Study of Secularisms article

Turkish Muslimism: A New Islamic Engagement with Modernity

The engagement between modernity and religion is often presented through the use of binaries: secular and religious, public and private, liberalism and fundamentalism. But in a new volume, Muslimism in Turkey and Beyond, Turkish sociologist of religion Neslihan Cevik explores forms of religious engagement with modernity that resist these crude divisions, pointing instead to the possibility of a hybridity that blurs the lines between categories often viewed as diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive. Cevik explored some of these themes in detail at a recent talk at Notre Dame, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion & Society, entitled “Turkish Muslimism: A New Islamic Engagement with Modernity, Neither Fundamentalist nor Liberal.”

The concept of Muslimism, according to Cevik, refers to a form of engagement in which the mode of religious self-understanding “neither rejects nor submits to modernity, but actively engages modernity through Islamic categories and practices.” For Cevik, Muslimism indicates the formation of a “new religious orthodoxy” that embraces many aspects of modern life while reflexively submitting that life choices back to Muslim categories of evaluation. In this sense, Muslimism should not be seen as a particular ideology, although it does inevitably engage with politics through its influence on (and occasional cooptation by) Turkish political parties and its marshalling by groups, such as women’s rights organizations, pushing for greater political representation and equality through the use of traditional religious language and symbols.

Rather, Cevik views Muslimism as a distinctively Turkish and a distinctively Muslim mode of engagement with modernity. It is both an analytic and empirical category, observable through its instantiation within elements of practice in specific social, cultural, and political contexts–what Cevik refers to as “cultural sites of hybridity.” Through the rise of Muslim fashion (or self-styling), Muslim hotels and vacations, and Muslim business associations, Cevik charts some of the ways in which Muslimism actively seeks to code and morally regulate aspects of modern life. While Cevik acknowledges that these articulations may resemble trends in consumerism, she suggests that at the level of individual experience they actually represent a blurring of the distinctions between the categories of “modern” and “Muslim,” previously viewed by many irreconcilable. In this sense, and in addition to the binaries outlined above, Muslimism also resists the lamentably common perception that Islam is somehow uniquely anti-modern and prone toward fundamentalism.

Cevik traces the emergence of Muslimism in Turkey to the neoliberal erosion of statism through the 1980s, which resulted in the declining prominence of state and society-centered articulations of mutually exclusive religious and secular/modern identities. The opening of new economic opportunities created an upwardly-mobile population within Turkey whose experience with modernity left them at odds with conservative Islamist religious prescriptions, but still deeply skeptical of the secular state’s attempts to relegate their religious beliefs to the realm of personal, private, and cultural phenomena. To navigate these tensions new languages and determinants of modernity emerged, now more individual-focused (though not individualistic), and within which piety and modernity shed their oppositional associations and came to be seen as potentially complementary aspects of a new social accounting of modernity decoupled from both the strict communitarian regulations of Islamism and the secularizing tendencies of the state.

According to Cevik, Muslimism resists the hegemony of both the secular state and the Islamic state, which she considers to actually share many ontological assumptions about their citizens, manifested through their paternalistic, authoritarian tendencies regarding matters of individual religious freedom and responsibility. In its opposition to the shared regulatory tendencies of these competing visions of the state, Muslimism’s emphasis on individual agency is key for Cevik. In its resistance to the contrasting impositions on individual conscience prescribed by both Islamism and the secularizing tendencies of the modern state, Muslimism stresses the potent moral agency of the individual, and imbues the self with critical, morally-reflexive possibilities for action and self-regulation. By emphasizing the deliberative qualities of Muslim theological concepts such as iman (faith) and tahqiq (verification), Cevik depicts the Muslimist as a critical, intellectually curious moral agent capable of interrogating all forms of inherited, hierarchical knowledge, capable of maintaining both an “unapologetic” piety and the experience “modernity without guilt.”

Looking forward, Cevik acknowledges the contingency of Muslimism as a historical development, and avoids any sort of teleological claims about its future. Internal factors, such as economic stagnation, the unresolved Kurdish question, and the association between Muslimist elements and Turkish political parties, all present serious challenges to sustaining Muslimism as a form of pluralistic democratic engagement. External factors pose similar challenges to the durability of Muslimism, with a fear that regional security threats, the massive refugee influx from the conflict in Syria, and rising Islamophobia in Europe and the West will trigger a corresponding rise in authoritarianism within Turkey itself. However, Cevik’s lectured ended on a cautiously optimistic note. In its ability to balance the demands of moral and religious freedom with those of the secular state, Cevik considers the model of hybridity indicated by Muslimism to represent perhaps “the most viable version of democratic secularism” currently available.

Especially compared to the alternatives of violent extremism that dominate public imaginings of religion’s engagement with modernity, Cevik sees in Muslimism an “actual, living counter-alternative” to radical religion, and one with implications beyond the respective political and religious spheres of Turkey and Islam. To this end, Cevik suggests that other religious movements across the globe–including US Evangelicals, Pentecostals in Latin America, and certain communities within Israel’s Haredi movement, among others–might be similarly construed as “new religious orthodoxies” similar to Muslimism, but the implications of the similarities between these religious communities and their negotiations with modernity will require research beyond the scope of her current project.

In terms of enduring questions about Muslimism, given that Cevik locates the origins of Muslimism in Turkey’s historical processes of economic neoliberalization, and coupled with her market-driven examples of “cultural sites of hybridity,” how do we square the claims to individual agency associated with Muslimism with the critiques that advanced market capitalism provides only the illusion, never the reality, of non-determinate expressions of individual choice and selfhood? How potentially problematic is consumerism as a grounding for individual agency?

Garrett FitzGerald
Garrett FitzGerald is a PhD candidate of Political Science & Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and Research Associate for Contending Modernities. Garrett’s research interests focus on bringing the critical and constructive insights of decolonial thought into conversation with the theory and practice of peacebuilding.

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