Turkey, Islam & Passive Revolution
6 min read

Turkey, Islam & Passive Revolution

Turkey, Islam & Passive Revolution

Cihan Tugal's Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism is now over a decade old, published before the attempted coup d'etat in 2016, yet it still provides important insights into the relationship between neoliberal capitalism, Islamic politics and elite rule, which can provide a way to think of similar processes in other Islamic countries.

The book is centred around an attempt to understand the way in which political forces which were Islamist, anti-capitalist and anti-Western in orientation were brought within the fold of moderate Islam, neoliberal capitalism and moderate foreign policy:

Today, the effective leaders of moderate Islam are not those who have always been liberal Muslims, but they are those who have fought against neoliberalism, secularism, and U.S. hegemony for decades, only to deliver their experiences to the service of their past enemies in the end.

The result has been a model of Islamic Liberalism popular around the Muslim and Non-Muslim world, amongst leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim –  as a form of government which marries economic development with moderate democratic, Islamic government.

Central to this process has been the division between the statist-secularist hegemony of the Ataturkists and the Islamist challenge to this hegemony. This division is also for Tugal a division between a corporatist economic model and popular discontent with that model from small businessmen and the urban and rural poor. This dynamic produced both a series of contests within the dominant power bloc, by populist leaders from the centre right of the bloc mobilising excluded groups against the statist-secularist consensus, as well as more significantly a counter-hegemonic political strategy led by political Islamists.

As the economic crisis of the 1970s began to weaken the power of the corporatist consensus and necessitate economic restructuring Tugal argues for the emergence of an organic crisis, which provided new openings for Islamist politicians to mobilise political disaffection against elite consensus – yet political Islam was regularly integrated within the governing coalition. The tension between corporatist and Islamist forms would emerge then as a tension between an established ruling bloc, centred around elite-led coalition building, and attempts by Islamists to build an Islamist mass-based party, a process which was disrupted in 1997 by military intervention.

The transformation of this tension occured with the formation of the AKP. The AKP's strategy spoke both to the counter-hegemonic elements of the opposition bloc, as well as disaffected elements within the existing power bloc, merchants, businessmen, professionals, religious intellectuals, as well as the "neoliberal and internationally oriented sectors who once constituted the subordinate sectors of the bloc". This was achieved by a series of transformations which made political Islamism more acceptable to mainstream forces. The AKP affected a professionalisaiton of politics within the opposition bloc, they weakened the culture war by differentiating themselves from the Islamists of the past, in foreign policy they were willing to assume more pro-Western stances. But central for Tugal was the role of the party in promoting neoliberal economic reforms, which endeared them to large sections of the business elite. What this affected for Tugal was a process through which a new power bloc was formed in Turkey through the appropriation of elements of the old power bloc, a new alliance with popular forces, mediated by a process of revolution and restoration which reproduced many of the conditions of the earlier structure of power under changed circumstances.

Yet how did this elite strategy mobilise the masses? Central to this was the way in which the AKP mobilised Islamisation. Islamisation of everyday life was a phenomenon Tugal notes from the 1980s onwards yet the AKP which, in electoral terms, benefitted from this tendency once in power didn't accentuate Islamisation but pursued a dual strategy. This strategy Tugal terms as "Islamization of top institutions, de-islamization of everyday life", was a process through which the earlier elite-based secular consensus in the media, and political institutions was (relatively) Islamised, and in which elites were also Islamised (neutralising divisions between corporatist insiders and the rest) whilst the role of Islam in everyday life and in the economy was limited, in a process which preached transformation from above to prevent transformation below.

Central to this process was the way in which Islamisation came not to challenge existing social relations, but to naturalise and justify them, in particular to naturalise capitalist relations, a process tied up with the neoliberalisation of Turkish society.

