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New faces of Islam

By Wendy Kristianasen, Le Monde diplomatique, July 1997

As a result of Turkey’s special characteristics, which differ from the other countries of the region, a brand of purely Turkish Islamism has evolved. Recently in government, the Islamists pose a serious threat to the secular establishment. Through their energetic grassroots activities they have won over both the poor and the middle classes of Anatolia. In response to this challenge, the secular middle classes have started rebuilding their own civil society.

How shall we define the Islamists who have governed Turkey for one year, up to the resignation of the prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, on 18 June? As everywhere else in the region their voters come from similar conservative and religious backgrounds. They suffer the same poverty as can be seen in the poorer suburbs of Cairo or Gaza, for example. They have migrated in their millions to the anonymous shantytowns of the big cities—Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Adana, Bursa, Mersin—suffering a sense of dislocation and loss of roots. And, as elsewhere, they have their share of thrusting businessmen, professionals, engineers, cadres, social workers and educators. Their politicians—many of whom have, as in the other countries of the region, entered their ranks as a result of the common collapse of the left. They are educated, energetic and, even when they came to government, remained untouched by corruption.

Here the similarity ends between Turkish Islamism and that of the Middle East in general. For the secularism enshrined in Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s republic has left its mark. There is no question of a return to the sheriat (religious law); the vakiflar (religious endowments) have been secularised; Islamic dress for men (and for women in certain instances) is prohibited. The Sufi orders (tarikat) remain banned, leaving them to operate in semi-clandestine shadows.

But Turkey’s two most striking differences are, on the one hand, the pluralism of its political system—and the degree to which the Islamists have integrated into this system—and, on the other, the profound influence of Western education and the way it has permeated the thinking of Turkey’s Islamist intellectuals. All this has made for a unique Turkish-style brand of Islamism, non-violent, which may wish to challenge the secular aspects of Kemalism, but which does not question the core nation-state.

The constituency of the Islamist party (Refah Partisi or Welfare Party) comes first from central and eastern Anatolia; second from the big cities; and third from the Kurdish south-east. Despite its success in the December 1995 general elections (1), it does not have a monopoly on the Islamist vote. It has, however, been the beneficiary of the alienation of the religious voter from ANAP (Anavatan Partisi or Motherland Party) (2) since Mesut Yilmaz, who comes from the party’s more secular wing, succeeded the late president, Turgut Ozal.

Again, Refah does not have a monopoly of support among the Sufi orders. The Naksibandis, the only order to take an active remain part in political life, are divided between their support for Refah and that for ANAP (3), while the many of the Nurcu (4) are aligned to Tansu Ciller’s True Path Party (DYP), Refah’s junior partner in the government coalition. Both these centre-right parties contain significant Islamist elements and even, in the case of the DYP, members of parliament.

Turgut Ozal’s real contribution was his attempt to merge the disparate strands of Turkish society and bring those left outside it back into its fold, notably the Islamists. For the increase in Islamism had less to do with a sudden increase in religiosity than the huge social-economic divide which separated the peasants of Anatolia (the catch-all term used by Istanbul’s social elite) from the white Turks of Istanbul itself. Under Mr Ozal, the conservative peasants began to prosper and a thrusting grass-roots Islamist movement blossomed alongside.

The army had, in fact, already set the stage at the time of its September 1980 coup. Anxious to combat the left, the military encouraged Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party (forerunner to Refah) by making religious courses obligatory in schools and creating special Koranic schools which were to become seedbeds of Islamism. The army also embarked on the even more radical strategy of introducing an Turkish-Islamist synthesis, through which the officers sought to water down what they saw as the more revolutionary aspects of Kemalism. Not only would Islamic values enhance the conservative elements of society—both Turkish and Kurdish—but the Turkish component of the synthesis would discourage the seeds of Kurdish nationalism. As a result, they went about co-opting Islamists and neo-fascists—long-established within the state bureaucracy under Alpaslan Turkes’s National Action Party (MHP) with its Grey Wolves militia—into the security forces and other parts of the state apparatus in return for their suspending their own independent activities (5).

