Neoliberal Islam and Emergent Forms of Social Service Provision in Turkey

By Gizem Zencirci, Providence College

* This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Social Services” workshop, September, 23, 2014. 

The study of Islamic social services generally relies on one of two analytical frameworks that attribute Islamist advantage either to political strategy or religious culture. The political strategy framework assumes that Islamist movements use social service provision as a medium for distributing clientelistic favors and acquiring electoral support. In this view, Islamists are seen as having an advantage due to their success in creating and consolidating patron-client networks. The second framework, in contrast, attributes the success of Islamist social service provision to religious-cultural reasons. In this perspective, Islamist advantage is attributed to their presumed cultural affinity with religious notions of need, charity, and poverty.

In contrast to these dominant perspectives I advocate for an economic explanation that takes into account both how Islamist movements benefit from processes of neoliberalization, as well as how neoliberal technologies of poverty governance have been incorporated into Islamist social service provision. Thus, I suggest that the Islamist advantage neither stems exclusively from political strategy or religious culture, but rather is the outcome of the successful blending of neoliberal ethics and religious values.

The Turkish case is illustrative of this phenomenon. Since the Justice and Development Party (JDP) came to power in 2002, the Turkish welfare regime has acquired both neoliberal and Islamic characteristics. This neoliberal-Islamic welfare regime is marked by the incorporation of market logics into the financing of assistance programs, the selection of eligible recipients and the distribution of monetary and in-kind assistance to the poor. The success of Islamic social service provision in Turkey cannot be understood without paying attention to the complexities of neoliberal Islam.

Justice and Development Party and the Reconfiguration of the Turkish Welfare Regime

The Turkish case also helps us understand how Islamists reshape national welfare regimes when they move from opposing the state to being the state. Because alternative social service provision by Islamist movements are a constitutive element of their public legitimacy, understanding how these movements act when they become responsible for national welfare policy is important.

One of the reasons behind JDP’s ongoing success has been its ability to create a cross-class coalition between the rising Muslim bourgeoisie and the poor. By combining a commitment to free market principles with a dedication to Islamic social values, the JDP has garnered support among large segments of the Turkish population.

JDP’s variant of Islamic neoliberalism was also instrumental in its reconfiguration of Turkey’s welfare regime. On the one hand, the JDP eliminated the public benefits system that characterized the country’s pre-existing developmental welfare regime. For example, the 2004 Law on Social Security and General Health Insurance introduced incentives for the provision of specific health services and insurance programs by the market. On the other hand, social assistance programs which targeted the poor expanded. In 2004, the JDP transformed the previously existing Social Fund (which was created in 1986) into a Social Solidarity and Mutual Assistance (SSMA) Ministry. The number of SSMA foundations (public welfare offices) increased and they were given more responsibility. In addition, the JDP encouraged the creation of SSMA associations (private charity organizations) that were expected to assist the state in social service provision even if they were legally part of the NGO sector. As a result, many Islamic associations began to focus on social service provision instead of political activism. Further, the state endorsed a moral language which encouraged charitable giving. By referencing Islamic religious values and glorifying the Ottoman heritage of social generosity, the JDP sought to channel the philanthropic donations of the new Muslim bourgeoisie toward the provision of social services.

This social assistance-based welfare regime integrated market ethics with religious values at various stages of the poverty alleviation process.

Financing Assistance

Although JDP’s neoliberal welfare regime was largely and somewhat paradoxically funded by public funds, private Islamic philanthropy also played a key role in financing social service provision. Islamic business firms often donated food, clothing, and monetary funds to public and private welfare organizations. In addition to these large-scale donations, which either consolidated already existing business-political relationships or confirmed those that are in the making, many welfare organizations also collected smaller donations from the Turkish public. To this end, many organizations began to use humanitarian advertisements. These charitable ads juxtaposed visual representations of the ideal poor, such as the elderly, women, and orphans with slogans of brotherhood, solidarity, and goodness. In addition to participating in national and transnational kurban (sacrifice) campaigns, prospective donors could choose from a plethora of relief and developmental projects (e.g., building schools, hospitals, wells) organized in a number of Muslim countries including Niger, Sudan, and Palestine. The goal of these charitable projects was to appeal to the religious sensibilities of the new Muslim middle classes who struggled to balance the moral dilemmas of pious wealth. In such a conjuncture, generosity became a venue for self-fulfillment and not just a religious duty performed in order to become closer to God.

