In Turkey, the prominence of conservative civil society has become visible mainly through the rise of Islamic organizations. Although Islamic civil society organizations (CSOs) have long been present in Turkey, previous governments prior to the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration were relatively hostile to them. Considered a threat to foundational Kemalist secular aims, these organizations kept a low profile and concentrated on activities directed at their own communities. Since the early 2000s, existing Islamic organizations began to adopt a higher profile and new Islamic actors began to appear. As the AKP has entrenched its power, Islamic organizations have come to make up a considerable part of Turkish civil society.
Other forms of conservative civil society are not nearly so prominent in Turkey. Traditional nationalist groups, such as the Idealist Hearths and Alperen Hearths, have been active for many years and are organized nationwide, often working in close proximity with nationalist parties. To date, the impact of these groups has generally been limited to their constituencies, although a strand of conservative nationalism is now gaining more traction across the country. Secular conservative groups, which have long sought to preserve the secular-based Kemalist order, were active into the 2000s. They actively took part in the 2007 Republic Protests, mass rallies that were organized on the eve of the controversial presidential election and in support of state secularism. However, these groups have been in decline, and their activism has waned as the AKP has consolidated its power, especially since the turn of the decade.
Traditional Actors of Islamic Civil Society
Faced with a dominant, secular-based Kemalist ideology, for a long time Turkey’s Islamic CSOs organized to preserve, sustain, and transfer Islamic identity and beliefs to successive generations. Informal Islamic education was at the heart of their efforts. They organized different activities—including Quran courses, religious conversations, and lectures—for different sectors of society. As AKP rule has shifted the balance of power away from the secular elite, Islamic civil society has become more ambitious and prominent. These organizations and their activities no longer clash with the system, but rather are in harmony with it.1
Islamic CSOs also have widely engaged in charity work. This is not surprising, considering that the Turkish public mainly associates civil society with philanthropy, relief work, and social services. In addition, many people see the act of giving as a religious requirement, which consequently increases the support base for CSO outreach efforts. Most of the Islamic charities work in traditional religious communities, which are considered the most important basis of Islamic CSOs in Turkey. These communities stem from a religious order or particular group, and bring people together around a leader or focus on a specific text. After a 1925 law restricted the activities of religious orders, these groups established associations and foundations to continue their work.2
An increasing number of Islamic organizations have an international focus. Today, several Turkish Islamic charities work at the international level. They deliver aid to Muslims in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and cooperate with charities in different parts of the world. In addition, some of these charities, like the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, promote fundamental freedoms and carry out advocacy work along with humanitarian aid.
Organizations that provide traditional religious services, including the construction and renovation of mosques and other religious facilities and places of worship, are another large group within Islamic civil society. In recent years, the number of these organizations has increased dramatically. According to official figures from the Department of Associations, more than 18,000 associations now provide religious services—around 16 percent of all associations, which makes them the third-largest civil society grouping in Turkey after professional and solidarity organizations and sports organizations.3
A New Period for Islamic Civil Society
The major turning point for Islamic civil society came with the AKP’s electoral victory in 2002. As the AKP continued with the country’s broadly neoliberal economic policies, it used Islamic charities and philanthropic associations to provide social assistance as a replacement for state welfare. This led to a new partnership between the government and charities, which had a profound effect on Islamic CSOs.4 The charitable work of these organizations increased extensively. Once considered a threat by the ruling elite and the state, Islamic CSOs came to be seen as indispensable partners in the implementation of state policies. In addition, some of these organizations were granted better access to public funds and closer relations with public institutions.5 In response, they became more visible in the public sphere. Further, the Islamic-oriented entrepreneurial and business groups that emerged in Anatolia in the 1990s grew stronger under AKP rule. The new capital provided by these organizations started financing some Islamic CSOs. Islamic organizations shifted from traditional community support to a greater reliance on business donations and public funds.6
