Figure 1. The post box is a miniaturisation of the Seljuk mausoleum architecture with octagonal torso, pyramidal dome, and façade treatments.

On the Curves of Turkish-Islamic Heritage

Figure 1. The post box is a miniaturisation of the Seljuk mausoleum architecture with octagonal torso, pyramidal dome, and façade treatments.

Understanding Turkey’s Contemporary Secularity across “Ottomania”

A considerable segment of Turkish consumers conspicuously identifies itself with the historical and ideological framework of Turkish-Islamic heritage, including a sentimental yearning for the glorious Ottoman Empire.1 Recent decades in Turkey have witnessed the emergence of the phenomenon called “Ottomania”, a consumerist interest in the Ottoman era, in which a peculiar combination of Islamist and nationalistic values serve the nostalgic yearning for a collectively imagined and glorified past. Once excluded by early Republican thought, which pursued a new foundational modern national identity, Ottoman/Islamic culture is increasingly re-appropriated in commodified symbolisms by design, marketing and consumption. As this commodification addresses the discursive intersection of business interests, politics, ideology, artistic creation and consumer aspirations, Ottomania could partly reflect complex phenomena with diverse extensions across socio-cultural, economic, political and artistic fields. Exploration of this intersection may help us gain some insight into how secularity is experienced in everyday encounters by the Turkish population that is increasingly mediatised as a polarised society due to social divisions, including those concerning secularity.

A sophisticated research focus could, for example, be put on creative professionals who style, design, and create the consumer items that are engaged in the commodification of Ottoman heritage and diverse secularities of the everyday. Such a focus may help explore an untapped research of human resources who join—or deliberately avoid—the politicised consumerist ethos from the standpoint of creative production. Researching the efforts and insight of artists and designers—either employees in businesses, self-reliant entrepreneurs, or skilled workers engaged in applied arts and crafts—may produce a thus far unvisited perspective towards understanding the contemporary secularity in Turkey.

This exploration may be carried out via a specific example of applied artists and designers who produce works referring to the cultural heritage of Turkey. I position these creative professionals on the margins of the values adopted by their modernist training and current market demands. In this vein, I argue that being on the margins makes them develop philosophies and strategic capacities, apply tactics and negotiate tensions in order to reconcile their creative authority with market pressures. This could help us to develop a pluralistic reading of varieties of secularities as dynamic constructs that are continuously built and rebuilt instead of passively accepting the stereotypical dichotomous class segmentations of secularists and Islamists as homogeneous and static frontiers.

Ottomania: Beyond a Trend

In 2002, a consumer research study defines Ottomania as “highly stylistic and image-driven” and describes Turkish urbanite consumers in their “Ottoman inspired historical consumption” that stretches from “semiotically charged domains of leisure activities” to “home decoration, art, and fashion.”2 In this vein, Ottomania may be conceptualised in a framework based on consumer whims or ephemeral trends.3 Nevertheless, as the same study indicates, Ottomania allows for “softening the harsh political connotations as well as opening them up to the consumption of a broader audience.”4 Today, after fifteen years of continuous rule of the AKP—a political party whose alleged domestic and foreign political agenda is critically framed within the “neo-Ottomanism” ideology—Ottomania attracts an even greater audience. What particularly concerns this essay is the association of neo-Ottomanism with the political efforts to “marginalize and replace” Turkey’s modern secularism with “a more religious and imperial style of rule”.5

A nostalgic interest in the Ottoman era is not a product of the 2000s. Ottoman nostalgia has long been a driver for revivalist ideological movements in pursuit of nationalistic or Islamic unification of Turkic peoples and Muslims.6 Besides these overwhelming political ambitions, Ottoman nostalgia can be found rooted in the miniscule details of everyday life. Such a phenomenon was identified and explored by one of the most prominent authors of modern Turkish literature, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-1962), with the term hüzün, and more recently by the Nobel laureate novelist Orhan Pamuk. These authors have articulated hüzün as “Istanbul’s collective melancholy” that emerges as a “symptom of both Ottoman imperial loss and anxiety about future-oriented national secularism.”7 Here, inclusion of secularism when constructing hüzün may be connected to the characteristics of Kemalism, due to how its modernist reforms are structured, governed, and executed as a state policy.

