+1 Recommend
1 collections

      If you have found this article useful and you think it is important that researchers across the world have access, please consider donating, to ensure that this valuable collection remains Open Access.

      Arab Studies Quarterly is published by Pluto Journals, an Open Access publisher. This means that everyone has free and unlimited access to the full-text of all articles from our international collection of social science journalsFurthermore Pluto Journals authors don’t pay article processing charges (APCs).

      • Record: found
      • Abstract: found
      • Article: found
      Is Open Access

      Overcoming the Secular Suspicion? State Secularity and its Impact on Societal Relations in Turkey and Egypt

      Arab Studies Quarterly
      Pluto Journals
      Islam, democracy, religious groups, Turkey, Egypt, historical institutionalism


            What conditions are the most conducive for religious and secular groups to overcome their mutual fears and suspicions towards each other? This article addresses this question through a comparative historical analysis of two major cases from the Middle East: Turkey and Egypt. The article argues that institutional differences in state-religion relations explain why Turkish religious groups, but not their Egyptian counter-parts, could better alleviate the fears and suspicions of the other secular groups. In summary, Turkey and Egypt instituted their state-religion relations in different ways while building their modern states and therefore entered the highly politicized environment of the 1970s under different state-religion relations. Institutional state-religion relations in Egypt have provided a venue for Islamic groups to Islamize the state and society using state power if necessary. This came at great cost, however. Religious groups in fact pushed further away the other societal groups, deepening their fears and suspicions. Institutional state-religion relations have not provided a venue for Islamic groups in Turkey to Islamize the state and society from top to bottom. Lacking state power to correct practices and norms deemed un-Islamic helped the Islamists and Islamic groups in the long run. Their relations with other societal groups have not deteriorated to the extent they have done in Egypt.


            Author and article information

            Arab Studies Quarterly
            Pluto Journals
            Spring 2013
            : 35
            : 2
            : 165-183
            © The Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies 2013

            All content is freely available without charge to users or their institutions. Users are allowed to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of the articles in this journal without asking prior permission of the publisher or the author. Articles published in the journal are distributed under a http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.


            Social & Behavioral Sciences
            Islam,democracy,religious groups,Turkey,Egypt,historical institutionalism


            1. The famous Egyptian sociologist and an expert on Egyptian religious groups, Saad Eddin Ibrahim also expressed his own suspicions and included Islamists, including the Muslim Brothers, in his list of groups which might hijack the Egyptian revolution. See Mona, “Saad Eddin Ibrahim: al Salafiyyun yatalaqqun masaa'daat bilmilyaaraat wa al tamuuwilaat al khaarijiyya al qaanuun,” Ahramonline, August 29, 2011, available at http://gate.ahram.org.eg/News/109973.aspx (accessed on September 1, 2011).

            2. For two prominent examples, see Ilber Ortayli, Toktamis Ates, and Eser Karakas, Banış Köprüleri: Dünyaya Açılan Türk Okulları (Ufuk Kitaplari, 2005) and Dogu Ergil, 100 Soruda Fethullah Gulen ve Hareketi (Timas Yayinlari, 2010).

            3. Turkey and Egypt are ideal cases for comparison according to most similar systems design. While Turkey and Egypt are sharply different in that religious groups could alleviate the fears and suspicions of other groups in the former better than in the latter, they share critical historical similarities. Both were successor states of the Ottoman Empire, went through similar historical experiences, such as the rise of charismatic military officers, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Abdel Nasser, with similar nationalistic and secular agendas. Both countries also pursued similar industrialization programs until the 1970s and adopted neo-liberal economic programs since then. Both countries also witnessed the rise of strong grass-root religious groups in the last four decades. Both countries are allies of the United States and economically depend on manufacturing and agriculture, not significantly on oil and natural gas revenues. For a more detailed discussion of how to employ most similar systems design in social sciences, see Adam Przeworski and Henry Teune, The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry (New York: Wiley-Interscience Hohn Wiley & Sons, 1970).

            4. As these lines are written, Mohammed Mursi seems to be having difficulty in bringing together a similar societal coalition in Egypt. This article argues that the formation of such a broad societal coalition might prove more difficult to form behind Mohammed Mursi than it did behind Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

            5. For an insightful analysis of the discourse on the Muslim Brothers and an alternative characterization, see Jason Brownlee, “The Muslim Brothers: Egypt's Most Influential Pressure Group,” History Compass 8 (May 2010), 419–430.

