Although Islamist parties ran in elections in the 1970s, their electoral base swiftly eroded from 8 percent in 1973 to 4 percent in 1984. Political circumstances drastically changed after the 1980s: Islamists won the mayorship in the two biggest cities in the country in 1994 and came to power in the national government in 2002 with the still-ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Although there is no single answer to the question of why the Islamists’ fate changed, the bloody coup d’état of September 1980 played a role. The military junta overthrew the civilian government, ratified an undemocratic constitution and dismantled Cold War policies of developmentalism, which had facilitated the kind of industrialization that substituted imports with domestically produced goods. Islamic revivalism in Turkey coincided with this shift away from import-substitution to an export-led industrialization strategy. In fact, the voting share of the major Islamist parties of the period (the Welfare Party, Virtue Party and then AKP) tracks closely with the ups and downs of manufacturing output between 1987 and 2019. (Figure 1)
Islamists followed the export-led industrialization strategy set by the secularist military junta. This shared approach to development at least partially explains why the tension between the Islamists and the (non-socialist, middle-class) secularists is limited to non-economic issues such as sartorial practices, the consumption of alcoholic beverages and the history of the early Republican period. A focus on this Islamist-secularist rift overlooks the connection between late industrialization and Islamic revivalism and overemphasizes the cultural and political causes of tensions between the secularists and the Islamists.
Looking at the Islamists’ alliances, rather than rifts, reveals that the owners of small and medium-sized manufacturing enterprises—the small industrialists—are one of their critical partners. The 1980s witnessed a boom in the number of small manufacturing facilities. These enterprises mostly operated in urban working-class communities and employed less than 50 workers. In total, over 140,000 small establishments, mostly in the ready-made apparel sector, began their operations between 1985 and 2001, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK). To put this figure in perspective, the Turkish economy had roughly 400,000 manufacturing establishments in 2019. These sweatshops employed millions of recent rural-to-urban migrants, who were mostly unaware that before 1980 the urban and industrial landscape had been dominated by socialists and left-wing unions. Along with small construction contractors, slum lords and shopkeepers in working-class communities, these small industrialists make up a new middle class. The alliance between the Islamists and this middle class is a key factor behind their decades-long electoral success.
The Rise of the Small Industrialists
Despite their importance to the success of the Islamists, the small industrialists have not received as much attention as they deserve. One reason they are overlooked by scholars is because of the tacit but enduring assumption that pious entrepreneurs have an intrinsic political tendency toward Islamism due to their religious beliefs. Thus, studies on Islamist entrepreneurs in Turkey do not look closely enough at the relationship between the particular sector and business size of pious entrepreneurs and their political affiliations. Pious entrepreneurs are generally presented as a united bloc competing against the older (and supposedly non-Islamist) business groups, regardless of the specific characteristics of their businesses. Viewing certain entrepreneurs as inherently Islamist makes it difficult to historically contextualize the evolution of alliances of business groups (such as the small industrialists) with Islamists or to understand the processes through which those alliances are formed.
The history of this relationship during and after the collapse of Turkey’s industrialization strategy in the late 1970s provides a global perspective about Islamic revivalism. During the Cold War, developmentalism was adopted in many postcolonial countries by a coalition of government bureaucrats, state-supported industrialists and their domestic subsidiaries as a non-socialist way to achieve national prosperity. In the wake of the oil crises of the 1970s, these developmentalist establishments sought policy alternatives, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. The common post-developmentalist policy recipe called for limitations on government control of manufacturing and financial industries, export-led growth policies and cuts in social policy spending. In fact, the new and commonly used policies aimed at growth but not development per se. In addition to the adoption of this new set of policies, the timing and severity of the crisis of developmentalism, as well as the ensuing reactions by the developmentalist establishments, also facilitated the emergence of new economic interests.
Not coincidentally, Iran’s revolution occurred in 1979 and Turkey’s coup d’etat in 1980. Both political incidents paved the way for Islamists to take power, albeit in different ways. According to the World Bank, Iran and Turkey were the most industrialized countries in the Muslim world as of 1980. In Iran, the developmentalist regime was reluctant to use the growing oil income for redistributive policies and the ensuing discontent triggered social upheaval among the urban working class, which was eventually hijacked by the Islamists. It is not surprising that beyond Iran, Islamists in opposition failed to achieve this kind of success against the political elites in other oil-rich countries. Those elites had purposefully retarded the development of all industrial sectors except mineral extraction, thereby avoiding the emergence of a strong opposition. Similarly, but unlike in Turkey, the neoliberal reforms in other non-oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, did not give strong new economic interests sufficient power to play a transformative role in politics, whether in an alliance with the Islamists or another movement. Islamists in these countries failed to effectively challenge their establishment.
