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This article is for personal research only and may not be copied or
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Comparing Islamic Resurgence Movements in

Turkey and Iran
Sena Karasipahi

This article examines and compares the Islamic resurgence movements in Iran
between the 1950s to the revolution of 1979 and in Turkey from the 1950s to
the present. It focuses on wide-ranging socioeconomic, political, ideological,
psychological, historical, and cultural factors, in addition to the religious and
spiritual motivations, behind the phenomenon of Islamic revivalism and intends
to find the similarities and/or differences between the Islamization movements in
both countries.

We are witnessing the ongoing and increasing revival of Islam in the contemporary
Muslim world. This has been the motivation for my article, which focuses on the Islamic
resurgence movements in Iran from the 1950s to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and in
Turkey from the 1950s up to the present day. In choosing these two non-Arab Muslim
countries, which were never formally colonized, I argue that in spite of certain parallels
in the revival of Islamic movements in the Muslim world, they have diverse, deep-rooted
historical foundations and unique features and therefore should be analyzed distinctively
in consideration of the internal dynamics and specificities of each country.
In my study, I ended the analysis of Islamic revivalism in Iran with the outbreak
of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic that
marked the opening of a new era in which the secularist regime was replaced with a
theocratic one. I considered this as the ultimate stage that Islamic activism can reach.
In other words, the Islamic resurgence movement in Iran has resulted in the establish-
ment of an Islamic order. However, in contrast to Iran, given the country-specific con-
ditions, religious revivalism in Turkey is still an evolving and dynamic process, which
continues to develop by taking different forms and appearances in its struggle with the
established secular forces. Therefore, the analysis of Islamic revivalism in Turkey is
carried up to the present.
The present study aims to determine the essential factors which account for the
Islamist mobilization in each of these countries. Which factors mobilize the masses
along Islamist lines? Who are the actors and supporters? What are the similarities and
differences in the nature of Islamic revival movements in both countries? Is there a
common pattern? What are the implications and consequences of the Islamic move-
ments in Iran and Turkey? Why have the outcomes been different? These are the ques-
tions that I will answer in this article in consideration of the unexpected occurrence of
the Islamic revolution in Iran and the electoral success in Turkey of the Islamist Welfare

Sena Karasipahi is a lecturer in the Political Science department at Texas A&M University. She would like
to thank Professors John Voll, John Esposito, and Shireen Hunter, as well as the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal
Center for Muslim and Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, for their invaluable support and
comments. Her forthcoming book, Muslims in Modern Turkey: Kemalism, Modernism and the Revolt of the
Intellectuals, will be published in January by I.B. Tauris.
MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL M Volume 63, No. 1, winter 2009
DOI: 10.3751.63.1.15

Party and its successor, the Justice and Development Pary (AKP).
There exists a huge body of literature about the Islamic revival process in both
Turkey and Iran that posits different explanations or generalizations about its occur-
rence, nature, and consequences. This study intends to deal with each of these factors
separately and find the similarities and/or differences — if there are any — between the
Islamization movements in both countries by employing an all-encompassing and com-
parative approach. Thus it will focus on wide-ranging socioeconomic, political, ideo-
logical, psychological, historical, and cultural factors besides the religious and spiritual
motivations behind the phenomenon of Islamic revivalism in Turkey and Iran.
Before focusing on each factor separately, it is useful to begin with an overview
of the general characteristics of the Islamic revival process in each country.

General Characteristics

Islam is a very important element in both Iranian and Turkish social, cultural,
and political life. Moreover, in Iran and Turkey alike Islamic movements are instigated
mainly by — although by no means only by — the alienated and disinherited groups
of society. As Shireen Hunter points out, Islam was used as a means of opposition and
resistance by various elements of society from different economic and social milieus
to express their discontent and resentment towards the state’s policies.1 In other words,
Islamic revival is not restricted to a specific social, economic, or professional group.2
This fact is very much obvious in the Iranian case, where many different segments of
the society — including the clergy, students, workers, middle class merchants in the
bazaar, shopkeepers, workshop owners, and middle class technocrats — who were dis-
satisfied with and lost their confidence in the Shah’s policies eventually united around
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Similarly, in Turkey, we observe the increasing public visibility of Islam and the
reclamation of religious values not only by the economically dispossessed and tradi-
tional lower income classes, but also by the middle or upper income classes, many of
whom have a higher social status. Moreover, the Islamic movement in Turkey is not
unified or monolithic. Instead we are observing diversity among Islamic groups. In
fact, during the Ottoman era Islam had multiple forms of representation. That is to
say, the community of Muslims has been at all times “heterogeneous and multidimen-
sional,” consisting of orthodoxies and mystical orders in diverse shapes and roles that
differ with district and community.3
Likewise, Islamic groups in Iran also were not united or homogenous. There ex-
isted divergences along the range of political and religious viewpoints among moder-
ates, conservatives, and radicals, which become more evident after the revolution.4

1. Shireen Hunter, The Politics of Islamic Revivalism, Diversity and Unity (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1988), p. x.
2. Hrair Dekmejian, “The Anatomy of Islamic Revival: Legitimacy Crisis, Ethnic Conflict and the
Search for Islamic Alternatives,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 1980), p. 2.
3. Serif Mardin, “Religion in Modern Turkey,” International Social Science Journal, Vol. 29
(1977), p. 280.
4. Ali Mirsepassi-Ashtiani, “The Crisis of Secular Politics and the Rise of Political Islam in Iran,”
Social Text, No. 38 (Spring 1994), p. 68.
islamic resurgence movements in turkey and iran M 89

It would be misleading to claim that the main motivation behind mass Islamic
activism is only religious. As Nikki Keddie points out:

In Iran and elsewhere, the so-called Islamic revival doesn’t mean that most people
are more religious than they used to be: for the majority the degree of religiosity
shows no sign of significant change. Rather, it means that Islam is reentering poli-
tics and government in a stronger and more militant way than it had in most areas
for many decades.5

Furthermore, contemporary Islamic activism in general is neither a solely rural nor

solely urban phenomenon. As Nazih Ayubi points out, in the Iranian situation, the revo-
lution occurred as a result of the alliance of both the modern and the pre-modern or
traditional sectors.6 Likewise, followers of the Islamist parties in Iran are both from the
provincial lower classes and the urban middle and lower middle classes.
Moreover, Islam cannot be reduced to just a matter of faith; rather, it has multi-
functional social and cultural roles in both societies. It served as the “socializing agent,”
source of identity, mediator between state and society, and a means of protest against
injustices.7 In both countries, Islam is strongly embedded in the fabric of the society
and constitutes a societal building block as an indispensable and inseparable part of the
two cultures. Therefore, neither in much more Westernized and modernized Turkey nor
in Iran was religion totally eliminated. For this reason, Islam in Iran “was the only force
within the civil society that the Shah had not managed to crush and it was thus able to
provide the organization and ideology that all revolutions need.”8
Likewise, except among the secularized elites, Islam has never been absent from
the social and cultural lives of most Turks. Although the state banned all mystical reli-
gious orders and closed their lodges in 1925, Sufi orders, which had been enormously
powerful political and social forces under the Ottoman regime, have continued to play
an important role in society and politics during the Republican era.
The Islamic movement in Iran, which resulted in the revolution, is led mainly by
clerical leaders; this is in contrast to Turkey, where the lay segments of the population
played an active role during the 1970s. Moreover, the associational and institutional ca-
pability of the Iranian clergy, which had control “over 10,000 mosques, Hosseiniyyehs,
Huwzehs that acted as vital means of communication among the revolutionary contend-
ers” distinguishes them from the religious class in Turkey, who act as state officials.9
On the other hand, as Quintan Wictorowicz also indicates, the mosques, which
have a vital place in the everyday life of Muslim societies, act as a “religiospatial
mobilizing structure” among various Islamist groups in Iran by serving as an organiz-

