The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer 2011)

The Theological Roots of Liberalism in Turkey: “Muslimism” from Islamic Fashion to Foreign Policy

Neslihan Cevik

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 13.2 (Summer 2011). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2011

(Volume 13 | Issue 2)

Many social theorists, especially in international relations and sociology, assume that there is a divide both between religion and modernity and between politics and culture. These divides are then used in depictions of Islamic revivalism, portraying Islam as intrinsically anti-modern and Islamic movements as reactions against modernity, in the form of either private cultural escape or violent political mobilization. This is not only a Western perspective; it is shared by elites in the Muslim world, most ambitiously by Turkish elites.

Given this interpretive frame, it is not surprising that the rise of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) in Turkey, along with a national assembly that started to look more and more religious (the president and prime minister had veiled wives and a majority of congressmen defined themselves as observant Muslims), was alarming for secularist Turks and Western observers, who fully expected the party to infuse religiosity inside the state, eventually leading to a Sharia state, and to seek intra-Umma alliances internationally, leading to an overall Islamization.

Contrary to these expectations, the JDP, rather than pumping Islamic blood into the society, promoted a liberal, national polity (from minority rights to gender politics to civil-military relations) and developed a foreign policy that gave more or less equal effort to deepening relations with the West (the EU and the U.S., and new allies such as Greece and Russia) and to repairing its relations with its Muslim hinterland and expanding its reach to North Africa and Caucasia.

Watching these developments, scholars and pundits labeled Turkey a “moderate Islamist country” and the JDP as “moderate Islamists” (albeit with up-and-down tensions produced by the flotilla events, Turkey’s position in the UN on Iran, and the arrests in the Ergenekon case). This label has been helpful to differentiate Turkey and the JDP from Islamic expressions that reinforce a secularism-versus-Islam divide.

However, while the term “moderate” is helpful, what constitutes “moderate,” how it is different from “radical,” who formulates it, and what it includes (or excludes) remain undefined. Answers to these questions are becoming more and more urgent since Turkey and the JDP’s so-called “moderate Islamism” are suggested as a potential model for the Muslim world in the face of the democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

The prevalent interpretations for the rise of moderate Islam, as well as its content, tend to focus mainly on political mechanisms: national party politics and foreign policy. Where the JDP separates its Islamic ideology from foreign relations, this mildly Islamic Turkish foreign policy is explained through regional dynamics and strategic, material, or security concerns. The JDP’s mildly Islamist national politics is also explained as strategic adaptations, where, through half a century of experience, Islamic actors are argued to have learned how to play the democratic game, or even pose a “modern outlook” (with the help of the efficient state-management of Islam).

These interpretations fail to recognize the broader and deeper transformations that preceded the JDP’s rise and that underlie its so-called “moderate” national and foreign policy. They start with the assumption that Islam is essentially anti-Western and anti-modern; thus if Islam, even slightly, informs a national or foreign policy, the outcome must be anti-modern and anti-Western. Starting with this assumption, these interpretations fail to capture the emerging linkages between Islam and modernity that are generating a new Islamic expression in Turkey, which has inspired the JDP’s domestic and international policies. The broader problem is the marginal place culture is given in these interpretations. The fixation on the political prevents many from connecting the changes in Turkish national and foreign policy to changes in theological perceptions of the individual, faith, and lifestyle.

A New Islamic Expression: Muslimism

Don’t use bright colors; otherwise, you would look like a walking ball of fabric…. If you have an orange veil and orange shoes, no way you would look aesthetic; unless you want to look like a fruit! Wear the bone so your hair won’t show. But loosen the scarf to lessen the claustrophobic effect. Instead of square scarves, prefer rectangular scarves. Hang down your scarf underneath your jacket and create a Grace Kelly effect.1

These are the rules for the new, chic wearing of the tesettur (female Islamic covering) suggested by Rabia Yalcin, a veiled Turkish woman and the owner of Rabia “Haute Couture.”