Turkey expanded its industrial output faster than most of the other Muslim-majority and non-oil-rich countries in the postwar period, but the success came with a cost: Turkish manufacturing industries failed to decrease their dependency on foreign intermediate goods that, in return, created a chronic foreign currency shortage. In effect, rapid industrial growth since the 1960s increased the severity of the economic crisis in the late 1970s. Thus, the developmentalist establishment in Turkey had to initiate more expansive reforms than their counterparts in other Muslim-majority countries.
While short-lived governments were helpless against the ongoing recession, various socialist factions and parties gradually expanded their influence into working-class communities and provincial regions of the country. In response to the economic crisis and the political gains of the socialists, the military took over the government in 1980. The military junta passed a new constitution in 1982 to recalibrate government institutions to serve a new export-led growth regime. Unions were closed. Hundreds of thousands of socialists were imprisoned and tortured. Dozens of them were executed. The 1980s was the decade with the highest rate of post-war urbanization: Declining agricultural subsidies and the liberalization of agricultural imports pushed people into cities. The urban population jumped from 43 to 60 percent in just one decade. Between 1980 and 1990, among countries with a population over 10 million, Turkey had the third highest urbanization rate, as well as the fourth fastest growth rate in manufacturing value-added and the third fastest growth in merchandise exports.
The 1980s was thus the decade of the small industrialist. They had a distinct class position: Employing on average a few dozen workers, these entrepreneurs’ earnings were roughly equivalent to a professional’s income. They were not “robber barons” but mere appendages to global commodity chains. Albeit limited, this revenue stream made them a respected elite in their working-class communities. In other words, their influence over the working-class electorate at the national level did not rest as much on the wealth they owned as on their privileged sociocultural access in everyday life. In many cases, they or their close relatives resided in the same neighborhoods as their workers. Often, they also owned tenements where workers lived. They had a visible presence in male-dominated public spaces such as mosques and coffee houses. Given their relatively high socioeconomic status, they influenced the political and cultural opinions of workers in these communities.
Despite this potential political power, small industrialists were also susceptible to the caprices of national policymaking. Changes in trade agreements or environmental regulations, as well as tougher enforcement of the labor code, could sink businesses overnight. With their economic fate tied to government policy, the small industrialists were in search of a reliable partner in national party politics. At the same time, Islamists were busy filling in the political void left by the socialists in the swiftly growing working-class neighborhoods, and they were also searching for a local partner.
The Small Industrialist—Islamist Alliance
The alliance between the small industrialists and Islamist politicians that began to form in the 1980s bore fruit in 1994 with the Islamists’ narrow municipal election victories in Ankara and Istanbul, the two biggest cities in Turkey. Islamists increased their voting share in the 1990s almost exclusively in the cities where the growth of manufacturing output was above the national average. Furthermore, they received the largest share of their votes from poor working-class districts in these cities. Last but not least, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made his debut in national politics with the 1994 election.
The increase in small industrial production continued for the rest of the 1990s. In 1997, more than one-third of Turkey’s exports were textile and ready-made apparel products. Small industrialists in these sectors were now collectively the biggest exporter and employer in the country. The economic crisis in 2001, at that time the worst in the history of the modern Turkish economy, devalued the Turkish currency drastically and boosted exports by small industrialists.
Further empowered by this crisis, the small industrialists’ support turned out to be critical for the opposition within the main Islamist party of the time, the Welfare Party. The party’s leadership had adopted an old developmentalist rhetoric that called for the construction of national heavy industries and included strong redistributive messages to appeal to the workers. But some party members, such as Erdoğan, realized that if the Islamists were to come to power nationally, they needed to alter their messages to solidify their alliance with small industrialists and to accommodate the new realities of the state’s export-led growth strategy. They addressed this need by breaking away from Welfare and founding the AKP in 2001. The time had come for small industrialists to take over the Islamist movement, and Erdoğan rode the wave as the AKP swept to power in the 2002 elections.
