Istanbul is a city in history: it is real and existent. It is a city that has been variously described as the queen of the world's metropolises, the envy of rival civilisations and the foremost prize in the clash of empires. As a historical city, Istanbul possesses a past that is both glorious and dishonourable, civilised and barbarous, proud and painful. As an imperial polis, Istanbul has seen emperors and warlords, righteous sovereigns and tyrannical usurpers, even harlots and eunuchs, sit on its throne. It has known the sweet taste of victory and triumph, prosperity and peace, respect and honour. It has equally felt the bitter pain of humiliation and failure, misery and anarchy, disgrace and defeat.
After centuries of imperial splendour, it was besieged, humiliated, and ultimately conquered by alien nomads. Unlike Rome, however, it was not burned to the ground but was given another glorious life. Nevertheless, the conquerors gave it a new name, identity and destiny: the 'New Rome' of Christendom became the 'Sublime Porte' of Dar al-Islam. Only in our own century, Istanbul was abandoned as the seat of power and rule by the creators of the new national republic. Though it lost authority and symbolic lustre, it retained power and economic wealth. The tale of the fluctuating fortunes of this ancient rival of Eternal City is a well-known chapter in the story of humanity's march towards self-realisation and is found scattered throughout the various annals and documents of history. It is not a tale that we intend to recapitulate here in any way.
The theoretical vision espoused here, on the other hand, is more sensitive to the fact that Istanbul is a city of today: it is not a symbolic monument of some dead and extinct civilisation but the actual home of a living and struggling citizenry. However much it may cherish its proud heritage and glorious past, Istanbul is a contemporary city that is constantly involved in a struggle for survival and which must continually strive to maintain its wellbeing. Sadly, it is also a city burdened with all the distressing problems of modern urbanism. Nevertheless, as a living city, Istanbul is a city of dreams and visions, a city of universal longing and eternal hope, a city located in the timeless imagination of humanity, a city with a mission and a role in the future. It is this commitment to universalism and humanity that both justifies and legitimates the present reflection which, for all its recognition of the canons of historical existence, promotes a trans-historical vision of the human reality.
Needless to say that any reflection on the human condition, whether religious, philosophical or merely ideological, inevitably transports us to the junction of transcendence and temporality, of eternity and history, of the ultimate purpose of human existence and the pragmatics of such an existence. It is here, in envisioning Istanbul as a city situated in the nowhere-land (Na-Kuja-Abad) of trans-historical perfection and eternal bliss, in making Istanbul a test-case for utopian reflection as it were, that we may confront, understand and 'de-construct' some of the most potent and seductive myths of our time. Utopian reflection provides us, in other words, an eminently suitable methodological apparatus with which to take measure of the spiritual, moral, and even material wellbeing of our world.
The Legitimacy of Utopia in Political Theory
The end of the Cold War, which has brought the ideological charade of choosing between Marxism-Leninism and global capitalism to an abrupt closure, has proved to be, once the initial euphoria has ebbed down, a time of crisis and disillusionment for the humanitarian conscience. Not only have elitist and supremacist worldviews gained ascendancy, but hegemonic and iniquitous institutions of power have strengthened their hold on an ever more asymmetric world as well. While an erstwhile Marxist bemoans that our situation today 'has its roots in the failure of social consciousness to imagine positive and progressive alternatives'1, the more radical, Third-World thinker identifies the underlying anguish of our times 'as a basic crisis of vision, a decline of engagement with utopias..'2
Utopian thought and reflection does not signify an escapist route to inaction, providing legitimacy and respectability to all kinds of immoral doctrines that incite men to drop out of the historical struggle. No, Utopia is not a worthless fantasy but has 'a foundation in the structure of man himself'; for ... 'it belongs to man's being to think in utopian terms.'3 It is in reflecting over his own situation, in striving to overcome the problem of finitude, that man's utopian vision comes into play. For man is a being that is able to transcend the givens of his limited and chaotic universe and bestow its cosmic nothingness a shape and a form. Utopian vision thus liberates man from the constraints of his present. Or expressed differently, 'a utopia ... is a form of suggestiveness from afar. It is primarily ... a critique of the present.'4
Even the supremely modernist critical theory admits that utopian vision and imagery cannot be fully eliminated from political consciousness, for it is in the nature of reason itself to be utopian. Indeed, an enthusiastic supporter of the modernist project of rationality is cognisant that the modern theory of norm can 'motivate us only if it also contains a utopian potential.'5 Behind this insight lies the realisation that 'utopianism' is different from the theories of historical progress, for whereas 'progressivism' envisages fulfilment as the realisation of the implicit potentials of the present, utopian consciousness, by contrast, perceives, in the moment of realisation, a radical break between present and the future. Little wonder that the most radical forms of political protest are usually animated by the utopian spirit.