5. Nikkie Keddie, Modern Iran (New Haven: Yale University, 2003), pp. 2-3.
6. Nazih Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World (New York: Routledge,
1991), p. 148.
7. Serif Mardin, Turkiye’de Din ve Siyaset [Religion and Politics in Turkey] (Istanbul: Iletisim,
2002), p. 160.
8. Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World, p. 148.
9. Asef Bayat, “Revolution without Movement, Movement without Revolution: Comparing Is-
lamic Activism in Iran and Egypt,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Janu-
ary 1998), p. 144.

ing agent throughout the whole country.10 However, in the case of the Turkish Islamic
revival, instead of mosques, the print and visual media served more effectively as an
educational and mobilizational agency, with the aid of the new Islamist intellectuals.11
After having surveyed these general features of Islamic revivalism in both coun-
tries, I will now focus on each factor that contributed to the Islamic resurgence process
in the respective countries.

Historical and Religious Dimensions

Historical factors shaped recent and contemporary events and made the Islamic
revivalist movements unique and specific in each case. Iran’s adoption of Shi‘ism as
the state religion in the 16th century, becoming the single country in the Islamic world
with a Shi‘ite majority at that time has the utmost importance for our understanding of
the Islamic resurgence movements in Iran in the 20th century. Shi‘ism has flourished
and been embedded in the Iranian national identity since then, which has had important
political and social implications. I will now elucidate the political influences.
The notion of the Imamate in the Shi‘a school of thought has great significance,
and does not exist in Sunni Islam. The Imam is the legitimate successor of the Prophet
in “a legal, administrative and military capacity” and is considered as the immaculate
interpreter of the Qur’an and Islamic law and the only guide and leader of the Muslim
community.12 With the occultation of the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, in 874,
this source of legal judgment and legitimate authority vanished. Therefore, the exercise
of authority by any worldly power is considered to be illegitimate unless it proves that
it can rule on behalf of the Hidden Imam.13 This Shi‘a philosophy was adopted in Iran,
when it converted to the Twelver Shi‘ism with the establishment of Safavid dynasty
during the 16th century. This historical fact places the Islamic revivalism in Iran during
the 1970s apart from the Islamic movements in Turkey, with the former being Shi‘ite
and the latter Sunni.
Initially, when the Safavids came to power, a class of Shi‘ite clergy did not exist
in Iran. This led to the arrival of Shi‘ite Arab scholars from traditional Shi‘a centers
in Iraq.14 Consequently, a class of Shi‘ite ‘ulama’ has been developed constantly in
Iran. Initially, the balance of power was in favor of the shahs and the Shi‘ite ‘ulama’
remained loyal to the state. However, after the demise of the Safavid dynasty and with
the emergence of Qajar rule in the 18th century, their power and independence from
the state as well as their antagonism towards the state increased during the late 18th
century, in contrast to the Ottoman ‘ulama’, whose power and autonomy decreased
considerably during the 19th century as a result of the state’s increasing power through

10. Quintan Wictorowicz, ed., Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Bloom-
ington: Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 10.
11. Hakan Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.
12. Hamid Algar, Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (London: Islamic Publications Interna-
tional, 2001), pp. 14-15.
13. Algar, Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, p. 15.
14. Algar, Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, p. 18.
islamic resurgence movements in turkey and iran M 91

the creation of a centralized bureaucracy and modern military system.15 The Iranian
‘ulama’ gradually “established their claim to be the legitimate interpreters of the will of
the Hidden Imam by assuming the right to exercise ijtihad.16 So, they have the exclusive
right to provide interpretations on issues of law, religious practice and political acts.”17
Consequently, the worldly authority of the rulers, other than the Imams and those who
act on their behalf, is considered to be illegitimate temporal, restricted, and tyrannical,18
which gives the ‘ulama’ the right to resist the arbitrary acts of the government in the
absence of the Hidden Imam.
In fact it should be indicated that the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the grandson
of the Prophet Muhammad and the son of ‘Ali, by the Umayyad Caliph Yazid at Kar-
bala in 680 also contributed to the religious classes’ and Shi‘a communities’ distrust
and hostility towards all authoritarian political regimes, which they associate with the
tyrannical, immoral, and unjust rule of the Umayyads.19
Generally speaking, the relatively independent and privileged position of the cler-
ics and their tradition of opposition to rulers is one of the most distinctive factors that
makes the revival of Islam in Shi‘ite Iran different from Turkey, where the Muslim
population is predominantly Sunni and inclined (with some exceptions) to be obedient
and loyal to their rulers, according to Sunni ideology. Moreover, unlike the Turkish
‘ulama’, the Iranian clergy not only was involved in politics from the earliest times
onwards but also dealt with contemporary social and political problems in addition
to religious matters.20 In fact, an independent religious class similar to that of Iran
did not exist during the rule of the Ottoman Empire nor in Republican Turkey. Indeed
the Ottoman Empire adopted the policy of raison d’état, in which the state’s interests
and its unity was prioritized in order to ensure the preservation of Islam.21 This found
its expression in the formula of din-u devlet (din wa dawla), which means “religion
and state.”22 Therefore, there existed in a sense a separation of the realm of state and
religion, and of the Sultan’s secular authority and the religious power of the ‘ulama’.

15. Nikki R. Keddie, Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions in the Middle East
since 1500 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 212.
16. The utilization of independent human reasoning to new situations exercised by a qualified
17. William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East (Boulder: Westview Press, 2004),
p. 110.
18. According to Ayatollah Khomeini, “tyrannical rulers refers to all illegitimate powers and au-
thorities (that is, all non-Islamic rulers) and embraces all three branches of government — judicial,
legislative, and executive.” Ruhollah Khomeini, Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of
Imam Khomeini, Translated by Hamid Algar (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981), p. 96.
19. Keddie, Scholars, Saints, and Sufis, p. 233. As Hamid Algar explained: “In the course of the
Revolution in Iran one of the interesting slogans that was constantly raised, and which shows clearly
the importance of Imam Husayn not only for the religious but the political consciousness of the Shi‘a,
was: ‘Every day is Ashura, and every place is Karbala.’ In other words, wherever the Muslim is, is a
field of struggle where the forces of justice and legitimacy are confronted by the forces of tyranny.”
Algar, The Roots of the Islamic Revolution, p. 12.
20. Shahrough Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the
Pahlavi Period (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), p. 113.
21. Mardin, Turkiye’de Din ve Siyaset, p. 115.
22. Niyazi Berkes, The Development of Secularism in Turkey (Montreal: McGill University Press,
1964), pp. 9, 10.

