‘Allah, Bread and Freedom: The Anti-Capitalist Muslims and the Crises of Political Islam in Turkey’

Article – Ivo Furman

“One day, a man of religion wished in a prayer to God that he wanted to see heaven and hell. The same day, God sent an angel to the man to tell him that his wish was granted. The angel took the man by the arm to a salon in a faraway land. In the salon, the man saw a long table laden with delicious food. Around the table he could see thin, unhealthy people getting ready to eat the food. A gong rang and the people began to eat. The man noticed that the people could not eat the food properly as they were forced to eat with metre-long spoons. Trying to eat, the people would spill the food from the spoons to the floor. The angel said to the man: ‘can you see? This is hell’.

Startled, the man of religion said: ‘what kind of a hell is this? I thought that hell was a place full of flames and screaming people. I want now to see what heaven is like’. The man and the angel went on their way again, eventually arriving at another salon. Inside was the same scene. A long table laden with delicious food. This time, the people around the table were young, beautiful and healthy. However they also held one metre-long spoons with which they were to begin eating the food. The angel turned to the man and said ‘this is heaven’. The man replied ‘what kind of a heaven can this be? I thought that heaven was a place full of beautiful virgins, green trees and fragrant flowers… what is the secret behind this heaven?’ The angel said: ‘watch how these people eat their food’.

The gong rang once again and people began to eat. Unlike the other salon in which everyone was trying to eat by themselves, the people in heaven were using the spoons to feed the people around them. Eating this way made them happy and healthy.

The angel added: “in the previous salon there was only ‘I’ [nefs] and selfishness. Every place in which ‘I’ reigns supreme is hell. In the second salon there is not ‘I’, the people sitting across from you come first. Here there is love, mercy, sacrifice and friendship. Every place with real love, equality, fraternity and sacrifice will eventually turn into heaven’.”

– A parable from the teachings of the anti-capitalist Muslims

  

Introduction

This paper wishes to discuss how one activist group, the anti-kapitalist Müslümanlar (anti-capitalist Muslims), has become the most visible actor within the Islamic movement in Turkey to contest the relationship between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) understanding of political Islam and capitalism. Asides from the anti-kapitalist Müslümanlar, no significant social or political actor within the Islamic movement has been able to contest the legitimacy of AK Party’s Islamic values and their neo-liberal economic policies since the ascension of the AK Party into government in 2002. As it was the case with Numan Kurtulmuş and the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi), any oppositional alternatives within the Islamic movement during this period have been successfully co-opted by the AK Party into it’s political organization. On the other hand, as in the case of Abdüllatif Şener (one of the founders of the AK Party), any internal discord within the party itself has resulted in the marginalisation of the dissenting personnas. In this context, the protests of 2013 have generated the public legitimacy needed for theanti-kapitalist Müslümanlar and their charismatic leader Ihsan Eliaçık to become the only independent actor within the Islamic movement able to openly criticise the values and policies of the AK Party.

Looking back, although the protests had started against the demolition of a park in central Istanbul, one can argue that they quickly evolved into a revolt against the policies of what has been described as the ‘Turkish model’; a combination of neo-liberal economics, pervasive consumer culture, semi-authoritarian politics and Islamic populism. As such, the Turkish model is not just an economic system or ideological form of hegemony but a way of regulating and producing life (Foucault; 1978/2010) based on the notion of the multitude (Hardt & Negri 2002; Virno 2004) to create a biopolitical regime (Lazzarato; 2005) wherein particular forms of life are systematically denied and repressed for the sake of growth-oriented neo-liberal economic rationality. The form of capitalism upon which the Turkish model is built upon depends on ‘liquid modern’ conditions in which social institutions constituting disciplinary society are in put into crises (Bauman, 2000, 2006, 2007), notions of networked flexible accumulation (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2007), the international division of labour (Wallerstein, 1974), short-term contracts and an almost ever-present demand for re-skilling (Sennet, 2006). Ubiquitous surveillance or the society of control (Deleuze 1995) is how cohesion is maintained within this biopolitical system of power. The revolts are then the symptoms of an impending crises within Turkish society against a neo-liberal economic system that reduces every skill and subjective quality onto the plane of profit and the ephemeral networks of power created and maintained by cynical and opportunist individuals vis-a-vis the clientalist Turkish state.

