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Religious Charisma in the Shadow of the State: Pathways to ‘Routinisation’ in Turkey

According to Max Weber (1978), religious charisma rarely survives intact the death of the charismatic individual. ‘Hot primary charisma’ can translate itself into ‘cool secondary charisma’ (Lindholm 2013) as posthumous institutionalisation takes place, yet the intensity of the original charismatic encounter is inevitably diminished. In this paper, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork in Turkey to interrogate this claim, and more specifically to illustrate the role of political context and the Turkish secularisation project in shaping the routinisation of charisma. Using the Sunni Muslim Nur Movement as one example and the Alevis as another, I show how charisma is transferred from religious leaders to material objects and places in diverse and creative ways.

Followers of Said Nursi locate charisma in the text of the Risale-i Nur (Epistle of Light, a Qur'anic commentary), which facilitates a rational, literate and democratized religious experience that complements the tenor of Nursi’s Turkish reformist teachings. Followers meet regularly to read the Risale together in sohbet (discussion) groups, a ritual which revolves around the charismatic presence of the text and replaces alternative, Sufic, paths toward spiritual experience and encounter. The sohbet tradition of the Nur Movement began during the period of 'High Kemalism' in the mid-20th century, and enabled the movement to survive the repressive activities of the state towards public expressions of religion which included the imprisonment of Said Nursi himself. The charismatic encounter was thus perpetuated through the text in secretive meetings which eluded hostile political conditions. 

The Alevis, meanwhile, find charismatic resonance in reclaiming sacred sites and migratory geographies that are ascribed with historical sanctity, and which offer pathways to the celebration of modern Alevilik in a way that is expediently non-confrontational, either religiously or politically. Such avoidance of confrontation is very much in the Alevis' interests as a historically marginalised and persecuted minority group. In the modern day, the figure of the dede (Alevi religious leader) is - for multiple reasons - diminished in status and charismatic authority, giving way to a democratised interpretation of the tradition which foregrounds reconstructed Alevi myths of origin and ritual celebrations at the sites of saintly forefathers' tombs across Anatolia. These sites play a central role in a reconfigured Alevilik, and are inscribed with charisma by association with the physical remains of the deceased ancestors. Simultaneously, they offer a way of articulating Alevi history and identity which can be categorised as predominantly 'cultural' and is not dangerously at odds with the majoritarian, Sunni, interpretation of Turkish Islam that is represented by the AKP government. 

In both cases, contestations over Islam, its relationship to Turkish secularism, and different experiences of oppression by religious groups at the hands of the state have been profoundly influential on the ways in which religious charisma is encountered in the present day. Scholars have recognised Weber's mistake in forecasting the demise of religious charisma in modernity, but this paper offers an empirical, comparative investigation of precisely how it survives, transforms and even prospers under specific political and historical conditions. 

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

According to Max Weber (1978), religious charisma rarely survives intact the death of the charismatic individual. ‘Hot primary charisma’ can translate itself into ‘cool secondary charisma’ (Lindholm 2013) as posthumous institutionalisation takes place, yet the intensity of the original charismatic encounter is inevitably diminished. In this paper, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork in Turkey to interrogate this claim, and more specifically to illustrate the role of political context in shaping the routinisation of charisma. Using the Nur Movement as one example and the Alevis as another, I show how charisma is transferred from religious leaders to material objects and places in diverse and creative ways. In both cases, contestations over Islam and its relationship to Turkish secularism have been profoundly influential on the ways in which religious charisma is encountered in the present day.

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