, In addition more socially conservative Islamic CSOs are also spreading their activism. For instance, CSO Turkey Family Platform brings together different CSOs to protect and lobby for the institution of the family. An even larger initiative is the Union of NGOs of the Islamic World. With over 300 member NGOs from sixty-three countries, this group runs several projects, including capacity development for Islamic CSOs, improving the institution of the family, and coordinating Islamic CSOs’ humanitarian aid to Syria. In defending their values, Islamic CSOs sometimes clash with other sectors of society. In 2013, seventy-four conservative organizations issued a written public announcement following the Istanbul Pride Parade. The announcement stated that some of the publicly broadcasted placards and images of parade attendees violated moral codes, and the announcement called on the Press Council and the Council of Ethics in Media to do their job.7
Equally significant is the emergence of new Islamic groups that usually mobilize around a cause rather than being rooted in a traditional religious community. One of these groups is the so-called Islamic left. In general terms, the Islamic left champions religion-based criticism of the AKP’s neoliberal economic policies. Islamic leftists argue for economic and social justice, claiming that the AKP’s neoliberal policies fail to provide either. On May 1, 2012, the Association for the Struggle Against Capitalism (more commonly known as the Anticapitalist Muslims) marched from Fatih Mosque to Taksim Square, two iconic sites in Istanbul. They also participated in the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Other Islamic leftist groups, such as the Labor and Justice Platform, avoid controversial public acts, choosing instead to issue statements and host debates regarding the AKP’s social and economic policies.8
Over the past decade, new Islamic nationalist groups also have emerged. These groups have gained more visibility since the failed coup attempt in 2016. Despite their recent formation, groups such as the Ottoman Hearths, Ak Hearths,9 and People Special Operations are well organized all around the country and attract large crowds. They are categorized as associations, the most common form of CSO in Turkey. Their nationalism has a neo-Ottoman focus, frequently using Ottoman emblems, logos, and symbols. More broadly, they emphasize national unity and solidarity with references to Islam. They all emphasize their independence from political parties. However, their activities and statements give open support to the AKP’s policies, show intolerance to their critics, and praise President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; they also visit and are visited by AKP officials. They have been linked to actions against certain CSOs and political party headquarters.10 Given their militarist discourse, these groups often are described as militias.11
Other new actors are more progressive. They challenge Islam’s dominant practices in daily life. An important example is the rise of Islamic women’s groups, made up of women who want to participate equally in daily life without abandoning their Islamic identity. Religiously motivated rights-based women’s movements and organizations are not new in Turkey. Earlier groups that had been active during the late 1990s and early 2000s were mobilized around the headscarf issue, after veiled students were banned from entering classes. Unlike these earlier groups, however, the new actors do not challenge state authority. Instead, they target specific issues in Turkish society. For instance, the Working Ladies’ Association lobbies for working women’s rights and provides solidarity in support of women’s issues, but at the same time aims to improve society’s moral and ethical quality. Some others contest the place and actions of Muslim men. An interesting example is the “Women at Mosques” campaign.12 These women challenge the patriarchal model in mosques, where women’s segregated spaces are small, unwelcoming, and difficult to access. When one woman was kicked out of a mosque and shamed by the imam because she was not sitting in the women’s segregated space, her friends attended a Friday prayer in the same spot to protest. These women regularly go to mosques together to pray and to discuss how to improve women’s place in mosques. Women’s groups are also active on broader societal issues such as violence toward women. The Muslims Initiative Against Violence Toward Women, for instance, aims to bring Islamic discourse and perspective to efforts to prevent violence against women.
These new actors are small in numbers and often are seen as marginal. However, they have introduced a new discourse in Islamic civil society. Although politicized Islamic groups have existed since the early 1990s, in earlier periods, they mobilized mainly against the secular establishment. These new groups, especially the Islamic left and some women’s organizations, critique dominant Islamic practices from within, reflecting and embodying a more heterogeneous Islamic civil society. In stressing cross-cutting issues, like violence against women or social and economic policies, they offer a venue for dialogue in Turkey’s increasingly polarized society.
Islamic civil society has been expanding rapidly in Turkey over the past decade. Its numbers and fields of activity have grown considerably. The Islamic-oriented AKP’s rule no doubt has contributed to this growth. Not only has this expansion boosted the self-confidence of Islamic groups but, more importantly, Islamic CSOs increasingly have benefited from the opportunities provided by the AKP’s hold on power. These groups now enjoy easier access to public projects and funding as well as money coming from also-growing conservative capital. In turn, these groups reinforce the AKP’s social and economic policies. Islamic charities help supplement the public welfare system, while other groups focus on family or education to complement the AKP’s conservative restructuring of Turkish society.