The imposition of Kemalist secularism, for example, is identified as “radical secularism” that forms “a fundamental aspect of the republican ethos in Turkey”.8 Kemalist secularisation was not a declaration of a position against faith, but rather a process in which the state aimed to create a “puritan secular version of faith” instead of Islamic Law, Sharia.9 Accordingly, instead of a clear-cut separation of state institutions and religious affairs, the early Republic aimed to “subordinate” religion to the state, just like the French model Laïcité (as adopted into the Turkish constitution), and exert control over the religious practices of the public.10 Etyen Mahçupyan argues that secularism took on “alternative functions to religion”.11 This necessitated a systematic regulation institution to directly authorise the state to influence mosques, one of the most central public spaces in Turkey.12 A distinctive attempt to this end was the establishment of the regulatory state institution, the General Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı) that enabled the state to actively articulate the reformation of Islam in the context of providing religious public services, such as the education of mosque employees.13 The institution seems to be positioned at the very centre of the interrelationship between the state’s secular tasks and religion, where secular tasks are sought to nurture religious legitimacy among believers.14 Today, the institution’s authority stretches broadly across the granting of permissions for building mosques and organising pilgrimages. However, its Sunni orientation as the basis of the reformed Islam has had a “displeasing” effect on the other sectarian communities, such as those of the followers of the Alevi faith.15

The “transition to democracy” with the elections in 1950, however, marks a turning point as the free-market Democrat Party started the process of “re-Islamification”, which has been continued by different political parties across the following decades.16 In the 1980s, re-Islamification could be seen as entering a new phase. Partly as a result of a global trend towards conservatism, the republican ethos was replaced by a new formulation called the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” in which, for example, Kemalist “pagan nationalism” was replaced with Islamic elements.17 In line with this, the 1980s marked the rise of a political Islam that went hand in hand with economic liberalisation programmes that paved the road for the emergence and development of Islamic businesses. Hardly surprisingly, this era witnessed also dramatic budget increases for the General Directorate of Religious Affairs.18

In this context, in line with economic liberalisation, the cultural role of commodification has arisen when claims of socio-political positions are carried out via consumerist practices not only by Islamists, but also by secularists as a “historically shared” “context and activity”.19 In contrast, to conceptualisations that characterise the rise of Islam in opposition to globalisation and consumerism, a considerable segment of Muslim consumers in Turkey (except the orthodox) adopt consumption patterns that are appropriated religiously.20 As some businesses aim to blend “Islamic ambitions with a capitalist ambition”, consumerist practices may serve to construct distinct consumer identities.21

Perhaps this could be best exemplified by urban women who distance themselves from a secular lifestyle with their politically-laden clothing, tesettür, which had previously been stigmatised by secularists as a political symbol and banned from state institutions such as offices, schools, and universities.22 The tesettür transformed from a stigma and uniform outlook into different styles that became “fashionable, popular, and ordinary” by the late 1990s.23 Moreover, this growing popularity and diversity stimulated internal debates among different Islamist groups about the proper way of tesettür clothing. An “internal struggle”, influenced by a series of “countervailing interests” of different political and class-related positions. As new class and gender hierarchies have emerged, one can identify different types of tesettür, such as “soft tesettür” that signals “… middle-class notions and practices of modernity, individuality, and fashion”.24

Ottomania may incorporate a greater pluralism than the Islamic consumptionscape, both in scope and scale. An attempt to distinguish unconventional “consumption styles” among the Turkish middle classes, for example, offers four categories. These are: “spectacularist consumption”, “nationalistic consumption”, “faithful consumption”, and “historical consumption”. The authors present Ottomania under the category of “historical consumption”, where consumers symbolically refer to “collectively imagined pasts”. The categorisation indicates, however, that these categories do not necessarily exclude each other, but involve “conjunctions”.25