            6. Some statements of the members of the Muslim Brothers give credence to this fear. See the statement of Mahmoud Ezzat, the Supreme Guide of the MB quoted in Dina Samak, “Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood back on the defensive,” Ahramonline, April 17, 2011, available at http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/10233/Egypt/Politics-/Egypts-Muslim-Brotherhood-back-on-the-defensive.aspx (accessed August 23, 2011).

            7. Some actions of the members of the MB also give credence to this fear. See the insightful op-ed by Joshua Stacher, “Egypt's Army and Muslim Brothers Join in a Dance of Power,” The Indypendent , April 27, 2011. Available at http://www.indypendent.org/2011/04/28/egypt's-army-and-muslim-brothers-join-in-a-dance-of-power/ (accessed on August 25, 2011).

            8. See, for example, Amr Hamzawy, Marina Ottoway and Nathan J. Brown, “What Islamists Need to be Clear About: The Case of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood,” Carnegie Endowment Policy Outlook, February 2011. Available at http://carnegieendowment.org/files/ottaway_brown_hamzawy_islamists_final.pdf (accessed on August 21, 2011).

            9. Unlike Kalyvas and Brownlee, I look at whether religious groups can credibly commit to a post-election platform in the eyes of the other opposition groups, not of the reformers within the regime. Turkey's Islamists have always been, and are still, suspect in the eyes of the Turkish elite holding critical positions in the state.

            10. The recent controversy Recep Tayyip Erdogan created in Egypt is telling. In an interview held for an Egyptian TV channel, Erdogan called the Egyptians to draft a constitution based on the principle of secularism. His call drew reaction even from the Muslim Brotherhood. See “Hadith Erdogan lil MaSriyyin ‘an al ‘almaaniyya yaD'ahu amaam madfa'aiyyah al salafiyyin wa al ikhwan,” AhramOnline , September 15, 2011, available at http://gate.ahram.org.eg/News/115982.aspx (accessed September 29, 2011).

            11. For more on historical institutional analysis, see Sven Steinmo and Kathleen Ann Thelen, Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Comparative Historical Analysis in Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). To be more specific, not all institutional analyses are comparative historical. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into this topic. For a classical treatment, see Peter A. Hall and Rosemary C. R. Taylor, “Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms,” Political Studies 44 (December 1996), 936–957.

            12. Robert Michels, A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (New York: The Free Press, 1962); Adam Przeworski and John Sprague, Paper Stones: A History of Electoral Socialism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Stathis Kalyvas, The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996). See, also, Stathis Kalyvas and Kees van Kersbergen, “Christian Democracy,” Annual Review of Political Science 13 (2010), 183–209.

            13. See, for example, Samir Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament,” Middle East Report 240 (Fall 2002), 32–39; Carrie R. Wickham, Mobilizing Islam: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Carrie R. Wickham, “The Path to Moderation: Strategy and Learning in the Formation of Egypt's Wasat Party,” Comparative Politics 36 (January 2004), 205–228; Mona El Ghobashy, “The Metamorphosis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 37 (August 2005), 373–395; Omar Ashour, The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (New York: Routledge, 2009); Güneş Murat Tezcür, Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010); Jason Brownlee, “Unrequited Moderation: Credible Commitments and State Repression in Egypt,” Studies in Comparative International Development 45 (December 2010), 468–489.

            14. The literature might also have other difficulties in accounting for the Turkish case: see Sebnem Gumuscu, “Class, Status, and Party: The Changing Face of Political Islam in Turkey and Egypt,” Comparative Political Studies 43 (July 2010), 835–861; Güneş Murat Tezcür, “The Moderation Theory Revisited: The Case of Islamic Political Actors,” Party Politics 16 (January 2010), 69–88. On the conceptual problem of the literature, see Jullian Schwedler, “Can Islamists Become Moderates?: Rethinking the Inclusion-Moderation Hypothesis,” World Politics 63 (April 2011), 347–376.

            15. Nader Hashemi, Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Hashemi observes the working of this factor not only in Turkey, but also in Indonesia. Hashemi builds his thesis upon an old debate about whether Islamic movements are modern or not. See, for example, Sami Zubaida, Islam, the People and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1993); James Piscatori and Dale Eickelman, Muslim Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); Bjorn Olav Utvik, “The Modernizing Face of Islam,” in John Esposito and Francois Boyat, eds., Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in Europe and the Middle East (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003).