Far more significant in any conversation on utopia is the realisation that historical thinking itself presupposes utopian consciousness. For in order to 'understand history, that is, to have historical consciousness and consciousness and activity, we must posit utopia at beginning and at the end.'6 Lest this discussion give rise to the misconception that utopia is part and parcel of religious consciousness alone, it must be added that secular utopias are as pervasive and compelling as the religious ones. In fact, we need not forget that some of the most potent, and potentially dangerous, utopias are secular, like the utopia of enlightenment, the utopia of technology, the utopia of society, the utopia of freedom and so forth. We must now bring this discussion to a close by emphasising that utopia is not merely a positive vision, a revelation of critical consciousness that finds its fulfilment in a radical transformation of the human situation. No, by its very nature, and especially if construed literally and 'fundamentalistically', utopia assumes an incarnation of destructive forces. It does after all forget the truth of man's finitude, alienation and sinfulness. There is however the 'transcendence of utopia' in that its positive elements remain in spite of the power of the negative. It is therefore eminently apt to end his reflection on utopia by claiming that 'it is the spirit of utopia that conquers utopia.'7
Despite all the discomforts of the utopian vision, it cannot be denied that it helps us measure the spiritual, moral, and even material wellbeing of our world and, as such, it has a legitimate role to play in our reflection on the city of Istanbul.
The Assault on Transcendence
Behind the unwillingness of our age to engage with utopias lies the metaphysical failure of nerve that characterises modernity and its postmodernist offshoots. For modernism embarked on its voyage of ideological discovery by rejecting the 'classical answer' to the political problem. Thus, whereas the goal of political life for all classical political philosophers is virtue, and the order most conducive to virtue is the aristocratic republic, the modern position is to deem the classical solution as 'unrealistic'8. Indeed, there is a general turn away from transcendentalism to immanentism, from normativism to positivism and from idealism to historicism, all in the name of realism. Obviously, we are dealing with a new conception of 'reality' in modern political philosophy, the most spectacular annunciation of which is the sacrosanct modernist doctrine about the abolition of theocracy by secularism. Pre-modern theory, according to modernist polemics, confounds political order with transcendent order. By intermingling the political problem of peace in the city with the moral quest for truth in the soul, it creates political systems that are perforce inefficient, parochial and tyrannical. Modernist systems, by contrast, engender political communities that honour and even actualise freedom, justice and equality.
