Political religion versus secular nationalism : a comparative analysis of religious politics in Israel and Turkey

Tepe, Sultan
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This dissertation addresses the questions of why a growing number of people support radical religious parties and how and with what implications these parties have established themselves as main contenders for political power in a wide range of countries. It argues that prevailing descriptions of religious ideologies, which reduce them to oppositional forces against secularism and secular nationalism, fail to recognize and incorporate political agendas and popular bases of religious parties in their assessments. The comparative design central to this study seeks to go beyond conventional understandings and assess the intricate relation between religious and secular in the political appeal of religious parties. To this end, Israel and Turkey, which exhibit strong sectarian traditions, a commitment to secularist nationalism and the presence of popular religious parties provide unique data to compare the characteristics and effects of two distinct forms of religious movements, political Judaism and Islam, on democratic processes. Comparison of these countries’ religious politics allows us to approach the conceptual problems posed by religious parties without referring to essentialist arguments attributing their expanding support to the beliefs inherent in Judaism and Islam. The competing agendas and popular support of four religious parties, Mafdal and Shas in Israel, the Virtue Party and the Nationalist Action Party in Turkey constitute the basis of the conclusions presented. Analyses of public opinion surveys of these parties’ supporters and a set of interviews with their political elites describes the competition among religious parties within each country and identifies the institutional and ideological factors driving their increasing support. This comparative reading of the findings establishes that Judaic and Islamic politics manifest similar features in both countries. Religious parties are not parochial parties rather they take novel positions on an array of issues by tailoring secular views to their interpretation of the religious in two distinctive forms: sacralizing politics and internally secularizing religion. They strategically present themselves as challengers of the dominant parties while successfully redefining the political center. The spatial analysis of the positioning of religious parties in their respective political systems illustrates that religious parties’ growing political appeal lies in their capacity to carve new policy options and fill an ideological gap left by the dominant parties.