Excerpt from Neslihan Çevik & George M. Thomas (2012), Muslimism in Turkey and New Religious Orthodoxies, Ortadoğu Etütleri, Volume 3, No 2, pp.143-181.
The conservative Islamic regime in Saudi Arabia and the Islamist regimes and political forces in Iran and Afghanistan, in the aftermath of September 11, present a global image of Islam as a fundamentalist if not radically aggressive religion. This image fits nicely within International Relations (IR) theory that views deeply felt religious commitments within world politics as a serious problem and deeply felt Islam especially, given arguments that it is as an intrinsically “clashing civilization.” IR reinforces the popular question of why there has not developed a moderate Islam. This question takes on urgency in the face of democratic movements throughout Islam-majority countries in North Africa and the Middle East. What might be meant by moderate, however, is vague and alluded to primarily in the negative: moderate Islam (or moderate religion generally) is not violent, not repressive, not fundamentalist, and not theocratic.
Candidates for the label of moderate Islam are not uncommon and the most prominent one is the Islamic revival in Turkey. Yet, the ability to recognize a negatively defined case is difficult especially given normative concerns. If something is defined by the absence of an action, one can never categorize a case because it is always possible that the action will be committed sometime in the future. Islam in Turkey might sometime in the future become fundamentalist. This categorical blinder is reinforced by entrenched views that strongly held religions must be repressive: Islam in Turkey only seems moderate but it really is a front for a more aggressive Islamism. We argue that we need to rethink our understanding of religion, religion in modern democratic polities, and religion in the international.
We argue that the new Muslimist orthodoxy does not conform to conventional prescriptions. Neither liberal adaptation nor fundamentalist/Islamist rejection, it embraces many aspects of modern life while submitting that life to a sacred, moral order. Muslimism is a hybrid identity frame empowering engagements between Islam and secular modernity. More complex than cultural imports of fundamentalist religious movements and than what Roy has called ‘Sharia plus electricity’, Muslimists reinterpret theology (from sources such as hadith to symbols such as the veil) and restructure their everyday life by formulating new lifestyles, practices and institutions as they engage modernity. Within the frame of Muslimism, the main aim is not capturing the state to Islamize the society nor is it Islamizing the community to eventually bring on an Islamic state. The main concern is to contrive a lifestyle in which the ‘individual-believer’ can be incorporated into modernity without being marginalized and while preserving an Islam-proper living. Thus, Muslimism is neither state nor community-centered but individual-oriented.
We identify the roots of Muslimism in 1980s liberalizing policies. More than deregulating the market, liberalizing policies dramatically undermined statism (which promoted a total exclusion of religion from the public space) and opened up new political, cultural and economic spaces for religious mobilization. The retreat of statism also weakened Islamist establishments/expressions (developed as a reaction to statist policies) enabling religious actors to contest existing religious discourse and re-articulate religious identity. Moreover, liberalizing policies generated a new group of pragmatic Muslim entrepreneurs who wanted to take advantage of the new opportunities and be incorporated into modernity. Freed both from statist and Islamist prescriptions, these Muslim entrepreneurs became the prime agents of Muslimism.
Conditions undermining statism and traditional Islamic establishments existed prior to the neo-liberal transition in Turkey, yet in each case conditions for Muslimism were limited. Opportunity spaces were repressed by secularist backlashes and (or) mobilizing actors were confined to traditional religious sectors unable to articulate an alternative religious discourse. Moreover, the necessary conditions for the rise of Muslimism were hindered further by the external conditions enforcing both the statist and Islamist frames (e.g. the Cold War or 1979 Iranian revolution). In contrast, the necessary domestic conditions for Muslimism were coupled with a favoring IR context following the neo-liberal transition, giving Muslimism further support. The end of the Cold War, Turkey’s relations with the IMF, the US and NATO, lack of any serious external military threat, but in particular the increasing prospect of entering the EU further strengthened Muslimist positions undermining statist and Islamist ones.
New religious orthodoxies question the received binaries of IR theory: secular/religious, internal/external, culture/political, modern/traditional. They call for a more cultural and institutional approach to international relations and in particular to the place of religion.