[This article is part of a roundtable on "The Shifting Islamist Sector in Turkey." Read the other contributions to the roundtable here.]
Turkey has become an emerging humanitarian actor in the last decade, with increasing activities of its government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) abroad. The Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), which was established in 1992, became an influential actor in providing development and humanitarian aid and gained enormous capabilities in the 2000s. Turkish humanitarian NGOs are relatively new, having been established largely in the 1990s and 2000s, yet the scope of their activities and growth deserve some attention. The rise of Turkish humanitarian NGOs can be seen as a direct result of Turkey’s growing conservative capitalist class, a more favorable political environment, a new legal framework, and tax incentives for NGOs. In this contribution, I argue that in the humanitarian domain, Turkish civil society is increasingly dominated by an Islamist sector that has flourished due in part to government regulation deliberately tilted in its favor, with notable consequences at home and abroad.
The wealth accumulation and growth of conservative capitalists had a significant impact on the growth of Turkish faith-based humanitarian NGOs. This group of capitalists is sometimes called the “green capitalists,” “Islamic capitalists,” or “Anatolian tigers” (Demir, Acar, & Toprak, 2004). The businesses in this group are mainly successors of the petite-bourgeoise of the 1970s, whose interests were represented by Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party. These entrepreneurs faced the more powerful industrialists within the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB) and their economic interests and priorities were divergent. In return, the traditional business elites, who were regarded by Erbakan as the representatives of the “comprador-Masonic minority,” established the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TUSIAD) in 1971 and enjoyed remarkable lobbying power and influence over the government (Shambayati, 1994, p. 316). This division very much reflects Serif Mardin’s analysis of center-periphery relations in Turkish politics (Mardin, 1973). While large secular corporations were able to secure their interests thanks to their central positions, networking, and political power, small enterprises were located at the periphery and had very limited influence.
With Turgut Ozal’s neoliberal policies that triggered the transition from an import substitution industrialization strategy to export-oriented industrialization, Turkish entrepreneurs expanded their horizons and established stronger relations with outside markets. The growth and transition from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to corporations were supported by the emergence of interest-free banks, as they enabled access to capital and encouraged capital accumulation (Demir, Acar, & Toprak, 2004, p. 171). Since for many conservative individuals in Turkey interest is considered to be a prohibited practice in Islam, those individuals refrained from working with banks, and as a result, lacked the tools for capital growth and investment. However, the emergence of Islamic banks in the 1980s, such as the Faysal Finans and Albaraka Turk, opened a new venue for them and provided access to financial markets. However, the main force in this growth was the networks of social relations. Islamic orders/sects such as the Naqshbandi order provided the social network for investment and cooperation, leading to the emergence of business networks (Ozel, 2009, p. 148). Thus, it is important to acknowledge that so-called “Islamic capital” is not monolithic, though shared religious values did serve as a common identity that distinguished this sector from its more secular, Istanbul-based competitors. Indeed, the common interests of groups operating in this sector were also defined by the shared experience of competition with TUSIAD, which represented the interests of the Istanbul-based large enterprises.
This coalition gained an institutional identity with the establishment of the Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (MUSIAD) in 1990 by five businessmen. Representing mostly the relatively new SMEs in Anatolia, MUSIAD had 2,700 members with 10,000 affiliated firms in 1997 (Hosgor, 2011, p. 348). Today it has 11,000 members with approximately 60,000 affiliated firms (MUSIAD, n.d.) This growth can be explained in part by the organization’s increasing visibility. But the more significant factor is the fact that it received the support of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) as its preferred business association. In particular, the AKP treats MUSIAD as a favored alternative to TUSIAD, which sometimes criticizes the government’s policies and actions. From its inception in 2001, the AKP and MUSIAD have developed strong ties, and some MUSIAD members were even elected as deputies from the AKP ranks in national elections (Baskan, 2010, p. 408). Firms affiliated to MUSIAD were able to secure public contracts both from the central government and municipalities run by the AKP, and they also started to become media owners (Hosgor, 2011, p. 354).
This mutually beneficial relationship is better understood when one focuses on the last decade of AKP rule, when the initially cordial relations with TUSIAD started to deteriorate due to the increasing authoritarianism of the AKP. In 2014, Muharrem Yilmaz, the then-chairman of TUSIAD, criticized the government due to the deterioration of the rule of law and the use of tax penalties and other regulatory powers as a means of retaliating against businesses based on political tensions with their owners. Yilmaz argued that these conditions were making it more difficult to attract foreign capital to the country. Erdoğan responded by charging Yilmaz with treason (Gursel, 2014). Following the annulment of local elections in Istanbul in March 2019, TUSIAD again criticized the government. Erdoğan’s reply captures the government’s increasingly contentious approach to the organization: “Well, you are doing wrong. First of all, everybody should know one’s place. Everybody should do one’s job. Our attitude [towards TUSIAD] will change [based on its failure to know its place.]” (Sozcu, 2019).