The goal of political theory, accordingly, is to swear unswerving fidelity to 'historical realities' and demonstrate the validity of its vision by conceiving political structures that are viable in the world of history hic et nunc. Paradoxically, however, the world of history has refused to redeem the modernist pledge. For once the metaphysical scale had been tipped in favour of immanence and historicity, political philosophy had no option but to go through all the motions of intellectualisation and humanisation, including the proclamation of 'end-of-history', in order to cling on to whatever little meaning that a disenchanted historical world would yield. With each empirical advance, with each encroachment of the transcendent by the immanent, political reflection was left with an ever smaller chunk of meaningful reality to feed on. The politics of temporal meaning commissioned the recasting of eternity in the mould of history, but it received, on the completion of the project, nothing but an amorphous rubble of 'contingency'!9
While the quarrel between theory and of history is as old as man's reflection on things political, it is with Machiavelli that political science becomes conscious of the irreconcilable moral dilemma - the incompatibility of individual and political truths - that it had previously only faintly suspected. However, it is also from Machiavelli that political theory receives its characteristically modern bias towards history and acquires its uncompromisingly immanentist metaphysical posture. For, it was the Machiavellian claim about the temporal nature of political order (he believed that man inhabits a world which is ruled neither by himself, nor by gods, but by time; that ultimately man's miseries stem neither from a flaw in his nature, nor from constraints that are external to him, but from the finitude and temporality of his existence) that secularised political science and set western tradition on its long historicist trek to the ideological cul-de-sac of post-modernist relativism.
Revulsion against transcendence now extends to all forms of societal discourse, and has indeed become the central motif of modernity's self-definition. Here are a few, random examples: A contemporary political scientist asserts: 'Civil Society [read: Bourgeois society.] is the first social formation in history which derives its legitimation from immanent as opposed to transcendent norms'. 10 Similarly, a perceptive student of contemporary Muslim discourse defines modernity, perhaps uncannily, as 'the sort of politically relevant discourse mediated by intellectuals once the idea of rationality is recognised as embodied in society, no longer confined to a transcendent logos'11 The ultimate conflict between Islam and modernity, it ought to be clear by now, is neither over governance, nor over technology, not even over society and social engineering but over _transcendence_ and the nature of ultimate reality. As against the immanentist claim of modernity, Islam holds that the ultimate reality is transcendent. Consequently, human reality, inasmuch as it is part of the ultimate reality, stretches beyond the authority of the state and the coercive world-order that sustains it.
History, Relativism and the Crisis of Values
The problem with the modernist solution is that by conceiving the reign of the political as 'merely temporal', it banishes transcendence from political - public - consciousness and comes to espouse a kind of relativism that makes - pace all the motions of consensual decision-making - every political judgement contingent and arbitrary! Modern political theory thus ends up, contradictory to its original ambition, by abolishing the regime of norm and rationality. In political life, there are no fixed-ends, no binding taboos, no categorical imperatives. (Indeed, the crisis of values has spilled over from politics to ethics as well.) Postmodern theory, having renounced the authority of reason, as modernity earlier had renounced the authority of revelation, today is unable to assert anything. From the Hegelian 'what is rational, is actual; and what is actual, is rational', it has degenerated into the a kind of nihilistic belief that both actuality and rationality are 'opaque' concepts and that human existence cannot be structured, planned, or predicted because, ultimately, it is subject to the chaotic rule of contingency and irrationality!
The ideological movement directly responsible for bringing about the current crisis of norms and values is associated with historicism that has its root in the philosophy of 'German Idealism'. Though the term historicism has acquired too many, mutually contradictory, meanings to satisfactorily serve as an emblem of moral and cognitive relativism, restricting it to the German philosophy and historiography, starting from the historian Ranke and ending with the philosopher Heidegger, helps us keep our focus on the theme of relativism and the crisis of values.12 Tersely put, historicism represents a 'German' reaction to the classical doctrine of natural law. According to its champions, 'historicism liberated modern thought from the two-thousand-year domination of the theory of natural law, and the conception of the universe in terms of "timeless, absolutely valid truths which correspond to the rational order dominant throughout the universe" was replaced with an understanding of the fullness and diversity of man's historical experience.'13 This insight, according to its champions, constitutes 'the highest stage in the understanding of things human attained by man.'14
The basic tenets of historicist philosophy, which, ironically, had the unsought consequence of undermining Western man's faith in rationality, may be summarised as follows: 1) The centrality of the state in human experience and the supremacy of the idea of Machtstaat (power-state) in political theory; 2) Anti-normativism, or the rejection of thinking in normative terms; 3) Anti-conceptualism, or the rejection of conceptualised thinking. In retrospect, it is easy to realise why this reckless historicisation of human reality, the vengeful 'elimination of transcendence' from the province of human thought as it were, should have opened that wound which, by the relativising of all values, today causes so much pain in the Western soul! The humanist's hope that historicism had 'the power to heal the wound it has caused'15 proved vain and, according to some, the philosophical foundations of Nazi inhumanity already lay in the historicist project.
