- Beyond Sacred and Secular: Politics of Religion in Israel and Turkey
How can one account for the resurgence of religiously inspired political movements and parties throughout the globe? Or more specifically, how can we explain the rising power of religious parties in the Middle East like Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Israel’s Shas Party? Who are the people running these parties — ex-clergy, ideologues, or lay pragmatists? More importantly, who are the supporters of these parties — swing voters recruited through clientelist networks or zealot loyalists? What factors determine their support? Can their support for religious parties be simply interpreted as the electorate’s growing discontent with systemic parties? How do religious parties differ from not only one another but also the secular parties? Do they just vie for political offices and power like others, or pursue a secretive agenda of establishing a theocratic regime? In other words, do religious parties promote or undermine liberal democracy in their respective societies?
These are the questions that Sultan Tepe’s analysis of Israeli and Turkish religious parties masterfully answers. The study primarily relies upon the data Professor Tepe collected during her field research in both countries. In addition to its rich empirical grounding, the book also introduces an innovative theoretical and methodological approach to analyze religiously-motivated political parties in the Middle Eastern context. Despite her Turkish background, the author also does a wonderful job in insulating her own political beliefs, ideological convictions, or emotions — whatever they may be — from her subject matter and provides a very balanced view of religious parties in Turkey, which is an increasingly rare trait of recent works on Turkish secularism. The same also can be said for her analysis of religious parties in Israel. In fact, as Professor Tepe eloquently puts it, her study neither celebrates religious parties as unfairly treated agents of modernity nor does it necessarily view them as antidemocratic forces in the guise of modern parties (p. 19). But it offers an impartial scholarly analysis which normalizes the way we view religious parties by treating them first and foremost as political parties rather than sect-like anomalies in the world of politics.
In response to a binary understanding of state-religion relations, Tepe argues that religious and secular often blend and tend to [End Page 162] alter each other, thereby forcing us to reconsider our conceptual tools, which perpetuate the view that the two are antithetical (p. 348). Against this background, the author not only recognizes ideological and doctrinal differences among religious parties but also offers a heuristic typology which divides religious parties into two main categories: 1) religious parties with nationalist foundations (e.g., Mafdal in Israel, NAP in Turkey); and 2) religious expansionist and revisionist parties (e.g., Shas in Israel, the Prosperity Party and AKP in Turkey). In terms of the policies they pursue, Tepe calls the former sacralizers, and the latter internal secularizers. The first group assigns religious meanings to national institutions and the hegemonic ideology, and tends to more readily endorse the state’s authoritarian policies and practices. Internal secularizers, on the other hand, do not sacralize but challenge the authority of the state by offering religious alternatives. As a result, they are more likely to transform religious ideas from within and even accommodate some of the premises of a pluralistic democracy in their ideology and practices (p. 361). Despite such differences, what is common to all religious parties, Tepe argues, is that without a party network sustained by multiple communities no religious party would ever exist, as they rely extensively upon these networks to broaden their base and recruit new supporters.
In brief, Professor Tepe has produced a tremendous scholarly work with a firm theoretical background and rich empirical data. However, the main question that comes to mind after one reads the book is whether Tepe’s framework can be employed to better understand religious parties beyond the region. Moreover, a work which claims to break down essentialist and...