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Turkey Faces West

Halide Edib Adîvar
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Turkey Faces West

Halide Edib Adîvar


Halide Edib Ad1var (Turkey, 1882–1964) gained worldwide renown as one of the first female writers and activists of the contemporary Islamic world. She received a traditional primary education, then enrolled as one of the first Muslim pupils at the American College for Girls, a missionary school in Istanbul. During high school and afterward, she translated numerous European novels and was deeply impressed by literary naturalism. Following the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, she began writing newspaper articles promoting Social Darwinism, positivism, and Turkism. Following World War I, Halide Edib participated in the founding of the Wilson Principles Society in Istanbul, but she turned to nationalism after the Greek occupation of Izmir in 1919. In fiery public speeches, she maintained that European bias against Islam had played an important role in the heavyhanded punishment and occupation of the Ottoman Empire. She joined the nationalist campaign in Anatolia and served at the front as a journalist with the rank of corporal (later sergeant). Yet her subsequent opposition to nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk, 1881–1938) caused her to leave Turkey in 1924, returning only in 1939. During this period she lectured and wrote prolifically in English. In her most important religious statement, a series of lectures delivered in India—excerpted in this selection—Halide Edib argued that separation of religion and state would rejuvenate Turkey and Islam. In 1940, she became professor and chair of the English Literature Department at Istanbul University; she also represented Izmir in the Turkish parliament between 1950 and 1954.1 Uğurol Barlas, Halide Edib Adîvar: Biyografya, Bibliyografya (Halide Edib Adîvar: Biography, Bibliography) (Istanbul, Turkey: Yurttaşş Yayînlarî, 1963); Ayşe Durakbaşa, Halide Edib: Türk Modernleşmesi ve Feminizm (Halide Edib: Turkish Modernization and Feminism) (Istanbul, Turkey: İletişim, 2000); İnci Enginün, Halide Edib Adîvar (Halide Edib Adîvar) (Ankara, Turkey: Kültür Bakanlîğî, 1989).

The Turk perhaps was never a nationalist in politics. Empire builders rarely are. Their ultimate and highest ideal in politics is inevitably some form of democracy. When the Turk became a Muslim, the democratic side of his nature was strengthened, for democracy is the dominating aspect of Islam. That part of Western idealism which preached equality among men took hold of the Ottoman mind at once. The Ottomans could not grasp the nationalist side of it, the separation of small groups into independent states. For their lack of understanding in this field they suffered more than any other race by the advent of Western ideals in the Near East.

Down to Tanzimat [Ottoman administrative reforms of the 19th century], the Ottoman Turks had believed that only Muslims could be politically equal. With Tanzimat they believed that all men could and ought to be politically equal, and once the principle applied in a mixed society of men, they could not conceive of the reason for political disintegration. This was their external lack of understanding.

In the advent of Western Ideals there was a greater and more important question. Islamic society was something different from Western society. Could it be possible to effect an all-round Westernization without altering the very nature of Islamic society? The Muslim state might reform its army upon modern lines, it might adopt the mechanical side of civilization with regard to transport, it might open special schools for training in certain professions and arts; it might even proclaim the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims—Islam had already proclaimed the rights of man in other lines a thousand years ago. But was it possible to alter the nature of Islamic society without altering Islam in itself’? And what was the dominating difference between Islamic society and that of the West which did not allow Westernization internally? It was the Islamic law. No change could be made in that aspect. Divine law administered by the ‘ulama’ [religious scholars] of the realm in Islamic society did not permit change. Hence superficially, the creative and critical faculties of the Turk seemed far behind those of Western peoples. But was Muslim Turkish society as immobile and stagnant as the other Islamic societies? Was there not an objective psychology at work all the time beneath the surface, trying to change or throw off all obstacles to its growth? We can find the right key to the changes in Turkey in recent times, in a study of the Turkish soul, struggling between religious orthodoxy and a freer, more vital racial instinct, in a long effort to express itself. As soon as we penetrate beneath the surface immobility, and observe how he freed himself from the rigid Arab rationalism of the Islamic Middle Ages, and how he threw off the tyranny of the Persian spirit which had tied him down to the repetition of ancient and uncongenial forms of thought, we see clearly the difference between the Muslim Turk and the other Muslims in the world.