After the failure of historians to bridge the gap between norm and history, it was the turn of the philosophers to overcome this notorious 'antinomy of reason'. The final chapter in this edifying tale was written by no other than Heidegger, the pompous 'Philosopher of Being' and the notorious sympathiser of Nazism! The moral bankruptcy of the historicist vision was fully revealed in Heidegger's Teutonic jabber. For contrary to his claims, he could not redeem the promise of resolving the aporias of historicist thought but was forced to masquerade his miserable failure as an indictment of the whole tradition of Western metaphysics that had been 'forgetful of Being.'!16 By his reduction of Being to Time, and man to pure historicity, Heidegger reveals himself to be a veritable dahri thinker, a nihilist, a denier of all values and an atheist! Hence, the following statement, which trenchantly points out that 'the being whose fate Heidegger ponders is the quintessence of this world, it is seculum. Against this theology should guard the radical transcendence of God, whose voice comes into of the kingdom of being from without'17, is fully consonant with the Islamic sentiment that stems from its unnegotiable commitment to transcendence. For without transcendence, there is neither ethics nor politics. The immanentist philosophical foundations of secularism cannot withstand any normative edifice that houses a morally binding theory of politics.
The greatest casualty of the historicist assault on transcendence is, of course, ethics and universal morality. For, the sovereign man, the man without any accountability in the here-after, sought his immediate salvation, his enlightenment, first in the realm of nature, then in that of reason, but finally in the world of history. He strove to replace the authority of a transcendent God by that of an immanent reason. He convinced himself that the signs of reason are not only manifest in the realm of nature, but are also most cogently visible in the world of human history. What is historically real, what is actual, he triumphantly proclaimed, is rational, and what is rational is ineluctably historically real and actual! The world of history and nature are one and no moral chasm separates an 'is' from an 'ought'.
Alas, on closer scrutiny, human reason was found to be as fallible, contingent and parochial as man himself. It provided no secure Archimedean point outside the individual subject or beyond a temporary and opaque societal consensus. The man of enlightenment, who renounced God because He transcends human reason and understanding, was humiliated by his own discovery that both nature and history are bereft of objective and universal reason! The modernist, who believed that reason informs history, was dismayed by the insight that a world governed by reason is a pre-determined world where there is neither morality nor freedom. The postmodernist, who contends that the world of history is not a pre-determined world but is marked by contingency, chance and 'the mystery of being', is equally disenchanted by the import of his claim, namely that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong and that every kind of cognitive and moral judgement is ultimately arbitrary. Neither a world redeemed by reason, nor a world damned without it, seems to provide any basis for a moral view of the world!18
Transcendent Theory in a Historical World
'The existence of man in political society', so suggests the ever perceptive political philosopher Eric Voegelin, 'is historical existence; and a theory of politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history.'19 This insight aptly captures the central predicament of political science and its propensity to turn to utopian vision for solace. For the political thinker falls between two stools. His is a discourse that straddles a discipline of history he dare not disown and a regime of theory he may not dethrone. Between the two, he must construct that ideational habitat which would shelter his ideals and realities both. Thus lies, between the earthly slopes of history and the heavenly horizons of theory, that promised land of politics which sustains nations and civilisations, communities and faiths, polities and states.
