Cultural Transfer of Pop Music in 20th-Century Turkey

By SIPCATS Research Assistant Azize Güneş.

During the 20th century songs originally produced and performed in languages such as French, English, Italian, Spanish and Greek were imported to Turkey and given Turkish lyrics, before being distributed to the Turkish public through 45-rpm records, radio, television and concerts. This is a particular case of cultural transfer known as the ‘aranjman’ genre in Turkey, in which foreign (mostly Western) songs were remade to be sung in Turkish with the aim of making them accessible and meaningful to a Turkish audience. The linguistic meanings in the original song lyrics were either kept to varying degrees or completely replaced in the new Turkish lyrics, while musical aspects such as melody and rhythm remained more or less the same as in the original songs.

Among the most prevalent songs transferred to Turkey during the 20th century were songs originally sung in French. According to the empirical study I conducted for the purpose of investigating this particular case of cultural transfer, 160 Turkish songs produced and distributed in Turkey during the 20th century are remakes of songs originally produced and performed in French. From the first Turkish remake of a French song in 1961 to the last in 1991, during a period of three decades French songs were imported, transformed to have Turkish lyrics and distributed to the Turkish public. The most intensive period of production of Turkish remakes of French songs occurred between 1967 and 1977, with a considerable peak in production in 1968-1969.

Different choices were made in the transformation of these songs, attempting to either communicate the same meanings as in the original French songs or create new meanings for the Turkish listener. Out of 52 Turkish remakes of French songs distributed in Turkey in 1968-1969, 13 (25 %) account for the linguistic meanings in their French source texts and can be regarded as song translations or adaptations. The Turkish song remakes range from very close translations to approximate translations, adaptations and loose adaptations, in some cases to an extent of almost becoming completely different songs, at the same time as they display observable correspondences between the Turkish and French song texts. Even though most songs transferred from French to Turkish culture in 1968-1969 were not translated but rather supplied with new lyrics, the unchanged melody and rhythm meant that other kinds of meaning, such as emotional meanings were transferred to the receiver culture, creating shared points in the repertoires of the Turkish and French cultures. According to cognitive psychologists Swaminathan & Schellenberg (2015:190) “[e]nculturation to a particular culture’s music is a developmental process in which associations and regularities are internalized, at least implicitly, through repeated exposure.” By distributing new music in a culture and ensuring repeated exposure through mass communication devices, foreign music is made familiar and internalized by listeners. Cultural transfer of music will hence have the function of making a community more susceptible to ideas, experiences, perceptions, emotions and ways of feeling of the sender culture.

Song is a multimodal cultural artefact communicating stories, states and feelings to its listener. It has the potential to offer options for understanding, acting in and narrating social life and the self. Songs within the pop music genre in particular, have the ability to reach large quantities of people and can be invested with personal references by the individual listener at the same time as they are being shared within a community of listeners, which in turn will influence the perception of a common culture and a common cultural history. Pop music can be differentiated from other cultural artefacts, not only by the physical and conceptual material it is made up of, but also by the manner of engaging with it. The listener is repeatedly exposed to parts and wholes of songs in different situations – at concerts, in bars, cafés, on the street, at home, on TV, in commercials, in films, etc. The repetitive manner of listening, often memorizing parts of the lyrics and melody, and the physical participation in singing or dancing with the music, differs from, say, the way one engages with a book or a film. Pop music is an integrated part of all industrialized cultures and therefore merits close attention in the study of meanings circulating in culture.

With a strong emphasis on empirical integration, the transdisciplinary research field of Cognitive Semiotics sets out to investigate meaning-making procedures in humans at different levels, from evolutionary to contemporary social phenomena, by combining concepts and methods from linguistics, cognitive sciences, semiotics and phenomenology. From a cognitive semiotic perspective, one can say that meaning-making in pop music depends on the semiotic resources available in pop music and on the mind’s capacity to perceive these semiotic resources, interact with them and share knowledge about them in various social contexts. It is important to add to this perspective that the successful communication of meaningful artefacts to and between human beings and cultures furthermore depends on factors relating to economy and politics. Besides the semiotic structure of the song and the cognitive capacities of the listener, a long line of producers (such as record companies, editors and singers), as well as retailers, and institutions such as radio and television and concert halls enabling and promoting availability of the song in public and its storage for the future, are all interdependent participants in the creation and distribution of meanings through pop music.