By articulating Islamic principles of covering with modern rules of fashion, a chic wearing of the tesettur fashionably challenges the secularist conception of a separation between Islam and modernity. It also challenges Islamists for whom the same style of covering is the “work of the devil.” In the Qadimayya neighborhood in Iraq, for example, four mannequins dressed in the Turkish style of the tesettur are displayed as examples of “degenerate Muslim women who will eternally burn in hell for turning men into voracious monsters.”2

How do we explain the difference between these views, each claiming to be equally Islamic? Could this simply be global consumerism making pious Turks bourgeois, where the Iraqi mannequins are a wakeup call for Turks to go back to authenticity?

I think not. Pious Turks have not only launched Islamic fashion shows, following the neoliberal transition, an emerging Muslim middle class has also established human rights organizations that articulate Islamic references of human rights with Western references (for example, linking the farewell speech of the prophet Mohammad with United Nations conventions); businessmen organizations that embrace the free market, while moralizing its principles with Islamic ethics (for example, competition, pragmatism, individual enterprise, and liberty are related to helal [permissible] versus haram [impermissible] gain, israf [prodigality], individual-profit versus infak [spending to please God] and to do hayir [blessed/goodness]; and women’s associations that retrieve progressive Islamic concepts (for example, ijtihad and masalih, both referring to adaptation to the social currents) to challenge male dominant exegesis of Islamic theological sources and traditional practices such as polygamy or laws of inheritance.

These new everyday life institutions are embodiments of a new Islamic orthodoxy —what I term “Muslimism”—that engages modernity in an alternative, novel way. Encounters between religion and modernity have historically taken two forms: religions either reject modernity or fully adapt to it (liberalization or secularization). Differing both from fundamentalist rejection and liberal accommodation, Muslimism embraces many aspects of modern life while submitting that life to a sacred, moral order.

More specifically, Muslimism is a hybrid identity frame empowering engagements between Islam and secular modernity in novel and innovative ways. These engagements go beyond the “hardware imports” (what Olivier Roy has previously called “Sharia plus electricity”). Instead, Muslimists reposition Islam vis-à-vis global modernity and world cultural principles such as universal rights, international law and institutions, individuation, multiculturalism, liberalism, the free market, and democracy. This repositioning is pervasive among the areas of theology and faith (din [religion]); everyday life, economics, and lifestyles (dunya [world]); and politics and political participation (deylet [state])—that is, among the three d’s of din, dunya, and deylet. This reframing, nonetheless, is not secularization; Muslimism, differing from liberal theologies, submits these engagements to an “objective truth” and an “objective” separation between helal [permissible] and haram [impermissible].

What Do Muslimists Want?

For Muslimists, the main aim is not capturing the state to Islamize the community (as in fundamentalism), nor Islamizing the community to eventually bring in an Islamic state (as in neo-fundamentalism). Muslimism is neither state centered nor community centered. Instead, the main zeal of Muslimism is to contrive a lifestyle in which the “Muslim individual” can be modern while preserving proper Islamic living. Thus, Muslimism is individual oriented.

This individual orientation is found in theology, social relations, and politics.3 It is rooted in a theological empowerment of iman [inner ethics] over externally imposed control by the state or community. Iman acts as a constant and ever-present guide directing the Muslim individual towards hayir [blessed/ goodness] and away from şer [enormity] regardless of whether external control is present, thus undermining the theological function of a policing state or a gazing community. Within this framework, faith is a matter of individual choice, and “faith as choice” is more meaningful and valuable than “faith as forced.”

Sociologically, the emphasis on iman empowers the self, increases individual autonomy (at the expense of community), and hence allows self-expression and personalism (at the expense of homogeneity). New veiling styles and civil association memberships replace following cemaat/tarikat [religious orders], as aspirations for self-development and education make strong statements about individuality, self-expression, and individual autonomy.

