Islamic Roots and Resurgence in Turkey: Understanding and Explaining the Muslim Resurgence

TitleIslamic Roots and Resurgence in Turkey: Understanding and Explaining the Muslim Resurgence
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialVertigans, Stephen
PublisherLondon: Praeger
Review year


Full Text

Vertigans’ book Islamic Roots and Resurgence in Turkey deals with the growing appeal of Islam to a cross-section of Turkish society and in particular the group he calls praxisitioners, who aim to link their beliefs and practices in the fullest possible manner and for whom Islam both “affects and represents the social context.” He aims to move beyond explanations that are grounded in “secular and modernization rationale" (p.153), and calls for a partial revision of stereotypes based on secularist and modernist beliefs, which pictures Islam as a reactive force that is on the defensive (seen from what is supposedly a “higher point of view”).

Islamic Roots and Resurgence in Turkey features a longer historical introduction (taking up close to half of the book) to Turkish and Ottoman histories, in order to distinguish the long-term causes of the resurgence from the short-term and to integrate the historical and the sociological modes of explanation. Vertigans narrates that the Turkish Republic’s laicist nationalism, aiming at a citizenry with modern outlooks, originally intended to seriously weaken the impact of Islam and its cultural links. This was a highly systematic campaign in the 1920s and 1930s, which however did not lead to resurgence or widespread religious protests – probably since many were excluded from the political system as well as isolated, this did not impact them too forcefully and they could not organize themselves (p.46). The postwar period saw a more sympathetic approach of the democratic leadership to religion, though this meant no allowance of mixing the state with religious power, nor did religion emerge as the crucial dividing line in politics. In the 1960s, the left-right divide and their attachment to secular political ideologies meant much more for the Turkish people. Even though at this time Turkey’s modernization produced many of the social consequences that are currently often listed as contributing to the Islamic resurgence, still, the latter phenomenon was not yet visible.

Though religion was meant to remain a strictly private affair, increasing concessions were made to it, originally aimed at fighting radicalism and left-wing politics, which contributed to the resurgence on the long-term. By the 1970s political Islam became much more visible but praxisitioners remained isolated (p.56). From the early 1980s the state continued to perform its very difficult balancing act, supporting Islam while simultaneously seeking to control it (p.63).From this time on, Turkey saw a combination of factors: increasing dislocation and misery through economic liberalization coupled with massive foreign influence, a strengthening of civil society and some aspects of modernization leading to the incorporation of citizenry (especially through the media and communication technology), alongside a relative poor performance of the political system and its elite. This was happening when official religious education (both in the growing number of separate and in nominally secular state institutions) and networks were strengthening, and consequently Islamic social and political commitments were becoming more serious (pp.71-73).
One might say that currently we have to deal with three interrelated phenomenon: the growth of Islam as a factor in the political life of Turkey, the growth of religiosity and the increasing numbers of praxisitioners who are linking these phenomena and their religiosity to political commitments. These people, the primary focus of the book, emphasize the inseparability of the public from the private and stress the totality of Islam as a way of life, its all-encompassing nature. Therefore, for them Islam is clearly more than a mere cultural phenomenon, providing both metaphysical and social guidance, as well as a historical metanarrative (for them Islam is linked to imperial success, while the weakening of Islam to decline and fall), leading to a “circle of reinforcements,” as Vertigans calls it (which is akin to the more commonly used “closed system of thought”) and have as their correlate the aim to replace the secular state with theocracy. On the other hand, Islamists are by no means homogenous or unified, nor does Islam play a similar function for all of them.

