What do Turkey and Israel have in Common? A Different Take on Religious Nationalism
Jocelyne Cesari 1 March 2021

With the exception of Faysal Devji’s 1993 book, comparing Israel to Muslim countries is a seldom if not taboo exercise. However, as I have argued in my 2018 article, doing so has benefits. First it highlights the often unnoticed recalibration of the religious tradition to the modern national community. Second, it allows a more complex approach to interactions between religion and politics by asserting that the relevant level of comparison is not the individual but the community.

From this community perspective, nationalism is more than an ideology. It is the sum of memories, emotions, and values that align the cultural and political identity of people with a certain territory and institutions. But it is also more than an “imagined community” because this modern political community is founded on two principles: equality of individuals and popular sovereignty. In other words, it is not only the shared narrative that makes a national community but also the aspiration to be a sovereign political entity based on equality between its members. As central features of modernization, equality and sovereignty have deeply transformed all religious communities by obliging them to reconsider their collective identity as well as their allegiances to secular communities. Intriguingly, these transformations are not systematically associated with nation-building, even if illustrations of this process abound, the King James Bible being the most obvious.

For Muslim nations, the challenge was to subdue the Islamic tradition to the homogenisation of  the national collectivity, i.e. to adapt it to the notions of one people and one territory. For Israel, the preexisting sacred notion of one people and one territory was transformed to fit into the secular national identity. In both cases, the state operated as the central actor of these restructurations.

In Turkey, as in other Muslim countries, nation-building changed the caliphate-era norm of Islamic institutions and political power as independent from each other. The concept of ummah also changed, from defining the diverse territories and populations of the caliphate, to instead describing a spiritual, non-territorial community with a shared religious belief.

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the state emerged as the central political institution. It undertook an unprecedented religious and cultural upheaval, which I have argued is the foundational politicisation of Islam on which Islamist movements could rise. The conjunction of Islamic belonging and national belonging is a given of the majority of Muslim countries, including the secular Kemalist Republic. If Turkey is rightly presented as the most secular nation in the Muslim world, it does not mean autonomous religious institutions and state neutrality.

More than religious behaviours, belonging to Islam was key to the fashioning of the Turkish collective identity. It meant absorbing the dominant Sunni school into the system apparatus, putting the imams on the payroll and at the same time promoting laiklik (laicite) as the defining feature of Turkey. In other words, being Sunni Muslim and being Turkish national were two sides of the same coin, while Islamic signs and practices were privatized in order to build a secular public space. As a consequence, being a legitimate member of the political community depended on accepting the cultural and political homogenisation of Turkishness introduced by Kemalism, which has turned claims to diversity (religious, linguistic, ethnic) into a matter of national security.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has built on this foundational feature to promote a more assertive mode of behaving as Muslim in public spaces. The AKP did not displace the foundational conflation between Sunni Islam, laiklik and the nation. It has instead added another dimension by emphasising social conservatism associated with dress code and attempts to moralise the public space, not to mention the more recent use of Islam for international policy and regional leadership in the Middle East and the Balkans.

The adaptation of Judaism to the national framework took a different path. While the “God’s message-people-territory” triad is central to Judaism as a sacred community, the settlement of the Jewish population in Europe transformed the tradition into a modern religion. It meant downplaying the allegiance to Zion as a politically independent, revelation-based community. Zion remained central in liturgy and rituals while belonging to modern European societies became a legitimate social pursuit. The Hashkala, or Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th century, provided the theological justification to identify with secular national communities while Jewish religious practices were increasingly conceived as separate from the efforts to return to Zion (except in messianic terms).

However, when the Dreyfus Affair (1896-1906) showed that this adaptation and belonging to secular communities did not diminish antisemitism, modern Zionism arose. The political project of Theodore Herzel was not the return to the sacred Zion but the adoption of the modern conception of “a nation for Jews” as an independent and sovereign community based on the equality of people. This political project started a never-ending debate on the status of the Jewish religion within the secular nation-state, and this debate was exacerbated by the creation of the state of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinian nation. From this perspective, the controversial 2018 Basic Law – “the Nation-State of the Jewish People” – is an attempt to put an end to this ambiguity. For the first time, a constitutional provision defines the Israeli state as the nation-state of exclusively Jewish people, hence downgrading the legitimacy of other religions and the Arabic language, which until then was the other national language, and endangering the legal equality “theoretically” granted to all minorities.

The political tensions over religion concern the fusion of religion and national belonging in Israel. While in Turkey, all protagonists agree on the Turk/Islam conjunction while disagreeing about the alignment of religious and political behaviours in ways that echo parallel tensions in American politics about abortion, contraception or white supremacy.

The intertwining of state and religion also turns religious behaviour into a site of contestation. From this perspective, public morality and the status of sexual minorities are contested in both countries. The expectation is that the state has to regulate and mediate between contradictory interpretations of what is to be a good Muslim or Jewish citizen. In other words, religion has been transformed to fit into national culture, while civic and national belongings have been tied to religious belonging. That is why religious nationalism cannot be analysed only as the instrumentalization of religion by the state or by some religious groups. More significantly it is a defining trait of citizenship, independent of the individual religious beliefs or practices of citizens. Although evaluation of the role of religion in society is often done at the individual level, it is also important that religion and politics is also analysed at the community level.


Jocelyne Cesari holds the Chair of Religion and Politics at the University of Birmingham, and is a senior fellow at the Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

This article was originally published on the LSE Religion and Global Society Blog.


Cover Photo: Sander Crombach / Unsplash.

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