Book Review: Ceren Lord, Religious Politics in Turkey: From the Birth of the Republic to the AKP

AuthorYesim Bayar
Publication Date01 August 2021
Date01 August 2021
SubjectCommissioned Book Reviews
Political Studies Review
2021, Vol. 19(3) NP27 –NP28
Commissioned Book Review
982512PSW0010.1177/1478929920982512Political Studies ReviewCommissioned Book Review
Commissioned Book Review
Religious Politics in Turkey: From the Birth
of the Republic to the AKP by Ceren Lord.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 363
pp., £75, ISBN 9781 108472005
In its scope, Religious Politics in Turkey is an
ambitious work that traces the Republican his-
tory from its beginnings in the 1920s to more
recent times with the aim of explaining the rise
of Islamist politics. In doing so, and most cru-
cially, Lord proposes a significant rereading of
the theoretical narrative on Republican Turkey
that grounds itself on a juxtaposition of a secu-
lar state and a Muslim society.
The oft-repeated narrative of the establish-
ment of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s
underlines the significance of secularization
reforms. Aimed to sever the link between the
new nation and its Ottoman legacy, a secular
system was built which pushed religion to the
private sphere. Part of this process included
the establishment of the Diyanet (Directorate
of Religious Affairs) in 1924, which was
charged with the mission of overseeing that
the Muslim majority was exposed to the ‘right’
kind of Islam (i.e. Hanefi/Sunni interpreta-
tion). According to this line of argument, secu-
larism in Turkey was primarily defined as the
establishment of control over Islam by the
state. The rise of Islamist politics over time is
then explained as a reaction against this highly
controlling and staunchly secularist state.
Lord does not dismiss this account in its
entirety. What she does instead is convinc-
ingly demonstrate why it presents a simplistic,
and at some points erroneous, explanation for
the rise of religious politics.
Lord’s account, which unfolds through a
careful employment of rich empirical/archival
data, is a critical reading of the Republican
period on two significant points. First, she
powerfully critiques the assumption of a mon-
olithic understanding of the Turkish state.
Accordingly, her discussion underlines the
importance of factions and struggles within
and between different actors over time in pro-
ducing political outcomes. Second, her main
narrative suggests a significant corrective to
the argument that presents the rise of Islamist
politics as a ground-up, grassroots movement
that had developed as a reaction to the oppres-
sive secular state. Lord’s examination reveals a
more complex story.
Lord contends that in order to understand
the rise of Islamist politics, we should go back
to the critical juncture of nation-building. This
critical juncture, she rightly argues, has contin-
ued to exert its influence beyond the early
Republican period of the 1920s and 1930s
through setting the rules of the game inside the
political sphere, and hence, through shaping
opportunity structures. The level and content
of social closure, which really is at the heart of
any nation-building process, is critical here. In
the Turkish case, this process involved the
inscription and institutionalization of religion
(i.e. Sunni Islam) as an ethnic marker which
then defined the parameters of the Turkish
nation. Turkish nationalism and secularism
were defined so as to privilege Sunni Islam
from the start. Fortified by reforms and institu-
tional transformations, this understanding of
the nation then shaped how different political
actors could act, the kinds of alliances they
made, and the networks they established.
In order to substantiate the earlier argu-
ments, the book dedicates Chapter 4 to the
examination of religious education, Islamic
charities and banking, and business organiza-
tions during the multi-party era. This discus-
sion is followed by Chapters 5 and 6 where
Lord explores in detail the rise of the Justice
and Development Party. Chapters 2 and 3
where the focus is on the Diyanet are particu-
larly rich in empirical data. In these chapters,
Lord powerfully makes her case as to why we
should revise our long-held assumption of the
Diyanet as a passive institution under the
thumb of a strong secular state. She maintains
that far from being a passive actor, the Diyanet,

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