Vertigans claims that the Islamic resurgence can be adequately explained neither as providing solace for the dispossessed and/or alienated (in simply terms, the idea that supposes that people who desire modernization turn away from aiming at it, since they have to realize they cannot achieve it, and become religious as a substitute), nor as the rise of an obscurantist, non- (or even anti-)modern force. Any aim to establish a direct link between socioeconomic status and the choice to be a Muslim praxisitioner has to face the problem that the acceptance is cross-class and substantial amounts of people within each class belong to both groups of this divide – which is not to state that the usually enumerated factors, such as economic hardship, failed expectations and “unorganic” urbanization are not linked to the phenomenon of Islamic resurgence, though Vertigans believes they tend to be overemphasized (p.81). Similarly to the insufficiency of socioeconomic reasoning, any attempt to link the current resurgence to modernization’s symptoms is bound to provide a less than satisfactory explanation, since modernization has been having similar effects and producing similar results in Turkey for many more decades – the Islamic resurgence is clearly more recent.
Therefore, instead of accepting such simplistic explanations, our analysis needs to be more expansive and inclusive, account for the appeal of praxism to different socioeconomic groups and the contemporary nature of the emergence. What Vertigans offers in particular is the exploration of the commitment of educated and successful people and a comparison of people belonging to similar social groups who opted to be secularists and praxisitioners. More concretely, this book was developed as a case study of Turkish postgraduate students in the United Kingdom (Vertigans’ PhD research was based on in-depth interviews undertaken with them between 1993 and 1998) (p.18).
The author rightly claims that at the time of the development of media, of communication, urbanization and the spread of literacy and higher education, religion has flourished. Religious people, who are often depicted as non-pragmatic and even as obscurantist, have exerted great influence through educational institutions and the media. This shift to a broader range of influential socializing agents (beyond the traditional clear superiority of the family in Turkish society) is one of the main factors behind the contemporary nature of the Islamic resurgence: education has Islamic education as one of its significant components (and many of the teachers are believers), and the media exposes people to grave problems and the plight of many Muslims in the world.
What concerns educated praxisitioners, though the strength of their beliefs might have fluctuated, their acquired a religious outlook generally earlier in life than when secularists got committed. According to Vertigans, their heightened exposition to profane realms is unlikely to change their praxis, since they have a system of interpretation, a developed way for accounting for their experiences. Though both groups have families with rather similar beliefs to theirs, secularists tend to stress individual choice much more. It is also interesting to note how Turkish postgraduate secularists in the United Kingdom are also highly critical of the contemporary world and they remarks are often similar to those of praxisitioners, since, as Vertigans claims, their secular ideologies often have limited relevance in explaining contemporary life.

The polarization between secularists and religious forces are increasingly evident. While inclusion of religion within democracy seems likely to reduce the resurgence, it might accelerate praxisification on the long term (p.78). The increase in education, the power of the media and the influence of peer-groups (who nevertheless all remain less influential than families in the process of socialization) mean growing awareness of problems and thereby help the Islamist cause, since Islamism is seen as a tool for radical change and can have a populist appeal while other ideologies are being discredited.
The future strength of the phenomenon is likely to depend on how successfully praxisitioners will be able to explain local and global problems, to what extent they can continue providing promises without becoming compromised. Political developments and choices and the role of the military in particular might prove crucial in determining whether the near future holds incorporation, increasing power and moderation or (at least temporary) marginalization and radicalization for the Islamists – these being the two most likely scenarios. Though their appeal in general is likely to expand in the future (especially since this more religious generation will soon be more powerful, also in transmitting its values), Vertigans believes it is going to remain limited in Turkey by the ingrained Kemalist legacy, the lack of coherent long-term strategy and the general fragmentation among Islamists (p.165).
In sum, what Vertigans proposes in his book Islamic Roots and Resurgence in Turkey is to extend the framework of analysis “to include ideology, historical context, processes of socialization, and motivation” that are all interconnected by the processes of socialization. He views the Islamic resurgence in Turkey (and also elsewhere) “not as a retrograde reaction to processes of modernization, because it can have a positive appeal in circumstances that are negative and accommodate modernity” (p.15). Islamic Roots and Resurgence in Turkey is a clearly structured and well-argued work, though at times it is somewhat repetitive. The model it offers is rather comprehensive and convincing, though the exposition of links (for instance the influence of parents on children, or the idea of salvation as motivation for the devout) can sometimes feel self-evident. It is a shame that while Vertigans recurrently mentions that there is significant inner diversity among Islamists, this point is never elaborated on. Still, this remains a good book, both on the general history of politics and religion in Turkey and on the current, hotly debated issue of Islam and politics in the present era.