Writing Religion

First published as: Book Review: ‘Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam’ by Markus Dressler on Blogcritics.

DresslerThe Alevi community in Turkey has ties to the lineage of Shiite Islam while also having geographic roots in what is now the Turkish state. They are neither Sunni nor fully Turkish. This has not stopped, however, both the secular Turkish state and certain members of the Turkish academic community in wielding the Alevi as pawns in a chess game of constructing a national-religious Turkish identity. This reconceptualized construction of the Alevis is aimed at reducing their socioreligious and political otherness in order to assimilate them into the nation-in-formation — Turkey. Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam, then, is an important study within the field of religious studies in that it highlights the complexity of understanding secularism and reveals the power that religious scholars wield over their subjects of study.

In the first section of his book, Dressler poses the question: How did we get from Kızılbaş to Alevi? The former were described as a group of immoral heretics that eventually, as the word changed, were re-signified as a group of Turkish, yet heterodox Muslims. In other words, a people once considered less than were incorporated into the national-religious identity of the emerging Turkish state in order to create a myth of national unity. It is as if Israel had remained a nation-state after A.D. 70 and, at some point throughout their long history, found a way to incorporate the Samaritans into their national-religious-political identity. The problem, however, is that in order to do this the Israelites would have had to sweep any cultural, theological, or political differences between them and the Samaritans underneath the historical rug. And it is precisely this, Dressler points out, that the Turkish secular state did to the Alevi for the purpose of creating a national, unified identity.

In the second half of Writing Religion, Dressler turns to the academy and its role in facilitating the Alevi re-signification. Mehmed Fuad Köprülü, a Turkish academic, created the historical framework that made it possible to place certain groups from the periphery of Ottoman-Turkish public and Islamic discourse into the center of the narrative of the national and religious evolution of the Turks. Dressler finds Köprülü’s facilitated re-signification of the Alevi unremarkable, for Köprülü was only working within the academic context of his time. What is of concern for Dressler, however, is that Köprülü’s work on the Alevi had yet — until Dressler — to be critically reevaluated.

These two things then — the re-signified term “Alevi” and the framework created by Köprülü — exerted pressure upon the Alevi to assimilate to a new, external model of what it meant to be both religious and Turkish. This process of created nationalism, according to Dressler, can be viewed as both the work of integration and assimilation, which calls for a unitary religion that will strengthen the moral community of the nation.

Dressler’s Writing Religion highlights the need for a critical re-investigation of the concepts that the academic study of religion has inherited from classical religionists. Dressler posits that only when the methodology used by scholars of religion is based on a critical approach to those same concepts can scholars advance more complex inquiries into the dynamics of inner-Islamic difference and plurality. While Dressler is writing about inner-Islamic studies in particular, he advice is not lost on the religious studies community in general. If Dressler’s work does anything, then it surely unveils the homogenizing impact of secularization upon nationhood. In other words, if the desire is to create a unified majority that the nation-state can represent, then religious and cultural particularities cannot help but be lost in the process.

Dressler also shows, and most importantly for our purposes, that scholars of religion must tread with great care when studying the “other.” Köprülü’s work on the Alevi established a paradigm for wrongly understanding a particular people group, which, for nearly a century, resulted in the marginalization and oppression of the Alevi. While Dressler seeks to redress this misconception in Writing Religion, his monograph appears to be fighting a lone battle against the more general and secular Turkish assumptions that the Alevi are a heterodox group of Turkish Muslims that comprise part of the Turkish national whole. The reality is far more complex.

In the end, one can never assume that their categories, methodologies, or conclusions are both academically and historically benign. To study religion is to make a statement about — at the very least — the culture, beliefs, and practices of others. If scholars are to avoid wielding others as pawns in the academic game of chess, then it is paramount that religious scholars internalize Dressler’s methodological cautions.