As a matter of fact, it was well known in business circles that some business groups were unofficially blacklisted by the government for political reasons and excluded from government contracts. Tarik Sara, the founder and CEO of ENKA, one of the largest conglomerates in the field of construction, stated in 2015 that despite receiving large construction jobs in many parts of the world, his company could not secure a public contract in Turkey for twelve years (BloombergHT, 2015). On the other hand, MUSIAD is a political ally of the AKP, refraining from any criticism of the government and supporting its domestic and foreign policies against Syria, Egypt, and Israel. Indeed, the Association touts its membership in various pro-government civil society initiatives including the Rabia Platform (a humanitarian nonprofit named for the square in which Muslim Brotherhood supporters were massacred in Egypt in 2013) and the National Will Platform (a coalition of nearly 300 pro-government Turkish NGOs) (MUSIAD, n.d.).
Members of the Islamic capitalist sector represented by MUSIAD share the same ideational vision as AKP elites who see Turkey—a member of the Islamic ummah and successor to the Ottoman Empire—as having a leadership role to play in the Islamic World. They view themselves as having two basic grounds for the legitimacy of their pursuit of economic gains: religious and nationalist. Thanks to their economic gains, they can provide zakat (compulsory charity as a religious duty) and support charities and the poor in the form of sadaka (alms), which are all pious acts from a religious point of view. From a nationalist point of view, they contribute to the development of their country, supporting it in becoming a major power and gaining self-sufficiency against the western world (Demir, Acar, & Toprak, 2004, pp. 175-76).This vision, and the government support it has enjoyed, has facilitated the transformation and growth of the conservative bourgeoisie in Turkey. That growth, in turn, has contributed a great deal to the emergence of an Islamist humanitarian NGO sector in the country capable of undertaking substantial overseas activities with the help of increasing private and corporate gifts.
Other factors have also contributed to the growth of the Turkish humanitarian NGO sector. Modifications to the Law on Associations in 2006 enabled NGOs to form partnerships abroad and abolished the requirement that they operate under the direct control of the Turkish Red Crescent (Kizilay). In addition, tax-exempt status was provided easily to these NGOs by the government and the gifts made to these organizations became tax-deductible, an improvement that encouraged donors and provided them tax benefits. These organizations are not obliged to get permission from the Ministry of Interior Affairs before starting fundraising campaigns or new projects. However, there is not much transparency as to how to obtain this beneficial status. It is granted by the government through a presidential decree upon the application of NGOs, yet the president has full discretion in determining whether the organization deserve this status or not, and this may cause some arbitrary decisions.
The polarization of society along secular-Islamist lines is visible in the treatment of NGOs by the government. For example, the Association for Supporting Contemporary Life (CYDD) provides scholarships to girls with the aim of promoting gender equality and enjoys tax-exempt status accorded to the association by the government in 1997. However, this NGO has to go through an onerous process of obtaining permission from the Ministry of Interior Affairs for each project and fundraising campaign and gifts to the organization are not deemed tax-deductible. Its application to obtain this status was rejected by the AKP government due to the NGO’s support for secularism (Dirik, 2014). This preferential treatment by the government based on the political stance of an organization and its mission clearly tilts the regulatory environment in which NGOs operate in Turkey, according certain privileges and the capacity for accelerated growth to those organizations that are more closely aligned with the government’s vision and priorities.
Turkish NGOs that had previously focused their activities on regions bordering Turkey, especially the Balkans, have been able to extend their regional scope to Africa and Latin America in the 2010s. This expansion was facilitated by their cooperation with TIKA and other public agencies. Moreover, these NGOs’ expanded horizon coincided with the AKP’s foreign policy openings into these same regions, a move followed by free-trade agreements, visa-free travel arrangements, and newly concluded educational partnerships. Somalia, which attracted the highest level of commitment from Turkey, was chosen as a showcase for Turkey’s humanitarian diplomacy and its power as a stabilizing actor in a conflict-ridden country. The purpose was to increase Turkey’s regional and global prestige and to secure its status as a global actor (Akpinar, 2014). Although there have been some recent initiatives in Latin America, Turkish humanitarian NGOs have largely focused on Muslim countries or countries with large Muslim populations.
While it may be argued that Africa’s emergence as an important export market for growing Turkish industries was also a motivation for donations from businesses to these areas through NGOs, other ideational factors, such as assistance to impoverished Muslims who belong to the ummah and contributions to Turkey’s prestige as the rightful leader of the ummah, were also powerful motivators. At the individual level, digging a well in the name of a deceased family member as an act that will contribute to the good deeds of the deceased or donation of udhiyyah (kurban in Turkish) during the Eid ul-Adha are clearly motivated by Islamic principles of charity. However, the choice of foreign destination for these donations are often motivated by additional factors such as feelings of Islamic solidarity and the role attributed to Turkey as a leader and protector of Muslims. Former Ottoman lands with Muslim populations, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Albania, are also a favored destination for donors who view these territories as especially significant to re-establishing Turkey’s pre-eminent role in the Muslim world.
