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Kemal Silay
Turkish Studies Program

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, August 24, 2010

IU Bloomington to host international conference, 'The Turks and Islam'

Aug. 24, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- More than 60 scholars in history, art, literature, religion and political science will gather at Indiana University Bloomington for an international conference on how Turkic-speaking peoples have interacted with Islam over the centuries.

While many may be more familiar with Islam in the modern state of Turkey, the great majority of the Turkic-speaking peoples began converting to Islam toward the end of the 9th century.

Modern Turkey and its Ottoman past is an indispensable part of this longer history. Rising around 1300 in Northwestern Anatolia and becoming the most significant world power by the time of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566), the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire correspond roughly to what is called today the "Middle East."

In addition to the Republic of Turkey, the numerous Turkic republics of today include Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan -- all with predominantly Muslim populations.

Kemal Silay, the Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies chair and director of the Turkish Studies Program in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, said the conference taking place on Sept. 11-12 helps to fill a gap in today's scholarship on the history and development of Turkic Islam. It also aims to promote awareness about the significant distinctions between the religion of Islam as a cultural phenomenon and the many forms of the global Islamist ideology of our time.

"There are many reputable scholarly works available on different aspects of Turkic Islam, but I think, given the context that we are in today and the political climate, this conference fills a great need," said Silay, the conference organizer.

Scholars are coming from across the United States, as well as from Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, England, Cyprus, India, Georgia, Germany, Uzbekistan, Bosnia, and Turkey. This is the first academic conference in the United States dedicated solely to the concept of "the Turks and Islam."

Other than a special reception and dinner, the conference is free and open to the public. It will take place at the Indiana Memorial Union, 900 E. Seventh St.

Ahmet Karamustafa, professor of history and religious studies at Washington University of St. Louis, will give the keynote address, "Sofu, Dervi, Dede: Sufis and Popular Islam in Medieval Anatolia," at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11 in the State Room East.

"A great majority of people in the United States have a rather limited understanding of Islam, especially when they see little else in the media but Islamist apologists and ideologues -- by this, I mean lawful Islamists -- or Jihadist militants and terrorists. Islamism has highjacked my religion in the 21st century," Silay said. "The Turks and the role that Islam has played in their histories and civilizations prove that this religion can be a positive and constructive aspect of human endeavors."

Silay explained that, historically speaking, under the Turks, Muslims did not strictly follow such fundamentalist and reductionist divisions as those associated with "Sunni vs. Shiite." Rather, Islam involved hundreds of Sufi movements, which some adherents of orthodox Islam elsewhere consider outside the sphere of their faith.


A "menakib-name," a medieval Islamic hagiographic manuscript.

Print-Quality Photo

"These movements are different and pluralistic paths to God," he said. "Turkish Islam is a combination of all of these traditions. When you look at the popular Islam practiced all over Anatolia today, or throughout the centuries, you won't just find orthodox interpretations of the Qur'an, the Shari'a, but you'll discover a mélange of things, a pluralistic set of traditions that also includes many elements from Judaism, Christianity and pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions."

For an example, Silay points to a copy of a "menakib-name," a medieval Islamic hagiographic manuscript that features a particular interpretation of Islam that falls into the larger category of Sufism. He emphasizes the importance of such sources in understanding the various and immensely different manifestations of "Islam" throughout the centuries.

But the conference is not simply about the past. Although the Republic of Turkey has been increasingly integrated with the West through membership in organizations such as the Council of Europe, NATO, and the G-20, it also has increasingly been the scene of a political struggle between the secular Muslims and various factions of Islamist forces -- accelerated especially during the past decade.

"Some analysts today, including myself, fear that Turkey is moving away from Western democratic and pluralistic values as it reinvents itself as a regional and global Islamist power," Silay said. "This whole process of counter-revolution could result in a new Turkey, one that might shock the world. But I still have a glimmer of hope that I will be proven completely wrong."

The conference is sponsored by the Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies Chair, the Office of the Vice President for International Affairs, the Office of the Provost, the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, and the Turkish Studies Program.