A bargain between the secular state and Turkish Islam: politics of ethnicity in Central Asia



Abstract. This paper reveals and analyses the ethnic politics mobilised by a fast-growing Islamic movement, the Gülen movement, which emerged in the 1980s in Turkey and expanded to Central Asia in the mid-1990s. Following the micro-sites, where nationness is reproduced as an everyday practice, my ethnographic research in Almaty-Kazakhstan explored the emergent Islamic sensibilities for the nation and ethnic identity. Revivalist Islam has often been essentialised as incompatible with nationalism, since it has been widely associated with the Muslim community rather than nations and nation-states. I argue that this bias is facilitated and maintained by the deep division in the literature. Scholarly work on both Islam and nationalism are split into two opposing approaches, state-centered and culture-centered. The findings of the present study challenge the binary thinking that juxtaposes politics against culture and dichotomises ethnic and state-framed base of nationalism and nationhood. My major finding is that the Gülen movement has not only inherited the symbols and myths of descent from the founding fathers of the Turkish state, but it is also currently reproducing the related ethnic politics in cooperation with–not in opposition to–the secular states in the post-Soviet Turkic world. The study reconciles ethno-symbolic and state-centered approaches in explaining the convergence between Islamic and secular nationalism in the formation of ethnic politics in Almaty-Kazakhstan.