Green was the Name of my Civilization: Turkish Islamism in the Late 1970s
By Jan-Markus Vömel
In 1974, a short piece of vivid prose entitled “Green was the Name of my Civilization” appeared in the Milli Gazete (National Gazette), the main organ of Turkish Islamism at the time. It immediately took the reader into a dream world. “You are walking through lush green paths with the spirit of an empire,” it stated. In the houses along that path, children wake up to the sounds of birds and “the warmth of psalms whispered into their ears are the first drops in the heart’s ocean.” A harmonious family life takes place in those homes. The adhan would herald the Sultanate of the heavens five times a day. The children of these homes would be born as children of great faith. As “children of green,” their futures were bright, and they were capable of achieving greatness. As they grew old and their lives came to an end, their caskets would be wrapped in green flags and they would again be committed “to the bosom of green […] A life starting with green and ending with green”.
But then the dream ends, followed by a cruel awakening: Green was wiped out and the Green civilization banished. The day will come, though, the author ensured his readers, when it would rise to its former glory again.
Masterfully employing an emotive, idiosyncratic language that was characteristic of Turkish Islamism, the author, Sedat Yenigün, an Islamist activist and a gifted writer, had conjured up powerful images: Nostalgia for a lost civilization in harmony and wholeness, and longing for a simple, frugal life with a strong sense of authenticity and an overarching devotion to community, nation, and faith. “Green civilization” was housing and architecture, nature, a people’s historical experience, faith, family life; “Green” was meaning and soul, a state of mind, the heritage of generations and a historical mission. In a very small space, Yenigün managed to bring together the most prominent motifs of Turkish Islamist discourse: the cultural authenticity of Anatolian folk culture, the Turkish-Islamic historical experience, nostalgic visions of Ottoman everyday life, imperial prowess and self-assuredness, and determined subjects with a soldier-like spirit. The piece struck a chord with Islamists at the time and was still quoted years later when Islamist intellectuals held a symposium to honor its author.
Yet, towards the end of the 1970s, something had changed. The same author seemed far from such Turkist sensibilities and became fully emerged in Muslim world politics. Dissecting the problems of the global Ummah, Yenigün wrote with the same verve about Western imperialism, global capitalism, the Iranian revolution, Khomeini’s thought, and the historical mission of Islamist movements. With this transfer from traditional Turkish Islamism, often self-referentially termed national-mukaddesatçı (a Turkish form derived from Arabic mukaddes = “someone loyal to the holy and sacred”) towards the radical thought of transnational Islamism, Yenigün was a typical exponent of Turkish Islamism during the late 1970s and 1980s. Earlier Turkish Islamists had rejected Qutb, Mawdudi and the like as rootless innovators trying to form an illegitimate new Islamic creed on their own. In the second half of the 1970s, however, a new generation of young Islamist activists had emerged that embodied both traditionalist Turkish Islamism and radical transnational Islamism without having qualms over contradicting themselves. The late 1970s moment in Turkish Islamism lay exactly in this convergence of two schools of Islamist thought, with young activists injecting the dynamism of the global Islamic upsurge into conservative Turkish Islamism.
During the 1970s, Turkey had gone through a period of continuous crisis. Two military interventions marked the beginning and the end of the decade. Politicization went to new heights and captured entirely new sections of the population. Ever-changing coalition governments and early elections marked the political volatility of these years, and violent struggles between left- and right-wing factions escalated towards the end of the decade. In the economic realm, the Turkish economy suffered a major breakdown in 1979. Internal and external migration sped up and uprooted masses of people and left them in urban squatter settlements. This political fragmentation, though, was accompanied by cultural liberalism. The 1970s was an extraordinarily productive decade for Turkish cinema, literature, and arts. In this fecund and dynamic environment, Islamism flourished and transformed.
