Book review - New Islamist Architecture and Urbanism: Negotiating Nation and Islam Through Built Environment in Turkey

Authored by Bülent Batuman and reviewed by Gülşah Aykaç

15 Feb 2019, 10:48 a.m.
Gülşah Aykaç

New Islamist Architecture and Urbanism book cover

New Islamist Architecture and Urbanism: Negotiating Nation and Islam Through Built Environment in Turkey

Authored by Bülent Batuman and reviewed by Gülşah Aykaç

New York: Routledge, 2018; 214 pp. ISBN: 978113895328-4, US$150.00 (hbk), ISBN: 978113895329-1, US$46.95 (pbk)


Since the late 20th century, the world has been witnessing the rise of right-wing governments and their association with the crisis of built environment such as uneven urban development, socio-spatial segregation, the human right to a space and so on. Bülent Batuman’s New Islamist Architecture and Urbanism: Negotiating Nation and Islam Through Built Environment in Turkey remarkably contextualises the multifactorial relation of built environment and politics, using Turkey as a case study. Filling a gap in the history of built environment, the book compares Turkey with other countries under Islamist governments, such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran, and on a historical continuum since the Cold War. Apart from engaging with the socio-spatial and political trajectories of Turkey in detail, these contingent and transnational connections support the main claim of the book from a broader perspective and situate it as a unique critical analysis.

The main claim of the book is briefly summarised in the title: New Islamist architecture and urbanism is the negotiation of nation and Islam through built environment in Turkey. Herein, the negotiation refers to two different types of formations by Islamist governments: first, the discursive formations of Islam that began to dominate left-wing movements in the1970s; second, the socio-spatial formations of built environment to establish and represent a new Islamist national identity. From a Lefebvrian (Lefebvre, 2016 [1972]) point of view, the transformation of urban space is the core aspect of the reproduction of relations of production. From the perspective of the book, recently this transformation has become interrelated with Islamist discourse in the making of a new national identity in Turkey. In this context, the underlined ‘new-Islamist nation-building’ represents society not as an object to be formed. On the contrary, from society come spatial contradictions and conflicts in extension with class and gender issues.

The author himself witnessed the focused upon politically dynamic period from the late 1990s to 2002 – when Islamism was first established as an independent political stream with the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power – as an insider, initially as an architecture student, then as an academic, taking an active role in the Chamber’s Ankara Branch and observing its urban struggle. Along with having benefits, it could also be claimed that being an insider could negatively impact his objectivity as a researcher. However, in the introductory chapter, Batuman clearly lays out the theoretical framework explaining why and to what extent he would apply the term ‘new-Islamist’ to his discussion of the built environment, which quickly puts the reader at ease. The author also distinguishes between the micro (Turkey) and the macro (worldwide) historical moments that led to the revival of Islamist politics and its reproduction in different geographical contexts through built environment.

In the second chapter, entitled ‘Politics of mosque building: Negotiating Islam and nation’, Batuman describes mosque building as one of the primary tools of nation-building. Mosque building in this context refers not to replicas, but to a ‘mimicry’, of 16th-century Ottoman mosque architecture. The architectural form of these mosques is applied in similar eclectic ways, and the mimicry is accepted as a plausible option for constructing a new Islamist national identity. The mosques discussed in the chapter also narrate the urban dimensions, including the selection of the position of the mosque in the city, the symbolic meaning of public space served by it and the processes of building it. These dimensions prove that both the architectural form of a building and the urban context matter with regard to the interrelation of politics and the built environment. Framing mosque architecture from the establishment of secular republican governance to non-secular Islamist transition, the chapter presents a historiography of an excluded or rarely discussed architectural form for the history of architecture and urbanism, which is mostly concerned with modernist or orientalist mosques, ignoring ‘the new-Orientalist mosque’ and its recent emergence in cities.

The visibility of the new-Orientalist mosque is claimed to be an important representation in the instrumentalisation of the Islamist politics of the AKP. One photograph in the following chapter, entitled ‘Housing subjects of new Islamism’, depicts a minaret without its mosque, inside a regenerated residential area (p. 76). The absurdity of leaving the minaret while demolishing all the rest highlights how new urban renewal projects are used as another important architectural tool. In light of two cases – Başakşehir in Istanbul and the North Ankara Project in Ankara – the chapter mainly claims that Islamist urban renewal projects in former squatter areas reproduce daily life, with Islamic institutions including special programmes for women. These projects have been targeting the former squatters’ demands to improve their welfare. However, the projects have created new social inequalities and socio-spatial segregation in most cases. For example, some of the former-squatters-as-workers have become a new urban middle class while others remain hopeful for the same. The most striking claim of the chapter is that this strategy for a housing and class shift is what originally led the current Islamist government in Turkey to pursue power. Evidently, the chapter mediates the corpus of the squatter phenomenon in Turkey from an uncommon perspective. Although the author just glimpses the terminology of body and space through habitus within the scope of the book, this chapter’s discussion has strong implications that extend into biopolitics.

The fourth chapter, ‘From the urban revolution of new Islamism to the revolution of the urban: Public space and architectures of resistance’, shifts the discussion into the public space within the frame of Henri Lefebvre’s (2013 [1970])Urban Revolution. The extraordinary transformations of public spaces such as the central squares of Istanbul and Ankara led the public to become isolated from the historical and political contexts of these cities. The urban revolution of the new Islamist regime is defined through these transformations, which have targeted opposition movements. The opposition reached its zenith, emerging as a collective claim to public space, with the Gezi Park protests of 2013. Spreading to cities throughout Turkey, the spatial performances of citizens during the Gezi protests are defined as a revolution of the urban. The chapter concludes by discussing what the author considers the urban revolution of the new Islamism, wherein the conservative masses were mobilised during the failed putsch orchestrated by another Islamist group in 2016. Gradually this mobilisation appeared as a new repressive force countering what remained of the resistance spirit of the Gezi Park protests.

As with mosque architecture, the Islamist government attempted to establish another architectural form, which was initially reflected in civil architecture and then in the capital. The final chapter, ‘Building (the) national: The public architecture of millet’, labels this style as Ottoman-Seljuk; it was used for the Presidential Compound and its over-controlled public garden. In fact, all five chapters could be read separately and in any order. In this case, Chapter 2 and this final chapter, Chapter 5, could be coupled to frame the frequently seen new architectural forms, their representation behind eclectic mimicry, national and international variations built in Europe, the US or Turkic nation-states and most interestingly their role in the making of public space.

The rapidly changing political climate in Turkey has had a negative, violent impact on the academic community and in daily life, particularly over the last five years. This book provides contextual tools to frame the built environment’s transformation in relation to politics, especially considering how rarely this subject is covered in architecture, urbanism and urban studies on Turkey. Nonetheless, crucially situated within a wider analysis, the book could lead to new discussions on the historiography of architecture and urbanism being produced in particular under Islamist governments and more generally through nationalist, right-wing, conservative politics. Consequently, it seems critical to articulate the current trajectories of built environment to broaden the research scope of the book. In this sense, it is notable that questions about the futures of geographies under Islamist rule seem to be left out of the book as a challenge for following researches.




Lefebvre, H (2013 [1970]) The Urban Revolution. Translated by R, Bononno . Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 
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Lefebvre, H (2016 [1972]) Marxist Thought and the City. Translated by R, Bononno . Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 
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