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Islamist victory in Turkey

The stunning results of the elections that took place recently in Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey are indicative of public mood in the Islamic world and an eye-opener to the Islamic movement leadership of other countries.

Results of all five elections saw opposition Islamist groups either win outright or achieve significant gains. The biggest victory was by the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, giving it a parliamentary majority and control of the next government. 

In Bahrain, the Islamic parties won 24 of the 40 seats in the 80-member Parliament (the king appoints the other 40 members). In Pakistan, Islamic parties scored big victories in two of the four national provinces.

In Algeria, the municipal elections saw the Islah and other Islamic parties hold their ground behind the resurgent National Liberation Front. In Morocco, as the governing coalition maintained control of Parliament, the Islamist Justice and Development Party made the biggest gains.

These results are part of the recurring cycles of revivals characteristic of Muslim history and are also a reaction to the severe crisis of modernity converging with the rise of charismatic leaders. It constitutes a religious reform movement and a political ideology that includes a social element of protest and a search for identity by the have-nots of the Muslim world against an oppressive world order.

Compared to the other four countries where external factors rather than concrete planning or strategy led to Islamist success, the victory of the Islamist party in Turkey is a milestone. No doubt ground realities in Turkey and political, social and economic situation varies from country to country but there are many similarities, Islam being the common factor.

Analysts have pointed to Turkey as an exemplar of regional enlightenment, a model of moderate secularism and democratic ambition. Bernard Lewis, a distinguished scholar of both Turkey and the Arab world, has written that, in the context of the Islamic world and its history, Turkey is a country of possibility.

The rise of the Islamist movement in Turkey and its popular support is expressed through four successive Islamist political parties — National Order, National Salvation, Welfare, and Virtue.

In the context of modern Turkish political history, the Welfare and Virtue parties must be understood not only in terms of their specific Islamic ideology but also as the representative of specific social sectors reacting to circumstances.

Besides religion itself, much of the parties’ appeal is based on specific socio-economic groups and regional factors, as well as strains arising from modernisation. 

Let us examine the strategy of the Islamic parties of Turkey which led to their victory in the secular country.

GRASSROOTS CONSOLIDATION BEFORE ENTERING INTO ELECTORAL POLITICS Islamist movement emerged soon after the founding of the secular republic in 1923. It was led by tariqat (religious order) shaikhs and professional men of religion, who lost their status and economic power when secular reforms abolished religious institutions. 

The father of Turkey Islamic Movement was Ustad Badrujzama Saeed Nurshi. His exemplary character and Quranic knowledge made him popular throughout Turkey. Under his spiritual guidance the first Islamic organisation in post-Khilafat Turkey, Talaba-e-Noor, was established and within a short period its membership reached 0.6 million in the early 30s.

CONSOLIDATION THROUGH ALLIANCE WITH SECULAR PARTIES With the transition to a multi-party system in 1946, Islamist groups formed covert and overt alliances with the ruling center-right Democratic Party (1950-1960). Until Necmettin Erbakan established the National Order Party (NOP), the predecessor of the three succeeding Islamist parties, in January 1970, Islamists had either formed conservative factions in a center-right party or had remained underground. With the NOP, however, the Islamists for the first time had an autonomous party organisation through which they could campaign for their agenda. Since NOP's founding, the same Islamist party has endured, albeit under different names: NOP (1970-1971), NSP (1972-1981), Welfare (1983-1998), Virtue (1997), which paved the way to participation in coalition government.

NETWORKING COMMON FOLK THROUGH SOCIAL WELFARE One reason for the success of Islamic parties is good organisation. They have the neighborhood infrastructure, the continuity of seeing people at the mosque every week or every day. Islamists often provide assistance that the government does not. Justice and Development candidates talked about how Turkey needed to feed the poor and create jobs. From providing financial assistance to taking up day-to-day socio-economic issues of the common folk Islamists built up their support base. Islamic parties made available subsidised bread and drinking water in most of the rural areas of Turkey. Thus unlike other Islamic movements whose exclusive focus is on ideology, in Turkey ideology and day-to-day issues got equal importance.

EDUCATED COUNTER-ELITE AS A BASE OF SUPPORT One important strategy used by the Islamist movement was to develop an educated counter-elite as a base of support, especially by strengthening the Islamic stream in the educational system. 
As Islamist supporters moved from provincial towns and villages to urban centers, they were more likely to gain access to formal education and opportunities for upward social mobility. Islamist groups responded to the needs and aspirations of the newly urbans who could be university students, professionals, shopkeepers, merchants, or workers. The groups offered food to the needy, scholarships and hostels to university students, a network to young graduates looking for jobs, and credit to shopkeepers, industrialists and merchants. Self-help projects run by women were particularly important to this endeavour. Financial assistance came from a newly formed Islamist business elite.

COOPERATION RATHER THAN CONFRONTATION WITH RULING PARTIES After its solid showing in the 1973 general elections, the NSP became a coalition partner in successive governments. It succeeded in passing a bill that made theological high schools (imam-hatip) equal to secondary schools and enabled these schools’ often pro-Islamist students to attend universities. A large number of girls also enrolled in these schools. Many graduates went on to hold positions of political power as Islamists in the 1980s and 1990s and formed a powerful pressure group.

SHUNNING EXTREMISM EVEN IN THE FACE OF EXTREME PROVOCATION Turkish police are notoriously brutal and still practice the falanga, or beating the soles of a suspect's feet, and the wet submarino, or submerging a prisoner's head under water to force a confession. Most of the Islamist prisoners still suffer mock executions and electric-shock torture, and are allegedly hung by their wrists. Sometimes suspects are sandwiched between blocks of ice to force testimony, a practice that leaves no marks but causes lung infections and other illnesses. 

REJECTION OF AGITATION AS STRATEGY AND ADOPTION OF PRAGMATISM Erbakan was banned from politics and the Welfare Party was outlawed in January 1998 by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that it violated the principles of secularism and the law regarding political parties. Instead of launching a nationwide agitation in protest, which it could have easily done, a new party was born. Virtue Party was founded by 33 former Welfare Party deputies under the leadership of Recai Kutan on December 17, 1997. 

IMAGE BUILDING Along with renewing membership, the Islamists have tried to rectify their image as anti-women and un-democratic. It recruited a number of highly educated, upper middle class modern women like Nazli Ilicak and Prof. Oya Akgonenc. Women from lower social classes carried the party to power, and were able to participate in public life as a result. 
Thus it was not hardline attitude or pure ideology that led Turkey's Islamists to victory but a sustained, moderate approach and pragmatic programmes with direct relevance to common folk’s concerns.

¯ MH Lakdawala

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