In a song, the semiotic resources language, music and voice are grouped together communicating referential and emotional meanings to the listener. Language can communicate specific and general ideas and events, while music and the voice of the singer have the potential to evoke an embodied response in the listener, generating recognition and empathy. Groupings and regroupings of language, music and voice in pop music further serve to strengthen associations of expressions such as words and melodies, with a variety of contents such as referential and emotional meanings.

The linguistic meanings made available to the Turkish listener in the cultural transfer of French songs to Turkish in 1968-1969 contain notions related to love (e.g. impossible love, love-related sadness), time, memories, and nostalgia (e.g. time as passing by, reminiscing, remembering/forgetting), relationships and related behaviors and feelings (e.g. friendship, marriage, infidelity, dependence, separation and reconciliation), morality (e.g. ethics, doing the right thing), and attitudes towards life (e.g. having fun, having a good time, forgetting about worries). According to sociologist Tia DeNora (2011:313), language scaffolds both cognition and emotion, in the sense that words can engender understanding and feelings. Along with music, words can shape experiences and emotions: “by labelling […] feelings, language makes them conventional and publicly available, and thus [contributing] to their uptake within populations”. The linguistic meanings transferred in Turkish remakes of French songs can label existing emotions and understandings within the individual listener, making certain emotions and concepts identifiable in a community of listeners, which will further lead to their conventionalization. Moreover, linguistic meanings communicated through songs may also stimulate new emotions and understandings in listeners.

The linguistic and emotional meanings transferred to Turkey through the distribution of French song remakes can be placed within a larger historical and cultural context of import and translation of Western artefacts in Turkey during the 20th century. Since the beginning of the Turkish Republic in the 1920’s Turkish authorities have promoted import of Western artefacts manifested through, among other things, various translation projects of Western literature and the promotion of new Western fashion codes. Cultural transfer of Western artefacts has served in a continuous project to mold a new modern Turkish identity. Through import and invention, the semiotic resources available in everyday life have changed and presented new sets of options for the Turkish citizen for understanding and acting in society.

The production, distribution and consumption of cultural artefacts such as pop music offer an immense quantity of multimodal texts that are continuously repeated, cross-referenced, copied and remade, and that have the potential to communicate emotional, experiential and linguistic meanings to participants of a culture. The importation and transformation of French songs to Turkish belongs to a time period when French cultural artefacts were deliberately transferred in large quantities to a Turkish culture that adopted the music genre and incorporated it to its own cultural history, along with the conceptual and emotional meanings it came with, partly from Francophone pop music culture, and partly from a hybrid of import and invention by producers and institutions in Turkey.

Read more about this subject in my Master’s thesis “French pop music remakes in Turkey: A cognitive semiotic inquiry into cultural transfer” available here:


Azize Günes, MA, Lund University & Research Assistant, SIPCATS



DeNora, Tia (2011), “Practical consciousness and social relation in MusEcological perspective”, in Clarke, David & Eric Clarke (eds), Music and consciousness: Philosophical, psychological, and cultural perspectives, University Press Scholarship Online, Oxford Scholarship Online.

Swaminathan, Swathi & E. Glenn Schellenberg (2015), “Current emotion research in music psychology”, in Emotion review, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 189-197.


The video examples below are of the French song ‘La femme de mon ami’ by Enrico Macias, (1963, Pathé EG 641) which was remade to the Turkish song ‘Arkadaşımın aşkısın’ performed by Nesrin Sipahi (1968, Odeon LA 848).