A striking example is Magnificent Century, a record-breaking Turkish soap opera based on the life of the Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent in whose reign the Ottoman Empire achieved its zenith in the sixteenth century. Broadcast between 2011 and 2014 in 52 countries, the show has become a quintessential product of Ottomania. Its popularity stimulated the boom of a myriad of products, ranging from perfumes to jewellery, inspired by the show’s glamorous portrayal of the royal family’s life.26 Despite its popularity and excellent capacity to promote the Ottoman culture internationally, the show ignited harsh criticism from AKP members and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself in late 2012. The criticism of the depiction of the sultan’s way of life, such as spending too much time in his harem, spread across the population, with demonstrations demanding the termination of the show.27

This may illustrate that Ottomania is inescapably intertwined with politics, in the sense that it is required to address politically approved version of Ottoman culture. Like the tesettür case, there is a debate of properness—proper ways of the depiction of the Ottoman royal family and the sultan himself—although the subject of the debate is this time a fictitious soap opera. Moreover, the properness is here monitored and governed by the very Head of State. The demonstrations and state pressures, such as by the Radio and Television Supreme Council, forced the show producers in subsequent episodes to include more battle scenes to adapt to the politically approved narrative of heroism rather than trysts in the harem.28 The hierarchies and countervailing interests within both the Islamic consumptionscape and Ottoman-inspired market may suggest that there are complex, interpenetrating relationships that are part of contemporary secularity in Turkey that transcend static dichotomous conceptualisations.

Developments in Turkish arts, craft, design, and architecture are not isolated from the political atmosphere and the rise of Ottomania that may have commercial and popular ramifications on these creative disciplines. In pursuit of the formation of a Turkish design identity, exploration attempts in design practices and scholarly engagements have examined and employed traditional and cultural forms as well as historical and aesthetical conventions. These attempts do not only include methods of cosmetic design reinterpretations of these forms and conventions, but also innovative solutions.29 A closer look at the design environments in Turkey may reveal how Ottomania resonates with Turkey’s modern designers and their experience of secularity. This may provide an untapped research perspective. To this end, I have chosen three well-known design studios founded by female designers and a ceramic artist, each having over twenty years of professional experience in the Turkish design and applied art scenes. The specific choice is based on the effective employment of cultural heritage by these businesses in their collections that mainly depend on jewellery and home accessories. The choice is also influenced by these studios’ productive engagement in collaborative networks with traditional artisans, which I see as conflict and reconciliation platforms where modern designer and conservative artisan identities both clash and transform each other. The contact was established via semi-structured interviews that are strengthened through friendly conversations during four visits between late 2016 and early 2017.30

All located in Istanbul, the studios selected are ECNP Design, founded in 1993 by Ela Cindoruk and Nazan Pak, with training backgrounds in industrial design;31 Sasanna Design, founded in 2004 by Hülya Çelik Pabuçcuoğlu and Elif Gönenç Camcıgil, with training backgrounds in industrial design;32 and Özlem Tuna Design founded in 2003 by Özlem Tuna with a training background in ceramic arts.33

On the Horns of the “Designer’s Dilemma”: Building a Dialogue

“Perhaps, back in those days, it was not as frightening as it is now,” says Cindoruk with slight laughter to accentuate the irony in her answer. Browsing the catalogues of her design company, ECNP, a distinctive set of jewellery design from the early 1990s stands out. Entitled “Eyüp Rings”, the set is inspired by the classical Ottoman architectural examples from the traditional Eyüp district, such as mosque domes that dominate the district’s landscape. The set clearly reflects Turkey’s unique Ottoman heritage that inalienably involves the Sunni Islamic ethos, unlike her company’s more recent design agenda. The above quote comes out after me asking her why the company’s recent design models do not incorporate the Ottoman and Turkish-Islamic heritage anymore.

