TURKEY: Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy: Islamist Women in Turkish Politics

By Özdalga, Elisabeth | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

TURKEY: Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy: Islamist Women in Turkish Politics


Özdalga, Elisabeth, The Middle East Journal


TURKEY Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy: Islamist Women in Turkish Politics, by Yesim Arat: New York: SUNY Press, 2005. x + 116 pages. Appendix to p. 120. Notes to p. 134. Bibl. to p. 144. Index to p. 150. $55.

That democracy is neither solely give nor take, but a mutual combination of negotiations and compromises between different parties, is aptly demonstrated in this study of politically organized Islamist women in Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s. Raised and educated in a secular state, women with Islamic sentiments and a desire to preserve their Islamic traditions in a rapidly modernizing society have managed to maintain double loyalties: to politically organized religion and to the secular state. This combination is based on double-sided pragmatism, grounded both in the women themselves and in the state. An important insight in this study is that, in spite of its seemingly hard-core secularism, the modern Turkish state has also manifested a conciliatory tendency and allowed religious sentiments to be politically expressed and organized. To be sure, there is still reason for opposition to certain narrow definitions of secularism, as illustrated by the headscarf issue, but according to the author, such conflicts may not be wholly destructive. They may, in fact, drive women into action to claim their rights. Such processes are in themselves formative, promoting actions within a public realm defined by secular norms and individual rights. The best way to learn democracy is by practicing it. That is what explains the relative success of Turkey in integrating Islamic opposition into the secular polity.

The author, Yesim Arat, is professor of political science and international relations at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul, specializing in women's studies. This academic background lends substance to this work. Based on various types of written materials and some 25 in-depth interviews with leading Refah (Welfare) Party (1983-98) women, it is divided into five chapters. The first two describe the background: women in general in Turkish politics, and the Refah Party, including the Ladies' Commissions. The remaining three chapters deal with women in the Refah organization, processes of mobilization, and world-views. The influence of liberalism on Islamic women'.s political attitudes is discussed in the conclusion.

The period covered by Arat's study represents the peak of success of Necmettin Erbakan's Refah Party, especially in the 1994 local and the 1995 general elections, and the election campaigns leading to these victories (with 19% and 21%, respectively, of the votes cast). …

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