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Civil Society and Islam in Turkey

Sinem Gürbey
sg2246@columbia.edu
Columbia University
Spring 2006
Graduate Student Conference
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Introduction:

Civil society has become once more an attractive field of study among political

theorists. The revival of the concept of civil society in the aftermath of the collapse of the

Soviet Union placed it in opposition to the demonic state. Moreover, civil society is often

idealized not only as a necessary sphere, but also as a sufficient phenomenon in itself in

the process of democratization. While, on the one hand, the necessity of the concept in

democratization is indisputable, the possible abuses of civil society should be kept in

mind before fetishizing it in the first place. As Norton claims: “Societies do not take two

tablets of civil society and wake up the next morning undergoing democratization.”1

Even if civil society is often in opposition to state power and political society, the

key role of the state in putting into effect what has been achieved in civil society and in

protecting basic rights and liberties of individual members cannot be ignored. Without

the power of the state, civil society has the potential to degenerate into a sphere of civil

warfare over ethnic, religious, and class-based issues. It is important to stress that civil

society cannot be a substitute for government.2 While untamed state power stands in the

way of a democratic society, limited state power is sine qua non for a democratic order.

In the Turkish context, where the state traditionally has held unrestrained power at

the expense of society, the condition of civil society and its relation to democracy and

Islam raise important questions. In this paper, I will delve into the dynamics which stirred

up the development of civil society in Turkey and scrutinize the tendency to

conceptualize civil society and state as two autonomous spheres disconnected from each

1
Augustus R. Norton, “Introduction,” Civil Society in the Middle East (Vol.2), ed. Augustus Richard
Norton (E. J. Brill: Leiden, 1996) 6.
2
Augustus R. Norton, “The Future of Civil Society in the Middle East, ” The Middle East Journal 47.2.
1993: 215
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other. The concept of civil society in Turkey is taken for granted and has been praised

due to its opposition to the state. This paper will question this unconditional celebration.

In this attempt, the top-down modernization project and the paradoxical attitude of the

state utilizing Islam both as a tool to build national identity and as the ultimate threat to

the secular establishment will be scrutinized. Although civil society opened the channels

to contest the authority of state institutions, the lack of a mediating sphere between the

state and society coupled with the absence of a weak collective identity stands in the way

of the consolidation of democracy in Turkey.

I will argue that the project to create an ethnically and religiously homogeneous

society imposed by the Kemalist elites and later by the military through three coup d’états

stimulated a backlash and led to the reclaiming of marginalized identities in a much more

pronounced way. Historically the Turkish state has consolidated its absolute power by

controlling politicians and governments and has always been suspicious towards civil

society’s influence over democratic decision-making. Moreover, the state’s explicit

attempt to cut the connections between civil and political societies both through

constitutional arrangements and military interventions whenever civil society gained

influence aroused distaste on the part of the civil society against the state. As a result,

while the emergence of civil society against the strong statist discourse has been

celebrated as the ultimate step in the consolidation of democracy in Turkey, the necessary

connection between civil society and the state through political society has been ignored.
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Civil Society in Theory:

Today, the term civil society still continues to embody anti-state connotations.

There is a tendency, especially in Turkey, to confuse nongovernmental aspects of the

concept with anti-statism. During the anti-communist opposition in Eastern Europe in the

1980s, civil society as a slogan emphasized its autonomy from the state.3 The revival of

the concept in such a context formulated civil society and state as mutually exclusive

phenomena. Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato in their groundbreaking work Civil Society

and Political Theory propose a three-part model which differentiates between civil

society, the state, and the economy.4 In their formulation, civil society is defined as the

“sphere of social interaction between economy and state, composed above all of the

intimate sphere (especially the family), the sphere of associations (especially voluntary

associations), social movements, and forms of public communication”.5

On the other hand, in this tripartite model the sphere of civil society does not

comprise all social life outside of the state and the economy. Cohen also distinguishes

political and economic societies from civil society in the sense that political society

encapsulates political parties, parliaments, and political organizations and mediates

between the state and civil society; and economic society is composed of the

organizations of production, distribution, firms, cooperatives, and institutions of

bargaining such as unions and councils and has the mediating role between civil society

and the economy. What distinguishes the actors of political and economic societies is that

