Turkish Islamist Intellectuals at Left-Leaning Crossroads

Turkish Islamist Intellectuals at Left-Leaning Crossroads

What is currently taking place in the Turkish Islamic arena is only a tip of an iceberg, a unique domestic debate that may soon lead to an unprecedented radical change in the Turkish Islamic movement and all Islamic movements in general, specially if we know that it signals a rise in a growing trend that calls for a change of historical coalitions of Islamists to move closer to the Left, a previously primary foe for all Islamic movements.


I have returned from Turkey after attending the forum of Turkish independent Islamic intellectuals,  held days ago to study the future of Turkish Islamists and the challenge they may face specially as debate over Hijab (veil) issues exacerbates and as the secular campaign against the (Islamic) Justice and Development Party (AKP) snowballs. Add to this intra-Islamic conflict like that between Millî G?rüş (National View) led by historical leader Necmettin Erbakan and his students Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul and the generation who led a huge schism from the movement and managed to assume posts of a prime ministry and president.


The forum is the second in a year. No specifice date has been set for it yet. However, it will mostly be held three times a year. The first one was held five months ago. It revolves around practicing politics freely way with an indirect effect on political ideas and practices of the Islamists outside and without organizational and activist frameworks.


The conference coordinator is Mehmet Bekaroglu, a Turkish intellectual who is well-known for his intellectual and cultural initiatives throughout the past 25 years. He was coordinator of the initiative of The East Conference held during the US invasion of Iraq, aiming to directing all Turkish cultured elite across the intellectual and political spectrum to be open to the East as a natural extension to Turkey and to coordinate with its elites and movements in order to close ranks to confront the US imperialist project.


Former Saadet (Felicity) Party (SP) deputy leader before it was frozen, Bekaroglu is a psychology professor in the Black Sea university and an Islamist who is well known for his openness to the left. He leads a trend calling for bringing closer Islamists and leftists to confront western imperialism and open market policies.


Bekaroglu”s latest initiatives was calling for establishing another political movement that includes Islamic and leftist ideologies ( the New Political Initiative). He calls for it along with the incumbent Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay, a leftist who doesn”t fight religion or religious people. Although the initiative faced stumbles because of disagreements between both parties, both of them confirmed that it is still appropriate and achievable and that the biggest challenge is- according to them- policies of globalization and its disastrous repercussions on people especially poor classes.


The New Political Initiative is based on the idea that Turkey”s only solution is bringing closer the leftists and Islamists even if it is at its minimum limits that may only stop battles between both sides; and that a new movement that includes the common factors between Islamists and the leftists in a way that benefits Turkish people is required specially as the AKP is moving towards the right with its neo-liberal policies while the Republican People”s Party- the strongest Leftist Party- to extremist and secular Kemalist policies that establish tyranny and devastate private freedoms.


The forum was held in the Turkish resort of Red Bath (70 kms from the capital Ankara on the road to Istanbul) with its hot water and red soil. This Asian resort reveals a part of the image of the economic and social situation of the Turkish Islamists. It is a huge tourist and refined resort in charming mountainous heights in which ordinary hotels are beside the timeshare hotel villas in conservative atmospheres where women with their modest conservative clothes are given sports areas, swimming-pools and various places of entertainment the resort is full of, including conservative concerts.


While I was roaming in the resort on the sidelines of the meeting and in the breaks, I knew that the resort is the tourist mecca for the Islamic elite and that it has for many times hosted meetings of the AKP leaders and meetings of many Islamic and other organizations and movements         . The Islamic elite that convened to assess and criticize the Islamic experience in Turkey stayed in same resort which is preferred by leaders of the Islamic movements, although every one paid all costs of his residence because the forum has no financiers.


Invitations were sent to 100 Turkish intellectuals of who 65 attended and I was the only non Turkish guest in the form. This was very difficult for me as all discussions were definitely in Turkish of which I know only some words. It was difficult to afford a translation for only one guest. However, this service was done by colleagues Turan Qashlaqagi, Islam Ouzkan and Khairuddin Qirbash.


