Field Impressions
Jeremy F. Walton (Turkey & Balkans)

Islam, Civil Society, and Secular Geography: Mediations of Muslim Identity and Practice in Turkey and the Balkans

Jeremy F. Walton

Currently, my research and writing is at a pivotal point of transition between two interrelated projects. The first of these projects, based on dissertation research conducted principally between 2005 and 2007, examines the relationship between Islamic civil society organizations and state secularism in contemporary Turkey; I am now in the final stages of completing a manuscript based on this research. My second project, which I have only just begun, plumbs the politics of religious minority-hood among Alevi Muslims in Turkey and Bosniak Muslims in Croatia. One of the key thematic threads that tie these two projects together is my persistent interest in how particular spaces and places—especially sites of and for ritual practice—articulate an aesthetics of religious belonging and practice in explicit contradistinction to spaces of the state. In other words, my research foregrounds an analysis of civil society as a site for pious spatial practices that seek to untether “Islam” from “politics.” In doing so, my interlocutors and informants negotiate many of the constitutive tensions of secularism: Even as they contest secular governance as a project of the state, they also articulate and embody liberal ideals of religion that partake in and shape the broader secular geography of neoliberal governmentality.

A Turkish flag and a bust of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic, located in Atatürk’s birthplace in the Greek city of Thessaloniki (Salonika).

A banner of Mustafa Kemal adorning a state office on a national holiday.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, military hero and founder of the Turkish Republic, remains the predominant icon and “master signifier” of state-based, laicist secularism in Turkey. In particular, Atatürk’s image harkens back to the laicizing reforms of the 1920s, including the abolition of the Caliphate, the replacement of Shari’ah civil and familial law with a legal corpus derived from the Swiss Code, the closure of Sufi lodges and illegalization of Sufi brotherhoods, the regulation of men’s and, especially, women’s Muslim headgear, and the change from the Ottoman Arabic to Latin script in written Turkish. Although Atatürk’s legacy has been increasingly questioned and complicated in the Turkish public sphere in recent decades, his image nevertheless connotes the hegemonic civilizing project of state secularism to many, if not most, Turkish citizens.

The Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı), a state bureaucracy located in Ankara.

The sign for the Directorate of Religious Affairs.

Although Atatürk initiated a radical program of Europeanizing, laicizing reforms, he and the centralizing government in Ankara did not eradicate Islam entirely from Turkish society. Rather than a liberal model of secularism that sequesters religion within the private sphere, the Turkish model is staunchly laic: it subordinates all religious discourse and practice to the authority and monopoly of the state. Thus, the largest state bureaucracy in Turkey is the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı), which was created during the early years of the Turkish Republic as a partial continuation of the office of the Sheik ul-Islam, the highest Islamic office and authority in the Ottoman Empire. Among other activities, the Directorate trains all of the imams and muezzins who work in Turkey’s mosques, composes the weekly sermons (hütbe) delivered on Fridays in Turkish mosques,organizes the annual pilgrimage to Mecca for Turkish citizens, and produces a wide variety of publications on matters of Islam generally. The Directorate of Religious Affairs is, then, a thoroughly statist mediation of Islam.

A protest in November 2006 against the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Istanbul, in response to derogatory comments that Benedict had made concerning Islam the previous September at a speech in Regensberg, Germany.

The protest was organized by a right-wing Islamist political party, the Saadet Partisi (the Felicity Party).

In addition to the statist mediation of Islam that the Directorate of Religious Affairs embodies, there is also another modality of political Islam in Turkey, that of the Islamist party itself. The history of political Islamism in Turkey is distinct from that of the state monopoly over Islam, and extends back to about the mid-1960s, which marked the founding of the first of a series of related parties, each of which was the successor of the previous. The current ruling party in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is an heir to this Islamist political tradition, even as it has departed from it in crucial ways.Importantly, Islamist political parties marshal a mass mediation of Islam, as we can vividly witness in the photographs above. This populist Islam privileges the power of bodies and dissent in public space.

A tableau from the International Conference on Poverty and Hunger (Uluslarası Açlık ve Yoksulluk Konferansı), sponsored by the Journalists and Writers Foundation (Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfı).

In recent decades, Turkey has witnessed the emergence of a vibrant Muslim civil society, organized on the basis of a swath of nongovernmental foundation (vakıflar) and associations (dernekler). As I argue throughout my research, this civil mediation of Islam constitutes both a stark contrast to and a critique of statist and mass mediations of Islam in Turkey. Moreover, its distinctive discourse of interreligious pluralism and tolerance fosters the commensuration of liberal and Islamic life-worlds and practices. Crucially, Turkish civil Islam spans one of the most prominent fissures within contemporary public life in Turkey, the sectarian division between Sunni Muslims and Alevis. In my research, I focus on three distinct groups that have achieved articulation within civil society: the Hizmet Movement, which is devoted to the teachings of contemporary Sunni theologian Fethullah Gülen; the Nur Community, which reveres the written corpus of Bediuzzman Said Nursi, one of Gülen’s key forebears; and Turkish Alevis, whose theological and ritual distinction, drawing on both Shi’a Twelver Islam and central Asian precedents, defines them as the most prominent religious minority in Turkey. The image above, with its vivid choreography of interreligious and interethnic pluralism, comes from a conference organized by the Journalists and Writers Foundation, the most prominent Hizmet civil society institution in Turkey.

