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Turkey, what future for a split civil society?

  Standpoint of Diaspora

Turkey, what future for a split civil society?

Raffi Kalfayan


Raffi Kalfayan

Lawyer, former Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

In this article, lawyer Raffi Kalfayan tries to define civil society in Turkey by going back in history, and then outlines its recent evolution from the 1990s to the present day. He thus tries to get a better understanding of its structuring process, its political environment and its values before depicting its divisions in the face of totalitarian power. This analysis points out that the inner contradictions of Turkey’s civil society itself are instrumental in keeping it under the thumb of State authority and in thwarting its influence on the country’s public life. Finally, Raffi Kalfayan raises issues about the future of a civil society historically marked by the religious imprint and asks a crucial question after the Gezi Park protests of 2013 which saw part of the nation rise against an increasingly authoritarian government and the growing islamisation of Turkish society: “What will be the response of the social media generation?”.

Trying to describe civil society in Turkey and above all its effective role is a real challenge since the situation in that country has gone through great changes in recent years, and particularly in the last 24 months and weeks. Indeed, on 15 January 2016, 21 academics out of the 1,128 who had signed a petition asking the government to end crimes committed against Kurds and return to the negotiating table[1] were arrested at their homes[2].

They were charged with insulting the Turkish nation – per Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, a tote law article used to target unwanted personalities or opinions[3] – as well as with terrorist propaganda. This wave of arrests came only hours after an impassioned presidential speech calling these academics traitors and accusing them of forming a “fifth column” within the country connected to foreign powers, a very worrying speech indeed in the light of historical precedents[4].      

Between 2000 and 2013, there was a liberalisation in all the fields of Turkish society (economic, political, and religious) and we could observe positive gestures towards minorities, in particular but not only Kurdish[5]. But since then, the country has slipped again into the unknown, leading to the de facto weakening of a divided civil society whose structure and context are influenced by the ruling power and the rampant islamisation initiated by the AKP[6]

Turkey is experiencing a severe multidimensional crisis. After defining Turkish civil society with a look back at the history of the country, and a depiction of its recent evolution (from the 1990s), we shall try to better understand the way it was structured, its political environment and its values, in order to better assess its real power today.                                   

A civil society with a religious imprint

The history of civil society in Turkey depends on how you define it. If you look at it from the angle of organised community life, then the Ottoman Empire had seen the emergence of many structures, famously known as Vakif, between 1850 and 1918.  These were both Muslim and non-Muslim religious foundations[7], although there were tens of thousands of Muslim Turkish foundations while only 168 non-Muslim ones were created before the Republic[8]. Authorised by imperial firmans, without any other formal authorisation, the foundations have had to register again from 1936 onwards, listing all their possessions and property[9] through a painstaking administrative procedure. They developed philanthropic activities and solutions to social, economic and cultural problems that the State had no time or means to address. These foundations administrated congregations and their possessions.

Under the Republic, all the procedures and administration related to the foundations were transferred to the Directorate General for Foundations, under direct supervision of the Prime Minister (1924). The main duty of that Directorate was to make sure that all the foundations pursued their activities according to their statutes, perpetuating their vocational spirit of institutionalised mutual aid and solidarity, and passing on these notions to future generations.

During the whole kemalist period of State modernisation (1923-1945) and parliamentary democracy (1945-1980), civil organisations could not take part in public life in a modern sense – i.e. as a sector of society contributing to public life and democratisation. The State was all-powerful and the sole motor of public life. It completely controlled organised community life.

The obstacle to taking part in political life was even constitutional. Article 33 of the Turkish Constitution of 1982 said that associations had to be recognized by administrative authorities and that their activities should not run against Article 13 of the Constitution. That article protected the unity of the State and the Nation, the national sovereignty, the Republic, public order, general peace, morals, health and public possessions; the potentially large interpretation of its provisions was a real threat to the very purpose of civil society organisations which is to intervene in political, economic and social debates. The constitutional reform of 1995 cancelled these provisions.

It was not until the 1980s and early 2000s that a modern civil society started to emerge and expand. Thanks to legislative developments and the mind-set shift imposed by reforms and harmonisation measures with European community standards, a new era opened for NGOs[10], which in the end considerably strengthened the dynamics of the civil society[11]. By 2005, there were 80,750 active associations[12], half of them socially oriented (in the fields of culture, health, social solidarity, women and trade), 3,056 with a cultural purpose, 13,468 a charity purpose, 5,748 an educational purpose, and 13,992 a sports purpose. There were also 4,500 foundations, the other structured organisations being cooperatives (58,100) and professional chambers (4,750). The total number of members in civil society organisations, including trade union members reached almost 8.5 million, half of which in associations[13].

