[This article is part of a roundtable on "The Shifting Islamist Sector in Turkey." Read the other contributions to the roundtable here.]
What is Islamism? This is not an easy question to answer because Islamists generally see Islamism as a conceptual superimposition by infidels. They are Muslims, not Islamists. They work to live Islam. They work to make Islam prevail. They work to govern their Dar al-Islam.
However, we know that Islamism is not a mere misnomer. It touches upon and describes certain social and historical relations. Differences among multiple sects, tariqas, and theological schools are often embedded in former worldly disputes. Islamist movements compete with each other for resources and power. Islamist governments change their laws and policies according to the new circumstances they face. Beyond the relationship of individuals to certain scriptures, beliefs, and rituals, Islamism is a web of relations among certain political actors. Unlike what its believers tend to think about Islam, Islamism is political.
Thus, maybe we should take a step backward and focus on why Islamism prevailed over what some call “political quietism” (al-Sarhan, 2019). Why do many Muslims around the world look for something in religion that addresses their political aspirations? Which Muslims are in this kind of search and what are their motivations in this endeavor? Whom does Islamism represent?
One answer to the last question is the electorate of Islamist parties, if the relevant country has free and fair elections, of course. If this is not the case, then the answer depends on a broader set of considerations. According to the Economist’s Democracy Index (and many other comparable indices, such as those by Freedom House or Polity IV), none of the Muslim-majority countries was governed by fully democratic regimes as of 2020. By this measure, only nine percent of members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation even have a “flawed democracy.” The rest have semi- or fully authoritarian regimes. In fact, even if there is one, the ballot box says only a little about whom Islamism represents.
Given this context, gaining a better understanding of what Islamists deliver to their supporters is essential to answering the initial question. To some degree, this is an easier inquiry because we can take the Islamists’ actions and discourse as a reflection of their intentions. And what they offer supporters may encompass a broad range of services, opportunities, and goods, which may be related to religious practices and performances, or about everyday life-related challenges or economic advantages, among many others.
I believe we generally assume an epistemic hierarchy among these issues when we study different aspects of Islamism. To be specific, Islamist movements are assumed to exist primarily to address religion-based demands of Muslims. Social concerns that may be addressed by Islamists, such as the provision of eldercare or respect for sartorial norms, are subsumed as part of such religion-related interests. And economic interests that may be served by Islamists are only taken into consideration as a collateral matter after addressing all other issues on the higher echelons of the epistemic hierarchy through which Islamists are understood.
The specificity of the interests of different supporter groups is lost in this meta-narrative. Islamism is Islam in action. Islamists are seen as the representatives of Islam. Supporters of Islamism are seen as pious Muslims with limited interest in worldly affairs. If a particular social, cultural, or economic group, which is somehow associated with Islamism, is studied, members of this group are labeled as “Islamist first” and this assumption frames the entire reading of the characteristics of that group: Islamist woman, Islamist activist, Islamist businessman….In each case, the adjective takes primacy over the noun. The gender, ideology, or trade of the person is subordinated to their affiliation to Islamism.
One problem with this perspective, which we could call here “Islam First,” is its unfairness to Islamists and their supporters. Unlike other religiously-inspired movements such as the Christian Democrats in Europe, Islamism is reduced to a theological narrative. When Christian Democrats mobilize for an infrastructure plan, very few would ask how they justify their plan in accordance with the New Testament, while any book on financial instruments advocated for and supported by Islamists has at least some discussion on the theological foundations of the industry. Thus, efforts to understand Islamism run the risk of approaching the issue from an orientalist perspective.
The second problem is more about the critical questions that this meta-narrative fails to answer. Why did Islamist movements begin to genuinely challenge their political establishments only after the 1970s? Why do we see such a great variety in the socio-economic policies and programs among different Islamist governments and movements? Despite this diversity, why have we not seen a socialist Islamist government (yet)?
