Sultans and Messiahs in the Frontiers of Turkish Regionalism

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:50 PM
Columbia 12 (Washington Hilton)
Serkan Yolacan, National University of Singapore
In 2016 Turkey almost imploded with a coup attempt that eventually failed although only a few years ago it was acclaimed to be a rising star in the region with a growing economic and cultural hinterland. Ironically, a former Turkish imam, Fethullah Gulen, had a hand in both episodes of confident expansion and internal breakdown. Taking this irony as its departure point, the paper offers an alternative account of Turkish regionalism, one that shifts the analysis from the Turkish state to the Gulen community. Whereas state-centric analyses focus on the internal dynamics of Turkey, the network-centric view developed here points to the former Soviet space as the formative context of Turkish regionalism. The schools and businesses Gulen’s followers established across the crumbling Soviet space created cross-border channels that enriched the Turkish state from without and drew it out. Meanwhile, the community’s uninhibited expansion gave weight to its leader’s implicit claim to be the mahdi (Islam’s awaited Messiah). By crossing physical and spiritual boundaries, the former imam became a sovereign of sorts, whose power was spread out through a worldwide network of businesses and schools. This paper considers mahdism as an emic category that expresses such diffused form of sovereignty, which can augment states from without or crumple them from within.
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