3
Ayşe Kadõoğlu, “Civil Society, Islam and Democracy in Turkey,” The Muslim World 95. 2005: 24.
4
Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).
5
Cohen and Arato ix.
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they are after state power and economic production respectively.6 On the other hand, the

political role of the actors in civil society is limited to the politics of identity, influence,

inclusion, and reform.7

However, while some movements may use the very tools of civil society in

organizing themselves, their ultimate aim is to seize state power and destroy the very

channels to which they owe their existence, seeking in the process to suppress plurality in

society. As Cohen and Arato argue:

…these fundamentalist projects lead to the breakdown of societal steering and


productivity and the suppression of social plurality, all of which are then
reconstituted by the forces of order only by dramatically authoritarian means.
Such an outcome leads to the collapse of the forms of self-organization that in
many cases were the major carriers of the revolutionary process: revolutionary
societies, councils, movements.8

Cohen and Arato point out to the “self-limitation” aspect of civil society which most

theorists discussing this issue neglect. As I have suggested before, in this formulation, the

actors in civil society only aim to influence democratic will-formation and not to seize

political or economic power.9 Their role is limited to the extent that they can influence

existing forms of democracy. The movements flourishing in civil society bring the

discussion of new issues into the public sphere. They work for the expansion of rights,

for the defense of the autonomy of civil society and for its further democratization.10 And

they cannot try to replace the institutions of representative democracy. 11 As Norton

6
Jean Cohen, “Interpreting the Notion of Civil Society,” Toward a Global Civil Society, ed. Michael
Walzer (Oxford, UK: Berghahn Books, 1995) 37.
7
Cohen 39.
8
Cohen and Arato 16.
9
Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996) 371.
10
Cohen and Arato 19.
11
Ibid 19-20.
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argues, “Civility may be learned in the school of civil society, but the lesson soon may be

forgotten without an enforcing authority”.12

Following the three-part model of Cohen and Arato, Habermas points to the

limited scope of action of civil society:

Civil society can directly transform itself, and it can have at most an indirect
effect on the self-transformation of the political system; generally, it has an
influence only on the personnel and programming of this system. But in no way
does it occupy the position of a macrosubject supposed to bring society as a whole
under control and simultaneously act for it.13

In this structure, the connection of civil society to political society is essential. While

civil society must be eager to inform and influence political society, the latter must be

open to the influence of the former. In other words, as much as civil society should

respect the decision making power of political society, the latter should do so by being

open to the information and feedback that it gets from the former. It is under this mutual

relationship that civil society fulfills its role in the process of democratization.

In the following sections, I will look at how these delicate relationships developed in

Turkey in the shadow of state-secularism.

Civil Society, Islam and Democracy in Turkey:

According to Ernest Gellner among the major world civilizations and religions

Islam is unique in terms of its immunity to secularization.14 Moreover, he claims that

Islam “exemplifies a social order which seems to lack much capacity to provide political

countervailing institutions or associations, which is atomized without much individualism,

and which operates effectively without intellectual pluralism”.15 First of all, the absurd

12
Augustus R. Norton, “The Future of Civil Society in the Middle East,” 215.
13
Habermas 372.
14
Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals (NY: Penguin Books, 1994)15.
15
Ibid 29.
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referral to Islam as a unified whole is an inaccurate assumption. Secondly, Gellner’s

assumption that secularization is a necessary condition for the development of civil

society does not reflect the realities in Turkey. In fact, later on Gellner pointed out that

Turkey was an “exception” to his rule by saying “Islam is unique among world religions,

and Turkey is unique within the Muslim world” 16 . Yet, even if he stresses the inner

contradictions of the Turkish modernization project, his discussion on Turkey fails to

explain what secularism means in the Turkish context and how if affects the development

of civil society. In Turkey secularization has been one of the major projects of the

Republican elite in an attempt to elevate the society to the level of contemporary

civilization. “Secularization in the form of a project (laicism) paved the way to a

dialectical choreography that negated itself by generating its own rival” says Ayşe

Kadõoğlu.17 A revisit to the Ottoman-Turkish history will make clear that it is not Islam,

but secularization in the form of a project imposed from above that is the rival of civil

society in its attempts to silence any type of religious voice in society.