At the same time, the riots were a revolt against the destruction of public commons throughout the urban centres of Turkey and the pervasive consumerism seeking to replace public spaces with regulated spaces of consumption. Zygmund Bauman defines consumerism as “a type of social arrangement that results from recycling mundane, permanent and so to speak ‘regime-neutral’ human wants, desires, and longings into the principal propelling and operating force of society, a force that coordinates systemic reproduction, social integration, social stratification and the formation of human individuals, as well as playing a major role in the processes of individual and group self-identification and in the selection and pursuit of individual life policies.”[1] Consumerism, when combined with neo-liberal, post-Fordist capitalism makes the very essence of life into the source of profit extraction, turning society into a ‘social factory’ (Negri, 1989).  In the past decade, Istanbul and other urban centres such as Ankara or Izmir have become the spaces where the intensities and inequalities generated by the process of neo-liberalization are most keenly felt. For example, Istanbul is simultaneously a city with the 5th most amount of registered billionaires (Forbes, 2011) and a city which yearly receives on average around 102,000 rural migrants from Anatolia (Yükseker, 2009). The contrast in the income gap between the rich and poor in the urban population of the city is even more stark: the richest 1% earns 322 times more than the poorest 1% (Saatçi & Akpınar, 2007). Migration, infrastructural collapse and inequality in urban centres create an atmosphere of fear, stress and precariousness (Ellin, 1997) that has caused the public to retreat from the open spaces of the city. The abandoned public spaces have been systematically re-appropriated into private, securitized, quasi-public spaces (Davis, 1992; Koskela, 2000) such as gated communities, exclusive night clubs and shopping malls turning the population centres of Turkey into a bifurcated urban canvas. For example, as of 2013 there are more than 109 shopping malls in Istanbul and more than 279 shopping malls throughout Turkey.

Although the participants in the Gezi Park protests belonged to a diverse alliance of groups from different strata of Turkish society, the common element that bound these groups together was discontent towards the economic and social policies of the AK Party government and the destruction of the public commons. As an active and visible actor in the riots, the anti-capitalist Muslims shattered the attempts of the AK Party government to create a black and white narrative of “them” versus “us” and portray the rioters as godless Islamaphobes. With practices and a discourse based on a Marxist re-interpretation of the Koran, the anti-capitalist Muslims openly question whether the values of Islam can legitimate the economic and social policies of the AK Party government. The first part of the following paper will provide a detailed historical account of the relationship between the Islamic movement in Turkey and capitalism; tracing how the Islamic movement has evolved from the reactionary anti-capitalist Milli Görüş movement into the neo-liberal, pro-business AK Party. The latter part will provide an account and discussion of how the anti-capitalist Muslims challenge the ideological hegemony of the AKP with their discourse and practices and how they have gained public legitimacy with their actions during the Gezi Protests.

The political evolution of Islamic Movement in Turkey

The discussion in Turkey regarding the compatibility of Islamic values with capitalism is not new. The origins of the discussion can be traced to the Islamic Milli Görüş movement, which was an explicit economic and social rejection of big industry capitalism favoured by the secular Republican establishment in Turkey.[2] Under the leadership of politician Necmettin Erbakan, the Milli Görüş movement emerged in the 1970s as an ideology which represented the religious values of the Anatolian small bourgeois. Rejecting the ‘materialist ideologies’ of the Left and liberalism in Turkey, the Milli Görüş was an idealist movement seeking to build an ethical version of modernity in which technology is combined with Turkish ethics towards the creation of a new civilization. The basis of this “new civilization” was based on a revival of the Ottoman and Islamic values which were repressed under the secular regime.[3] The four pillars of Milli Görüş consisted of the ümmet (Muslim community), nationalism, statism andrespect for the military.[4] This combination led to the creation of an ideological movement that while retaining it’s Islamic identity, put an emphasis on the Turkish-Ottoman exceptionalism.[5]

In the transition period after the 1980 military coup, prime minister Turgut Özal made a series of International Monetary Fund (IMF) backed economic reforms which favoured financing small to middle scale Anatolian businesses to transform them into international exporters of manufactured goods. The goal of the reforms was to transform the Turkish economy from an import-substitution industrial model into an export-oriented economy. These Anatolian businesses, which had historically received almost no support from the corporatist interests of the secular Republican establishment, were built on conservative, Islamic values and made up the economic and social core of the Milli Görüş movement in Turkey (Karadağ, 2010).

