Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey

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Jeremy F. Walton
AAR Religion, Culture, and History
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jeremy Walton’s ethnographic exploration of Muslim civil society organizations in Turkey is a welcome contribution to the burgeoning scholarship on the politics of religious freedom, civil religion, and faith-based organizations. While there has been considerable academic interest in public and political forms of Islam in Turkey, a majority of such scholarship has focused on electoral politics or individual religious communities. The heterogeneous field of Muslim civil society, however, remains either unexplored, equated with partisan forms of political Islam, or dismissed as an “opportunity space” for Islamist movements. Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey fills this lacuna by providing an engaging and erudite ethnographic survey of diverse Muslim civil society organizations [CSO] ranging from Sunni religious movements such as the Nur community and Fethullah Gülen’s Hizmet movement to organizations championing religious rights for the Alevis, the largest religious minority in Turkey. These Muslim CSOs are characterized by their antagonism to the Turkish state’s sovereignty over religion, which they question and contest by undertaking religiously inspired projects championing religious diversity.

As a consummate ethnographer, Walton takes his readers on a series of excursions comprising a whirlwind tour of the sites that correspond to multiple modalities of public Islam in Turkey. He opens his book by introducing these diverse yet complimentary forms of public Islam—the statist, partisan, mass, and consumerist Islam—that are distinct from “civil Islam” due to their varying approaches to religious freedom. The statist, or bureaucratic Islam, represented by the Directorate of Religious Affairs [DRA] is monopolistic. The DRA claims that the orthodox version of Sunni Islam that it propagates is based upon sound religious knowledge while simultaneously discrediting other forms of religious belonging by labeling them with derogatory terms like folkloric, superstitious, or reactionary. While the Muslim conservative Justice and Development Party [AKP] initially promised increased rights for religious minorities, the AKP government has recently shifted its focus to cultivating a populist Sunni majoritarianism under the pretense of liberating Islamists and pious Muslim from the yoke of Kemalist secularism. Other than Alevi demonstrations that criticize the state’s discriminatory practices, mass political protests by Muslim groups mostly focus on the plight and mistreatment of Muslims in other parts of the world rather than demanding religious pluralism at home by challenging the state. Finally, consumerist Muslims depoliticize religious freedom as an individual choice. For example, the editors of a glossy fashion magazine for pious women advocate Muslim women’s freedom “to dress and worship as they like” (72). Muslim CSOs, on the other hand, demand and advocate a “confessional pluralism,” which promotes “the protection and flourishing of religious diversity” (78). This perspective contrasts sharply with that of the state, which sees religion not as a domain of freedom and diversity but as “a uniform service provided to citizens” through the DRA.

While scholarship on Turkey approaches Alevis and Sunnis separately, Walton chooses to pursue a comparative analysis of their respective CSOs. Each of these CSOs criticizes a distinct feature of state sovereignty over religion. While Sunnis are critical of Kemalist laicism, Alevis complain about majoritarian Sunnism. Nevertheless, both kinds of faith-based CSOs articulate what Walton calls the “civil society effect,” which is predicated on an idealized image of both religion and civil society “as a domain of primordial, nonpolitical, belonging and identity” (4). Their motivations and activities refer to a distinctive mode of “nongovernmental politics” that contests state sovereignty “without overtly aiming to seize the reigns of state power” (4, 116). Walton problematizes this romanticized notion, however, in that it hypostasizes civil society as “entirely separate from that of the state” (34). In reality, the AKP and Sunni CSOs have had “a congenial relationship,” and Gulen’s Hizmet movement has tacitly cultivated state power by placing its affiliates in state bureaucracies such as the judiciary and the military (34).

The rest of the book details the diverse “counterpublic” practices of Alevi and Sunni CSOs in relation to statist Islam. Alevi CSOs tirelessly lobby for recognition by the state, which refuses to see them as a separate religious entity, or even a sect of Islam. Unlike the Sunnis, the Alevis do not receive state funding for their places of worship. Moreover, Alevi kids are forced to learn Sunni Islam in mandatory religion courses in schools. While some of the Alevi CSOs accept the state regulation of religion—as long as it recognizes Alevis’s equality—others contest state sovereignty by suing the state to eliminate the DRA and mandatory religion courses since they contend that secularism “necessitates absolute nonintervention in religious affairs on the part of the state” (85).

While Alevi CSOs favor the discourse of minority rights, Sunni organizations advocate the plurality of religious communities, predicated on nostalgia for the purported religious diversity in the Ottoman Empire. Such “neo-Ottomanism” valorizes and seeks to revive the “millet system,” which is believed to ensure legal autonomy and equality for the distinct religious communities of the empire. However, Walton questions the historical accuracy of such claims by suggesting that this confessional legal pluralism did not intend to guarantee “religious freedom” in the modern sense of the term, since it depended upon and produced “asymmetric relationships of power,” both between the religious communities and the Ottoman state, and within the communities themselves (93). Moreover, this neo-Ottoman revival excludes the religious difference of the Alevis, who would have been swept under the category of the Muslim community in the millet system—a system that recognized only the legal traditions of Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Armenians, Syriac Christians, and Jews.

Anthropologists writing on politically-volatile places such as Turkey face a particularly difficult challenge. By the time they are published, their expositions may soon turn into historical accounts rather than ethnographic descriptions of the present. In this sense, rather than a precise representation of the current political realities, Walton’s study should be read as an anthropological investigation of Turkey’s recent past, specifically the era characterized by the emergence of a vibrant civil society within roughly the first decade of the incumbency of the AKP government. Thanks to the democratization requirements for membership in the European Union [EU], the AKP undertook several reforms so that Turkey’s judicial system, civil-military relations, and human rights practices would accord with EU norms. Concomitantly, the dominant Kemalist political and public culture, antagonistic to the public visibility and expression of religion, gave way to the emergence of a more heterogeneous public sphere and a dynamic civil society representing the interests of diverse constituencies, including both Islamists and religious minorities. Unfortunately, this era of political optimism has proven to be rather short-lived. Recently, civil society in general—and certain Muslim civil society institutions in particular—have suffered from the repressive political environment since the AKP has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn following the 2011 national elections and especially in the aftermath of the aborted military coup attempt of July 2016. The AKP government believes that the Gülen movement orchestrated the coup and considers its members terrorists, while the activities of Alevi organizations have been considerably constrained by the rising tide of Sunni Islamist populism represented by the AKP. In fact, Walton alludes to these recent political developments in some parts of the book and discusses them in a postscript published in the Social Science Research Council’s The Immament Frame blog. Nevertheless, future editions could include a revised introduction and/or conclusion that evaluate the book’s many interesting arguments in light of these recent developments. While a more up-to-date investigation of the present is needed, Walton’s book is, nevertheless, quite illuminating in providing a detailed panorama of the diverse landscape of Muslim civil society during that brief period when nongovernmental actors had the audacity to challenge the state’s monopoly on governing religion and its promulgation of a homogenous religious identity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hikmet Kocamaner is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeremy F. Walton leads the Max Planck Research Group, "Empires of Memory," at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany.


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