The irony in Cindoruk’s response is open to interpretation. To me, this may epitomise an example that may help us gain a nuanced understanding of how secularity constitutes a multi-layered framework that hosts interpenetrating roles in the contemporary design environment in Turkey. The irony, for example, may implicitly point to an obscure cultural anxiety peculiar to Turkey’s creative professionals.34 This obscurity may be partly—but not entirely—explained with the term “designer’s dilemma”, coined by Balcıoğlu and that underlines the tensions in designers’ creative decisions when they approach and reproduce the “rich cultural heritage” of Turkey.35 For Balcıoğlu, employment of certain historical contexts of national heritage is felt as a risk that involves being labelled “as an Islamite, neo-Ottomanist or nationalist of any kind, based on the works they have created.”36

Balcıoğlu argues further that there is not yet a “clear-cut political division” among designers who adhere to opposing ideological positions. Currently, Turkish designers who received a modernist education shaped by Bauhaus principles seek to establish a design identity of “their own”. For him, achieving such an identity may overcome the anxiety of being labelled, as long as they can achieve and maintain a characteristic design philosophy in a consistent fashion. Such a philosophy is somewhat outlined by Cindoruk as she continued her above response by saying that their company has never been “a trend follower”. She states that the company’s production agenda is shaped solely by their creative autonomy and that depends on how they define design, excluding, for example, stylistic replication of traditional motifs and forms. This account can be justified referring to Balcıoğlu and Emgin’s categorisation attempt of Turkish designers’ approach to their own heritage: they define the rubric of “design innovation”, in which “links to culture are made discursively rather than materially”. One of the examples of this category is given in Cindoruk’s plate design for a shish kebab dish that responds to a “traditional” function with an unprecedented, “contemporary design aesthetic”.37

Cindoruk’s position may also demonstrate the tension in the dialogue between an artist’s creative autonomy, shaped by the individual’s own world view, and the complex convolution of market dynamics when Turkish-Islamic heritage is involved. As these dynamics are simultaneously composed of a great diversity of internal and external factors, (e.g. profit opportunities, consumer aspirations as well as political populism and ideological diversity) the artistic dialogue itself seems to be of key strategic importance to analyse further how secularities are crafted in the creative production and consumption scenes in Turkey.

Employing Heritage in the Face of Ottomania

The emergence of Ottomania is certainly not isolated from global market trends, where cultural historical capital is translated into various forms of commodities, from nostalgic heritage attractions to popular retro applications for authenticity seeking consumers. In an attempt to theorise the contradictory interrelationship between the qualities of commercial activity and authenticity, Outka coins the term “commodified authentic”. She posits the term as an “attractive package” where consumers can enjoy a unique blend of both camps as authenticity. It provides, for example, the values of “stability and permanence”, while commodification assures consumers to “possess and reinvent”.38 Exploring commodified authenticity as something that is not an inherent value in an object, but that can be commercially constructed and exchanged, brings us to the city planning and architectural ideas from the turn of the century.

Commodified authenticity resonates with Ottomania in the sense that nostalgic revivalist attempts try to unite stability and supremacy as authentic values of the centuries-long imperial history and the heritage of the Sunni Islamic Caliphate with dynamic commercial and nationalistic ambitions. At an increasing pace, the urban landscape includes buildings with superficial transfers from Turkish-Islamic architectural motifs and symbols, as expressions of a state-sponsored revivalist culture based on the new political climate. New public buildings, such as schools, imitate Turkish-Islamic architecture styles by way of pastiche facade treatments. Nevertheless, these attempts of Ottoman commodified authenticity are subject to mounting criticism from some commentators.39 An example that concerns the architectural context comes from Kahraman, who states that although traditional arts, such as miniatures, gilding and calligraphy, have received fresh public interest in recent decades, this has failed to generate a “productive and constructive relationship” able to “systematise” the conservation of the past. Rather, it establishes a highly “theatrical” approach that involves a deep relationship with the concept of kitsch.40 This theatricality seems to be somehow connected to the contemporary secularity issue in Turkey when considering the deeply rooted bonds between consumer culture and secularity, as well as Ottomania’s potential contradiction with the ideology of Kemalist republicanism.

The architectural expansion of Ottomania includes furniture in the public domain, if we include the pre-Ottoman, Turkish-Islamic civilisations such as the medieval Turco-Persian Seljuk Empire (eleventh-fourteenth centuries AD) that substantially shaped Ottoman aesthetics and culture until the emergence of the Ottoman classic era. A striking example is the design of public mailboxes currently installed on streets across Turkey by the national post and telegraph directorate. In 2008, the directorate initiated an online survey in which visitors were asked to vote for the model they would like to use, choosing from 16 design options. According to the nearly 33,000 participants, the option of a small-scale architectural replication of iconic Seljuq mausoleums, kümbet, was the most popular (figure 1).41 But the public demand for this historical referencing of Turkish-Islamic heritage also registered a level of “ambivalence”.42

Figure 1. The post box is a miniaturisation of the Seljuk mausoleum architecture with octagonal torso, pyramidal dome, and façade treatments.

