Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Islamic Supremacy Alive and Well in Ankara

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Islamic Supremacy Alive and Well in Ankara

Article excerpt

Turkey, Past and Future

Supersessionism refers to the belief that Christians have superseded Jews in a new covenant with God. Islam, too, sees itself as superseding all previous divine revelation but, unlike Christianity, which canonized the Old Testament embedding long centuries of pre-Christian history into the Christian narrative, Islam freely erases history itself. But Kemalist Turkey appeared to offer a revolutionary break with Islamic tradition when it established a secular republic on the ashes of the Ottoman caliphate. For decades it has been held up as a model of a modem, westernized, Middle Eastern democracy, that happened to have a Muslim majority. Closer examination, however, reveals substantial "continuity between the late Ottoman Empire" and the republic1 as Turkish treatment of religious and ethnic minorities exposes an unacknowledged streak of Islamic supersessionism.


Islamic supersession can be understood in two senses, as replacement and as erasure. Going forward, Islam will supplant all other faiths. But Islam also controls the time before the birth of Muhammad; it claims to have preexisted all other faiths with the Qur'an preexisting all other scripture. Because Islam has always existed, all children are born Muslim although their parents may rear them in another faith. The proof text is in the reported words of Muhammad: "Every child is born according to God's plan; then his parents make him a Jew, a Christian, or a Magian [Zoroastrian]."2 The claim that Islam has always existed effectively erases all that went before Muhammad. The notion that Islam is the final, true faith, divinely ordained to rule everywhere, has driven Islamic imperialism for 1 ,400 years.3

Supersessionist erasure can also be enacted on the landscape. The ancient pagan shrine in Mecca was converted into the Muslim Kaaba. But the Muslim claim is not that monotheism has replaced pagan worship at the Kaaba in the way that a thousand Christian churches were built on pagan altars, but rather that the Kaaba was the "first house" of God (Qur'an 3:9697) built by Abraham and Ishmael.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem was superseded by the erection of the Dome of the Rock, bolstered by the myth of Muhammad's "Night Journey" to Jerusalem, erasing the pre-Islamic history of the temple and, with it, all Christian and Jewish claims.4 In later cases, however, sites are incorporated into Islam as symbols of Islamic imperial triumph. So it was when the great cathedral of St. Sophia in Constantinople, originally built in 360, was converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmet ? in 1453.

The fact that Christians and Jews continued to live under Muslim rule reinforced Islamic triumphalist beliefs because as "protected people" (or dhimmis), they publicly acknowledged their legal and institutional inferiority to Muslims. But with the rise of European nationalism during the nineteenth century, Islam encountered Christians and eventually Jews who claimed political and religious equality with Muslims and even rights to sovereignty in lands that had hitherto been part of the domain of Islam. Christian or Jewish sovereignty and equality challenge Islamic supersessionism.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the Turkish republic. Modern Turkey not only inherited supersessionist attitudes from Islam, it continued the policies of the Ottoman Empire in this regard.


Turkic speaking tribes reached Anatolia from Central Asia by the eleventh century, by which time they had already adopted Islam. By the twelfth century, after Anatolia slipped away from Seljuk Turk control, various tribes and strongmen had established principalities that conducted raids or ghaza against infidels and one another in the name of Islam and in search of riches and territory. One of these principalities, founded by Osman I in northwestern Anatolia, would become the core of a dynasty that would last for centuries. …

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