As the Milli Görüş movement began to benefit from Özal’s economic policies in the post-1980 period, the ideological outlook of the movement began to shift towards being more accommodating towards neo-liberal capitalism. At the same time, the privatisation of media industries in the wake of the 1980 reforms allowed the Milli Görüş movement to establish television and newspapers that which would broaden their social influence within Turkish society. As the movement expanded their influence, it began to achieve success in local electoral politics through the Refah Party (RP) and govern municipalities throughout Turkey.[6] During this period, the discourse of the RP had shifted from the Milli Görüş rhetoric of transforming Turkey into an anti-western, anti-secular, isolationist (only favouring ties with Muslim countries) society into one which emphasized the need for Turkey to be integrated into the global economy.[7] Instead of rejecting capitalism wholesale, the discourse of the RP emphasized Islamic values as a way of bringing justice and equality into capitalism by building an “adil düzen” (Just Economic System) while rejecting the values of the West.[8]

The 1995 election process yielded a surprising electoral victory for the RP under Erbakan’s leadership. Capturing 21.4 percent of the total votes, RP became the largest group in Turkish parliament and then in 1996 formed a coalition government with the centre right Doğru Yol Partisi (DYP).[9] An Islamic party entered government for the first time and Erbakan became the first prime minister with a background from the Islamic movement. The “RefahYol” government lasted for 11 months until February 28th, 1997, when the Turkish military issued a list of declarations stating that irtica (Islamic fundamentalism) was the biggest threat to Turkish national sovereignty. Alongside this statement, the military also issued a list of businesses, media outlets, social clubs and other societal organisations that were accused of promoting religious fundamentalism.[10] Public pressure forced the RefayYol government to resign and the RP was banned from politics in 1997. During this transitional phase in Islamic politics, former members of the banned RP had to either stick with the traditionalist old guard of the Milli Görüşmovement under the Saadet Partisi (SP) or side with the new reformists under the AK Party. This resulted in a major break with most members choosing to side with the reformist AK Party, leaving behind Erbakan and the traditionalists (SP).

While the SP suffered a disastrous defeat in the 2002 general elections, the AK Party became the first party in the parliament with 352 seats. It was for the first time since the 1980s that a political party managed to hold a single majority in parliament and the AK Party was hailed as a huge success. One of the major effects of the 1997 “post-modern” coup was that it caused the Islamic movement to abandon the idealist, anti-capitalist, reactionary tendencies of Milli Görüş which had caused tension between the secular state and the RP. The AK Party, turning away from its anti-capitalist Milli Görüş origins presents itself as a political party with conservative Islamic values, favouring neo-liberal, free-market policies which seek to integrate Turkey into the global economy.[11]

The ‘Turkish model’ (and it’s Discontents)

The political evolution of the Islamic movement from an anti-capitalist, reactionary Milli Görüş into the neo-liberal AK Party has been described by Cihan Tugral (2009) as a ‘passive revolution’. Prior to the Gezi Park protests of 2013, it seemed that more than 10 years of  AK Party rule had brought stability and prosperity to Turkish society. Since the accession of the AK Party government in a landslide electoral victory in 2002, the gross domestic product (GDP) had been growing at an average growth rate of 4.94 % per annum with the gross national income (GNI) per capita rising from $3553 to $10,106 in the same period. Turkey had become the 15th biggest economy in the world and developed an influential ‘zero problems’ foreign policy under the leadership of minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. A potential peace deal to end the 30 year old conflict with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) in the south-east of Turkey was on the table and the power of the Turkish military had been curbed with the Ergenekon trials. Successive electoral victories seemed to validate the popularity of AK Party’s conservative social policies and neo-liberal economic policies. The international media spoke of a ‘Turkish model’ for the Arab Spring countries, with Time magazine putting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (the Turkish prime minister) on the cover page with the heading ‘Erdoğan’s way’. Erdoğan was described as the Islamist politician who has ‘greatly enhanced Turkey’s international reputation, has reined in its once omnipotent military, has pursued economic policies that have trebled per capita income and unleashed new entrepreneurship, and has for the most part maintained a pro-West stance.’[12] The BBC, despite criticizing the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) record on censorship, describes Turkey as ‘a useful example to show that Islam and modernity can go together.’[13]

