Atilla Yayla is associate professor of political science at Hacettepe University in Ankara.
In many ways, the key debate of Turkish politics today concerns the intentions of the Refah (or Welfare) Party: does it accept democratic ways or is it at heart authoritarian? These days, it claims to be not just democratic but even secular. Can these assurances be taken seriously? Given Refah's spectacular trajectory of recent years, the reply to this question has potentially major consequences for the viability of Turkish democracy.
We begin with a close scrutiny of Refah's ideas, ideology, and aims, all of which suggest that the party is undemocratic in its programs and its spirit, then look at its future prospects, and conclude with observations about the best way to handle the problems Refah presents.
THE JUST ORDER
Refah proudly claims to be unlike other political parties in Turkey, for its ideology challenges the very foundations of the republic founded by Atatürk in 1923. Its explicit aim is not mere political power within the system's limits but the creation of a new system and even a new civilization, one that can stand up to Western civilization.
Refah's ideological stand does not fit the classical left-right political paradigm. It differs from a right-wing movement in so far as it draws upon elements of the social democratic and even the socialist discourse. For example, it is extremely communitarian in outlook and favors a command economy. It is also leftist in its revolutionary ethos, its propensity to engage in social engineering and its ambition to shape all aspects of human life. Despite these leftist propensities, Refah is not a party of the Left because, in final analysis, its outlook is not that of class conflict but Muslim solidarity; not the workers but the umma (the community of Muslims).
To achieve its ends, Refah offers an alternative system it calls the "just order" (adil düzen) which is comprised of two important components: the Just Economic Order and legal pluralism. Party officials claim more than two thousand social scientists have worked on this vision over several years, yet they publicize it not as a scientific study but as the official view of the Refah. (It turns up, for example, in booklets published under the signature of party leader Necmettin Erbakan.)1
The Just Economic Order. This notion stands for a third way between capitalism and communism. Along with other Islamist ideologues,2 party propagandists claim Islam offers the most excellent economic system. It contains, they explain, the best sides of capitalism and communism, even as it avoids their wrong and harmful aspects.3 The Just Economic Order rests on two basic principles: the absolute harmony of economic interests among Muslims and the state's duty to manage the economy. Conflicts among Muslims result from the imperialism of the Western powers. Once the Just Economic Order comes into existence, however, all segments of the economy, guided and supervised by the state, will cooperate for the common benefit of the society. Were Turkey to adopt this approach, it would rapidly solve all of its economic problems, becoming within one generation a leading economic power.4
In making this argument about the Just Economic Order, Refah either distorts conventional terms or attributes to them pure ideological meanings. It considers interest on money not the price of capital but a financial virus that permits international Zionist financiers to exploit Muslims. This outlook leads to the happy conclusion that the scarcity of capital presents no problem in the Just Economic Order; the Islamic state will effortlessly meet all credit demands by its citizens and corporations. In this way does the Just Economic Order solve no real problems but childishly dispatches them by changing the meaning of words.5
Refah pays lip service to the market, declaring that the Just Economic Order depends on private property and individual entrepreneurship. But a closer look shows that its schema leaves no room for personal ownership, individual entrepreneurship, or a free market economy. Instead, the Just Economic Order gives absolute economic power to the state which has a stake in every economic endeavor and becomes an Orwellian Big Brother watching and governing its citizens' virtue. For example, a coupon system takes over some of the essential functions of money, an important step that destroys the price mechanism, increases the bureaucracy, advances the state's dominance of the economy, and narrows the scope of economic activity. Taxation also enhances the state's role. Corporate taxes are based on production, not income; that is, the company pays taxes not in cash but in kind-its end product-that the state then distributes according to its notions of economic need and social justice. Individual consumption becomes related to individual production, and consumers are allowed to consume as much as their contribution to the production.6 Economic activities depend on consent by local moral committees staffed by state-approved local members under the control of the government. Individuals lacking records to establish their moral credentials cannot conduct large-scale economic activities.
The Refah economic system amounts to a totalitarian system that rests on a vulgar and distorted understanding of economic life. Like many totalitarian structures, it rests on racist assumptions in so far as it attributes Turkey's economic problems to a Zionist conspiracy. It suffers heavily from logical and factual contradictions. In the end, it lacks any practical utility because of its imaginary premises and its lack of connection to the realities of human nature and economic life. In brief, the Just Economic Order at base has little to do with economics.
