- Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy: Islamist Women in Turkish Politics
Yeşim Arat’s work, Rethinking Islam and Lsiberal Democracy: Islamist Women in Turkish Politics, is a welcome addition to the remarkably rich academic discourse on Islam in contemporary Turkey. Several excellent social scientists both in Turkey and abroad have contributed to elevating the discussion on Islam in modern Turkey to a complex and sophisticated level. For example, Jenny White’s award-winning work, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (2002), is an ethnography of Istanbul which maps the origins and continuing appeal of Islamic politics in Turkish society. Esra Özyürek’s notable work, Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey (2006), demonstrates how power struggles between secular and Islamist political movements are reconfiguring popular notions of citizenship and the sacred in Turkey. The work under review not only engages the available scholarship, it adds a new dimension to the discussion.
Based on a study of women activists of the Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party in Turkey, Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy examines the relationship between secularism and Islam in a liberal democracy. The author attempts to understand the women activists of the Refah Party using qualitative methods via in-depth interviews. She argues that, although the Refah Party women’s organizations only came into being in 1989 and were shut down in 1998 along with the party by a constitutional court decision, they played an important role in bringing their party to power and engaging a large female constituency in politics (1). Arat’s work is particularly valuable because, in tracing the “cross-fertilization” between Islamists and their secular adversaries, she provides an important [End Page 103] perspective on the problems of accommodating liberalism and Islam. She suggests that liberalism and Islam may not be pure and irreconcilable ideologies, but rather, that there may be room for overlap, dialogue, and common ground between the two. While this idea may seem simple, it is revolutionary. The Turkish context is uniquely suited for such a project because of the particular history of secularism and Islam in the Republic of Turkey. Studying women in this context not only fills a lacuna but also captures generational shifts in attitudes toward the government and contradictions within each of these ideologies. As Arat demonstrates, while the secular state expanded women’s opportunities and status in society, women were marginalized in political life and party politics. In its most common interpretations, Islam is often seen as restrictive in terms of women. To the contrary, the women Arat interviewed for this project were able to increase their political participation and status by returning to Islam. Thus, for some, what appeared to be an illogical decision at best, and a betrayal of a gift given by the early Republic at worst, emerged as a rational personal choice and a critique of the Republic. The Refah Party registered an unprecedented number of women in six years—close to one million. Arat’s carefully researched book, built upon empirical data, thoroughly elucidates why women joined the Refah Party, how they networked, how they crossed boundaries, and how they politicized the traditionally apolitical mediums. She also illuminates their successes and failures (9–10).
Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy is divided into five chapRethinking chapters in addition to the Introduction and Conclusion. Chapter one, titled “Women of the Republic and Islam: Between the Private and the Political,” examines the consequences of being an Islamist woman in the Turkish context. Women who had long supported the state because of the expanded civil and political rights they had been granted by the Republican regime began to openly critique the state in the 1980s. This chapter examines women and women’s rights as Islamist women began moving into the public space against the backdrop of the developing feminist oppositionary discourse and the political turpitude of the 1980s.
Chapter two, “Refah Party and the Organization of the Ladies’ Commissions,” focuses on the party’s female members’ commitment to moving into...