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Capitalism, Secularization and Identity in Contemporary Turkey: Everyday Life Between Modernity and Tradition

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Taksim District on a Friday Night, Istanbul, Turkey, July 14, 2006 | © Courtesy of Neil and Kathy Carey/Flickr.

A recent article by Volkan Ertit on secularization in Turkish society published in Open Theology on May 17, 2018, discusses the findings of qualitative and quantitative inquiries in recent decades, to argue that between 2002 and 2017 this Muslim-majority country has remained on the modernization course, despite its Islamic sensitivities.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


Volkan Ertit’s article claims that Turkish society has become increasingly secularized, although an authoritarian pro-Islamist political party and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, its leader, had been in power since 2002. That Turkey has been moving away from religion apparently contradicts Erdoğan’s Islam-promoting policies, as the Islamic law gained in centrality in this country’s public discourse in recent decades. Based on previous quantitative and qualitative studies, Ertit argues that in Turkey younger generations do not evince higher religiosity levels than older generations. Even though Ertit’s research is based on secondary data, it represents an extensive investigation into social attitudes in Turkish society. According to it, life style preferences of younger demographic cohorts reflect the process of continued modernization in Turkey.

This conclusion is reinforced by Umut Azak’s indication, in his November 2008 article published in Remmm, an Open Access journal dedicated to the exploration of Muslim communities on the Mediterranean region, that in Turkey modern statehood has been closely related to secularization, especially between 1932 and 1950. However, in this period Turkish modernization did not involve a complete separation of Islam from the public sphere, but its state control. Lisa Morrow presents a similar argument in her qualitative exploration of the boundary between the secular and religious spheres in contemporary Turkey, which is complexly structured by the mutual influences of Islamic identities and capitalist development. Morrow’s article, published in Linguaculture, an Open Access journal for inter-cultural and inter-linguistic research, on February 26, 2017, also suggests that in present-day Turkey modernity and tradition are not opposing terms, but are complexly interrelated.

Contrary to the claims that Turkish society has been undergoing Islamization, Ertit has found that in recent decades Turkey’s praying rates have decreased, extramarital sexual relationships have increased in prevalence, number of mosques per person has decreased, and clothing style preferences have favored flatteringly form-fitting cuts, such as for women’s head-scarves. As this study argues, secular experts rather than religious officials are increasingly sought for in relation to daily life problems, homosexuality has become more socially acceptable, and traditional family structures have been weakened. Therefore, this research is relevant for discussions taking place in the field of the sociology of religion provides a scholarly riposte to Rodney Stark’s argument that secularization has run its course.

Likewise, this study’s findings contradict Rodney Stark’s dismissal of the secularization theory in his 1999 piece in Sociology of Religion. Ertit’s article indicates that secularization theory, which claims that modernization leads to secularization, can still explain not only the historical social transformations in Europe, but also social processes in Turkey, a Muslim-majority country. For this reason, Phil Zuckerman, a prominent sociology and secularization scholar, has stated that “Volkan Ertit’s article on the decline of Islamic hegemony in Turkey is both empirically strong and theoretically compelling. As more and more outside observers rashly conclude that Turkey is becoming increasingly religious, many indicators actually show just the opposite. With well-presented arguments and data, Ertit challenges current thinking about religion and secularization in contemporary Turkey.”

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: Taksim District on a Friday Night, Istanbul, Turkey, July 14, 2006 | © Courtesy of Neil and Kathy Carey/Flickr.

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