Rethinking Global Histories for the Present: The Land and Maritime Silk Roads in Central Eurasia and the Indian Ocean

28-30 April, 2017
Asian Studies Center, Boğaziçi University, The Nafi Baba Building
Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, The Gunnar Jarring Central Eurasia Collection

When the Mongols created the first truly Eurasian empire back in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with the rise of Pax Mongolica, for the first time trade could be carried out over a very large Eurasian territory without too many obstacles. The Mongols are the first example of connections over Eurasia enabled by a government that allows for the beginning of a global economy, continued and enforced by successor great powers in the Eurasian sphere, such as the Russian and Ottoman empires. China’s historical and present-day trade routes over Eurasia and the Indian Ocean as well as India’s age-old participation in overland and maritime trade are as important.

This conference will venture to look at the land and maritime crossroads of the Silk Roads that became routes of mobility and migration providing means for religious, cultural and ethnic interrelations in a global historical process which remained as a significant legacy in the pre-modern and modern period. The aim is to scrutinize continuities with the past that may enable the present.

The forerunners of the conference have been the Central Eurasia Discourse Discussion Forum, with contributions that can still be read on this blog, and a series of seminars under the title of “Imperial Legacies along Former Silk Routes in Eurasia and the Indian Ocean” announced in previous posts on this blog.

I want to thank all who have participated in this thought-provoking exchange of ideas and I hope to see as many of you as possible at our “Grande Finale” on 28-30 April at Boğaziçi University and Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul. The Conference Program is available here.

Turkey’s Cyprus policy in the fast transforming geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean

23 March, 2017, at 4 p.m.
Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, The Auditorium

In our series of seminars on “Imperial Legacies along Former Silk Routes in Eurasia and the Indian Ocean”, we have invited Prof. Dr. Kıvanç Ulusoy from the Department of Political Science, Istanbul University, for a presentation of his published article titled

The CYPRUS Conflict: Turkey’s Strategic Dilemma

See the full announcement of the seminar with a link to Professor Ulusoy’s article at

This is the third SIPCATS discussion seminar in preparation of our workshop coorganised with Asian Studies Center at Boğaziçi University, on

“Rethinking Global Histories for the Present: The Land and Maritime Silk Road in Central Eurasia and the Indian Ocean”

Silk Road Studies at SIPCATS

News from the SIPCATS project

This project, devoted to the Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring’s scholarly legacy in the fields of Central Asian and Turkic Studies, has for the past few years been preoccupied with much editing and publishing. Two important results from our work were recently made public:

  1. The anthology Kashgar Revisited: Uyghur Studies in Memory of Ambassador Gunnar Jarring, with chapters based on papers delivered at a workshop held at the University of Copenhagen on the 10th‒12th of May, 2012, for the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the death of Gunnar Jarring (1907–2002). This volume was co-edited by the organizers of the workshop, Ildikó Bellér-Hann, Copenhagen, Jun Sugawara, Tokyo, and myself, the SIPCATS Director, Istanbul.
    In our Introduction, which can be accessed at, we make the following comment on Jarring’s approach to fieldwork and research: “Whether he was aware of this or not, … Jarring was completely in tune with the new trends emerging in European scholarship as early as the 1960s and 1970s, which advocated shifting the focus of research from the political to the social, from the exceptional to the ordinary, from outstanding figures and events to the experiences and perspectives of hitherto marginalized groups.”
    The book was published this year by Brill as Vol. 34 in their series Brill’s Inner Asian Library.
  2. The Gunnar Jarring Central Eurasia Digital Library,, with publications and manuscripts from Jarring’s private library, handed over to the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities by the time of Jarring’s death in 2002 and finally donated to the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul.
    The SIPCATS staff has created the present website for the purpose of enhancing the accessibility of the Gunnar Jarring Central Eurasia Collection in Istanbul by providing possibilities to view items electronically in their entirety together with briefings about their provenance and contents.
    At present digitization and documentation work is being conducted on materials divided into three sections: Kashgar Prints, Travel Literature and Maps. By clicking on the options in the right column on the starting page of a section you will access works so far uploaded there.
    More information about this collection from Gunnar Jarring’s private library is to be found in the first chapter of the volume Kashgar Revisited announced above; see here. Besides travelogues and related literature, there are linguistic treatises and dictionaries for a great number of languages as well as books on history, religion, literature and several other disciplines.