Paradoxically, that same 1980-2000 period also saw an upsurge of islamisation in the Turkish society through the coming to power of political parties advocating and promoting Islamic values. That factor encouraged the development of a new civil society both active in public life, but also instrumental in encouraging people and the representative bodies in various fields of civil society to conform to Islamic law.

The creation of “Islamic” NGOs[14], which became more and more influential, happened right upon the return to the political scene of Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Partisi or “Prosperity Party”[15], the ideological master of current President Erdoğan and mastermind of the AKP rise to power[16].

Some key organisations include:

- Ak-Der (Association of Women against Discrimination), founded in 1999. Officially, it aims to fight discrimination in education, the workplace, careers, etc. but its real object is to guarantee that the right of women to wear the Muslim headscarf is respected.

- Ozgür-Der (Association for the freedom of thought and educational rights), founded in 1999, that officially promotes and defends educational rights but in fact overtly fights against female modernism, and in particular for the right of women to wear the headscarf.

- Müsiad (Association of Independent Industrialists and Merchants), founded in 1990, with 35,000 companies and 7,500 members in 71 cities, is made of the new Islamic business-owning bourgeoisie (even though they do not present themselves as such), and opposes the powerful Tüsiad (Turkish top corporations) on certain subjects, for instance by condoning repressive violence against Gezi Park demonstrations in May-June 2013[17] or by justifying the above-mentioned measures against petitioning academics.

- Mazlum-Der (Association for Human Rights and Solidarity with Oppressed Peoples), founded in 1991 as a reaction against the assertive secularism of the main human rights NGO IHD[18] who had become hostile to headscarf wearing in public life and within their ranks.

Although the first two NGOs are ideologically radical and more set on defending moral values, the latter two are relativist, and consequently much more open onto the political field and desirous to act according to their statutory principles.

Undeniably, these organisations did take part in the public debate, but at the same time their creation and activity contributed to the reinforcement and support of the governmental political programme implemented by the ruling party.

Of course, this phenomenon is not specific to Turkey because in most other countries in the world, there are few strictly independent organisations defending values and principles with constant and objective determination.

The abundance of Turkish NGOs has even spilled into the field of AKP foreign policy. The Muslim-inspired NGO İnsani Yardım Vakfı (IHH, or Foundation for Humanitarian Aid), has become a referential player in the field of humanitarian action. IHH carries out campaigns to help people in hardship both in Turkey and abroad. It is the IHH who organised and launched the Mavi Marmara flotilla to the coast of Gaza in order to help the deprived Palestinian civilians undergoing the Israeli blockade.

The contradictions within Turkey’s civil society are instrumental in keeping it under the thumb of State authority and thwarting its influence on public life.

The organisations active in the Turkish civil society are torn by many contradictions and it is uncertain whether they may come to form a pole of power cutting through the socio-political divisions which keep undermining Turkey. Tigrane Yegavian has identified three distinct groups: the secular-nationalist associations, NGOs affiliated to several trends of political Islam, and associations carrying the legacy of the former revolutionary left[19].

 Although they have seen a dynamic development, the reality of their influence on public life seems limited because of the social, economic, political, cultural and religious divisions within them, on the one hand, and of inadequacy between their competencies and resources on the other.

Above-mentioned examples illustrate how counter-power forces are cancelled out in civil society as soon as new NGOs directly or discreetly supported by the government oppose the action of others.

And there are other parameters playing against the proper recognition and effectiveness of civil society.

First, the fragility of the state of law (although respect of its rules has made a quantitative leap between 2003 and 2013), systemic corruption and a highly centralised administration, interplay to prevent civil society from blooming and taking part in public life.

Besides, just like the executive power, civil society organisations are poor practitioners of the principles of tolerance, of internal democracy and good governance.

As for the activities of those organisations, it can be said that overall few of them carry out general purpose social actions, such as reducing poverty or fighting social inequalities. The areas that developed between 2003 and 2013 concerned the promotion of human rights, gender equality, promotion of non-violence (against torture and ill-treatments by police forces or within detention centres) and sustainable development.

What is more, the legal, financial and administrative environment is not favourable to the development of civil society, and in particular of those initiatives that could hinder or run counter to the government policy or its leaders.

NGOs are submitted to disproportionate control on the part of the State, which affects their daily operations and discourages private donations, in particular those coming from foreign foundations. The most prominent NGOs avoid receiving aid or subsidies from outside the country to avoid being easy targets of accusations that they are manipulated by “foreign enemies”. The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for registering NGOs, for their tax control and for the prevention of illegal activities, which gives its offices exorbitant power over them.

