Interview with the winners of the Sociological Review prize for outstanding scholarship

We announced last month that Bryan S. Turner and Berna Zengin Arslan were the winners of the 2014 Sociological Review Prize for Outstanding Scholarship for their article Legal pluralism and the Sharia: a comparison of Greece and Turkey.See here for past winners, as well as details of the outstanding articles which were included on the short list.

We were pleased to speak to one of the co-authors, Bryan S. Turner, about the article and the context to it.

Is this relevant today?

One contemporary political issue relating to the possibility of British exit from the European Union is the sovereignty of Parliament and the dominance of English customary law in tension with European laws, human rights conventions and international law relating for example to the sea and maritime resources.

In summary legal pluralism raises complicated and interesting questions about the state, sovereignty, political authority and globalization. Some of these issues were explored in Legal Pluralism, State Sovereignty and Citizenship and Islam and the Problems of Liberal Democracy in Applying Shari’a in the West.

How did you meet Berna?

When Berna Zengin Arslan joined me at the Graduate Center at The City University of New York as a post-doctoral fellow in the Committee for the Study of Religion. We published a theoretical piece together: Shari’a and Legal Pluralism in the West.

We wanted to continue this research but with a more empirical focus. Because Berna was a Turkish citizen, this presented an opportunity to undertake a comparative sociology of Sharia. We looked at the growing restoration of Islamic institutions such as Sharia in Turkey. After Atatürk’s reforms, Turkey had a secular constitution and a history of secular modernization. However in modern Turkey there is evidence that this legacy of secularization is being transformed by Erdoğan’s government.

We discovered that the legacy of the Lausanne Treaty (1923) was to preserve Sharia in Greece as a consequence of the transfer of populations between Greece and Turkey. This offered an intriguing comparison because Greece which is a member of the EU has a history of legal pluralism as a consequence of the Treaty. However while we can see a restoration of Sharia in secular Turkey, there is considerable pressure on Greece’s Muslim minority where the state is limiting the role of Sharia.

One might add that there are similar moves to give Sharia more authority and prominence in the legal systems of Malaysia and Indonesia. This development of the Sharia is one aspect of a more general Islamization of these societies. These developments should be seen within a history of colonialism and post-colonialism in which South-east Asian societies are responding to the legacy of Dutch and English legal systems.

You published your research in The Sociological Review. Why?

I had been on the Board of the journal for some time and admired its combination of theory and empirical research. It was an obvious choice We were able to publish our article in The Sociological Review after revision and we are obviously delighted to be awarded this prize. The article was also reprinted in The Sociology of Shari’a: cases studies from around the World.

In conclusion what is the importance of this type of research?

In my view ‘good sociology’ does at least three things. It builds theory on a cumulative legacy. I am hostile to fashion for its own sake. Weber’s work is still highly relevant to modern theory but not exclusively so. Second it’s important to have a clear theory but one must test it against empirical evidence. I don’t see myself as a theorist. Finally our work has to be relevant to modern political and social issues.

In my humble view our article had those qualities. Building on the work of Weber, we engaged with the theory of legal pluralism. Lastly the sociology of law is highly relevant to what is taking place in Greece and Turkey – indeed throughout the West.

We hope to work together on further research – this time looking at the complicated status of Alevis (a branch of Islam) in Turkey and Syria.

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