Friday, July 25, 2008

Islamic Calvinists and the Anatolian Tiger

Having taken a tour of a prominent AKP politician's home, I am prompted to say, "Islamic Calvinism indeed."

From Nicolas Bich at
"Tell me where Allah is and I will give you an orange. Tell me where Allah is not and I will give you an orange grove." This particular Koranic phrase graces a whiteboard at the entrance to the third biggest company in Gaziantep, a city of 1 million close to Turkey’s border with Syria.

Naksan Holding exemplifies what Turks call the "Anatolian Tiger" economy. Set up 40 years ago by a successful local tradesman, it is now the largest producer of plastic bags anywhere in the Balkans or Middle East. Its rise has been phenomenal, dwarfing even the 7 percent per annum growth of Turkey’s economy between 2001 and 2007. A decade ago, Naksan was the country’s 480th largest company, according to statistics from the Istanbul Chamber of Industry. Now, with a turnover of US$450 million, it ranks 136th.

"We’ve done very well, and our future looks bright", says Taner Nakiboglu, 35, describing how the company has just invested US$300 million to build a power station in western Turkey.

Plump and loquacious, the US-educated Nakiboglu is representative of the new generation of Anatolian businessmen: he is as pious as the "thought of the day" posted at the corporate offices’ main entrance.

. . . .

Coinciding with the growth of conservative political parties, the rapid rise of industrial Anatolia has attracted widespread attention, not least because its apparent combination of piety and worldly success contradicts a perception held by many Westerners’ and westernized Turks.

Highlighting the recent trend in Anatolia, one Berlin-based think-tank titled its 2005 study of the wealthy Anatolian city of Kayseri "Islamic Calvinists," a reference to the German sociologist Max Weber’s theory that capitalism sprang from Protestantism. "Economic success has created a social milieu in which Islam and modernity co-exist comfortably," the European Stability Initiative (ESI) concluded. "It is the Anatolia shaped by these values that is now pressing its case to join the European Union."

A sociologist in Konya, a conservative city 500 miles west of Gaziantep, Yasin Aktay agrees that the growth of conservative capital has changed religious life-styles. "Frugality has been replaced by what you could call ’comfortable’ religiosity," he says. "Consumerism used to be seen as extravagance. Now, owning a big house isn’t a luxury, it’s a display of [God’s] blessings."

A doctor in Islamic theology whose spare parts factory in Konya now has an annual turnover of US$50 million, Huseyin Ciftci has seen the transformation closer to home. "Look at my family: two brothers married to Europeans," he says. "Just 20 years ago, that would have been out of the question around here."

Yet ESI’s talk of "Islamic Calvinism" pushes it dangerously close to the cliché it seeks to correct -- of an Anatolia united in its religious conservatism.

That is far from true. While Konya and Kayseri have long been strongholds of political Islam, both Gaziantep and the western Anatolian textile hub Denizli have traditionally voted for secularist parties. If AKP won 51percent of Gaziantep’s votes at general elections last July, it is because "people here vote with their pockets," says Murat Ozguler, owner of an ultra-chic pastry shop in the city centre.
For the analysis from ESI, click here.

Executive summary of the 2005 ESI publication:
Among Europeans who are sceptical of Turkish membership of the European Union, it is common to hear the view that Turkey has two souls, only one of which is Western. They contrast the cosmopolitan outlook of Istanbul with the vast Turkish interior, which is seen as backward, impoverished and 'non-European' in its values.

Central Anatolia, with its rural economy and patriarchal, Islamic culture, is seen as the heartland of this 'other' Turkey. Yet in recent years, it has witnessed an economic miracle that has turned a number of former trading towns into prosperous manufacturing centres. This new prosperity has led to a transformation of traditional values and a new cultural outlook that embraces hard work, entrepreneurship and development. While Anatolia remains a socially conservative and religious society, it is also undergoing what some have called a 'Quiet Islamic Reformation'. Many of Kayseri's business leaders even attribute their economic success to their 'protestant work ethic'.

This report explores these social and economic changes in the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri, home to one million people. It presents detailed case studies of a number of strategic sectors: the emergence of Kayseri as Turkey's leading cluster of furniture manufacturers; the rise of Orta Anadolu, producing one percent of the world's denim; and the success of the Kayseri sugar refinery and its impact on local agriculture. These case studies illustrate how industrial capitalism emerged from a predominantly rural and merchant society within a single generation. They also demonstrate how policy failures by successive governments caused the 1990s to be a 'lost decade', and how the economic crisis of 2000/01 and the structural reforms which followed it have marked a decisive turning point for the Turkish economy.

The report also explores how over the past decade individualistic, pro-business currents have become prominent within Turkish Islam. It looks closer at Kayseri's most successful small town, the industrial district of Hacilar, whose 20,000 inhabitants have given birth to 9 out of Turkey's top 500 companies. It finally examines the position of women in this evolving Anatolian society, and why this could prove to be the Achilles heel of continued rapid development.

Today's governing party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul (Kayseri's most prominent politician), and its political philosophy of 'democratic conservatism', are very popular in Central Anatolia. AKP's Kayseri headquarters was one of its first to be established, and in the 2004 municipal elections in Kayseri it won an overwhelming majority of 70 percent, its highest in the country. Democratic conservatism embraces many goals reminiscent of centrist political parties across Europe.

The report concludes that economic success and social development have created a milieu in which Islam and modernity coexist comfortably. It is the Anatolia shaped by these values that is now pressing its case to join the European Union.

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