Most of the members are independent Islamists who prefer civil institutional work to organizational work. Some of them belonged to Islamic organizations in some periods of their lives and some of them-including coordinator Bekaroglu-are still at borders of the movements and still maintain some degree of influence. All of them seek some sort of a a Muslim community in its values and principles. Most of them enjoy an effect on the public opinion specially the Islamist public pinion.


Those who attended the forum represent nearly all the Islamic spectrum, from the Salafist in its light Turkish version to the too modernist Islamists. However, traditional Sufi orders ( like Nourisiya and Sulaimaniiya) were not interested in taking part in the discussions of this conference. This can be understood in light of the Sufi orders” suspicious view such gatherings and the nature of their discussions that may violate their control over their followers.

What was noticed was that the technologists and technocrats accounted for most of the participants in the conference. Most of them aren”t related to Islamic studies, a feature that overshadows all Islamic movements in general, not only in
Turkey. Most leaders and cadres are doctors, engineers, professionals and businessmen and the one rarely spots those specialized in anthropological studies or social sciences.


The 65 attendees included only two female Islamic activists. The first is Hedayat Shawkat Lee, a female activist in the Capital Women Platform, that defends Muslim women”s rights. She is open to secular movements and activities, something noticed in her speeches. She has a PhD in Sunna and its sciences and she runs a school for the disabled and a kindergarten. The second Fatma Akodoko is a PhD researcher in Prophetic Sunna. An independent Islamist, she got MA in jurisprudence.



The two-day meeting discussed two topics. The first day was allocated to politic while the second day was allocated to economy. The dialogue was full of general discussions which were out of point. They were some sort of uncontrolled free talk that was sometimes useful.


Politics was the main topic of the first day of the meeting. The discussion between the independent Islamists over it and other raised issues seemed to have had no limit as ideas and topics were seeking an Islamic source of authority within the principle of a multiple understanding of the Islam and that there is single model.


Some researchers- like Ihasan E Achak, writer in the magazine of Speech and Justice- called for stopping calling for an Islamic state and move to a state of justice. He calle don Islamists to exclude the term Islamism from their political discourse and to speak only about justice and only justice.


Speaking about a historical background for the current political developments in Turkey, the Nationalists-leaning Islamist Othman Bustan tackled a critical issue and nearly taboo issue among Islamists, the attitude towards Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. He defended Ataturk in his speech and called on Islamists to reconsider their attitude in a fairer way. He saw that Ataturk wasn”t an enemy to Islam and that his policies were controlled by political circumstances and a specific historical period during which he focused on how keep Turkey undivided. Bustan sees that secularism was imposed on Turkey in the context of big historical calculations.


Khairuddin Qirbash, an Islamic studies professor in faculty of Theology in Ankara university and a top intellectual who is well known specially in the Arab world, sharply criticized the Islamic case although he belongs to it. He spoke about the Turkish Islamists” weak political awareness about the world and how they unconsciously throw themselves in the arms of the US notorious project of the New Middle East which popularly based on the group of Fathalla Colan, the biggest Nourisian Sufi order, while is officially based on the liberal and Islamist AKP Party.


Hedayat Shawkat Lee, the female Islamic activist, proposed feminist ideas like criticizing Islamic traditions regarding women and reading them again in feminist or fair eyes. She called on Islamists to support women”s right to run for president. Her ideas faced negative reactions not from a juristic view but because they are a leap out of the context of the Turkish society and its priorities according to media figure Turan Qashlaqagi, the manager of “TimeTurk” network who strongly criticized these ides because do not discuss the real problem facing Islamists and because they represent an elitist or individual demand that a reformist movement cant approve.


Elhami Goular, a professor in Creed in the Faculty of Theology, Ankara University, warned against the so called hidden secularism that lurks under Islamism and among Islamists. He noticed that secularism expanded and infiltrated ranks of Islamists and even infiltrated the Islamic discourse that avoids even Sharia terms lest it is accused of fundamentalism. He said that all movements should cooperate to fight the so called comprehensive secularism that sidelines religion from all aspects of life. His ideas are similar writings of late great intellectual Abdul Wahab Al Meseiri specially his encyclopedia (Comprehensive Secularism and Partial Secularism).