Reform Movements and Ideas in the Mediterranean and Eurasia in the Late-Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

13 February, 2017, at 3.30 p.m.
Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, The Auditorium

Reform Movements and Ideas in the Mediterranean and Eurasia in the Late-Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In our series of seminars on “Imperial Legacies along Former Silk Routes in Eurasia and the Indian Ocean”, we will devote the next meeting to a discussion of intellectual agitation spreading in and between the two disintegrating empires of Eurasia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – The Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russia.

Our two presenters, Edgar Melgar from Princeton University and Zaur Gasimov from the German Orient-Institut Istanbul, will give us briefings of their respective research work on cross-regional interaction and knowledge transfer.

See the full announcement of the seminar with abstracts on

This is the second SIPCATS discussion seminar in preparation of our workshop coorganised with Asian Studies Center at Boğaziçi University, on

Rethinking Global Histories for the Present: The Land and Maritime Silk Road in Central Eurasia and the Indian Ocean


The Central Eurasia Discourse Discussion Forum Extended to Silk Road Histories

A future workshop aiming at
“Rethinking Global Histories for the Present:
The Land and Maritime Silk Road in Eurasia”

In our discussion forum set up on the SIPCATS Blog earlier this year, issues pertaining to Central Eurasia were attended to with regard to the much-changing political and cultural processes that have been going on in this part of the world during the last 25 years. For the next few months we will broaden our focus for a consideration of Silk Road histories in a still more comprehensive fashion from the point of view of both time and territory.

For a workshop to be held on 28-30 April, 2017, the organizers, Prof. Selçuk Esenbel, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, Dr. Fernando Rosa, Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and the SIPCATS Director, Prof. Birgit Schlyter, would like to invite researchers and specialists to interdisciplinary discussions of “Imperial Legacies along Silk Routes” and their relevance for present-day policies and managements in Central Eurasia and the Indian Ocean.

The workshop will be a joint arrangement between Asian Studies Center at Boğaziçi University, with which all three organizers are affiliated, and Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul (SRII). It will be preceded by preparatory seminars at SRII. The first seminar has been scheduled for Friday this week (2 December, 2016) and will be presented by Fernando Rosa under the title of “Revisiting Connected and Global Histories in Eurasia and the Indian Ocean”.

bosphoruslogo    sriilogo


A response to Zaur Gasimov’s paper the Recent Developments in the Azerbaijani historiography

H22 A comment for the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Dr. Fernando Rosa, visiting scholar at Asian Studies Center, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul

Dear Zaur,

Many thanks for your enticing piece! I know next to nothing about this region, but the issues you raise sound not entirely unfamiliar to me. First, the issue of quality of training for scholars and internationalism: they are also pertinent for my part of the world, namely, Latin America. If you are outside Europe/US, scholarship is always an issue; also, though Brazil, for instance, may be a far cry from Azerbaijan, and in some senses from Turkey as well, its academia is not Anglophone, much less situated in Europe. I just wrote a long message to colleagues in Rio about a joint doctorate between a Brazilian university and an American one that is in the pipeline, in African studies. If you live in a somewhat confined language area and one that is moreover not located in Europe or in a country with many resources, scholarship has a tendency to become somewhat inner-looking and parochial even at the best of times.

What you say about Azerbaijani scholarship – and even some strands of Turkish scholarship – therefore resonate with me in more ways than one. There is no easy way out here, even without authoritarianism or poor training. Part of my discussion with colleagues in Rio was related to the fact that doing a joint doctorate with an American university is full of pros and cons. Not bad in itself at all, but not necessarily only a good thing either. I think pieces like yours, as they engage with the issue frontally, are very important: namely, discussing the issues at stake openly – parochialism, nationalist historiographies, comparatively closed off language domains, authoritarianism – is as important as actually finding solutions, especially as it is hard to see what can be a solution here.