The most static aspect of life in Islam is law, and religious law had given its character and shape to Turkish Islamic society. But from the very moment when the Turks had accepted Islam, and originated the class—‘ulama’—which was to preserve them from stepping outside the Divine Law, they began unconsciously to take those steps for change. In the eyes of the world, modern Turkey has only recently become a secular state, and to the casual observer it looks as though the change had been carried out by a single act overnight, and forced upon the Turks by the power of a terrorist government. But Turkey was not changed by one single step from a theocratic state into a secular one. The change is a logical culmination and result of a series of lesser changes in development. Nor is it yet complete. The final and latest secularization is only understandable [in the context of change] in the Ottoman Empire which has been going on for centuries.

The Arab mind has a metaphysical conception of the universe. It looks upon legislative power as belonging to God, and executive power to the caliph; and it regards the doctors of law as intermediaries between God and the caliph, who are to control the executive and see that he carries out the laws of God. If he fails, they are to cancel his contract and elect another caliph by the consent of the Islamic people. Semites, as well as Arabs, had formulated this conception of Divine Law before Muhammad did so. It was the Scriptures which ruled the Semitic peoples, and it is the Scriptures which rule them still.

It was different with the Turk. In his pre-Islamic state he had been accustomed to be ruled by manmade laws, and he is by nature more inclined than the other Islamic peoples to separate religion from the ordinary business of life. It is true that his laws were made for him by his chiefs, but all the same they were man-made. This streak in his psychology made itself felt immediately during the earliest centuries after his adoption of Islam.

When the Ottoman Turks founded the vast and complicated Ottoman state, sultans and governments began to make laws outside the Divine Law. It is true that these began as royal enactments and dealt with military and feudal organizations, which were virgin soil and unforeseen by the shari‘a (Islamic law). Nevertheless, the precedent was contrary to the teachings of the orthodox doctors, and no Arab, no other Muslim state, would have dared to do such a thing. This was the first stage. Sulayman [reigned 1520– 1566], called the Magnificent in the West, is known in Turkish history as the Lawgiver (Qanuni), the maker of laws. The very name is a direct contradiction of orthodox principles [that call God the sole Lawgiver]. Sulayman created the embryo of a criminal code which gradually replaced some of the texts of the shari‘a in penal matters. Such primitive measures as the cutting off of a thief's hand, the stoning of adulterers, and the flogging of wine drinkers, were replaced by imprisonment or fines. They are still applied in the kingdom of Ibn Sa‘ud [circa 1880– 1953, founder of Saudi Arabia], who prides himself on having restored the Hijaz to Islam.

In Sulayman's time the word qanun (man-made law) entered Turkish jurisprudence side by side with shari‘a (God-made law). The qanun was at first in an inferior position, but it gradually gained ground and expanded until it overshadowed the shari‘a. The very name qanun is a direct contradiction of orthodox principles, and in those days out of all the Islamic states it existed only in the Ottoman Empire.

The proclamation of Tanzimat, 1839, which declared the political equality of all the church nations [that is, religious communities], also introduced an entirely new series of man-made laws. A criminal code, taken from the French code of 1810, a commercial code, and a judicial organization copied from France, with a Tribunal of the First Instance, Courts of Appeal, and a Court of Cassation, all came into existence. After Tanzimat, therefore, two kinds of courts existed side by side in the Ottoman Empire: (1) The shari‘a courts, with only Muslim judges, which were only concerned with family matters, marriage, divorce, and inheritance of the Muslims in the Empire; (2) the nizamiye [state] courts, where Christian, Muslim, and Jewish judges sat side by side and judged all the Ottoman subjects according to the laws of the realm. The penal section was derived entirely from the French legal system; the civil section was the codified shari‘a, or Mecelle[-i Ahkam-î ‘Adliye, Compendium of Legal Statutes, 1876]; and the procedure throughout was French. Hence, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had passed from God-made to man-made laws in a very large section of her jurisprudence.

