The rise of political Islam in Turkey

The rise of political Islam in Turkey

William Armstrong -
The rise of political Islam in Turkey

DHA photo

‘The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey: Urban Poverty, Grassroots Activism and Islamic Fundamentalism’ by Kayhan Delibaş (I.B. Tauris, 344 pages, £68)

The rise of political Islam in Turkey and the Middle East is hardly an under-examined subject. Endless articles, academic papers and books are churned out to feed an insatiable demand for work in the area. Into this cacophony steps Turkish academic Kayhan Delibaş, whose new book examines the advance of political Islam in Turkey in the 1980s and 90s. Delibaş makes a plea for objectivity throughout, saying he seeks to examine the causes of the rise of Islamism in Turkey “rather than dealing with appearances.” It is not, he writes, his goal to “judge, condemn or defend the Islamists’ worldview.” The book strives to be academic in a particular sense of the word: For Delibaş, political Islam in Turkey is neither good nor bad, it simply is.

HDN“The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey” is divided into two broad sections. The first details how Turkish politics and society in the latter decades of the 20th century provided the necessary conditions for the growth of Islamist parties. The second explains how those parties were able to capitalize on this opportunity through grassroots activism and service provision, which the author observed through qualitative research on the ground with Islamist activists in the suburbs of the capital Ankara. The results are very impressive, though the book is not without flaws.

After 1970, Turkey was rocked by a series of socio-economic shifts. Urbanization that had been ongoing for decades accelerated throughout the 1980s, prompted largely by an economic restructuring plan recommended by the IMF after the military coup d’état of 1980. In less than 20 years after 1980, Turkey’s urban population more than doubled from 19.6 million in 1980 to 40.8 million in 1997. The nature of the economic measures meant that post-1980 mass migration was motored more by rural push than by urban pull, meaning that many of the new migrants were unable to find work or were trapped in insecure, low-paid jobs. Major cities expanded well beyond their physical boundaries, with settlements of makeshift “built overnight” (gecekondu) housing springing up everywhere. The waves of migration exhausted the industrial and service sectors, overwhelming already scarce resources for housing, health, education, and local services. Turkish workers also experienced a drastic drop in real wages and a sharp rise in inequality.

The mainstream center-right and center-left parties were helpless in the face of these tides, unable to speak to the growing constituency of disaffected new urbanites. Decimated by the coup and restricted by the conditions that the military regime later imposed, the major parties failed (and were generally unwilling) to forge organic local connections through people on the ground. As the years progressed, Turkey’s political landscape became increasingly fragmented and voters found themselves disillusioned with mainstream parties who failed to solve bread and butter issues.

Into this vacuum stepped the Islamists. From the late 1980s, the Welfare Party (RP) of Necmettin Erbakan established its power base in the alienated gecekondu neighborhoods on the urban fringes. The Islamists developed a political rhetoric that combined a comforting cultural identity with a populist “Just Order” (Adil Düzen) economic program. In the words of Delibaş,

the RP saw the problem and developed policies and a political rhetoric that addressed the social, cultural and economic problems of the gecekondu masses. It gave the new migrants an identity, and an avenue through which they could participate in politics; they could air their opinions and express their grievances against the establishment.

The RP seemed to be the only party that cared about the problems of the urban poor, and “emerged as the ‘one guardian’ of the exploited, poverty stricken urban masses … [combining] religious and class appeal.” Islam offered the swelling ranks of the urban poor a sense of fraternity and cultural values that helped them to overcome the threat of the city environment. The urban fringe became the platform from which the RP was catapulted to national prominence, and the party seized both Istanbul and Ankara against all expectations in 1994.

Crucial in developing the party’s appeal were vast and well-oiled grassroots organizations and local branches. The most original part of Delibaş’s book is its second half, which details his primary research on the ground in the Ankara districts of Keçiören and Mamak, watching activists of the RP’s successor, the Virtue Party (FP). Before the RP was closed down after the “post-modern coup” of 1997, it had acquired a massive 4 million members; although the coup removed the Islamists from power, the deep organizational roots they had planted in local districts remained strong. These on-the-ground networks would later be inherited and developed by today’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Most activists operated in gecekondu and low-cost housing neighborhoods with low-quality public services. They developed a kind of social security network providing material and non-material aid, not only dropping in during election campaigns but remaining embedded in neighborhoods. They struck up relationships and become active residents within communities, visiting households for social gatherings, wedding celebrations, wakes, and funerals. The RP seemed to be the only party on the ground talking to people, listening to their problems and grievances, and its activists were able to cultivate a receptive audience for the party’s message. Crucially, the Islamists were fulfilling a role that parts of the left, decimated by the 1980 coup, had previously played. As one assistant to an FP district mayor in Ankara tells Delibaş: “It was the left who used to welcome those newly migrated people from rural areas to the big cities. They used to build some of their houses to show solidarity and find them jobs. But later the leftist parties stopped doing this. Instead of the left, now the [FP’s] cadres have been doing these things.” Also important were the Islamists’ innovative youth and women’s branches, which could take their parties’ message directly into homes, gathering in places that their rivals did not even think about reaching.

The book’s research is well-marshalled and its conclusions are convincing, enlightening an underappreciated factor of why today’s AKP retains the loyalty and trust of vast sections of Turkey’s poorer sections of society. But it still misses some key points. Delibaş conducted his research at the end of the 1990s and start of the 2000s, but he does not address the critical changes that have since taken place. It is true that the Islamist parties of the 90s capitalized on discontent and alienation from rapid neoliberal restructuring, but the AKP has been a keen supporter of neoliberalism and was eager to continue IMF-recommended reforms after 2002. Islamists rose to power by striking a chord with demands for social justice and equality, and the feeling that the system had let people down, but what now that they are nominally in charge of that system? The RP once promised a “Just Order” to clean up a corrupt and discredited old politics, but what now that serious allegations of corruption are leveled at the AKP? Are identity politics so strong in Turkey that such scandals don’t matter, so long as “our people” are in power? Delibaş suggests that Islamism appealed to a constituency disillusioned with the patronage-based politics of mainstream parties, but today the AKP is sustained by lucrative clientelistic networks developed over its 12 years in government, as well as through its sophisticated and far-reaching ground-level operation. Addressing these contradictions falls outside Delibaş’s purview, so the book sometimes feels slightly limited.

Nevertheless, this remains an impressive and deeply researched study. Amid countless other things being written on the subject, it’s certainly a must read for those interested in the rise of political Islam in general - and in Turkey specifically.