Disentangling the Islamist and Secularist discourses in Turkey – The headscarf question in the articulation of hegemonic formations

VTM Pia Ranna väittelee 25.1.2019 kello 12 Helsingin yliopiston valtiotieteellisessä tiedekunnassa aiheesta ”Disentangling the Islamist and Secularist discourses in Turkey – The headscarf question in the articulation of hegemonic formations”. Väitöstilaisuus järjestetään osoitteessa University of Helsinki Main Building (Auditorium XIV, Unioninkatu 34, 3rd floor).

Vastaväittäjänä on Professor Binnaz Toprak, Bogazici University, ja kustoksena on professori Anne Holli.

Väitöskirja on myös elektroninen julkaisu ja luettavissa E-thesis -palvelussa.


This dissertation enquires into the Islamist and secularist discourses in Turkey by examining the headscarf debates. The debates on the headscarf are perceived as a way through which the polarization between the Islamist and secularist blocs becomes visible. Moreover, the work intends to explain the construction of the collective identity formation by studying through which kinds of articulations the discourse has been constructed. Due to Turkey’s sociopolitical and historical development, this thesis considers secularism and Islamism as the two hegemonic discourses in Turkey.

The main empirical data consists of Turkish newspaper articles from five different newspapers: Cumhuriyet, Hürriyet, Milliyet, Yeni Şafak, and Zaman. The articles concern the headscarf debates on four different women: Fadime Şahin, Merve Kavakçı, Leyla Şahin and Hayrünnisa Gül. These women became focal points of the media because of their headscarf. These cases illustrate how the headscarf debates bring the two hegemonic fronts together. The data was limited to the period of 1996-2011. This period consists of 2785 newspaper articles, out of which 228 most relevant ones have been chosen for the purpose of this study.

The precise research questions of the thesis are: How is the polarized nature of Turkish society reproduced within the headscarf debates during 1996-2011? And how are the two hegemonic discourses contested and deconstructed within the articulations that form the headscarf debates? In answering these questions, the research uses the methodological apparatus of the Essex school by focusing on the constitution of political identities, the construction of social antagonisms, the establishment of political frontiers, and the different ways the hegemonic demands are being addressed. The final purpose is to describe and explain the articulation processes of the two hegemonic projects.

Among other things, the data showed that the Islamist discourse was successfully employing the creation of ”we-community” by combining different elements or groups of people who have similar interests. Hence its main theme was not aimed at constructing a social antagonism against the secularist frontier. Rather, it managed to absorb some elements of secularism and provide an alternative version of it via the AKP politics. Contrary to this logic, the secularist discourse seemed to revolve more around the establishment of social antagonisms. Often the secularist discourse turned into an ”anti-AKP” discourse. Even though this type of rhetoric aims at building a common identity, it failed in making chains of equivalences in which common interests would meet. Neither of these discourses has managed to create an environment in which an identification with democratic values could have taken place. However, while contesting each other, they managed to further Turkey’s democratization. Hence, at the end this research poses a question as to whether this polarization has actually served as a prerequisite for democracy in Turkey’s context, as the country today seems to be de-trailing from the path of democracy.