We have tried many paths back home, and none has seemed to yield a good answer so far. Grafting ourselves onto ‘first world’ academia can some times be as noxious as following inner-looking, nationalist, authoritarian paths. I find Caucasian and Central Asian academies may be particularly vulnerable, because of long local histories of authoritarianism and relative intellectual marginality. I find that Turkey is slowly managing to find its own way by increasingly exposing its scholarly domains to Anglophone scholarship – therefore, though some initiatives, as they bring together Azerbaijan and Turkey, may look dubious right now, as you point out, in the long run it is a good thing that Azerbaijani academia is engaging with Turkey. It may open doors when we least expect. In my experience, anything that could get national scholars outside their cocoons is potentially positive, even if the results may not be apparent at first, as seems to be the case here. You wouldn’t believe how many times Latin American scholars meet (say, through the famous CLACSO conferences…) and nothing really great comes out of it! Countless times, in fact. Don’t despair, therefore! As I said, something good eventually comes out of all this.

In this results-orientated environment neoliberalism has created everywhere, this may not sound effective or credible. Yet, it is often in the contradictions, hesitations, interstices, and the many ambiguities, that the best scholarship finds a nurturing ground, especially in our countries, with their complex histories and baffling geographies. The more you try to engineer things (as in much current academia in the West or, alternatively, in authoritarian regimes like the one you describe), the more lacklustre and obvious the results will be, as is evident from your piece itself. What is unexpected and unpredicted may in this way eventually change the nature of academia in Azerbaijan for the better. Keep the good work and do keep telling us about what goes on in Azerbaijan. The more people discuss those issues openly and critically, as you do, the better it is for all of us. We are not alone in our quest for open and critical knowledge!

To Recent Developments in the Azerbaijani historiography by Zaur Gasimov

To the Central Eurasia discussion forum

Recent Developments in the Azerbaijani historiography

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Dr. Zaur Gasimov, the German Orient-Institut Istanbul (OII)

Editorial Remark
In Historiography and Nation-Building among Turkic Populations, one of our anthologies under revision, Dr. Zaur Gasimov, currently at the German Orient-Institut Istanbul (OII), presented a survey of history-writing and new “history-making” in Azerbaijan during the first two decades of the post-Soviet period. Following up on his previous presentation, Dr. Gasimov has posted a note to the SIPCATS discussion forum with a comment on the status of research after another 3-4 years.

Recent Developments in the Azerbaijani historiography

Looking back at the most recent developments in the Azerbaijani historiography, two aspects seem to be especially sustainable. Firstly, the history-writing around the problematics of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the region of Nagorno Karabakh still dominates the agenda of the Bakıxanov-Institute of History at the Azerbaijani National Academy of Sciences, the main research institution in post-Soviet Azerbaijan in the field of History Studies. Secondly, the historical research on the so-called ‘Southern Azerbaijan’, the northern part of Iran populated by ethnic Azeris, is of recurrent interest among Baku-based historians.

Before I start to present some of the most recent developments, it is noteworthy to mention two structural elements that shape the framework for historical and any other research in the humanities of Azerbaijan. These elements are the authoritarian regime of the ruling party “Yeni Azǝrbaycan Partiyası” (YAP) as well as a relatively low level of historians’ training in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. The by-products of the political authoritarianism in Azerbaijan are the cult of the former President of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev (1923-2003, presidency between 1993 and 2003) and the comprehensive involvement of historians in the state-run policy of identity-building and of state-building. The great majority of Azerbaijani historians are members of the ruling party and an integral part of the establishment. Baku State University along with the Azerbaijani State Pedagogical University, the two main institutions educating professional historians and teachers of history for the secondary and grammar schools, are highly corrupt. This has a crucial impact on the scholarly qualification of historians partly mirrored in the academic periodical of the Institute of History at the National Academy of Sciences, “Tarix vǝ onun problemlǝri” (History and its issues). Most articles can easily be considered as longer abstracts rather than academic articles. They often lack proper citation and are based on research from the Soviet period.

