Muslims, money and democracy in Turkey
In September, Ayşe Böhürler, a founding member of Turkey’s ruling AKP, noted with concern that youths from conservative backgrounds in the country were losing interest in religion. Writing in the government-linked Yeni Şafak newspaper, Böhürler counterintuitively suggested that Islam was losing its prestige following the AKP’s domination of government since 2002, with the social value of religiosity decreasing even among the Islamist elite.
The rise of an Islam-oriented middle class was among the narratives surrounding the rise and early successes of the AKP in the early 2000s. The party seemed to break new ground with its combination of Islamist origins, pro-business savvy and appeals to aspirational middle-class economic demands. Optimists predicted that the neo-Islamist bourgeoisie class would consolidate an advanced democracy in Turkey. “Muslims, Money, and Democracy in Turkey” by Özlem Madi-Şişman, a political scientist at University of Houston-Clear Lake, examines how this did not in fact happen. To the contrary, 15 years after the AKP first came to power an authoritarian regime is firmly entrenched in power.
Madi-Şişman suggests that Turkey’s recent trajectory refutes a central principle of liberal modernization theory. That theory sees a “sizable middle class,” independent from the state and with demands and interests autonomous from ruling authority, as “the guarantor of a sustainable democracy.” Applied to Turkey, it was once hoped that the AKP would enlarge the public space and close the distance between the masses and the state. “This convergence was expected to bring social peace and stability as well as the integration of ‘the real values’ of the masses into the political realm,” writes Madi-Şişman.
Reality has proven otherwise. With the new economic and political realignment under the AKP government, the new class has gradually lost its independence and potential democratic and revolutionary power. It integrated comfortably with the state and was happy to use its levers in favor of its own presumed interests. What was once hoped could be a revolutionary democratic class has adapted to and exacerbated the most undemocratic and instincts of the Turkish state. To a degree more centralized and uncompromising than before, under the AKP “state resources are distributed in accordance with patrimonial and clientelistic principles.”
We could argue that this actually conforms with liberal democratization theory. The bourgeois middle class retains its revolutionary democratic potential if it remains distant from the coercive and over-mighty state. In Turkey, the neo-Islamist middle class lost its democratic potential when it became dependent on the state. “Over time the party began to shape business life and assisted the strengthening of the Islamist bourgeoisie through various means. The new class accumulated money and power thanks to their privileged relationship with the government,” writes Madi-Şişman.
But it is wrong to so neatly separate the “Islamist bourgeoisie” from “the state.” Ever since it emerged in the 1960s and 70s, the Islamist right-wing has always had a stronger presence in the state than conventional wisdom suggests. There were secularist factions that always opposed Islamists’ presence, but it is naïve to posit the Turkish state and the Islamists as being historical opponents. This was particularly true after the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” pushed by the authorities after the 1980 military coup.
It is also questionable just how influential the new Islamic middle class is as the dominant political motor in Turkey today. This class has indeed been important, and has gotten plenty of attention, but the overwhelming majority of more prosperous Turkish citizens remain secular-oriented. The majority of conservative supporters of Erdoğan and the ruling AKP remain lower class, and the pursuit to consolidate these votes explains much about Erdoğan’s populist trajectory in recent years.
But still there is plenty to learn from “Muslims, Money, and Democracy in Turkey.” Madi-Şişman’s most original research focuses on a series of interviews with members of the Venture Economics and Business Ethics Association (İGİAD), a conservative business group with members mainly in the construction and textile sectors. İGİAD is much smaller than fellow business groups TÜSİAD and MÜSİAD, and explicitly says its aim is to combine economic competitiveness with the high morality of Islamic ethics, setting an example for Turkey as a whole.
İGİAD is in a sense a throwback to the Welfare Party (RP) of Necmettin Erbakan, the Islamist precursor of the AKP in the 1990s. The RP was fiercely anti-Western and highly skeptical of capitalism, trying to create a new, alternative Islamic economic model. Instead, what we have in today’s Turkey is an increasingly authoritarian state capitalist model. And hopes that an independent middle class would motor liberal democratization in the country now look very naïve.