As this individual-oriented Islamic expression becomes more and more prevalent in the society, scholars too quickly associate this new form with a shift from “political Islam” to “cultural Islam.” While effectively challenging the conventional fixation on the political, it has done so at the expense of the political, by completely taking it out of the picture. In other words, it reduces the flourishing of civil associations or new veiling styles to mere cultural expressions, overlooking the transfusions from cultural into political.

From Cultural to Political: Muslimism and the JDP

The realization of the Muslimists’ theological and cultural demands requires a political frame that guarantees individual choice and autonomy. Such a political frame can neither be entertained under a Sharia state, which eliminates choice by imposing religion (for example, compulsory veiling) nor under a strictly secularist one, which equally eliminates choice by preventing religious freedoms (for example, banning the veil).

Muslimists have engaged in the political space to bring about a state model that will frame their demands in a liberal, pluralistic polity. However, until the turn of the century, Muslimists did not have a political outlet that was in line with their peculiar designs of the three d’s or that could institutionalize their demands at the political level.

As center-right parties weakened, the Muslimists were left with two options, the secularist or the Islamist political parties. Neither discourse could attract the Muslimists, as they both have been equally state centered and commensurate with an authoritarian view of society—either based on a bureaucratic order or an Islamic communitarian one. Moreover, neither discourse could absorb the increasingly globalizing world cultural principles of liberalism and individual enterprise. Each resisted global modernity—one through a religious reaction and the other through a statist and nationalist resistance.

In the 1990s, the Muslimists embraced the Islamist Welfare Party (even though they had already started to separate themselves from its grassroots, most notably cemaat(s) [religious orders] as it was the only party, at the time, open to religious sentiments, yet this relationship was only temporary and was marked by tension. This alliance was broken by the 1997 postmodern coup, which closed off the Welfare Party to halt Islamist political mobilization, but which also unintentionally cleared the political arena of Islamist power structures, creating a vacuum for the articulation of a new Islamic expression by new religious actors.

It was the founders of the JDP, after breaking off from the Islamist political establishments, who took advantage of this vacuum and filled it in with a party politics that realigned Islamic sentiments along Muslimist attitudes and values.

The JDP pursues a liberal and democratic national polity and uses the universalistic language of human rights, particularly on issues that relate to terror law, capital punishment, censoring, ethnic minority and religious minority rights, torture and prisons, institutional gender discrimination, and military and civilian relations. The JDP government also has drawn legal boundaries for social issues, some of which intertwine with Islamic morality (for example, regulations on alcohol), but parallel to Christian Democratic Parties in Europe, the JDP attempts to sharply distinguish such actions from a desire to establish religious law. For example, regulations on alcohol resemble ones found in Western countries rather than the Islamic regulations found in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Similarly, regulations are based not on a religious language but a secular one relating to health concerns and social hazards.

Whether it pertains to moral [din], social [dunya], or political [devlet] issues, most importantly, the party expresses its discourse in line with the attitudes expressed by Muslimists in balancing state, society, and individual choice. It articulates freedoms within a liberal state, thus appealing to Muslimists.

Similar to its national polity, Muslimist sentiments for conciliatory politics and demands for further integration into the global system are also played out in the party’s foreign policy. The party calibrated a foreign policy that is both Westward and Eastward—where previously West weighed more heavily for secularist parties and East for the Islamist ones. But by aggressively promoting membership in the EU and simultaneously looking Eastward, the party took one step further and clearly claimed a special calling for Turkey to provide a new model of conciliation for the world. This way the party bridges, on the one hand, civilizational divides and, on the other, nationalistic objectives (ascribing Turkey a special place) with globalist ones (conciliation between Muslims and the West).

Consequently, the JDP’s Islamic politics are, under the current conditions, informed or inspired by Muslimist impulses. The party managed to articulate Muslimist impulses to a great extent gaining significant electoral support from Muslimists. It is important to note, this does not mean the party itself is Muslimist or that it will keep moving in this direction. Any number of scenarios might lead the JDP to move toward a more statist or Islamist approach and forsake liberal policies and globalist objectives. External threat, regional dynamics, European exclusion, and harsh secularist responses (including military intervention) could effect such changes. But, one would also expect that if the JDP moves towards either a more statist or an Islamist frame, it would lose the support of Muslimists and likely would vindicate those who argue that it is essentially Islamist.

