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M. Hakan Yavuz’s Islamic Political Identity in Turkey

By Tauseef Ahmad Parray

Posted on May 2, 2011 by EC

Islamic Political Identity in Turkey is the product of many years of intellectual engagements by M. Hakan Yavuz, who is currently an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah. Professor Yavuz focuses not only on contemporary Turkish Islamic social and political movements, but also sheds light on the vexed issue of Islam, democratization, and politics in the broader Muslim world. It also examines the state policy of using Islam to overcome the disintegration and tension created by neoliberal economic policies—and the way various social groups have utilized Islam to make identity claims and justify their entry into the political and economic spheres.

A constructivist theoretical approach in studying the formation of an Islamic political identity in Turkey is the basis of this study. In this study, Yavuz treats the rise of the RP as an outcome of much broader social, economic, and cultural transformations that have been under way in Turkey since the 1960s. This study also demonstrates that Islamic political identity is Janus-faced: modern and progressive in one aspect, with yearnings for democracy and economic development; and in the other aspect, conservative with a potentially authoritarian agenda for establishing a religiously defined moral code for society. As the examination of the Turkish case contributes to a broader understanding of the politicization and transformation of Islamic movements worldwide, this study reaches three conclusions concerning contemporary Islamic movements in Turkey that Yavuz believes, “are also applicable to other Muslim countries” as well. These are:

First, the terrain on which contemporary Islamic movements operate is not homogenous but rather is marked by various competing groups seeking to redefine the meaning of an Islamic identity. Second, the expansion of the secular nation-state apparatus for surveillance, control, and standardization, coupled with the emergence of new socioeconomic and cultural classes, catalyzes the politicization of Islamic groups. Third, this results in Muslims seeking to carve new niches in the public sphere free from hegemonic state ideology and control. The purpose of this endeavor is to find opportunity spaces in which to craft modern Islamic identities and knit a shared moral fabric upon which to create consensual social and political discourse (see p.8).

Consisting of 10 integrated chapters, preceded and followed by an Introduction and a Conclusion (of 10 pages each), this study in its first three chapters analyzes the theoretical framework and the political context of the Islamic movements by stressing the role of state policies. Weighing the relative merits of various theoretical approaches to the studies of Islamic movements and identities, these theoretical approaches are divided into three broad typologies: (1) essentialist; (2) contextualist; and (3) constructivist. It indicates the advantages and disadvantages of the first two and explores the utilization of the last approach in the formation of Islamic political identity in Turkey. It argues that Islamic idioms and practices constitute a set of social, moral, and political cognitive maps for the Muslim imagination.

After setting forth the theoretical framework, it then presents the historical background of state-society relations in Turkey to comprehend the construction of Islamic political identity and answers the question: What is the role of state tradition and policies in the formation of an Islamic movement? – arguing that Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) melded a diversity of loyalties and identities together to create one nation-state by imposing an official state ideology. Moreover, it also explores the interactions between the state and society within the context of politics and the market in Turkey, arguing that Islamic movements have developed four sets of strategies – which gradually became four competing visions about the role of religion in Turkish society – in relation to changing circumstances. These social strategies chronologically are: “a spiritual ethical” (1925–1950); “a cultural” (1950–1970); “a political” (1970–present); and “a socioeconomic” Islamic movement (1983–present). (See p. 9). This part of the study indicates that the context has defined the nature of Islamic political discourse. The two chapters on state and society implicitly demonstrate that the Turkish nation is constructed by the state, and, even as the state attacked the religious context of the millet, it kept “its spirit in forging a modern Turkish nation” (pp. 269-70).

For Yavuz, by struggling to revitalize Ottoman-Islamic culture, Islamic social movements have brought with them something entirely new: the vernacularization of modernity and the internal secularization of Islam in terms of rationalization, nationalization, and the accommodation of faith to the overriding exigencies of reason and evidence (p.5). And here, in this study, he defines “vernacularization of modernity” as the efforts of Islamic intellectuals and movements to redefine the discourses of modernity (nationalism, secularism, democracy, human rights, the liberal market, and personal autonomy) in their own Islamic terms.

Why is Islam, rather than nationalism or localism, used to articulate issues of justice and identity? And/or how does Islamic identity compete with and complement other loyalties? – is the specific question addressed in chapter 4. It examines the informal, personal, and fluid nature of Turkish society, arguing that Islamic political consciousness, as a form of “imagined community,” continuously is shaped and articulated by the competing claims of religious, social, economic, and political forces.

Thus, while the first four chapters set the context of the Islamic identity movements, chapter 5 examines how Muslim agents construct and internalize Islamic political identities. As the main forces in the formation and politicization of new Islamic frames of reference are the print and visual media, religious education, and the formation of a new religiously inspired intelligentsia and bourgeoisie, this chapter, therefore, consists of a detailed examination of the media, schools, and the new intellectual class.

In this chapter, Yavuz, demonstrates that publishing sets modernity apart from previous modes of production and consumption of knowledge, and that printing has a major impact on societies in terms of raising the consciousness of space and time and the imagining of social and cultural ties. After examining the diverse and complex landscape of Islamic movements in Turkey, he concludes that these movements are not retrograde but rather a positive source of dynamism if they are integrated fully into “an open, democratic, and constitutional system” ( p. 272).