Then on May 28th 2013, what began as a group of environmental activists protesting against the demolition of Gezi Park (a small urban park in central Istanbul) quickly turned into the greatest challenge faced by the AK Party in more than 10 years of rule. The municipal authorities and police tried to evict the protesters using excessive violence, setting off the largest civil disobedience movement in the history of modern Turkey. As the police violence intensified over the next few days, the demonstrators began to grow in number and spread throughout Turkey. Gezi Park was no longer a protest against the demolition of a park but instead the focal point for people from all walks of life to express their frustrations towards the government. The occupation of Gezi Park and the surrounding area continued until the 15th June, when the police stormed the park, violently dispersing the occupiers.

Allah, Bread & Freedom: introducing the anti-capitalist Muslims

Drawing inspiration from a Marxist interpretation of the Koran which sees religion through the perspective of class struggle, the anti-capitalist Muslims make a theoretical connection between the Islamic values and socialism. For İhsan Eliaçık, theologian and leader of the group, the religion of Islam as founded by the prophet Muhammed was an expression of class struggle against capitalist exploitation. A lifestyle guided by the values of Islam is the anti-thesis of capitalism and  an expression of resistance against the sufferings caused by the accumulation of wealth and private property. In terms of practice, the anti-capitalist Muslims are inspired by the Iranian revolutionary and sociologist Ali Shariati and the life of Ebu Zerr el Gifari, one of the companions of the prophet Muhammed. The manifesto found on the website of the anti-capitalist Muslims declares that all struggling against the tyrant of capitalism are allies and of the group and that .[14] Capitalism is defined in the manifesto as the “enemy of Allah, humanity, nature, the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden” and that this emnity is the source of capitalism’s existence. As an alternative to capitalism, the anti-capitalist Muslims are looking for the “soul of the Zeitgeist that will constitute a protest to current conditions of the world and a heart for an increasingly heartless world”. Their demands are a border-less, classless, domain of peace and justice; a darusselam (house of Islam). The reason as to why the group calls themselves anti-capitalist is due to historical conditions. They argue capitalism is the hegemonic system of our age and that in history each prophecy and prophet was a revolt against the hegemonic systems of their age. In accordance to this tradition, Ihsan Eliaçık and his followers are revolting against capitalism, the hegemonic system of our age. In this context, the anti-capitalist Muslims argue that no person, ethnic, religious or class identities have the implicit right to dominate and establish their hegemony over others. Instead, they call upon all to build universal principles of respect and ethics, and construct communal settlements based on mutual trust and a common law.

While the discourse of the anti-capitalist Muslims constitutes one aspect of their challenge to the ideological hegemony that the AK Party has over Islamic values, the group also engages in practices which bring out the contradictions between the rhetoric of Islamic values employed by the AK Party and the reality of their social practices. The strategies used to attract publicity by the anti-capitalist Muslims is situationalist in nature (see Debord 1967 & Vaneigem 1967) and is based on hijacking the media spectacles created by the supporters of the AK Party. As such, the group often appears on the site of organized spectacles and attracts media attention by creating an alternative interpretation of an event organized by the AK Party. The publicity created through the hijacking of these high-profile events then brings in even more attention by the mass media and creates the  public legitimacy needed for the group to become a political actor within the Islamic movement that is able to criticize the AK Party. For example, in 2011, the group organized a series of ‘otel önü iftarları’ (Hotel-front Iftars) during Ramadan. Sitting on makeshift dining tables and by breaking their fasts with a simple Iftar of olives and cheese, the group made a public statement about the wealth accumulated by members and clients of the AK Party who were breaking their fasts in the neighbouring luxury hotels. During 2012, the group organized ‘kardeşlik iftarları” (Fraternity Iftars) with the socialist Emek ve Adalet Platforum (Labour and Justice Platform) to promote dialogue and fraternity within Turkish society. On May 1st 2013, the group made headlines by participating in Labour Day demonstrations with the slogan ‘Allah Ekmek Özgürlük’ (Allah, Bread, Freedom). During the Gezi Protests, the group captured the imagination of the Turkish public by performing Friday prayers on Taksim Square. Contrary to orthodox Islamic beliefs, the prayers were conducted with the participation of both males and females. On both occasions, secular leftist organisations stood watch to ensure that the group could pray undisturbed, demonstrating the fraternity between the secular left and the anti-capitalist Muslims.The latest protest of the anti-capitalist Muslims against the Islamic values of the AK Party has been with the ‘yeryüzü sofraları’ (Banquets on Earth). After the clearing of Taksim Square and Gezi Park, the mayor of Beyoğlu declared that the site would be used to host an invitation-only iftars during Ramadan. To protest against both the exclusiveness of the AK Party sponsored event and the usage of a socially-contested site, the anti-capitalist Muslims organized an alternative iftar which started from the middle of Istiklal Avenue and extended all the way to Taksim Square. During the next few days both national and international media outlets were awash with iconic images of protesters breaking their fasts under police surveillance while AK Party supporters broke their fast in an empty, civilian-free Taksim Square.

