Tous les articles par Teije Hidde Donker

I am political-sociologist that focuses on mobilized Islam and state-society relations in Muslim majority countries with a special focus on Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. I am a recent Phd graduate from the European University Institute in Florence (Italy), currently I hold a three year post-doc at the University of Bergen (Norway).

Religion, Contention & State Power beyond Turkey


Let me start with a confession of sorts. I am a Dutch post-doc researcher that almost ten years ago stumbled, while living in Damascus learning Arabic, into a political sociology of Islamic activism. More recently, also more by chance than by choice, I included an additional focus on Turkey in my research. More often than not, broadening your horizons ends up with surprising insights in unexpected places and topics. This also proved to be true in my case.

I want to use this opportunity to elaborate on one of these insights: the peculiar position Turkey has as comparative case (or not) in scholarship and how this reflects in analyses on Turkey itself. Either Turkey and Arab countries are lumped together as “Muslim countries” in analyses because their inhabitants (and thus their social reality) are seen to be primarily defined by their religion (see for instance Lewis 2004). Or studies fall within the area studies group: meaning that Arab countries are studied as a block and Turkey is relatively neglected. 1Sadly, the reverse also applies, Turkish studies using the Middle East as comparative study are few and far in between.2)

This disconnect is rather unfortunate because we can actually observe interesting parallel dynamics in Turkey and the Arab world. Coming from my personal “religious mobilization” perspective, they relate for instance to the development of economically “left” or “right” wing Islamist movements, the emergence and interaction between “Islamic” educational, charitable and political sectors, and the relation between religion and state bureaucratic institutions. Despite very different contexts regarding state strength, social cleavages and religious groups present in these countries, similar conflicts regarding religion and state power emerge. The similarity of these conflicts in these very different con-texts provides some great avenues for analysis. Let me elaborate on one example of such an analysis here – regarding religion and state power – and show how a cross national comparison between Turkey and Arab state might also facilitate the study of religion in Turkey itself.

Two Observations

I would like to discuss two related observations. The first, related to state power, is that in both Turkey and many Arab countries social and political conflicts are fought out within, and over, state institutions. These state institutions include bureaucracies, but also schools, universities, welfare organizations and security services. The row between the AKP and Gülen – and subsequent AKP attempts to purge Gülen members from state bureaucracies – does not stand on its own. In post-revolutionary Tunisia a constant struggle emerged over (the ruling party) Ennahda’s attempts to control state bureaucracies, its security services and educational institutes. (Tunisia live 2013) In Egypt the rule of president Mohamed Mursi was marred by dysfunctional state bureaucracies: electricity and water was often failing and other services were equally in short supply. (Ali 2013; N. J. Brown 2013) Many of these problems miraculously disappeared the moment Sisi took power in July 2013. In Syria the project of governance building in the liberated areas was structured by religiously defined social cleavages, with Islamic governance eventually proving the more powerful. (al-Sharq al-Awsat 2013). The state in most Arab countries is much less developed than the Turkish one, but still the political instability following the so-called “Arab Spring” has emphasized the distinction between political rule and state institutions: showing how these state institutions can emerge as autonomous arenas where socio-political conflicts are fought out.

The second observation is a simple one: in each and every case Islamic movements are involved. In Syria it was an Islamist-civil cleavage that defined struggles over governance. The same in Tunisia, where political mobilization coalesced around the Islamist Ennahda and the secular Nida Tunis. In Egypt, with secular movements much weaker, it was the Muslim Brotherhood of President Mursi that was accused of trying to control state bureaucracies. In Turkey a similar dynamic emerged when the AK party and the Gülen movement turned on each other.

A Question

To explain actions of Islamist movements in relation to state power, a common re ex among scholars of political Islam – both regarding Turkey and Arab countries – is to see Islamism as a religiously defined political ideology that is naturally opposed to the secular state (for instance L. C. Brown 2001; Tibi 2013). A common re ex among political scientists, in contrast, is to see these Islamist actions as defined by political, economic and social interests, explicitly underplaying the importance of religion (N. J. Brown 2012; Schwedler 2007).

There is a problem with both these views and they are exemplified by the two observations. The problem with the first re ex is that Islamist movements show a surprising level of pragmatism vis-a-vis secular state institutions – and often work through them. It seems Islamism and a secular state are not each others direct antithesis. The problem with the second re ex is that the specificity of religious mobilization remains unexplained. Why is it that religious movements (and not, say, workers’ movements) have proven so successful in mobilizing, and their presence so polarizing, across so many different public sectors?

If we cannot explain these observation through specificities in Islamic faith, nor by focusing on the strategic interests of Islamist groups in politics, economy and society – how can we explain the emergence in so many different contexts of these contentious issues regarding Islamist engagement with state institutions? Apparently there are some shared structural factors between all these different countries.