The public funding dedicated to that area of society is subjected to allocation and distribution rules that are far from transparent, with clearly established criteria. Public funds are granted through ministries and partnership mechanisms, but rarely in the form of subsidies, aid or contracts.

The State has always played a controlling role in the spheres of associative life dealing with educational, cultural and religious purposes. Article 14 of the Constitution reads that moral and religious education must be carried out under State control and supervision. The Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs, is mentioned at Article 36 of the Constitution. This administration created by Kemal Atatürk on 3 March 1924, now handles 100,000 civil servants[20] and 77,000 mosques. It only finances the Sunni Moslem cult (non-Sunni cults must have their own financial autonomy, when they are lucky enough not to be prevented to function at some administrative level, which is the case with Alevis, a group of 10 to 12 million people practising an Anatolian Shiite rite). For tax collection, all Turkish citizens are equal. The tax rate does not vary according to religious denomination. However, in the eyes of the Diyanet, all Turkish citizens are not equal when it comes to using the tax revenues. The Presidency of Religious Affairs, which handles a budget of 6.5 billion Turkish liras (2 billion euros)[21], is a sort of State within State. The budget allocated to the Diyanet has grown bigger than that of 12 other ministries; it is 40 percent higher than the budget of the Ministry of the Interior and equals in amount the combined budgets of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of Energy, of Culture and of Tourism[22].

Could it be that the imprint of Islam in Turkey is an ideological hindrance to the constitution of a form of counter-power as is the case in a Western type of secular civil society? Ayçe Kadioglu cites Ernest Gellner’s studies of the relationship between Islam and the civil society, in which Islam appears to be in rivalry with the very concept of civil society[23].

In conclusion, civil society is developing dynamically in Turkey, but it is more than ever divided, contrasted, directly or indirectly under the control of the State, with political and social Islam competing with the concept of a civil society with considerable political and financial means through the Presidency of Religious Affairs[24]. Finally, there still aren’t any mechanisms of institutional cooperation with the government that offer a framework of systematic consultation of NGOs on legislative reform bills.

President Erdoğan’s unsettling runaway reaction

Since early 2014, we have observed a full-blown attack on various civil society entities, in the world of free enterprise but also and mostly in the public service, with a resulting degradation of rights and liberties not to mention a breach of the principle of separation of powers.

It was allegations of corruption on the part of people in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s close circle in December 2013 – when he was Prime Minister – which triggered his wrath and authoritarian clampdown. He accused the whistle-blowers of plotting a political coup and started a witch hunt against followers of Fetullah Gülen’s movement[25] (or “Fetullahci”) accused of being the leaks’ sources. That episode reactivated the interference of the executive power in matters of law and in the press.

Claiming to fight “parallel structures”[26], a task high on the agenda of the National Security Council[27], the President pronounced many dismissals in the civil service, in particular in the corps of police, intelligence and justice. The executive power has already taken back effective control over the judiciary and its High Council of Judges and Prosecutors[28], which makes it possible to transfer or remove defiant prosecutors or judges.

The National Security Council, formerly headed by secular Kemalist military officers, had pointed to Islam as the first internal enemy in Turkey[29]. After the government took control of that institution in 2007 (through arrests in connection with the Ergenekon plotting accusations and dismissal of high-ranking secular Kemalist army officers), Erdoğan and the AKP are now proceeding to make a second purge, of the “Gülenists”.

Meanwhile, President Erdoğan continues to threaten the freedom of the press and to imprison journalists. The most recent cases of Can Dündar, Editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gül[30], his representative in Ankara[31], are emblematic but far from isolated[32]. These journalists have been detained since 26th November 2015 for revealing the arms trafficking of the MIT[33] with Syria. They stand accused of “spying”, “disclosure of State secrets” and “support to a terrorist organisation”[34], and risk a life sentence.

The prosecutors in charge of investigating that arms trafficking between Turkey and ISIS have also recently been dismissed on 14 January[35].

Finally, some breaches of scientific freedom have taken place in universities as of December 2015 – in particular with a campaign against the Middle East Technical University (METU)[36], accused of not respecting religious freedom – and are continuing today with the serious attack on freedom of opinion in the academic world I referred to in the introduction. 

The swing in President Erdoğan’s policies is harsh and disturbing. It is hard to figure out the deep motives of his decisions.

