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Sociologist Zeynep Ozgen got access to a school in Turkey to see how education sites are used for religious mobilization

Every kind of scholarly research can be intensely demanding at times, but few disciplines are as immersive as ethnography. Just ask Zeynep Ozgen, assistant professor of social research and public policy at NYU Abu Dhabi. As a political sociologist, Ozgen studies “religious social movements, and the relationship between culture and politics more broadly.”

To examine the connections between religion and politics in Turkey, Ozgen spent 18 months (2010-12) as an intern teacher in a poor and conservative district in the southeastern (Asian) part of Istanbul. Eventually, she gained access to informal religious education systems which coexist with formal schools across the country. In that way, Ozgen got a clear look into how education sites are used for religious mobilization.

This sort of participant observation is central to ethnography: a scholar interacts personally with the society or institution under study. The point, Ozgen explained, is “to gain insight into patterns of social interaction and cultural meanings by which people make sense of the world around them.”

“This is a very challenging field,” she said. “Most religious activity (in Turkey) was under tight control by a secular state for many decades. Religion was not eradicated but marginalized. So religious actors, whether within a movement or not, are very distrusting … and I’m an uncovered female who studied at an American institution.

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This is a very challenging field. I made some good connections who helped me get into informal networks.

Zeynep Ozgen, assistant professor of sociology

“By pure luck, I … stumbled upon a school with a forward-looking principal” who gave her access, she recounted. Permission from the education ministry came nine months later, and the research project began.

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Making connections

Ozgen started by learning more about the less formal religious education networks that have some connections to regular schools but operate below the official radar. This multilevel approach to mobilization gives Islamists a combination of legitimacy and flexibility, she found, and being an intern teacher gave her just the same access.

“That position ‘intern teacher’ was not very official,” she said, laughing, but it was important to gain legitimacy in the community. Many people “thought I was from the CIA.” But after a few months, suspicions subsided, and “I made some good connections in the school, who helped me get into those … informal networks.”

“I was interested in why Turkish Islamists have been so successful politically, and more broadly, in how social movements strive to bring about cultural and political change. My major finding is that mobilization at the cultural level – trying to change individuals’ values, codes of social conduct, the tone of public discourse – was central to the success of Islamist political parties” in Turkey.

The process in Turkey, she said, is a clear example of “the long march through the institutions,” a phrase coined by the 1960s German student radical Rudi Dutschke to describe a technique to transform society and the state through slow, unobtrusive infiltration of the civil service, education system, media, other organs of society, and eventually the state.

The long-term strategy of working within institutions rather than against them has also marked other religious movements, she added, such as 19th century Catholicism in Europe or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 20th century.

Key findings

Turkish Islamists also followed a parallel route to exert influence, outside formal institutions. That’s where the unofficial religious schools Ozgen studied come in.

“This was done not to organize mobilization for an Iranian-style revolution,” she said, “but to fall back on in times of repression and sustain the movement, like after the 1997 military coup.” For much of the last century, she noted, Islamists “had to survive in a politically inhospitable and volatile environment, so they had to operate informally.”

A central finding of her work is that a two-track effort has been integral to political change. “Individual reform (making people more pious) is not separate from but in fact an integral part of social and political reform. Islamist movements work simultaneously on individuals, society, and the political structure. They want to transform all three. This transformation works in both directions – you close down bars, but you also create individuals who will not want alcohol.”

This process has only recently come to fruition in Turkey, Ozgen concluded, with Islamist power now asserting itself at the highest level of government. “They are actually contesting Turkey’s modern secular foundations, and complementing bottom-up Islamization with a top-down system.”

This was done, she explained, “to fall back on in times of repression and sustain the movement, like after the 1997 military coup.” For much of the last century Islamists “had to survive in a politically inhospitable and volatile environment, so they had to operate informally.”

By Brian Kappler for NYUAD Public Affairs