Jeremy Walton, Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey

Jeremy Walton, Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Since the very beginning of the Turkish Republic in 1923, both scholarly and popular accounts have frequently tended to frame the country – their object of analysis – in a way that produced two effects: First, these accounts frequently described the movement of ideas, social norms, ways of thinking, and forms of political organization from Europe into Turkey. In some sense, this decision reflected the self-consciously Westernizing projects of the country’s ruling elite. more problematically, this importation resulted in a mode of understanding of Turkey that focused primarily on the way that processes ‘outside’ the country – whether developmentalism, democratization, modernization, globalization, or neoliberalism, to name five of the most important – were imported ‘into’ Turkey. The consequence of this conceptual blind spot was the second effect: Scholarship on Turkey tended to take for granted the assumed stability of these processes in the places from which scholars wrote. In evaluating the extent to which Turkey’s experience conformed to or diverged from a given model, some of this scholarship likewise failed to interrogate the complicated dynamics of and within the United States of America and Europe.

Where once many scholars looked at Turkey and asked, “Why Turkey wasn’t more like _____,” many scholars of Turkey now look at their own countries and ask, “How is my country becoming more like Turkey?” This is, perhaps, small consolation, but it does signal a helpful shift from a situation in which Turkey was studied according to others’ models to one in which the specificities of Turkey teach us something of broader relevance. One exemplary example of that shift was an essay written by the novelist and essayist Ece Temelkuran in which she reflected on the lessons that observers of American politics and Donald Trump might draw from the situation she knew best: A Turkey run by the Justice and Development Party for 15 years and now effectively under the control of President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan. Noting Erdoğan’s propensity for outlandish statements and outright lies that became accepted as the new horizons of the normal, she warned those in the United States that trying to argue with figures like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, or others was “like trying to play chess with a pigeon. Even if you win within the rules, the pigeon will clutter up the pieces, and finally it will shit on the chessboard, leaving you to deal with the mess.”

Jeremy Walton’s Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey has nothing to do with pigeons or chessboards, but, like Temelkuran’s work, Walton’s ethnography provides a way of thinking about religion, state sovereignty, and liberal political subjectivity that is relevant well beyond Turkey’s borders. Not simply an analysis of Turkey, Muslim Civil Society gives us a sophisticated account of one way we might understand the politics of religion from Turkey. As he notes in his Introduction, this book “focuses on how a romance of independence from state power… has fueled a distinctive mode of ‘nongovernmental politics’ on the part of both Alevi and Sunni actors within civil society.” But, Walton insists, ‘civil society’ cannot be conceptualized as an objective pre-existing object of study, somehow set within a “domain of primordial, nonpolitical belonging and identity” (p. 4). Rather, his book analyzes a set of overlapping, competing, and contradictory ways that a variety of actors deploy ‘civil society’ as both political horizon and normative frame to authorize certain mediations of Islam and render others impossible. How, why, and for whom do appeals to ‘religious freedom’ in contemporary Turkey simultaneously “[enshrine] a liberal image of the religious subject as autonomous, self-regulating, and nonpolitical” while “decoupling questions of political sovereignty from those of governance in pursuit of the newfound ideal of ‘religious freedom’” (p. xix)? Rather than provides a normative answer to that question, Walton’s account usefully compares and contrasts the different ways that three civil society organizations deploy, contest, and consolidate particular definitions of religion and freedom. They are the Nur Community, the movement known as Hizmet, and a set of self-identified Alevi foundations.[1]

Walton organizes his book into two main sections. The first section – the Introduction and Chapters 1 and 2 – provides the reader with a quick but accessible entry into Turkey’s recent history and maps out five different public mediations of Islam in Turkey. Walton juxtaposes four of these mediations – the statist, mass, partisan, and consumerist – with a fifth, that of ‘civil Islam.’ In relation to those four, he argues, civil Islam helps to make possible two key kinds of subject, “the self-determining individual and [the] voluntaristic community [who] inhabit and emerge from a field of power defined by liberal governmentality” (p. 104). In turn, these subjects both make possible and are reconfirmed by discourses of ‘religious freedom.’ Oftentimes, appeals to religious freedom are framed as opening up a space for individuals to express their faith without government intrusion, but Walton’s ethnography makes a key contribution in showing us that those appeals to religious freedom in fact require a political configuration that positions the individual, the community, and the state in particular ways.[2] As Walton observes, “Nongovernmental actors and activists envision civil society as a simultaneously political and nonpolitical domain” (78).

