Much has been written about the purported Islamist turn in Turkey under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the last two decades. In its first decade in power, the AKP frequently presented itself as the Muslim and Turkish equivalent of Europe’s Christian Democratic parties. Indeed, much of the coverage of the party and of its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in the European and North American media offered flattering portraits of a political movement combining socially conservative, Islamist origins with a pro-business orientation that enabled it to secure the support of the middle class across the country. The ascendance of religiously conservative business interests and a political party that harnessed the electoral power of that sector was depicted as a vehicle for the consolidation of democracy in Turkey.
These optimistic portrayals gave way to a stark new account beginning roughly in 2013 as the party entered its second decade in power. The handling of the nationwide protests that came to be known as the Gezi Uprisings by Erdoğan’s government played a major role in this process. In a previous roundtable “Afterlives of Gezi: Repression, Resistance, and Governance in Turkey,” Jadaliyya hosted authors who reflected on the ongoing legacies of the Gezi Uprisings on the eighth anniversary of that summer of protests. The sobering analysis provided in that roundtable focused on the political repression and democratic backsliding that has become the hallmark of AKP rule over the last decade. As Sumercan Bozkurt-Gungen noted in her contribution to the roundtable, anti-authoritarian forces in Turkey have had to contend with the question of whether to understand this as the AKP taking an authoritarian turn—with a “good” AKP period replaced by a “bad” one in the 2010s—or whether this authoritarian character was in fact a part of the AKP from its inception, with the increase in direct political repression after 2013 reflecting a consolidation of power following the Gezi Uprisings rather than an “authoritarian turn.”
In this roundtable, “The Shifting Islamist Sector in Turkey,” we have again invited an expert set of scholars to consider the ways in which the Islamist sector, too, has been shifting over the two decades of AKP rule. In their important interventions, Nihat Çelik and Utku Balaban each consider different facets of this shifting Islamist sector. In his contribution, “The Islamist Businessman,” Utku Balaban draws on his ongoing research to complicate simplified understandings of the Islamist sector. Disputing what he calls the “Islam First” perspective, he instead asks us to focus on the more specific question of why Islamist movements have been more successful in industrializing countries. In focusing specifically on the case of Turkey, he offers the more nuanced argument that “the critical actor in this story is not ‘the Islamist businessman’ per se but the small industrialist”—an argument that can open up important new avenues for future analyses.
In his article “The Islamist Sector and Humanitarian NGOs in Turkey,” Nihat Çelik focuses on the emergence of Turkey as a global humanitarian actor over the past decade. “The rise of Turkish humanitarian NGOs,” Çelik writes, “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.” His article provides us with a careful tracing of this linked set of processes, but also with an analysis of the consequences both inside Turkey and internationally. Understanding the role being played by Turkish NGOs in Syria, for example, means understanding the motivations and underpinnings of Islamist NGOs such as, the IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) and the Deniz Feneri Association, both of which have played an important role in Syria (and both of which, as Çelik suggests, have world visions and value systems that connect them closely to the AKP government). On the largest level, such organizations, he concludes, “become critical actors in Turkey’s humanitarian diplomacy and ability to project soft power abroad.”
In their responses, Esra Özyürek and Cihan Tuğal both underline the important contributions made by Çelik’s and Balaban’s interventions while also pushing the arguments out towards new sets of questions and directions. Özyürek notes that she found herself reading these two articles “at a time when massive fires are burning forests across the country and the AKP government is failing in its response”—at a moment, in short, when “Turkey feels close to a failed state.” While noting the important ways in which Çelik’s and Balaban’s work helps us to understand the shifting Islamic sector, she also points towards a larger theme with which we need to engage: “the toxic brew that for decades has intertwined Islamism with ultra-nationalism.” Tuğal meanwhile praises the fine-grained analysis of small industrialists provided by Balaban (although he also warns against the danger of losing our purchase upon “historical messiness”) and the “sustained integration of material and ideational factors” found in Çelik’s account (while also reminding us of the importance of taking into account “global transformations” in addition to following the development of humanitarian NGOs within Turkey).
Bringing us towards the end of the roundtable, Tuğal rightly notes that truly addressing the complexities of the shifting Islamic sector in Turkey involves attention to “a very complex set of tasks that cannot be exhausted by one or two monographs or scholars.” We hope that this roundtable can be a step in that direction, and might begin a conversation that other scholars will take up and continue.
Read the Articles in the Roundtable Here:
- Aslı Bâli and Anthony Alessandrini, “Editors’ Introduction: The Shifting Islamist Sector in Turkey”
- Utku Balaban, “The Islamist Businessman”
- Nihat Celik, “The Islamist Sector and Humanitarian NGOs in Turkey”
- Esra Özyürek, “When Islamism Marries Ultra-Nationalism”
- Cihan Tuğal, “Islamic Movements, Industrialists, and Aid”