First, he has put an end to judiciary ongoing processes he had himself initiated a few years earlier. Some members of the Ergenekon group were released[37]. The prosecutor in charge of the Hrant Dink’s case was recently dismissed[38], although Mr Erdoğan himself had given his agreement on 9 December 2015 to prosecute 26 police officers in Istanbul and the provinces – although charges against higher-ranking officers and civil servants had been dropped in that case[39].

These decisions are disconcerting because they don’t show any strategy other than to assert the President’s power and protect his interests, mainly aiming to intimidate and frighten all those who might threaten them. They naturally lead to self-censorship in the press and a neutralization of civil servants in the public service (teachers, judges, policemen, etc.), who worry about their jobs, their promotions and their careers.

In 2015, although parliamentary elections were held in June and voting itself was quite respectful of democratic standards, the election campaign unfolded in that liberticidal and discriminatory environment: attacks on the media and journalists, on supporters and campaign offices of HDP[40]in the South-East. In spite of that, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority, which made President Erdoğan furious. He then initiated a radical change in his policies. He unilaterally put an end to the negotiations started with PKK and HDP to settle the Kurdish question, launched a war against PKK activists, and announced that elections would be held again on 1st November 2015. The 11 June 2014 legal foundation for the peace process in the Kurdish issue was declared void and, with it, the goals of stability and protection of human rights that the law was trying to establish.

That deliberately hurtful move aimed to intimidate and influence the various Kurdish officials in dire need of budgets to administrate their regions or communities, economically left out and where unemployment and poverty are rampant. The ultimate goal was to bring voters back to choosing AKP, who could then pose as the sole rampart against insecurity and chaos.

Although the approach was crude, it worked. And alongside its new military thrust, the government hardened its political stance in the wake of the terrorist attacks attributed to ISIS[41], with a security-oriented rhetoric and anti-terrorist policies that open the door to arbitrary rule.

Finally, the use of State resources to promote the party in power and the personal involvement of the President in favour of the AKP during the campaign overpowered the voters’ previous choices and the AKP recovered its absolute majority upon the 1st November 2015 poll. 

Discriminations and the rhetoric of hate made a powerful come back, with minorities, LGBT people and feminism as scapegoats.

The process of constitutional reform is stalled. There is profound dissension between AKP and the rest of the players in the Parliamentary Committee for Conciliation.

Some AKP dignitaries have taken their distances with President Erdoğan[42].

The ambiguous foreign policy of Turkey – in particular, its dealings with ISIS, the downing of a Russian combat fighter plane, its alliance with Saudi Arabia and Israel against the regional influence of Iran, its interference in the strife between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and its insistence on overthrowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime at all cost – have destroyed the “zero problem” policy (with neighbouring countries) which was previously dear to Ahmet Davutoğlu[43]. In contrast, the recent policy created new tensions. Could that be an intended strategy to create external threats in order to better repress the internal disagreeing voices, which are then turned into national security threats?

The new divides in the civil society and their consequences

The nature of current crises are only adding to the traditional divides, which are of several order: constitutional (between Muslim Turks and non-Muslim minorities), denominational (between Sunnis and Alevis), social (between secular and non-secular), and economic (between the Western metropolises and the South-East provinces).

Since Mr Erdoğan’s shift towards authoritarianism and personification of executive power, the country has become split, even within the majority party, the AKP, adding to the blunt opposition between leaders Gülen and Erdoğan, with major effects on the main governmental Justice, Army and Police corps.

Rights and liberties are the great losers of this deep crisis. And because nationalism remains such a strong ideology, minorities will be the victims of that hard-line political twist. Let’s recall the first line of the preamble to the Turkish Constitution: “In line with the concept of nationalism and the reforms and principles introduced by the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Atatürk, the immortal leader and the unrivalled hero, this Constitution, which affirms the eternal existence of the Turkish nation and motherland and the indivisible unity of the Turkish State…” The nationalism so strongly felt in that assertion transcends the ideologies of traditional parties and will not yield, exacerbating divisions and resulting in massive arrests of activists or Kurdish representatives in the last months, in embargos and destruction of Kurdish living places, in unsolved murders and a full-fledged warfare against PKK rebels.

Non-Muslim minorities (Armenians and Jews), the Kurdish minority, as well as Western powers through them, are again the target of hate speech, suspected of being the instigators of some alleged destabilisation attempt.

What kind of resiliency to expect from a structured civil society?