A few years ago, Islamist politicians used to say "we are both against capitalism and communism," arguing that the Islamic economy would take the best of both systems but be fundamentally different from both. Now politicians said their "understanding of the economy includes some aspects of capitalism, but no elements of communism," which was against their program. One of the crucial capitalistic elements they pointed out was "getting rid of the memur [civil servant] type, who has one eye on the clock and always wants to quit work when the clock strikes five. Even in the public sector, people will work with contracts rather than having tenure as memur." Civil servants in Turkey started to lose status and economic power with the neoliberalization of the 1980s. Under Turgut Ozal's rule, "memur" became a bad word with connotations like laziness and corruption. For AKP activists, one of the defining elements of economic reform was a wholesale attack on memurs, which was interrupted after the death of the Motherland Party's Ozal. In other words, the AKP's project was liquidating anybody who did not conform to the work ethic through administrative reform.

Central to this was the role of Islam in naturalising capitalism. The workings of the market was "sacralized", seen as part of the divine order. The sermons of clerics promoted a work ethic and Islamic morality was increasingly tied to the morality of the work place. It was now acceptable for women to find meaning in the world of work instead of in the family, and work itself became an end for Muslims, social mobility and getting ahead in careers emerged as an important social value, whilst a culture of individualism grew, among women as among men. As Tugal notes, amongst workers the rise of the AKP also altered perceptions of capitalism. Whilst previous grievances such as unemployment or family planning were perceieved as attacks on workers from outside, from the state and capitalists, gradually became accepted as the normal working of things and what was required was to allow a government they now viewed as legitimate, and as their government do what it could.

Traditional religion's emphasis on patience was now disarticulated from the "Islamic economy" project and articulated to neoliberalism. Workers still talked frequently of patience in 2006, but now they patiently accepted the reigning economic order, rather than patiently and quietly rejecting it like in 2001.

The result of this process of revolutionising social relaitons above and naturalising social relations below was a project of passive revolution which Tugal would outline in the following terms:

As a result of the AKP's passive revolution, political society and civil society-which had fallen out of sync at the end of the 1990s-were reintegrated. Religious people sought upward mobility and happiness at work using the political party, Sufi communities, associations, and networks. The political party, municipal authorities, imams, media channels, friends, kin, and co-locals merged to build bourgeois Islamic ethics through preaching that working hard and privatization are an integral part of religion. The AKP had appropriated certain Islamist understandings of religion (social solidarity, purified religion, etc.) to put them in the service of capital accumulation.

Workers consented to the rule of experts, as these experts and the politicians who appointed them were good Muslims. The rule of experts (or "rationalization") was not simply an outcome of modernity but of the AKP's successful localization of that modernity. As Muslim rulers held the reins, workers were disciplined to the point of accepting family planning and the supreme virtue of secular education, two focuses of the secularist discourse in Turkey that some of them had resisted for decades. This was not only a discursive acceptance of the system, as the daily practices of at least some workers had started to be more work oriented, disciplined, and productive.

In sum, the AKP's empowerment culminated in a passive revolution: the incorporation of subaltern religious elements without the decisive organization of the subaltern. The regime was Islamized but did not become Islamic. It opened up to popular voices but did not become popular. Secular elites retained control, and this was no mere token control. Military, legal, and paramilitary action, especially from late 2005 onward. repeatedly raised the possibility that secularists could remove the AKP from power or even close it down. However, such a fateful downfall would not necessarily signify the termination of the passive revolution. Repression of Islamic politics in the past decade, for example, has postponed and (dramatically) changed the content and form of Islamization but has not brought about its end. Despite this secularist control, the provincial bourgeoisie and the religious orders also prospered. Islam became a defining feature of national unity, without reducing the salience of Turkish identity.

Tugal's understanding of passive revolution outlines then two forms which might be useful in the study of other societies. On the one hand the way in which opposition movements and counter-hegemonic ideologies can be brought within the basic structure of a ruling bloc, through a process of revolution/restoration in which processes of political change from above prevent significant upheaval from below, and in which elite interests are protected against the dangers of protracted class struggle through a limited process of reform. On the other hand the way in which counter-hegemonic ideologies and particularly religious morality can be mobilised to naturalise this process of passive revolution and its maintainence of dominant social relations. A fact which would seem common in the development of neoliberalism in much of the world, which has often taken the form of a "moral politics" and which has often then taken the form of a passive revolution, akin to that studied by Tugal.