Islam and Neoliberalism in Turkey

Orhan Karagoz

University of Melbourne


In this essay I will investigate the relationship between Islam and neoliberalism in Turkey. In the 1980s Turkey followed the global trend towards neoliberalism. However, due to Turkey's unique historical and social context, neoliberalism was applied differently and had different consequences to those of other countries.

Pre-Neoliberal Turkish History

After the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923 the state adopted an etatist economic policy involving an import-substitution economy and strategic protectionism, considering these policies necessary to industrialize and modernize the country (Isik, 2010: 55; Özcan & Turunç, 2011: 63, 65; Gökarîksel & Secor, 2009: 8; Ahmad, 1993: 62, 89–90; Dodd, 1979: 170).  These economic policies primarily benefited the upper classes, the urban bourgeoisie, the military and the civil servants in the country’s urban centres (Demiralp, 2010: 123-5; Isik, 2010: 55; Şen, 2010: 59, 74). They neglected small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which were perceived as less secure, or less likely to be loyal to Kemalist and secularist ideals, than large conglomerates with close relations to the state; rural people were also neglected as they were perceived as resistant to modernization.  The consequences were an increasing gap between the rural and the urban, the poor and the rich (Demiralp, 2010: 123-5; Özcan & Turunç, 2011: 65-7).  

These divides accelerated political tensions between the Left and the Right, beginning in the late 1960s and resulting in large scale political violence and terrorism in the 1970s.  This can be attributed to shortages in capital and goods, including food, as well as unregulated migration, uneven urbanization and insufficient infrastructure, largely stemming from inefficient and corrupt etatism (Özcan & Turunç, 2011: 65-7; Demiralp, 2010: 125; Hosgör, 2011: 344).  The political violence and instability led to the 1980 coup, where the new military government favoured neoliberalism as a way out of the economic crisis, in conjunction with a Turk-Islam Synthesis (TIS) (Blad & Koçer, 2012: 47; Özcan & Turunç, 2011: 67; Şen, 2010: 69; Isik, 2010: 56).


Islam and Neoliberalism in Turkey

TIS was an ideology founded in the late 1960s arguing that all Turks were inherently Muslim (Zürcher, 1994: 302–3; Şen, 2010: 65; Vorhoff, 1998: 231).  It arose specifically to be used as a bulwark against left-wing ideologies, such as communism, facilitating a militant nationalism where the Turks were presented as the vanguards of Islam (Shankland, 1999: 9; Ahmad, 1993: 184).  ‘Turk Islamism’ is not as radical in aggressively targeting opposing ideologies.  It is rather the general nationalist culture where the Turkish identity is tied to Islam.  It is thus more flexible, open to cosmopolitanism and Western commercial activities, and thus neoliberalism (Şen, 2010: 61-4; Adas, 2006: 125-7).  

Following the 1980 junta’s authoritarian imposition of the TIS and IMF approved neoliberal policies, Turgut Özal’s government[1] continued to support and expand these agendas (Şen, 2010: 68-9).  Turkish neoliberalism followed the general course of neoliberalism in massively privatizing the public services and state owned enterprises, deregulating and liberalizing the economy, and reducing the pensions and wages of the public service and of cheap labour (Şen, 2010: 68-9; Blad & Koçer, 2012: 36, 39; Isik, 2010: 56; Özcan, & Turunç, 2011: 67).  An export orientation strategy and the promotion of SMEs and entrepreneurship also characterised Turkey’s shift to neoliberalism (Hosgör, 2011: 343-4).  Foreign capital investment was encouraged, particularly from Saudi Arabia, and non-interest Islamic banks were allowed to operate to provide economic flexibility for Islamic SMEs (Hosgör, 2011: 344-5; Blad & Koçer, 2012: 46).  The commercial dynamics of Turkey were thus altered, but so were the relationships between Islamism and Islamic enterprises with the West and with secular urbanized business groups. 

