Can Faith and Modernity Coexist under Muslimism?

21 Nov 2016

There is a new brand of Muslim religious orthodoxy on the rise in places like Turkey, which seeks to engage modernity through the sincere religious belief of individuals. Neslihan Cevik uses the term "Muslimism" to set it apart from other trends.

STI Experts

Neslihan Cevik's new book, Muslimism in Turkey and Beyond: Religion in the Modern World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), identifies an important and fertile middle ground between fundamentalism and secularism. She discusses her research with STI in this interview.

Tell us about the book

For centuries, social theory on religion, informed by a divide between religion and modernity, prescribed that religion would either reject modernity to preserve authenticity or secularize tradition to accommodate it. Expressed through the “fundamentalist versus liberal religion” dichotomy, this categorical thinking is then used to enforce another binary, especially for Islam: political versus cultural. Islam enters into the political arena to capture the state for submission of society to religion. Hence, if a movement engages politics, it must be after the state and it must be fundamentalist. If it is not state-centered, it must be apolitical and cultural.

The book empirically identifies the rise of a new religious orthodoxy at the turn of the century in Turkey, Muslimism, which defies these binaries. Neither fundamentalist rejection of modernity nor liberal translation of religion, Muslimism embraces aspects of modern life while submitting that life back to a sacred, moral order, creating as such hybrid institutions, discourses, lifestyles and spaces, and practices.

This hybrid framework is not after a top-down (state-centered) or a bottom-up (society-centered) Islamization. Rather, Muslimism is individual-oriented. It is in a quest to formulate a lifestyle in which the individual believer can be incorporated into modern life while holding passionately onto religion. This quest, however, is not a mere cultural expression but involves political mobilization. Muslimism in fact has generated a distinct political ethos, and it views political action as legitimate and necessary.

In the book, I tell the story of this emerging form and its main architects, “Muslimists.” I examine the historical conditions that generated it and survey its key values, and attitudes across the 3d’s of Islam, din (theology), dunya (world/culture), and dawla (political sphere and the state) based on empirical research. I then discuss its political and practical implications for Turkey and Islamic world, for our understanding of Islam and democracy, and for social theory on religion.

Why did you coin the term Muslimism to define this new form?

For one, by using a new term, I try to describe a new form that cannot be captured by the term Islamism. Despite its generous use, Islamism is not a neutral term; it refers to certain orientations including, most notably, a rejection of modernity for being evil (puritanism), authoritarian communalism, a militant intolerance of moral diversity, state-centeredness, and a tendency to violence. Muslimism does not fit with and indeed challenges those assumptions.

Others, too, have recognized how the term Islamism limits our capacity and have employed the term ‘moderate Islamism’ to define Muslim orientations that deviate from Islamism. Nonetheless, the adjective ‘moderate’ still enforces the assumed divide of Islam versus modernity: moderate happens when Islam, putatively radical, is softened; the practice of moderate must be then less Islamic and more secular. This marginalizes any deeply held religion and maintains that moderate Muslims may at any given time turn radical, if angered enough.

Finally, conditions for moderate Islam are generally seen to come from political expediency. Hence, when political actors fail, this is interpreted as Islam’s failure to engage contemporary life. Debates on the “Turkish Model,” its vitality or failure, as well as interpretations following the Arab Awakening are illuminating examples. The failure of political actors in consolidating democracy in the region has reenergized the normative judgment that Islam itself is simply incompatible with universal notions. By using a new term, I try to move beyond such normative divides and an excessive focus on political strategies.

More than making a clear distinction from Islamist expressions, the term “Muslim[ism]” also aims to reflect the content of this new form; namely, its strong orientation to the individual. An orientation to the individual is not same as individualism.

My fieldwork has shown that Muslimist individual-orientation is filtered through theological notions. Muslimists understand true piety as iman, a heartfelt submission to Allah. Neither the heart nor, therefore, true piety as something located in the heart can be compelled by any external authority (state or community). Moral action is Islamically meaningful and valuable when it flows from volitional choice not from compulsions of an external authority.

When faith is an individual choice, it also becomes a conscious choice. For Muslimists, one has to think through and investigate, (tahqiq) “what is it that I believe and why?” rather than blindly submitting to traditional authority and norms (taqlid). Muslimist individual orientation then presents not atomistic individualism, but the theological importance and validation of the individual and the self with respect to moral decisions and behavior.

