The Political Uses of Islam in Turkey

by Ronnie Margulies , Ergin Yildizoğlu
published in MER153

For the past several years, the Turkish press has seemed obsessed with irtica, a word of Arabic origin meaning religious reaction and obscurantism. The media has reported incident after incident in which hoca and imam urged their followers not to stray from the path of true Islam, where men and women were not allowed to sit in the same classrooms, where secularism and Atatürk came under explicit attack.

Milliyet enumerated nine activist religious organizations which, it claimed, are growing in strength. Some are pro-Iranian: Hizb al-Islam (Party of Islam), the Islamic Jihad Organization and Hizb al-Tahrir (Freedom Party). Some are militant religious orders (tarikat) which have long been active in Turkey, each with a sizeable following -- the Nurcu, the Süleymanci and the Nakibendi. Another daily, Cumhuriyet, reported somewhat worriedly that the Qurans printed by the Department of Religious Affairs in Ankara sell 600,000 copies a year.

The alarm bells about the “challenge to secularism” rang even more loudly when President Kenan Evren, a number of high-ranking public officials and the opposition parties all drew attention to the rise of irtica. “We have been observing that reactionary and religious organizations have been raising their level of activity under a variety of guises,” Evren told an Istanbul University opening ceremony in 1986. “We are following these developments closely. I would like to urge you all to be vigilant and on your guard. Our universities must become strongholds against religious conservatism and reaction.” Several days later, in a televised address to a large crowd in Kayseri, he warned the public that the dangers facing Turkey were “communism, fascism and religious reaction.” He was clearly incensed at suggestions that he, as leader of the nation, should lead Friday prayers.

These developments have also aroused considerable interest in the West, where the Iranian revolution is fresh in everyone’s mind. In fact, it makes little sense to see events in Turkey in the light of the Iranian revolution. Sections of the Turkish right have undoubtedly been influenced by developments in Iran, but Islamist movements in Turkey have a long history and material circumstances of their own.

The Western view of Islam as a religion conducive to mass revolutionary, anti-Western mobilization is ahistorical and one-dimensional. Islam has played both stabilizing and destabilizing roles; it has served as a banner for rebellion as well as oppression. Where it is the official state religion (in the Ottoman Empire, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and now Iran), Islam constitutes part of the state mechanism and legitimization. In these conditions, a fundamentalist Islam represents a framework for oppression and class exploitation.

Unofficial Islam has throughout history frequently expressed popular protest. Where the state generally claimed to represent orthodox Islam, unofficial Islam often assumed unorthodox, sectarian or mystic forms to challenge the center’s religious and political legitimacy. Ottoman history abounds with examples of this: Bedreddin-i Simavni (1368-1420), a mystic philosopher, for instance, attracted a mass following with doctrines advocating equality and a fair distribution of wealth, and was attacked by the official religious establishment as a heretic. Similarly, the Celali revolts which shook Anatolia in the 16th and 17th centuries were started by a Safavid preacher who claimed to be the mahdi (messiah) and attracted a mass following of peasants and urban elements discontented with the high level of government taxation. Both Bedreddin and Celal attempted to claim religious authority in their bid to overthrow political authority.

Secular Republic/Underground Islam

At the end of the 19th century, Sultan Abdulhamid tried to pull his crumbling empire together by playing the pan-Islamic card, demonstrating the function official Islam was expected to fill. With the foundation of the Republic in 1923, the Ottoman state’s position as the world’s leading Islamic power came to an end. The new state was established as secular: there was no official religion, and religiosity was distinctly frowned upon.

For the founders of the new state, the struggle against religion was part and parcel of their struggle against the ancien regime. The leading cadres of the new republic were veterans of a long struggle of the nascent Turkish bourgeoisie against the Ottoman ruling class. Their first measures amounted to a direct assault on the power of this old ruling class. They abolished the caliphate, with its national and international religious function. They abolished the office of seyhülislam and the ministry of religious foundations, replacing the latter with minor departments of religious affairs and religious foundations. They purged the Ottoman ulema class from the state apparatus and transferred the revenues of pious foundations’ (vakif) properties to the treasury, thus depriving the ulema of its source of income. They abolished shar‘ia courts and pensioned off their judges (kadi), thus eliminating the ulema’s judicial role. The abolition of the entire system of religious schools, dervish lodges (tekke) and cells (zaviye) helped sever the Ottoman ruling class’ contact with the populace. These measures did not chiefly aim to establish secularism, but to cripple the ability of the old ruling class to organize and fight back.