Leaving aside an enormous number of biased books, booklets and compilations of articles devoted to either Heydar Aliyev and his role in Azerbaijani state-building orthe conflict over Karabakh, it is worth mentioning some positive developments in Azerbajani history-writing.A Baku-based publishing house, Hǝdǝf nǝşrlǝri, founded in 2009, has launched a memory series, where so far they have published thirteen separate volumes mostly with primary texts initially written by Azerbaijan’s prominent writers and artists or by their family members.[1] The Baku-based historians Altay Göyüşov and Cǝmil Hǝsǝnli delivered amazing research on the history and current development of Islamic education as well as on the republican years between 1918 and 1920[2] and Azerbaijan’s place in the Cold War. Both authors are in regular contact and exchange of ideas with the international scholarship and are recognized as independent researchers of Azerbaijani and Caucasian history.

Strategic Area Studies and Politics
In May 2012, the Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Yerevan State University, Rumen Melkonian, presented a newly published textbook about the Azerbaijani Language authored by the Yerevan-based Turkologist Lilit Movsesian. During the press conference, Melkonian stressed that “the knowledge of the enemy’s language is of significant importance”[3]. This argumentation corresponded completely to the standpoint of Azad Rzayev, the Dean of the History Department of Baku State University (BDU) as well as of Iradǝ Hüseynova, Professor of Caucasian History at the same university. Rzayev and Hüseynova, both of whom are specialized on the contemporary history of Russia and the Caucasus, have argued for the expansion of Armenian Studies at Baku-based universities. BDU along with Azerbaijani State University of Languages and some other institutions for higher education regularly offer courses in the Armenian language and history. In 2015, a Baku linguist, Hatǝm Cabbarlı, presented his textbook in the Armenian language. In 2013, a public discussion on the opening of the Faculty of Armenology was launched by Azeri historians.

By boosting ‘strategic area-studies’, Baku exports its Armenologists to neighboring Turkey. Another academician, Gafar Mehdiyev, has been involved in the foundation of Armenian Studies at the Erciyes University in Kayseri, Turkey.[4]

The Phenomenon Yaqub Mahmudov
Yaqub Mahmudov is the head of the Bakıxanov-Institute of History at the National Academy of Sciences. He is about eighty years old and was initially specialized in the field of Azerbaijani Medieval History. In contrary to his predecessors educated partly in Baku and in Moscow, Mahmudov was trained at Baku State University only. After Heydar Aliyev’s comeback to power in 1993, Mahmudov joined the ruling party YAP. He was three times elected a member of parliament and and he is also part of the supreme board of the YAP. Mahmudov has been active as public intellectual in dailies and television. He has launched a project under the pathetic title of “Tarixi şǝxsiyyǝtlǝrimizǝ sahib çıxaq” (Let us protect our historical personalities!). A conference on “Azerbaijani Safavi ruler – Shah Abbas I” was held at the Bakıxanov-Institute on 22 April 2016 within the framework of this project.[5] The majority of events are designed for the local audience. Historians from Iran or Georgia rarely join them. Yaqub Mahmudov embodies the ethnically defined and highly politicized historical research currently conducted by the majority of academicians. Scientific cooperation with the international scholarship in general and with the regional historians in Iran, Georgia and Russia leaves much to be desired. Turkey seems to be the only exception: Mahmudov has co-organised several joint conferences with Turkish partners from mostly second-ranking universities.

To the Central Eurasia discussion forum

[1] “Xan” xatirǝ ǝdǝbiyyatı, in:ǝ-ǝdǝbiyyatı (31.08.2016).

[2] Jamil Hasanli: Foreign Policy of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 1918-1920. The Difficult Road to Western Integration. M.E.Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 2014

[3] Ruben Melkonian o pervom azerbaidzhanskom uchebnike: Znanie iazyka protivnika imeet strategicheskoe znachenie dlia Armenii, 14.05.2012, (09.09.2016).

[4] Türkiye’nin ilk Ermenice ders kitabı çıktı, in: (09.09.2016).

[5] Xǝbǝrlǝr, in: (31.08.2016).

