Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks by Jenny White

Clémence Scalbert-Yucel on a worthy addition to the study of a state in flux

February 21, 2013

Turkey has often been framed as a bridge between East and West, as a country situated at the junction between Europe and Asia - or between Europe and the Middle East, or Europe and the Muslim world. Early scholarship focused on what was seen as an extraordinary enterprise in the Muslim world: the construction by a single man, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, of a modern, secular state and nation on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, in rejection of imperial and Muslim legacies.

Although recent research has critiqued these approaches, Turkish nationalism and the definition of a Turkish nation remain important areas of scholarly interest. Research has been particularly interested in the development of Turkish secularism and of a secular state in a (mainly) Muslim country, and in the construction of a national identity based on both secularism and Islam. It is nowadays particularly interested in the place of Islam in the Party for Justice and Development (AKP), which has governed the country since 2002, and in the effects of the party’s rule on the transformations of the state and of personal and national identities, as attested by recent noteworthy works by scholars such as Hakan Yavuz, Umut Azak, Brian Silverstein, Ayse Kadıoğlu and Fuat Keyman.

Jenny White’s Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks is a worthy addition to this group. Her book focuses on the contradictory and competitive practices and narratives of Turkishness and Muslimhood. More specifically, it analyses the various assemblages of secularism and Islam that have occurred during the third Turkish Republic (characterised, according to White, by the reshaping of the political landscape, economic liberalism and the rise of political Islam after the military coup d’état of 1980), particularly during the decade of AKP rule.

This anthropological work is grounded in a deep knowledge of Turkey, nourished by White’s successive long stays and periods of fieldwork in the country; yet it is also a judicious compilation of key secondary sources. In its efforts to uncover these diverse assemblages, it considers different social milieux and geographical settings, as well as a range of issues (education, urbanisation, consumption, ethnicity, youth, gender, etc). If this approach provides interesting insights, it may also leave the impression of déjà vu and the sense of being presented with a catalogue. But this effect may stem from the author’s attempt to grasp the nature of this “national subject”, hence the need for an encompassing view, and glimpses at different places and various social fields. White stresses the ways in which the national identity is embodied and becomes - and this is not specific to the Turkish case - part of the individual identity. She also underlines how this embodiment can serve to increase the sense of threat to the nation and the current use of violence. The study of the construction of a Turkish national subjectivity has echoes of different types of literature, for instance current work on Islam and feminism, and on the construction of Muslim women’s subjectivities. It is unfortunate, then, that stronger use of some of this material was not made.

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks is its consideration of the relationship between “individual liberties” and “collective logics”. This question could be particularly important in bringing new understanding of the dynamics of social change, generational reproduction and transformation in Turkey, and the position of youth in these changes, not only in the post- coup republic but throughout the nation’s turbulent history. This may help us to despecify Turkey and to think beyond the categories traditionally used to study the country.

Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks

By Jenny White

Princeton University Press, 240pp, £48.95 and £16.95

ISBN 9780691155173 and 55180

Published 13 December 2012

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