At the same time the nature of the new regime did not require it to create its own version of an official Islam. The historical conditions which forged the character of the Kemalist movement did not include a mass, popular movement of opposition to the ancien regime. The problem of establishing ideological hegemony over such a movement, for instance by putting forward an alternative official Islam, did not arise. Rather, the Kemalists were attempting to create a Turkish national identity which then hardly existed in people’s minds. Islam, with no national boundaries, stood in contradiction to a movement aimed at constructing a Turkish nation-state.

Following the establishment of a secular republic, Islamist movements continued to play a role in rallying popular discontent and opposition to the central state. Such movements now could argue that the center was godless and hostile to Islam. In the early years, when the Kemalist hold on power was still tenuous, several riots and uprisings occurred where popular opposition took on an Islamic guise. [1] The state, for its part, could now condemn “opponents either as reactionaries if they came from the uneducated lower social strata or as subversive elements if they came from the intelligentsia.” [2]

Islam in the Multi-Party Era

The post-WWII period put the question of class co-optation squarely onto the agenda of the Turkish state. Merchants, the dominant class force in the country, had emerged from the war immensely richer in both urban and rural areas. Wishing to invest freely and circulate their accumulated capital, they chafed at the fetters imposed by the Kemalist bureaucracy and searched for alternatives to its etatism. In the consequent differentiation of the ruling class, this section found its political expression in the Democrat Party (DP).

At the same time, the shortages and hardships caused by the war and compounded by government policies and emergency measures had alienated large sections of the peasantry. This was the situation as the transition to a multiparty regime in 1946 assigned “the electorate” an importance it had never had. The rural vote became all-important. The program of the newly-formed DP was hardly distinguishable ideologically from that of the ruling Republican People’s Party (RPP). One element of slight differentiation, though, was the new party’s attitude towards religion. The DP program merely demanded greater respect for religion and less government intervention in religious affairs. Nevertheless, as so often in the past, this proved sufficient to mobilize large segments of the population and incorporate many Islamic elements.

The DP’s popularity forced the RPP also to court the religious vote. In 1949, the government established official courses for prayer leaders and preachers. It introduced optional courses in religious education in elementary schools and approved the establishment of a faculty of theology later in the same year.

In effect, the decade of DP rule (1950-60) saw the expansion and consolidation of Islam’s place in official political life of the country. Once again the call to prayer could be read in Arabic (this had been banned under Atatürk). The radio regularly broadcast recitations of the Quran. Courses on religion were introduced in secondary schools and an Institute of Islamic Studies was established. [3] The list is neither long nor outrageous. The atmosphere, however, had changed: Islam was no longer frowned upon. Islamic sects remained illegal, but were in fact tolerated and edged their way onto the political scene. Saidi Nursi, leader of the Nurcu sect, publicly stated that he would vote for the DP.

Until the end of the 1960s, Islam’s profile in official politics continued to increase without assuming any decisive weight. One reason is that the DP and its successor Justice Party (JP) were able to implement economic policies which met basic demands of agrarian producers. Rising prices for cereals on the world market and several consecutive years of good harvests brought unprecedented prosperity to the countryside. Extensive state investment in infrastructural projects brought roads, electricity and water to countless villages. Cheap credit and favorable prices enabled farmers to expand production; agricultural output increased dramatically throughout the 1950s. Domestic trade expanded correspondingly, much to the satisfaction of the provincial bourgeoisie of merchants, traders and middlemen. The 1950s and 1960s were a prosperous time for the peasantry and provincial middle classes, the two classes which would constitute the popular base of any Islamic resurgence.