While the first generation of Islamist thinkers had hailed from urban elites, many names in the new 1970s generation were rural migrants, who usually came to cities in pursuit of education. They often had contact with traditionalist-conservative Turkish mukaddesatçı Islamism in their home regions and later joined circles of eminent figures like Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, who emulated the model of charismatic leadership of the small Sufi circles that had inspired their political stances and activism decades earlier. The second generation, however, emancipated themselves from the mukaddesatçı heritage without fully renouncing it. One catalyst for this transformative process was the influx of internationalist radical thought, which left its mark on the Turkish Islamist community via texts translated into Turkish from the mid-1960s onwards. Exposure to Muslim world politics also rose towards the end of the decade: The Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan both had energizing repercussions in Turkey. Following international Islamist thought, young Turkish Islamists more and more saw Islam as a perfect system and holistic order competing with the global capitalist and socialist systems. For this generation, Islam was the true global force against Western imperialism, while earlier Islamists had mostly stressed anti-communism and even favored alignment with the Western bloc.
Against this backdrop, a new plurality of schools, ideas, and media emerged from the late 1970s until the end of the 1980s. A new generation of Islamist intellectuals began to make its mark: Sedat Yenigün and others quit writing for the established national-conservative Islamist organs and founded their own magazines. With the literary-political magazine Mavera (founded 1976) another influential group of writers pushed to the fore, expressing their Islamists sentiments through poetry, literature and essays. A key text of new Turkish Islamism appeared two years later: Ismet Özel’s Üç Mesele (Three Issues, 1978). The 1970s also saw the first Islamist attempts at mass mobilization which became so crucial in the next decade: The National Turkish Student Union (MTTB – Milli Türk Talebe Birliği) had become an Islamist organizational hotbed that set many key figures of later years on a lifelong path of Islamist activism. With the Akıncılar groups (named after Ottoman cavalry) this student activism took even more action-oriented and street-protesting forms. Islamists at the time mostly refrained from political violence but were still caught up in it at times. Sedat Yenigün’s activism was cut short when unknown assailants assassinated the young writer in the summer of 1980.
With their youthful utopist activism and dynamism, the late 1970s’ generation of Turkish Islamists also left their imprint on the more mundane views of traditional Turkish mukaddesatçı Islamists in the Milli Görüş (National View) parties and elsewhere. The “1979 moment” of Turkish Islamism was one of self-confident youth activism energized by the feeling that that everything was possible and that they themselves were the avantgarde at the dawning of a new age. In contrast to the leftist and ultranationalist groups after the decisive military coup of September 1980, this dynamism helped Islamists take this momentum well into the 1990s, during which time Islamism would evolve into the most dynamic political, social, and cultural force in the country.
 Sedat Yenigün: Yeşildi Medeniyetimin Adı, Milli Gazete, 27 July 1974, 6; also in the later anthology of Yenigün’s writings: Bir Şehidin Notları. Sedat Yenigün 1950-1980, İstanbul: İnkilab Yayınları, 1990, 13-15
I am grateful to Halil Ibrahim Yenigün for providing additional information and commentary on this blog post.
Jan-Markus Vömel is a PhD student at the Universität Konstanz researching the history of the Islamic movement in Turkey. He studied history in Rostock, Konstanz and Istanbul. He earned his MA with a thesis on Sri Lankan colonial history in summer 2013. From December 2013 to March 2018 he was a member of the Leibnizpreis-Research Group ‘Global Processes’.
Citation: Jan-Markus Vömel, Green was the Name of my Civilization: Turkish Islamism in the Late 1970s, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.06.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18818
Further articles in the series “The ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East” on TRAFO:
Amir Moosavi (2018), Looking Back at the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East
Behrooz Moazami (2018), The Making and Unmaking of the Moments: From the 1979 Revolution to the Arab Spring
Yvonne Albers (2018), Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif
Jihane Sfeir (2018), The Disenchantment of the Left: Two Memories of the Palestinian Struggle
Shervin Malekzadeh (2018), The Forlorn Arab as Foil in the Curriculum of Postrevolutionary Iran
Joseph Ben Prestel (2018), When Threads Wear Thin: The West German Radical Left and Palestinian Groups at the End of the 1970s