This division was more apparent in the application of the Sultan’s secular codes of law
(kanun) and the increasing secularization of the bureaucracy during the 18th century.23
Thus, the state had precedence and control over religion and the ‘ulama’, who
were the servants of the state. This situation is also effective in modern Turkey, as the
state has total control over religion and the religious authorities, who are salaried gov-
ernment employees.24
Unlike the ‘ulama’ in Sunni countries, the clergy in Iran have been not only re-
ligiously, politically, and socially powerful but also financially independent through
their receipt of the religious taxes of zakat and khums as well as through their control
over the waqf (endowment) lands. This clerical financial independence is a character-
istic distinction between Sunnis and Shi‘ites. Moreover, they had very close and profit-
able relations with the traditional urban merchants, the bazaar classes, and the guilds.
This relationship became consolidated after the hierocracy’s detachment and alienation
from the Pahlavi state during the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the Shah’s centraliza-
tion and modernization program.
We witness the ‘ulama’’s traditional opposition to all autocratic political power
from the 19th century onwards in several historical instances, such as the Tobacco Pro-
test25 of 1892, the Constitutional Revolution26 of 1905-1911, and the Islamic Revolu-
tion of 1979. In all of these historical instances the ‘ulama’ in Iran were quite effective
in directing and mobilizing the public masses against the “corrupt” and “illegitimate”
government, foreign occupation, and antireligious influences by using an Islamic rheto-
ric. Due to the Shi‘a belief that all non-divine authorities other than the Imam and his
successors are illegitimate, opposition to the Shah and his rule was seen as an “Islamic
duty” by Ayatollah Khomeini — a very different view compared to the Turkish case.27
In fact, one should not forget that a continuity exists between Khomeini’s assertion of
his power and the long tradition of the Shi‘ite ‘ulama’’s opposition to worldly author-
ity. Equally important, people’s readiness and inclination to follow the orders of the
clergy contributed greatly to their success.
In addition to this, the existence of alternative routes and ideologies for expressing
political opposition and discontent in Turkey distinguishes the Turkish Islamic revival
from the Iranian, where religion was the only “legitimate” mechanism through which
the masses could display their political protest due to the autocratic rule of Muhammad

23. Richard Tapper, ed., Islam in Modern Turkey: Religion, Politics and Literature in a Secular
State (London: I.B. Tauris, 1991), p. 4.
24. Mardin, Turkiye’de Din ve Siyaset, p. 130.
25. In 1891, the ‘ulama’ opposed the Shah’s policy of granting concessions to Britain on Iran’s
entire tobacco production and export. An important mujtahid, Mirza Hasan Shirazi, issued a fatwa
declaring the use of tobacco unlawful as long as Britain’s monopoly on the tobacco crop continued.
Consequently, the ‘ulama’ were successful in rallying the public and leading a popular protest move-
ment against the government.
26. Unlike the ‘ulama’ in the Ottoman Empire, large numbers of the Iranian ‘ulama’ (though not
all of them) supported the constitutionalist movement — not for achieving reform but for curbing the
Shah’s power through a constitution as well as maintaining and securing their independence from the
state. Together with the reformers and bazaar classes, they led large antigovernment demonstrations
in 1905; as a result, the Shah accepted the establishment of a constituent assembly.
27. Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, p. 327.
islamic resurgence movements in turkey and iran M 93

Reza Shah.28 Indeed, given the limited effectiveness of secular oppositional groups and
democratic institutions such as an independent media and unions, Islam served as the
main viable channel through which the masses could transmit their voices.29
Iran and Turkey’s Islamic revivalism also has its roots in the secularization and
Westernization programs which were pursued vigorously during the 1920s and 1930s
in both countries. Consequently, the anticlerical policies in Turkey and Iran curbed the
power and autonomy of the religious classes in both countries. In Iran, this process was
heightened during the 1950s by Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the son of Reza Shah. His
intensive and very rapid modernization policies together with the growth of the state’s
power during the 1960s and 1970s weakened the power and influence of the ‘ulama’
and deprived it of its institutional and financial basis, alienating them from the state to
a great extent.30 This turn of events explains their leadership’s initiation of an Islamic
movement that mobilized the masses and protested against the government.
Related to this, a large portion of the population was also alienated by the state’s
militant, radical secularization process in both nations. It is hard to argue that the secu-
larist and modernization policies transformed the countryside as much as it affected the
intellectual elites in big cities and towns, who already were acquainted with Western
values.31 The vast majority of people remained traditional and retained their religious
beliefs; therefore, in Turkey, especially after the one-party era, they began to show their
resentment towards the authoritarian and anti-clerical policies of the state against “folk
This is more acute in the Iranian case, where the general society was much more
traditional in comparison to Turkey, which had become much more secularized dur-
ing the 1930s and 1940s. In other words, their worldviews, lifestyles, and customs
were strongly Islamically oriented. Furthermore, the modernization process in Iran,
especially from the 1950s onwards, was very rapid. What had been achieved in Turkey
in two centuries was compressed into a very short period and did not include the re-
structuring of the political system and the creation of the necessary institutions for the
development of democracy, which eventually led to a more violent and strong reaction
than in Turkey.33
Moreover, “the inability of Atatürk’s educational reforms to reach the rural mass-
es left a gap in their understanding of social reality, which became critical as social
change mobilized large numbers of them.”34 This moral vacuum became filled with
Islamic ideology after the 1950s.

28. Mardin, Turkiye’de Din ve Siyaset, p. 130.

29. Mirsepassi-Ashtiani, “The Crisis of Secular Politics and the Rise of Political Islam in Iran,”
p. 51.
30. Mirsepassi-Ashtiani, “The Crisis of Secular Politics and the Rise of Political Islam in Iran,”
p. 77.
31. Kemal Karpat, Turkey’s Politics: The Transition to a Multi-Party System (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1959), p. 271.
32. Karpat, Turkey’s Politics, p. 271.
33. Interview by author with Seyyed Hossein Nasr, April 10, 2006.
34. Serif Mardin, “Religion and Politics in Modern Turkey,” in James Piscatori, ed., Islam in the
Political Process (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 155.

Cultural, Political, and Moral Aspects of the Islamiza-

tion Process

In spite of vigorous secularization processes in Turkey and Iran, Islam continued

to have a vital and dynamic role within each society. For historical reasons, Islam is such
a deeply integrated part of Turkish and Iranian culture and has such a major role in both
societies’ lives that its influence did not weaken even after religion became subordinate
to the state and was pushed into the private sphere of people’s lives. On the contrary, as
stated earlier, the top-down modernization and secularization policies in both countries
distanced the traditional population from the state and strengthened their attachment to
Islam. The banned Sufi tarikats and religious orders continued their activities in a clan-
destine manner, which become overt and intensified after the relaxation of the state’s
stance towards religion beginning in the 1950s. Moreover, the incompatibility between
the socioeconomic transformation and political development also increased people’s
dissatisfaction and mistrust towards their states’ secularist policies.35 Islam served as
an appropriate ideology for these alienated groups to convey their discontent and op-
position. As Hakan Yavuz has pointed out, Islam was more effective in attracting and
uniting people than “a constructed ethnic nationalism or socialism and its power stems
from its flexible network systems, norms and symbolic value.”36 This aspect of Islam
as an integrative and mobilizing force was largely utilized by the Islamic activists, who
contributed to the modern politicization of Islam.
Moreover, moral decadence and the invasive penetration of Western culture were
other essential catalysts for the revival of an Islamic rhetoric for the reestablishment
of cultural authenticity and moral values within each society. As Iran became one of
the fastest growing economies in the late 1960s, the lifestyles and values of upper and
middle class Iranians changed. The increase in conspicuous consumption and luxurious
living, moral corruption, and disrespect of the traditional values of the masses created
tension in the society.37
Distinctively from Turkey, the autocratic regime and arrogance of the Shah in
Iran and the deficiency of political freedom is one of the explanatory causes for the
people’s displeasure and their attraction to Islamic political solutions. The moderniza-
tion project of Muhammad Reza Shah was accompanied by the consolidation of his
dictatorial rule during the 1960s and 1970s.38 The Shah put the middle class in particu-
lar under close supervision and restricted their political participation and associational
activity.39 A considerable number of members of these classes were consequently at-
tracted to Khomeini’s message. An Iranian economist explained the general feeling of
the people by complaining that: “We are told we owe our material well-being to the
shah, but we find unacceptable the regime’s repression, torture, corruption, highhand-

