A Case for Not Fearing Islamism

Everywhere in Turkey, it seems, are signs that the nation is getting more religious. There are more head scarves in Istanbul than there used to be, and you see them at universities, where they used to be banned. People even leave work for Friday prayers--and secular bosses who 20 years ago would have been indignant about this now stoically accept it. This is the new Turkey.

Balci.jpgBut, actually, Turkey is in important ways getting less religious, according to Kerim Balci, editor of the bimonthly Turkish Review. The percentage of Turks who profess religious faith is declining, he says. Perhaps more important: Balci says that militant Islamic sentiment has waned.

Balci asserts a paradox that secular westerners may find reassuring: the very forces that have created more public expressions of faith, and have made religion a more prominent part of Turkish politics, are reducing support for the idea that Islamic law should rule the country; as Islam has gotten more prominent, Islamism has lost strength.

And to some extent the logic of Balci's argument is generic. It suggests that across the Muslim world, there may be less reason than commonly assumed for westerners to worry about the prospect of Islamists--whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or other Islamists elsewhere--gaining power.

Balci is himself representative of the new Turkey. I had to schedule my late-June interview with him--at the Instanbul headquarters of Zaman Media Group, which publishes the Turkish Review as well as one of Istanbul's main newspapers--to accomodate his daily mid-afternoon prayer. For that matter, Zaman Media more broadly is representative of the new Turkey. It is staffed heavily by people who, like Balci, are part of the religious movement Hizmet, sometimes called the Gulen movement after its American-based leader, Fethullah Gulen. The Gulen movement, and Zaman Media, have been largely and consequentially supportive of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's ruling party, the AKP, whose base includes lots of religious conservatives.

So maybe Balci's analysis should be taken with a grain of salt. Certainly it's not surprising that he would advance a benign view of the religious conservatism he's part of. But I ran the sociological core of his analysis by other Turks, including critics of AKP and the Gulen movement, and it doesn't seem to be eccentric. At any rate, it's a coherent and plausible account (and dovetails with some reccent scholarly analysis).

Turkey is of course famous for being a secular Muslim country--an identity that goes back to early twentieth-century Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's forceful campaign to westernize the country after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.

TurkReview.jpgBut the campaign was less successful than it seemed. Though the cosmopolitan elites who ran Turkey after Ataturk were largely secular, out in the villages traditional religious practice persisted. And over the past few decades there has been a huge migration of Turks, including lots of religious ones, from villages to cities. So the main story behind increasingly conspicuous head scarves, says Balci, isn't newly covered heads but rather the movement of covered heads from villages to cities.

The story is of course a little more complicated than that. One Turk told me that, with the Erdogan government running things, a businessperson has a better shot at getting a government contract if he or she shows signs of devoutness, and for a woman that means wearing a head scarf. And, in any event, as head scarves become a more common sight in cities, some inconspicuously devout women have presumably come out of the closet.

Still, the big question, from the perspective of many westerners, is whether the newly visible displays of devoutness, whatever their sources, signal a growth in support for Islamism. According to Balci, the answer is no. He says the Islamist impulse was once stronger in Turkey, and has waned in part because wearing a head scarf in upscale parts of Istanbul is no longer considered odd --and because Turkey now has a prime minister whose wife wears a head scarf. "Islamism is an us-versus-them ideology," a "reactionary ideology that belongs to opposition," he says. The more Islam is embraced within the corridors of power, the more Islamism "loses its energy and attractiveness."

Balci's argument rests on a kind of "two-wave" model of Turkey's rural-urban migration. In the early years, many migrants from Turkey's villages settled in urban enclaves full of other uneducated migrant job seekers. Leaving the village hadn't radically elevated their standard of living, but it allowed them to see first-hand the affluent, secular class they weren't part of. It was the resulting milieu of resentment, says Balci, that gave strength to early Islamist political movements, including the Welfare Party, the party Erdogan once belonged to. (Back in the late 1990s, Erdogan was thrown in jail for publically reciting a poem that read, in part, "the mosques are our barracks, believers are our soldiers and the minarets are our arms.")

But increasingly, the migrants--or offspring of first-generation migrants--entered the middle and even upper class, sometimes with degrees from Turkey's expanding system of higher education. This economic empowerment of religious Turks started draining the energy from Islamism, according to Balci.

This emergence of a more affluent, less disgruntled, class of highly religious Turks in turn paved the way for a political party that would be conservatively religious but not outright Islamist. In 2001, Erdogan seized the moment, forming a new party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The AKP, according to Balci, contrasted with its Islamist precursors in two key respects: it was highly internationalist, and specifically sought closer integration with the West via European Union membership; and it was more vocally supportive of the rights of religious minorities, such as Alawites and Christians.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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