The Islamist Businessman
I do not believe the “Islam First” perspective has a good answer to any of these questions, because none of these issues are essentially and inherently related to Islam as such. We need a new pivotal theme and the following question could help us identify such alternatives: Why have Islamist movements become more successful in industrializing countries?
Islamic revivalism has a certain connection to the industrialization of the Muslim-majority countries especially after the 1970s, even though Islamist movements often call for a new political order similar to the one established during the Prophet’s times. In 1979, Iran ranked second among Muslim-majority countries in non-extractive manufacturing industries. After Indonesia’s manufacturing output surged in the 1980s, the Islamist movements became the overlords in the local politics of the country. Ironically, slower industrial growth in recent years empowered the older political establishments in Egypt, Pakistan, and Tunisia vis-à-vis the Islamist opposition. Since rentierism makes labor-intensive manufacturing industries unprofitable in oil-rich countries, Islamists either failed against the ruling dynasty (as in Saudi Arabia), or they dismantled the state apparatus to overthrow their rulers (as in Libya). While effectively organizing the cultivation and production of the agricultural narcotic raw materials for global markets, Islamists choose to rule Afghanistan without a unitary form of government but as a federation of tribes.
In short, we may hypothesize that Islamists’ political strategies are closely related to the industrial inputs their countries supply for global commodity chains, how they produce those commodities, and in what volume. In fact, the patterns of integration of the Muslim-majority countries to the world economy have an impact on the political strategies of their local Islamist movements. Accordingly, we can rephrase our question to address this connection: Which actors have been playing key roles in the transformation of this integration process since the 1970s, and what is the nature of the relationship of these actors to the Islamists?
To address this question, I will discuss the case I know best: Turkey. Turkish Islamism has arguably outperformed many other Islamist movements. Islamists in Turkey successfully purged the strongest secularist political establishment in the Muslim world without dismantling the state apparatus. Islamists now control that apparatus and deploy it, together with the language of democracy, in their own favor.
Turkey is historically the most industrialized country in the Muslim world. The country went through a major transformation in its industrial relations in the 1980s. Among the countries with a population of over ten million, Turkey had the third-highest urbanization rate, the fourth fastest manufacturing value-added growth, and the third fastest merchandise exports growth in the world in this decade (World Bank, 2021). Islamists won the municipal elections in both Istanbul and Ankara in 1994, taking political control of the country’s capital as well as its most populous and economically vibrant city.
This transformation occurred in parallel with—and was also related to—the rise of the small industrialist. Over 100,000 small industrial establishments began their operations between 1985 and 1998 with an average initial capital stock, in some years smaller than USD$20,000. Currently, over 400,000 such small facilities employ over four million workers. These enterprises together produce more than half of the export output value of the country. According to my estimates, at least 50,000 such facilities operate within the working-class neighborhoods of Istanbul and employ probably over a million workers. Furthermore, Turkey’s manufacturing output and Islamists’ voting shares have had consistently simultaneous ups and downs since the mid-1980s, while this trend does not apply to earlier years, different economic sectors, or political parties. Lastly, Islamists were only able to finally stop the decline in their voting shares since the early 1970s when they succeeded in expanding their support base in the working-class neighborhoods of industrialized cities in the mid-1980s. Most of the small-scale manufacturing facilities mushroomed in these neighborhoods in the same period (Balaban, 2010).
My main argument is that the Islamists in Turkey could not have come to power without an alliance with these small industrialists. This argument implies two corrections of the literature for the purposes of this essay. First, the critical actor in this story is not “the Islamist businessman” per se but the small industrialist. Rather than their religious beliefs and lifestyles, what determines the politics of the members of the business community is, for the most part, their position in industrial supply chains. Even though there are big business groups benefitting from the Islamists, it is the small industrialists who provide critical support for the Islamists. Second, it is not “the Islamist businessman” as a product of the rising Islamist movement, but the small industrialist, whose support is critical for the Islamists. In other words, the rise of the small industrialists (and other economic interests), who facilitate the integration of the Muslim-majority countries to the world economy, is not an outcome of Islamic revivalism, but a major process behind it. Furthermore, the Islamist government in Turkey continues to frame its economic, social, and cultural policies in accordance with the interests of small industrialists. In fact, the ongoing authoritarian turn in Turkey is a part of the broader strategy to administer what I call “sustainable decline” in order to help small industrialists remain globally competitive.
