work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

when islamism turns sociological…

06.07.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

It is always flattering when the influence of one’s academic discipline is played up – as here by the religious/conservative intellectual Ali Bulaç (see Guida 2010), emphasising the relevance of a subject that, after Islamic theology, he also studied. In his column for the Islamic-conservative daily Zaman he concludes a reflection on the social composition of the current mass protest across Turkish cities:

Of course one must take the necessary measures against provocations from the inside and the outside. But one must also correctly understand the sociology of social movement and protest. Sociology has the power to change politics.’[1]

But this is interesting also for another reason. So far the sociological gaze was what the secular Left would apply to the religious other. In the 1990s secular social scientists (from anthropology to marketing) have begun developing a research interest in the new Islamic middle classes in Turkey (most prominently perhaps, Nilüfer Göle), looking at issues such as the head scarf debate and new Islamic consumerism in ways that created a better (yet still critical) understanding of what was to become the main electoral basis of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), which is in government since 2002. One could even say that this de-demonization contributed to the creation of a political climate in which a moderate-Islamist party winning an election did not trigger a panic ending in a military coup.

Now that a broad coalition of secularists, environmentalists, communists, Muslim anti-capitalists, environmentalists, football fans, pub goers, feminists, disgruntled post-post-Islamists, Alevis etc. are taking to the street across the major Turkish cities, the instant (and persistent) reaction of Prime Minister Erdoğan was to denounce the protesters as extremist rioters (or looters – çapulcu), in a way reminiscent of how Muslim women demanding the right to wear their headscarves in public building were denounced as Iranian-style fundamentalist radicals. It is now the Islamic intellectuals’ turn to de-demonize the secular protestors.

Ali Bulaç – who in the 1980s been denounced by the sociologist and now MP for the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyetçi Halk Partisi, CHP) Binnaz Toprak as Islamist millenarian – has made an attempt at just such an analysis. His “sociology of the protests” is of course based on impressions and media reports, and he can’t help himself but to put in some defamatory notes (e.g. when he likens the participating members of the urban elites to football fans who do act as decent citizens doing their jobs during the week and turn hooligan at the weekend). But the more the (even from a conservative perspective partly legitimate) motives of the protestors are examined, the more difficult it will become to eschew negotiations and compromise with people representative of the urban academically educated classes playing as crucial a role for Turkey’s globalising economy as the “Anatolian Tigers” backing Erdoğan, people representative of lower middle classes struggling to weather the effects of Erdoğan’s neoliberal policies, and representative of various substantive minorities – all feeling marginalised by what they perceive as creeping re-Islamisation and return to authoritarian one-party rule. And the more this is understood the broad coalition of interests behind the AKP government may crack facing an equally broad coalition of new liberals.



Of course Ali Bulaç has to be critical of the Prime Minister’s democratic authoritarianism (i.e. the assumption that a parliamentary majority gives you the right to disregard the interests of anyone who disagrees with you), having in the past complained about Western democracy being oppressive to those, say, 47 per cent of the population who have voted against the party elected into government. Bulaç’s alternative is a communitarian multiculturalism based on the “Medina Constitution”, introducing legal self-regulation of constituent ethnic and religious communities. Needless to say that this has its own authoritarian aspects as it does not allow for the  freedom of individual expression that seems to be the common ground on which the protestors meet. Guida (2010: 366f) identifies a lack of understanding of plurality in intellectuals like Bulaç who ‘recognize diversities inside society but also recognize practicing Muslims as one single community’  – which is precisely the issue here: recognition not just of communities, but also of individual freedom within communities.


Guida, Michelangelo (2010): ‘The New Islamists’ Understanding of Democracy in Turkey: The Examples of Ali Bulaç and Hayreddin Karaman’, in: Turkish Studies, Vol.11, No.3, pp.347-70


[1] “Elbette iç ve dış odakların provokasyonlarına karşı gerekli tedbirler alınmalı. Ama bu toplumsal hareket ve protestonun sosyolojisini de doğru anlamalı. Sosyolojinin politikayı değiştirme gücü var.”

One Response to “when islamism turns sociological…”

  1. the closest we’ve got to a sociology of the protesters so far – main points being that they’re (as to be expected) young, value freedom, see that freedom threatened by Erdogan’s leadership style, and do not see themselves as represented of any political party…

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