Islam, Secularism and Civil Society

By Lovatt, Debbie | The World Today, August/September 1997 | Go to article overview

Islam, Secularism and Civil Society


Lovatt, Debbie, The World Today


The Islamist Welfare Party increased its influence in Turkey's election of 1995. The party's first taste of office lasted less than a year and another coalition is now having a go at government. Non-political groups and those less well off are increasingly turning to voluntary civil organisations in frustration at the apparent inability of a succession of governments to improve their lot.

TURKEY IS RENOWNED FOR ITS UNSTABLE coalition governments and military coups. The country is now onto its fifty-fifth government since its foundation in 1923. A possible fourth military coup was avoided by engineering the resignation of the coalition led by the Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party.

Another flimsy coalition is now in power. It is known as the Mother-Left, and is made up of Mesut Yilmaz's ANAP (Motherland Party), Bulent Ecevit's DSP (Democratic Left Party), and Husamettin Cindoruk's DTP (Democratic Turkey Party), which also receives outside support from Deniz Baykal's CHP (Republican People's Party).

Following this coup-less coup there is talk of early elections in or after June 1998. 'Early' means prior to the end of the government's five-year term following the December 1995 polls which brought in the Welfare-Path.1 Those results have been used to form the MotherLeft coalition. Much energy is being devoted to the debate about the election system which, despite the alterations to it and the constitution following the 1980 military coup, has failed to produce strong and stable governments.

Guardians of the state

The military is still central in Turkish politics and the generals see themselves as the guardians of the state Kemal Ataturk established. The Welfare-Path coalition was forced to resign in late June largely because of pressure from the military whose current game plan might be described as `Secularists versus Islamists'. Secularism is one of Atatrk's founding principles and the military's support of the new 'secular' government is important for its success. The generals and the new government deliver speeches about the threat the Welfare Party caused to secularism, but the main threat to the nation's cohesion and stability is the re-disenfranchising of the newly politicised sectors - the rural and urban poor who gathered under the Welfare banner.

If there is no political will to reduce the gap between the highest and lowest earners, an Islamist threat may become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Although the Welfare Party's constituency is not solely the poorer sectors, the link between income distribution and the Islamist movement's success is hard to sever.

Haves and have-nots

Turkey is one of ten countries with the worst income distribution. As the income divide further widens, the only civil organisation to work with the economically disadvantaged sectors of society en masse is the Welfare Party. It is now described as an Islamist fundamentalist movement and, by extension, undemocratic.

`Welfare is a vehicle that is carrying the marginal, downtrodden, and neglected to the centre of power. It will never lose its grip because these people were not represented before. No political party represents the people at the political or the popular level and there are no grass-roots organisations to influence the state.'2

While the Secularists are pitted against the Islamists, the real issue, that of the grossly unequal distribution of income, is pushed into the wings. The gap between the haves and have-nots is not just confined to a geographic/ethnic split. Greater prosperity is concentrated in a `fertile crescent' linking Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. But a recent survey has shown that the income distribution of Istanbul was more extreme than in any other area. Mysteries of economics

Inflation is running at around 80 per cent, eroding wages while pushing up prices, leading to demands for wage increases to match. If incomes don't match the inflation rate, buying power and living standards are reduced. …

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