The Cat in Istanbul
Then why is it the small industrialist and not the Islamist businessman that is at the heart of the rise of Islamism? The presumption that the rise of the Islamist businessman—rather than an alliance between small industrialists and Islamists—is the key explanatory factor reflects the myopia of the “Islam First” approach described above. However, the narrower focus specifically on small industrialists offers a new perspective on the three broad points of agreement in the existing literature on the relationship between new entrepreneurial groups and Islamists since the 1980s.
First, there is a general agreement in the literature that Islamist business associations and major business groups represent a new “Islamist bourgeoisie,” which is in a tense relationship with the old (secularist) bourgeoisie (Balkan et al., 2015; Yavuz, 2006). Second, the new Islamist bourgeoisie preexisted the 1980s and differs from the secularist bourgeoisie in terms of its business values and everyday practices (Madi-Sisman, 2017; Yankaya, 2014). Third, the industrializing towns of the provincial regions of the country known as the “Anatolian Tigers” were the birthplace of this class (Buğra & Savaşkan, 2014; Öniş, 1997).
These arguments are based on the assumption that pro-Islamist business groups have an antithetical position to the rest of Turkey’s business community, while the non-political origins of this rift mostly remain obscure. Accordingly, cooperative relations among and between pious and non-pious businesspeople are overlooked. Moreover, the category of Islamist bourgeoisie subsumes both the small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and larger companies. This results in emphasizing the political or economic positions of (pro-Islamist) big capital at the expense of attending adequately to the (often tense) relationship of this sector with small industrialists. Lastly, the aforementioned studies acknowledge that the largest proportion of Islamist entrepreneurs were (and are) located in the big cities of the country, yet they still insist on looking for the roots of Islamist entrepreneurs in distant corners of the country.
Let me now turn to my observations in different cities of Turkey in order to discuss these arguments in some more detail. During my fieldwork between 2002 and 2015, I was convinced that the ideal-typical “Islamist businessman” is a garment sweatshop owner in a thickly settled working-class neighborhood of Istanbul. He employs roughly twenty-five workers, the minimum figure to operate a functional assembly line in such a sweatshop. His shop is located on the first floor or the basement of a residential building that has five floors. Except for the slumlord, who was an early migrant to the city and possibly has sons, who have their own sweatshops, other residents of the building likely work at another sweatshop in another neighborhood nearby. The sweatshops in many cases outnumber the streets. My research setting in Istanbul, Bağcılar, for instance, was the largest district of Istanbul well into the mid-2010s. Accommodating more than 700,000 people in an area covering roughly eight square miles, Bağcılar had on average 2.5 small manufacturing facilities on each of its roughly 2,200 streets. This density reflects the central position of Istanbul and other major cities in the industrial output of the country. Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, the three biggest cities, together accounted for fifty-three percent of all of the new manufacturing facilities as of January 2021. The share of Istanbul alone is more than one-third of the total figure for the country. Most of these enterprises are, however, smaller than their counterparts in smaller cities. For instance, Istanbul ranked twenty-sixth among the eighty-one provinces in terms of the average capital investment per new enterprise. Ankara and Izmir respectively ranked sixty-sixth and seventy-fifth in the same list. In effect, even one single neighborhood of these big cities could host more small industrial establishments than the entire cities in the rest of the country. In other words, “the Islamist businessman” is not an Anatolian tiger. He is an Istanbulite cat.
Another consistent fact I repeatedly observed during my fieldwork in Bağcılar and in three industrializing towns in Anatolia (Denizli, Gaziantep, and Kayseri) was the fragility of the manufacturing SMEs. The great majority of them are owners of micro- or small-sized enterprises. Most of these businesses have a longevity shorter than five years. Thus, small industrialists as the owners and operators of these establishments are not capitalists but members of (a) middle class.
