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MANY SOCIAL THEORISTS, ESPECIALLY IN international relations and sociology, assume that there is a divide both between religion and modernity and between politics and culture. These divides are then used in depictions of Islamic revivalism, portraying Islam as intrinsically anti-modern and Islamic movements as reactions against modernity, in the form of either private cultural escape or violent political mobilization. This is not only a Western perspective; it is shared by elites in the Muslim world, most ambitiously by Turkish elites.
Given this interpretive frame, it is not surprising that the rise of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) in Turkey, along with a national assembly that started to look more and more religious (the president and prime minister had veiled wives and a majority of congressmen defined themselves as observant Muslims), was alarming for secularist Turks and Western observers, who fully expected the party to infuse religiosity inside the state, eventually leading to a Sharia state, and to seek intra-Umma alliances internationally, leading to an overall Islamization.
Contrary to these expectations, the JDP, rather than pumping Islamic blood into the society, promoted a liberal, national polity (from minority rights to gender politics to civil-military relations) and developed a foreign policy that gave more or less equal effort to deepening relations with the West (the EU and the U.S., and new allies such as Greece and Russia) and to repairing its relations with its Muslim hinterland and expanding its reach to North Africa and Caucasia.
Watching these developments, scholars and pundits labeled Turkey a "moderate Islamist country" and the JDP as "moderate Islamists" (albeit with up-and-down tensions produced by the flotilla events, Turkey's position in the UN on Iran, and the arrests in the Ergenekon case). This label has been helpful to differentiate Turkey and the JDP from Islamic expressions that reinforce a secularism-versus-Islam divide.
However, while the term "moderate" is helpful, what constitutes "moderate," how it is different from "radical," who formulates it, and what it includes (or excludes) remain undefined. Answers to these questions arc becoming more and more urgent since Turkey and the JDP's so-called "moderate Islamism" are suggested as a potential model for the Muslim world in the face of the democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
The prevalent interpretations for the rise of moderate Islam, as well as its content, tend to focus mainly on political mechanisms: national party politics and foreign policy. Where the JDP separates its Islamic ideology from foreign relations, this mildly Islamic Turkish foreign policy is explained through regional dynamics and strategic, material, or security concerns. The JDP's mildly Islamist national politics is also explained as strategic adaptations, where, through half a century of experience, Islamic actors are argued to have learned how …