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Authoritarianism and Messianic Conceptions of Politics in Turkey 1850-2015

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MESSIAH (Authoritarianism and Messianic Conceptions of Politics in Turkey 1850-2015)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-08-31

Project MESSIAH addresses one of the most pressing questions of contemporary global politics: namely making sense of the resurgence of authoritarian populist regimes. The project focuses on Turkey, one of the iconic cases of strong man politics, to uncover a previously ignored aspect of authoritarian politics: temporality, that is, the different modes political actors imagine the past, present and the future. The main hypothesis of the project has been that the contemporary political regime in Turkey is better understood as a Messianic project whereby the leader appears as a savior type sanctioned and prophesized by local traditions in his role of restoring the community to its imagined past grandeur. The project argues that by focusing on this particular form of legitimation and attending narratives, we can understand the pathways to populist authoritarianism better. While the project focuses on Turkish politics, it also proposes that Turkey is not a sui generis case, and that we can come up with an ideal-type of Messianic regimes and leadership to be applied in other cases. Additionally, the project sheds light on how politics is understood and practiced in different cultural contexts while maintaining that such cultural differences still allow for comparison and theorizing rather than insisting on "essential and insurmountable" differences between political cultures.
This project is highly significant for contemporary global politics considering the acceleration of authoritarian politics and draconian measures adopted by many governments around the world. The focus on Messianic dimension is also a key point since apocalyptic scenarios are gaining purchase in popular culture. While it is common to label political leaders as Messianic figures in public debates, this project points to the necessity of taking such labels seriously in scholarship and achieve a more complete understanding of the process we are going through. The situation also calls for an analysis of how the liberal values and principles that has governed international society for some time began to lose its hegemony to be replaced by indigenous narratives and projects.
The project work mainly involves exploring what kinds of historical and temporal narratives have existed in Turkish politics from the 19th century until present by focusing on a long term analysis of particular concepts (decline, revival, regeneration, restoration, development) around which such narratives and projections are woven. As such, the project mainly involved two related inquiries. The first is empirical work which involves documenting the historical transformation and prevalence of Messianic concepts. The second is theoretical and conceptual which involves properly framing Messianic politics in dialogue with the literature on temporality, populism, charismatic leadership and religious movements.
Accordingly, the PI has scanned particular local archives in Turkey in order to uncover different temporal and political projections at large in Turkish society. The data collection was carried out in both physical and digitized archives. Parallel to data collection, the PI has spent a significant amount of time reviewing literature on time, temporality, historiography, religious movements and case studies on contexts other than Turkey.
The project results were frequently presented at academic and non-academic events in Norway and international workshops/conferences during the two years. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has restricted our capacity for dissemination, the proliferation of online infrastructures for communication has opened alternative venues. The PI was able to organize an international workshop and invite scholars from different contexts (USA, Brazil, Mexico, India, Russia, Europe, Iran, Israel and Greece). The project results regarding Turkey, the hypothesis and arguments were presented by the PI, which was followed by other scholars appropriating the Messianism framework to their own contexts. The workshop has been a success and the contributors not only confirmed the accuracy and usefulness of the Messianism framework but also helped refine some of the theoretical points. Thus the project was able to come up with a working description of Messianic regimes.
The PI has been working on publishing and publicizing the project and he has produced one journal article on the origins of revivalism in Turkey and edited a special issue on the transformation of political concepts in the Middle East. The main deliverable of the project is an edited volume, which will include the contributions to the international workshop.
The project work was able to propose a novel approach to contemporary situation in Turkey by highlighting its historical depth and its temporal projections. The project has not only produced a classification of different religious movements in Turkey based on their temporal narratives and relations to politics, but also it successfully demonstrated the value of temporal analysis and conceptual history (both novel approaches) in Turkish historiography.
The project results also contribute to the literature on global populism which has so far highlighted many characteristics of populist regimes. The Messianism framework, however, was able to additionally highlight the ignored temporality dimension as a key to understanding the process through which these authoritarian regimes came to be. Under this framework, the project was able to bring together a highly interdisciplinary outlook which draws on political science, sociology, anthropology, study of religion, history and area studies. The international workshop was particularly exemplary in that regard by representing a wide variety of scholars who were able to engage in dialogue over Messianism.
Through the workshop the project has also pointed towards the global networks underlying Messianic projects (Christian evangelism, Muslim fundamentalism, far right extremism etc) as well as their awareness of each other through heightened communication provided by social media. Indeed, Messianic ideas appear to be a synchronizing device between different political cultures by virtue of proposing a Manichean outlook to global politics. The project has also revealed the significant role of historical narratives and history education in national contexts in fostering antagonistic politics.
The results of the project are highly significant for global politics and society. This historically informed analysis of Messianic populism presents us with significant clues as to the roots of contemporary chaos in international society as well as the culpability and complicity of conventional discourses and actors in this process. How has the hegemony of liberal political discourse eroded over time and for what reasons? What kinds of social and economic factors pushed people to embrace hero worship and cult of personality? What caused Messianic apocryphal narratives to persist in time and grow hegemonic? How to reassess the role of religion in politics? Have we ever been actually secular? While these are grand normative questions that cannot be answered by a single person, the project has succeeded in providing an innovative perspective which will undoubtedly be helpful to policy makers and civil society actors in determining alternative courses of action in their effort to counteract the erosion of human values.
(From left to right) Ali ibn Abi Talib, Haji Bektash Veli and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.