            16. Compare Yavuz, Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Carrie R. Wickham, Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). A useful comparison between the two countries is Gumuscu, “Class, Status, and Party: The Changing Face of Political Islam in Turkey and Egypt,” in which she argues that Turkish and Egyptian Islamists have different constituencies: in Turkey a strong bourgeoisie class supported the moderates while in Egypt lower-middle-class professionals supported the radicals.

            17. Yavuz, Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey . Even though it is quite different in nature, Anthony Gill also points to the effect of existential threat on the Catholic Church in Latin America, which began to turn pro-democratic after facing serious competition from Protestant religious groups. Anthony Gill, Rendering unto Ceasar: The Catholic Church and the State in Latin America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

            18. Berna Turam, Between Islam and the State: The politics of Engagement (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007). Turam's case is Turkey.

            19. There is an extensive literature on how institutions affect political outcomes. See, in particular, Sven Steinmo, Kathleen Thelen and Frank Longstreth, eds., Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Kathleen Thelen, “Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Politics,” Annual Review of Political Science 2 (1999), 369–404.

            20. Salwa Ismail, Rethinking Islamist Politics: Culture, the State and Islamism (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006); Bayat, Making Islam Democratic (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).

            21. Furthermore, the initiative generally came from the Leftists. See Maha Abdelrahman, “‘With the Islamists?—Sometimes. With the State?—Never!’ Cooperation between the Left and Islamists in Egypt,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 36 (April 2009), 37–54.

            22. Roger Owen, State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East , 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2005).

            23. Jonathan Fox, A World Survey of Religion and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

            24. On the evolution of the office of Sheikh al Islam, see Richard W. Bulliet, “The Shaikh al Islam and the Evolution of Islamic Society,” Studia Islamica 35 (1972), 53–67.

            25. Ahmad Bey (1837–1855) granted the title of Sheikh al Islam to the senior Hanafi mufti and the senior Maliki mufti continued to have the title Bash Mufti (Head Mufti in Turkish). Arnold H. Green, The Tunisian Ulama, 1873–1915: Social Structure and Response to Ideological Currents (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978), 33.

            26. There are many instances of Al Azhar's providing religious support to the regime. For example, the Sheikh al Azhar, Abd al Halim Mahmud issued a fatwa in support of the Camp David Agreement. See Rachel Scott, “An ‘Official’ Islamic Response to the Egyptian Al-Jihad Movement,” Journal of Political Ideologies 8 (February 2003), 39–61.

            27. Birol Baskan surveys state-religion relations on this dimension across all major Middle Eastern states and ascribes the difference in their different initial positions to the strength of the state at the beginning of the reform period. See Birol Baskan, “The State in the Pulpit: State Incorporation of Religious Institutions in the Middle East,” Politics and Religion 4 (April 2011), 136–154.

            28. Ibid. See also Ismail Kara, Cumhuriyet Türkiye ‘sinde bir Mesele Olarak İslam [Islam as a Problem in Republican Turkey] (Istanbul: Dergah Yayınları, 2008).

            29. Tamir Moustafa, “Conflict and Cooperation between the State and Religious Institutions in Contemporary Egypt,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 32 (February 2000), 3–22.

            30. Mehmet Ali Gökaçtı, Türkiye ‘de Din Eğitimi ve İmam Hatipler [Religious Education and Religious Vocational Schools in Turkey] (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2005).

            31. For the details, see Ugur Mumcu, Rabıta , 22nd ed. (Ankara: um:ag Yayınları, 1998).

            32. Moustafa, “Conflict and Cooperation between the State and Religious Institutions in Contemporary Egypt”.

            33. US Department of State, Report on International Religious Freedom , 2008, available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2008/index.htm (accessed November 18, 2010). It should be emphasized that in Egypt, it is more likely that this state control is simply a paper exercise. It does not mean that mosques lost their independence vis-à-vis the state. I thank Ibrahim Arafat for pointing this out.

            34. For more on the entrenchment of authoritarianism in Egypt and the Arab world, see Nicola Pratt, Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Arab World (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007).

            35. Richard P. Mitchell prophesized the end of the Muslim Brotherhood when he published his classic in 1969: Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of Muslim Brothers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). On how the Muslim Brothers survived through the repression, see Ziad Munson, “Islamic Mobilization: Social Movement Theory and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood,” The Sociological Quarterly 42 (September 2001), 487–510.

            36. Gilles Kepel, The Prophet and the Pharaoh: Muslim Extremism in Egypt (London: Saqi Books, 1985), 192.

            37. John L. Esposito, Islam and Politics (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1984).

            38. These moves should not be seen as the fatwa -issuing religious offices overpowering the regime. Such a view assumes a dichotomy between the two. They are part of the regime in Egypt. Hence, these moves are simply a redistribution of power within the regime's institutions. I thank Ibrahim Arafat on raising this point.

