In both media accounts and scholarship, contemporary Turkey draws much attention as a hotbed of contestation between Islamists and secularists. Indeed, the ban of the popularly elected Islamist Welfare Party and of the headscarf in universities in 1998 reinforced an already predominant dichotomy between the repressively secular state and the Muslim actors. What deserves more attention, however, is the transformation in state-society relations since the late 1990s.
From a state-society perspective, the recent secularist backlash remains understudied. Why does the secularist discontent peak at a time when Muslim actors in Turkey seem to have secularized and integrated into the secular polity and capitalist market? The answer lies in the shifting patterns of interaction between the secular state and Muslim actors. While Islamists abandoned their radical edge and integrated into the secular system and free market, the ability of the Turkish state to accommodate religion has likewise expanded. Put differently, through its nonconfrontational interactions with Islamists, the Turkish state has experimented with greater capacities for accommodating religious piety and politics. While admittedly this increased tolerance has not always been smooth or unilinear, the long-term trend has been toward “the politics of engagement”—that is, everyday negotiations and cooperation between Muslims and the secular state.