All participants nearly agreed that that the most serious point of the weakness in the political thought of the Islamists is that they think that assuming office and power is a beginning for solving problems, as if all problems are due to lack of religiousness although good manners aren’t solely sufficient. There should be a system that can apply and observe principles. They ignore that change always comes from lower ranks and that priority should be given to society and not to authority. There was a consensus that the Islamists” culture and concepts about the modern state are still immature.


Useful remarks emerged in this discussion like Faidullah Kikalaq, Mayor of the poor city of Bagshilar and an MP for AKP, he created a direct supervision system conducted by people on the municipality”s budget. Also, there was a remark the civil society of the AKP is weak compared with the Left. The AKPs grassroots and youth groups are even weaker when compared with Islamic rivals like the Saadet (Felicity) Party and Millî G?rüş (National View) that has a strong youth organization (Anatolia youth organization). There was also the clear remark that the most wide spread trend in youth arenas is the Turkish national movement.


Although the day allocated for economy was one day but it actually took the biggest part of the conference discussions and time because Turkey“s biggest problem is the economic problem according to researcher and political analyst Ali Bulag. Most participants saw that Turkey has lost its independence because of the economic crisis after it became indebted to international organizations ( the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) and is now subjected to their decisions. Turkey allocates about 40 % of its annual budget to serve debts interests. There is an escalating gap between the poor class (about 25 millions) and the rich. A lecturer saw that about 3 million Turks are on the verge of famine.

Many independent Islamists accused the AKP that it cared for satisfying ruling, sovereign, political and economic establishments like the army and TUSIAD ( the most important lobby of businessmen) and top investors specially Westerners and Media tycoons ( like Eden Dogan) who want to keep the current situation as it is. Thus, the AKP government policies were rightist and neo-liberal serving only these persons at the expense of the poor. Meanwhile, some of them confirm that the Islamist party isn”t totally to blame for this situation which was mostly a product of the populist policies enacted by Süleyman Demirel during his tenure. The latter followed a policy of expanding employment for political interests or bribes, botching nation”s regime and creating a disguised unemployment and hence opening the door for borrowing money from abroad.


The most important economic issues discussed in the meeting included the situation of the Turkish economy which is based on privatization that included everything even profiting enterprises which were paid for low prices. The neo-liberal policies that curbed the state role to the interest of businessmen, triggering unrestricted or inaccurate economic freedom, the state role in the economic field, the direction and volume of the free economic policies, the social justice, the increasing consumer rates that exceeded the production capacity which increased loans to the extent that banks became the only profiting economic establishments, the control of the foreign capital that expanded its control over most Turkish banks and stock market to the extent that it is controlling about 70 % of them.


The Islamic intellectuals discussed these economic issues through only economic terms (how to end debts, increase production and reduce consumption) and they avoided the juristic and identity approach to the extent that a speaker said there is nothing called Islamic economy and that such a discourse must be stopped. Even juristic issues (like the issue of usury) were discussed in merely economic terms and were linked to the economic situation as usury due to inflation and that eradicating usury will not take place through direct laws but more or less through an economic reform that eliminates inflation.


Self-criticism and bold proposals overwhelmed the discussion about the economic issue. There was a sharp criticism against many negative phenomena in Islamists communities like consumerism, the control of the consumption culture and even extravagance among religious people ( Turkey produces 120 million loaves of bread everyday including 10 millions thrown in dustbins). Some lamented that “mujahideen (holy warriors) became contractors” and hat “Sufi orders became business orders” and others spoke about “ritually purified capitalism” or businessmen who apply all rules of capitalism but they pray and do other rituals. A speaker gave the example of Olkar, an Islamic company working in food business. It doesn”t give its workers their due rights. It gives them temporary employment, refuses to permanently appoint them and denies them a social insurance. Some others said that the AKP is creating a religious bourgeoisie at the expense of humanitarian and Islamic values.


Generally speaking, there was a violent feeling of the heavy pressure and negative effects of the free economy policies on people. They forum said that Islamists must give the top priority to the social issue and to fully support the poor and the working classes even if this takes place through adopting socialist slogans. There was a near consensus that the Islamic view towards the social issue must be developed to the extent that researcher Jihan Sher Islam said that any one fighting socialist policies is fighting Islam!.

*Article translated into English by Ikhwanweb