35. Bayat, “Revolution without Movement, Movement without Revolution,” p. 143.

36. Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, p. 55.
37. Marvin Zonis, “He Took All the Credit, Now He Gets All the Blame,” The New York Times,
January 14, 1979.
38. Said Amir Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 73.
39. Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown, p. 195.
islamic resurgence movements in turkey and iran M 95

edness and the ruling class’ contempt for the rest of nation.”40 Consequently, the Shah’s
self-confidence, and his failure to co-opt people, aggravated the general population’s
discontent and facilitated their embrace of political Islam.
Indeed, Khomeini himself was not against the monarchy until the 1940s and
1950s, so long as it remained loyal to Islamic precepts. However, some of the elements
of the White Revolution, the reform program that the Shah introduced in 1963 and
which included land reform, caused discontent among the religious class as it led to
the rearrangement of the land which belonged to the mosques and seminaries.41 This
further exacerbated the hierocracy’s position vis á vis the state because they not only
lost their educational and judicial power but also their hold on the religious endow-
ments.42 As a consequence of this reform program, combined with the ongoing secular
and pro-Western rule of the Shah, Khomeini was convinced that the ‘ulama’ would be
Consequently, Khomeini’s first public appearance occurred in 1963, due to his
opposition to certain aspects of the Shah’s reform plan and his perceived un-Islamic
and despotic regime.44 Essentially, Khomeini was less concerned with land reform. He
was mainly worried about the eroding and weakening role of Islam; the arbitrary and
semicolonial rule of the regime and its pro-American and pro-Israeli policies; and the
issue of women’s enfranchisement, which existed in the Shah’s reform program. Public
discontent against the monarchy gained momentum with Khomeini’s severe denuncia-
tion of the Shah and his policies in 1963, which culminated in Khomeini’s arrest and
subsequent exile.
On the Turkish side, a relatively tolerant period of the state’s attitude towards
religious activities began in the 1950s, towards the end of the One Party era and after
the center-right Democrat Party’s (DP) accession to power in place of the Republi-
can People’s Party (CHP). In order to appease the traditional, conservative masses,
the CHP introduced certain changes such as the introduction of voluntary religious
courses in primary schools and the foundation of schools for the training of preachers
and prayer leaders, called imam hatip schools, which have been very influential in the
revival of Islam in Turkey.45 In the multiparty era, these liberal policies towards Islam
and Islamic activities continued and the role of Islam in public and political space in-
creased constantly. The imam hatip schools were turned into middle and high schools.
Consequently, this relaxation of the state attitude towards religion and favorable condi-
tions for the Islamic groups paved the way for the re-Islamization of society and the
politicization of Islam.
Islamic groups took advantage of the relative political liberalization after the

40. “Iran’s Middle Class: On the Sidelines,” The Washington Post, November 26, 1978, p. 25.
41. Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown, p. 83.
42. Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown, p. 83.
43. Interview by author with Seyyed Hossein Nasr, April 10, 2006. In fact, Khomeini said in a
speech he made at the Fayziya Madrasa in Qom: “We come to the conclusion that this regime also has
a more basic aim: they are fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of the religious
class. They do not wish this institution to exist; they do not wish any of us to exist, the great and the
small alike.” Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, p. 177.
44. Farhang Rajaee, Islamic Values and World View: Khomeyni on Man, the State, and Interna-
tional Politics (Lanham: University Press of America, 1983), p. 29.
45. Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, p. 60.

1950s. Traditional Sufi orders like the Naksibendi order or other post-Republican Is-
lamic groups such as the Nurcus were integrated into the state machinery under the DP
regime through co-optation, and they have been effective in the founding and policy-
making of subsequent Islamic parties.46 The leader of the Naksibendi order, Mehmet
Zahit Kotku, was effective in the creation of the first Islamist party, the National Order
Party (Milli Nizam Partisi), which was established by Necmettin Erbakan in 1970. This
party was banned in the wake of the military coup of 1971 and reestablished under the
name of the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi) — or NSP — in 1972. It
signified the first major occurrence of the institutionalization and politicization of pro-
vincial Islam.47 The NSP’s anti-imperialist, populist, and pro-Islamic discourse — with
its strong emphasis on the equal distribution of wealth, which had strikingly deterio-
rated after the rapid socioeconomic growth during the 1960s and 1970s — attracted
economically dispossessed, traditional, conservative small merchants and artisans (es-
naf) in the provincial centers and other non-traditional elements of society in the fast
developing regions.48
The NSP remained in politics until its abolition by the 1980 military coup. Sub-
sequently, the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), heir to the former NSP, was established
in 1983 again under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan and was followed, after
its closure by the Constitutional Court in 1998, with the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi,
1997-2001); the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi, 2001-present); and the Justice and De-
velopment Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, 2001-present).
The first remarkable electoral success of political Islam in Turkey was achieved
by the Islamist Welfare Party (WP), which obtained 21.3% of the total vote and 158
seats in the 550-seat Parliament in 1996 following its triumph in the municipal elec-
tions of March 27, 1994. The WP received 19.7% of the national vote and the may-
orship of 29 large cities, including Ankara and Istanbul. The WP’s electoral victory
represented the climax of the ongoing process of the politicization of Islam in Turkey
since the emergence of the first Islamist parties that preceded it. The WP’s emphasis
in its discourse on Just Order (Adil Duzen), social and economic equity, honesty, the
elimination of corruption, and the reestablishment of cultural authenticity and tradi-
tional religious beliefs, together with its organizational capability, attracted primarily
the conservative and culturally alienated middle and upper middle classes, as well as
the economically disadvantaged lower classes, most of whom were migrants and living
in the shantytowns of the urban cities. Moreover, it would be misleading to state that
the popularity of the WP was restricted to the traditional, small provincial cities. On the
contrary, they also were largely favored and supported in the big urban centers.
The success of political Islam in Turkey was also an expression of people’s dis-
satisfaction with the performance of the parties in power. The incapability of the na-
tionalist development project and social democratic parties to satisfy the needs of the
impoverished and marginalized classes and eliminate economic imbalances together

46. Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, p. 62.

47. By provincial Islam, I mean to imply people with Islamist leanings and a traditional, conserva-
tive upbringing in rural areas. Ilkay Sunar and Binnaz Toprak, “Islam in Politics: The Case of Turkey,”
Government and Opposition, Vol. 18, No. 4 (1983), p. 441.
48. Umit Cizre Sakallıoglu, “Parameters and Strategies of Islam-State Interaction in Republican
Turkey,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 28 (1996), p. 241.
islamic resurgence movements in turkey and iran M 97