Civil Society in the Ottoman Empire:

The Turkish Republic inherited a strong bureaucratic state from the Ottoman

Empire. As Mardin points out, the Ottoman state explicitly sought to prevent the

formation of economically and politically powerful groups that could function

“independently from the central government”.18 The Ottomans were convinced that the

only way to maintain an ethnically, religiously and linguistically heterogeneous empire

16
Ernest Gellner, “The Turkish Option in Comparative Perspective,” Rethinking Modernity and National
Identity in Turkey, ed. Sibel Bozdoğan and Reşat Kasaba (Seattle: Washington University Press, 1997)
233.
17
Ayşe Kadõoğlu, “Civil Society, Islam and Democracy in Turkey,” The Muslim World 95. 2005: 25.
18
Şerif Mardin, “Power, Civil Society and Culture in the Ottoman Empire,” Contemporary Studies in
Society and History 11.3 1969: 259, 264; see also Ahmet Evin, “Communitarian Structures and Social
Change,” Modern Turkey: Continuity and Change, ed. Ahmet Evin (Opladen: Leske and Budrich, 1984)
12, 16.
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was through empowering the state apparatus and repressing groups that could potentially

challenge their power. The Ottoman preoccupation with concentrating power in the hands

of the ruling elite in order to maintain several distinct groups together under a single state,

coupled with lack of intermediate bodies, “led to the emergence of a center-periphery

cleavage along cultural lines”19. This wide gap between the center and the periphery “has

obstructed communication among various groups, leading to a disparity in the outlook,

attitude and values among the ruling elite, local notables and ordinary subjects”.20 As a

consequence of the isolation of the ruling elite from the rest of the population, the elite

came to see the ordinary subjects as unsophisticated and to perceive themselves superior

to them21 which, in turn, ingrained the idea of top-down modernization into Ottoman-

Turkish political culture. The modernization project of the Turkish Republic has been

carried out in the same spirit where the masses have been regarded as passive recipients

who could be molded according to the ideals of the enlightened elite. As Heper suggests,

“the Ottoman desire for a strong state that would regulate the polity and society from

above left a particular imprint on democracy in Turkey”.22

Civil Society and Democracy in the early Republic:

The decline of the Ottoman Empire from the nineteenth century onwards and its

collapse in the following century deepened the Republican elite’s perception of the need

to empower the state in order to maintain territorial unity of the country. In this context,

the Turkish state consolidated its power by representing itself as the carrier of highest

ethical values and appointed itself to the role of civilizing the irrational masses. Through

19
Metin Heper, “The Ottoman legacy and Turkish politics,” Journal of International Affairs, 54 (Fall 2000):
66.
20
Evin, 12.
21
Heper, “The Ottoman legacy and Turkish politics” 67.
22
Ibid, 71.
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this mentality the Turkish state acquired its unchallengeable, sacred position. The Turkish

modernization project and the single-party period (1923-1950) cannot be understood

without reference to the mental condition of the state elites who took the responsibility of

elevating the country to the level of contemporary civilization. As Aydin puts it, in

Turkey the state has positioned itself against society, and treated it as an ‘immature mass

of people’, and more importantly until the ideal society that they envisioned took place,

did not hesitate to curtail the ordinary citizens’ ways to participate in politics.23 Therefore,

any kind of anti-democratic intervention into society has been legitimized under the

pretense of saving democracy until the masses reach the mental state of being ruled by

law. As Heper points out, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the architect of modern Turkey,

believed that people had to be kept under the strict control of the enlightened elite: “the

people should not have sovereignty until their collective conscience reached a certain

level. The national will, as shaped by the people, would emerge only to the extent that the

people become civilized.”24

The modernization project carried out in a top-down fashion deeply affected the

evolution of civil society in Turkey where democracy was the decision of the elite who

took the liberty of interpreting “democratic principles” in an authoritarian way. As Heper

portrays it,

The state elites took democracy not as the representation and reconciliation of the
interests and opinions of different social groups but as finding the one best policy
by the enlightened elite, that is, by the State elites themselves. Democracy was
equated with educated debate among a few. For Atatürk, this state of affairs was
going to be a transient phenomenon, for he believed in the potential of the people
to develop and become more rational. Only then could civil societal elements
have their weight in the polity; the dominant state could turn into a substantially