Figure 1. The post box is a miniaturisation of the Seljuk mausoleum architecture with octagonal torso, pyramidal dome, and façade treatments.

This ambivalence is related to the contextual shift, as the traditional design for the repository of the remains of the dead turns into a receptacle and storage place of postal envelopes. On the one hand, this dramatic shift rings alarm bells for commentators irritated by the theatrical reproduction of cultural heritage. On the other hand, an alternative reading of the constitution of design heritage as commodified authenticity may reveal a different kind of productivity and articulation of the project. Pinning down a category such as kitsch, based only on the formal qualities of design, may fall short of identifying consumerist drivers and aspirations that make up the complex relationship among the actors in the network of heritage production and consumption.

The online survey for the choice templates is something entirely different from democratic user participation in design decision-making processes. Despite this shortcoming, it may still demonstrate that a public demand and political climate cross-fertilise each other. Public taste shapes Turkish-Islamic heritage as artefacts of everyday life, even though these artefacts represent dramatic shifts, like in the case of the translation of Islamic burial customs into modern secular functions. This does not only entitle public furniture to become an agent in the making of secularity, but also provokes reactions among designers who observe these shifts to debate the characteristics of the peculiar blend of populism, commercialisation, commodification, heritage and secularity in Turkey. For example, the all-encompassing nature of Ottomania appears to influence designers in becoming increasingly selective when drawing from heritage. Pabuçcuoğlu, from Sasanna Design, defines the current popular methods of employment of heritage as commercial opportunism when comparing to her early career experience in the 1990s. Back in those years, the employment of heritage was undertaken within a smaller circle of designers and based upon a meticulous research process that focused on a much broader historical time frame, including all Turkey’s former civilisations from the Hittites to Byzantium:

All the civilizations constitute our heritage, an obsession on the Ottoman emerged in the last ten or fifteen years along with the rising power of the conservative party […] As a designer, I have never excluded any civilisation and seen all of them as my ancestors. After all, we share the same blood […] However, these recent fifteen years marked such a [political] division that I have started to lose my sympathy towards the Ottoman and feel the need to distance myself.

For Pabuçcuoğlu, the division has achieved such a significant degree that Ottoman heritage has become almost synonymous with certain political meanings, based on the abusive use of historical capital for political and commercial benefit. As this statement illustrates the concerns typical to the aforementioned designer’s dilemma, Pabuçcuoğlu’s partner Camcıgil highlights an alternative perspective that stresses quality issues of the market. For her, the distance has grown not due to the intimidation of political labels, but because of the endless imitation of their creative works by money grabbers and oversaturation of the marketplace that has greatly emptied the heritage value of the Ottoman.

In an effort to dissociate its design agenda from Ottomania, Sassanna Design has accelerated efforts to expand its collection towards pre-Islamic Turkic heritage, referencing shamanic and pagan beliefs. Nevertheless, heritage awareness of the public has been shaped so much by Ottomania that both Paubuçcuoğlu and Camcıgil have numerous times come across customers who confuse pre-Islamic heritage with the Ottoman. Pabuçcuoğlu explains this as follows:

I would not like to call [the lack of awareness] ignorance but rather it is all about finding the right narrative on design that may work out like a talisman, besides a secular taste for ethnic motifs, attraction of a trend, or just an aesthetical decision […] Consumer choice on our products is not necessarily based on the framework of a certain religion but a blend of beliefs, even though Turks fall short to accept that they still maintain and practice remnants of their pagan faith.