with high inflation, increasing unemployment, and corruption also contributed to the
success of the Islamist parties, which promised social justice, economic efficiency, and
cultural autonomy.49 Therefore, people’s preference for the Islamist parties cannot be
explained solely with religious reasons as obscurantist revivalist movements which aim
to reestablish an Islamic state based on Shari‘a. Rather, the success of the Islamist WP
depended largely on its ability to use Islam effectively to address the political, cultural,
moral, and economic grievances of the masses. Moreover, the people’s demand for a
larger political and economic share in the system as modernity advanced also played a
large role in the success of the Islamist parties.
This is also true for the Islamically oriented Justice and Development Party
(AKP), which achieved electoral success in 2002 under the leadership of Recep Tayyip
Erdogan and defeated all other parties by taking 34% of the votes and 363 of the 550
seats in the National Assembly. The AKP increased its take to 46.6% of the votes in the
July 2007 elections with a landslide victory and consequently consolidated its power.
Like the former WP, the AKP’s insistence on social welfare reform together with its
Islamic past appealed to a large portion of the population.
Furthermore, Islamic revivalism accelerated and entered a new phase after the
1980s as the Islamic groups began to take advantage of the benefits of modernity and
contribute to further politicization and institutionalization of Islam. It would be benefi-
cial to elaborate on this process.
The military coup in September 1980 instigated a number of political, economic,
and ideological changes, as a result of which the Islamization of society and politics
gained momentum. With the intention of eradicating social and political conflict, as well
as a social reunification and consolidation, the military, which has a central and autono-
mous position in the country’s politics as the guardian of Kemalist principles and secu-
larism, emphasized the role of Islam and supported the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis.”50
This ideology also was considered a tool to eliminate the leftist and communist threat.
In fact, the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” which was formed earlier by the Aydınlar Ocagı
(“Intellectual Hearths”) during the 1970s, is a combination of “Turkish nationalism
and moderate Islam and its essentials were the family, the mosque, and the military
barracks.”51 As a consequence, this moderation of the state’s attitude towards Islam led
to the “Islamisation of secularism” and at the same time the “nationalization of Islam,”
which accelerated with Prime Minister Turgut Özal’s liberal policies towards Islam.52
Initially, religious education became obligatory in public schools as a result of the 1982
constitution.53 The number of imam hatip schools rose remarkably “by 59 percent, from
374 middle and high schools to 604 between 1983 and 1987 and their student enrollment

49. Ziya Onis, “The Political Economy of Islamic Resurgence in Turkey: The Rise of the Welfare
Party in Perspective,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 4 (1997), p. 745.
50. Hakan Yavuz, “Political Islam and Welfare Party in Turkey,” Comparative Politics, Vol. 30, No.
1 (October 1997), p. 67.
51. Heinz Kramer, A Changing Turkey: Challenges to Europe and the United States (Washington:
Brookings Institution Press, 2000), p. 65.
52. Sakallioglu, “Parameters and Strategies of Islam-State Interaction in Republican Turkey,” p.
53. Sakallioglu, “Parameters and Strategies of Islam-State Interaction in Republican Turkey,” p.

increased from 220,991 total middle and high school students to 511,502.”54 These imam
hatip schools have a unique effect on the “islamisation of the state and society.”55 At the
same time, the increasing financial and political power of the Directorate of Religious
Affairs, together with the privatization of education, led to the proliferation of religious
schools, which were largely supported by the recently created Islamic entrepreneurs.56
Moreover, Özal’s liberal policies on Islam also facilitated the expansion of the
activities and public appearances of Islamic groups. These policies included the privati-
zation and deregulation of the mass media, which led to a rapid proliferation of Islamic
television channels, newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses.57 Furthermore, de-
mocratization and the liberal environment fostered the emergence of a more pluralistic
and open society, which paved the way for the spreading of civil society and non-gov-
ernmental organizations.58 Consequently, various socio-cultural Islamic organizations,
Sufi orders, Islamic business associations (e.g., MÜSIAD), human rights organizations
(e.g., Mazlum-Der), and trade unions (e.g., Hak-Is) prospered during this period. These
organizations began to affect and manipulate the political and economic life of the coun-
try.59 So, as a consequence to the development of liberal democracy, the Islamic groups
gained power and autonomy, which enabled them to transmit their messages to public
places,60 and “from the periphery to the center of the political forum.”61

Socioeconomic Reasons

Social and economic motives also have been extremely determinative. According
to the functionalist approach, psychological and emotional grievances and dissatisfac-
tion, which occur as a reaction to structural factors, took the form of Islamic resur-
gence.62 As Youssef Ibrahim stated in The New York Times, “interviews with a dozen
workers revealed that their support for the exiled Muslim leader is motivated more by
his opposition to the Shah than by religious dictates.”63
Essentially, the modernization and industrialization policies in both countries cre-
ated significant economic growth and huge social transformation accompanied by mas-
sive urbanization during the 1960s and 1970s. In the Iranian case, the urban population

54. Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, p. 127.

55. Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, p. 127.
56. Onis, “The Political Economy of Islamic Resurgence in Turkey,” p. 750.
57. Hakan Yavuz, “Turkish-Israeli Relations through the Lens of the Turkish Identity Debate,”
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Autumn 1997), p. 25.
58. Nilufer Gole, “Secularism & Islamism in Turkey: The Making of Elites and Counter-Elites,”
The Middle East Journal, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Winter 1997), p. 47.
59. Sakallioglu, “Parameters and Strategies of Islam-State Interaction in Republican Turkey,” p.
60. Onis, “The Political Economy of Islamic Resurgence in Turkey,” p. 761.
61. Yavuz, “Political Islam and Welfare Party in Turkey,” p. 69.
62. Wictorowicz, Islamic Activism, p. 7.
63. “Despite Army’s Presence, Iranian Oil Town Is Challenging the Shah,” The New York Times,
November 19, 1978, p. 20. Likewise, in the same article Ibrahim also relates the following statements
of a worker for the Water and Power Authority: “the Ayatollah has brought the eyes of the world on
our problem here and made them see that the Shah is a puppet of the foreigners who are stealing our
islamic resurgence movements in turkey and iran M 99

rose from 31% to 47% between 1956 and 1976, largely due to internal migrations.64
Similarly, in Turkey the urban population increased to 59% of the total population
in 1993, up from just 25% in 1950.65 One of the most important implications of this de-
mographic transformation was the re-Islamization of the urban sphere through the new
migrants’ bringing their traditional and Islamically oriented identities and lifestyles to
the cities.66 In addition, urbanization was accompanied by the significant increase and
expansion in education facilities and literacy rates. The number of people with higher
education quadrupled to nearly 300,000, and the number of people with a university
or professional school education trebled to 150,000; as a result, people became more
politically conscious.67 Similarly, the expansion of education facilities during the Re-
publican era in Turkey increased people’s political consciousness. Moreover, in both
countries, the younger population, which came to big cities for their university educa-
tion or were children of members of the recently migrated traditional, conservative
lower middle classes, were important actors in Islamic revivalism.
As a result of this social dislocation and movement towards urban areas there
emerged an identity crisis and sense of alienation among the newly urbanized people
in both countries. The modernization and Westernization projects of both countries was
imitative, selective, and superficial, and were carried out very quickly and in a top-down
manner which overlooked the internal dynamics and indigenous characteristics of their so-
cieties. This elitist and forced modernization created friction between the ordinary people
and the ruling elite. The lack of other aspects of modernization, such as the creation of
the institutional foundations for a modern society or the transformation of the politi-
cal culture, resulted in the failure of the modernization process in this regard in both
Turkey and Iran. Moreover, its benefits did not spread evenly, which eventually created
resentment and disillusionment with the government and its policies. Income inequal-
ity in Iranian society in favor of the high capital entrepreneurs and wealthy classes was
very dramatic and corruption widespread. Additionally, as a result of the migration of
agricultural laborers to urban areas in search of employment after a period of rapid
industrialization, agricultural productivity declined, which compelled Iran to import
food.68 Moreover, one-third of the country’s oil income was wasted by the Shah’s arms
purchases.69 The rise in the economic growth rate after the oil boom in 1973 led to an
increase in inflation, which impoverished large masses of the salaried middle class.
This situation became worse, especially in 1976, which led to a further escalation of
public dissatisfaction. Besides, the extravagant spending of the royal family, the de-
clining influence of religion and traditional values, and the replacement of the Islamic
calendar with the monarchist calendar that represented Iran’s pre-Islamic past also in-
creased the Shah’s unpopularity. As this accumulation of frustrations intensified the
tension and resistance of society against the Shah, the religious class played the leading
role. In their sermons, they harshly criticized the Shah’s policies, his subservience to
the United States, and the presence of foreigners in dominant positions and their cor-

64. Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown, p. 74.

65. Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, p. 83.
66. Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, p. 82.
67. Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown, p. 74.
68. Richard Cottam, “Goodbye to America’s Shah,” Foreign Policy, No. 34 (Spring 1979), p. 9.
69. Cottam, “Goodbye to America’s Shah,” p. 10.

ruption. Khomeini’s statements in a speech that he delivered in Qom in 1964, which led
to his exile, illustrate the point:

They have sold us, they have sold our independence; but still they light up the city
and dance ... Our dignity has been trampled underfoot; the dignity of Iran has been
destroyed. The dignity of the Iranian army has been trampled underfoot!
… American cooks, mechanics, technical and administrative officials, together with
their families, are to enjoy legal immunity, but the ‘ulama of Islam, the preachers
and servants of Islam, are to live banished or imprisoned.
… If the religious leaders have influence, they will not permit this nation to be the
slaves of Britain one day, and of America the next. If the religious leaders have
influence, they will not permit Israel to take over the Iranian economy; they will
not permit Israeli goods to be sold in Iran. … All of our troubles today are caused
by America and Israel. Israel itself derives from America; these deputies and min-
isters that have been imposed upon us derive from America — they are all agents
of America.70

In addition to this, as Said Amir Arjomand explained, concomitant with rapid

urbanization, the Shah’s inability to incorporate displaced, upwardly mobile, and re-
cently educated people into his system provided Khomeini and the Iranian clergy with
the opportunity to mobilize the disparate masses around themselves.71 In fact, Ayatollah
Khomeini’s charismatic and powerful leadership combined with his strong empathy for
the dispossessed people, whose sentiments he shared, to strengthen popular support for
his Islamist movement.
So it was religion and religious organizations, and religious orders in both cases,
which helped dispossessed people to address their identity crisis and feelings of inse-
curity. Islam served as a common language for expressing popular frustration, as well
as an alternative ideology for people’s problems.72 The discontented masses resorted
to Islam to reestablish the dignity of their society and to struggle with the cultural and
economic domination of the West.73
There was a proliferation of religious institutions and a concomitant increase in
religious activities parallel to the large scale urbanization that occurred during the late
1960s and 1970s in Iran. Arjomand observed the existence of 322 Hosayniyyeh-like
centers in Tehran for the remembrance of Imam Husayn’s martyrdom, in addition to
305 in Khuzestan, 731 in Azerbaijan, and an additional 12,300 religious associations in
Tehran that were established after 1965.74 Consequently, these associations served as a

70. Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, pp. 181-187.

71. Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown, p. 200.
72. Serif Mardin indicates that “Islam had an aspect which addressed itself to man’s being-in-this
world, to his basic ontological insecurity, which enabled it to fasten itself on to psychological drives.
Islam has become stronger in Turkey because social mobilization had not decreased but on the con-
trary increased the insecurity of the men who have been projected out of their traditional setting.”
“Religion and Secularism in Turkey,” in Ali Kazancigil and Ergun Ozbudun, eds., Ataturk: Founder
of a Modern State (London: Archon Books, 1991), p. 218.
73. Nikkie Keddie, “Iranian Revolutions in Comparative Perspective,” The American Historical
Review, Vol. 88, No. 3 (June 1983), p. 595.
74. Keddie, “Iranian Revolutions in Comparative Perspective,” p. 92. For more information see
Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown.
islamic resurgence movements in turkey and iran M 101

mechanism for cooperation, integration, and interdependence for the newly urbanized
Similarly, in Turkey, there has been a significant rise in the activities of the tradi-
tional Sunni Sufi orders and religious communities since the 1950s.75 The Naksibendi
order, one of the most important among them, served as a mechanism which contributed
to the religious, moral, and spiritual education and awakening of the people.76 Although
Sufi orders officially were banned after the foundation of the Republic, they continued
their activities by providing religious education in underground madrasahs, offering
jobs and support for people and mobilizing them along the lines of Islamist ideology
through their religious and social network.77 Serif Mardin describes the Naksibendi
order as “an extraordinarily resilient revivalist movement, in which all of the successful
elements of modern Turkish Islamic politics have originated.”78 In fact, Ozal’s center
right Motherland Party (MP) obtained important support from Naksibendi and Nurcu
groups.79 Moreover, the followers of this order not only dominated the leadership of
these parties during the 1970s and 1980s, but also have been economically effective by
strengthening their ties with several economic institutions and private ventures.80
The ideology of the peripheral Nurcu movement of 1950s also became dominant
in urban areas due to the improvements in modern media such as television, newspa-
per, magazines, and radio during the 1990s.81 To elaborate, the neo-Nur movement of
Fethullah Gulen, which came into being during the late 1960s in the form of a pro-
vincial group around Izmir, was transformed into a nationwide and then transnational
Islamic movement through their establishment of a wide network of educational insti-
tutions and media and business organizations both at home and abroad.82 In fact, the
aim of the Gulen movement is the “bottom-up” restructuring of the society thorough
Parallel to the social movements of diverse Islamic groups, the number of vol-
untary organizations such as Qur’anic schools and societies for mosque building in-
creased from 237 in 1951 to 510 in 1967 mostly in more traditional provinces, which
acted as the basis of Islamic revival.84
The rigid income inequality and deteriorating economic conditions gave impetus
to Islamic groups in both Turkey and Iran that preached for social justice and an end to
political and moral corruption as well as favoritism.

75. Mardin, Turkiye’de Din ve Siyaset, p. 101.

76. Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, p. 133.
77. Tapper, ed., Islam in Modern Turkey, p. 10.
78. Serif Mardin, “Turkish Islamic Exceptionalism Yesterday and Today: Continuity, Rupture and
Reconstruction in Operational Codes,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (June 2005), p. 152.
79. Sakallıoglu, “Parameters and Strategies of Islam-State Interaction in Republican Turkey,” p.
80. Sencer Ayata, “Traditional Sufi Orders on the Periphery: Kadiri and Naksibendi Islam in Konya
and Trabzon,” in Tapper, ed., Islam in Modern Turkey, p. 224.
81. Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, p. 110.
82. Ahmet T. Kuru, “Globalization and Diversification of Islamic Movements: Three Turkish Cas-
es,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 120, No. 2 (2005), p. 261.
83. Kuru, “Globalization and Diversification of Islamic Movements,” p. 269.
84. Mardin, Turkiye’de Din ve Siyaset, p. 137. Ahmet Yucekok indicates that these associations
made up one-third of all Turkish associations during the 1960s.

To illustrate, in Iran two-thirds of the wholesale trade was managed by the mer-
chants in the bazaar, who had been negatively affected by the economic and industrial
policies of the government.85 They were powerless vis á vis the state and thus consoli-
dated their ties with the mullahs and clergy.
In Turkey, the introduction of an open market economy after the 1980s exacer-
bated the growing socioeconomic inequality in the country. Indeed, the liberal econom-
ic policies of Turgut Ozal, who vigorously promoted an export-oriented, free market
economy in compliance with the pressures of global capitalism, caused the impover-
ishment of the middle and lower classes and exacerbated Turkey’s income inequality.86
While only a minority benefited from the economic expansion, the majority was hit
hard by the capitalization of the economy and suffered from high inflation and rising
costs of living.87 It is not surprising that a significant number of supporters of the Isla-
mist WP were largely composed of the economically disadvantaged, poverty stricken
lower income classes whose number increased considerably after the 1980s.