23
Suavi Aydin, Amacimiz Devletin Bekasi: Demokratiklesme Surecinde Devlet ve Yurttaslar, (Istanbul:
TESEV Yayinlari, 2005) 26.
24
Metin Heper, The State Tradition in Turkey, (Walkington, UK: Eothen Press, 1985) 51.
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neutral state…After Atatürk passed away, however, the state elites on the whole
abandoned the belief in the potential of the people to develop and become more
rational. Thus, they converted the Atatürkian approach to politics…into an
ideology…Not unexpectedly, secularism became the backbone of the official
ideology in question.25

The fundamental ideal behind the Kemalist project, as stated in the 1982 Constitution, is

“to attain the standards of contemporary civilization”.26 The elites were convinced that

every element in society which could stand as an obstacle to the holy ideal should be

wiped out immediately in an authoritarian manner. Islam became the main target as it

began to be associated with the ills that brought the Ottoman Empire’s demise. As Islam

became the scapegoat, a series of radical secular reforms were implemented 27 , and

secularism became the fundamental principle of the official state ideology. On the other

hand, while radical reforms have been adopted to terminate the role of Islam in society,

secularism in the Turkish context does not necessarily mean the separation of religion

from politics. In fact, the paradoxical attitude of the state to utilize Islam both as a tool to

achieve national integration and as a threat to the secular establishment resulted in a

pathology that still haunts Turkey today.

Secularism in the Turkish Context:

During the independence movement, the military/bureaucratic elite utilized Islam

as the supra-identity in order to mobilize different Muslim ethnic groups within the

suggested national boundaries. In fact, the Treaty of Lausanne emphasized the common

religious identity of different ethnic groups living within the boundaries of the new

25
Metin Heper, “The State, Religion and Pluralism: The Turkish Case in Comparative Perspective,” British
Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 18. 1 (1991): 49.
26
Turkey, The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Turkey, The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey,
Feb. 2006 < http://www.anayasa.gov.tr/engconst/const.htm>.
27
The abolition of the Caliphate, Islamic Law and religious schools (medrese), the adoption Swiss Civil
Code in 1924, the banning of monasteries (tekke), Islamic brotherhoods (tarikat) in 1925.
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Republic, and recognized only the non-Muslims as a minority. The utilization of Islam as

the basis of national identity continued in the post-independence period as well. In an

attempt to define the boundaries of ‘true’ Islam, the Presidency of Religious Affairs, a

public institution directly attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, was founded in

1924 after the abolition of Sharia “on the grounds that religion and religious services

should be kept out of politics”28. The duties of the Presidency of Religious Affairs are “to

execute the works concerning the beliefs, worship, and ethics of Islam, enlighten the

public about their religion, and administer the sacred worshipping places”, and, moreover,

“the Presidency of Religious Affairs aims to provide national unity and solidarity by

being above all kinds of political thought, and introduce the sublime principles of our

religion (Islam) to our citizens, and provide them with true knowledge about the religion

of Islam, and increase their devotion to religious and ethical values.”29 In the Turkish

context, in contrast to what elites claim, secularism does not mean the separation of

religion from politics, but rather the control of Islam through institutional means. The

state this time appoints itself to the role of interpreting and disseminating ‘true’ Islam and

punishing those who deviate from the state religion. As Davison portrays it, the secular

reforms did not remove Islam from the state, rather they “created a new structure of

control and oversight between the state and Islam in which the republic’s founders sought

to use the powers of state to interpret, oversee, and administer (including financially)

religious doctrine and practice”.30 The paradoxical attitude of the state towards religion,

using it as a tool to achieve national integrity and at the same time declaring it as the

28
Turkey, The Presidency of Religious Affairs, Preceding, Feb. 2006
<http://www.diyanet.gov.tr/english/tanitim.asp?id=3 >.
29
The Presidency of Religous Affairs (Italics mine)
30
Andrew Davison, “Turkey, a “Secular” State? The Challenge of Description,” The South Atlantic
Quarterly 102:2/3. 2003: 338.
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fundamental threat to the democratic establishment, rendered the relationship between

Islam and civil society complex.

Civil Society in the Shadow of Military Interventions:

As a consequence of the state’s distrust towards the masses, who could potentially

resist the modernization project, voluntary associations remained under the strict control

of the state during the single-party rule of the Republican People’s Party (1923-1950)31.