            39. Bayat, Making Islam Democratic ; Tamir Moustafa, “The Islamist Trend in Egyptian Law,” Politics and Religion 3 (December 2010), 610–630.

            40. Cited in Bayat, Making Islam Democratic , 169.

            41. A telling anecdote is the strong reaction Farouk Hosni, by then the Minister of Culture of Egypt, provoked when he publicly criticized the increasing number of Egyptian females wearing veils and indicated his unwillingness to work with a secretary wearing a veil in his office. Interestingly, however, members of the ruling National Democratic Party criticized him for his comments even more than the Muslim Brothers representatives. Hosni's comment ignited an interesting debate in Egypt. For example, the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies organized a panel on December 5, 2005 titled, “Does Egypt Need Muslim Brotherhood to Become a Religious State”; see Saloon Ibn Rushd, “Hal TaHtaaj Masr Al Ikhwan Al Muslemeen likeyyi TaSbaH Dawlat Diniyya?” available at http://www.cihrs.org/arabic/newsSystem/articles/144.aspx (accessed September 22, 2011).

            42. See Ismail, Rethinking Islamist Politics .

            43. Quoted in Moustafa, “The Islamist Trend in Egyptian Law,” 624.

            44. Bayat, Making Islam Democratic , 172; Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron, “Legal Pluralism and the Closure of the Legal Field: The Al Muhajir Case,” in Badouin Dupres, Maurits Berger and Laila Al Zwaini, eds., Legal Pluralism in the Arab World (The Hague: Kluwer, 1999).

            45. George N. Sfeir, “Basic Freedoms in a Fractured Legal Culture: Egypt and the Case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd,” Middle East Journal 52 (Summer 1998), 402–414.

            46. Amira Mashour, “Islamic Law and Gender Equality—Could There Be a Common Ground? A Study of Divorce and Polygamy in Sharia Law and Contemporary Legislation in Tunisia and Egypt,” Human Rights Quarterly 27 (May 2005), 583.

            47. I thank Amira Sonbol for her insights, which made an otherwise complicated topic easier for me.

            48. Amr Hamzawy and Nathan J. Brown, “The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Islamist Participation in a Closing Political Environment,” Carnegie Papers 19, Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center, (March 2010), 27–28, available at http://carnegieendowment.org/files/muslim_bros_participation.pdf (accessed September 22, 2011).

            49. Quoted in Omayma Abdel-Latif, “In the Shadow of the Brothers,” Carnegie Papers 13, Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center, (October 2008), 1, available at http://carnegieendowment.org/files/womenegyptmuslim_brotherhood.pdf (accessed September 22, 2011).

            50. Ismail, Rethinking Islamist Politics ; Bayat, Making Islam Democratic .

            51. Hamzawy and Brown, “The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood”.

            52. One of the leading figures in the politicization campaign of the Directorate of Religious Affairs was Cemalettin Kaplan, who served as a religious counselor in the province of Adana, later moved to Germany and declared his caliphate. For the details of this incident, see Ugur Mumcu, Rabita, 22nd ed. (Ankara: um:ag Yayinlari, 1998).

            53. Fethullah Gulen, “Zorunlu Din Dersi Evren'in Sevabi,” Milliyet , January 17, 2005. The relevant part of the interview can be found at http://tr.fgulen.com/content/view/8298/15/ (accessed September 22, 2011).

            54. See Yavuz, Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey and Gumuscu, “Class, Status, and Party: The Changing Face of Political Islam in Turkey and Egypt,” on the effect of economic liberalization on the rise of religious groups and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey.

            55. Mustapha K. Sayyid, “International Dimensions of Middle East Authoritarianism: The G8 and External Efforts at Political Reform,” in Oliver Schlumberger, ed., Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 216, makes the same argument for all opposition groups in the Arab world: “democratic opposition groups in Arab countries do not entertain friendly relations with political parties and civil society institutions in the West and therefore receive any substantial support from the West.”

            56. Yildiz Atasoy, Islam's Marriage with Neoliberalism: State Transformation in Turkey (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

            57. In a personal interview, held in New York, in April 2010, a follower and disciple of Fethullah Gulen told me that Fethullah Gulen believes that no one can justify polygamy in the modern world on religious grounds.

            58. Turam, Between Islam and the State .


            Comment on this article