            Despite the superficial appearance of Turkish Islamism as anti-Western and anti-modern, the rise of ‘Islamic capitalism’ through the neoliberal incentives to small businesses and entrepreneurship, proves otherwise (Isik, 2010: 56; Hart, 2007: 289; Tepe, 2007: 107-8, 134; Hosgör, 2011). Islamic SMEs, entrepreneurs and the rising petty bourgeoisie of the provincial towns and rural Anatolia, have used Islamic discourse to construct an alternative unified business network, market and cultural identity (Hosgör, 2011: 346-8; Isik, 2010: 56, 61; Özcan, & Turunç, 2011: 83). [2] The Islamic capitalists{3} seek to emphasise the cultural bonds amongst themselves while appealing to the disenfranchised, through presenting themselves as the pious and traditional Muslims, and thus as more properly Turkish; they portray themselves as hard-working, moral, socially concerned and uncorrupted, compared with the individualistic, materialist and corrupted Westernised secularists, elites, and Kemalist bureaucrats (Isik, 2010: 56, 61-2; Özcan, & Turunç, 2011: 68-70, 73; Hart, 2007: 289, 292).  According to this discourse the secular elites and Kemalists were oppressors of the Islamic majority, yet the desire to promote commercial activity through SMEs and the collective ownership of companies were Kemalist goals in the 60s and the 70s (Hosgör, 2011: 344; Özcan, & Turunç, 2011: 76), however this was only achieved through neoliberal policies from the 80s onwards. 

            Turk Islamists hold out the promise of a utopian international Islamic community based on ummah (community)(Atasoy, 2009: 54, 126; Hart, 2007: 289; Hosgör, 2011: 348-352).  In this proposed community an Islamic free market, free from government intervention, based on the market of Medina in the time of prophet, would exist without western individualism and selfishness (Hosgör, 2011: 349, 351; Karim, 2010: 105-9; Adas, 2006: 131; Şen, 2010: 73-4).  The disadvantaged will be supported through zakāt (alms), the voluntary gift of a proportion of one’s income and one of the five pillars of Islam (Hart, 2007: 290-2; Hosgör, 2011: 351; Karim, 2010: 114).  In Islam it is acknowledged that in a free market economy people will not be equal since Allah gave people different capabilities, ambitions and goals, which naturally produce complex differentiated relationships (Magnarella, 1974: 144–5; Adas, 2006: 120).  However, the wealthy are obliged to help the disadvantaged (Setia, 2011: 76; Hart, 2007: 292; Adas, 2006: 120). 

The West, modernity, and liberalism were held responsible for the disadvantages of pious Anatolian entrepreneurs (Hosgör, 2011: 344; Özcan, & Turunç, 2011: 76).  This rhetoric was gradually abandoned by Islamic business groups since benefitting from neoliberalism and creating business links with Europe and further abroad.  Neoliberal policies at first, in the early 80s, only benefited the urbanized bourgeoisie, but later, from the late 80s onwards, the promotion of an export economy with low interest credits for SMEs, which saw the expansion of many of these companies to national and international levels, helped create a new Islamic bourgeoisie (Özcan & Turunç, 2011: 68-9; Hosgör, 2011: 344).  Islam was used to create local niche markets and preserve them at the national level, but as these SMEs grew many became international economic actors.  As a consequence the relationship of these businesses to Islam changed (Adas, 2006: 125-6).  Islam was no longer as crucial for their identities or the maintenance of their markets.  Neoliberalism allowed Islamic businesses to flourish, but in creating greater wealth changed people’s spiritual identities, as can be seen in the rise of ‘Islamic consumerism’ and the commercialisation of Islamic fashion (Özcan & Turunç, 2011: 72, 76; Gökarîksel & Secor, 2009: 15; Hart, 2007: 294).  

Islamic brotherhoods, which have a strong relationship with the new bourgeoisie, have become important providers of education, health, and care for the poor, following the neoliberal withdrawal of the state from public services (Özcan & Turunç, 2011: 82; Blad & Koçer, 2012: 48).  The AKP (The Justice and Development Party), the conservative Islamic Party with many links to these brotherhoods, came to power in 2002 and remains in power.  However, they have failed to keep many of their promises in relation to providing better social welfare and a more equitable society (Patton, 2006: 513; Akan, 2011: 375-6).  This is because of pressures from the IMF, secular elites, and both the old urban and new Islamic bourgeoisie, all of which promote strong neoliberal policies opposed to state interference in the economy (Patton, 2006: 515-9; Tepe, 2007: 134; Akan, 2011: 375-6).  As a consequence the gap between the rich and the poor has widened in Turkey in the last decade (Hart, 2007: 302; Akan, 2011: 370).[4]


Self Help, Class and Cosmopolitanism

Islamist neoliberals in Turkey seek to overcome the problems of class through the neoliberal ideal of self-help.  According to this idea the individual is responsible for his or her economic failure or success, not the state, and this individual responsibility is believed to foster a flexible and robust economy (Gershon, 2011: 540-1).  This concept is extended into the religious realm.  The capable are religiously obliged to give zakāt to those in need, relieving the state of any pressures to provide widespread social welfare (Hosgör, 2011: 351).  The religious elite, who are close to the government, constantly emphasize the spiritual gains in the afterlife for the giver of zakāt (Atasoy, 2009: 120, 125).  Arguably, this could be called spiritual commodification.

