In This Review

Religious Politics in Turkey: From the Birth of the Republic to the AKP
Religious Politics in Turkey: From the Birth of the Republic to the AKP
By Ceren Lord
Cambridge University Press, 2019, 386 pp
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Lebanon: The Rise and Fall of a Secular State Under Siege
Lebanon: The Rise and Fall of a Secular State Under Siege
By Mark Farha
Cambridge University Press, 2019, 326 pp
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These two treatises on religious politics are thoroughly researched and insightful and take up important questions of social theory. They seek to correct conventional scholarly narratives about secularism and religious identity in two very different countries. Lord examines the idea that the rise of moderate Islamist politics in Turkey—as epitomized by the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP—reflects the confrontation between a grassroots Muslim society and a monolithic secular state bent on snuffing out religious observance. Instead, Lord argues, the Turkish republican state that came into being after World War I contained significant Islamic elements, clustered in the Directorate of Religious Affairs, known as the Diyanet, and they were granted considerable latitude. Although nominally secular, the Turkish republic embraced de facto Muslim majoritarian rule. Turkish Islamism, Lord suggests, emerged as much from within the state as in opposition to it.

Farha, a political scientist, disputes the narrative that sees Lebanese confessionalism—the intersection of religious identities and politics in the country—as imposed by colonial European forces seeking to divide and rule. The roots of confessionalism in Lebanon are deep and strong and predate the country’s colonization by the French. Great feudal families among the Shiites, the Sunnis, the Christians, and the Druze helped build Lebanon’s politics of identity. Farha also traces a parallel tradition of secularism in Lebanon to well before European imperialism, delving back as far as the rule of Fakhr ad-Din II (1585–1635), a Druze leader whom Farha sees as a proto-Lebanese nationalist, having integrated Christians and Muslims into his power structure. Despite this history, confessional quotas remain a major part of Lebanese political life, sustained by Lebanon’s great political families and, more recently, by petro-zaims (loosely, “oil barons”) who made fortunes in the Gulf.

Although both studies are rich with ideas and detail, they are guilty of overreach. In the Turkish case, after the advent of multiparty politics in 1950, it is not clear that many Turks subscribed to the narrative that set a secular state against an essentially pious society. In Lebanon, forces from outside the country have always stoked confessional tensions to the detriment of the country’s secularization.