B.U. Bridge
SHA benefit auction to
honor Lisa Frost and
Heather Ho, Thursday,
November 14, 7:30 to 10 p.m., Omni Parker House
Week of 8 November 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 11

Current IssueIn the NewsResearch BriefsBulletin BoardBU YesterdayCalendarClassified AdsArchive

Search the Bridge

Contact Us


Islamist mobilization in Turkey: a crisis for U.S. interests in Middle East?

By Brian Fitzgerald

Those monitoring U.S. strategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean are keeping a watchful eye on Turkey, which on November 3 voted overwhelmingly for a party with Islamist roots. Many are concerned that the country, whose secular government has been one of the West’s closest allies in the Middle East, may now balk at backing any military attack on neighboring Iraq.

Jenny White, a CAS associate professor of anthropology, has been focusing on the continuing appeal of Islamic politics in the fabric of Turkish society. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


Jenny White, a CAS associate professor of anthropology, has been focusing on the continuing appeal of Islamic politics in the fabric of Turkish society. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


It is unlikely, however, that Turkey will reverse its pro-West stance on Iraq, says Jenny White, a CAS associate professor of anthropology and author of Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (University of Washington Press, 2002). On Thursday, November 14, White will discuss her book — and the implications of the recent election — at Barnes & Noble’s Level 5 Reading Room in Kenmore Square.

White says that fears of a growing radical Islamic presence in Turkey’s politics are unfounded — and that the warnings are mostly sounded by the country’s old elite, which is trying to label Tayyip Erdogan, chairman of the victorious Justice and Development Party (AKP), as a religious fundamental ist who is exploiting his impoverished and Islamic origins. “I think that people misunderstand what makes this party popular, and that’s what makes them afraid,” says White. “The AKP is not made up just of the poor, and the Islamists. There are big industrialists and intellectuals supporting this party — and many people who are not devout Muslims.”

In an interview with the Boston Globe after the election, Erdogan said that the previous parties he was affiliated with were all democratic parties that favored a secular state. “Unfortunately, the Turkish media and the foreign media that took the Turkish media as their reference point have always taught that our way of thinking and living is an Islamic approach,” said Erdogan. “AKP is a conservative democratic party — conservative because of our ethical, moral values, our historical experience, and the common values of different groups that form Turkish society. We aim to conserve the health of the family. We deny regional nationalism. We deny nationalism based on race. We also deny nationalism based on religion.”

Indeed, when White interviewed supporters of the Welfare Party, the Islam-oriented party Erdogan belonged to when he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, “not a single one of them mentioned religion as the reason for their vote,” she says. “They all complained about inflation, unemployment, lack of trash pickup, and water shortages. They complained about the corruption of the previous party, and about a methane gas explosion at a garbage dump in an Istanbul neighborhood that killed dozens of people.” Erdogan was credited with being an honest mayor who competently restored city services.

But Erdogan soon angered secularists by banning alcohol from Istanbul’s cafes and by maintaining close ties to Necmetten Erbakan, the first Islamist to score major success in Turkish politics. Erbakan was ousted from the prime minister’s office by a military-led campaign in 1997, accused of pulling Turkey away from the West and toward the Arab Islamic states. In 1999 Erdogan was jailed for four months for sedition, after reading a poem that proclaimed, “Minarets are our bayonets, domes are our helmets, mosques are our barracks, believers are our soldiers.” Despite the chants on the streets after 95 percent of the votes were counted November 3 — “Tayyip prime minister! Tayyip prime minister!” — Erdogan cannot enter government because he was banned from parliament. The AKP board meets soon to decide who to nominate as prime minister.

White, who has drawn upon 20 years of fieldwork in Turkey to write her book, says that the voters’ frustration with a bad economy, along with AKP’s successful grassroots efforts in political networking and in providing social welfare programs in cities and towns, has brought the party to power. In her book, she writes that AKP is practicing “vernacular politics” — a community- and value-centered political process that, “despite its local roots, is able to draw large numbers of people of diverse backgrounds into national politics.”

Turkey, founded in 1923, is the Muslim world’s first secular republic. But Islam-influenced parties have been gaining followers in recent years, partly because of Turkey’s secular laws on issues such as the right of women to wear veils. Veiling is allowed, “but you’re not allowed to wear religious clothing in a state setting,” says White. “For instance, you can’t wear a head scarf if you’re a civil servant.” In one controversy, college students were not allowed to wear religious clothing at their graduation ceremony. “Islamic women students protested by wearing green wigs to class,” she says. “Green is Islam’s symbolic color. Since there was no provision for wigs in the ban, they were allowed to continue.”

Turkish secular critics of Islamist parties are especially suspicious of Erdogan’s about-face in his stance on Turkey’s potential membership in the European Union, accusing him of pretending to be moderate while pushing a secret Islamist agenda. Once opposed to joining the EU, he now says he will accelerate Turkey’s bid. As for U.S.

attacks on Iraq from Turkish territory, Erdogan says his party hasn’t taken a position yet. That has some in Washington worried, especially after Saudi Arabia announced that it will not allow bases on its soil to be used for an attack on Iraq.

“It’s still too early to tell,” says White, “but I still can’t imagine a scenario in which Turkey would not go along with the United States on this issue.”


8 November 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations