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Islamism coexisting with the secular state

Berna Turam has been studying the internationalization of Turkish Islamists by following them from their homeland to Kazakhstan and the United States, as part of a 10-year field research project examining the way Muslims adapt in secular countries.

Northeastern’s new associate professor of sociology, anthropology and international affairs says her work challenges previous scholarship that has focused exclusively on confrontation and conflict that has arisen between Islamists and the state.

In her book, “Between Islam and the State: The Politics of Engagement,” the Turkish-born Turam examines the emergence of a new, non-confrontational interaction between the “staunchest secular state of the Muslim world (Turkey) and the rapidly growing Gülen Movement.”

The Gülen Movement, says Turam, is a Turkish-based group of moderate Islamists who seek to make space in public life for faith. It is named for its philosophical founder, Turkish preacher and educator Fethullah Gülen.

“The main argument of my book is that the politics of engagement facilitates international dialogue and propels democracies by transforming both Muslim actors and the states,” she says.

This type of engagement, initiated through parties in the Gülen Movement, helps to dilute conflict, and ease Muslims’ lives in potential conflict zones, such as post-Soviet Central Asia and post-9/11 United States, observes Turam.

“After 9-11, a great fear of Muslims engulfed the U.S. and that’s when the Gülen Movement really took hold … and tried to make more space in the world for Muslims,” she says.

Turam, who received her doctoral degree from McGill University, was drawn to Northeastern in part because of its Dialogue of Civilizations program, which enables Northeastern students to pursue topic-focused, faculty-led global study experiences.

“When I read about the Dialogue program, I felt instantly drawn to it. It’s so similar to the work I’ve been doing,” she says.

Turam plans to lead a Dialogue of Civilizations experience, taking students to Turkey and crossing the border into Syria, to introduce them to her field research sites.

She is also engaged in a three-year study of the attitudes of Muslim medical doctors in eight countries, in the Middle East and the West, toward creationism and evolution.

Turam is the only social scientist in the National Science Foundation-funded project. She is collaborating with three cognitive scientists at Hampshire College and Johns Hopkins University.