The transition to the multi-party era in 1950 not only marked Turkey’s first experience

with democracy32 but also the emergence of the military in the political arena to protect

Kemalist principles through armed interventions almost in every ten years. 33 After a

decade of democratic experimentation the military was convinced that the civilian

government was not doing its job in protecting Kemalist principles. The rationale behind

the 1960 coup d’état was to foster rights and freedoms which according to the military

had been curtailed by the elected government which appealed to Islamic identity. The

army overthrew the Democratic Party and executed its leaders. The 1961 constitution,

following the military coup in 1960, was designed to guarantee free speech and free

association. However, the alliance between the intelligentsia and the armed forces did not

last more than a decade. The 1970s were years of extreme political instability. Political

violence rose to incredible measures; there was almost no group and organization left
31
Ergun Özbudun, Contemporary Turkish Politics: Challenges to Democratic Consolidation (Boulder, CO:
Lynne Rienner, 2000) 129.
32
Actually three attempts to move Turkey to multi-party politics have taken place during the period
between 1923 and 1950. The first attempt made by the Progressive Republican Party (TpCF) can be
considered as a genuine opposition movement. It was suppressed by the Republican People’s Party (CHP)
because it was perceived as a threat to the secular foundation. The second attempt was sponsored by
Atatürk in order to disprove the existing perception that Turkey was a dictatorship. As a result Republican
Free Party (SCF) was founded, which was again considered as a threat to the supremacy of the RPP and
was enforced to abolish itself by the ruling elite. Finally, in 1946 the Democrat Party was founded by the
expelled members of the RPP. Even if the DP participated in the 1946 elections, the votes have been cast
openly and counted secretly. Therefore, it will not be a mistake to argue the democratic period in Turkey
based on fair elections started in 1950.
33
The military intervened in Turkish politics three times: 1960-61, 1971-3, 1980-83.
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undivided by ideological opposition, and economic problems were building up every day.

The inability of the government to put an end to this situation of crisis and violence

together with open attacks on “national integrity” and “secularism”, two vital areas for

the military, served as major impetuses for the intervention of the Turkish military into

politics on September 12th 1980 to once again establish the Kemalist ideology and

strengthen state-centric politics. The military leaders who were preoccupied with the idea

that Kemalist establishment was under serious attacks found the solution in history. They

have tried to combine different and deeply conflicting discourses that Atatürk employed

at different times. The outcome was what is called the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis”. The

military and bureaucratic elite were always preoccupied with delineating the acceptable

boundaries of what it is to be a “Turk”, but now they also had to re-impose what it meant

to be a Muslim as well. It was an issue they had been disregarding for a period. Thus,

they have institutionalized further the state’s control over religion through compulsory

religious education. Article 24 of the 1982 Constitution states: “Education and instruction

in religion and ethics shall be conducted under state supervision and control. Instruction

in religious culture and moral education shall be compulsory in the curricula of primary

and secondary schools”34.

While the 1960 coup was carried out to protect civil society from the repression of

the state, the motivation behind the 1980 coup was to re-strengthen the state against civil

society. In this attempt, the 1982 Constitution, written under the tutelage of the military,

was designed to reduce citizen participation in politics. As Özbudun claims, in this period

political activity was reserved for political parties. The explicit aim was to repress a

pluralistic democracy in which trade unions, voluntary associations, and public


34
Article 24 of The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey.
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professional associations played an open and active role in politics.35 According to the

Article 33 of the Constitution, voluntary associations and trade unions were banned from

engaging in any kind of political activity and having relationships with political parties.

Yet, while this limitation had been lifted with the constitutional amendments in 199536, it

simply made more rigid the already existing state-society dichotomy.

“Paradoxically, the coup which set out to destroy the institutions of civil society

helped to strengthen the commitment to civilian politics, consensus-building, civil rights

and issue-oriented associational activity”, says Binnaz Toprak. 37 Similar to Toprak’s

optimism, every movement flourishing in civil society has been perceived as a further

step towards democratization. The scholarship in the 1990s celebrated the emergence of

civil society without looking at how this new sphere could fulfill its role in the

consolidation of democracy.38 The very existence of a resistance against the state was

perceived as sufficient to idealize civil society as the long awaited carrier of democracy.

