The mobilization of Turkish Islamism

The mobilization of Turkish Islamism

The mobilization of Turkish Islamism ‘The Mobilization of Political Islam in Turkey’ by Banu Eligür (Cambridge University Press, $32, 317 pages)

Mention the Turkish military to the casual outside observer and the response “secular” usually comes as reliably as the salivation of Pavlov’s Dog. The Kemalist military has indeed long posed as secularism’s last line of defense in Turkey, but scratch the surface and you find that it has played all kinds of paradoxical historical roles. For all the current Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) zeal to cast political Islam as number one victim of Turkey’s history of coups, the party itself is actually one of the biggest long-term beneficiaries of the Sept. 12, 1980 intervention. As Banu Eligür explains in this richly detailed study, in the long run, the military-supported policies to “Islamify” the Turkish state in the years after that coup inadvertently helped the AKP and its Islamist forerunners come to power. Political Islam is often characterized as a territorially fluid, border-crossing phenomenon, but Eligür’s excellent book pays deserved attention to the crucial social, political and economic context that facilitated its rise in Turkey. Splits in the Islamic constituency have since been revealed by the current turf war between the AKP and the Gülen movement; time will tell whether these schisms herald the beginning of the end of political Islam in Turkey.

The 1980 coup was justified by the military as a move to prevent a slide into civil war after a period of intense violence between radical groups of left and right. From 1975 to 1980, some 5,000 people and three times as many were injured in political clashes. Assassinations, bank robberies, kidnappings and bombings were a regular occurrence, and by the summer of 1980 politically motivated killings had reached a rate of 20 per day. The military stepped in amid broad public support, but its campaign to steady the ship was itself extraordinarily brutal: 650,000 people were arrested; 1,683,000 prosecutions were prepared; 517 people were sentenced to death (49 of these sentences were carried out); 30,000 were fired from their jobs for holding political views incompatible with the state; 14,000 had their citizenship revoked; 667 associations and foundations were banned; torture was widespread. All this is striking enough, but it was what the military junta promoted in subsequent years that would go on to have the most profound long-term effects on Turkish society.

In its bid to stabilize the country, legitimize the state, and counter the threat of leftist radicalism, the military authorities turned to what they called the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis. As Eligür writes, the plan was essentially to utilize Sunni Islam to create an “Islamic sense of community and prevent a recurrence of ideological clashes and the political violence of the 1970s.” While always viewing explicitly Islamist groups with suspicion, the military regarded Sunni Islam as a unifying instrument against anarchy and as the source of the nation’s moral life. The Turkish-Islamic Synthesis was originally formulated by the right-wing nationalist Intellectual Hearths (Aydınlar Ocakları) in the 1970s, but after the 1980 coup it rose to become the de facto state ideology. In practice, this meant more than just General Kenan Evren reciting Quranic verses during public speeches. It also meant huge budget increases for the Religious Affairs Directorate, rapid building of new mosques and opening of Quran courses, the introduction of mandatory religion classes in state schools (only on Sunni Islam), more tolerance for religious bureaucrats, active encouragement of religious organizations, and a widening of opportunities for graduates of religious imam hatip high schools. In this way, the professedly secular military “tactically open[ed] up a social and political space for Islamist mobilization in Turkey.”

Nevertheless, in the first general election held after the intervention (in 1983), the major Islamist party - Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party (RP) – was barred from running. With the priority on stability, the military authorities allowed only three parties to run. Emerging victorious was Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party (ANAP), a loose coalition encompassing right-wing, conservative, liberal, bourgeois Anatolian and Islamist interests. However, while the premium that ANAP placed on loyalty to the leader was fairly orthodox for a conservative Turkish party, the economic measures that Özal pursued were more radical. An economic adjustment program for Turkey had been announced by the IMF eight months before the coup, and ANAP went on to pursue it enthusiastically with the military’s backing. It ended Turkey’s import substitution policies and adopted an outward-oriented growth strategy based on export production. The lira was devalued to maintain the competitiveness of Turkish exports, while huge financial inflows from newly-established Saudi and Kuwaiti banks stimulated the country’s Islamist business class.

The new economic order was prone to crisis, however, and Erbakan’s RP was able to exploit this political opportunity in the late 80s and early 90s. Materialism spread, conspicuous consumption became the vogue, urbanization accelerated, and “gecekondu” shanty towns mushroomed in Turkey’s largest cities, resulting in social atomization and alienation. In response, the RP established its “Just Order” (Adil Düzen) slogan and articulated a populist economic rhetoric beyond Islam. It argued that the bad economic situation and the idea of materialism were leading to moral decay in society, manifest in prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, and corruption. The RP may have been uncompromising in its calls for the application of sharia law, but the more the state appeared to be malfunctioning in the 1990s, the more Erbakan’s “Just Order” appealed as an attractive alternative to disaffected citizens who had previously been voting for mainstream political parties. The RP also had a very sophisticated and well-oiled grassroots operation, and Eligür’s book goes into great detail about the organizational methods and discipline of its on-the-ground activists – something today’s opposition in Turkey could learn much from. Supported by the rapidly developing entrepreneurial elites and businesses of the Islamist social movement, the party was able to establish itself in key local municipal administrations in the early 1990s. From that bedrock, it propelled itself to attract the highest share of the vote in 1995’s fragmented general election.

The military was increasingly uncomfortable with the rise of political Islam, but the RP’s success was a consecration of sorts for policies that the military had itself encouraged through the 1980s. The party was simply planting seeds in soil that had already been made fertile by the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis. However, as the majority partner in an unwieldy governing coalition, it overestimated its strength vis-à-vis the secular state structure. The subsequent 1997 “postmodern” coup can be seen as the Kemalist military’s attempt to strangle the monster it had helped create - an intense months-long anti-Islamist campaign that eventually forced Erbakan from power. But the intervention could only be a temporary measure. The Islamist movement was too firmly established in the country to be eliminated. In 1997, Eligür writes:

[T]he Islamist business class was already in control of half of Turkey’s gross domestic product. In 1997, the Islamists owned 19 newspapers, 110 magazines, 51 radio stations, 20 TV channels, 2,500 associations, 500 foundations, more than a thousand companies, 1,200 dormitories, and more than 800 private schools … Moreover, thousands of Islamists had entered the state bureaucracies.

Equally important was the fact that the intervention could redress neither the characteristics of the malfunctioning state, nor the inability of mainstream political parties to solve its problems. Islamist parties therefore maintained their appeal. After a further period of unstable coalition government and another catastrophic financial collapse, the AKP – a professedly moderate wing that rose from the ashes of the RP - was able to capitalize and win the 2002 general election with 34 percent of the vote.

Back in the late 1980s, one of the RP’s most effective rhetorical tools was its robust anti-corruption message, which distinguished it from discredited mainstream parties. Ali Nabi Kocak, one-time RP mayor for the conservative stronghold district of Sultanbeyli in Istanbul, went as far as to say that “one who is bribed and who bribes in evil … one who prays five times a day knows that he will give an account on the day of judgment. Thus, he will not receive a bribe and will not steal.” The AKP similarly built on an image of religiously-guided moral probity, but recent events - sex tapes, corruption, wiretaps, blackmail - have made it clear that it is just as venal as the traditional elite. Venality is almost seen as a requirement to stay in government, and Turkey’s Islamists are no more resistant to the temptations of power than anyone else.

Notable recent release


‘The Ottoman Empire and the Bosnian Uprising: Janissaries, Modernisation and Rebellion in the Nineteenth Century’ by Fatma Sel Turhan

(I.B. Tauris, £59, 336 pages)