Turkey: When the financial tap for Islamic Congregations is cut off…

Translated by Melissa Clissold

Ekrem İmamoğlu, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB) Mayor has announced that the IBB have cut off millions of lira worth of support to certain Islamic foundations, and that they would also reclaim certain estates that had previously been turned over to them. This step is the sign of a serious crisis for Islamic congregations that have indexed their fate on the ruling political powers. 

Hello, good day. Towards the mid 1980s, the concept of “civil society” entered Turkey. Leftist intellectuals had brought this concept to Turkey during that time. Other concepts also followed on from this one. But the most used and permanent concept became “civil society”. And after that date, discussions have always been had regarding what civil society is, what it isn’t, what can be counted as a civil society organisation, what cannot be counted etc. This is actually a worldwide debate, but we are also having this debate within our country. And from a certain date onwards, especially from the mid-1980s, together with the rise of the Islamic movement in Turkey, or the increased appearance of this movement, whether or not Sunni Islamic congregations are civil society organisations or not, has been debated in a serious manner. 

Different arguments have been presented – and it should be emphasized that Şerif Mardin’s article on centre-periphery relations has a very important place in these discussions. At that time, congregations in Turkey – I am talking about Sunni communities – were not in the centre. Some had relations with the centre in different ways. But these relationships were often hidden, veiled. But to a large extent, these were movements that remained on the periphery. And most of these movements managed to stand on their own two feet. Especially in the field of education – firstly religious education, but not just religious education -, they provided opportunities to middle-school and high school students through private teaching institutions, accommodation, boarding houses and scholarships. 

Some, if not all of these young people that were brought up in these environments later became the ambassadors for these congregations. Such a circulation existed. And the fact that they managed to stand on their own two feet was an important aspect for them to appear as a civil society organisation or not. However, it was known that many more features were needed to be a civil society organisation. Especially transparency, accountability, which they were trying to justify as resulting from legal barriers that they faced. Because during that time –and this is still the case-, due to the law that exists for lodges (tekke) and Islamic monasteries (zaviye) to be shut down, most of these congregations were acting against the law, were existing despite these laws. 

However, just as we have discussed in previous broadcasts, even if they are not legal, they are legitimate, overt. This is an interesting situation. Together with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration, we have started to truly distance ourselves from the concept of these congregations being able to fend for themselves through their supporters and those faithful to them – this was true especially in the 80s – but even more apparent in years previous to that. And congregations – congregations that have formed allegiances with the AKP administration and of course Erdoğan -, structures that stayed between the lines that they and he drew, benefited a great deal from the opportunities presented to them by the state. As a result of this they grew stronger. If they were previously giving 100 students scholarships, now they were handing out 1000; if there were 10 dormitories, now there were around 100. But beyond that, a significant number of these communities started carrying out economic and trade activities in addition to their educational – let’s say – ‘services.’ And they sort of evolved into conglomerates. One of the first examples of this was with the İskenderpaşa Community of Naqshbandi. And their turning into a somewhat conglomerate was a process that began way before the AKP administration. 

This community, this structure, during the period of Prof. Mahmut Esad Coşan first started forming companies in media, later in education and then in fields such as health, tourism and was one of the first communities to become a conglomerate. But they entered a very serious crisis after the period of February 28 (1997). Esad Coşan deserted the country and settled in Australia. He lost his life in a car accident there, and perhaps because that strong congregation acted early, they entered a very serious crisis. And now, even if it still continues its existence in Turkey, it does not have such an impact. However, the development that took place together with the AKP, becoming embedded with the state, lead to many groups, many communities from the year 2002 onwards to strengthening their powers. But this gain was a hollow one.  

We can adapt the issue of shareholder’s equity and credit that is used in economics here. We came across a situation in which these communities grew at an unconceivable rate due to the fact that the state opened the ‘credit taps’ for these communities which had started with their own equity and had benefited incredibly from this flow of finances. And now, in metropolitan municipalities, especially after the shocking defeat that was experienced on March 31 and June 23 in Istanbul, after the AKP’s shocking defeat, we see that these congregations are heading towards impeccable crisis. This was something that was actually quite clear, it was known. 

We drew attention to this issue with the broadcasts we have previously presented. And indeed, before the June 23 elections, before the Istanbul elections, we had stated that it was some form of hara-kiri that certain Naqshi communities and their spokespeople were somewhat carrying out propaganda in support of Binali Yıldırım. And it turned out to be the case. One of the reasons that they took on such an open attitude was out of obligation. Because, the state and the political powers that had helped these structures, had asked them to show their loyalty during times of strife. 

