INTERVIEW: Özlem Madi-Şişman on Muslims, money and democracy in Turkey

INTERVIEW: Özlem Madi-Şişman on Muslims, money and democracy in Turkey

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Özlem Madi-Şişman on Muslims, money and democracy in Turkey

In its early years, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seemed to break new ground with its combination of Islamist origins, pro-business savvy and appeals to aspirational middle-class economic demands. Optimistic observers believed that the rise of a new Islam-oriented middle class, apparently motoring the AKP’s politics, was a sign that democracy was becoming consolidated in Turkey in the early 2000s.

Things did not work out so simply. “Muslims, Money and Democracy in Turkey” by Özlem Madi-Şişman of the University of Houston Clear Lake examines how the formation of a neo-Islamist bourgeoisie class did not in fact help to consolidate democracy in Turkey. It also explores how various religiously conservative businesspeople have tried to negotiate the tricky terrain of capitalism on their own terms, including the small industrial group the Venture Economics and Business Ethics Association (İGİAD).

Madi-Şişman spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about her book (reviewed in HDN here) and her on-the-ground research with members of İGİAD.


Summarize the main argument in your book.

Many social theories emphasize the importance of the middle class and its role in the emergence and consolidation of democracy. In the social sciences there is an affirmative approach to middle class dynamics that rests on the assumption that a highly developed, urban and educated middle class would temper conflict in society by rewarding moderate and democratic choices, helping the transition to democracy. We saw this happening in the 1970s and 80s in Brazil, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea and Spain. That's why it's often argued that capitalist economic development - even if it takes place under an authoritarian regime - tends to create a large and autonomous middle class, and that in return this class becomes a major force in democratization.

But Turkey has never had an independent bourgeois class throughout its history. Turkey always had problems with creating an independent bourgeoisie, because that bourgeois class was always created and sustained by the state. If you compare the former Turkish state-sponsored secular bourgeoisie with the Western bourgeoisie, the former always lacked an independent and revolutionary character. Although the secular bourgeoisie had economic and cultural capital, because of its detached character from the rest of society it couldn’t reshape the values and aspirations of much of society.

So when the new "Anatolian Tigers," conservative industrialists, started to emerge, the hope was that they would be the force that would help the consolidation of democracy in Turkey. But when we look at what happened, we see the formation of another state-bound, state-created bourgeoisie, this time created by the AKP government. As the AKP moves away from the EU membership process, its rules and regulations, we see that this Islamic bourgeoisie hasn't really helped consolidate democracy.

In the book I give the example of rising star names of the Islamic bourgeoisie - Ethem Sancak, Cihan Kamer, Mehmet Cengiz. They don't only have political relations and religious bonds with the government; they also have personalized relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. So we see that another bourgeoisie has emerged, but it is again organically linked to the government as well as Erdoğan as an individual.

In all this, the AKP almost imitates the ideology of the Kemalist regime of the 1930s, turning it upside down now the ruling class is not made up of Kemalist secularists anymore. The AKP has similarly been trying to restructure society from the top down, excluding non-supporters and creating ideal citizens. In all of this, the Islamic bourgeoisie becomes instrumental.


People at various points have predicted that a truly autonomous middle class is about to emerge in Turkey. Why have these expectations always been frustrated?

First of all, this idea comes from a very Eurocentric point of view. The idea that the middle class will be the engine of democratization comes from looking at Western countries, because that’s the way it happened in the West. With the rise of industrialism we saw the emergence of a new bourgeois class, which wanted representation for paying its taxes.

In Turkey, historically we've never had any separate autonomous bourgeoisie. Firstly that is because the state never allowed it, but it’s also because of systemic reasons. Until Turgut Özal in the 1980s Turkey had a policy of import substitution industrialization, in which entrepreneurs had to be organically linked to the state. Then in the 1980s with Özal it started to have export-oriented industrialization. That was when people thought the Anatolian Tigers would be the engine of a new type of system. But that didn't really happen either under Özal or under the AKP. The state has never wanted an autonomous class that could challenge its power. Governments always wanted to create a class that would support them politically, and in return they supported them economically. That's why we've never had, and probably never will have in the coming decades, businesspeople autonomous from the state in Turkey.