So far, I have attempted to illustrate that the “moderate Islamist” domestic and foreign policies of the JDP and the JDP itself are actually rooted in broader cultural transformations that find expression in a new religious orthodoxy. What seemed to be an apolitical, cultural Islam translates its theological/cultural demands into political involvement by getting linked to certain political parties that are in line with its demands. Therefore, while Muslimism is not state centered, it is not a mere cultural expression, either. It engages the political space and has significant political implications, challenging the divide between “politics” and “culture.” This also shows that associating the emergence of moderate Islamic politics in Turkey with the emergence of the JDP, seeing the party as the ultimate actor producing a new Islamic expression is reductionistic, ignoring the underlying civil roots and theological basis of “moderate Islam” in Turkey.

Muslimism as Change and Change as a Regional Cultural Demand

The Muslimist orthodoxy, more broadly, is a response to a quest among the pious for a “better life.” In the Muslimist context, this “better life” is not equated with an Islamic order that would convert the world (community/state) into a God-observant place. Instead, it is built upon everyday life solutions that would allow pious Muslims to be incorporated into modernity and enjoy its promises to the utmost (from extended political rights to economic and social upward mobility to leisure) while remaining within the limits of helal [permissible] and haram [impermissible].

Muslimism challenges both the Islamist definitions of who is a good Muslim and how to be one and the secularist definition of how to be modern. It cracks the binaries between the two. More concretely, for example, within the Muslimist frame, being veiled or devout no longer prevents women from promoting women’s rights, becoming active in voluntary associations, owning a business, preferring career over marriage, or getting plastic surgery. Similarly, Islamic sentiments no longer prevent advocating a liberal, democratic national polity or becoming an EU member.

While this particular reframing of Islam and modernity is unique to Turkey, the demand for change and the desire for better lives are broader; we find them recently in others parts of the Muslim world in an epidemic-like form.

The current uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa initially looked like economic reactions, but soon enough it became obvious that economic demands are only part of a broader political march under the demands for democratization, and this political march is itself part of a broader cultural march demanding better lives. This “better life” includes not only democratic states but also promises for “not littering streets or bribing officers.” Interestingly, these micro aspects (clean streets, halting patronage) were also seen as cooperating in good and piety instead of sin and transgression.4 Piety, in this context, is not sought through suicide bombings in an attempt to convert the world, but, as is the case for Muslimists, it is sought through Muslims embracing aspects of modernity from political values to economy to everyday life.


  1. Ayse Arman, “Interview with Rabia Yalcin: What is Worn at Home is Offside for Outside,” Hurriyet Newspaper (15 July 2009): <>. Translation by author.
  2. John Leland and Duraid Adnan, “Mannequins Wear a Message for Iraq’s Women,” The New York Times (8 February 2011): <>.
  3. My choice of conceptualizing this new orthodoxy as “Muslimism” aims to reflect its layered individual orientation. The concept “Islamism” cannot describe this new form. Linguistically, Islamism describes a set of actions and ideas oriented towards Islam itself. Paralleling this, the academic use of Islamism refers to an ideology aiming to retrieve an Islamic order, either through the Umma [community] or the state. But, more than a new label, Muslimism is an analytical category; it brings with it a certain methodological thinking and suggests that we focus our attention on the Muslim subject and his or her actions, rather than assuming religious texts (or Islam more broadly) will produce homogenous ideas, aims, and actors, as if Islam is independent of Muslims and the contexts surrounding it.
  4. See the Tahrir square document “Start with Yourself First” (14 March 2011): <>.

Neslihan Cevik is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Her current research focuses on Islamic revivalism in contemporary Turkey.

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