Intellectual Movements and Developments

The role of intellectual activity and education played an important role in raising
the Islamic consciousness of people (i.e., educating them on the principles and facts of
their religion) in both of these countries. Khomeini was well aware of this fact:

You must teach the people matters relating to worship, but more important are the
political, economic, legal aspects of Islam. It is our duty to begin exerting ourselves
now in order to establish a truly Islamic government. We must propagate our cause
to the people, instruct them in it, and convince them of its validity. We must gener-
ate a wave of intellectual awakening to emerge as a current throughout society and
gradually to take shape as an organized Islamic movement made up of the awak-
ened, committed and religious masses who will rise up and establish an Islamic

In fact, there was a remarkable increase in religious education during the 1950s.
For instance, the number of students in Qom, one of the most important centers of
Shi‘ism, rose from 3,200 in 1952 to 5,000 in 1956.89 Essentially, Qom, where the po-
litical and ideological message of Shi‘ism was propagated and people’s religious con-
sciousness were awakened by religious classes, served as headquarters of the Islamic

85. A merchant in the bazaar said: “The banks are taking over. The big stores will be given most or
our business. The bazaar will be flattened so new buildings can go up. If we would let him, the Shah
would destroy us.” “Iran’s Students and Merchants Form Unlikely Alliance against Shah,” The New
York Times, November 7, 1978, p. 15.
86. Binnaz Toprak, “Religion and State in Turkey,” delivered at a Dayan Center conference on
“Contemporary Turkey: Challenges of Change,” June 20, 1999.
87. Kramer, A Changing Turkey, p. 16.
88. Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, pp. 126, 129-130.
89. There was a proliferation of religious institutions which paralleled the large scale urbaniza-
tion of the 1950s. Therefore, urbanization and migration were two of the causes for such an increase.
Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran, p. 72.
islamic resurgence movements in turkey and iran M 103

movement in Iran.90 In Turkey as well as in Iran during the 1960s and 1970s, high
schools and universities were places where newly urbanized, upwardly mobile people’s
religious consciousnesses were significantly raised. In Iran, many religious societies
were established in the universities, where students were exposed to the thoughts and
lectures of important clerics and intellectuals such as Ayatollah Allameh Tabatabai, Mor-
taza Motahhari, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, and ‘Ali Shariati. In the 1960s and 1970s these intel-
lectuals initiated a renewal of interest in Islamic thought and philosophy and catalyzed
a reformist intellectual movement, which constitutes one of the essential causes of the
Islamic resurgence in Iran. They were against the traditional styles of thinking within the
religious institutions and aimed to revitalize Shi‘ism and reform its institutions.91 During
1960, a cluster of ‘ulama’, under the leadership of Mortaza Motahhari, began a series of
lectures in the Faculty of Theology of Tehran, where he was a professor.92 He was a very
dynamic thinker and tried to confront Islam with modern thought. In his essay “Ijtihad
dar Eslam” (“Making Independent Judgment”) he introduced a non-traditional explana-
tion of Shi‘ism and the notion of clerical leadership (velayet-e faqih).93
Moreover, Ayatollah Allameh Tabatabai, who is one of the greatest scholars of
Iran, played a significant role in the revival of an interest in Islamic thought with his
works on philosophy, Sufism, and Qur’anic commentary. He taught in Qom and Tehran
and wrote a 27-volume commentary on the Qur’an, entitled Tafsir al-Mizan. He initi-
ated a “cultural revolution” through his teachings and his works on Qur’anic exegesis,
which assisted the political Islamic movement led by Ayatollah Khomeini.94 In fact,
some of his students played major roles in the Islamic revolution.95
Furthermore, ‘Ali Shariati was one of the most important ideologues of the Islamic
revolution, and contributed greatly to the intellectual awakening of the people in Iran be-
fore the revolution. He studied sociology in France at the Sorbonne, and after his return
to Iran he established a religious school where he offered lectures on his new interpre-
tation of Shi‘ism as a revolutionary ideology for social transformation.96 His reformist
ideology was a unique amalgamation.97 He was against the established order of the of-
ficial, stagnant ‘ulama’, the regime of the Shah, and Western domination, while taking a
revolutionary Shi‘ite and reformist perspective, as can be seen from his own words:

There is no doubt that Islam will have an appropriate role in its construction, when
it has freed itself from the effects of centuries of stagnation, superstition, and con-
tamination, and is put forth as a living ideology. That is the task of the true intel-
lectuals of Islam. Only in this way will Islam — after a renaissance of belief and an
emergence from isolation and reaction — be able to take part in the current war of

90. Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, pp. 218-219.

91. Akhavi, Religion amd Politics in Contemporary Iran, p. 101.
92. Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran, p. 118.
93. Mirsepassi-Ashtiani, “The Crisis of Secular Politics and the Rise of Political Islam in Iran,”
p. 70.
94. Hamid Algar, “‘Allama Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai: Philosopher, Exegete, and
Gnostic,” Journal of Islamic Studies, April 2006, p. 23.
95. Algar, “‘Allama Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai,” p. 22.
96. Ervand Abrahamian, “Iran in Revolution: The Opposition Forces,” MERIP Reports, No. 75/76,
“Iran in Revolution,” March-April 1979, p. 5.
97. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, p. 426.

beliefs and, in particular, to command the center and serve as an example to con-
temporary thought, where the new human spirit is seeking the means to begin a new
world and a new humanity.98

Shariati promoted a progressive new interpretation of Islam. He resisted Western

imperialism, socioeconomic injustice, exploitation, and the monarchy with an Islami-
cized version of socialism. More importantly, he had enormous influence on young
high school and university students, the petty bourgeoisie, and intellectuals, as well as
on the Islamic Marxist guerilla organization Mujahedin-e Khalq, which aimed to com-
bine Islam with socialism.99 As Hamid Algar pointed out, “many people were ready
to participate in the Revolution under the leadership of Imam Khomeini to a certain
degree because of the influence upon them of Dr. Shari’ati.”100
Another influential intellectual was Jalal Al-e Ahmad, whose Gharbzadegi
(“Westoxication”) criticized modernity and the unselective and superficial imitation of
Western culture and its values and called for the restoration of indigenous and Islamic
values and traditions. This transformation from a secular to religious criticism of the
pro-Western regime attracted many young students and thinkers.101
These intellectuals played a great role in “rationalizing, popularizing and even
legitimizing of Shi‘ism and Shi‘ite clergy in the decades before the Revolution of 1978-
Similarly, in Turkey, Said Nursi, the founder of the Nur movement, contributed
greatly to the spiritual development and maturation of the society, which prepared the
intellectual grounds of the Islamic revival. He was a profound Muslim thinker and
revivalist, whose teachings and ideology are still being followed today. He tried to
rejuvenate Islam and its values in an age of crisis against the rising values of positiv-
ism, materialism, and secularism. His commentaries on the Qur’an are collected in
his famous work Risale-i Nur (Epistle of Light) where he “developed the teachings of
the Qur’an on the truths of belief that incorporates the traditional Islamic sciences and
modern scientific knowledge.”103
With the further proliferation of the printing press, mass media, and improve-
ments in communication technology, his teachings reached and influenced wide masses
of the population, especially the younger generations, and took the form of a significant
Islamic social movement, known as the Nur movement, which has been influential in
Turkish political, social, and economic life through its vast network of education, me-
dia, and business organizations.
Necip Fazıl Kısakürek is another important Turkish Muslim thinker and a famous
poet who has been an inspirational figure for subsequent Muslim revivalists in Turkey.