However, the relationship between political society and civil society has been ignored.

Political society – political parties, elected governments – stands as the mediating sphere

between the state and civil society in putting the demands of civil society into political

arena through democratic means. The 1982 Constitution cut the connection between civil

society and political society by banning voluntary associations and trade unions from

engaging in political activity and having relationships with political parties. Moreover,

the state not only restricted the influence of civil society in politics, but also the capacity

35
Özbudun, 130.
36
In 1995, 15 Articles of the Constitution were amended right before the voting of the Customs Union
Agreement in the European Parliament. These amendments were related to enlarging political rights of the
civil servants, academics, trade unions and associations.
37
Binnaz Toprak, “Civil Society in Turkey,” Civil Society in the Middle East (Vol.2), ed. Augustus
Richard Norton (E. J. Brill: Leiden, 1996) 95.
38
See Toprak; Yeşim Arat, “Toward a Democratic Society: The Women’s Movement in Turkey in the
1980s,” Women’s Studies Int. Forum 17. 1994.
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of political parties in democratic decision-making through dissolving parties or giving

military warnings.

Necmettin Erbakan has made the most successful endeavor to organize religious

groups around a political party. He managed to reorganize his party under a new name

after each closure. From 1970s onwards, Erbakan launched several parties, including the

National Order Party (1970-1971), the National Salvation Party (1972-1980), and finally

the Welfare Party (1983-1998) 39 which was closed down by the Constitutional Court

following the military’s indirect intervention. The February 28 incident, when a military

warning demanding that “Erbakan curtail the tide of Radical Islam”40 forced the Welfare

Party to resign from the government, is usually defined as a “post-modern coup” or a

“soft coup” among intellectuals. When Erbakan won the 1995 elections, a great tension

arose between the secular elite and the government. The National Security Council on

February 28, 1997 forced the government to enact a list of measures to prevent the rise of

Islamic movements and to remind the Welfare Party government the army’s role as the

protector of the Kemalist heritage of the Republic. In the following months the

government was forced to resign because of its failure to execute the decisions of the 28

February and the Welfare Party and its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, were banned for five

years from politics with a decree of the Constitutional Court. As a matter of fact, the

Welfare Party, which had come to power through democratic elections, was closed down

in the name of democracy and modernity. As Günter Seufert points out:

The most explicit result of the ‘28 February-process was a reaffirmation of the
army’s legitimacy in interfering in politics whenever tenets as “laicism, modern

39
Birol A., Yeşilada. “The Virtue Party,” Political Parties in Turkey, ed. Barry Rubin and Metin Heper.
(London: Frank Cass, 2002) 62-81.
40
Ben Lombardi, “Turkey- The Return of the Reluctant Generals?” Political Science Quarterly, 112.2.
1997: 215.
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lifestyle and “national unity, solidarity and coherence” were considered to be


threatened and whenever these tenets were ineffectively protected by policy
makers.41

The Constitutional Court’s decision was legal in the sense that it was grounded in the

Constitution imposed by the military, however, “the legitimacy of the decision has been

subject to intense debate, because it gave priority to the secular regime over the principle

of democratic pluralism” and disregarded the Islamic identity and its role in socio-

political life.42

In addition to the Islamists, pro-Kurdish political parties began to form from 1990

onwards. Not surprisingly, these parties were closed down one by one as well, and

reorganized themselves under different names. 43 On the other hand, extreme Kurdish

nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists formed illegal organizations and destabilized the

regime more than a decade.44 The state has not been able to separate moderate Kurds and

Islamists from extremist groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and

Hizbullah, and has thus labeled every religious and ethnic discourse as a threat to the

national security and “secular” establishment. The state’s failure to make this distinction

led to the polarization of society into opposing groups like Kemalists, Islamists, Kurds,

etc. These groups deny sharing a common culture and refuse to engage in communication

with each other. Instead they all adopt totalizing discourses in terms of their own

conceptions of “good life”.