With its increasing humanitarian assistance, Turkey was the fourth-largest donor in the world in 2012, with a total of approximately one billion dollars (Development Initiative, 2013, p. 23). In the following year's Turkey’s contributions increased; however, the Syrian Civil War and the resulting refugee crisis forced Turkey to reallocate resources to serving this population rather than dispersing donations more broadly. Turkey has become the world’s largest refugee-hosting country with approximately four million Syrian refugees. This has changed the priorities of the efforts of Turkish NGOs. Because Turkey treats its expenditures on Syrian refugees as part of its humanitarian portfolio, calculating the scope of Turkish donor assistance beyond its borders has become more complicated. In 2019, Turkey provided approximately $9.3 billion in development assistance in total. To give an idea about the scope of the activities of Turkish NGOs, it would suffice to underline that they spent approximately $350 million, which is a significant amount given the relatively short history of the NGOs (TIKA, 2020, p. 13). In 2020, the US was the top donor with $8.9 billion and Germany was the second-largest donor with $3.7 billion. However, despite differences in calculations and the definition of humanitarian assistance, Turkey claimed to have spent $8 billion in the same year, which makes it the second-largest donor (Development Initiative, 2021).
Turkish humanitarian NGOs play an important role in Syria. The AKP government has cited the Islamic concept of ansar—the residents of Medina who took the prophet Mohammad and his followers into their homes following the Hijra in the year of 622—to offset the social and economic conflicts that may be caused by the influx of millions of people into the country, portraying assistance to fellow Muslims escaping the Assad regime as an Islamic duty based in prophetic tradition (Haber 7, 2014). Turkish NGOs share and promote the same understanding. In addition to the efforts of official Turkish government agencies, NGOs operate both in Syria and in Turkey to assist Syrian refugees. For example, the IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) was instrumental in negotiating the evacuation of civilians from Aleppo at the end of 2016 and provided food and medical supplies to civilians once they arrived in designated safe areas. The organization has built container and tent cities in which approximately 150,000 people live and supports the needs of refugee populations living in these facilities (IHH, n.d.). With Turkey’s military operations in Syria and as the government asserts authority over new territories in northern Syria, Turkish organizations have turned their focus to the provision of food and medical supplies and basic services to the people in these areas.
From a logistical point of view, Turkey’s geographic position and the Turkish NGO network in Syria has meant that many international organizations had little choice but to cooperate with these actors in seeking to provide humanitarian aid. For example, more than thirty-seven organizations/individuals from twenty countries have coordinated with the Deniz Feneri Association for their humanitarian aid efforts in Syria (Deniz Feneri Association, n.d.). Thanks to their ability to be nimble based on the funds at their disposal and their flexibility in employment decisions, NGOs are instrumental in providing education to the Syrian children in refugee camps. As one study shows, NGOs cite two motivating factors for their activities in assisting with education for refugees: first, “Islamic brotherhood/sisterhood,” and second, the danger of assimilation by secular Western ideas. They consider their work in educational facilities as an “Islamic obligation” (Mccarthy, 2017, p. 6).
Without a shadow of doubt, the refugee crisis increased Turkey’s influence in the Syrian conflict and provided leverage, especially against the European Union. With thousands of asylum seekers and migrants flowing into Greece through Turkey, the EU was alarmed and entered into negotiations with Turkey to come to an agreement to stem migrant mobility. Signed in 2016, the deal made Turkey a bulwark against migration as Turkey pledged to control migration routes and activities and accept the return of migrants attempting to enter Greece without having been processed through the EU resettlement arrangements. In return, Turkey received three billion Euros for the Syrian refugees, in addition to other benefits (Terry, 2021). Turkish NGOs complement the efforts of the government in preventing refugees from migrating from Turkey while providing basic services and helping them settle. Given the size of the refugee population, it would be a very difficult task for any government to deal with in the absence of civil society support. The involvement of faith-based NGOs has also facilitated efforts to recruit volunteers and solicit donations for Syrian refugees from the Turkish population.
In conclusion, in the last decade, Turkish humanitarian NGOs witnessed rapid growth, in part supported by the growth of conservative capitalist groups and in part due to the preferential treatment that they received in regulatory oversight and tax treatment from the AKP government. Sharing the same world vision and values with the AKP and motivated by both religious and nationalist considerations, these organizations have become critical actors in Turkey’s humanitarian diplomacy and ability to project soft power abroad.
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