Many wealthy Islamists now surround themselves with luxurious commodities, top brands and ostentatious villas (Özcan & Turunç, 2011: 77).  The Islamic dress code for women is now a part of the Turkish fashion industry (Gökarîksel & Secor, 2009: 6-8).[5]  Furthermore, many wealthy Islamists follow Western cosmopolitan culture and trends, desiring to be a part of an international and cosmopolitan Islamic culture (Gökarîksel & Secor, 2009: 8-9, 13).  However, many Islamists, traditionalists that are hostile to modernity, criticise cosmopolitanism as a threat to Muslim spirituality because it promotes materialism and individualism (Gökarîksel & Secor, 2009: 13).  Cosmopolitanism and the commercialisation of Islamic dress for women are perceived to challenge the gender boundaries of Islam and the spiritual relation of women with God (Gökarîksel & Secor, 2009: 13-15). 

Gender and Employment

Women’s labour continues to be exploited by the Islamic bourgeoisie under neoliberalism.  This is due to the prevalence of informal paternalistic relationships established between employers and employees (Isik, 2010: 54).  For instance, in the carpet industry, where patriarchal family structures predominate, daughters and wives often do the carpet weaving in the home under exploitative conditions (Isik, 2010: 57-8; Hart, 2007: 294).  In general, neoliberalism has made labour more flexible leading to lower wages, longer hours and less social protection (Şen, 2010: 68-9; Akan, 2011: 367; Blad & Koçer, 2012: 36, 39; Isik, 2010: 56).  In the poor villages where neoliberal transformation is rampant, the fear of change, of becoming like the gavur (‘infidel’) West, creates a traditionalist and conservative backlash, a reassertion of patriarchy largely directed against female transgressions of gender boundaries (Hart, 2007: 289, 300).  Neoliberalism in Turkey has led to the increase in labour exploitation of women amongst the poor and the re-assertion of traditional gender stereotypes as a reaction to social transformation. 

In workplaces where religious brotherhoods have strong links with both the employer and the workers, workers have been prevented from taking industrial action as it is argued that it disrupts productivity and implies a lack of social harmony[6], undermining the Islamic social vision (Adas, 2006: 124; Hosgör, 2011: 350).  It has been argued that the new Islamic bourgeoisie does not treat its workers any better than the old secular bourgeoisie despite the Islamic discourse of social harmony and working for the poor (Karim, 2010: 122; Isik, 2010: 61-2; Adas, 2006: 124; Özcan & Turunç, 2011: 81; Setia, 2006: 81).  The influence of neoliberalism, its emphasis on profit and individual gain, appears stronger in practice than Islamic social rhetoric.    


In Turkey, the relationship between Islam and neoliberalism has had a major impact on the society, transforming attitudes and perceptions, identity discourses, cosmologies and cosmogonies.  The Islamic bourgeoisie altered their anti-Western rhetoric once they began to benefit from neoliberalism and Islam filled the public service vacuum caused by reductionist neoliberal policies.  Neoliberalism led to class differences among Islamists and these differences widened.  The new order of neoliberal Islamism commodified Islamic symbols, produced Islamic cosmopolitanism and created more choice for women.  Not all women benefited from neoliberalism however. In reality, the discrimination and the oppression of women among the poor increased. The effects of Islam and neo-liberalism in Turkey are still manifesting as the government is perpetuating these policies.


1 Turgut Özal formed the first civilian government following the junta.  He was Prime Minister from 1983 to 1989, and President from 1989 to 1993. 
2 Islam was, and is, more dominant in the countryside and amongst recent migrants to urban areas. 
3 ‘Islamic capital’ is also called ‘Green capital’ or in Turkey with respect to Anatolian SMEs ‘Anatolian Tigers’. (Hosgör, 2011: 343) 
4 Turkey’s budget deficit is also increasing, which could be seen as creating the potential for an economic crisis.  If a serious economic crisis occurs the brotherhoods that provide a large amount of social welfare, which makes people loyal to the religious conservatives and which controls fundamentalism, may no longer able to do so, resulting in a split between religious groups or the loss of integrity within Turk Islamism.  This may lead to social turmoil.
5   Fashionable Islamic dress for women is currently influenced by Ottoman court dresses, Middle Eastern styles, and Indian culture (Gökarîksel & Secor, 2009: 9). 
6 I believe that this does not prevent any cynicism among conservative, pious workers towards their employers. In fact they are likely to be conscious of the fact that there are different socio-economic classes among pious Muslims.  


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