The Deserving Poor

In contrast to traditional Islamic charity, which assumes that the needy do not have prove their status in order to be assisted, under the new welfare regime acquiring information came to be seen as the proper way to determine whether an applicant was truly deserving of assistance. The collection, analysis, and cataloging of information about the poor began as soon as a person applied for aid. As part of their application, each potential recipient was expected to provide a number of documents such as a cover letter, a completed application form, a photocopy of one’s national ID card, and a muhtar-issued[1] poverty certificate, etc. These documents were filed under the personal folder of each applicant, which were then handed to “social investigation” teams – ad hoc groups consisting of a mix of volunteers and workers who conducted home visits in order to determine whether or not the applicant’s household situation matched the information on his/her file. Social investigation teams observed the conditions of the household, asked questions, and took extensive notes during these visits. Each team was provided with a “Social Investigation Form” that included questions to be asked to each applicant. Decisions about whether or not, and if so what type of assistance would be provided was decided via social investigation. As a technique of eligibility, social investigation focused on finding the truth about poverty because as one volunteer put it, “Applicants were known to lie.” These concerns about truthfulness lead to the institution of a new information system, Social Assistance Information System (SOYBIS), which centralized information about each applicant that received social assistance from state welfare foundations. Presented as a model that would bring “service with one-click,” SOYBIS aimed to make sure that applicants would not be able to falsify their information in order to collect assistance from a variety of organizations. These new technologies of determining deservingness made the poor an object of state surveillance, thereby transforming social assistance into a new technique for disciplining the poor.

Distributing Assistance

In addition, new technologies for distributing social assistance also emerged. First, since charitable giving traditionally skyrocketed during the month of Ramadan, many supermarket chains began to offer “Ramadan packages.” The package system reformed the religious practice of giving to the poor during the month of Ramadan. These packages generally included imperishable food items such as grains, pasta, rice, and canned goods. These packages could be purchased for between 25 and 50 TL (12 – 25 USD) depending upon the generosity of the individual donor. Ramadan packages were also used by welfare organizations. Both during the month of Ramadan and the rest of the year, organizations frequently distribute food boxes by packaging goods donated by Islamic business such as supermarket chains.

Despite its popularity, the package system came under scrutiny because it was argued to constrain individual agency: the recipients had no say in what would be included in the food boxes. In order to address this shortcoming, the “social market” was invented. The social market is a collection of rooms usually adjacent to public welfare offices and private charity organizations. These rooms were set up in a market-like manner. Shelves mounted on the room’s walls carried clothing items, shoes, and food. Most social markets also included shopping carts, a barcode system and checkout counters. The market-like character of social assistance distribution was argued to enhance the “freedom” of recipients who could pick and choose what they really need instead of receiving “hand-outs.”

In short, the Turkish case illustrates that pro-market values have transformed the terrain of Islamic social services in novel ways. In response to the key questions of this workshop, I would argue that the Islamist advantage neither exclusively stems from effective political strategy nor can be merely attributed to a cultural affinity with “indigenous” values. Rather, Islamists have been effectively able to adjust their social services within a market-oriented conjuncture by bringing Islamic values and neoliberal ethics in alignment. Future research into this topic might explore how Islamic movements negotiate pro-market and anti-market understandings of charity, need and poverty, and how these movements might continue to provide social services without adopting neoliberal technologies of governance.

Gizem Zencirci is an assistant professor of political science at Providence College.


[1] Muhtar are the elected heads of neighborhoods and villages.

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