New Religiosities in Turkey: “Reenchantment” in a Secular Muslim Country?

Supervised by: Dr. Alexandre Toumarkine

Collaborator: Till Luge, MA

Duration: 2011 ̶ 2017

Main collaborator: Prof. Dr. Nathalie Clayer (Centre d’Études Turques, Ottomanes, Balkaniques et Centrasiatiques (CETOBaC), EHESS, Paris)

Since February 2014, supported by: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR)

The research focus of the project is new religiosities in the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Under “new religiosities,” we understand phenomena connected with New Age practices or movements, new forms of Western, Ottoman or Turkish esotericism and spirituality, and millenarianism, but also with practices and religious ideas relating to South and East Asian religions like Hinduism or Buddhism. These new religiosities generally share new human and self-conceptions and also new types of body awareness. These processes of religious change take place in the context of socio-economic and political developments, which are influenced by phenomena of globalization such as new forms of communication and worldwide mobility. The aim of the project is to study these processes of change in a predominantly Muslim country. Here, however, not only are global influences to be determined, but also local continuities in the emergence of new religiosities. This cultural-religious transformation of high and late modernity has hardly been studied for the Islamic world. Thus, the project not only takes a pioneering role, but represents the first attempt to explore and interpret the variety of primary sources and sociological and ethnographic realities of new religiosities in the Islamic world using the example of Turkey.

In Europe, the “reenchantment” of the early modern period was mainly associated with the reception of Indian religions. Although this is not the case in Turkey to the same degree, Indian religions also play an important role, both in engagement with non-Abrahamic religions from the end of the 19th century and in the popularization of New Age since the 1960s. We accordingly investigate the Ottoman and Turkish reception of Indian religions, spiritualities, and intellectual history starting from the late 19th century. Parallel to this, we examine the reception of East Asian Buddhism, including its literature and aesthetics in the Republic of Turkey.

While Theosophy may also be counted, along with Spiritism, among the most important new spiritual currents in Europe of the late 19th century, in Turkey Spiritism alone took on the central role. It is noteworthy that Istanbul and other centers of the Ottoman Empire were already part of the rapidly globalizing Spiritism in the 1850s. Moreover, Spiritism and its offshoots continue in Turkey to this day to be paramount to the scene of alternative religiosities. Nonetheless, other forms of Western esotericism and new religiosities have also been important in Turkey ever since the founding of the Republic. In this regard, the project includes, among others, studies on Turkish Freemasonry, the intertwinement of Western and Eastern esotericism in George Gurdjieff’s teachings, the reception of René Guénon, and the local dissemination of Michael Berg’s Kabbalah.

By far the largest area in the field of new contemporary religiosities is that of New Age and alternative therapies. In Turkey, they have enjoyed immense popularity since the 1990s at the latest. The diverse range of practices, courses, and therapies cannot be overlooked in many Turkish cities. Especially in bookstores, they are represented to an extent that closely resembles that of similar offerings in Western European countries. In the Turkish context, however, the Islamic heritage has clearly had an impact on a significant part of this field. It should be noted that these still nascent new religiosities are not to be trivialized as “syncretism,” but must be understood as genuine local forms of New Age. Thanks to such varied adaptations, new religiosities have succeeded in appealing to both secular as well as more conservative Muslim social strata. It is not unusual for a large number—if not the majority—of New Age practitioners to define themselves as Muslim. For many, at least some of the new religiosities examined here are quite compatible with Islam as a kind of a patchwork religiosity. Alternative forms of therapy are also subjects of our research—whether coming from Western sources such as esotericism, New Age, or the physical culture movement or inspired by Islamic religious history. In Turkey, as in numerous other countries, “complementary and alternative medicine” is also part of a recognition process initiated by the World Health Organization, in which previous processes of institutionalization and cultural ideologies play a considerable role.

Since the term chosen for the project, “new religiosities,” does not restrict the subject matter to the Turkish reception of Western esotericism or Western New Age, it allows for a wider view of the country’s spiritual landscape. Such a broad perspective will make it possible to understand new religiosities in their global and local contexts both historically as well as sociologically, anthropologically, and culturally. This permits the project to also investigate new religiosities within Islam. These frequently develop under comparable sociological circumstances, whether in similar local contexts or as analogous types of responses to the challenges of modernity. Accordingly, modern forms of Sufism and locally rooted spiritualism are also subjects of our investigation. Thus, with its interest in the soul, the unity of being (vahdet-i vücud), and the relationship between self and God, Turkish spiritualism offers important local points of contact for the later development of other new religiosities. By contrast, modern Sufism in our view is subject to the same global processes as new religiosities in the West and therefore often shows very similar forms of community formation and self-spirituality as New Age.

Finally, the project also deals with the issue of “reenchantment.” “Reenchantment” is understood here in the sense of transformation of religious or spiritual geography and a parallel transformation of environmental understanding. Although not always distinguishable from the city in a sociological sense, due to its proximity to nature rural space allows for new forms of spiritual life and experience that may be discovered in alternative communal formations—whether temporarily for the purposes of recreation or adventure holidays or long term in the sense of new living arrangements.