However, this simple fact is somewhat difficult to discover with the help of the literature. For instance, studies on the “conservative,” “Muslim,” or “Islamist” middle class generally choose to focus on consumption patterns of well-to-do Islamists (Yavuz, 2020), sartorial practices of a new generation of pious women (Cevik, 2016), and/or this middle class’s cultural competition/negotiation with the secularist middle class (Somer, 2007, p. 1276). In fact, we are not given enough to understand what helped these people to aspire to the ranks of (a) middle class.
Unlike these studies, we see references to the local entrepreneurs more often in neighborhood and workplace ethnographies in relation to the informal employment relations in working-class communities (Dedeoğlu, 2008; Ozbay, 2010; J. B. White, 1994), Muslim women’s role in the social life of working-class communities (Saktanber, 2002), everyday life concerns and interpersonal relations in working-class communities (J. White, 2002), and the relationship between Islamists and workers (Tuğal, 2009). These studies convincingly portray the pressure on the urban working class by the mostly male and predominantly Turkish local elites. In fact, ethnographies in working class communities cast light on the local allies of the Islamists to a far greater extent than the studies of the pro-Islamist middle class. Nonetheless, a thorough discussion about the class position of those elites is missing in these ethnographic studies as well.
The Circulation of Capital
In answer to my opening question, then, I argue that Islamism represents the new economic interests that have emerged since the late 1970s. Its fate depends on the conditions of globalization-related transformations that determine the power of those new interests. Islamism in Turkey represents the interests of the small industrialists and their other local and small business partners in other sectors mostly operating in working-class communities, who emerged in the 1980s initially in the most industrialized regions of the country and played a pivotal role in export-led industrialization in the decades to come.
This conclusion does present an answer to my initial question, but it is still not clear who this “small industrialist” is in terms of their class position. I believe this is not a trivial matter, because a detailed typology of pro-Islamist actors would be one way to bypass problems embedded in the “Islamism First” approach.
We can work on developing such a typology by borrowing some inspiration from Karl Marx’s theory of capital circulation. In the second volume of Capital, Marx discusses three metamorphoses of capital, from money form to productive and then to commodity forms. Each metamorphosis is a social setting of struggle. Stock exchanges, work organizations, and commodity markets generate opportunities for the production and realization of surplus value as well as significant risks and limitations for particular kinds of capital. Middle classes play a functional role in each one of these metamorphoses and bargain with the bourgeoisie for their share from the total surplus value, usually via party politics. Since there are three metamorphoses, there is a historical potential for three different middle-classes to emerge.
The ideal-typical and leading representatives of each one of the classes are the CEOs of multinationals, the small industrialists, and salaried professionals such as scholars and government bureaucrats. CEOs take part in the metamorphosis of money capital to productive capital by designing and operating global commodity chains. The small industrialists oversee the production of cheap inputs for those commodity chains with the help of below-subsistence wages in the global semi-periphery and periphery. Scholars and government bureaucrats facilitate the aesthetic, normative, and legal conditions for the consumption of those commodities via the metamorphosis of the commodity capital to its money form. In my earlier work, I referred to these middle classes respectively as technocracy, faubourgeoisie, and petty bourgeoisie (Balaban, 2013).
The faubourgeoisie, or the class that lives outside the walls of the city, has played a critical role in politics all around the world. Small industrialists and other local entrepreneurs as members of this social class take part in political alliances and use their credibility within working-class communities for those alliances. Small industrialists in different parts of the Muslim world, such as Egypt, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, make their mark on national politics to different degrees.
