Skull-caps on their heads, five students aged between 18 and 40 hunch over a text in Arabic in the southeastern Turkish town Norşin. In front of them, legs folded like a yogi, a copy of the same leather-bound book open on a low wooden lectern, an elderly teacher declaims in sing-song Kurdish.Strictly speaking, this gathering is forbidden under Turkish law. But since the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, restrictions on religious expression have relaxed slightly. This easing has opened the way for a minor local renaissance in Turkey of one of the Muslim world's oldest institutions -- the medrese, or theological school.For half a century after 1880, the village of Norşin was arguably the most important centre of religious learning in Kurdish areas of what is now Turkey and Iraq. Students called it the Al-Azhar of the East, after Cairo's famous university, and came from hundreds of miles away to attend.But the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 dealt Norşin a double blow. First, medrese were closed in the name of unified, state-run education. Then, in 1925, unnerved by a major Kurdish revolt led by the leader of a religious brotherhood, Turkey's new leaders clamped down on Sufi lodges too.A member of the same, influential Nakshibendi brotherhood as the rebel leader, Norsin's sheikh had nothing to do with the rebellion. It didn't stop him being sent into internal exile, along with his family. By the late 1970s, after decades spent in a semi-clandestine existence, Norsin's medrese had closed its doors.Three decades on, the village has three medrese capable of educating 60 students at any one time. Construction on a fourth is nearing completion, as Norşin moves to take advantage of a re-awakening of interest that has seen theological schools across the region become more active."Radical Islam collapsed because it was a product of the Cold War," said Mufit Yuksel, a prominent sociologist of Islam who studied at Norşin. "Today there is a return to the traditional Islam symbolized by Norşin. The whole Islamic world has understood that religion is a tradition, not an ideology."While Norsin's renaissance dates back to the late 1980s, the AKP, led by a politician, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems more aware than earlier governments of its potential symbolic power, both for the religious-minded and for Kurds. Erdogan in his youth was close to an Istanbul branch of the Nakshibendi.Last August, as the government launched a concerted effort to end a 25-year Kurdish rebellion, President Abdullah Gul traveled to the town, which is still officially known as Güroymak. But during the visit Gul called it by its Kurdish (or, as at least one etymologist mischievously suggested, Armenian) name of Norşin. It marked the first time since the Turkification of place names began in the 1930s that a senior official had publicly preferred a non-Turkish name. Many observers interpreted the move as being part of a policy aimed at undermining former Marxist Kurdish rebels by emphasizing Turkish-Kurdish Islamic brotherhood.As Gul spoke, Turkish workmen paid for by Ankara, continued restoration work on the tomb of the founder of the Turkish branch of the Nakshibendi sect in the Syrian capital of Damascus."Sayyid Qutb is losing ground to... Mevlana," says Kurdish Islamist intellectual Serdar Bulent Yilmaz, referring to the Egyptian-born founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, a 20th century political Islamist movement, and the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet who died in the Turkish city of Konya. "Islam is supposed to go beyond the national, but Turkey's Muslims are rediscovering local symbols and local identity."In Norsin itself, members of the family that has provided sheikhs for the local Sufi brotherhood for over 150 years take a harder-nosed view of their village's sudden return to prominence, as well as the rejuvenation of its medrese.In the past, said Baha Mutlu, nephew of the current family head, Norşin used to boast of educating future religious teachers "knowledgeable in the twelve sciences," a term used to describe everything from natural philosophy through logic to shar’ia, or religious law. Today, few students get beyond learning Arabic and a good grounding in the Koran."The Republican period brought great trauma to the functioning of medrese," Mutlu explains. "With the risk of a military police raid at any moment, you have to pare the syllabus down, cut it down to the bare minimum.”While older Kurds still remain attached to the religion of their forefathers, the world view of younger generations has been affected both by obligatory secular education and the charisma of gun-toting Marxists in the mountains. In his early 50s now, Mutlu as a child went to the village primary school in the morning and the medrese in the afternoon. He can read Ottoman, an Arabic- and Farsi-tinged form of Turkish that is written in Arabic script as easily as he can read modern Turkish.His nephew Ruknettin Mutlu, who studied public administration at university and now teaches democracy and human rights at the high school just down the hill from Norşin, is much more at home in modern Turkish. "Our uncle is not a sheikh in the traditional sense of the word," says Ruknettin's older brother Omer Mutlu, referring to the need for new Nakshibendi sheikhs to receive authorization from their superiors before beginning to practice. "Norşin is an institution and he took up leadership of it to tide things over. If he had not, it would have disappeared for ever."Sitting outside Norşin's original medrese building, a simple white turban - or pushi - on his head, Sheikh Nurettin has no cause for complaint. He gestures behind him at cherry trees blossoming early after an unusually mild winter. "This past winter has been so beautiful that we have forgotten the bitter winters of the past," he says.Five more students filed past him on their way to Arabic lessons with the elderly professor, cross-legged behind his lectern.They could get a similar education at one of Turkey's official religious schools. But Turkey's official religious schools don't teach Kurdish. Nor, unlike Norşin, have they produced arguably the most important Islamic thinker in 20th century Turkish history, Said-i Nursi, rebellious Kurd in his youth, Koran exegete in his prime, revered by millions as a near-saint after his death."Everybody who comes here dreams of being the new Said," says Sheikh Nurettin.
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.