Cihan Tugal studies the role of religion in political projects. His research focuses on the interaction between religion and politics, and how that shapes everyday life, urban space, class relations and national identity.
Tugal's book Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism was published in 2009 by Stanford University Press. His research has also been published in numerous scholarly journals. The common thread of his chapters, articles and book is bringing a cultural perspective to politics.
His book is based on a two-phase ethnography of a poor and conservative district in Istanbul. He has taught in this district, and participated in its religious and political life. Situating the ethnography within the development of capitalism in Turkey, he demonstrates how Islamic movements have mobilized the poor and marginal intellectuals to later integrate them to secular, market-oriented politics. This is a process of passive revolution, whereby previously oppositional networks are absorbed into existing power structures.
Tugal also studies Islamic mobilization in Egypt and Iran, in order to understand why similar movements have not resulted in a comparable Islamic market consensus in these countries. He argues that Islamic politics has interacted with civil society and the state in different ways in these three cases, leading to the victory of neoliberalized Islam in Turkey, its defeat in Iran, and a stalemate in Egypt. The revolutionary situation in Egypt presents new possibilities for neoliberal Islam, as well as new impediments to its popularization, as pointed out in his recent article in Development and Change.