Legal pluralism. Refah envisages a Turkish society in which more than one legal system operates simultaneously and each citizen has the right freely to choose the legal system of his preference. According to a leading intellectual in the party, this "legal pluralism" increases individual freedom and creates a more advanced form of democracy.7 In this model, each adult declares the legal system he chooses to follow-presumably Islamic, Christian, and Jewish law; perhaps also secular law. The state then registers the citizen as belonging to a particular legal system, and when a legal issue occurs, the individual is tried according to his chosen system. (It is not clear, however, what happens when citizens of different legal systems clash.)
This notion of legal pluralism derives from what Turks call the "Medina document" (Medine vesikasi), the agreement between the prophet Muhammad and the Jews of Khaybar to live in the same city according to the rules of their respective religions.8 Refah ideologues believe that the legal structures of pre-modern Muslim states, including the Ottoman Empire support legal pluralism (even though the Ottoman and other systems did not allow the citizen to choose the legal system; rather, they required each person to follow that of his religious faith).
"Legal pluralism" has many problems. First, it has been tried many times and has proven inadequate; for example, the experiences in the Ottoman Empire and modern Egypt turned out poorly.9 Instead of promoting national integration and unity, it created different and unequal citizenship categories and prevented the legal structure from adapting to new conditions. It is no accident that the system has died out everywhere in favor of a single legal system. Second, in democratic countries law reflects the common experience of humanity and does not serve as an adjunct of religion. Because religion is properly one part of human life, not all of it, neither Islam nor any other religion can constitute a legal system unto itself. Third, religious laws lack such safeguards as separation of powers and minority rights, and so cannot guarantee individual liberty.
Refah's pompous "just order" means almost nothing in practice and cannot answer the needs of contemporary Turkey. The party's one year in power after July 1996 showed its inability to offer any steps, economic or legal, outside the mainstream. Refah ideas remain complete fantasies. The Just Order is not a well-thought through and operationally proven alternative but mere political propaganda to attract voters. Of course, were Refah to gain an absolute majority in the Assembly, it would try to put the Just Order into practice, an effort that would surely lead it to apply immense pressure and even brutality to overcome resistance from those of a different point of view.
IS REFAH DEMOCRATIC?
Is Refah at base democratic, or does it see elections simply as a useful tool to gain power with no intention of relinquishing that control later? A simple answer is not easy to give, for Refah is not monolithic; different factions operate within the party, ranging from the modestly pious (who hope to bring religious values into social life) to radical Islamists (ready to use every available means, including violent ones, to set up an "Islamic state" and "Islamize" society). The older, more moderate leaders control the party and prevent the younger, more radical figures from resorting to violent means.
This said, many political Islamists are clearly not democrats. Erbakan himself sometimes makes statements that create doubts about his commitment to the people's will, such as his remarks, well-known in Turkey, that Refah could come to power either peacefully or violently. Refah leaders see themselves as defenders of a better, more advanced democracy than one dependent on votes; if not a People's Democracy, perhaps God's Democracy. Specifically, they offer three ideas to improve Turkish democracy: abolish the bias against living in an Islamic fashion; reject what Refah calls the secularist minority's domination upon the Muslim majority; and replace the "fraudulent" Turkish regime with "real" democracy.10
This third point especially inspires doubts about Refah's intentions, for in Erbakan's peculiar definition of democracy, all Turkish Muslims belong to his party. If they are reluctant to support it now, that is because they do not yet realize their real views. In time they will see the truth and vote correctly. This outlook permits him to claim to be the only representative of the people and the one true defender of their beliefs and interests. Such a system permits no social divisions, no disagreement over values, or clash of interests. In Refah's system, what need could there be for multi-party politics, free and competitive elections, and limitations on the holders of political power? Here we find precisely the basis of totalitarianism.11
IS REFAH SECULAR?
Surprisingly and quite forcefully, Refah claims it would make Turkey's system of government more truly secular. Its view on this subject (most clearly expressed in Refah's proposal to change the Article 24 of the 1982 Constitution)12 states that Turkey has not drawn a line between religion and the state. Instead the governing elites dominate the religious arena on behalf of an anti-democratic secularism. Refah complains that secularism lacks a clear meaning in the constitution, and so is open to capricious interpretation; for example, the Six Principles of the Republican People's Party have become the basic principles of the Turkish state. Turkey needs to remove those six principles, including secularism, from the Constitution and clearly to define secularism in a way that makes religion and the state truly independent of each other. Refah leaders emphasize at every opportunity that they seek a secularism "exactly the way it is defined in Europe."13
But this call for change is hard to take seriously, coming as it does from a party whose political program derives largely from religious ideas. In practice, Refah would likely suppress other views in favor of its own understanding of Islam. The result would be not a more advanced democracy but a brutal dictatorship with religious overtones.