A somewhat similar public awareness problem is also underlined by Özlem Tuna. Tuna runs her ceramic art studio and she is the only one among the interviewees who employs Byzantine heritage. Inspired by the Christian mosaic wall tiling located in the famous Hagia Sophia Museum, she re-designs mosaic motifs that are then applied on her ceramic tableware products. Tuna is critical when explaining that there is a certain sense of indifference to Byzantine capital among Turkish consumers because of biased conceptualisations of Istanbul’s pre-Ottoman periods. The consumer “denial” of Istanbul’s non-Islamic history harms heritage attempts in a way that restricts and confines it to a historical period and political discourse. Tuna echoes Pabuçcuoğlu when she references a consumer awareness problem that paralyses the heritage market with the oversaturation of similar historical concepts. Consequently, Tuna’s customer portfolio in Turkey mainly includes tourists rather than local consumers.

The Secular Lens upon Islamic Heritage

This awareness problem may relate to a more in-depth issue that substantially shapes the commodified authenticity of Turkish-Islamic heritage and its involvement in the collective making of secularity. The Turkish model has similar dynamics as many Islamic countries where the change towards modernism takes place not due to internal societal developments and dynamics, but instead proceeds primarily through a top-down process. This process is dominated by a ruling bureaucratic elite that seeks to reshape society, even though its subjects remained reluctant to cooperate in the course of the entire modernisation process. A result of this process is the generation of social crises.43 For almost 200 years, and especially during the Republican period, the history of Turkish modernism has produced a “memory” dilemma. Collective memory was meant to be erased and re-constructed in line with the new Western ideals of the Republic.44 Kahraman conceptualises the revolutionary transformation in the context of Orientalism critically. While establishing an Orientalist approach towards its own culture, for him the republic generated an imaginary West and remained incapable of understanding the West as anything other than the sphere of Occidentalism. This suggests a simple mimesis of Orientalism and the bulk of the latter’s attendant problems.45 He suggests that the model of the modern Republic in Turkey goes beyond being a “political ideological practice”; instead it produces a “specific epistemology” that is built on a sense of “internalised Orientalism” (italics in original) (içselleştirilmiş Oryantalizm).46

The radical and all-encompassing reforms that took place in the cultural, social, economic and political spheres following the establishment of the secular republic included the abolition of the Caliphate—the Islamic theocratic leadership that had been maintained by the Ottomans for four centuries. As Sharia Law was replaced with a secular civil code, such changes addressed the public sphere in radical ways. It rendered religious institutions and dervish lodges illegal as part of the broader conversion of the Ottoman social order, which was based on religious affiliation, to a modern nation citizenry with civil rights, such as gender equality. This comprehensive conversion involved almost every aspect of life, with a mantra that labelled Ottoman history as backward, and created a national ethos centred on “contemporary civilisation”. These reforms extended from language and script, to appearance and the education system, with active bans and regulations on aspects of all the latter. Centuries-old complex traditional social values and customs were sought to be removed from everyday circulation in private and cultural spheres by modernist idealists.

In this context, we should recognise that consumption became a political instrument long before the modern Republic era. The late Ottoman period, for example, saw a banning of the male head gear, the fez. The ban was oriented towards both Muslim and non-Muslim communities to eradicate any visible distinctions among these communities, as a sign of rising liberties and of the social equality of the era.47 Of course, consumption’s ideological link to culture was extended during the early years of the Republic, through dramatic reforms related to appearance. An expansive set of regulations emerged, which sought to moderate the role of centuries-old traditional social values and customs. The aim was to remove them from circulation in private and cultural spheres for modernist ideals. Sümerbank—the state-owned bank and industrial holding established in 1933, best known for clothing and textile production—serves as a good example to illustrate the scale and depth of how consumption was instigated as a deliberate ideological affiliation. Informed by a sense of national awareness, Sümerbank promoted a uniform and secular appearance for all citizens of Turkey through the production of clothes and fabrics that were based on a certain fashion, aiming to cultivate Western lifestyles and social practices.48 Hence, we can see here that design and fashion were effectively used by the Turkish revolutionists to impose modernism in the interplay of private spheres of Turkish consumers.

