On the recent past, fraught present, and tenuous future of Turkish Muslim civil society

To practice anthropology is to accept an implicit temporal double bind: We think we write ethnography, but frequently our expositions and analyses have become history by the time they achieve publication and elicit responses from readers and peers. When I set out to conduct the research that eventually became the basis for my new book, Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey (Oxford University Press, 2017), I envisioned a panoramic study of a vibrant, emergent field of religious and political action in Turkey, embedded in the institutions and discourses of civil society. I began fieldwork at a relatively sanguine moment in recent Turkish history, in 2005, when the destabilization of the hegemonic, frequently illiberal forces of statist Kemalism, especially the military, carried the promise of a new, multi-centered public sphere that might incorporate a plethora of previously peripheral positions and silenced voices. At the time, I could not imagine that this climate of political optimism, as well as the very domain of Muslim civil society that I set out to study, would prove to be so evanescent.

Over the decade since my principal research, former prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has cemented his grip on the institutions of the Turkish state and political society at large. He and his party, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi; Justice and Development Party), have channeled a percolating sense of cultural, religious, and political disenfranchisement on the part of many Turkish citizens into a majoritarian populism that fuels and shelters his increasingly authoritarian manner and maneuvers. In doing so, Erdoğan has synthesized a novel vision of Sunni Muslim political identity, rooted in neoliberal socioeconomic conditions, with earlier modes of illiberal state sovereignty in Turkey.

Most recently, the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, in which a cadre of military officers attempted to depose Erdoğan, resulting in street violence and confrontations in Istanbul and Ankara that left some 250 dead, hastened Erdoğan’s consolidation of political power. In the months since the coup attempt, Erdoğan has maintained emergency powers that have allowed him to reform Turkish political society and public life with a relatively unchecked hand. On April 16, 2017, Turkish voters narrowly approved a constitutional referendum that authorizes the abolition of Turkey’s existing parliamentary system and vests immense power in a new executive presidency, which Erdoğan aspires to occupy for at least another decade.

This new political formation, with Erdoğan at its center and apex, brooks no competition. Many of the institutions and actors of Muslim civil society that, as I argue throughout my book, premised their distinctive modes of religious community, practice, and identity on a critique of the state’s dispensation toward Islam have witnessed a radical curtailment of their activities and aspirations. Most dramatically, the massive institutional network associated with the theologian Fethullah Gülen and his Hizmet (“Service”) Movement has been outlawed and dismantled in Turkey, and Gülen’s enthusiasts are now known by the Turkish acronym FETÖ, which stands for the “Fethullah-ist Terror Organization.” Overall, purges in the wake of the coup attempt have resulted in the closure of over 1500 civil society organizations. Against the backdrop of this “New Turkey,” the moment of my research seems strangely lost, and memory of this recent period of Turkish public life is burdened with the obligation to speak of futures that did not emerge.

The primary aim of my fieldwork was to explore how the discursive, institutional, and political field of Turkish civil society has reshaped, and to some extent troubled, the dominant sectarian divide in Turkey between Alevi and Sunni Muslims. Studies of Islam in Turkey generally treat Alevis and Sunnis in isolation from each other; in doing so, they risk recapitulating political and sectarian fissures in the medium of scholarship. Throughout my research, I found that the myriad differences between Alevi and Sunni NGOs were tempered by a shared perspective on questions of secularism, religious governance, and religious diversity.

More abstractly, my book argues both Alevi and Sunni institutions embody the power of (neo)liberal governmentality in relation to religion, and challenge the treatment of Islam as an object of the power of statist sovereignty. Both Alevi and Sunni civil society activists articulate a utopian image of civil society as an inherently non-political domain, uniquely suited to the “authentic” representation of ostensibly primordial religious practices and communities—what I call “the civil society effect.” Concomitantly, both Alevis and Sunnis conceive of the state as an inherently problematic locus of vested interests and instrumentalism, from which both religion and civil society must be shielded. Both Alevis and Sunnis articulate religious freedom as an indispensable ideal; moreover, they understand religious freedom not only as a means to achieving unfettered religious practice, but as an integral aspect of religiosity itself. Finally, both Alevis and Sunnis romanticize interreligious and intersectarian pluralism, and pursue initiatives oriented toward fostering religious diversity.