Individual-orientation has concrete implications politically and as related to community. Politically, or with regard to state and religion relations, Muslimists tend toward rejection both of Islamist and secularist states, as they each equally violate the moral imperative for individual choice and a conscious faith— for instance, either by enforcing or banning hijab.

  Relative to social relations, Muslimists are averse to traditional conceptions of community (sufi orders and cemaat formations) that view religious identity as collective identity and associate one’s faith with the level of her conformity to community and its religious and cultural norms. This is not a rejection of religious communal life, but a conservative transformation of it, where people are still strongly committed to a moral community (Ummah), while requiring that community to open up space for individual moral agency, religious self-identity, and self-expression.

Where can we observe Muslimism in society?

We can locate Muslimism in “cultural sites of hybridity,” where Muslims articulate Islam with modern values, practices, and discourses. These sites first emerged in the markets in the form of Islamic vacations, restaurants, Islamic fashion companies, or business associations. Going beyond the confines of a market orientation, however, these institutions have altered the boundaries that used to strictly separate religious and secular (Kemalist) lifestyles, spaces, and codes. They showed that it was possible for Muslims to take part in modernity while preserving religious commitments.

By the mid-1990s, the sites of hybridity became prevalent across sectors of society, becoming manifest in civil organizations and subsequently in politics. These include, for example, human rights organizations, which refer both to the UN Human Rights Convention and Islamic theological sources to define human rights, and women’s organizations that claim both a pious and democratic identity. These women attempt a new Islamic gender politics; they retrieve progressive Islamic concepts to question both secular-modern sources of gender discrimination and traditional and male-dominant exegesis of theological sources, which, they claim, have distorted, over centuries, especially Islam’s teachings on women and gender. They view the global arena as an area of action, and claim that their public service, while inspired by Islamic moral notions, is not filtered through religion.

Muslimists have also generated a new Islamic political ethos that uses Islam to embrace modern political values; especially individual rights and pluralism. For example, the emphasis on iman and moral agency produce affirmative attitudes about separation of the state and religion, as such relativizing the state. Yet, while Muslimists limit the state’s role for moral action, they are still suspicious of the secular state for its tendency to co-opt religion. They overcome this tension by framing secularism within a liberal polity that heightens individual moral freedoms and rights. Importantly, by balancing religion and state relations an around individual freedoms, Muslimism may provide the most viable option to achieve twin tolerations in the region,

Muslimists, nevertheless, assign the state an array of pivotal roles and take public law seriously. Muslimists push for policies in line with their moral commitments and to further their interests, but they explicitly try to distinguish such action from a desire to establish religious law. They, for example, reject a ban on alcohol, but press for regulations. The extent and content of such regulation, importantly resembles alcohol regulations found in the USA or UK, not in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

               In a nutshell, whether in markets or as articulated in a political ethos, the sites of hybridity are spaces where Islamist and secularist definitions of Islamic and modern identities are transcended and replaced with new definitions. Importantly, rather than secularizing Muslims, hybridity makes Islamic identity more salient. It introduces Islam into everyday life and public spaces in new forms, making it possible for passionate religion to take part in modern life and institutions.

Can you explain how Islamic fashion works as a site of hybridity?

Many have rushed to interpret Muslim engagements of markets, and especially fashion, as a newfangled Islamic consumerism. My fieldwork points to a different story.

To begin with, rather than being stylish, pious women understand fashion as the ability to ‘self-style’ or ‘personalize’ the tesettur wear (Islamic clothing). More specifically, women assert that the rise of hijabi fashion has coincided with an end of era in Turkey; ‘the uniform era,’ in which the pious, particularly women, were not able act or think independently of authoritarian religious communities (cemaat). This included the veil: religious circles tried to format the veil almost turning it into a uniform. Authoritative prescriptions also coalesced with patriarchal relations: men defining tesettur formats and policing women’s moral action.

The emergence of the self-styled tesettur meant getting out of the ‘uniform era,’ and the start of a new one, in which women could dress in expression of who they are —age, body type, personality, life inspirations, and likes or dislikes. This new freedom speaks into the broader Muslimist individual orientation and attempts for a style of religious community that recognizes and gives space to the self and its potent moral agency, as this agency is embedded in and legitimized through Islamic notions of iman and tahqiq. On the other hand, self-styled tesettur has become a channel for women to demand and exercise their own moral agency and autonomy vis-à-vis patriarchal codes.