Coming to power in 1983, Mr Ozal accelerated this process, recruiting these elements into his own party, increasing their strongholds in the ministries of education and interior (6), and publicly admitting religion as an essential component of Turkish identity. Under his liberal policies and economic opening, the Islamists were able to carve out a parallel society to which they attracted the Anatolian immigrants to the big cities—from the huge numbers of gecekondu (shanty town) dwellers to the growing ranks of businessmen, professionals, intellectuals and the like.

The deregulation of broadcasting gave Islamists a powerful voice of their own, with various TV channels including the nation-wide Channel Seven. An important trade union, Hak-Is, with unofficial Islamist connections, displaced the leftist union, Disk. Then there is business.

Excluded from the plutocratic white Turk business association, TUSIAD, the small to medium-sized, fast-growing Anatolian tigers formed their own association, MUSIAD. The acronym officially stands for Mustakil is adanleri dernegi, the Independent Businessman’s Association, though the secular are suspicious that the M of mustakil (independent) stands for muslim. Indeed, its members do not serve liquor at official functions and celebrate Muslim holidays. According to Taha Akyol, a well-respected intellectual of Ozalist orientation, the army fears that the association is preparing itself for an economic take-over, waiting for its moment to supplant its major secular rival, although in fact, the two associations share the same economic values: stable government, full membership of the European Union and a westernised Turkey. The industrialist in Konya wants to sell to the East and the West, not to the Islamists! Here the dynamism of the business community provides a positive bridge across the Islamist-secular divide.

It is in the fertile terrain of the Anatolian tigers that Fethullah Gulen, leader of the most important offshoot of the Nurcu religious movement, has made a name for himself. He has succeeded where Turgut Ozal and Cem Boyner (the white hope of the left) both failed. He has given the provincial capitalists a voice—and in return won their money for his small empire. An alternative to MUSIAD and to Refah, he appeals to the conservative businessmen of Denizli, Antep, Bursa, Kocaeli, Maras.... Puritanical, nationalistic, conservative, hard-working, these generators of new Anatolian wealth have no ties to banks or politicians. They have family-run companies which use high-tech production methods of the first order.

The Fethullah phenomenon relies on elitism and lots of money (the movement has its own vakif). This has gone into setting up schools, charities and companies in Turkey and beyond, in Central Asia. In Albania he had a camp running before the diplomatic fraternity moved in. His schools, some 50 in Turkey and over 200 abroad, have become bastions of the Turkish elite. Then there is publishing: the Zaman newspaper, a TV channel, videos, cassettes, books, magazines.

This former preacher, now in his sixties, does not describe himself as an Islamist. He prefers to be known as a devout Muslim who opposes political Islam. He wants to see the full integration of Islam in the political system, the economy and society. From the Balkans to China, he wants to see elites formed with Turkey as their model. A new Ottoman empire of sorts, dominated by the Turks, under which different faiths would cohabit. Would he be the new sultan? There is no answer as yet, but one seasoned observer declares him not entirely innocent. He is busy trying to create a parallel world, ready to take over when all is in place. In the last four years he has consolidated his ties with all the parties, except for Refah. But he could be the victim of his own charisma. Who could follow the act of the now-ailing preacher?

Fethullah Gulen’s parallel world is mirrored, on a wider, more popular scale, by the myriad activities of the Islamists of Refah—schools, charities, clinics, self-help organisations of every sort. Energetic and honest, they have laid down their roots like good Islamists everywhere. The most significant sector has been education. The government-established imam hatip schools, now well over 400, were designed to train Islamic clerics. The funding of much of their operation by the Islamic foundations has opened up education to the poorer members of society whose schooling would otherwise have stopped after five years’ state education at age eleven. This success did not produce a surfeit of clerics, but an entire generation qualified to enter the universities or public service.

