots: a pretty garden and a table laden with cheese, cold meats and bread.

But the dozen or so people sitting at the table haven’t come to gossip. For four hours, they have been listening to a popular Sufi tell them about the love of God. “Bring unity to your heart and you create a temple of Allah, do that and you feel an irrepressible desire to dance,” says the man, holding up his arms like a whirling dervish, clicking his fingers.

The past five years have seen a huge surge in interest in Sufism among secular-minded Turks. Most TV channels have shows about Islamic mysticism. In bookshops, only books peddling conspiracy theories outsell the Sufism primers and the new translations of Ibn-i Arabi.

Interest peaked last year, when novelist Elif Shafak, best known in the West for being put on trial in 2006 because a character in another of her novels allegedly “insulted Turkishness”, published her new book about an American Jewish woman’s discovery of the mystical poetry of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, the 13th century founder of the Mevlevi order of whirling dervishes.

Launched in Ireland this spring, The Forty Rules of Love is the biggest selling novel in Turkey’s history. With sales mounting above half a million, publishers even brought out a grey-jacketed version for men too embarrassed to be seen buying the bright pink original edition.

In some ways, the wave of interest is surprising. Sufism – particularly Rumi – may be big in the West. In Turkey, official propaganda has presented mystical orders, or tarikat, as the main “reactionary” force opposed to secularism. Even today, many secular Turks respond to the word with a grimace of distaste.

Since the 1990s, however, secular fears have increasingly centred around political Islam. More and more, analysts argue, some strands of mysticism are seen as a moderate alternative.

“Islam in Turkey has long been presented as . . . primitive, and turning to religion is no easy affair for such people,” says Seyit Erkal, a researcher on Sufism. “What would you prefer? Beards, skull caps and dogmatism, or Rumi’s slogan ‘Come, whoever you are’?”

Outlawed by the secular leaders of the Republic in 1925, mystical Islam never disappeared from Turkey. Since the 1960s, however, it has faced a second opponent: radical Islam, nourished by puritanical Salafi thought imported mainly from Egypt.

Radicals see the Sufist sheikh- disciple relationship as idolatrous, says Ismail Kara, professor of Islamic thought at Istanbul’s Marmara University. Like earlier Islamist modernisers, they see mystical brotherhoods as a chief reason why the Islamic world fell behind the West. “Islamism was a critique of Islamic history,” Kara says. “Islamists made a deliberate attempt to cut themselves off from traditions and the past. They saw tarikat as obstructing their efforts to go back to the sources and start again.” Today, Islamist animosity is waning, as younger Turkish Muslims increasingly question the rightness of reducing religion to a political ideology. “People have begun to ask what happened to the profound Islam of the Middle Ages,” says Mahmut Erol Kilic, an expert on Sufism at Marmara University. “People have begun to ask how a culture which produced Avicenna, [Sufi mystic] Ibn-i Arabi, Mevlana and [Turkish poet] Yunus Emre could have become so narrow.”

Sufi leaders say tolerance of the more heterodox sects has extended even to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, whose leaders, when young, were influenced by radical Islamism. Even a decade ago, discussing the culture of tarikat on Turkish television was almost impossible, says Cemalnur Sargur, head of one branch of the Rifa’i sect, and Turkey’s only female sheikh. Today, she hosts two weekly television programmes, including one on state television. “Some say they are bigots, but mysticism is something that this government understands, and has opened the way for,” she says.

Not everybody is entirely happy about Sufism’s increasing visibility. Many Muslim intellectuals object to the way in which Rumi has been turned into a marketing tool for Turkey’s tourist board, with Mevlevi dervishes whirling in front of westerners sipping beer.

Elif Shafak’s Forty Rules of Love sparked controversy, with several critics accusing her of twisting Sufi thought to suit a western audience. The novel does not “just hollow out our shared values, but dumps modernity’s crudest and most specious beliefs into the hole”, prominent Muslim intellectual Ducane Cundioglu complained in the Islamic daily Yeni Safak, pointing out that Shafak wrote the book in English before translating it into Turkish. “This Sufi literature is New Age . . . kitsch.”

Researcher Seyit Erkal thinks Cundioglu has a point. Secular Turks’ interest in Sufism, he points out, really only took off after Unesco proclaimed the Mevlevi sema, or whirling ceremony, a World Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2005. In honour of Rumi’s 800th birthday, Unesco also declared 2007 the Year of Mevlana and Tolerance.

“This is Sufism that comes from the West,” Erkal says. “It is like a Turk discovering Turkish coffee in America.”

Traditional Sufis would doubtless be horrified at what is going on in the garden on the Prince’s Islands. Several of those in attendance, US-educated Turks, openly admit to being atheists. As night falls, the host comes to the table carrying a bottle of pricey local white wine.

The man at the head of the table calls a halt to discussions of the qualities of various Sufi saints, and holds up a wine glass. “The squalid life is not for the Sufi,” he says. “The Sufi is a gourmet, a master of the art of living.”

Adamant that there can be no Islamic mysticism without an acceptance of the foundations of Islam, the Koran, the sunna and religious law, or sharia, Cemalnur Sargur nonetheless shrugs her shoulders at such heterodoxy.

After Elif Shafak’s book came out, she adds, hundreds called her asking about Rumi’s companion, thinker Shams-i Tabrizi, one of the novel’s main figures.

“The mere fact of mentioning Shams’s name in this world is an act of grace,” she says. “Elif Shafak has done us a service.”

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