Beyond explicit avowals of religious freedom and interreligious pluralism, Alevi and Sunni civil society institutions have fostered practices and discourses that place them in a counterpublic relationship to the hegemonic, state-based form of Sunni Islam in Turkey. The various spaces of Turkish civil Islam—from intimate theological reading circles to vast international conferences, as well as the definitive Alevi space of worship, the cem house—defy and destabilize the state’s promotion of the mosque as the definitive, privileged space of Islam in Turkey. In a similar manner, Alevi and Sunni engagements with discursive traditions of religious practice and theological reasoning thwart the state’s ambition to maintain a monopoly over the definition of Turkish modernity. As I argue throughout the second half of the book, this counterpublic relationship between civil Islam and statist Islam in Turkey entails a dynamic of simultaneous critique and mimicry. Even as Alevi and Sunni activists explicitly argue against the state’s monopolistic relation to Islam, the institutions of Turkish civil Islam also mimic state practice in provocative ways. Most dramatically, within the neoliberal socioeconomic terrain of contemporary Turkey, Muslim civil society organizations increasingly offer a variety of social services, ranging from healthcare to soup kitchens, that the state has partially abdicated.

Despite the significant convergences between Alevi and Sunni institutions that I trace throughout the book, it would be both ingenuous and politically dubious to argue that civil society transcends the deeply-rooted differences and inequalities between Alevis and Sunnis in Turkey. Most simply, Sunni activists and NGOs frequently benefit from the unmarked, state-sponsored status of Sunni Islam in Turkey, while Alevis necessarily grapple with the persistent effects of minoritization and the absence of official state recognition. More abstractly, Alevis negotiate the “demands of history” in ways that Sunnis do not.

In recent years, the ascendancy of Neo-Ottomanism—the revival of “Ottoman” aesthetic, religious, and political forms for contemporary ends—has entailed new tensions between collective Alevi self-understandings and an ideological image of the Turkish nation anchored by nostalgia for the glories of the Sunni empire. I devote the final chapter of my book to the emergent Neo-Ottoman chronotope of the city of Istanbul, which has flourished within Sunni civil society. The Neo-Ottoman chronotope of the city has alienated Alevis, both because there are very few Alevi sites in Istanbul that are capable of integration within this chronotope and because Alevis generally view the Ottoman Empire as an agent of sectarian violence and discrimination, rather than as an object of nostalgic identification. The Neo-Ottoman exclusion of Alevis was publicly dramatized during the recent dispute over the naming of the third bridge to span the Bosporus. The sultan whom the bridge commemorates, Selim I, is popularly known as “the Grim” (Yavuz) due to his merciless persecution of Kızılbaş Alevis during the early sixteenth century. Many Alevi organizations vehemently protested against the name of the bridge, ultimately to no avail.

With the topic of Neo-Ottomanism and its exclusions, we return to the contemporary political landscape in Turkey, a landscape that contrasts sharply with the era during which I conducted my primary ethnography. Although Neo-Ottomanism has had many permutations, ranging from high fashion to blockbuster television serials, it has also served as the backdrop against which President Erdoğan and the AKP have erected a majoritarian, populist model for Turkey’s future. Indeed, it may be no exaggeration to claim that the new “executive” model of the presidency envisions a partial restoration of Ottoman-era political forms, in particular the sovereign power of the sultanate. A variety of AKP-sponsored festivities and initiatives, including massive, annual pyrotechnic celebrations of the Conquest of Istanbul on the anniversary of May 29, lend weight to this Neo-Ottoman political dispensation.

The discourses and practices that constitute and orient religious freedom are not prominent features of this new political landscape. Many of the institutions and actors that explicitly championed ideals of religious freedom and interreligious pluralism, especially those affiliated with the Hizmet Movement, are no more. Others—in particular Alevi NGOs—must recalibrate their activities and aims in relation to the rising tide of majoritarian political Sunnism represented by the AKP.

Certainly, the many topics and debates that I discuss throughout my book have not simply evaporated in this new political climate. Islam in Turkey remains doubly shaped by the powers of (neo)liberal governmentality and statist sovereignty, and the relationship between them. Nevertheless, the futures structured by the principle of religious freedom, which many of my interlocutors envisioned only a few years ago, have not come to pass. Rather than greet the publication of my book with an elegy for these lost futures, however, I prefer to think of it a summons and an invitation to a more precise interrogation of the Turkish present, its powers, discontents, and contradictions.