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.

But, 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.

But 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.

Still, though more cosmopolitan than the Welfare Party, the AKP retained enough of an Islamic flavor to make religious Turks feel they were no longer shut out of power. (It supported, for example, relaxing the ban on head scarves on college campuses.) And this fact in turn made a resurgence of Islamism less likely, says Balic: "There won't be a second generation of Islamists in Turkey's history."

Obviously, not all Turks are so sanguine about the new Turkey. After interviewing Balci, I met with Soli Ozel, a Turkish political scientist and newspaper columnist. Ozel roughly affirms Balci's economic analysis. Turkey has in recent decades enjoyed "the democratization of capital accumulation," he says. In part as a consequence, the AKP is now "the agent of an ascending entrepreneurial class, which has prospered phenomenally in the course of the past eight years, from patronage and rent distribution," Ozel has written. At the same time, the AKP has also looked after "the losers in the global integration process" with "a series of populist (and popular) measures," including health care and subsidies for food, housing, and energy.

But, like other Turkish secular liberals I spoke with, Ozel worries about this government's low regard for civil liberties, typically justified either as part of the fight against Kurdish terrorism or as part of the fight to break the Turkish military's habit of periodically intervening in politics. Under Erdogan, Gulen followers have helped staff prosecutors' offices, and in recent years around 100 journalists have been arrested, as well as union leaders and lots of military officers. (After a Turkish author wrote a book warning about this sort of Gulen influence, prosecutors banned his book and had him arrested, according to Bloomberg News.)

Still, Ozel doesn't link this authoritarianism to Islam. Rather, it's because the AKP is "a typical populist party" that it has an "innate tendency to move in an authoritarian direction." And he acknowledges that the current government looks less draconian by comparison with past Turkish governments than by comparison with western European governments.

Even if we assume the best--that Balci's analysis is sound, that the social mobility of devout Turkish Muslims is and will remain conducive to a government that isn't Islamist, and that authoritarian tendencies will ultimately be checked--there are of course questions as to how much of Turkey's experience is translatable to other Muslim countries.

For one thing, the social mobility that Balci credits with blunting the appeal of Islamism doesn't just magically happen, but is the result of policy--including education policy--and of demographic, cultural, and historical factors that will vary from country to country.

Even so, Balci's larger point--that Islamism thrives on resentments fueled by exclusion from both economic and political power--may have broad application. It suggests that when Islamists come to power, in Egypt or elsewhere, the appeal of Islamism per se--the appeal that helped get them into office--will, all other things being equal, tend to wane.

This in turn will make it all the more important for Islamist parties that want to stay in power to cultivate prosperity--and when that goal clashes with pursuing an Islamist agenda, they may tend to pursue the former at the expense of the latter.

In other words, these parties may be pushed down the path taken by Erdogan and the AKP. Erdogan has embraced capitalism and extensive international trade, which in turn has aligned his interests with regional stability and encouraged him to stay on good terms with nations in western Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Ozel paraphrases the argument of another Turkish scholar, Cihan Tugal, that the AKP's "historical mission has been to make capitalism acceptable to broader segments of the Turkish population and to break Islamist resistance to capitalist integration." To some extent this kind of mission may be one that political reality imposes on Islamist parties once they gain power. If that's true, westerners can calm down a little about the empowerment of Islamists.

There is one other reason not to freak out when Islamists come to power: the freaking out may itself be counterproductive. Balci says Islamism is sustained by a sense of resentment against perceived oppression by the affluent and powerful, and there's no reason the perceived oppressors can't be foreign. Indeed, Iran may be a case in point. There the accession to power by the devoutly religious hasn't extinguished the Islamist impulse--and one reason may be that, though the fall of the Shah meant that Islamists could no longer resent a domestic secular ruling power, the role of resented oppressor shifted to outside powers, notably including the United States.

Obviously, whether America plays this sort of role for ascendant Islamists--fueling the resentment that nourishes the more militant parts of their base--isn't entirely within America's control. But it's partly within America's control. And one way to exert some control is to greet the rise of Islamist movements with something other than alarm and opposition. Maybe the less alarmed we get, the less alarm will be in order.