The claim to be secular fits into a larger pattern of seemingly contradictory positions. For example, Refah strenuously defends liberty and human rights, to the point that these appear to be its central concern. Some authors even go so far as to attribute Refah's success to its defense of human rights.14 At the same time, its demands along these lines are restricted to its own supporters, ignoring the rights of others.15 For example, would Refah compel women to cover their heads with scarves were it to attain power on its own? Erbakan has never clearly denied that this is his intention. Thus, while Refah declares its opposition to an oppressive state, careful scrutiny of its program shows that it is only against its own oppression. Were Refah to gain power, it would no doubt engage in its own form of oppression.
THE RISE OF REFAH
Whether or not Refah accepts the democratic and secular bases of the Turkish Republic only really matters if it is likely to continue to gain in strength. Its growth during recent years, when it increased its share of the vote in six consecutive national elections, certainly gives reason to think that this is a possibility: it won a mere 7.2 percent of the popular vote in 1987, 16.9 percent (through an election coalition with the National Action Party and Democratic Reform Party) in 1991, and 21.4 percent in December 1995 elections. Recent survey research shows that the party's popularity continues to grow. According to a survey conducted in early May 1997, Refah is the leading party with 27.5 percent.16
Refah's impressive growth results from a number of factors. To begin with, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of socialist ideology created a vacuum in the political spectrum. Until the early 1990s, socialism had found strong support from the Turkish intellectual and political elites which had successfully channeled discontents toward left-wing movements. The fall of socialism left the Refah unchallenged as the voice of hopelessness and radicalism.
Second, Refah has benefited from the religious revival in Turkey. Many indices point to this change, from increased concern for religious observances to the greater strength of Islamic-oriented institutions. Ten years ago religious students were few at the universities; today they outnumber any other group, including the formerly dominant socialists. Despite a reputation for having roots in the uneducated, religious lower middle class, it is also strong among the well-educated and better-off strata of the society.17 This surprising increase in religious groups and the revival of religious concerns have provided an important source for the growth of Refah. In this context, it is interesting to note that Turkey fits a general pattern: as an American analyst notes, the "most forceful manifestations of the Islamic resurgence have occurred in the more advanced and modernized countries of the Muslim World such as Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, and Tunisia."18
In addition, and most ironically, the highly questionable form of secularism practiced in Turkey contributed to the religious revival, and so to Refah's growth. The Turkish state is not impartial toward religion or toward different interpretations of the same religion (as in the United States) but is actively anti-religion (as in France or Mexico). As the governing elites sought to purge religion from social life, they inevitably engaged in suppression. As a result, human rights violations committed against religious elements have been the biggest political tools in the hands of Refah. Professional women and female students who cover their heads out of religious convictions are discriminated against. Pious Muslims who sacrifice an animal on the holiday of Kurban ('Id al-Adha) must hand in the skins to a public agent (Turk Hava Kurumu). Allegedly religious military officers get expelled from the armed forces without a right to appeal. These unfortunate developments create deep resentment and cause many of the pious to distance themselves from the oppressive secular state; Refah is ready to speak out for them all. Unless the Turkish authorities apply secularism in a more impartial way, political movements will continue to use the opportunities repression creates.
Third, Refah is the best organized major party in Turkey-disciplined, well-funded, and motivated by the nature of its cause. It has what nearly all other Turkish parties lack: a transcendental cause to inspire followers, an excellent party organization, and the most advanced tools and techniques, such as audio-visual cassettes, one-on-one visits to voters, and a keen sense of the pyschological needs of voters. It is a huge social movement and the foundation of the biggest opposition movement in Turkey's democratic history. The party wields formidable power in many realms, including the economy, finance, publishing, and broadcasting. It appoints wardens to every neighborhood, even every street. It runs a social security system that provides party members (and sometimes potential members) with food, clothing, health care, money, and other advantages. It stands by them through difficulties, illness or unemployment.