41
Günter Seufert, “The Impact of Nationalist Discourse on Civil Society,” Civil Society in the Grip of
Nationalism, ed. Stefanos Yerasimos, Günter Seufert, Karin Vorhoff (Istanbul: Orient-Institut, 2000) 33.
42
Fuat Keyman, “Globalization, Civil Society and Islam: The question of Democracy in Turkey,”
Globalizing Institutions, ed. J. Jenson and B. De Sousa Santos (Ashgate: Aldershot, 2000) 209.
43
See,Aylin Güney, “The People’s Democracy Party,” Political Parties in Turkey, ed. Barry Rubin and
Metin Heper. (London: Frank Cass, 2002) 122-137. for pro-Kurdish political parties in the Turkish history.
44
See Birol A. Yeşilada for a list of Islamic illegal organizations. Hizbullah was the major Islamist
organization aiming to establish an Islamic state in Turkey. See Ruşen Çakõr, Derin Hizbullah: İslamcõ
Şiddetin Geleceği (İstanbul: Metis Yayõnlarõ, 2001).
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In such a context, civil society organizations tend to be framed by big societal

visions 45 and not to have relations with political society. A study conducted by Ayşe

Kadõoğlu illustrates this. Kadõoğlu has conducted research on three major Islamic non-

governmental organizations in terms of their connections with political society – whether

they try to influence the agenda of political parties, i.e., interact with political society –

and their discourse – whether they entail hierarchic, authoritarian, and organic

characteristics.46 The three major Islamic nongovernmental organization that she reviews

are: AK-DER (Women against Discrimination), ÖZGÜR-DER (Association for the

Freedom of Thought and Educational Rights), and MAZLUM-DER (Organization for

Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed People). Kadõoğlu shows that among the

three nongovernmental organizations, only MAZLUM-DER seems to engage in a

harmonious and balanced relationship with political society. The others view themselves

as political organizations but seek to transform society by influencing the consciousness

of people. Even if the constitutional ban which had curtailed the connection between civil

and political society was lifted in 1995, there is still a tendency on the part of the civil

society to refuse to be in connection with political society. However, as I have suggested,

when the National Security Council declared Islamic movements as the primary enemy of

democracy during “the 28 February process”, and forced the WP government to resign,

the attitude of political society toward civil society, especially when its actors adopted an

Islamic discourse, became very uncompromising. Hence, the result is the emergence of

two autonomous spheres trying to legitimize themselves at the expense of each other.

45
Keyman and Ahmet İçduygu, “Globalization, Civil Society and Citizenship in Turkey: Actors,
Boundaries and Discourses” Citizenship Studies 7. 2003: 228.
46
Kadõoğlu 28.
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Moreover, Kadõoğlu shows that these organizations opt for a fundamental

transformation of society along Islamic lines. While what they oppose is the existing

political society, their opposition is also partly due to the inadequacies of political society

itself. “The inefficiency associated with political society as well as its corruption paves

the way to the conception of an alternative view of politics that is more radical since it is

above and beyond political society”, says Kadõoğlu.47 Her research shows that the more

frequently these identities are barred from the public sphere, the more particular their

causes have become. As Cohen and Arato suggest:

Radical pluralism…cannot be so radical as to exclude meaningful normative


coordination and commonality, however minimal, that is recognized, at least
implicitly, by all of us insofar as we communicate and act together…In modern
civil societies a minimal or “weak” collective political identity can be shared by a
plurality of groups, each with its own particular version of the “good life”.48

Unfortunately, Turkey has not been able to generate such a “weak” collective political

identity due to the hegemonic identity imposed from above. Hence, most groups, ethnic

or religious, define themselves in terms of their differences, and express distaste for any

kind of commonality with others. Göle claims that what is needed is at least an agreement

over the rough boundaries of the political unit,49 yet, in Turkey that kind of agreement

seems to be lacking. Civil society organizations tend to frame their discourses in the “us”

vs. “them” dichotomy. More interestingly, even human rights associations have a clear

definition of “us”. Some of these organizations choose to focus exclusively on human

47
Ibid 37.
48
Cohen and Arato 373.
49
Nilüfer Göle, “Authoritarian Secularism and Islamist Politics: The Case of Turkey,” Civil Society in the
Middle East (Vol.2), ed. Augustus Richard Norton (E. J. Brill: Leiden, 1996) 37.
Gürbey 19

rights violations inflicted upon certain persons and refuse to have dialogue with other

organizations.50

Fuat Keyman and Ahmet İçduygu while accepting the role of civil society in the

process of democratization, call attention to the essentialist discourses about citizenship

and identity. They argue that it would be a mistake to attribute in an ipso facto manner

‘positivity’ to civil society since it also involves not only democratic discourses, but also

essentialist identity claims, voiced by religious and ethnic fundamentalism, which argue

for reconstructing the state-society relations in a communitarian basis.51 They emphasize

the need to analyze the actors of civil society in terms of their discourses and strategies.