 

 Conclusion

What the Gezi Protests demonstrate is that a large segment of Turkish society is discontent  with the political economy of the Turkish model. Furthermore, the discourse and practice of  the anti-capitalist Muslims signalize that part of this crises is caused the AK Party’s  ideological understanding of political Islam. The narrative which frames the evolution, or  the ‘passive revolution’ of the reactionary, anti-capitalist Milli Görüş movement into the  neo-liberal AK Party as a natural and inevitable outcome of the Islamic movement is  beginning to be questioned by religious activist groups such as the anti-capitalist Muslims.  Despite the public popularity currently enjoyed by the group, it is questionable whether the  anti-capitalist Muslim’s ideological understanding of political Islam will be able to create a  lasting alternative to the AK Party. If even the popularity of the group is caused by a  temporary reaction of the public to the discourse of the AK Party during the protests, this  popularity still demonstrates the degree of discontent in both the Muslim and secular  spheres of Turkish society.

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[1]   Bauman (2007: 28)

[2]   Onis, The political economy of Islamic resurgence in Turkey: the rise of the Welfare Party in perspective.Pages 747-749

[3]   Although the term Milli Görüş translates into “National Outlook”, the term Milli within the context of Islamic movements also means the religious community of Islam. The term itself is from Ottoman Turkish. Şemseddin Sami Fraşeri’s definition from Kamus-u Türkî (1902) provides a good explanation of the term:

Millet (from Arabic):

  1.             Religion, sect: the millet of Ibrahim (Christianity, Islam and Judaism.)
  2.             Followers of a religion: the millet of Islam.

[4]   Atacan, Religion and Politics in Turkey, pages 47-50.

[5]   Mardin,“Turkish Islamic Exceptionalism Yesterday and Today: Continuity, Rupture and Reconstruction in Operational Codes

[6]   Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey. Pages 220-222.

[7]   Taşpınar, Kurdish Nationalism and Political Islam in Turkey. Pages 145-151.

[8]   The Just Economic Order (1999) was an economic manifesto written by Necmettin Erbakan. The manifesto proposed a system of exchange built on around Islamic values  which would replace capitalism.

[9]   For more on the causes behind RP’s 1995 electoral victory, please refer to Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey (2002) and/or Haldun Gülalp, “Globalization and Political Islam: The Social Bases of Turkey’s Welfare Party”, Int. J. Middle East Stud. 33 (2001), 433–448.

[10] Atacan, “Explaining Religious Politics at the Crossroad: AKP-SP.  Religion and Politics in Turkey. Pages 50-53.

[11] Heper, “The Justice and Development Part Government and the Military in Turkey.” Religion and Politics in Turkey

[12] Gosh, B., (28.11.11) Erdogan’s Moment. Time Magazine. Available at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2099674,00.html [Accessed November 28, 2011]. According to the article, the U.S government hopes that the policies of the governments formed out the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya will resemble the AKP.

[13]       Kendall, B., (21.11.11). Turks sense dawn of new era of power and confidence. BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15815319 [Accessed November 21, 2011].

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