Turkey’s export-led growth model crested in the late 2000s. Since this strategy was based on the suppression of wages in labor-intensive light manufacturing industries and the provision of limited social services for workers, the revaluation of the Turkish Lira progressively undermined export growth. China’s World Trade Organization membership in 2001 gradually ate up Turkey’s wage competitiveness. In this decade, Turkey began to expand energy- and resource-intensive sectors such as cable, laminated wood and carpet industries that were no longer desirable for European companies due to their low profitability. The downside of the growth of these hazardous sectors was the boom in machinery and equipment imports by small industrialists that triggered chronic current account deficits. In this tougher global environment, small industrialists grew dependent on government resources. Islamists encouraged informal employment practices at small industrial enterprises and created various subsidy programs such as the Credit Guarantee Fund. This fund provided collateral for over 840,000 small and medium-sized enterprises for a total loan volume of $82 billion between 2015 and 2020, which was 11 percent of the Turkish Gross Domestic Product for 2020. The AKP’s active support not only kept the small industrialists in metropolitan regions alive but also created new small and medium-sized industrialist cadres in provincial cities and towns, which adopted the urban Islamism of big cities only after industrial capital began to flow to these localities in the 2000s.
This transformation also had repercussions for Turkey’s foreign policy in the 2010s. For example, Erdoğan and his minion, Ahmet Davutoğlu, intervened in the civil war in Syria as a remedy for the country’s growing economic problems. They believed that the jihadists would soon overthrow President Bashar al-Asad and bring an end to the conflict. The expectation about a quick jihadist victory in Syria was so strong that government agencies continued publishing reports on investment opportunities in Syria even during the peak of the civil war. The initial grand plan by the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey that aimed at the reconstruction of the entire country was replaced with a new scaled-down version that was one of the factors behind Turkey’s occupation (or control via proxies) of a large territory originally controlled by the Kurdish movement in northern Syria. These occupied regions now receive substantial investment from Turkish companies in infrastructure projects. In addition, small industrialists benefit from the millions of underpaid Syrian refugees who work today in hot and crowded sweatshops in all the major Turkish cities. Rather than employing them in Syria, small industrialists can now use this cheap labor source within Turkey.
In fact, the early 2010s was a crossroads for the Islamists. The AKP received twice as many votes as the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the 2011 parliamentary elections and enjoyed the largest electoral support in its history. Thanks to AKP negotiations with the Kurdish movement, the three-decades-old civil strife had come to a halt. The influence of the military on Turkish politics was contained to a significant extent. In short, political circumstances were ideal for a new long-term growth strategy: Islamists at this point could have started to invest in the human capital of the country to avoid what some call “the middle-income trap.” They could also have worked to politically stabilize the Middle East. But if successful, this strategy would have eroded the small-scale manufacturing base in poor residential areas of big cities, endangering the alliance between the Islamists and small industrialists and shrinking the Islamists’ voting base in urban areas. Instead, the Islamists let the economy shrink. Many incumbent parties in emerging economies such as the Workers’ Party in Brazil worked to reverse the economic slowdown but still lost the government in the 2010s. Islamists in Turkey, however, were some of the architects of the economic slowdown and benefited from it.
This strategy, which could be called “sustainable decline,” did not necessarily conflict with the modus operandi of export-led growth policies. In addition to government subsidies, declining real wages throughout the 2010s triggered a boom in new manufacturing enterprises. During the first ten years of the AKP government, the number of new manufacturing enterprises had dropped to roughly 3,000 per year because of the swift growth of the manufacturing output in China that cut the competitive edge of the small and medium-sized Turkish manufacturing enterprises. Nonetheless, the number of new manufacturing enterprises increased again during the 2010s and reached 14,000 in 2020. Of these establishments, 97 percent were micro or small manufacturing enterprises employing less than 50 workers with an annual turnover less than 10 million Euros. The official statistics available since 1985 reveal that such rapid growth in the number of manufacturing enterprises occurred previously only in the 1990s when the Islamists won their first election victories.