To all these changes the ‘ulama’, the doctors and judges of Islamic law, made no opposition. With the Turkish outlook on life, which is readier to separate this and the next world from each other, they accepted changes in the laws which would have made the ‘ulama’ of other countries denounce the Turks as heretics. No other believers in the Islamic law but Turks in those days could have permitted a separate criminal code and a separate commercial code without deeming the foundations of Islam shaken. Yet the opposition to these changes had not come from the ‘ulama’ but from the rank and file of the army, which was reactionary up to the time of Mahmud [II, Ottoman sultan, reigned 1808–1839]. The Muslim Turks of the ‘ulama’ class considered only one feature of the Islamic law as unchangeable, that part which concerned the family, and this they intended to keep within the boundary of God-made law. [. . .]

The adoption of the Swiss code in place of the Islamic family law in 1926 was a reform of a much more serious nature. It could have been put through without much coercion, although there would have been some bitter criticism.

A year after the sultan's government had been abolished [in 1922] in Constantinople [Istanbul], there was serious discussion whether the revised family law of 1916, abrogated by the sultan's government in 1919, should be restored with or without alterations. In 1924 the National Assembly took up the question, and it aroused great interest, especially among the women of the cities and of Constantinople in particular. At a large meeting of women in the Nationalist Club there was elected a committee of women to study the situation and send a petition to the National Assembly. The committee made a selection of the family laws of Sweden, France, England, and Russia, and having found the Swedish law most desirable, it sent a translated copy with a petition attached to it to the National Assembly. Their petition had at the time no definite result. But there was a group of very keenly interested young deputies working for the adoption of a Western code rather than the restoration of the revised family law of 1916. Mahmut Esat Bey [Bozkurt, 1892–1943], the young deputy of Smyrna [Izmir] who became Minister of Justice in 1925, was one of the leading spirits in the movement. In 1926, the law following the Swiss code was passed. It can be termed perhaps one of the two most significant and important changes that have taken place during the dictatorship. This particular law will mean the final unification of the Turk with the family of European nations, by giving the Turkish family that kind of stability which constitutes the Western Ideal of the family.

The adoption of the Swiss law, which is entirely Western, instead of revision and alteration of the Islamic family law, which could have made marriage a freer if a less stable institution and brought it nearer to the present Russian family law, was one more triumph in Turkey of the Western Ideal over the Eastern Ideal, and one of more permanent import than is realized at present.

The educational rights that Turkish women have gained are no longer questioned even by the smallest minority, and the sphere of women's work has been constantly widening. It is perhaps a blessing that they have not obtained the vote. Thus they have been protected from the danger of being identified with party politics, and their activities outside the political world could not be stopped for political reasons.

In the Turkish home, women continue to be the ruling spirit, more so, perhaps, because the majority contribute to the upkeep by their labor. At the present time, offices, factories, and shops are filled with women workers in the cities; and in addition to their breadwinning jobs, and sometimes in connection with them, women have interested themselves in child welfare and hygiene, and in organizing small associations to teach poor women embroidery, sewing, weaving, and so on. The favorite profession of Turkish women today, after teaching, is medicine. All this is the city aspect of the situation. In the rural districts, women still continue to live their old life with its drudgery, and will continue to live under these conditions until a more up-to-date agricultural system is adopted and the rudiments of education can be given in those districts. It would not be an underestimate to say that something like 90 percent of the Turkish women are very hard workers; the question is not how to provide more work for them but how to train them better for their work and to give them more leisure. The small percentage of the idle rich (much smaller in Turkey than elsewhere) do on a miniature scale what the idle rich of other countries do. Unfortunately, Turkey is judged by the life and attitude of these idlers, who are conspicuous to the eyes of the traveler, rather than by the hard-working majority.