Membership also bestows a sense of identity on individuals, not to speak of the satisfaction that comes from belonging to a powerful entity. In other words, membership in Refah, to coin a phrase, has its benefits. Not surprisingly, Refah followers appear ready to make sacrifices for their cause. Thousands of men and women work energetically for the party with a perpetual excitement, whether or not an election is imminent, and its stated goal now is to have as many members as the number of votes it received in the last general election.
Fourth, the widespread corruption found in the other major political parties contributes to Refah's growth. Corruption exists at every level, from lowly state offices to the high courts. Bribery is an ordinary fact of day-to-day life. Worse, almost no one at the top level has been convicted on corruption charges, making the judicial system appear inadequate and sometimes morally bankrupt. The masses, fed up, are looking for justice, and Refah is there, offering a "just" system and showing its reasonably honest and successful record of administration in municipalities as proof. Empirical studies point to voters supporting Refah in the elections of 1994 and 1995 as the only chance to find a way out of their hopelessness.19
Fifth, Refah has benefited from the center-right's loss of identity. For all its flaws, the center-right was once an important instrument in establishing democracy and provided one of the most substantial guarantees for its survival. But after decades of leadership by Süleyman Demirel, a politician who explicitly cares little for ideas or principles,20 it has gone from being the great defender of human rights and a market economy to a statist, collectivist, and partly authoritarian political movement with no interest in the goals of a limited state, the rule of law, or economic freedom.21 This loss of principle has deprived the center-right of the support that permitted it to reach power alone in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of this support has gone instead to Refah, which gives the impression that it is replacing the center-right as the defender of human rights and protector of religious practices. Proof of this lies in the two center-right parties losing nearly 22 percent between the 1983 and 1995 general elections, while Refah and the extreme-right National Action Party raised their electoral share by an almost identical percentage. There is no reason to expect Refah to disappear from the political scene; rather the party is likely to remain a formidable political power for the foreseeable future, and perhaps even a dominant one.
The presence of a strong, non-democratic party creates unpleasant dilemmas. Refah's characteristics prompt some Turkish authors22 to argue that allowing it to function in a democracy is tantamount to suicide for the system and that Refah should be proscribed. Such fears about Refah's intentions are well-grounded, but this does not necessarily mean that banning the party is the correct step. Refah is a sociological reality that cannot be made to disappear through legal bans because it is the political expression of a huge opposition movement. True democracy can accommodate a religious party as long as that party openly states a commitment to the principles and procedures of democracy even when it reaches power.23 The legal authorities constantly follow the actions of political parties to insure that they operate within the limits set by the Constitution and the Political Parties Law, both passed in 1982, and can take action if a violation is detected. Until recently, there have been no serious charges against the Refah, making it as legitimate as the other parties.24 Abolishing a political party merely because of its religious outlook diminishes the democratic nature of Turkish politics. In addition, it would be highly immoral to let a political party exist as long as its electoral share is only 10 or 15 percent, then block its way when it exceeds 20 percent. At best, banishment would force its members to take up illegal activities; at worse, a ban could lead to a bloody civil war.
How a democracy should deal with undemocratic movements is a deeply controversial issue. Twentieth century history (including such experiences as the Nazis in Germany, Allende in Chile) does not clearly point to a solution. In principle, however, undemocratic movements should be allowed to use democratic rights and channels because at its best, democracy is more than a form of political governance; it is also an efficient tool of public education. John Locke wrote in 1689 that the best way to teach tolerance is to treat the intolerant tolerantly.25 The same goes for anti-democrats: the most efficient way to make democrats out of them is to give them the chance to live in a democratic system and to enjoy its freedoms. Values such as nonviolence, negotiation, peaceful coexistence, and tolerance are capable of influencing even those who initially reject them. Thus do many radicals become peaceful, law-abiding citizens.
In June 1997, tensions between the secular establishment (especially the army) and Refah finally led to the collapse of the government and its replacement by Mesut Yilmaz's Motherland Party and its allies. Although this episode was navigated quite successfully, it remains the case that open military intervention is the most dangerous option for Turkish democracy. It deepens the existing polarization and gives radical Islamists a justification to resort to violence against a secular establishment that, in Refah's opinion, has confiscated their legitimate and democratic power. Turkey has experienced three military coups in less than half a century, none of which resolved the country's problems; there is no reason to expect a fourth one to do better. Indeed, just as Turkey lead the Muslim world in 1950 by peacefully replacing a dictatorship with democracy, so it can lead again by showing how to integrate Islamist movements into a democracy.
