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Religion and Society

Between the mosque and the shopping mall in Istanbul

The flaring up of the protests in Istanbul and the contestation of the Turkish government are rapidly transforming the image that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had managed to give of itself in the last ten years, internationally gaining credit as an example of balanced and effective dialogue between Islam and democracy. Are we therefore before the degeneration of a model potentially capable of producing an ‘Islamic Secular State’ or are we rather witnessing the surfacing of authoritarian tendencies and projects for Islamisation of the society genetically present in Recep Erdoğan’s government? In order to try and give an answer to this it is necessary to consider the context in which the AKP first appeared.

 

 

It is well known that Turkey represents one of the most emblematic cases of secularisation of an Islamic country. After the First World War, the founding father of the Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in fact made the eradication of Islam one of the cornerstones of his project of modernisation: he abolished sharia jurisdictions, dismantled traditional Islamic teaching and very heavily hit the Sufi confraternities.

 

 

Islam continued however to represent a significant presence, giving rise to new strongly permeated experiences between religion and social life, like the Nurcu movement (light movement), born from the reflection of the reformist and theologian Said Nursi (1877-1960), and the Naqshbandi brotherhood.

 

 

From the political point of view the religious element began to appear on the Turkish scene again after the political liberation of the 50s and the opening to multipartyism. The period of the public rebirth of Turkish Islam was dominated by Nacmettin Arbakan, who between the 70s and 90s had a prominent role in the formation of four political parties of Islamic inspiration: the National Order Party, the National Salvation Party, the Welfare Party (Refah) and the Virtue Party. It was in particular following the split of the Refah that Erdoğan set up the AKP, piling up three consecutive electoral victories: 2002, 2007, 2011.

 

 

Unlike other Islamic movements, in primis the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Turkish Islamic parties preferred to act within the political system rather than directly contesting the legitimacy of the state. They furthermore avoided a number of classical claims of the Islamist movements, like the application of sharia and its inclusion in the legal system of the state or the building of an Islamic state. In fact such prudence was not enough to guarantee their actual integration into the political system. Even though they were able to take part in Turkish political life for a certain time, all the parties founded by Arbakan were finally banned by the Constitutional Court (the pillar, along with the army, of the laical system established by Atatürk), on the grounds that they aimed to introduce Islamic law, considered ‘incompatible with the democratic regime of the state’. Aware of this difficulty, Erdoğan further transformed the political rhetoric of his party, avoiding references to Islam and instead insisting on its socially and morally conservative and economically liberal nature.

 

 

Absent from the public political debate, the explicitly Islamic topics are instead present in the social and economic life. In the same years in which he created his political parities, Arbakan was organising a network of small and medium entrepreneurs of Anatolian origin which would be institutionalised in the Müsiad, an association of proudly Muslim businessmen created in 1990 to compete with the laical Kemalist entrepreneurs.

 

 

An influential economic reality (controlling 12% of the Turkish economy), and close to the AKP’s positions, in its official speech the Müsiad expresses what the Swiss scholar Patrick Haenni has defined as a ‘theology of prosperity’, founded on the idea that the accumulation of wealth is not only encouraged by the Koran, but must be pursued in a logic of rivalry with the West. With regard to this it is emblematic what the first president of the Müsiad, Erol Yarar, wrote in the official magazine of the association: ‘we must become rich, we must work even more and become even richer to become stronger than the profane’. This very ideology of prosperity was probably one of the keys to Erdoğan’s electoral success as he gained the consensus both of the people intolerant of aggressive laicism of Kemalist origin, and a middle class wanting to get rich by taking part in the benefits of Turkish liberalisation.

 

 

Boosted by this inspiration and the reforms enacted in the early years of 2000, the economic results of the Erdoğan governments were astonishing, recording GDP growth rates amongst the highest in the world: +9.2% in 2010 and +8.5% in 2011, with a deficit and public debt of respectively 1% and 39%. Thus, in the AKP’s rhetoric, the leitmotiv of economic success ended up becoming an attractive surrogate of that 'Islamic state' that traditionally fuels the political ideal of other Islamist movements and covering, if not justifying, the democratic deficit of the regime.

 

 

The concerns about the authoritarian drifts of the AKP are undoubtedly justified, as shown by many reports of different origin, which for years have denounced serious violations of fundamental rights and in particular the freedom of expression. But the mixture between Islam and the mad rush towards economic success, well symbolised by the mosque-shopping mall combination envisaged by the notorious project in Taksim Square, makes the interpretation wholly inadequate of a Turkey split in two between the progressive and secularised parties (the Kemalists) and the reactionary ones. The idea that ‘secularity [i.e. laïcité] is a civilised way of life, which demolishes the dogmatism of the Middle Ages and constitutes the milestone of rationalism and science’, to quote the sentence with which the Turkish Constitutional Court abolished the Refah, today sounds totally anachronistic. In fact for at least one century, two features of modernity – the secularization of faith and the supremacy of praxis – have, more or less consciously, penetrated Islamic political thought, producing at times more threatening ideological hybrids (jihadism), and at others apparently more reassuring ones (the theology of prosperity), but still the offspring of secularisation.

 

 

(Article written for ilsussidiario.net)

 

 

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