Chapter 6 focuses on Sufi orders, in which Yavuz presents a concise, but informative, history of the Nakshibendi order from the beginnings of the republic to the present day, as well as a brief summary of the most influential Nakshibendi brotherhoods, such as the one led by Mehmet Zahit Kotku (1897-1980), who acted as the spiritual guide for many key Turkish politicians, such as Özal, Erbakan, and Erdogan; the inward looking Erenköy Cemaati of Mehmet Esad Efendi (1847-1931); and the Süleymanci movement of Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan (1888-1959), the defenders of “Sunni-Hanafi-Ottoman” Islam. This has been done, Yavuz claims, for two reasons: They provided structure and became catalysis for the survival of religious-political education and spiritual development of Muslim society in Turkey, as they did in the case of similarly fierce repression by antireligious forces in the Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia. Moreover, Sufi orders played a formative role in the foundation of the political forerunners of the National Outlook Movement (MGH: Milli Görü7 Hareketi) of Erbakan and they were also the intellectual fulcrums for the Nur movement. This chapter indicates how the web of religious networks has been transformed as a result of new social-economic conditions.

In particular, it demonstrates how the Naksibendi Sufi order served as the matrix for the emergence in the 1970s of the four leading contemporary Turkish Islamic political and social movements: the neo-Naksibendi Sufi order of Süleymanc1 and other orders; the new Islamist intellectuals; the Nurcu movement of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, with its offshoot led by the charismatic Fethullah Gülen; and the MGH of Necmettin Erbakan. In order to understand the formation of Islamic political identity, one needs to look at its intellectual and epistemological roots.

In chapter 7, it examines the social dynamics of Islamic discourses, that is, how and why Said Nursi (1876–1960), the writer of the volumes of exegesis on the Qur’an known as The Epistles of Light (Risale-i Nur Külliyat1), became a founder of the strongest and largest text-based Islamic movement in Turkey. In this chapter, on the Nur movement, Yavuz demonstrates that the understanding of political Islam in Turkey requires an awareness of the seminal role of Nurcu intellectuals and study circles as informal networks in articulating and disseminating Islamic idioms into society. In a nutshell, it focuses on the Nurcu’s print-based movement.

Chapter 8 examines how Fethullah Gülen, the most active and visible contemporary leader of the neo-Nur movement, with national television and newspaper franchises, re-imagines the role of Islam within the nation-state system. It, thus, completes the discussion of the previous chapter with a study of the Neo-Nur Movement of Fethullah Gülen, which, despite accusations of being a reactionary movement, has often been the voice for a normative, forward-looking Islam.

Chapter 9 focuses on the MGH of Erbakan and examines the change in the discourse of this political Islamic movement. This chapter analyzes the rise of the RP into the government by examining its organization, leadership, ideology, and communication channels. Finally, in chapter 10, it examines the way the military-bureaucratic establishment used the national security concept to strike back at civil society and the causes and implications of the military’s soft coup of February 28, 1997. Yavuz argues that the ongoing rearguard action by the Turkish state’s military-bureaucratic establishment to preserve its authoritarian privileges could not be sustained over the long term. By treating Kurdish and Islamic identities as threats to the existence of the state, the military prepared the ground for the nationalist take over in the 1999 elections.

Although many scholars and journalists have treated recent political developments in Turkey as a march backward from the “highway of Westernization,” such a view, for Yavuz, is as problematic as the teleological assumptions of the proponents of early modernization theory, because neither the process of secularization nor Islamic revivalism is going to set the final mark on society because the process of Islamic identity formation resides neither in a specific textual locality nor in a particular person or party. Rather, it is to be found in a vibrant set of webs and networks that constantly are being negotiated and rearticulated by societal groups.

Yavuz concludes that the Turkish case is of broad importance for scholars studying identity formation and religious-political movements worldwide. Similar movements and processes are the dominant social and political discourses in many developing countries. For him, the recent troubling recurrences of authoritarianism and retreat from reformist policies in Iran, Jordan, Malaysia, and Turkey does not invalidate the contention of this book that these Muslim countries will not be able to avoid democratizing and liberalizing their political systems in the medium to long term.

Every chapter ends with concluding remarks, which range from few sentences (as in chapter 2) to two pages (as in chapter 5). In the conclusion, Yavuz summarizes the views and observations expressed in all the 10 integrated chapters. For example, he states that this study shows the fundamental shift in modern Turkish history: the Republican elite used politics to create a new national-secular culture, whereas the more current society-centered movements use culture to redefine the meaning and role of politics (see p. 272).

Besides, summarizing all the previous chapters, the book ends with the following passage, by making a comparison and contrast between “old Turkey” and “new Turkey”:

“The old Turkey was based on a conscious attempt to forget the Islamic-Ottoman past. The new Turkey, in contrast, is evolving on the basis of remembering and building on the deep-rooted legacy of the Ottoman-Islamic past. Turkey has been evolving from a state-centric society, where homogeneity and obedience were the imperative, to an associational society in which diversity is becoming a fact of everyday life, along with the anxious emergence of a civic culture” (p. 274)

By way of conclusion, Islamic Political Identity is an enlightening work that helps to extricate an important facet of Turkish society from the clutches of the prevailing media and state information sources that have misrepresented it for far too long. By writing this book, Yavuz has written a richly documented and valuable comprehensive analysis of Islamic social movements in Turkey, and for that reason, it is a must-reading for both scholars and students of contemporary Islamic democratization in Turkey and the rest of the Islamic world.



*Tauseef Ahmad Parray is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Islamic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) Aligarh India; the ‘India Representative’ of EC; and, Section Editor of the Journal of Humanity & Islam, Malaysia. He has 10 research papers, 17 book reviews and 2 review essays (mostly published and some forthcoming), in various reputed Journals of the world, from USA, UK, Malaysia, Philippines, Netherlands, Pakistan, Turkey and India, to his credit. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.