Given both the symbolic and pragmatic demands of politics, it is imperative that we must clearly enunciate that the aim of utopian thought is not to replace history with eschatology, for that would not be 'political theory' but mysticism20. It is here that the problem of secularism impinges on Islamic thought. For secularism, like any darling child, has many names. In contemporary literature it is presented, either humbly, as a rejection of ecclesiastical authority, a model for pluralism, a theory of society, a doctrine of governance; or augustly, as a philosophy of history, a creed of atheism, an epistemology of humanism; or even more grandiosely, as a metaphysics of immanentism that corresponds to the ultimate scheme of things. Within the academic discourse, it is also customary to accord it an almost Socratic definition and distinguish its various manifestations as a process of history (secularisation), a state of mind and culture (secularity) and a theory of truth (secularism). (One may note the close affinity of these terms with modernity, modernisation and modernism!) Needless to say, not everyone championing its cause ascribes to all these claims, nor is every expression of the secularist, this-worldly, conscience and piety antithetical or inimical to Islam.
The separation of Church and State, for which there are no authentic Islamic models simply because Islam lacks a church, can, in my opinion, be accepted by the Islamic conscience. After all, even the classical fuqaha accepted a division of the sacred law into parts dealing with fard 'ain and fard kifaya, into obligations that are indispensable and incumbent for 'salvation' and obligations that may be dispensed, or delegated to others. This classification, which is incontrovertibly authentic and has never been controversial, possesses all the intellectual and moral justification for the bifurcation of the law into a civil and public and a religious and private sphere. What militates against such a development in Muslim societies is not any Islamic propensity for violence or fundamentalism, but the refusal of the current regimes to grant its Muslim citizenry the most fundamental of the rights of the secular state - freedom of conscience and religion. Secularism in the Muslim context is construed not as a formal separation of church and state but as an absolute ban on Islamic political conscience, an adamant denial of its right to partake in public debate and propose public policies - no matter how peacefully and 'democratically' this civic conscience articulates its societal aspirations! In the final analysis, it is not an issue of Islamic obduracy or militancy but that of the despotic, absolutist and undemocratic nature of the secular Muslim regimes. A democratic Muslim state, by contrast, I am fully convinced, is able to meet all the challenges of secular morality and appease all the demands of Islamic conscience!
The Utopian Istanbul and the Historical Istanbul
Returning to our initial theme, we may now reiterate that the city of Istanbul is no utopian city. For were it so, it would be a city without injustice and inequality, without poverty and misery, without suffering and pain. It would also be a city of freedom, of faith, of love. That it is not so, and perhaps can never be so, should therefore make us cherish humility and compassion. Human existence, whether that of community or of the individual, whether the existence of l'homme or the political existence of le citoyen, we must realise, is not only never perfect, it is also forever threatened with extinction. A polis is not an answer to man's perennial longing for immortality, truth and bliss. We must therefore resist the modern temptation, that of the state to be the ultimate locus of meaning and the final arbiter of human happiness. Only a transcendent God, who rules above history, who transcends the temporal struggles of empires, states and cities, can provide that truth and bliss whose quest is the quintessence of being human.
Even as a city of history, Istanbul has more than its share of modern scourges. It is a city where man and nature are more often in dissonance than in harmony. It is a city where water shortage, air pollution and traffic jams are endemic, where overcrowding and population pressure are beyond control, where financial corruption is rife and where the rich contribute nothing to the public chest. It is a city that has become the paradise of property speculators and the hell of the homeless. Istanbul is also a victim of all the injustices and iniquities of national and international hegemonies. It is part of a national system where the very rich make more profit out of the public sector than from the private one, just as it is at the mercy of an international system of greed that cares more for the whim of the market than for the economic wellbeing of nations. Little wonder that the city hangs on a knife's edge between survival and collapse.
Surely, then, we are justified in asking, how can Istanbul experience bliss, if the world-order of which it is a part is based on injustice and inequality; how can it have peace if the dominant ideology of public discourse, as interpreted by the guardians of national constitution, penalises the sacred faith of its inhabitants; indeed, how can it retain hope when its elected public servants can be removed from office for citing classical poetry?! How can there be love in the city when the guardians of national honour deem it more honourable to snatch head-scarves from the faces of their sisters than provide social security for their suffering compatriots ?