As the new modern Turkish nationalism was constructed, the problematic relationship with memory may have shaped the perception of Ottoman cultural heritage among emerging Republic generations. The Republic, for example, used a strict differentiation in the thesis of official history between Ottoman and Turkish cultures, putting the two concepts at extreme, contrary poles. These poles were based on the idea that Turkish nationality is dramatically associated with all positive values, whereas the overthrown Ottoman received little but condemnation. This pushed the understanding of what it means to be Turkish to seek new roots, bypassing the context of Islamic heritage, and instigating a “break in the consciousness of history” for Turkish people.49 For Kahraman, the modern revolution of the Republic generates an “epistemological rupture” (bilgibilimsel kopukluk) with the adoption of Western rationalism and authoritarian modernism. It has done so in a way that has not adopted the thought of “Enlightenment”, however, lacking its material conditions and critical approach, as well as its romanticism.50

Both İhsanoğlu and Kahraman’s opinions may be set in contrast with the extremely low life standards of large segments of the population in the late Ottoman period. Instead of a single causal explanation, the collapsing imperial economy and a succession of devastating, large-scale wars that shook down the entire empire hint at a series of complex and intertwined reasons for the memory dilemma. Nevertheless, given the awareness problems that were highlighted in the interviews several times, it appears that some specific characteristics of Ottomania can be partly associated with various dimensions of collective memory. With the consumerist relations between Ottomania and secularity in mind, these dimensions may point to a complex link between how Turkey’s contemporary secularity is socially constructed and how the national and imperial pasts are collectively remembered, reproduced, and consumed in the circuit of consumption and production of heritage.

It may be critical at this stage that I include not only consumers, but also myself, as the author, and the interviewees, when problematising the memorial and epistemological approaches to the Turkish-Islamic heritage. In this sense, this article’s perspective could have been influenced by the specific epistemology defined by Kahraman, which is constructed through a Western lens to gaze upon the culture into which I was born. Moreover, internalised Orientalism could have an inevitable agency, especially when translating the Islamic content into the secular context as a re-design or styling act.

An illustrative example may be Camcıgil’s coaster design that contains the stylised Arabic letter “Waw”. As a popular letter in Ottoman calligraphy art, the letter symbolises God’s uniqueness and oneness in Islamic philosophy. As a result of its symbolic significance, the calligraphy examples include a diversity in terms of styling and artistic placement, where more than one Waw letters are nesting with another. This includes the “double Waw”, which contains two Waw letters that mirror each other on a diagonal axis (figures 2 and 3). The transfer of a fundamental symbolic meaning from the sphere of faith to a secular everyday function seems to illustrate a commodified authenticity in which stability and authenticity of Islamic philosophy seek a union with the fashioning of home decorations.

Figure 3. The “double Waw” constitutes the main surface of the box cover. Behind, you can see another stylisation attempt of an Ottoman motif.

Figure 3. The “double Waw” constitutes the main surface of the box cover. Behind, you can see another stylisation attempt of an Ottoman motif.

What differentiates Camcıgil’s design attempt from the Islamist consumptionscape or Ottomania remains a question. On the one hand, it seems certain that she does not aim to promote Islamic values, but rather, as she explicates, that she appreciates “the cultural and historical depth of Islam” in a secular [or perhaps in an Orientalist] way in search of business ends. On the other hand, gaining critical insight into her secular approach underlines the complexity and ambiguity of the commodification of Turkish-Islamic heritage that is affiliated with fluid and shifting values and practices without clear boundaries for a simplistic social dichotomy.

Secularity in Turkey has so far largely been studied in ideological and political domains and focused on co-constitutive state actions and opposition positions claimed by ideologically-oriented communities such as Islamists. Perhaps, studies on the Islamic consumptionscape can show a different focus on everyday productions of secularity in consumerist societal practices beyond a bureaucratic framework. As these studies display internally heterogeneous and increasingly fragmented social strata of the Islamist consumer identity, a similar focus on Ottomania may demonstrate an elevated level of heterogeneity because the phenomenon stretches across a broader arena of political, ideological, and economic fields.

Despite this heterogeneity, the current political atmosphere, contaminated by a referendum for constitutional change in April 2017—where Turkish voters were asked to vote for the change with a “yes” or reject with a “no”—has consolidated the existing dichotomous readings of Turkish society as a polarised nation on several issues, including secularity. Political and ideological divisions may be present and pervasive, however, imagining societal sections as passive, homogeneous and static blocks is very likely to undermine interactive dialogues that occupy various levels of everyday life and develop secularity as a social construct. These dialogues, as explored in the field of creative production in the heritage industry, can be seen as passages through which one can develop pluralist readings on how secularity is collectively negotiated and continuously reproduced, beyond the mere framework of a central authority’s political ambitions, categorical labels or normative classifications.