This first generation is the one whose women donned the veil at university to the howls of the secular establishment. That generation is now out of university and in positions of power, in the professions which were previously reserved for the secular establishment. The mushrooming of Islamic community-based work has also created more jobs, particularly for women, who might otherwise be under pressure to stay at home. Then there has been the huge amount of work generated by Refah, especially in the cities it won in the 1994 municipal elections, which include Ankara and Greater Istanbul itself.

This generation has embraced modernity even as its women covered their heads—sometimes to their cost. Women surgeons and lawyers are forbidden by law to wear the carsaf when working. Sibel Eraslan is one such. Aged thirty, she is a lawyer, a graduate from Istanbul University. She cannot practice, because she maintains her right to cover her head. In 1989 Tayyip Erdogan, president of Refah in Istanbul (now its mayor) invited her to join the party and become head of its newly-formed Women’s Branch. At the time the party had no educated women members and only 7% of the vote. The committee’s job was to target women from the working class suburbs, immigrants from Anatolia, ignored by the other parties.

In 1994 the target group changed, now aiming beyond the Islamist poor to the upper middle class and diluting its radical, Islamist slogans. Refah’s votes leapt to 27% in the local elections, winning 17 of the 33 Istanbul municipalities and control of the Istanbul conurbation. Refah now had 18,000 women activists in Istanbul and 1,265,000 women members (52% of RP members are women).

At that point, after six years of loyal service, Mrs Eraslan left. I felt I had done my job. I was too radical right from the start, We were a movement of protest, involved with the needy. And Refah had set its sights on older, middle-class people. Nonetheless, she remains a leading light in the party, one of the few allowed to give interviews to the press, and then only with special party clearance. The embattled RP had by then had too many bad experiences with insufficiently educated members and biased media. On television, the Islamists appear only on their own channels, such as the nation-wide Channel 7, or on channels they can control.

Mrs Eraslan’s own background was impeccably secular middle-class. My father is a Kemalist; he was a colonel in the army, now he’s a navy captain. We still have a portrait of Ataturk hanging up at home. The family has been in Iskidar (one of the bastions of secularism) for 300 years. So yes, my activities have caused family problems. Now she lives in Umraniye, a featureless, working class suburb on the Asian side of Greater Istanbul—one of the many such neighbourhoods that grew up to house the Anatolian immigration which over 30 years has swollen the population from 2 to 12 million and produced for Islamism.

Like so many of her peers, Sibel Eraslan turned to Islamic activism as a protest against the secularists who all but hounded her out when she decided to cover her head in her last year of university. Her beliefs are those of her generation of specifically Turkish Islamists. They are strongly influenced by Western education: At Istanbul University everyone admired Western philosophy a lot. At the end of the 1980s all the post-modernists were just being translated into Turkish. It made me think and look at other philosophies. I read Sayyid Qutb and Mawdudi, Hassan al Banna and Ghazali (7) . They attached so much importance to the question of the state because of their situation... But Turkey is different from their countries. There’s an Anatolian discourse which is different from the Arab one.. I was influenced by these people until I read the Koran. The Koran’s only got two verses about the state—it’s the individual that is important and personal purification. I think there should be a contract between the individual and state as to what system they want... Sheriat is not a policy for a state: it’s a way of life... As far as I’m concerned nationality and passport has no importance.

It’s a new way of thinking and it’s caused problems with the party. Exactly so. Mainstream political Islam, in Turkey as elsewhere, accepts the (Western) nation-state though rejecting its cultural values. But Sibel Eraslan and other Islamist intellectuals (such as Ali Bulac, Ismet Ozel, Rasim Ozdendoren, Ilhan Kutluer) see this model of an Islamic state as the mirror image of the secular state, not a departure from it... Modernity transformed the umma into a state, and therein lie all the problems.... (6). They would like to see, not a state, but a series of self-governing communities—a loose and ill-defined concept which has not prevented them from joining ranks with Refah.

