Muslimism in Turkey and Beyond

Religion in the Modern World

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Neslihan Cevik
The Modern Muslim World
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , November
     284 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Muslimism in Turkey and Beyond, Cevik comes up with a new term, Muslimism, to understand and describe contemporary religious transformations in Turkey. She rejects the terms Islamism and Islamist, arguing that these refer to a particular type of Islamic ideology that divides Islam and modernity by seeking the creation of an Islamic state or an ideological umma (the community of Muslims bound together by ties of religion). However, says Cevik, contemporary Muslim enactment of modernity in Turkey (and beyond) strongly challenges this assumption with a new type of orthodoxy. Therefore, using Islamism as a “general label” limits our academic capacity to understand contemporary Islamic mobilization.

Throughout the book, the main question that informs Cevik’s discussion is the imaginary tension between Islam and modernity captured in the popular term Islamism. She claims that current scholarship presumes Islamic actors are either fundamentalist—and therefore anti-modern—or liberal and “modern.” In fact, Muslims engage with modernity in diverse ways. Muslimists in Turkey, says Cevik, are neither submitting to modernity nor rejecting it. Instead, Muslimism is a hybrid identity frame that allows individuals to embrace sites of modern life while submitting that life to the moral order of religion by embracing a new form of Islamic orthodoxy. Muslimism in Turkey and Beyond aims to prove that this interwoven enactment of religion and modernity opens up new epistemological space, and redraws the lines of both categories.

Although Cevik repeatedly refuses to categorize Muslimism among liberal theologies, interestingly, she defines the transformative character of Muslimism mostly via liberal notions such as human rights, individual choice, and autonomy. Cevik attributes these notions to Muslimism without mentioning how or whether these terms have been differently understood by Muslimists, or the ways in which the religious tradition is used to reinterpret these notions. According to Cevik, this new status group makes the devout a part of modern life by challenging the traditional relations and structures of the society. For instance, unlike Islamism, Muslimism is not state or society oriented, but rather centered on the individual. Freedom of moral choice becomes essential for true faith, and upholds separation of religious authority and the state in favor of individual rights. In other words, Muslimists find space in theological concepts for personal freedoms, autonomy, self-expression, and pluralism by making modernity compatible with religion. The discourse of individual autonomy, rights, freedoms, and democracy centers this new hybrid identity, competing against both a hegemonic secular account of modernity and a fundamentalist rejection of modernity. But if these terms have been embodied by Muslimists according to their traditional liberal meanings, why should we consider Muslimism as a distinct category rather than as a form of liberalism dressed with religious concepts? Since these terms might gain various meanings or be enacted differently depending on the context or tradition (as Lila Abu-Lughod discusses in Do Muslim Women Need Saving [Harvard University Press, 2013]), being silent about these differences constitutes a crucial flaw in her argument.

Cevik uses four institutions—MUSIAD, MAZLUM-DER, Capital Women’s Platform Association, and Justice and Development Party—as well as phenomena such as Islamic hotels or Islamic fashion, to observe Muslimism. In these modern spheres, devout individuals can preserve their Islamic spirits or identities while enjoying modern life. People ranging from pious intellectuals, feminists, civil activists, students, and theologians are present within these cultural sites of modernity where Muslimists undermine the hegemony of Islamism by defining how to be a good Muslim, weakening the literalist, purist attitudes of Islamism. Cevik defines Muslimism as promoting freedom, reform, individuation, and civic society, while Islamism seeks puritanism, state-centeredness, and homogenous-exclusionary communities. While these two exclusive groups might possibly reflect the two sides of a spectrum of Islamic identity, many people embody various combinations of characteristics Cevik attributes to either Muslimism or Islamism, and these people go unrecognized in the book. For instance, people who advocate a pristine version of Islam based on the Qur’an can promote freedom of choice at the same time. Likewise, those who engage with traditional religious orders may also enjoy Islamic hotels or fashion. While Cevik helpfully problematizes the assumed divide between Islam and modernity, by making Islamism and Muslimism ideologically distinct categories, her analysis disregards complex and discursive religious identities in a large fragment of Turkish society. Thus her argument falls short of appreciating diverse religious enactments.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hesna Aksel is a PhD student in Islamic Studies at Temple University.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Neslihan Cevik is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia, USA. She is an engaged social entrepreneur whose work has appeared in CNN-Arabic, Daily Sabah, OrientXXI, and Political Theology Today and has been translated into Arabic, French, and Turkish.




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