The National Salvation Party

In the late 1960s, though, the economic and political landscape of the country started undergoing dramatic changes. It was as if some time around 1968 history had speeded up. The rapid industrialization and rural-urban migration of the prior decades now led to rising waves of workers’ activity. In the countryside, demonstrations and land occupations indicated growing peasant militancy. A part of the radical student movement transformed itself into urban guerrilla groups with little popular support but a high and violent profile.

The economic crisis of the late 1960s wrought a number of dislocations in the existing balance of class forces. The interests of big business, mostly based in Istanbul, organized in large holding companies and closely linked to foreign capital, began to clash with the interests of small and medium provincial capital. The Justice Party gradually assumed an identity as the party of big business and consequently lost the support of other constituencies, giving rise to a number of smaller parties. One of these, the National Order Party (later the National Salvation Party, or NSP), emerged as the first party in many decades to openly espouse an Islamist political philosophy. The party’s first congress, in 1970, echoed with cries of "Allah-u-ekber."

The rise of the National Salvation Party signaled the return of Islam as a rallying cry for socioeconomic opposition to the central authority. The party’s electoral support was based on artisans, small traders and other persons of low income from rural areas. These were the social groups hardest hit by the crisis and least able to defend themselves through existing political institutions. These groups felt not only their economic welfare but also their traditional institutions and values to be under attack. They saw the growing socialist movement as a threat to the family, religion and cultural values.

The NSP’s propaganda stressed the importance of “morals and virtue,” opposed secularism to the extent possible within the law, and strongly attacked communism, freemasonry and Zionism. Party leader Necmettin Erbakan became the champion of “independent industrial development.” He opposed Turkey’s entry into the EEC, as this would further strengthen big business vis-à-vis smaller provincial businesses. He branded the EEC as a product of a “new crusader mentality.”

In 1974, the NSP joined a coalition government led by the social democratic Republican People’s Party, breaking a historic barrier and lending the NSP and its policies a certain legitimacy. Through the 1970s, the NSP remained the third largest party in parliament, with about 11 percent of the vote. The party provided the lower and middle classes with a political organization and a national voice. In doing so, it invested the Islamist movement with the legitimacy of a national party platform. The very existence of the NSP forced all major parties to take the “Islamic” vote into account and court it more explicitly.

While the NSP became the organized Islamist expression of popular discontent, an unofficial Islamist movement also grew alongside it. This movement went far beyond the party. It spread through unofficial Quran courses, local associations and youth clubs, charitable associations formed around mosques, and a variety of journals. Various religious brotherhoods also flourished in this period. An Islamist youth movement (Akincilar) linked to the NSP became increasingly active and militant, challenging both the left and the fascist right in armed street confrontations. [4]

Significantly, the urban working class did not line up behind the Islamist banner: it had its own means of struggle (industrial strikes) and its own independent organizations (trade unions). An Islamist labor confederation (Hak-Iş) remained marginal.

The Military Takeover

The impact of the military intervention of 1980 on the Islamist movement was twofold. On the one hand, the military leaders prosecuted the NSP leaders for violating article 163 of the penal code, which outlaws “the exploitation of religion for political purposes.” On the other hand, the NSP’s middle and lower-tier cadre were very quick to enter Prime Minister Özal’s new party and organize within it as a distinct and influential fraction. (Özal himself was a parliamentary candidate in the NSP ticket in the 1970s. His partisanship is one reason for the growth of Islamist influence and media attention.)

At the same time, the anti-socialist stance of the generals favored the religious right. With the physical elimination of the left and its organizations, socialism practically disappeared from the national arena as an oppositional movement. The rightwing opposition, by contrast, was able to obtain positions in parts of the state bureaucracy and the educational apparatus where the left had previously been influential.

These general effects of the coup combined with a number of developments which made the subsequent period a fertile one for the growth of the Islamist movement. Firstly, socioeconomic conditions that gave rise to the movement in the 1970s continued and in some cases intensified after 1980. Clearly less important but nevertheless significant has been the impact of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. These two developments came together to present Islam as a world force (a “third way”) capable of fighting both capitalism/imperialism and communism.