The Sign of the Istanbul Science and Culture Foundation (İstanbul İlim ve Kültür Vakfı).

The interior courtyard of the Istanbul Science and Culture Foundation, a renovated 16th Century medrese (theological school) originally designed by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan.

A second major civil-Islamic group with which I conducted research is the Nur Community, a loosely-knit network of enthusiasts of and devotees to the Risale-i Nur (The Epistles of Light), the oeuvre of the late Ottoman and early Republican theologian Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. Although the Nur Community has much in common with the Hizmet Movement, they are distinguished by their unique focus on Said Nursi’s theological arguments and biography. One striking feature that both Hizmet and Nur civil mediations of Islam share, however, is a discursive and aesthetic glorification of Turkey’s Ottoman past. This “Neo-Ottomanism” is especially vivid at the headquarters of the Istanbul Science and Culture Foundation, a prominent Nur institution with which I conducted lengthy research. As one can see above, the foundation is housed within an Ottoman-era medrese, designed in the 16th Century by the Ottoman Empire’s preeminent “starchitect,” Mimar Sinan. The Science and Culture Foundation cosponsored the renovation of the previously abandoned space in 2006-2007 in conjunction with the state Ministry of Foundations (Vakıflar Müdürlüğü)

The façade of the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Culture Foundation (Hacı Bektaş Veli Anadolu Kültür Vakfı), a major Alevi civil society institution located in Ankara.

Juxtaposed images of Ali (the nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and first Shi’a Imam), Atatürk, the Turkish flag, and Hacı Bektaş (an Alevi saint) at the Cem Foundation, a prominent Alevi foundation in Istanbul.

The institutional domain of Turkish civil society has also proven a felicitous context for the coalescence of public Alevism, Turkey’s most notable “minority” religious tradition and community. Alevis differ from Sunnis in myriad ways—among their most notable distinctions are a reverence for martyred figures from Shi’a Islamic history, especially Ali (the son-in-law and nephew of the Prophet Muhammad and first Imam) and Husayn (the younger son of Ali and third Imam, who was martyred at the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE) and the centrality of the cem ceremony, a circumambulatory ritual performance in commemoration of the deaths of martyrs such as Husayn. Notably, Alevis do not typically perform ritualized prayer (namaz) in mosques; furthermore, their ritual life does not involve a strict segregation between men and women, and they frequently do not follow common Sunni restrictions on alcohol consumption. As the image above emphasizes, the Alevi civil mediation of Islam also bears a distinctly different relationship to the state tradition in Turkey: rather than a reverence for the Ottoman era, Alevis identify strongly with Mustafa Kemal and his civilizing project, to the extent that they incorporate his image along side those of Ali and Hacı Bektaş.

Alevism and its articulation within civil society will also play a major role in the project that I am currently beginning under the auspices of CETREN and the pilot project, “The Politics of the New: The Politics of Secularism and the Emergence of New Religiosities.” In this project, I will compare and contrast the politics and processes of Muslim minoritization in two distinct ethnographic contexts, an integrated Sunni-Alevi worship space in the Turkish capital of Ankara and a newly-opened mosque in the Croatian port city of Rijeka. While the discourses of tolerance and modes of institutional organization that orient these two contexts are quite similar, my ethnography explores how their relationships to broader European ‘secular geographies’ and the modes of identity and politics that these geographies authorize are quite different.

Dr. Jeremy F. Walton (2013-2015)

CETREN Postdoctoral Researcher in the project “The Politics of Secularism and the Emergence of New Religiosities"

Center for Advanced Study of Southeast Europe, University of Rijeka



Jeremy F. Walton joined the CETREN Transnational Research Network at Georg August University of Göttingen as a research fellow in the pilot program, “The Politics of Secularism and the Emergence of New Religiosities”, in autumn 2013. During the 2012-2013 academic year, he was a Jamal Daniel Levant Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS). Prior to this, he was an Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow in New York University’s Religious Studies Program (2009-2012). He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago (2009), and is currently in the process of revising his book manuscript, Pieties of Pluralism: Mediations of Islam, Civil Society and Secularism in Turkey. A comprehensive essay summarizing much of this research was published in the February 2013 volume of American Ethnologist, under the title ““Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect: Liberal Mediations of Islam and Secularism in Contemporary Turkey.” Dr. Walton co-edited, with John Kelly, Beatrice Jauregui, and Sean T. Mitchell, the collection Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, and has book chapters in Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, Orienting Istanbul: Cultural Capital of Europe? and The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies. His teaching and research broadly interrogate the myriad relationships among Islamic practice, the politics of contemporary secularism, and global regimes of power and publicity. Dr. Walton conducted fieldwork for his dissertation in Istanbul and Ankara from 2005 to 2007. Under the auspices of CETREN, his new research project, tentatively titled “Secular Geographies of Nation and Religion on the Margins of the New Europe: Mosque Communities and Civil Society in Turkey and Croatia,” will plumb how transregional discourses of belonging and identity affect pious actors, practices, and communities in distinct yet related political contexts.


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