There is more. The blend of fashion and tesettur undermines the monotone divide of Islam and modernity, a divide that delineated how a Muslim female body can (and should) live, what public spaces she can enter, and in what activities she can engage. Take swimming and sports. These activities have been dominated by secularist aesthetics and norms: ‘the normal way’ to swim is to uncover, and ‘to run the normal way’ you have to wear shorts. These standards are not just discursive; they turn into binding regulations; e.g., the ban on hijab at a girls’ football league or the recent ban on the burqini in France.

But innovative articles of fashion, such as the burqini, undermine both the secularist standards and Islamist prescriptions that reject modern practices as corrupt. They revolutionize what a Muslim female body rightfully can do, where it belongs, what it can enjoy, and how it can live. Can a hijabi Muslim woman choose sports as her professional career, for example? Can she dream of the Olympics? The hybrid, innovative products that emerged out of halal markets affirm these questions, and alter, as such, the boundaries that had strictly separated Islamic versus secular life spaces, practices, and cultural codes.

There is yet a caveat. The blending of tesettur and fashion is not free of tension. It has to work out charges against its being impure, as well as its being strictly moralistic. It also has to explicitly work out internal tensions: how many outfits are ‘too many’? When does self-fashioning start to breach moral boundaries? What is important, however, is that these tensions also coincide with a robust religious sensibility to remain within the correct moral limits.

Why should these issues be of interest to Western readers?

For one, the Muslimist type of religious engagement is not unique to Turkey or to Islam, but is manifest globally and across traditions. In fact, Muslimism is an example of a broader category to which we refer as “new religious orthodoxies” (NRO)*; prominent examples of which are found within Christianity, Pentecostalism and contemporary American Evangelicalism.

Second, Muslimist-like sentiments are present among Western Muslims too. One noticeable example is the rapidly growing Mipsterz, Muslim Hipster, movement and fashion in the US and in Europe. The Mipsterz movement reflects young Muslims’ attempts to reintroduce themselves as actors who are passionately Muslim but, at the very same time, already and rightfully British, Spanish, or American. This proudly Muslim and rightfully modern identity rejects both the Western stereotypes (e.g. Muslim as the terrorist other or the oppressed-other) and Islamism. Fashion is not the only channel through which this identity is put at work; youth also discuss such issues as sources of Islamic authority, belonging and community, inclusiveness, and gender equality. Understanding Muslimism will help the Western reader to make sense of this new blend, which the categories of liberal versus fundamentalist religion cannot explain.

At a broader level, Muslimism presents a genuine challenge from within against fundamentalist Islamism. The cultural sites of hybridity carve out an alternative not only to secularist codes, but also to Islamism, its discourse, practice, and way of life. Muslimism illustrates what possibilities beyond Islamism Islam can offer to the region and world, especially with regard to its contribution to peace, tolerance, democratization, and freedoms.

So you hope this new term can help Westerners better understand the breadth of Islam...

Islamism (violent or not) distorted the notions and language of the Quran—those notions are ironically ones that indeed outright reject the type of religion Islamism has produced. This grotesque version has come to dominate not only the public representation of Islam but also our global conversation about it. We constantly discuss Islam in connection to doings and sayings of Islamism and in turn we construct Islam around false issues.  As a practical implication, this prevents us from recognizing Muslim expressions that are more consistent with Islamic theology and retrieving notions of Islam that not only endorse such universal notions as tolerance of moral diversity and human rights, but that can also stimulate innovative solutions to contemporary problems.

For instance, as we continue to judge Islam’s attitude towards women through the misogynist attitudes of Islamism, we forget to talk about Islam’s progressive and possibly problem-solving attitude on female unpaid housework, one of thorniest issues of gender and development, even in Western societies that score high on gender equality. The classical jurists contend that the Muslim wife is not required to do housework and housework can be financially compensable upon divorce.

Or similarly, in the economy, while we continue to discuss whether Islam is compatible with capitalism, we ignore the conceptual resemblance between the multiple partnership model advised in Islam and the ‘start-up business model,’ a model that has democratized capital ownership and proved to generate billion dollar businesses in just a matter of few years (consider, Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb).

My recent post at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, SESRIC, and work on development has made me realize that one way to steer the conversation on Islam to a new a direction is development work. Development work, by seeking to find alternative paths to progress can help us to dig out progressive and philosophically rich aspects of Islam that can offer solutions to contemporary problems. It could lead Muslim communities to ask the question of how to better act upon moral requirements for justice, equality, and human progress. This new conversation, by allowing us to transcend false limits put on Islam by Islamism, would help us to counter extremism and combat Islam’s ongoing distortion.