Sibel Eraslan’s own discourse is a mixture of avowed feminism and ideas of the left, with religion thrown in. She acknowledges as much: The Islamists are doing what the left should have done.... I have a great sympathy for the left. Then: I absolutely want positions for women in the RP: that’s why I’m in the party. The older leaders of Refah need these top-class women intellectuals and professionals, but will they continue working in the party without an increasing share of power? Mrs Eraslan thinks women have to work four times harder than men to fight on four different fronts: the state, a macho society, Islamic men and, last, other women.

These other, secular women, headed by Sirin Tekele, are hurrying to catch her up. On 6 April 1997 they launched a cross-party movement to promote women to run as members of parliament. It is called Kader, standing for Kadin Dernegi (Women’s Association) and also, according to its acronym, Destiny. Despite its secular platform, some of its members are calling for a redefinition of secularism which could include conservative Muslim women. Sibel Eraslan has been approached. But the gap is still too wide. Is it likely to get narrower? Perhaps, for the reason that secular Turks can no longer dismiss their devout compatriots.

For one of the most positive results of the Islamists’ success in the 1995 elections has without doubt been a flowering of secular civil society. Supervised study areas for children, conservation, charitable work, self-help of every kind, the secular are now doing what the Islamists have done before them. Concerned that their freedoms are in danger, they now admit We should have been doing all this 30 years ago. Whether they will be able to do so effectively remains to be seen.

But certainly there is an opportunity to reform the bankruptcy of secular politics. If there is no obvious successor to Ozal waiting in the wings, there is, unlike anywhere else in the Middle East region, a long-established democratic political system through which all manner of voices can make themselves reasonably heard.

Had Turgut Ozal not suddenly died in 1993, it is certain that the Islamists would not have have come to power in Turkey two years later. For Ozal was able to mobilise wide support to ANAP and his vision of a vigorous, classless country, open to all. After his death Refah replaced ANAP as the main political channel (though far from the only one) through which Anatolian voices could make themselves heard and express a religious identity. It also harnessed the energy of a younger generation with its own leaders-in-waiting.

If the ideology of this generation is a touch simplistic (Islamic communities taking over from the nation-state), they are nonetheless informed by an impressive knowledge of Western as well as Islamic thought. Pluralism, human rights, freedom, social justice are their slogans. Islamist intellectuals, feminists, high-flying professionals, Anatolian entrepreneurs, all the elements of Turkish Islam are harnessing the unstoppable vigour of modern Turkey to bridge the gap separating the newcomers from Asia Minor from the Istanbul elites. Will the secular establishment rise to their challenge?


(1) The Refah Partisi, founded in 1983 by Necmettin Erbakan, had the largest share of the vote (28.73%) in the December 1995 elections, winning 158 parliamentary seats out of 550. Read $(B!H(BCrise du pouvoir en Turquie$(B!I(B, Le Monde diplomatique, June 1996.

(2) Turgut Ozal founded ANAP in 1983 and was elected prime minister that same year, winning 47% of the vote in the first elections after military rule (1980-83). He became president in 1991 and died in office in 1993.

(3) Korkut Ozal, brother of the late president, remains a powerful Nakshibandi voice (and has close ties to Saudi Arabia). The order was closely linked to the foundation of the National Salvation Party (forerunner of the RP) under Necmettin Erbakan. When Ozal was in power, Nakshi support moved to ANAP. Since his death, support is (unofficially) divided between ANAP and the RP.

(4) The followers of Said Nursi, opposed to the reforms of Mustapha Kemal in the 1920s.

(5) See Ertugrul Kurkcu, The Crisis of the Turkish State, Middle East Report, no. 199, Washington DC, April-June 1996.

(6) See Sami Zubaida, Turkish Islam and National Identity, Middle East Report, op. cit.

(7) Hassan al-Banna from Egypt was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1929; Sayyid Qutb, taking over from Banna, was the inspiration of radical Islamists; Abul Ala Mawdudi, from Pakistan, was an islamic activist in the 40’s. Al Ghazali was a medieval Muslim thinker (1058-1111).

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