In Turkey, the late industrialization began in the 1980s with political and economic reforms much more expansive than the ones in many other Muslim-majority countries, partially because the older import-substituting growth strategy was more successful and, hence, its crisis was more destructive. Also, socialist movements in Turkey posed a substantial challenge to the regime and capitalized on the crisis. Despite the efforts of the post-1980 governments, however, Turkey failed to attract significant volumes of foreign direct investment. The absence of foreign direct investment helped a large number of small industrialists to directly produce for retail chains or major brands in high-income countries. The country had an exceptionally high rural-to-urban migration in the 1980s. The military coup in 1980 mostly eradicated the political power of labor unions and socialist movements. All these factors both empowered the faubourgeoisie much more than their counterparts in the rest of the Muslim world and facilitated the conditions for a long-lasting alliance with the Islamists.
A continued scholarly emphasis on this social class and its alliance with the Islamists could give us new insights about three subjects within the Turkish context. First, in contrast to our knowledge of the operation and transformation of Islamist parties in Turkey (Baykan, 2018; Delibas, 2014; Dogan, 2016), we do not know much about what methods (or social technologies) local elites use beyond party activities to deliver mass support for the Islamists. Thus, our knowledge about the local factors behind the continued success of Islamists in working-class communities is now mostly limited to studies on Islamist parties and NGOs.
Second, this reading could be useful to discuss Islamists’ economic policies from an alternative perspective. Turkey’s GDP has been declining since 2013. The number of new manufacturing establishments per year was a mere 3,000 in 2012. The numbers have grown each year since then and the figure for 2020 reached 14,000. Given that more than ninety-six percent of these establishments are SMEs, we now see that the Islamists’ seemingly erratic economic policies, in fact, serve the interests of the faubourgeoisie.
Third, if Islamic revivalism is a result of the almost total purge of socialist movements by the military junta of 1980-1983 coupled with the ensuing export-oriented growth strategy, which granted Islamists new political opportunities, we can now see why the rift between Islamists and secularists dominated the political scene after the 1980s. These movements represent the faubourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, respectively. In effect, relations between these two middle classes frame the relationship between the Islamist and secularist movements. The two decades after 1980 witnessed the dynamic resistance of the petty bourgeoisie under the banner of secularism against the faubourgeoisie-supported efforts to dismantle the earlier state-run developmentalist growth strategy. Ironically, the military, which is a faction of the petty bourgeoisie, initiated this transformation in order to overcome the deep economic crisis of the 1970s that alarmingly empowered the socialists. With the advent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its rapid rise to power, the petty bourgeoisie adapted to the new conditions while also benefiting from the Islamists’ economic policies.
Thus, even though the (secularist) petty bourgeoisie—who might be considered the equivalent of white liberals in the United States—are not satisfied with certain policies and restrictions by the Islamist government, they still believe that they are better off in comparison to the earlier decades prior to AKP rule. In effect, it is probably a better strategy to look at what the petty bourgeoisie have not done since the early 2000s than what it did in the same period, in order to understand the nature of the Islamist-secularist rift in Turkey. For instance, we could study the countrywide demonstrations in 2013 known as the Gezi Protests as a major expression of discontent with the government, which it was, and these studies would inform us about the dynamics of political demonstrations. However, we know that the protests did not evolve into an expansive solidarity network to reach out to the working-class communities. Many protestors, who allegedly demanded a better world, were, in practice, highly reluctant to get involved in politics in the “worse parts” of this world such as the working-class communities of their cities. In short, the perspective offered here helps us to distinguish between a politics of discontent and a politics of social class by the petty bourgeoisie and the faubourgeoisie.
Furthermore, as of now, two election camps are competing in the upcoming elections in Turkey and each camp has secularist and Islamist parties. The bloodiest clash of the last decade took place between two Islamist factions during a failed coup attempt in 2016. In fact, the approach offered here seeks to explain both the factors behind the longevity of the seemingly unreconcilable Islamist-secularist tension and reasons for its gradual erasure in party politics.
On my argument, the authoritarian turn in Turkey represents the terms of the reconciliation of interests between the petty bourgeoisie and the faubourgeoisie and the tacit consensus between the secularists and the Islamists on repressive government policies in order to keep economic decline “sustainable.” The key connection among these actors and incidents is industrialization. Thus, I call the political phenomenon which we have been observing in Turkey since the 1980s “industrial Islamism.”
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