1 The two main booklets are: Necmettin Erbakan, Adil Ekonomik Düzen (Ankara: Refah Partisi, 1991) and Adil Düzen (Ankara: Refah Partisi, 1993). For an English text of a pre-election manifesto, see "Welfare Party Explains Its 'Just Order,'" Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report, West Europe, supplement, Dec. 5, 1995.
2 For an example of a non-Turkish analysis, see Samih 'atef El-Zein, Islam and Human Ideology, trans. Elsayed M. H. Omran (New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996), reviewed in this issue, pp. 81-84.
3 Erbakan, Adil Ekonomik Düzen, p. 17.
4 Necmettin Erbakan, Türkiye'nin Meseleleri ve Çözümleri (Ankara: Refah Partisi, 1991), p. 29. For more examples of this approach to economics, see Teshis: Türkiye'nin Gerçek Durumu, Sebepleri, (Ankara: Refah Partisi, n.d.).
5 For a fuller analysis, see Atilla Yayla and Melih Yürüsen, Refah Partisi Üzerine Bir Arast1rma (Ankara: Konrad Adenauer Vakfl, 1996), pp. 41-44.
6 Atilla Yayla and Melih Yürüsen, Yerlesik Siyasi Partiler Arast1rmas1, (Ankara: Konrad Adenauer Vakf1, 1996), p. 33.
7 Bahri Zengin, Özgürleserek Birlikte Yasamak (Ankara: Birlesik Yay1nc1lik, 1995), pp. 87-93.
8 For the text of this agreement in English, see Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 5739/1979), pp. 145-49.
9 Refik Gür, Hukuk Tarihi ve Tefekkürü Baklmlndan Mecelle, (Istanbul: Sebil, 1975) and Jasper Yeates Brinton, The Mixed Courts of Egypt, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).
10 Refah Partiss'nin Anayasa Degisikligi; Yayla, Önerisi (Ankara: Refah Partisi, n.d.), p. 65.
11 Again, the other parties also have their failings. The center-right views democracy as the Rousseaun idea of "national will," where the majority rules; right-wing politicians do not like restrictions on their power and quickly develop authoritarian tendencies. The center-left conceives democracy sometimes as ideology, other times as a way of life, but always identical with its own ideology or way of life. When the center-left speaks of democracy, it means every section of society should be bound by its views.
12 Article 24 reads in part: "No one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion, in any manner whatsoever, for the purpose of personal or political influence, or for even partially basing the fundamental social, economic, political, and legal order of the State on religious tenets." Text in Ilnur Çevik, Almanac (Ankara: Turkish Daily News, 1989), p. 113.
13 Fehim Adak, "Erbakan Seeks Cooperation with America," Middle East Quarterly, March 1997, p. 68.
14 Kâzim Berzeg, Liberalizm ve Türkiye (Ankara: Liberal Düsünce Toplulugu, 1996), p. 228.
15 A sectarian understanding of human rights is not unique to Refah. The center-right understands human rights to mean economic rights, while despising political and artistic rights. The center-left favors political and literary rights while ignoring religious and economic rights.
16 Survey conducted on May 6-9, 1997, by the Center for Social and Economic Research (SESAR), Ayd1n, May 1997. The True Path Party follows with 22.3 percent, the Democratic Left Party with 14.5 percent, and the Motherland Party with 14.2 percent.
17 Metin Heper, "Islam and Democracy in Turkey: Toward A Reconciliation," The Middle East Journal, Winter 1997, p. 40.
18 John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 10.
19 Sabri Sayar1, "Turkey's Islamist Challenge," Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 1996, p. 36.
20 Demirel has said "We are against all 'isms' including liberalism and capitalism. We are not for any diehard ideology or system. We establish our economic view in accordance with the conditions of the day." Cited in Feroz Ahmad, The Turkish Experiment in Democracy 1950-75 (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1977), p. 23.
21 Berzeg, Liberalizm ve Türkiye, pp. 177-183.
22 Such as columnists Ceskum K1rca of Yeni Yüzy1l and Oktay Eksi of Hürriyet.
23 Ahmet Arslan, Islam, Demokrasi, Türkiye (Ankara: Liberal Düsünce Toplulugu. 1995), pp. 43-46.
24 In May 1997, however, the state prosecutor filed charges with the Constitutional Court against Refah, accusing it of becoming a center of anti-secular activities that undermine the state's order.
25 John Locke, "A Letter Concerning Toleration," Great Books of the Western World, ed. Robert Maynard Hutcins (London: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), pp. 5-9.