Unless the philosophers of modernity debunk some of their unproven metaphysical assertions about the ultimate truth of immanentism, not until ideologues of the secular state-theory learn to modify their absolutist claim that no public discourse must ever include any allusion to transcendence, so long as the guardians of 'the lay state' refuse to recognise that the sacred provisions of the freedom of conscience and expression embrace even trans-historic visions of revealed faith, there is little chance that the city of Istanbul and its unfortunate inhabitants will ever experience anything remotely approaching the bliss and harmony glimpsed through the Utopian vision. For peace in the city and bliss in the soul are two sides of the same human longing.
1: Samir Amin: "A World in Chaos", mimeo., United Nations University, 1993. P.8, quoted in Richard Falk: On Humane Government, Cambridge (Polity Press), 1995, p. 3.
2: Rajni Kothari: "The Yawning Vacuum: A World Without Alternatives", in Alternatives 18.2 (Spring 1993): 119-39, p. 136.
3: Paul Tillich: "The Political Meaning of Utopia", in Political Expectation, New York, 1971. Pp. 124-180, pp. 124-5.
4: Hans-Georg Gadamer: "What is Practice?", in Reason in the Age of Science, MIT Press, London and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1983. Pp. 69-87., p. 80.
5: Seyla Benhabib: Critique, Norm and Utopia. Columbia University Press, New York, 1986. P. 277.
6: Paul Tillich: op. cit. Pp. 167-8.
7: Ibid. P. 180.
8: For a provocative discussion of this theme, see: Leo Strauss: What is Political Philosophy. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1959. Pp. 9-55.
9: For a suggestive account of this development, see, James V. Schall: Reason, Revelation, and the Foundation of Political Philosophy Foundation of Political Philosophy. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1987.
10: Seyla Benhabib: op. cit. P. 110.
11: Armando Salvatore: Islam and the Political Discourse of Modernity. Ithaca Press, Reading, 1997. P. xiii.
12: There is a growing interest in the patrimony of modern nihilism - a subject that has not received due attention from Muslim scholars. Some of the current studies that trace both the historiographical and the philosophical development of German thought, are: Carlo Antoni: From History to Sociology: The Transition in German Historical Thinking. Merlin Press, London, 1959; George G. Iggers: The German Conception of History. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1983 (orig. Ed. 1968); Carl Page: Philosophical Historicism and the Betrayal of First Philosophy The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1995; Charles R. Bambach: Heidegger, Dilthey, and the Crisis of Historicism. Cornell University Press, Ithaca & London, 1995. For the classic statement by one of its proponents, Friedrich Meinecke's Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook (Herder and Herder, New York, 1972) is indispensable.
13: Georg G. Iggers: op. cit. P. 5.
14: Friedrich Meinecke: op. cit. P. lvii.
15: Friedrich Meinecke: ibid.
16: For a pithy critique of Heidegger's philosophical fallacy, see: Stanley Rosen: The Question of Being: A Reversal of Heidegger. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1993. For a more ideologically relevant statement on his philosophy, see: Karl Loewith: Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism. Columbia University Press, New York, 1995.
17: Hans Jonas: The Journal of Metaphysics (Dec., 1964), quoted in: Menachem Kellner (ed.): The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild. State University of New York press, Albany, 1990. P. 74.
18: For an insightful exposé of the failure of all philosophies of history, whether founded on 'reason' or 'unreason', to deliver a moral view of the world, see: Luc Ferry: The System of Philosophies of History. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1992.
19: Eric Voegelin: The new Science of Politics. Chicago University Press, Chicago & London, 1952. P.1
20: For an significant Christian statement on the subject, see: Rudolf Bultmann: History and Eschatology: The Presence of Eternity. Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1957.