In the book’s second section, he sketches out the distinctive spatial and temporal practices of civil Islam (respectively, Chapters 3 and 4). His spatial analysis takes us through a variety of devotional practices and spaces, ranging from Friday prayers to visits to the shrine of Hacı Bektaş to the reading circles of the Nur Community. In doing so, he draws out the ways that definitions of religion – and thus definitions of religious subjects – are closely connected to particular ways of using space. When he turns to history, Walton situates his analysis relative to the ways that Turkey’s neoliberal experience has made it possible for individuals and communities to “face up to history” in ways that challenge the Turkish state’s sovereignty over modes of history telling. But rather than celebrate individuals’ freedom to learn history for themselves, Muslim Civil Society challenges us to attend to the very different possibilities that Sunni and Alevi civil society organizations have for narrating their histories in and in relation to the state. Space and history come together in the book’s final analytical chapter on the Ottoman chronotope of Istanbul. In one key encounter, he observes that Istanbul’s Ottoman-era buildings – many of which have been restored and then transferred to a range of civil society organizations – play an important role because they “permit the simultaneity and synthesis of public Muslim virtue and nongovernmental political activism” (p. 190). Held up as material exemplars of an authentic civil identity – and thus ostensibly outside the ‘politics’ of the state – these Ottoman-era buildings are in fact deeply enmeshed in the operations of state power. As a result, these buildings and the chronotope they help to naturalize a civil society that in fact alienates large numbers of people, in particular many residents of Istanbul who identify as Alevi.

One of the great strengths of this book is also, perhaps, a limitation. Much of the ethnographic research that forms the heart of this book’s argument took place over 18 months between 2005 and 2007. In the decade since, Walton has continued to return to, research in, and write about contemporary Turkey. As a result, Muslim Civil Society is able to provide us an important meso-scale account of political, cultural, and religious change in Turkey that avoids both ahistorical analysis and an overly historical analysis that searches for the ‘roots’ of the present in the deep Ottoman past. Muslim Civil Society is also a carefully crafted book; even if one might quibble about the exact boundaries, Walton’s mapping out of his five mediations of public Islam is convincing, effective, and provides an important revision to commonplace analyses of Turkey that juxtapose only the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular.’

But – and as Walton allows – Turkey seems to have changed in important ways over the past decade, both as an object of scholarship and as a lived experience. In English in the United States, several books in anthropology and sociology have traversed a similar terrain, including Berna Turam’s Between Islam and the State (2007), Kabir Tambar’s The Reckoning of Pluralism (2014), Brian Silverstein’s Islam and Modernity in Turkey (2011), Cihan Tuğal’s Passive Revolution (2009) and The Fall of the Turkish Model (2016), and Joshua Hendrick’s Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World (2013). In focusing on the paradoxical nonpolitical politics of religious freedom, Walton’s book makes a new contribution to this literature, but part of the challenge of Muslim Civil Society is analyzing research from a decade ago in light of the shifts in the literature.

The bigger challenge is – and as Walton avers – to contextualize his research in relation to Turkey’s recent history. By one count, there have been three constitutional referendums (2007, 2010, 2017), two local elections (2009 and 2014), and four general elections (2007, 2011, and two in 2015), and Turkey’s first popular presidential election (2014). There were the Gezi Protests (summer 2013), the corruption allegations against President Erdoğan and his family (December 2013), the long-running purge against Hizmet and supporters of its leader Fethullah Gülen (2014-present), renewed violence against predominantly Kurdish regions in the country’s southeast (2015-present), bombings in Reyhanlı, Istanbul, and Ankara, and ongoing fallout from the violence in Syria. And then there was the failed coup attempt of July 2016. In short, Turkey’s recent history has been punctuated by a staggering range of events that could bear on some of Walton’s arguments about politics, individual freedom, and the forms of social organization. In fairness, that would be a very different book, but it does signal a distinct challenge of writing about Turkey.

Yet Muslim Civil Society is not simply a book about Turkey. What makes it particularly interesting is the way that it opens up a way of thinking about the politics of religion in a place like the United States of America, particularly since the November 2016 election of Donald Trump. One of the many debates since the election has turned on the question of ‘politicization.’ Defenders of President Trump often claim that his opponents are too quick to politicize things like (Christian) religious belief or (Confederate) heritage. They claim that these forms of belief and heritage cannot be political because they are located with the realm of civil society. Any government intervention into the realm of belief or heritage, such as laws that ban discrimination or government decisions to remove Confederate statues, is framed as a violation of the fundamental autonomy of ‘civil society.’ But what Walton’s work helps us see is the way that any appeal to a non-political and thus autonomous civil society in fact depends upon a particular configuration of state power and (some) individuals’ willingness to be governed. Far more than simply helping us learn about Turkey, Muslim Civil Society also provides a new lens to think about ongoing debates in the United States today.


[1] It was the Hizmet Movement, led by the religious leader Fethullah Gülen, that is alleged to have carried out the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. As Walton notes, that coup attempt took place immediately after his finishing the final revisions on this book.

[2] Compare, for example, the various versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that have been passed by numerous state legislatures around the United States of America.

Timur Hammond
is assistant professor of geography at Syracuse University.


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