They suggest that civil society in Turkey suffers a serious ‘boundary problem’, since it is

not only a sphere for democratization, but also an important site where anti-democratic

groups put their identities in practice. However, to struggle against the communitarian

and anti-pluralistic discourses of the Islamic actors in civil society is one thing, and to

regard every Islamic discourse as an attempt to suppress pluralism another. Turkey has

suffered more than necessary because of the ruling elites’ adoption of the latter approach.

It is true that within the Islamic movement, as in every movement, there are some groups

which adopt an authoritarian and anti-democratic discourse, but we cannot ignore the

ones that aim to expand civil freedoms within the borders of the democratic

establishment.52

50
See Gottfried Plagemann, “Türkiye’de İnsan Haklari Örgütleri: Farkli Kültürel Çevreler, Farklõ
Örgütler,” Türkiye’de Sivil Toplum ve Milliyetçilik. Ed. Yerasimos, Günter Seufert, Karin Vorhoff.
Istanbul: İletişim Yayõnlarõ, 2001. 361-396. for detailed analysis of political fragmentation among human
rights associations in Turkey.
51
Fuat Keyman and Ahmet İçduygu, “Globalization, Civil Society and Citizenship in Turkey: Actors,
Boundaries and Discourses” Citizenship Studies 7. 2003: 221
52
See Elizabeth Özdalga, “Civil Society and Its Enemies: Reflections on a Debate in the Lightof Recent
Developments within the Islamic Student Movement in Turkey,” Civil Society Democracy and The
Gürbey 20

Conclusion:

The 2002 general elections which brought the Islamic-rooted Justice and

Development Party (JDP) to power led to an intense debate over the future of Turkish

politics, given the doom of the Welfare Party government. However, the JDP was quick

to pronounce that it was not going to follow Erbakan’s path. The party denied an Islamic

label and presented itself as a conservative-democratic political party committed to the

secular establishment. The military and the government tend to stay neutral towards each

other. Unfortunately, we do not see a similar enhancement in the relationship between the

government and civil society. The JDP during its electoral campaigns continuously

emphasized the need to include civil society organizations in the democratic decision-

making process to close the gap between the state and society, thus to move Turkey to a

more participatory democracy. This gesture of the party was promising for the long

marginalized groups to have a say in politics. However, the JDP does not seem to hold its

promise, the government excludes civil society organizations from the policy-formation

processes53 and is not being loyal to its earlier dedication to religious pluralism. Actually,

the current balanced relationship between the military and the government seems to be

due to the government’s commitment to state-secularism. The party is trying to gain

legitimacy in the eyes of the skeptical secular elite but at the same time jeopardizing its

relationship with civil society.

Muslim World, ed. Elizabeth Özdalga, Sune Persson. (Istanbul: Swedish Research Institute & Curzon Press,
1997) 73-84.
53
See Suna Tepe, “Turkey's AKP: A Model "Muslim-Democratic" Party?” Journal of Democracy 16.3
2005.
Gürbey 21

The Turkish history has been one of state interference in every aspect of social

life. The authoritarian manner in which the modernization project has been implemented

alienated large segments of society. As the gap between the state and society widened,

the development of a viable civil society which could counterbalance the power of the

state became complicated. The state marginalized the “unfit” ones in such a way that a

common political identity which would hold different groups together could not be

developed. The emergence of civil society against the absolute power of the state led to

hopes that finally marginalized groups could participate in the political processes and

democracy could be consolidated in the end. However, the state’s refusal to share power

with mediating institutions led to the emergence of two autonomous spheres trying to

gain legitimacy at the expense of each other. If civil society continues to gain power and

legitimacy in the public eye, which seems to be the case, and if the state continues to curb

participation, there is a chance that essentialist identity claims might gain more currency.

In that case, the state will legitimize its interference in politics to save democracy as it did

in the past and this vicious circle will continue to disturb Turkish politics.
Gürbey 22

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