In the 1980s and 1990s, the Islamist-based Welfare Party (RP) of Necmettin Erbakan, a precursor of the AKP, was extremely anti-Western and anti-capitalist. It focused on trying to create an alternative Islamic economic model and even adopted some of the language of the left. Then with the AKP under Erdoğan there was a 180-degree shift and the government presented itself as a pro-business supporter of free market capitalism. But once it was in control of the state apparatus it was very happy to use it.

The understanding of capitalism doesn't only change in the party’s rhetoric. It also changes in the minds of many Muslims. The AKP was very instrumental in this because until very recently its rhetoric didn't resemble the anti-Western, anti-capitalist language of the RP. For the book I didn't only speak with İGİAD people, I also spoke with many members of the conservative Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association [MÜSİAD]. When I asked them how they conceptualized capitalism they often said things like "there are many different kinds of capitalism. The [Turkish Industry and Business Association] TÜSİAD is an example of 'wild capitalism.' But we as pious Muslims are trying to survive in the capitalist system by injecting some Islamic morality." So they were trying to create a new kind of capitalism. They particularly focused on things like consumption patterns, defining what is "waste," or israf, and what is "need," or ihtiyaç, and making sure their companies don't take any credit from conventional banks bur rather use Islamic banks. That is why İGİAD was established.


Perhaps the most original focus of your research is with İGİAD, which is a trade organization with members mostly in the construction and textile sectors. These are businesspeople concerned about Islamic principles and morals. Talk about this aspect of your research. Why was İGİAD important to consider?

I started my research with MÜSİAD but then I started to meet people from İGİAD. They started to talk about themselves and I found it fascinating. İGİAD started as a result of dissatisfaction with MÜSİAD, as some people thought MÜSİAD was not living piously enough or following Islamic moral rules closely enough. İGİAD was established by eight businessmen in 2003 and it was one of the most ambitious and systematic organizational attempts to address these challenges: How are we going to survive as pious Muslims in the capitalist world?

What makes İGİAD peculiar is that some of its members define themselves as "ex-radicals." Many of them said that a couple of decades ago they completely refused to vote for any political parties, including the RP. They thought that voting could help perpetuate an un-Islamic system. They also weren't taking part in mainstream religious practice - they weren't attending Friday prayers and weren't members of any Sufi tariqats [religious orders]. İGİAD is also deliberately a very egalitarian association; it says it has members from all walks of life - including entrepreneurs and workers from the same company. They say they are a "classless association" that believes in a "classless society." They also have a minimum wage policy that is strongly encouraged, so every year the association determines a minimum wage that is around two times the level of what the government determines. Employers are strongly encouraged to pay this minimum wage to their employees.

They basically want to act as capitalists in business but remain moral individuals. Compared to MÜSİAD, for example, İGİAD members are much more puritanical and modest. Throughout my interviews with them I never saw any office that was decorated with luxurious or stylish furniture. That's why the title of the book is "Reluctant Capitalists." They say their aim is to shape capitalism, but I'm not sure they aren't aware that capitalism also shapes them through consumption patterns, class and identity.


İGİAD keeps a very low profile and many people may not have even heard of it. Is that a deliberate strategy?

I think so. When I ask them why they don't open up new branches or use social media more effectively, they say they don't want to end up like TUSKON or MÜSİAD or other bigger groups. They are worried that if they get bigger, that's when problems arise. To become a member of İGİAD, you need a recommendation and reference from two other members. It's almost a Masonic structure in that sense.


Is there any organic connection between İGİAD and the AKP?

The last time I spoke to them was summer 2016. Most of them were saying that they deliberately, consciously avoid doing business with the government. Why I asked why, they said that when the state is involved there may always be some sort of corruption that you can't avoid. That's kind of paradoxical because when I asked whether Erdoğan should do something about corruption cases they always expressed support for him and said he cannot possibly be corrupt.

If you do business with the government it also means you must do business through conventional banks, which they don't want to do. So as far as I know none of the İGİAD member companies have any direct connection to the government. At least on the rhetorical level they want to be mentioned as a civil society organization.

But I was actually interviewing İGİAD members on the day after the July 2016 coup attempt. They heavily borrowed the rhetoric of the president and the AKP about these issues. On corruption cases, they saw FETÖ as solely responsible and completely denied that the president could ever be corrupted. Although they try not to have any direct relations with the state, they have internalized the government's rhetoric and agree with its policies.

islam, William Armstrong,