Dis/ambiguating Religious Affiliations: Sectarians, Atheists, and Secularists in the late Ottoman Empire and Turkey

This research project challenges the binary logic that informs religious and secular cultures by examining the late Ottoman Empire and Turkey from a literary and cultural historical perspective. Moving away from the secularization thesis, this project engages with ambiguity as an inherent part of the very idea of secularism in order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the transformation of the Ottoman multi-ethnic state (millet system) into a nation-state. The project assumes that Turkish secularism does not represent a process that relegated religion to the private sphere, but rather an ideology that served as the basis for nation-building and ensured the dominance of Sunni Islam over non-Muslim as well as non-Sunni communities. The project examines religious ambiguities created by the Ottoman state's regulation of ethno-religious communities in the Tanzimat period and by the establishment of the secular state, from the 19th century to the 'Reislamization' process in the 21st century. By studying a wide range of literary genres and archival sources – including Armeno-Turkish literature, late Ottoman texts, contemporary Turkish-language novels, and digitized life narratives written by young women – the project questions the validity of the secularization thesis. This historically contextualized study of religious ambiguity in the late Ottoman Empire and Turkey engages with its sources in comparative perspective. It examines how religious ambiguity is either (re)produced, negotiated, and/or resolved in literary and cultural narratives. In three interconnected research strands, processes of ambiguation and disambiguation are examined from the 19th century to the present.

The project understands secularity not as the product of a particular ideology, but as a set of practices that develop as different religious and nonreligious communities interact. Such an approach promises to move the debate out of its current impasse – a rhetoric that sees secularism in Muslim societies as a belated import from outside, an imposition from outside, or the result of failed modernization. Instead, the project explores how secular spaces have been constantly redefined by the demographic shift caused during the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic, and how secularism is a process of negotiating the place of different religious and non-religious communities.