[This article is part of a roundtable on "The Shifting Islamist Sector in Turkey." Read the other contributions to the roundtable here.]
These explorations of the Islamic sector in Turkey take up two key constituents thereof: small businesses and aid NGOs. Much has been written on these topics, but both Utku Balaban and Nihat Çelik make novel contributions.
The strengths of Utku Balaban’s account are the parsimony and the emphasis on Islamists’ relation to the world economy. The role of small industrialists in the success of Islamist parties is crucial. They have been central to almost every major twist and turn in Turkish Islamist politics. However, this role can be overemphasized. In Balaban’s analysis, the specificity of the interests of politicians, activists, and working classes tend to be reduced to the interests of small industrialists. Even though the latter can explain a lot, they can’t explain everything. Balaban states that the exceptional strength of Turkish small industrialists (in comparison to small industrialists in other Muslim-majority countries) is the main factor that rendered their coalition with Islamists sturdier than anywhere else. Yet he doesn’t tell us who these Islamists are, what they want and why, and how their activities have metamorphosed in the last few decades.
I applaud Balaban’s attempt to deploy Capital, Volume 2 for a theorization of Islamist politics in the context of class-making. We need such bold theoretical interventions in order to break the insularity of Islamism studies. However, while enlightening in many regards (e.g. the petty-bourgeois nature of the Gezi protests), this broad framework runs into problems as it reduces current Turkish petty-bourgeois politics to secularism. A big chunk of Islamist activists come from (or are headed towards) the new petty bourgeoisie, and the movement cannot be understood without theorizing them.
In other words, the cost of Balaban’s parsimony is the neglect of historical messiness. Balaban’s analysis of Turkey’s exceptionally strong Islamist government draws attention to the role of material factors. This emphasis on the material (as a binary opposite of the theological) is not new, and comes with some problems. Do we really need a tight opposition between materialist and ideational analyses of Islamism? The first have been more prevalent among critical scholars, the latter in mainstream media and scholarship. But we can combine material and ideational approaches.
Take the Iranian regime as an example. It is impossible to understand this regime without a serious consideration of how the twentieth-century evolution of Shia jurisprudence interacted with Third Worldist thought, and how Iran’s place in the capitalist world economy shaped that interaction. Bababan mentions, in passing, that there have been no socialist Islamist governments, and he uses this as one piece of proof for his materialist approach. But the first ten years of the Islamic Republic got pretty close to a Third Worldist version of socialism. Arguably, this left traces on the regime’s institutions, even as they swung between state capitalism, corporatism, rentierism, and neoliberalism in the following decades. Although exclusively materialist or ideational monographs, essays, and articles do inform us about the details of these processes, a comprehensive understanding requires the appreciation of both kinds of dynamics.
With these caveats in mind, I read Balaban’s account as a fresh perspective into a quite well-studied topic (the role of small businesses in Turkish Islamist success). Some of the hypotheses he puts forth (e.g. regarding the importance of small sweatshops in big cities) are novel ones. They need to be discussed and evaluated by the scholarly community and could transform the way we study Islamism.
In Nihat Çelik’s account, we see more sustained integration of material and ideational factors, but less emphasis on the global transformations of the late twentieth century. Along with (national) political and economic realities that Balaban also discusses (such as the centrality of a new conservative business class), Çelik pays more attention to the motivations of non-business actors. But missing from his framework is the world-historical context that favors state-NGO-capital cooperation in reshaping social welfare networks and institutions. This neglect could indeed produce the false “Islamic uniqueness” perception that Balaban warns against (even if this is not Çelik’s intention). The centrality of (both religious and non-religious) aid NGOs has intensified throughout the world due to socially-oriented versions of neoliberalism, and this is certainly not unique to Islam. We need a broader theoretical framework to discuss this global turn.
Ironically, while we do need the kind of meta-theoretical approach that Balaban uses to decipher the codes of Islamic business, that endeavor has taken my own research back to the specificities of the history of Islamic movements and position-takings (and not “Islam” as a distinct, and irreducibly unique, religion). I have come to this history not simply due to my ongoing interests in theology and ideology, but because the very relations of Islamic aid NGOs to other (Islamic, Christian, and secular) NGOs pointed me in this direction. Çelik’s piece is very strong in highlighting the relations of NGOs to business interests and to the regime, but does not delve into NGOs’ relations with each other. For a full understanding of Islamic aid, we need a sustained field analysis of charitable organizations.
Nor can the mass base of the Turkish regime be understood without probing into the life trajectories and subjectivities of participants in the Islamic sector. Çelik’s essay takes cognizance of these, but mostly through references to Islamic motivations in general (which then get shaped by political and economic factors). The role of Islamist ideologies (and the way they have evolved in the last decades) does not receive scrutiny.
A very important, and mostly neglected, part of that puzzle is how the anti-capitalist legacies of Islamism are buried, repressed, distorted, or absorbed in world-historical time, essentially reducing Islamism to capitalist Islam—which is not this religion’s fate, but the outcome of political and organizational processes. For an adequate picture of the Islamist sector in Turkey, we need to take seriously the histories of Islamic actors. Included in this is the story of each major NGO, as well as the innumerable smaller organizations they have influenced.
Top-down and/or materialist histories cannot fully capture the complexity of IHH, for instance. This organization is usually perceived by regime opponents as an obedient tool of the government. However, its cadres, leaders, and activists have had very complex relationships with the regime, as well as with other NGOs. True, they have willingly served the regime in many instances, some of them quite decisive. Nevertheless, their actions and militancy have in turn shaped the regime itself. Concomitant to consent-building through its reliance on such organizations, the Turkish regime has had to cater to their agendas, which offers a partial explanation of its drift away from the governing party’s initially more (neo)liberal and pro-Western path.
In short, we have before us a very complex set of tasks that cannot be exhausted by one or two monographs or scholars. We need more histories and ethnographies of Islamic businesses, activists, workers, and charitable organizations. These should explore both the global and the grassroots, material and ideational making of these actors. Despite an abundance of scholarly work on the subject, we are only beginning to understand and explain Islamism, especially its relatively neglected economic dimensions. Since the issue is so multi-faceted, panels and roundtables such as the one you are reading have a great value in highlighting its various aspects.
 Cihan Tuğal, Caring for the Poor: Islamic and Christian Benevolence in a Liberal World (London: Routledge, 2017). But curiously, most field-analytical scholarship (either of the Bourdieusian or the new institutionalist variety) ignores ideological histories, and especially the way these are connected to regime- and consent-making.