‘Mobilizing Religion in Middle East Politics: A comparative Study of Israel and Turkey,’ By Yusuf Sarfati
In “Mobilizing Religion in Middle East Politics: A Comparative Study of Israel and Turkey,” Yusuf Sarfati examines the causes and consequences of political mobilization of religion through an in-depth analysis of the Shas Movement in Israel and the Milli
Görüş (national view) movement in Turkey. Sarfati deals with two major questions in the book: how can the success of religious political movements in Israel and Turkey be explained; and how does the increasing role of religious political actors influence the quality of democracy? Drawing on social movement theory, Sarfati argues that the interaction among political opportunity structures, framing processes and social networks explain the success of political mobilization by the religious actors. He develops his argument in three steps.
In the first step, Sarfati discusses the historical formation of social
cleavages in Israel and Turkey, politicization of these social cleavages, and how Shas Movement in Israel and National View movement in Turkey emerged in the context of these cleavages. Although Zionist elites accommodated different Judaic groups in order to gain support of all segments of society in the formative years of the state of Israel, the early Zionists, most of whom were left-wing Ashkenazi Jews and came from European countries, discriminated against Sephardic Jews, most of whom came from Middle Eastern countries and had a strong religious identity. Labor Zionists aimed to “radically transform the life of the Jews in Palestine according to the principles of socialism, equality, nationalism, and secularism” (29). Similarly the Kemalists in Turkey, who aimed to create a Westernized secular society through a radical modernization program, discriminated the pious Muslims from social, economic and political life. The Ashkenazi/Sephardi divide and center/periphery divide constituted the major social cleavages in Israel and Turkey respectively. In 1970s, when the parties of these social cleavages came into closer contact due to migration and new government policies, the grievances of the marginalized groups became more acute, ultimately leading to their politicization.
In the second step, Sarfati demonstrates how religious actors in Israel and Turkey utilized the opportunity structures that stemmed from their incorporation into the government structures and furthered their interests through political patronage. Shas participated in most of the coalition governments since its inception in 1984. Shas’ participation in the governments provided the party the opportunity to distribute state benefits to its social base through its networks in various state bodies including Interior Ministry, Health Ministry, Religious Affairs Ministry, and Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. Political patronage helped Shas to boost its popular support. Similarly, National Salvation Party became coalition partner in three governments in the 1970s and used its access to government structures for political patronage. After the 1980 military coup, the state incorporated religious ideas and individuals to the government and this allowed many pious Muslims to become influential in the
conservative wing of the Motherland Party (ANAP), which ruled the country in the years following the coup. While patronage helped religious actors increase their influence on governance, critiques against the ANAP’s instrumental use of religion led emergence of a religious-based Welfare Party (RP).
In the third step, Sarfati examines how Shas and National View framed the grievances of their followers and translated them into an appealing political message to gain popular support, analyzes how these movements mobilize their followers by penetrating the society through their formal and informal networks, and evaluates how religious political mobilization influences democratic governance in Israel and Turkey. Shas appealed to different Sephardim populations by addressing their marginalization and by forging a religious identity grounded in a glorified Sephardi heritage. Through its civil society arm, Shas reached out to the marginalized segments of the society and met their everyday needs. Similarly, National View appealed to the peripheral populations such as urban poor, peasants, Kurds and small business owners by addressing their marginalization by the secular and nationalist elite. National View developed an Islamic identity that translated the grievances of the peripheral forces into a strong political message that emphasized justice, religious values, and honesty. Thanks to its widespread network, the party organization and civil society wing of the National View reached large populations in an effort to help alleviate their grievances and mobilize them politically.
Sarfati also discusses the relationship between religious political mobilization and democratic quality. To him, on the one hand, political mobilization of religious actors has contributed to democracy in both countries; religious political parties helped the incorporation of the marginalized population into the democratic political system. On the other hand, the frequent uses of exclusionary political discourse by religious political parties weakens democratic quality because this discourse threatens dialogue among actors and polarizes society.
“Mobilizing Religion in Middle East Politics,” a well-written book that is based on an extensive fieldwork and three decades of archival research in Israel and Turkey, is a significant piece of contribution for many reasons. First, the book, that employs social movement theory, has a strong theoretical foundation without losing from empirical richness. In contrast to several analytically strong studies that are less attentive to empirical nuances in case countries, Sarfati combines theoretical rigor with empirical depth. He successfully demonstrates how political opportunity structures in both countries were ripe for religious mobilization, how religious actors framed grievances of their social base into political capital, and how these actors diffused into dense social networks in connecting these frames to the everyday life of their constituencies. Second, the book contributes to literature on social movement theory by testing two significant cases from a nonWestern context. Although there is an increasing interest in social movement theory, only a few studies have been conducted that employs this theory in non-Western contexts. “Mobilizing Religion in Middle East Politics” extends the scope of the cases and further tests the social movement theory. Finally, Sarfati’s book contributes to the literature on religion, secularism and democratic consolidation. By systematically showing the positive and negative impacts of religious mobilization on democratic consolidation, Sarfati’s research not only sheds light on religion and democracy in Israel and Turkey but also on the future of political developments in the broader Middle East in the wake of the Arab revolutions.
“Mobilizing Religion in Middle East Politics” speaks to a wide audience. Anyone interested in religious political parties, religion and democracy, social movement theory, and Middle East politics will find the book invaluable. Its excellent prose and analytical strength make the book relevant for both general readers and scholars.
SARFATI’S RESEARCH SHEDS LIGHT ON THE FUTURE OF POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS IN THE BROADER MIDDLE EAST IN THE WAKE OF THE ARAB REVOLUTIONS
The book looks at religious political movements in Israel and Turkey.