Controlling Streets, Shop Floors and Minds
The presence of small industrialists in urban areas has proved to be a crucial element of the continued electoral success of the Islamists. In the June 2019 election the Istanbul mayoral candidate from AKP received a voting share above the city average in districts where roughly 70 percent of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce members were in the ready-made apparel industry. For instance, the AKP has been historically strong in the district of Bağcılar. In 2008, when I did my fieldwork there, it was the most populous district of Istanbul and had more than 9,000 manufacturing facilities located in residential buildings, which means that each street had on average 2.5 sweatshops. The AKP’s candidate received the fifth highest voting share in Bağcılar (56 percent) in the June 2019 election after four other districts that have a similarly high number of sweatshops (Sultanbeyli, Esenler, Arnavutköy and Sultangazi).
What makes this Islamist-small industrialist partnership successful is its capacity to regiment social interactions among the members of working-class communities. Their alliance sets social boundaries for those communities to isolate them from the “unwanted” sociocultural influences of the Islamists’ potential rivals and challengers—both within the community and without. Specifically, this alliance uses three interconnected social control technologies. The first one is based on surveillance by the neighborhood community. In Bağcılar, over 700,000 people live and socialize in an area of roughly 8 square miles, and more than 30 percent of the residential buildings had a grocery store, a coffee house or a sweatshop. The small industrialists and shopkeepers, who share similar interests in terms of their relationship with the workers, established a tremendously effective surveillance apparatus. Another control mechanism relies on overwork. Working 11 to 13-hour shifts, most of the workers lose their capacity to establish new social relations and solidarity networks that could bypass those controlled by the Islamist-small industrialist alliance. Lastly, Islamists develop a dynamic narrative to cater to the needs of small industrialists in their interactions with their working-class communities. This narrative includes guidelines about everyday life, sexual interactions, rituals and sartorial practices that, the members of these communities are told, will assure their religious purity. The narrative is dynamic because it responds to the new realities of social and political life such as the growing importance of social media.
The political milieu in working-class neighborhoods is a product of these methods of social control. Together with landlords, shopkeepers and small-scale construction contractors, the small industrialists economically dominate the communities through their manufacturing sweatshops. Workers depend on small industrialists for their livelihoods. In this environment, Islamists generate and disseminate a cosmology, which isolates the members of working-class communities from each other as well as those outside their communities. Social isolation makes it difficult, if not impossible, for workers and their families to organize collective action against their employers and religious leaders. In return, voting for the Islamist party becomes an act that helps the workers to justify the social pressure in the form of surveillance, overwork and regimentation of their self-perception as a constructive element of the social order, to establish an ascetic moral bond with—and overcome their anger against—their employers and to defend the community from external sources of spiritual corruption. Insofar as their rivals are demonized, Islamists have a distinct appeal in the eyes of the workers in these communities.
Islamists in Turkey play a risky game. On the one hand, declining wages frustrate the electorate: the average dollar income per person in Turkey shrunk roughly from $12,500 to $8,500 between 2013 and 2020. On the other hand, each new small manufacturing facility means jobs for the urban working class and the continued (even if oppressive) presence of small industrialists in these communities as the allies of Islamists. Even though it is impossible to predict the results of the next election, this strategy has thus far proven its usefulness since the AKP has succeeded for the last decade in protecting its electoral base in urban working-class neighborhoods despite growing dissatisfaction with economic decline.
Although nepotism, cronyism and ineptitude play a role in the massive economic failure of Islamist governments, it is not the Islamists who pay the price for it. And while clientelist social welfare policies help the Islamists to buy votes, the poor now see such income transfers as more of a right than a favor. Finally, even though the rift between the secularists and the Islamists played an important role in the formation of the Islamist rhetoric, this cleavage is no longer the central issue of Turkish politics. The two rival election camps led by the AKP and the CHP now have both secularist and Islamist factions. The most violent political clash of the last decade occurred between two Islamist groups under the leadership of Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, a US-based Muslim cleric, rather than between Islamists and secularists. In fact, these are all relevant but not central dynamics that keep Islamists in power. The key factor behind the continued political success of the Islamists is their capacity to control the streets, shop floors and minds of the poor in working-class neighborhoods.
[Utku Balaban teaches in the department of anthropology and sociology at Amherst College. He is a MESA Global Academy Fellow for the academic years 2020–2021 and 2021–2022.]
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