Reenchantment in a Secularized Muslim Country?


The project “New Religiosities in Turkey: Reenchantment in a Secularized Muslim Country?” (acronym: NEORELIGITUR), is a collaborative research project of the Orient-Institut Istanbul (OII) and the Centre d’études turques, ottomanes, balkaniques et centrasiatiques (CETOBAC) at the EHESS in Paris. The project is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) as part of the Franco-German Program in Social Sciences and Humanities (FRAL).

The project coordinators are Dr. Alexandre Toumarkine (for the OII) and Prof. Dr. Nathalie Clayer (for the CETOBAC). Besides the coordinators, for the duration of the project, Till Luge and Dilek Sarmış are employed as research fellows at the OII and the CETOBAC respectively. The project started in February 2014 and is devised for a period of 36 months. The project team consists of 28 researchers located in France, Germany, Turkey, and the UK, combining various disciplinary approaches. It is without doubt the largest research group on new religiosities worldwide. The project is open to collaboration with institutions and researchers beyond the team currently involved.

The idea of a collective research project on new forms of religiosities in Turkey was initially conceived by the director of the Orient-Institut Istanbul, Prof. Dr. Raoul Motika, in the framework of a wider project on the religious history of Anatolia. Since 2011, research into New Religious Movements at the institute has been coordinated by Dr. Toumarkine, who has motivated a team of researchers to explore the diversity of new religious forms in Turkey, kindly supported by the CETOBAC. For an overview of the research done during this exploratory phase, see the workshop descriptions below.

The present project supported by the ANR and the DFG is a reconceptualization of the initial research project, with a shift in focus from “New Religious Movements” to “new religiosities.” The term “New Religious Movements” has been used to denote religious groups related to New Age, esotericism, spiritualism, millennialism, personal development, Western religions or practices derived from South and East Asia or Far Eastern religions, and religiously informed alternative therapies, often based on holistic conceptions of the relationship between man and his environment and between body and mind. The particular conceptualization of “New Religious Movements,” however, was very much informed by the fears surrounding the emergence of new religions in the West since the 1960s and thus promoted an institutionalist approach to these religions. They were in part interesting as potential threats to the individual and society and New Religious Movements were thus often viewed as small, highly integrated groups. The concept of “new religiosities” shifts our focus from institutions to beliefs and practices of individuals, offering a wider lens by reorienting the research toward individual and societal dimensions and addressing questions such as patchwork-religion and cultural dissemination.

Extensively studied in the West, new religiosities were largely ignored by researchers working on religion in the Muslim world. The term “New Religious Movement” has usually been taken to refer to only one kind of renewal: the emergence of neo-brotherhoods or Islamist movements such as Salafism. A largely tautological conception of Islam and the difficulty of grasping contemporary religious circulation, and in particular its impact on Islam, have resulted in an essentialization of Islam. This has precluded a wider conceptualization of religion and thinking beyond classical issues such as political Islam, Muslim heterodoxy, the veil, or interfaith relations. Accordingly, there are very few studies of the hybridization of beliefs and practices in Muslim countries in general. The small number of Turkish academic publications on new religiosities favors a hostile reading of new religiosities as foreign imports that may threaten the unity of the country. Contrary to the scarcity of studies on new religiosities in Turkey, we can easily observe a steep rise in their visibility, in particular since the 1990s. This rise reflects a strong curiosity present in Turkey society that warrants detailed examination.

The project intends to trace religious circulation, but will avoid to presume a foreign provenance for all seemingly new beliefs and practices and rather pursue possible local historical roots for beliefs and practices ascribed to new religiosities. We will question the assumption that the potential audience of new religiosities is restricted to secular Turks, since our preliminary fieldwork has shown that the diffusion of such beliefs and practices is not confined to this environment, but includes even conservative Muslim groups, although the diffusion may take different forms.

The project is dedicated to the study of the dynamics of religious change. It will examine the perceptions of the Turkish state and Islamic authorities of new religiosities and the strategies developed in response by their proponents. It will trace transnational religious circulation, circulation within Turkey and processes of glocalization. We will address the place of scientific discourse and the methods of validating knowledge within new religiosities. We will study individual religiosity, religious biographies as well as the construction of religious authority, religious identity, and charisma. The project also gives special importance to the means of dissemination (authors, translators, editors, publishing houses, the internet, etc.) and the use of texts (their interpretation, sacralization, etc.). We will also address gender issues, the importance of which becomes obvious given the large proportion and important role of women in our area of study. The project will also explore the spatial dimensions of the phenomena at hand, from the micro-level of neighborhood, to the meso-level of city and countryside, and to the macro and transnational level. Finally, it intends to make an original contribution to the debates on the role of secularization, individualization, and privatization of religion.