Orhan Pamuk on the Turkish Modernization Project: Is It a Farewell to the West?

By Daglier, Uner | Humanitas, Spring-Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Orhan Pamuk on the Turkish Modernization Project: Is It a Farewell to the West?


Daglier, Uner, Humanitas


The mainstay of the Turkish modernization project in the twentieth century has been relegating religion to the private sphere. To this end, traditions associated with Islamic civilization were banned from Turkish public life: women gained a degree of public presence and the semblance of equality; Western style clothing became the only acceptable mode in public life; traditional laws with religious character gave way to modern legal codes; and, above all, the Arabic script was replaced by its European counterpart.

With all due respect to modern Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk, especially his vision for a new Turkey and statesmanlike tact in laying its grounds, the political and intellectual climate of the 1920s was more suitable for carrying out such a radical program of cultural change than that of our time. The reigning intellectual climate in Turkey and the West has changed drastically since then. The success of postmodernist critiques of reason and Enlightenment in the West gradually undercut the intellectual supports of secularization in Turkey, and the westernized Turkish intelligentsia came to be divided within itself. (1)

The Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk (2006 literature) has been skeptical of Turkey's state-led modernization project from early in his career. At its current and most mature state of evolution, his perspective seems to be in tune with that of contemporary critics of the Enlightenment in the West who claim that there is not a binary opposition between modernity and religion. (2) This aspect of Pamuk's art drew international academic attention after the publication of Snow, his self-avowed first and last political novel. (3) Leonard Stone interprets Pamuk's artistic views on the rise of political Islam and the future of democracy in Turkey as cautious optimism. David Coury argues--perhaps erroneously (Pamuk was critical of secular republicanism from early on)--that Snow signifies a shift in Pamuk's political loyalties. (4) Having said this, Pamuk's bitter criticism of state-led modernization in Turkey does not necessarily correspond to Islamic ties or sympathies. If anything, Pamuk defines himself as a rationalist, (5) and according to his former translator Guneli Gun's account, he is a nonbeliever. (6) Scholarly opinion, however, is divided over the extent of his commitment to rationalism. The majority of Pamuk's critics characterize him as a relativist, (7) or a skeptical postmodernist, (8) but Marshall Berman, on the contrary, maintains that Pamuk would probably die for ideas including modernity, the Enlightenment, and secular humanism. (9)

This article seeks to interpret Pamuk's emerging optimism in Snow concerning the rise of political Islam and the future of democracy in Turkey from a culturalist perspective on modernization and development, which holds that some cultures are more suitable for social, political, and economic progress than others. (10) Within this context, this article maintains that, in contradistinction to Pamuk's earlier novels, the lack of a reference to religio-cultural obstacles to individuation, modernity, and even democracy in Snow is unconvincing. To go a step further, Pamuk's covert argument for Islamic modernity in Snow (which is a variation of the multiple modernities theory) at the expense of a westernized secular polity in Turkey is insufficiently grounded. Arguably, Pamuk's earlier novels are based on a more sober understanding of the connection between culture and progress. For example, in The Black Book, Pamuk is bitterly critical of the state-led Turkish modernization project and its benevolently despotic masterminds for seeking to abandon Turkey's traditional values and identity. Paradoxically, however, he does not engage in a concrete attempt to vindicate those traditions or offer a viable political alternative to state-led westernization or secular modernity. (11) Rather, in My Name is Red Pamuk suggests that westernization in the Ottoman Empire and in the later Turkish Republic is bound to fail because of deep-seated religious and cultural traditions that hinder the prospects for individuation and modernity. …

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