Secularism and Islamism in Turkey: The Making of Elites and Counter-Elites

By Gole, Nilufer | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Secularism and Islamism in Turkey: The Making of Elites and Counter-Elites


Gole, Nilufer, The Middle East Journal


There is an inherent power conflict between secular modernist elites and Islamist elites in Turkey today, which is fueled by two different worldviews and life-styles. However, because of the inclusionary nature of Turkish politics, the opportunity for social mobility, and the prevalent freedom of speech, Islamist movements have developed their own educated, technical and intellectual elites which resemble the secular modernist elites they criticize and oppose. This process of elite formation in turn leads to de facto secularization, independently from the intentions of the actors, as religion and professional careers follow separate and distinct paths.

This article is an attempt to understand the contemporary debate between Islamism and secularism from the perspective of the formation and circulation of elites and counterelites. The concept of elite is used here to refer to those new social groups such as intellectuals and the technical intelligentsia (engineers and technicians)' which, through secular and modern education, have acquired a "cultural capital,"2 namely, a universal scientific language and professional skills. "Islamism" indicates the reappropriation of a Muslim identity and values as a basis for an alternative social and political agenda (to that of the state). "Muslim" is not synonymous with "Islamist," in the sense that the first expresses a religious identity and the latter implies a political consciousness and social action. Accordingly, Islamist counter-elites can be both actors in the Islamist movements and professionals and intellectuals aspiring for political power. Islamism, however, does not only denote membership in an Islamist political organization, but also suggests a sense of belonging and a group identity.

The Turkish experience allows for an in-depth analysis of the conflict between secularists and Islamists. The reason is that Turkey has had a very long tradition of ruling elites which, since the end of the l9th century, have been engaged in reforming, modernizing and secularizing Turkish society while Islamists have challenged this essentially Western model of change. Since the establishment of an Islamist party, the Milli Nizam Partisi (National Order Party) in 1970, Turkish Islamism has been incorporated into the political system and legitimated by the parliamentary system. This party, known today as the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party, RP), is currently the senior partner of a coalition government formed in July 1996.3

Turkey is a unique example in the Middle East where such a radical political change in the nature of the governing elites can take place peacefully and by democratic means. Democracy has been successful in Turkey; it has been internalized as a set of shared values by Turks and has become the norm of political behavior. Furthermore, the liberal administration of President Turgut Ozal (1983-91) introduced the institutions of a market economy and the privatization of the mass media. As a consequence, civil society and associative life have expanded, and non-governmental organizations have proliferated.4 These developments have taken place amid a lively public debate on issues of religious and ethnic identity, national unity, secularism and democratic pluralism. In short, the debate between the secularist Kemalist5 elites and the religious Islamist counter-elites on the direction of social and cultural change in Turkey is taking place in an environment accustomed to electoral politics and public debates that shape public opinion and influence government policies. In other words, the existence of alternative political parties and the freedom of speech and organization provide the best guarantee against authoritarian rule and totalitarian practices.

This article discusses four major propositions: first, that secularism, as a non-Muslim way of life, has contributed to the making of the politically dominant Kemalist elites; second, that since secularism is often implemented by authoritarian elites in Muslim countries, there is a potential conflict of interest between democracy and secularism; third, that although Islamism as a political movement challenges the secular state, secularization has shaped the identities and practices of the new Islamist actors; and fourth, that it is in the widening of the public sphere of debate between Islamists and secularists that the basic principles of democracy are defined. …

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