Given the well-established and strategic importance of consumption as a political instrument in Turkish modernism, the commodification of Islamic and Ottoman symbolisms offers a key position to deconstruct the social nature of contemporary secularity in Turkey. I have argued, in this vein, that a sophisticated focus on creative professionals who style, design, and create the objects of commodification may demonstrate an untapped research area of human resources from the standpoint of creative production. This focus has manifested that such a deconstruction cannot be formulated and solved in a singular and linear fashion. In addition to political and ideological affiliations, for instance, reading secularity via commodification of Turkish-Islamic heritage incorporates a myriad of socio-cultural and politico-economic domains without regular boundaries, but rather with interpenetration of these domains and related positions.

These positions are substantially influenced by the radical nature of Turkey’s modernisation history that has shaped to a certain extend how people collectively remember, imagine, claim, and consume the imperial and national pasts. Consequently, commodification of Turkish-Islamic heritage resonates differently in various sections of society, generating market demands and social pressures on creative professionals who employ heritage in their design and art works. What adds to these pressures is the state’s agenda to establish normative boundaries for a Turkish-Islamic identity in varied guises, from the regulation of TV programmes to the claiming of the urban landscape through references to preferred versions of Ottoman heritage. As a result, the interviewees are trying to avoid the excesses of overtly politicised and commercial forms of heritage. Their strategies include going further back in history than the Ottoman period and incorporating, for example, shamanic Turkic faith symbols or Byzantine historical capital. Employment of Turkish-Islamic heritage in their designs is justified as a secular tactic, as Camcıgil, for example, combines the exploration of “the cultural and historical depth of Islam” with profit interests.

Given the deeply-rooted instrumentalisation of consumption in the modernisation of Turkey, “commodified authentic” can be seen as an agent in the social construction of secularity. As in the case of secular urban furniture, inspired by the Seljuq mausoleums, for instance, the tangible product joins the discourse as it imbues daily life with symbolism. In an attempt to deconstruct this material agent, in other words the materiality of Turkish-Islamic heritage design and the mind-set that shapes and demands it, I have introduced an array of criticisms that challenge the paradoxical relationship and the modern union between authenticity and commodity.

Emerging hybrid contexts in the articulation and consumption of Turkish-Islamic design heritage may illustrate the complex nature of secularity in Turkey that cannot be recognised via stereotypical categorisations that popularly mediate Turkey as a polarised nation. The dialogues that negotiate and construct secularity are rich in nature and enormously complex. A full exploration of them exceeds the scope and capacities of this paper. However, I hope that this essay highlights the need for more design and art research with focused attention from various fields for the social construction of secularity not only in Turkey, but also in other countries of the Muslim world.


After the fifteen-year continuous ruling of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), the tension of secularism has evolved to another level as national Islamic imagery and has turned from the “exotic Other” to privileged institutional identity. Signalling dynamics of populism and capitalism, politically motivated commodification of Islam is continuously reproduced by a glorified national history imagination in popular media and cultural frameworks. Revivalism of Turkish Islamic roots, for example, has become a sine qua non of contemporary state architecture. Ottoman symbolism has boomed in design, architecture, and craft works, involving pastiche applications in a myriad of household objects. This trend resonates in contemporary art too, such as in the case of Islam-inspired Erol Akyavaş’ paintings, which sold successively for record-breaking prices.

As Turkey’s secularity crisis escalates, the peculiar convolution of Islamism and consumerism catalyses phenomena where one can apply secularity as a deconstructive term to scrutinise emerging social encounters and negotiations. In this contribution, I focus on creative professionals who style, design, and create consumer items that are engaged in the commodification of Islam and diverse secularities of the everyday. Via a set of interviews I attempt to show how designers and applied artists develop philosophies and strategic capacities, apply tactics and negotiate tensions in order to reconcile their creative authority with various market pressures.