On the whole, within the last twenty years women in Turkey as elsewhere have profited by changes more than men. It has been fortunate for Turkey that the emancipation of women there was the result of an all-party program rather than a sex struggle. The contribution of the Republic [of Turkey, founded 1923] to women's social emancipation in the introduction of the new civil code has brought the movement to its highest and historically its most important stage. But a generation at least must pass before its full effects can be seen. The general criticism that with Westernization a great deal of evil and Western immorality has penetrated into Turkish customs is not very important. The evil affects a small number of the idle, while the good penetrates into the majority, although more slowly.

In 1928, the clause in the Constitution which declared Islam the state religion was abolished. In the foreign press this step was criticized very severely, on the ground that it amounted to the abolition of religion in Turkey. This criticism was not only superficial but inaccurate. If religion, in the best sense, is in any danger of losing its hold on the Turkish people, it is not due to absence of governmental interference but to governmental interference itself. The men who sponsored this measure may or may not have been atheists, but the measure itself does not do away with religion. No secular state can logically have a basic law which establishes a state religion. The abolition of the clause from the Constitution was therefore in true and necessary accord with the nature of the new Turkish state at its last stage of secularization. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.” [Bible, Books of Matthew, chapter 22, verse 21; Mark, chapter 12, verse 17; Luke, chapter 20, verse 25] The Turks have at last rendered up the things that were Caesar's or the state's; but Caesar or the state still keeps things which belong to God. Unless the Presidency of Religious Affairs is made free, unless it ceases to be controlled by the office of the Prime Minister, it will always be a governmental instrument. In this respect the Muslim community is less privileged and less free than the Christian Patriarchates. These are free institutions which decide upon all questions of dogma and religion according to the convictions of their particular group. The Islamic community is chained to the policy of the government. This situation is a serious impediment to the spiritual growth of Islam in Turkey, and there is always a danger in it of the use of religion, for political ends.

Now that the state has freed itself entirely from religious control, it should in turn leave Islam alone. Not only should it declare, “Every major Turkish citizen is free to adopt the religion he (or she) wishes to adopt,” but it should also allow the Muslim community to teach its religion to its youth. Now that the schools give no religious instruction, and the religious institutions are abolished, the Islamic community, if it is going to last as a religious community, must create its own means of religious teaching, its own moral and spiritual sanctions. Further, in the ritual and in the fundamentals of worship, there are likely to be changes among the Muslims in Turkey. Those changes should be allowed to take place without governmental interference. The occasional proposals by the university professors of new forms of worship in Islam—such as substituting organ music for vocal music, entering the mosques without taking off the shoes, placing benches so that the faithful may pray seated, and doing away with a number of complicated body movements in prayer—have met with profound displeasure. All these changes might take place by the wishes of the people, but governmental interference in this most sacred part of men's rights would constitute a dangerous precedent. It would fetter the religious life of the Turks and bring politics into religion. The fundamental meaning of the long and very interesting phases of secularization is that Turkish psychology separates this world from the next. To take religion out of the political state, but at the same time to keep the state in religious affairs, is one of the contradictory aspects of the last phase which must be corrected.

Not only in Turkey, but wherever religion is interfered with by governments, it becomes a barrier, and an unremovable one, to peace and understanding. Yet the fundamental doctrine of every religion is peace and the brotherhood of men. If only religions could be freed from political influences all over the world, the barriers between peoples of different creeds would break down sooner than one supposes.

Bibliography references:

Halidé Edib, Turkey Faces West: A Turkish View of Recent Changes and their Origin (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1930), pp. 76–82, 226–232. Introduction by M. şükrü Hanioğlu.


1. Uğurol Barlas, Halide Edib Adîvar: Biyografya, Bibliyografya (Halide Edib Adîvar: Biography, Bibliography) (Istanbul, Turkey: Yurttaşş Yayînlarî, 1963); Ayşe Durakbaşa, Halide Edib: Türk Modernleşmesi ve Feminizm (Halide Edib: Turkish Modernization and Feminism) (Istanbul, Turkey: İletişim, 2000); İnci Enginün, Halide Edib Adîvar (Halide Edib Adîvar) (Ankara, Turkey: Kültür Bakanlîğî, 1989).

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