Turkey's Islamic business class helps Erdogan

Louis Meixler, a columnist for Bloomberg, claims Turkey's new Islamist business class helps PM Erdogan's re-election bid.

Turkey's Islamic business class helps Erdogan

From a factory in central Turkey, Islamic businessman Celal Hasnalcaci annually churns out $15 million worth of hip-hugging pants and tight T-shirts --clothing that would horrify many devout Muslims.

Hasnalcaci, 53, exemplifies a growing class that balances Islamic values with support for market economic forces and Turkey's bid for membership of the European Union. That's exactly the mix that is propelling Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan toward victory in July 22 national elections.

This new business class is a pillar of support for Erdogan, 53, who was once a member of a banned Islamist movement and is still viewed with suspicion by Turkey's secularist army and traditional business elite. The aspirations of people like Hasnalcaci have helped steer Erdogan's Justice and Development Party away from the path of previous Islamist parties that shunned the west and sought closer economic ties with the Muslim world.

``Economic relationships have a way of changing things,'' said Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkey program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ``You cannot be an out-and-out Islamist when you have to adjust to the outside world.''

Kayseri, the city of 700,000 where Hasnalcaci has his factory, was once known as a nationalist stronghold in Turkey's agricultural heartland. Now, the city, 280 kilometers (175 miles) southeast of Ankara, is slowly being transformed into an industrial center, producing textiles and building materials.

Headscarves and Fashion

On the production floor of Hasnalcaci's Gurkar Tekstil, women sporting Islamic-style headscarves work next to others in fashionable western dress, including Hasnalcaci's two daughters.

``When you travel so much you get exposed to different cultures and you apply this to your family,'' said Saban Copuroglu, Hasnalcaci's successor as head of the Kayseri chapter of Musiad, the largest Islamic-oriented business group in the country.

All eight of Kayseri's members of the outgoing parliament were from Justice. ``This is the backbone,'' said Suat Kiniklioglu, former head of the German Marshall Fund in Turkey and now a Justice candidate for parliament.

Kayseri is also the hometown of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, whose nomination by Erdogan for the presidency sparked a dispute with the army that led to the early election.

More Than 2002

A July 2-6 Genar poll showed Erdogan's party with 39 percent of the vote, more than it won in 2002 and enough to give it a majority in the next parliament.

The rise of the Islamic middle class in cities such as Kayseri has been powered by medium-sized businesses with fewer than 250 workers. Popularly known in Turkey as the ``Anatolian Tigers,'' these companies have been ``the most dynamic component of the Turkish business sector in the past decade,'' according to a 2006 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report.

``Two hundred and fifty factories in Kayseri were opened during whose term?'' asks a campaign billboard for Justice in the city. ``AKP of course.''

Gurkar Tekstil is a model Anatolian Tiger. The business was started in 1991 by Hasnalcaci and six friends while he was working as a textile engineer for another company in Kayseri. The friends followed a pattern common in the area, pooling their own money. Many other companies relied on funds from family members working in Europe.

Slow Expansion

Gurkar expanded slowly for the first six years, Hasnalcaci said in an interview in his office at the factory in Kayseri's industrial zone: ``People didn't take vacations. They saved and it slowly grew.''

Hasnalcaci's company today employs about 250, making pants for companies including Zara, the chain owned by Inditex SA, Europe's largest clothing retailer, and his own line, named Keep Out, described on its Web site as ``bold but also conservative.''

Like Hasnalcaci, many of Anatolia's new businessmen are religious. Omer Bolat, national chairman of Musiad, said many were excluded by the secular elite from access to capital, such as state allowances and loans, to build up their companies.

``The so-called `Anatolian Tigers' started growing, depending on their own savings,'' Bolat said. ``These newcomers built their businesses on export-oriented growth.''

Musiad was largely shunned by previous governments. That changed when Justice took power and the group's leader at the time was invited to travel with Erdogan on his first visits to foreign countries.

Secular State

There's still distance, particularly on issues outside of economic policy, between the new Islamic entrepreneurs and much of the traditional business elite who support the principles of the secular Turkish state set up by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s.

``Do they support a secular, democratic republic?'' Hasan Ali Kilci, head of Kayseri's Chamber of Commerce, asked of the Islamic businessmen. At Kilci's insistence, the chamber has no Musiad members on its board of directors.

For some, meanwhile, Justice and the new entrepreneurs are going too far in their accommodation with the West. The Islamic Felicity Party is running on a platform criticizing Turkey's EU aspirations and relationship with the International Monetary Fund.

``Everyone except us is a servant of the IMF and the EU,'' party leader Recai Kutan -- who, like Erdogan, was once a member of Welfare, the party forced from office by the military in 1997 -- told a campaign rally in Kirikkale on July 10. ``God willing, when we come to power we will end the game of EU negotiations.''


Güncelleme Tarihi: 17 Temmuz 2007, 13:00