Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Cleansing Islam from the Public Sphere(1)

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Cleansing Islam from the Public Sphere(1)

Article excerpt

"Modern Turkey, like a transgendered body with the soul of one gender in the body of another, is in constant tension.... The soul of white Turkey and its Kemalist identify is in constant pain and conflict with the national body politic of Turkey."

In order to understand state-society relations in Turkey, it is first necessary to understand the relationship between Turkish nationalism and Islam. Although Turkey is a national and secular state, religion lies at the core of its political landscape and identity.(2) Islam has always played an important role in the vernacularization of Turkish nationalism; Turkish nationalists, in turn, have redefined Islam as an integral part of national identity. Turkish nationalism is essentially based on the cosmology of Islam and its conception of community. The patterns of collective action, the meaning of justice, community, legitimacy and organizational networks in Turkey are very much informed by Islamic practices and organizations. Islamic activism has emerged as a result of the expanding market and the changing patterns of religious authority; political liberalization and interaction with Europe. It is, therefore, an attempt to re-imagine and renegotiate the Islamic aspect of Turkish identity.

After Islam was ripped out of Turkey's social fabric by the reforms of Mustafa Kemal in the 1920s, the rhythms of this religio-political activism have been modulated by the changing policies of the Turkish state. These centralizing and homogenizing reforms divided Turkey into zones of prosperity and zones of conflict. The zones of prosperity are concentrated around the "white Turks," or governing political elite, who are at the center of state power, while the zones of conflict are centered around the poor and marginalized sectors of the population--"the black Turks."(3) Religion, as a residual variable of the category of the black Turks and Kurds, became the basis for the exclusion of the majority of the population by the hegemonic Kemalist discourse of the white Turks. Islam has become the oppositional identity for the excluded sectors of Turkish society.

Cultural cleavage is the basis of Turkish politics. Political divisions, which formed as a result of secular nation-building reforms, reflect such splits. The purpose of this paper is to examine the discursive origins and historical paradox of the cultural cleavage between Turkey's Muslim masses and its pseudo-Westernized elite, and the power struggle between them. The first part of this article analyzes the irresolvable paradox of the Turkish Republic by examining the process of "othering" Islam. It identifies Kemalism, an authoritarian Westernization project, as the source of the contemporary crisis. The second part examines the politicization and the fragmentation of Islamic social movements by focusing on the Sufi-centric movements and the political Islam of the National Order Movement. The final sections of the article examine the transformation of the National Order Movement and the socio-political implications of the February 28th process.


Turkey embodies an irreconcilable paradox established during the foundation of the Republic in the 1920s. On one hand, the state used Islam to unify diverse ethno-linguistic groups; on the other, it defined its progressive civilizing ideology in opposition to Islam. It called upon the men and women of Turkey to participate in a jihad to liberate their homeland and Caliphate from the occupying European armies. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) stressed the common religious identity of Turks and Kurds as Muslims and referred to non-Muslims as a "minority." Turkey thereby refused to accept ethnicity as the basis of its national identity, referring instead to religio-territorial identity as its standard for unity. Islamic identity based on religious devotion, ritual practices and a set of historically structured socio-political roles and schematic frames,(4)served as the integrative glue for the establishment of the Turkish Republic. …

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