And they did show their loyalty. And ultimately, together with Binali Yıldırım and Tayyip Erdoğan, they joined the sides of the losers. Now we are starting to see these losses. In the statement that the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu made the other day, he states that the millions of lira flowing to certain foundations have been cut and that protocols regarding certain estates that were turned over to foundations would be looked over once more, and that these estates would be taken back; this incident occurring in Istanbul may overflow to other places. This has led to these structures entering a serious crisis. At first instance it may not be possible for the results of this crisis to be seen. But it is not hard to predict that these will be experienced in a very serious manner in the mid to long-term period.  

Here, we are not only talking about the help or support – or whatever it is called – provided by municipalities towards Islamic congregations, to Naqshi and similar foundations of these congregations, but we are also talking about the foundations that have been founded in the latest period by the AKP administration and generally belonging to Erdoğan’s family, audited in one way or another. This is also an interesting incident. On one hand Erdoğan was paving the way for certain congregations that had accepted to be dependent on and submissive to him, yet on the other hand, he himself was heading towards directly supervising a congregation of his own. In this respect, certain foundations appeared during the period of the AKP administration. 

And their paths were opened. Especially in relation to their activities towards students, in opening dormitories, in giving scholarships, during Erdoğan’s period, we see that the foundations in which Erdoğan’s family has some sort of impact developed incredibly quickly. In normal conditions, it is very understandable and normal for municipalities to enter into partnerships with foundations, civil society foundations and share their resources with them. 

But there are certain criteria for this. The state must be pluralistic. Meaning, municipalities should be doing this with everyone, must support civil societies from different fractions of society. Second of all, a pluralistic perspective is needed without being discriminatory towards the activities of these organisations etc. etc. When we look at this example, we do not see this at all. We can see that money has been transferred to similar foundations and that those foundations have always provided certain services with people similar to themselves within those foundations, within their own hinterland, within their own continental shelf. Now, we can see that as a result of the metropolitan municipalities changing hand, these activities have been interrupted in quite a serious way.   

Yet this is a very important aspect on its own. The financial tap being cut, will put a lot of congregations in a difficult situation. It will not really impact the few groups that currently stand on their own two feet, that manage their own resources through their own supporters. But those structures, favoured especially by and developed due to the Erdoğan administration are not realizing what has truly hit them. 

And they will struggle to return to their old circumstances. They will probably experience a great collapse together. But beyond this, there was another aspect. Other than the economic aspect, there was a very serious political dimension to this. Some congregations – and a lot of them did this, -sacrificed their own independence by submitting to and getting this close to the ruling powers. And as a result of this, they indexed their fate to this administration. The crisis that the administration is going through, became their crisis, has started to become their crisis. And they are now receiving their fair share of the criticism directed towards Erdoğan. Let’s say we are experiencing an economic crisis. Some of these congregations, certain Islamic groups that have become so intertwined with the administration have no chance of saying “This has nothing to do with us.” Because very recently they became a shield for the ruling powers. 

They are face to face with a very serious crisis. And their crisis will probably deepen as the administrations’ crisis deepens; however, we can already see that a serious economic crisis has begun together with the cutting off of the opportunities that the metropolitan municipalities have provided these structures. I don’t know how they will be able to deal with this. Just as I mentioned a minute ago, they will try to go back to how they used to be. Let’s speak in business terms again – since we are talking about these conglomerates: They will try to shrink, and try to become more professional; they will try to turn into more manageable mechanisms. 

But whilst doing all of this, they will to a large extent be absolved from the historical experience of Islamic mysticism – which is the most important privilege that they have – if let’s say religious sects are in question -. A structure that can carry that historicity doesn’t really even exist anymore in Turkey. They will really be absolved of this. And they will turn into standard actors and organisations with the appearance of Islamic mysticism or Islam of the modern or postmodern times. 

Regarding these civil society organisations, for a long time, the word NGO, non-governmental organisation, is used. And if I am not mistaken, the term GONGO, government organised non-governmental organisation is also used. This is a term that is used quite a lot. There are certain structures that show themselves as non-governmental but then actually receive all their resources from the government and some of the aims of these structures are also to look out for, and show favour towards the government. There are plenty of these in Turkey. You can see a lot of them through the posters they plaster on billboards usually before referendums and elections. You can see it with the ads they publish in newspapers under the description of being a civil society initiative. But there are many signatures also beneath these ads. And how can you tell that they are not non-governmental? At least by the fact that they support the ruling powers. In normal circumstances, in all countries across the globe, governments organise together with such institutions and use them as actors within society. This is a given. 

Yet in today’s Turkey and the Islamic world, structures such as religious sects are embedded in historical tradition. These are traditions that have come way before governments etc. and passed on to our day. Yet they will pay and have started to pay a very heavy price by putting aside their entire historical experiences and historical richness, by putting aside their legacy, and sacrificing themselves to modern day politics for momentary gains. Maybe…I’m not sure if it’s right to say ‘maybe’…let’s hope for the best. Let’s say that this was probably the best for Turkey too. 

Yes, that’s all I have to say. Good day. 

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