In early 2003, after a visit to Istanbul, I wrote an article titled “Istanbul Impressions” that contained the following observation:
Not far from my quarters in upper Bostanci (pronounced Bostanji), a middle-class neighborhood on the Asian side reminiscent of Flushing, Queens, there is a major shopping drag called Bagdat Avenue. (There is an accent under the g in Bagdat that Microsoft cannot accommodate. It is silent and is used to extend the vowel immediately before it. In this case, you would pronounce it “Baahdat”.) Despite the fact that this avenue is named after the capital of Iraq, there is nothing Mideastern about it except for the occasional mosque–ubiquitous to all of Istanbul, including the most occidental sections.) It is a bustling thoroughfare with expensive European clothing outlets, banks and doctors’ offices. On Saturday night the sidewalks are crowed with elegantly dressed Turks who often have a full shopping bag in one hand and a cell phone in the other.
(The recent Islamic electoral victory might be interpreted as a reaction to Bagdat Avenue ostentation. However, things are never quite that clear. One of my Turkish hosts pointed out to me a couple of women in scarves who were carrying Hermes handbags. The next day she also brought my attention to a newspaper article that highlighted the success of “Islamic stylishness”, an approach that its promoters hoped to win secular Turks to its cause.)
Last night PBS Wide Angle aired a documentary titled “Turkey’s Tigers: Faith and Prosperity in Turkey” that fleshed out the scarves/Hermes phenomenon. It was produced by Jon Alpert, an outstanding documentary-maker whose recent HBO film “Baghdad ER” I reviewed a while back. Alpert, who is obviously a very sophisticated artist with a deep understanding of how class society operates, really nails down the Turkish reality here.
“Turkey’s Tigers” focuses on Mustafa Karaduman, CEO of Turkey’s largest Islamic-style clothing chain, Tekbir Giyim. (Tekbir Giyim means “Allah is Great Clothing”). Karaduman decided to fill a market niche in the 1992 by creating stylish clothing for conservative Muslim women. He now has over 600 stores throughout Turkey and across Europe.
Mustafa Karaduman, with his employees.
The documentary shows the savvy marketing skills of Tekbir’s CEO, who hosts a fashion show for his latest line that features one of Turkey’s hottest models. We learn that she is not religious herself and has posed nearly nude in fashion magazines. After a Tekbir show, Karaduman shakes her hand. Later that night he agonizes over that decision and wishes that he had presented her with a bouquet instead. He is a man who is always thinking tactically, it seems. This would be reflected as well by his latest design, a neck to ankle swim suit for the conservative woman.
Karaduman and other Islamic businessmen hail from Kayseri, a city on the Anatolian plains that is on the leading edge of Islamic capitalism. Another local son is Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul of the ruling AK party, whose visage I saw nightly on Turkish television the last time I was there. We discover in an interview from “Turkey’s Tigers” that Gul feels an affinity for American society and hopes that Turkey’s success, at least understood in his terms, can open doors in the European Union and allay American fears that Islam and terrorism are synonymous. Indeed, the main impression one gets from these Islamic businessman and politicians is how alike they are with their American Rotary Club and Republican Party counterparts. Basically, Islamic rule–or the Turkish variation on that–is not that different from Red State rule.
At one point, Karaduman explains his understanding of Islam’s 5 main precepts. The first three have to do with prayer and the body, while the last two have to do with the need to conduct business. Business is important because it allows you to afford a trip to Mecca and to pay alms for charity that will allow the less fortunate Islamic brothers to survive. I was struck by how similar this was to the concept of a ‘mitzvah’ in Orthodox Judaism. Jews are encouraged to succeed in business so that they can afford to be charitable to fellow Jews who lack the acumen to accumulate capital.
As the title of the documentary conveys, the culture of these Islamic businessmen is very much “tiger” oriented–as in the Asian tigers of the 1990s. On August 15, 2006 an International Herald Tribune article titled “‘Protestant work ethic’ in Muslim Turkey” by Dan Bilefsky elaborated:
As Turkey seeks to join the European Union amid growing skepticism in Europe about the prospect of integrating a large agrarian Muslim country into one of the world’s biggest trading blocs, the case of Kayseri shows that Islam, capitalism and globalization can be compatible.
Central Anatolia is profiting from its mix of religion and business because of what local Muslim entrepreneurs refer to without irony as their “Protestant work ethic” – a willingness to work long hours, a commitment to combine religious conservatism with democracy and a pro-business bias within Turkish Islam. Analysts say Kayseri also got an edge by building one of the largest Turkish industrial zones; in 2004 it applied to the Guinness Book of World Records for starting the construction of 139 new businesses in a single day.
But the region also is experiencing tensions between Turkey’s official secularism and its religious fervor, suggesting that reconciling Islam and business can create challenges.
“If you’re not a good Muslim, don’t pray five times a day and don’t have a wife who wears a head scarf, it can be difficult to do business here,” said Halil Karacavus, managing director of the Kayseri sugar factory, one of the biggest Turkish businesses, which expects €500 million, or $642 million, in revenue this year.
Even so, business is thriving, a fact that local business leaders attribute to an entrepreneurial spirit that, they say, is also part of Islam. Herdem said that the secret behind the city’s business prowess could be traced to the Prophet Muhammad, himself a trader, who preached merchant honor and commanded that 90 percent of a Muslim’s life be devoted to work in order to put food on the table. Opening a factory in Islam is a sort of prayer, Herdem added.
“In Kayseri we like to say that if you are stupid, go to school,” he said. “If you are clever, go into business.
“It is good for a religious person to work hard, to save, to invest in the community,” he continued, noting proudly that while bustling cafés are a prominent feature of Turkish life, there is only one café in Hacilar, and it is usually empty because everyone is always off somewhere completing a deal.
Back in the autumn of 1978, when my career in the Trotskyist movement was winding down, I was selling the Militant newspaper at the front door of a supermarket in Kansas City. A middle-aged woman approached me and–pointing to a late-model Buick–said, “You see that car? Jesus got me that car. Get right with God and you can be blessed like me.”
After watching last night’s documentary, I realized that this woman had more in common with the AK party in Turkey than I ever will.
This show can now be watched online at: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/shows/turkey/video.html