ASP Abridged: Uncoupling Language and Religion by Laurent Mignon

We are pleased to present the latest in a new series of blog posts, ASP Abridged, in which authors give readers a short and sweet introduction to their latest book.

Here, Laurent Mignon introduces us to his new book, Uncoupling Language and Religion: An Exploration into the Margins of Turkish Literature.

Tell us what Uncoupling Language and Religion is about in simple terms.

Answering this question should have been easy, but then I remembered my surprise when I saw the entries that the indexer had compiled for my book and noticed that Enlightenment was one of the most prominent terms. I had not expected this, but I should have.  From Baha Tevfik to Hovsep Vartanyan to Avram Naon, most authors studied in this book engage with and act according to principles that are in line with the values of the Enlightenment, as they were challenging customary beliefs sanctioned by traditionalist religious authorities. 

However, this aspect of the Enlightenment was not what I had in mind when I chose the title Uncoupling Language and Religion. My aim was to rethink the history of Turkish literature by incorporating a wide range of authors and texts that had been excluded from Turkish literary historiography and scholarship on ethno-religious and ideological grounds. Indeed, the book proposes a new reading of the history of Turkish literature during the late Ottoman and early republican period by focusing on authors, poets, and literary traditions that have been marginalized by literary historians in Turkish and in Western academia. From the role of literary translations by Protestant missionaries to the genesis of Armeno-Turkish and Judeo-Turkish literatures and the impact of the alphabet reform on literary historiography, various issues are explored which invite the readers to rethink generally accepted views on modern Turkish literature. The book also questions the reduction of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Turkish literature to a history of its “westernization” by analyzing Turkish-language essays and literary texts that question orientalist literature and scholarship, decades before Edward Said published his milestone Orientalism. 

In this book I look, among others, at the works of non-Muslim writers –Armenians, Greeks and Jews—who contributed to the development of Turkish-language literature, while creating spaces to discuss Armeno-Turkish, Greco-Turkish, Judeo-Turkish, Syro-Ottoman and Christian missionary literatures as significant aspects of the history of modern Turkish literature.  In other words, the book is about two “others”: The non-Muslim writers of Ottoman Turkey as the Republic’s “others” and Turkey as the “other” of the West. But, obviously, this approach too is a challenge to traditional authority, while the pluralism and the internationalism that underpin my research are also products of the universalist principles of the Enlightenment.

How does Uncoupling Language and Religion make a unique contribution to the field?

Most historians and scholars of Turkish Literature, in particular those focusing on the nineteenth century, accepted the definition of Turkishness that was prevalent after the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923 and imposed it retrospectively to the multinational, multireligious and multi-ethnic Ottoman literary world.  When the Republic was founded only Muslims, whatever their ethnicity and whatever the language they spoke, living inside the borders of the newly founded Turkish state, were considered to be Turks. Hence the literary production in Turkish by non-Muslims ended up in the footnotes of literary history.  I would argue that my book contributes to recovering and rediscovering the diversity that existed within the Turkish literary field in the late Ottoman and early republican era. But it is also an invitation to engage with Turkish literature as part of the diversity that exists within European and western Asian literatures. The minor literatures of Ottoman and republican Turkey represent not only a challenge to traditional Turkish literary historiography but also to the Eurocentric focus, at least language-wise, of much of contemporary literary theory and thus offer an opportunity for the study of a wider range of linguistic, literary and cultural experiences in theoretical reflections on literature.

Laurent Mignon is Associate Professor of Turkish at the University of Oxford and a fellow of the Middle East Centre at Saint Antony’s College. His research interests range from minority literatures in late Ottoman Turkey to literary engagements with non-Abrahamic religions in a Turkish context.

Uncoupling Language and Religion is now available for purchase from ASP or wherever you buy books.