Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East?

By Kujawa, Karol | The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East?


Kujawa, Karol, The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs


GARETH JENKINS: Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 274 pp.

In both Western and Eastern academic circles, discourse about various aspects of Islam, Muslim society, and movements related to the religion, especially its connection with politics, has developed with growing intensity since the 1979 revolution in Iran, a breakthrough event in the history of the Muslim world. Turkey, a non-Arab democratic Muslim country straddling two continents (Asia and Europe), with a remarkably successful economy and rising international power, has recently been attracting more research attention. Various scholars, however, have also focused on analysing characteristics of the relations and interactions between Islam and Turkish politics in an attempt to clarify their origins, nature and prospects.11 Gareth Jenkins' Political Islam in Turkey is a prominent example of this research trend.

The author has lived in Istanbul since 1989 and is an advisor and analyst at the Joint Centre (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program). He is considered one of the most prominent specialists on Turkish civil-military relations, terrorism, security and political Islam. In Political Islam in Turkey, Jenkins analyses the causes of the rising popularity of Islamic parties in Turkey, one of which has taken power. He shows the phenomenon of a Muslim country that is fully secularised by European standards in terms of the law and institutions. By placing the rise of political Islam into a wider historical context, the author explains a range of related aspects and implications, from the formation of internal relations between people in authority and the society to relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and the development of the Turkish national identity in foreign relations.

The introduction is a synthetic overview of Islam, presenting its main foundations and dogmatic components. It describes the role of the Koran and Hadis as the main sources of faith, the nature of Muslim law (Sharia) and other important issues, such as the attitude toward the infidel, gender problems, economy, political systems and also secularism. In order to establish basic assumptions for the reader before further exploration, the author makes clear from the very beginning that Islam has had a political basis from its start, which is exhibited by Mohammed's position as a spiritual, political and military leader and law-maker. He also highlights the lack of Muslim tradition with secularism, the product of the Christian civilisation in the West.

Jenkins also stresses that the evolution of the concept of Turkishness played an important part in formulating the discourse on the role of Islam and how it shaped modern Turkey. A series of pragmatic Sultans, rulers of the Ottoman Empire, proved able to instil a degree of religious tolerance, and even acceptance of non-Muslim presence also in places of prominence, such as at court, in politics and in the economy. Achieving this tolerance evidently helped them control the religiously and ethnically heterogeneous polity that at that time straddled three continents. Simultaneously, however, the empire went through a steady process of Islamisation, manifested, for example, by the codification of Islamic law throughout the empire. Moreover, from the late 18th Century onwards, the Sultan began to assert his position as the spiritual authority for all Muslims in the world. His alleged religious credentials were utilised by Ottoman propagandists as a substitute for the declining political and military power of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, Islam morphed into a force for the stabilisation of a multi-ethnic empire.

After establishing the roots of modern Turkey's Islamic identity, Jenkins focuses on Turkey's first fully fledged nationalism-the ideology of the so-called "Young Turks."12 In his view, its Islamic origins should not be under-appreciated, as the Young Turks embraced the so-called concept of "pan-Turkism" (Turkish superiority) in the later stages of their political evolution. …

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