Finally, the demoralization and sense of crisis within the left led a few leftwing intellectuals to embrace Islam, giving the movement some fresh ideas and theological interpretations. More importantly, in their concern to counterpose the concept of “civil society” to that of what they see as traditional, etatist Kemalism, a section of the left has attempted to involve Islamist elements in its debates on democracy. This, too, has conferred a degree of prestige on Islam in the eyes of some intellectuals.

As a result of all these factors, the Islamist movement is definitely stronger today than it was six years ago, but how much so is difficult to quantify. No one who spends even a few days in Turkey can fail to notice the larger crowds in mosques, the greater number of people wearing religious dress, the atmosphere during the holy month of Ramadan. The activities of the religious orders, particularly the Süleymanci and the Nakşibendi, cover a whole range of areas. Quran courses bring in the very young; university entrance examination courses where students receive free tuition and live in hostels run by the orders attract the educated youth of the future; recruitment among military academy students aims to gain influence within the armed forces. Mosques and their attendant religious associations represent direct channels of neighborhood organization and recruitment. All the sects are involved in these activities, often in competition with each other.

Another indicator of the movement’s growth is the appearance of secularism as a serious point of debate. While the role of Islam, government policy vis-a-vis religion and related matters have often been public issues, the concept of secularism itself has not previously been open to question. The secularist camp has been forced onto the defensive as it tries to reconcile its tradition with demands for religious freedom in the context of democracy.

What Future for Islam?

Islam has been one channel through which popular discontent has found an expression. The movement is, in fact, neither a phenomenon specific to the 1980s nor unprecedented in Turkish history. Will the Islamist movement grow powerful enough to pose a serious threat to the secular republic? This depends on a number of things, including the outcome of factional rivalries within the Islamist movement itself.

The particular role the Turkish ruling class tries to play in the Middle East and in the Islamic world; the weight it attaches to its relations with the US and the EEC on the one hand and its Islamic neighbors on the other; any stance other than the present one of strict neutrality in the Gulf war -- all these factors are likely to affect popular attitudes towards Islam. The Turkish bourgeoisie’s aspiration to become part of the European Community, to improve their relations with the US and to ensure a steady flow of foreign capital into the economy does not correspond to a leadership role for Turkey among Muslim countries. As long as this remains the case, official and unofficial wings of the movement are unlikely to resolve their differences.

In these circumstances, the movement will find it difficult to fully mobilize the Turkish equivalent of the Iranian bazaar -- small and medium provincial merchants and producers. In Turkey these strata are more thoroughly dominated than in Iran by the big bourgeoisie through a complex network of credit, local sales agencies, representation and a whole variety of commercial relationships.

Unofficial Islam’s chances of overcoming these obstacles depends on the movement’s ability to provide a more or less coherent organizational structure and leadership. But the Islamist movement today shares an important feature with the Turkish left of the 1970s: fragmentation and severe competition between rival factions. This hostility does not appear likely to resolve itself in the short run. Members of some groups have been to guerrilla training camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon. Increasing frustration as a result of the movement’s inability to register significant gains may lead these small groups to resort to violence.

An important factor which has a bearing on the future of the Islamist movement will be the reemergence of organized labor and the socialist movement. This is chiefly a matter of time, and it is certain to challenge Islam’s current leading position as the focus of radical opposition. A working class movement could well pull the middle classes and urban petty bourgeoisie away from the Islamist movement back into social democracy and socialism, the forms of opposition politics which characterized the 1970s.

 

Endnotes

[1] The Menemen incident, the numerous Kurdish uprisings lead by Shaikh Sait and others can be seen as examples of this phenomenon. The two official opposition parties which were allowed to be formed (the Progressive Republican Party in 1924 and the Free Republican Party in 1930) also unexpectedly turned into real opposition with strong religious elements. Both parties were closed down within their first year.
[2] Kemal Karpat, “Recent Political Developments in Turkey and Their Social Background,” International Affairs #28 (1962), p. 309.
[3] Mehmet Yasar Geyikdagi, Political Parties in Turkey: The Role of Islam (NY: Praeger Publishers, 1984), p. 77.
[4] Towards the end of the decade, when the NSP came increasingly to be seen as a party of the establishment, it began to lose some of its base to the more extreme and militant fascist Nationalist Action Party.

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