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Vernacular Politics: Islamists’ Clout In Turkey

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Turkey’s experiment as a secular, westernized state represents not only an anomaly, but the prototype of secular modernization in the Middle East. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder the Turkish Republic in 1923, embarked on a series of social and political reforms, abolishing Islamic institutions, positions, and insignia to secure Turkey’s position as a modern democracy.

Founded on the principle of Laicism-the subordination of religion to the state, Turkey existed as a Kemalist republic, successfully instituting secular and modern values until many in the Turkish populace began to feel alienated by a secular elite consumed by Western behavior and traditions. Islamic values began to permeate Turkish society, forging a social order based on a fusion of both Islamist and Kemalist principles; these two camps no longer represent a dichotomy of exclusive ideologies, but overlap in varying degrees across class boundaries and social divisions. Highlighting the intricate relationship between Islam and secularism in Turkey, Jenny White explains the successful mobilization of Islamists through her concept of “vernacular politics” in her book Islamic Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics.

The ability of the AKP party to secure a majority in the Turkish parliament-obviating the need for a coalition and relegating the secular Kemalist CHP to the opposition—reflects the degree of clout and influence the Islamists maintain in Turkish society. What accounts for the emergence of an Islamist party in a state founded on secular principles? After two decades of field research in Umraniye, an urban working class district of Istanbul, Jenny White concludes the Islamists’ successes in mobilizing the masses is attributed to the utilization of vernacular politics: a political process employing face-to-face interaction and community outreach extending across traditional ethnic and cultural boundaries to unify diverse segments of Turkish society in support of a national political movement. Absent from the secularist’s approach, this strategy appeals to the needs of the people, personalizing relationships between citizen and politician, thereby obfuscating the exact role of ideology and religion in the Islamists emergence. The electoral victories of the Islamists were not outright attributed to religion, but rather credited to the Islamists’ platform of alleviating economic inequality and achieving social justice which resonated among diverse groups—the Islamic business community, the Varos dwellers, young professionals, etc. The significant number of Laicist voters who supported the Islamists illustrates the cross-pollination and “hybrid” nature of modern political mobilization in Turkey. Uniting disparate and contradictory groups with varying degrees of religious convictions under one umbrella supplies the momentum to the Islamist movement. The Islamists’ ability and the secularists’ failure to engage community networks and utilize local cultural norms such as reciprocity and trust accounts for the Islamists’ achievement and the secularists’ waning.

No strict divide exists between Islamists and secularists in Turkish society. Instead, the fluid boundaries situate each individual on a continuum, as illustrated for example, by the head scarf. The tesettür embraces Western fashion while simultaneously fulfilling the conventional Islamic requisite of veiling, in effect facilitating female societal mobility by not completely isolating either camp.

What is religion’s role in the success of vernacular politics? White contends that Islamic mobilization may “really not be about religion despite the high-decibel Islamic rhetoric.” The mobilization of the masses is therefore more attributed to interpersonal relations of the community members, signaling the utility of vernacular politics as a political strategy across other countries and ideologies.

Nonetheless, vernacular politics illustrates that the platform, agenda, and values of the politician may be overshadowed by the power of strategy to garner votes and mobilize the masses.

To what degree is Islam compatible with democracy? The junction of traditional Islamic values and modern secular principles in Turkey aids to illuminate the viability of democracy’s confluence with Islam. Can a just, Islamic democracy reign? The presence of Islam in any political system provokes apprehension in Western minds due to its association with radicalism and extremism. Institutions, such as the military and the courts however, act as guardians of Turkey’s secularism, at times neutralizing Islamists’ power by coups or party expulsions. Given the palpable achievements of the Islamists within the last decade, the synergy between the secularist and Islamists continues to unfold. Will Turkey achieve harmony between democracy and Islam, forging a just form of governance representing cultural and religious values? Or will Turkey emulate Iran and undergo an Islamic Revolution? Those scholars who are quick to discount this possibility must recall that, afterall, most did not anticipate Iran’s Revolution.