This implicit alliance with the AKP is likely to make Islamic CSOs dependent on the party for their continued prosperity and survival. That said, many would exist in the absence of AKP rule, much as several secular organizations continue their work today. However, their increasing reliance on the state for funding and legitimacy transforms these organizations’ relations with their base. These relations traditionally have been characterized by strong community bonds; in the past, Islamic actors generally operated in closed structures, carrying out activities directed uniquely at their own communities. As these Islamic CSOs have developed in recent years, they have expanded their activities to new populations. However, these organizations may still have an exclusionary attitude in their relations with so-called others outside of Islamic civil society. In the coming years, it will be important to see whether they establish relations with other sectors of civil society.
The Islamic discourse of liberation from the Kemalist order is giving way to new discourses and groups within Islamic civil society. These new groups still define themselves with references to Islam, but they are not necessarily conservative in their demands. Nor do they automatically stand with the AKP. Although they make themselves heard, they have only limited numbers of supporters. On their own, their place in Islamic civil society may remain marginal. The future direction of Islamic civil society depends on the new generation of Islamic actors. Unlike earlier players, the new generation does not aim merely to preserve Islamic identity but rather seeks better access to modern life. Therefore, even though they are still religious, they may also challenge conservative norms in some other dimensions. Much depends on how these new actors choose to contribute to Islamic civil society.
The author wishes to thank Ayça Bican Bulut, Nazlı Çağın Bilgili, Mehmet Ali Çalışkan, and Lütfi Sunar for their valuable contributions in the preparation of this chapter.
1 Lütfi Sunar, “Türkiye’de İslami STK’ların Kurumsal Yapı ve Faaliyetlerinin Değişimi” [The change in structure and activities of Islamic civil society organizations in Turkey], Corporate Governance Academy Research Reports no. 1, İlke Association, 2018, 14, http://www.ilke.org.tr/sites/default/files/yayin/pdf/rapor/turkiyede-islami-stklarin-kurumsal-yapi-faaliyetlerinin-degisimi-pdf-ilke-org-tr.pdf.
2 Ibid., 59.
3 “Derneklerin Faaliyet Alanlarına Göre Dağılımı” [Distribution of associations by activity areas], Department of Associations (Turkey), 2017, https://www.dernekler.gov.tr/tr/AnasayfaLinkler/derneklerin-faaliyet-alanina-gore.aspx.
4 Ayşe Buğra and Ayşen Candaş, “Change and Continuity Under an Eclectic Social Security Regime: The Case of Turkey,” Middle Eastern Studies 47, no. 3 (2011): 515–28, https://doi.org/10.1080/00263206.2011.565145.
5 Sunar, Türkiye’de İslami STK’ların Kurumsal Yapı ve Faaliyetlerinin Değişimi, 60–64.
6 Ibid., 78.
7 “Muhafazakâr STK’lar Ahlâk Polisliğine Soyundu” [Conservative CSOs become vice squad], Kaos GL, July 5, 2013, kaosgl.org/sayfa.php?id=14446.
8 For a detailed discussion, see Nazlı Çağın Bilgili and Hendrik Kraetzschmar, “A Critique From Within: The Islamic Left in Turkey and the AK Party’s Neo-liberal Economics,” in Islamists and the Politics of the Arab Uprisings: Governance, Pluralisation and Contention, eds. Paola Rivetti and Hendrik Kraetzschmar (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).
9 Although “Ak” here stands for the initials of Anadolu Kardeşliği (Anatolian Brotherhood), their name’s resemblance to “AK Party” (a more common form of “AKP” used in Turkey) should be noted.
10 “Kim Bu Osmanlı Ocakları?” [Who are these Ottoman Hearths?], Radikal, September 10, 2015, http://www.radikal.com.tr/turkiye/kim-bu-osmanli-ocaklari-1432078/.
11 “Nedir Bu Halk Özel Harekat” [What is this People Special Operations], OdaTV, December 11, 2017, https://odatv.com/nedir-bu-halk-ozel-harekat-1112171200.html.