Scholars in Context: Utku Balaban
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Utku Balaban (UB): My current research focuses on the relationship of the post-developmentalist industrialization of Turkey to the advent of the Islamist movement to power since the early 1980s. I am presently drafting a proposal for a book project to present my research findings, tentatively entitled The Rise of Industrial Islamism in Turkey. The book touches upon four themes.
The first is the global economic changes that have helped Islamist movements around the world rebrand themselves as strong political actors. Increasing global connectivity in recent decades has empowered new interest groups that seek alliances to challenge the existing political order. At the same time, the crisis of developmentalism has pulled the rug out from under the old political establishment and has borne opportunities for new social movements such as Islamists in the Middle East, the New Left in Latin America, and New Conservatives in Central and Eastern Europe to ally with these interest groups.
Second, the key interest group with which the Islamists in Turkey ally themselves is the small industrialists, who own and operate sweatshops and small factories. These roughly 330,000 small industrial establishments account for forty-five percent of Turkey’s industrial value added today. This entrepreneurial middle class began to play a pivotal role in the Turkish economy in the 1980s with the introduction of export-led growth policies.
The third theme is the way in which this alliance controls its core electorate in working-class neighborhoods where Islamists won their first election victories. Thanks to my year-long participant observation as an unskilled worker at several sweatshops in Istanbul’s largest working-class district in 2008, I argue that the small industrialist-Islamist alliance uses three social technologies, namely the (male) gaze, (symbolic) toxiphobia, and (industrial) toil, to deter any potential challenger from contacting their electorate in these urban spaces and, thereby, to represent itself as the guardian of working-class communities.
Fourth, the fieldwork material I collected about the business communities in the three fastest-growing industrial towns of Turkey between 2012 and 2016 supports the argument that this alliance continues to shape Turkish politics. In the early 2010s, small and big industrialists respectively supported Tayyip Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, the latter a religious cleric believed to have orchestrated the 2016 coup attempt, as a part of their own struggle within local supply chains. Erdoğan won that fight. The government confiscated the biggest pro-Gülen industrial companies. Similarly, the same industrial middle class demands protectionism and Erdoğan now allies himself with hardcore anti-globalizationist secularists.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
UB: This research addresses three literatures. First, in recent years, we have seen a growing number of studies about the political economic alliances Islamists established in the Muslim world to dominate their domestic political environment. Second, the global crisis of developmentalism renewed the interest in the middle classes’ engagement with politics. Third, in the Turkish context, a number of recently-published studies reveal important insights into a variety of issues, such as: the US-oriented roots of modernism; Islamists’ political weaknesses in working-class neighborhoods before the 1980 coup; and the sponsorship of the state institutions for the Islamists throughout most of the second half of the twentieth century. These studies challenge the longevity and centrality of the Islamist-secular cleavage in Turkish politics and seek the roots of the rise of Islamism in recent Turkish history.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
UB: The overwhelming majority of new scholarly works on Islamism in Turkey are still based on the assumption that the Islamist-secularist cleavage has been setting the context for Turkish politics for at least a century. I believe the perspective underlying this assumption not only has been proven factually wrong by recent developments, such as the split among the Islamists and the informal coalition between Islamists in power and hardcore secularists in the 2010s, but also justifies the Islamist authoritarian government as the legitimate representative of the oppressed in Turkey. To offer an alternative to this perspective is, thus, the main source of inspiration for this project. My research intends to fill in three gaps for this purpose.
First, my ethnographic research since the 2000s and my autobiographical observations since the 1980s have convinced me that small industrial entrepreneurs helped the Islamists to replace the socialist groups in working-class neighborhoods and to spread their political influence in these communities. Only a small number of works, mostly published in Turkish, investigate these local relations, but they still fall short of presenting this factor as the identifying feature of Turkish Islamism.
Second, another small number of studies investigate the relationship between entrepreneurial groups and Islamists. These studies help us to understand how the Islamist movement nurtured a new pious entrepreneurial circle (and how this circle contested the secular business leaders of the country). One factual difficulty these studies unexceptionally avoid is, however, how many members of the so-called “secular” and “Islamic” bourgeoisies cooperate with each other, take part in the same business associations, and pursue the same policy agendas. In fact, my research in the 2010s tells a different story: Ideology is conflated with size in the literature. Small entrepreneurs are Islamist. Big ones are just Muslim.
Last, the decades-old dominant paradigm of Turkish Islamism accepted by both secularists and Islamists is, in effect, a story of modernism that pictures Turkish history as the epic battleground of the eternal fight between Western secularism and Eastern religion. In other words, the history of Islamism in Turkey is a hostage of orientalism, and it will remain so until an empirically and theoretically sound perspective takes over.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
UB: I would like to reach scholars of recent Turkish political history, Islamism, globalization, and new social movements. More specifically, the framework I present could be appealing for scholars interested in reading an ethnography about the engagement of the industrial middle class of Turkey in a symbiotic relationship with Islamists.
As of now, an Islamist civil junta is ruling Turkey. It receives critical support from a hitherto poorly defined entrepreneurial middle class. As party politics and street protests are increasingly inconsequential, political change needs a new perspective that focuses on the influence of this class over the urban electorate. Thus, I also would like my scholarly work to open up a debate about the prospects for Turkey’s democratization.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
UB: I am also currently working on two qualitative content analyses. First, my US-based research team and I assess the 2020 Easter sermons delivered at the thirty largest megachurches in the United States. We are about to finish the reading phase of this project. The second is about the 2020 Laylat al-Qadr programs by the most prominent forty-six Sunni sects in Turkey. My Turkey- and Europe-based research team and I have just begun to work on this project, thanks to the MESA Global Academy Award.
In both projects, we focus on similar subjects including, but not limited to, the way in which the preachers of two different religions relate the notion of purity to politics, pandemic, and the everyday lives of their followers. If I get satisfactory results, I would like to compare them in my upcoming publications. Similarly, I plan to use the results of the ongoing project on Turkey in my book project on industrial Islamism.