Some Hypotheses

Comparing Turkey and the Arab world, there are a number of comparable structural factors that might explain the recurrence of Islamist contentious interaction with state institutions. First, in most Muslim majority countries, Islamic institutions (mosques, tariqas, religious brotherhoods and scholars, etc) have always had a close relationship with the state. Either by participating in the construction of a political regime (Saudi Arabia), by sup-porting the creation of a national identity (Pakistan, Indonesia), or through the nationalization of religious institutions (al-Azhar in Egypt), their supervision, control and – often selectively – repression (Syria, Tunisia). Turkey’s position obviously closely resembled Tunisia and is now, contentiously, being repositioned (to where is for the reader to decide). What is shared between these very different cases is that (1) positively or negatively, there is an extensive interaction between the state and religious groups and (2) these relations never acquired the broadly accepted state-quo as was the case between church and state power in Europe or the Unites States. This lack of an accepted status-quo, in combination with intense state contact, rendered conflicts about the position of religion vis-a-vis state power highly likely.

A second hypothesis is that religion provides a type of public authority that is external, but not in direction opposition, to the public authority of the state. This might mean that religion can be used as the basis of a “parallel” system of public authority, but that it might also be used in conjunction with state authority to strengthen the position of Islamist actors. For instance, in every Muslim majority country an “Islamic educational sector” exists. The same applies to “Islamic” banks and “Islamic” charitable associations. Critically, the position of religion in public life is not clearly defined. As result, time and again, the credentials of these Islamic institutions in normal (secularized) public sectors prove to be a source of conflict. It is a conflict that is reflected in discussions if the AKP is an “Islamist” party or not and what should be the position of Imam-Hatip lisesi versus regular education. These types of conflicts also appear in many, if not all, Arab states: the opening to and control of religious education in Syria has been a recurring topic of contention – as has been the political role of Ulama (“religious scholars”). It points to the possibility that, by drawing on religion in attempting to gain legitimacy, some “Islamist” actors are drawn into conflicts about how to combine religious and state authority. In practice, contention around the interaction between public religion and state power might be a direct outcome of these types of conflicts.

Turkey in Comparison

Interestingly, the above two hypotheses – that Islamist contentious mobilization versus state institutions is due to (1) prolonged and extensive state involvement in religious a airs and/or (2) a lacking consensus of about the position of religion in public life – point to the historical development of public religion versus state authority as main factor shaping current actions of Islamist movements. Questions regarding the role of religion in the political project of the AKP, the importance of movements such as Gülen encroaching on state bureaucracies, and the evolving conflicts between various

Turkish Islamist movements more generally: they can only be answered when we take the historic development use of state and public religion seriously. Understanding these developments begs for a comparison between different state, religious and social institutional contexts. This is a topic where a comparison between Turkey and other Arab (and non-Arab) Muslim majority countries really makes sense – and where better comparisons between Turkey and Arab countries can provide valuable new insights for the Turkish case as well.


  • Ali Said (2013). “al-Ikhwan”: Milyuniya al-Jam’a Hadafha Muwajaha Fasad
  • Rijal Mubarak bi-l-Qida’ (“The Brotherhood”: a Million this Friday Aimed at the Corruption of Mubarak’s Men in the Judiciary).
  • al-Masri al-Yuwm.
  • al-Sharq al-Awsat, (2013). Sira, Bayna al-Qada’ al-Madan wa al-Hay’at al-Shara’iya, Ala Tasiir Shu’un al-Manatiq al-Muharara (Struggle Between Civil Judiciary and Sharia Organizations over Management of Affairs in Liberated Areas).
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  • Brown, Nathan J. (2012). When Victory is Not an Option : Islamist Movements in Arab Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Brown, Nathan J. (2013). Egypt’s Wide State Reassembles Itself. Foreign Policy – The Middle East Channel.
  • Kaplan, Sam (2006). The pedagogical state: education and the politics of national culture in post-1980 Turkey. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Lewis, Bernard (2004). The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York: The Random House.
  • Schwedler, Jillian (2007). Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Tibi, Bassam (2013). The Islamist Venture of the Politicization of Islam to an Ideology of Islamism: A Critique of the Dominating Narrative in Western Islamic Studies”. In: Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 96.4, pp. 431-449.
  • Tuğal, Cihan (2009). Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Tunisia live (2013). Security Force Applicants Quizzed on Islam. Tunisia live. www . tunisia – live . net/2013/04/22/security – force – applicants – quizzed-on-islam.
  • White, Jenny Barbara (2002). Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Yavuz, M. Hakan (2004). Opportunity Spaces, Identity, and Islamic Meaning in Turkey”. In: Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Approach. Ed. by Quintan Wiktorowicz and M. Hakan Yavuz. Bloomington: Indiana university Press, pp. 270-288.
  1. A few notable examples do exist, an influential edited volume on social movement theory and Islamism includes a chapter on Turkey, see: (Yavuz 2004). []
  2. There are a number of studies on religion in Turkey that briefly use other Arab countries as comparative “shadow case” (for example Tuğal 2009, chapter 7). But rarely do they build on a comparison between contemporary social, political and/or economic contexts in Turkey and Arab countries. See also (Kaplan 2006; White 2002 []