98. Ali Shariati, Marxism and Other Western Fallacies (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1980), pp. 95-
99. Nikki Keddie, “Iran: Change in Islam; Islam and Change,” International Journal of Middle
East Studies, Vol. 11, No. 4 (1980), p. 536.
100. Algar, Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, p. 111.
101. Keddie, “Iran: Change in Islam; Islam and Change,” p. 535.
102. Mirsepassi-Ashtiani, “The Crisis of Secular Politics and the Rise of Political Islam in Iran,”
p. 64.
103. Ibrahim Abu Rabi, Islam at the Crossroads (Albany: State University of New York, 2003),
p. 1.
islamic resurgence movements in turkey and iran M 105

He strongly denounced the radical secularism of the Kemalist state and stressed the impor-
tance of indigenous cultural, religious, and national values. His “Great East Ideal” aimed
to establish an Islamic system, which, he thought, “is the only formula for the salvation
of the Turks and the whole humanity.”104 His plan aimed to establish an Islamic system
in Turkey as it was lived and practiced during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his
Companions. In his struggle, he gave great importance to the younger generation and
tried to mobilize them around this ideal.105 He has been very influential for the succeeding
generations of Islamists in Turkey.
The formation of his quest for the creation of Islamic unity and his dream of the
Great East is very much related to the historical transitions and transformations of his
age, in which the secularization process and the authoritarian policies of the Kemalist
state and its removal of Islam from the public space played a significant role. Conse-
quently, he had a great deal of influence on the contemporary Muslim intellectuals in
Turkey. He was a radical thinker and political activist, whose thoughts have inspired
even militant Islamist groups such as IBDA-C (Great East Raiders Front) and Hizbul-
lah to a certain degree.
Sezai Karakoç is another influential Islamist thinker and poet. His intellectual
magazine Dirilis (Revival), which began publication in 1960, was quite effective in
raising the Islamic consciousness of the public, particularly the younger generation. He
strove for the regeneration and revitalization of Islamic culture and civilization, based
on Qur’anic principles. He attempted to create an Islamic revival around his Dirilis
It is essential to state that he was influenced and inspired by the Islamic resur-
gence movements, which gained momentum after the bankruptcy of nationalist, so-
cialist, and secularist policies in Middle Eastern countries. He put emphasis on the
sociological and historical aspects of the spiritual revival of the Muslim people, who
had been liberated from the oppression and subjugation of their Western colonizers.106
In his view, this spiritual awakening would make the realization of an ideal Islamic
society possible.107
All of these thinkers have been quite influential and inspirational for the evolu-
tion of a new genre of Muslim intellectuals in contemporary Turkey, such as Ali Bulaç,
Rasim Özdenören, Ismet Özel, and Ersin Nazif Gürdogan, who began to dominate
the public and intellectual discourse during the beginning of the 1980s. These intel-
lectuals are newspaper columnists, authors, poets, novelists, government officials, and
academics, and many are employed in some of these professions simultaneously. More
importantly, they have been reclaiming Islamic values by demonstrating their Muslim
identity in a distinctive way as a reaction to the secularization and modernization proj-
ect of the state.108
Their distinctiveness comes from their intense opposition to and overall nega-

104. Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, Konusmalar [Conversations] (Istanbul: Buyuk Dogu Yayinlari,
1999), pp. 82-128.
105. Kısakürek, Konusmalar, p. 95.
. Sezai Karakoc, Islamin Dirilisi [Revival of Islam] (Istanbul: Dirilis Yayinlari, 1999), p. 33.
107. ��������
Karakoc, Islamin Dirilisi, p. 35.
108. Sena Karasipahi, Muslims in Modern Turkey: Kemalism, Modernism and the Revolt of the Intel-
lectuals (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), p. 2.

tion of Western civilization and their struggle to deconstruct traditions and mainstream
interpretations of Islamic discourse. More specifically, they consider Islam not as an
alternative but as a single solution. In essence, they are products of both the Kemalist
modernization project and the Islamic revival process in the post-1950s. That is to say,
their emergence was facilitated by the opening up of the provincial towns, migration,
and social mobility, as well as the spread of education.
At the same time, they have been playing a significant role in the Islamic revival
process in contemporary Turkey by increasing the knowledge and understanding of the
people about Islam through their writings, public speeches, and intellectual works. In fact,
they often are the role models and ideologues of young people — specifically “upwardly
mobile” high school and university students both in provincial towns and big cities who
are generally from traditional and conservative circles and of middle class origin.


The Islamic revival process in Turkey and Iran is very complicated and multidi-
mensional. Thus, it would be inadvisable to reach a single and simplistic conclusion.
As it should be clear from the comparison of Iran and Turkey, the revival of Islam did
not happen suddenly or unexpectedly; rather it is a product of social, political, and
intellectual developments and their unique convergence. Therefore, country specific
characteristics should be taken as implicit when examining and understanding the Is-
lamization phenomenon.
There are some similarities and parallels between the Islamic movements in Iran
and Turkey. Unlike the distinctive characteristics of Shi‘ism, with its tradition of opposi-
tion and rebellion to illegitimate holders of authority who are not Imams or are not ap-
pointed by the Imams, Sunnism generally has been submissive and obedient to the ruler’s
authority. This fact meant that Islamic revivalism in Turkey, a predominantly Sunni coun-
try, differed from the Iranian case, where the Islamic movement resulted in revolution.
Furthermore, the existence of a relatively secularist and liberal environment in
Turkey made alternative avenues for expression of protest possible which did not exist
to the same degree in Iran. Thus, Islam in Iran provided a medium in which to display
dissent and resistance. Moreover, the quintessential role and importance of the military
in Turkey as the guardian of secularism and Kemalist principles not only represents a
key difference from Iran, but is also one of the important factors that limits and prevents
the ultimate success of the Islamic resurgence movements.
Other than these factors, the distinction between the official culture of the state
and the popular culture of the society led to popular alienation and consequently dis-
content and friction. Islam was seen as a panacea to solve the problems associated with
rapid modernization and societal transformation, such as alienation, loss of identity,
corruption, and inequity. The failure of the secular regimes to provide a common moral
ideology that is compatible with Islam is another important reason for the Islamic re-
vival in each country.
Government inefficiency, the destructive effects of the unbalanced and rapid so-
cioeconomic growth associated with the advance of globalization, political corruption,
moral decadence, economic injustice, high inflation, failed modernization, and the di-
minishing role and effect of Islam in society are the major factors that directly or indi-
islamic resurgence movements in turkey and iran M 107

rectly influenced a significant number of people in both societies to resort to political

Islam and adopt Islamic ideologies. The repudiation of Western cultural influence and
demands for political and economic autonomy are other common themes behind the
rise of Islam in both countries.
With consideration to Iran, public opposition to the Shah’s autocratic and arbi-
trary rule and calls for more political liberalization and participation, denunciation of
subservience to the US, and renewed interest in Islamic thought under the influence
of reformist intellectuals during the 1970s were substantial factors that instigated the
Islamic resurgence in Iran.
On the other hand, with regard to Turkey, the gradual liberalization of the econ-
omy and politics after the 1980s, the state’s adoption of a Turkish-Islamic synthesis,
and the ability of the Islamist parties to address the social and economic problems of
the lower classes through their stress on justice and morality facilitated the revival of
cultural and political Islam.
In the end, people in both countries took refuge in Islam and its political ideology
to confront Westernization and its challenges, either by politicizing it, reclaiming tra-
ditional values with a demand for a return to the golden age of Islam, or reconstituting
and reconceptualizing it through the means of modernity.