The Fethullah Gülen Movement on the International Arena

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Dr. Fernando Rosa, visiting scholar at Asian Studies Center, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul

Editorial Remark
After the failed military coup in Turkey last July, the goal of the Turkish Government is to purge the country from their prime suspects, followers of the Fethullah Gülen movement, and ‘pull them up by the roots’, as it has been declared. Fernando Rosa, Anthropologist and Africanist at present working in a “Central Eurasian” environment at Boğaziçi University, considers this to be a very hard, if not impossible task, when looking at the presence of this movement in the international community.

A reflection on the international reach of the Gülen movement after reading Bayram Balcı’s contribution concerning Central Asia and the Caucasus

I found Bayram Balcı’s full article in French as well as his shortened summary of it on the SIPCATS Blog quite useful. It is mostly about Gülen’s movement in Central Asia, but there is a very important part about the influence of Gülen’s acolytes in sub-Saharan Africa. Both Senegal and South Africa are briefly mentioned (there is also a great picture of a school interior in Senegal right in the beginning of the article, with Atatürk’s photograph next to that of a Senegalese statesman). I’m originally an Africanist, and therefore am very green in what concerns Turkey, let alone Central Asia.

While reading Balcı’s article, I found it particularly interesting to learn that Turkey’s economic clout in Africa is originally largely linked to Gülen’s influence there.

One amazing detail that comes out of this whole story for me is that Gülen’s influence has extended from China’s Central Asian borders all the way to South Africa. This is truly amazing. We should also remember that Gülen’s movement is well-represented within the US, too. His schools have been teaching Turkish to thousands of Americans in the US.

His schools and universities in particular are often quite popular because, as Balcı points out, they provide seemingly secular (sic!), Anglophone education, at an international level, to people and places where that has not been necessarily easily available.

Gülen’s influence is therefore based on a shifting, curious mix of fairly traditional Pan-Turkism, twenty-first century internationalism, a kind of Protestantised version of Islam, American-inspired Anglophony, all closely packed together somehow.

It definitely has pretty secretive dimensions to it, but is also very much out in the public eye. In fact, what is amazing is its incredible plasticity: it is able to cross borders, spread itself, and gain adepts in all kinds of places (either full adepts or merely people who are loosely inspired by it, as Balcı indicates).

Note also the very important capitalistic dimension to it: corporations such as Turkish Airlines entered parts of Africa on its very footsteps, according to Balcı. This is food for thought.

It is also clear that movements such as Gülen’s are so multifaceted, tentacular, and organisationally truly chameleonic, that it is impossible to eradicate them entirely. Balcı shows that they have already taken root and metamorphosed themselves outside of Turkey in ways well beyond the control of Turkey’s government, and even of Gülen himself!

This incredible capacity for “indigenization” is also food for thought, in my opinion.

The current attempt of Turkish diplomacy to undermine Gülen’s movement abroad, pointed out by Balcı, is therefore probably both futile and even possibly counter-productive. The results of the spread of Gülen’s movement are too multifarious, as Balcı suggests, for us to believe that eradicating it might be possible. Even in Turkey, in the long run, “eradication” will most probably only mean driving it underground rather than really uprooting it.

This story also makes me think that there are many people in the world who are in need of concrete means and avenues for personal (spiritual included), social, and economic advancement; are hungering for cosmopolitanism of some sort; and are ambitious and curious enough, not to mention needy enough, to try new opportunities that open up for them. It was also interesting to learn from Balcı’s article that at certain moments even the elites in Central Asia have felt attracted to Gülen’s movement.

I’m not going to go here into the merits and demerits of Gülen’s movement. Nonetheless, it is really astonishing how it has spread and changed itself over time, over such a large swathe of the globe, impacting quite a few people.

Of course, the issue of religion also comes up here in a very strong way. Organised religion has a way of impacting the political realm when least expected, and not only in largely Islamic countries. An important part of the (highly successful) political movement to oust President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, for instance, was generated within the ranks of powerful evangelical politicians and their allies.

It is also good to remember that the right in the US has traditionally been enmeshed with conservative Christian communities.

To the Central Eurasia discussion forum