The stir caused by the attack against academics who had signed the 11 January petition has had repercussions through several circles of civil society. In response, 1,000 more academics signed the petition, but also 500 journalists in support of academics, followed by over 2,000 lawyers from various courts in the country, film producers, literary circles, actors, psychologists…[44] However, the larger segment of civil society, characteristically unstructured and most important in the fight against abuse of power, are students, and their response should be closely observed. On 18 January, already 30,000 had signed a petition in support of the threatened academics.

Will the remarkable dynamism and modernity of that youth in Turkey’s great metropolises manage to placate President Erdoğan as in Gezi Park in May-June 2013? The latter is bolstered by nationalist and Muslim conservatism from the people in the provinces, many of whom have already moved into main cities. The risk for a socio-political conflict is real. Will the sacrosanct constitutional nationalism be able to overcome the numerous cracks in the civil society caused by the current regime?

For sociologist Mustafa Poyraz, the protest movement of the Turkish youth at Gezi expressed an aspiration to freedom and dignity in a country which is trying to reconcile economic liberalism with conservatism in its accepted mores and public liberties. After neutralising army power and Kemalist bureaucracy, the country is looking for new secular forces of progress. Today, the young consider that the counter-powers which are supposed to counterbalance the conservative and religious forces are not working anymore, and that they are themselves the only citizens capable of defending this aspiration to modernity – an aspiration shared by many Turks beyond their political or denominational differences. The left, the far-left, ecologists, Kurdish autonomists and even some Islamists are suddenly coming together around common values of freedom and democracy, and display tolerance for the other movements. We are seeing the emergence of a civil society which is exercising and building up opposition forces in legal ways[45].

This paper was originally presented as an oral contribution at the Conference on civil societies in the Middle East held on 15 January 2016 at the Académie de Géopolitique de Paris.


[2] See column of 18th January 2016 by the international work group for freedom in research and teaching (in French) at

[3] As a reminder, Hrant Dink (the Turkish journalist of Armenian descent assassinated in January 2007); novelist Orhan Pamuk, many lawyers, journalists and political figures defending the cause of minorities or the respect and defence of their rights, have been indicted and prosecuted under that article of the Penal Code.

[4] The same wording was used by leaders of the Union and Progress Committee in 1905 before proceeding to exterminate and deport the Armenian population of Anatolia.

[5] President Erdoğan or Prime Minister Davutoğlu have had soothing words for Armenians, recognizing and sharing their suffering caused by the tragic events that they underwent in 1915.

[6] Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or Justice and Development Party, currently in power.

[7] The first written document mentioning the creation of a foundation in Anatolia dates back to 1048.

[8] Each worshipping place was turned into a foundation.

[9] In 1974, after a xenophobic campaign targeting  « foreigners » and « enemies from the inside » (Cyprus crisis), the acquired property, received as gifts or donations by non-Muslim foundations, were confiscated by the law for not being registered in 1936. After these rulings were legally challenged in 2007, including before the European Court of Human Rights, the government backed down and, in 2011, it signed a decree ending this situation by declaring its intent to hand back the properties

[10] Non-Governmental Organisation, used in our article in the sense of a civil society organisation.

[11] Around 1,650 NGOs take part in the European-Turkey dialogue.

[12] Statistics from the Ministry of Interior Affairs, Department of Associations and Foundations, 2005. See the study made by the TUSEV Foundation, « Civicus civil society index country report for Turkey », TUSEV Publications N° 42, December 2006.

[13] Ibid.

[14] On the subject, see article “Civil Society, Islam and Democracy in Turkey: A Study of Three Islamic Non-Governmental Organizations”, Ayçe Kadıoglu, Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey.

[15] Necmettin Erbakan was a Turkish politician and pioneer of political Islam in Turkey, where he was the first Islamist head of government from June 1996 to June 1997, before being roughly forced to resign for not respecting the principle of secularism written in the Constitution.

[16] In 2002.

[17] The repression caused the death of 4 demonstrators and injured 4,000.

[18] Insan Hakları Derneği (Human Rights Association of Turkey).

[19] See article by Tigrane Yegavian (in French), Turquie : une société qui s’interroge sur elle-même et son histoire » in Afrique-Asie 9, Jan-Feb 2011, 42-47.

[20] The Diyanet has recruited 10,000 people a year between 2010 and 2015 but the total number of employees has remained the same because around number of its employees were transferred to other institutions.

[23] Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1994). Gellner claims that Islam displays unique characteristics as a religion in terms of its immunity to secularization. Since secularization is viewed as the only way to generate liberal individuals who are the sine qua non of civil society, this view rules out the possibility of its existence in the absence of secularization. Therefore, Islam appears to be the “other” or the “rival” of civil society.

[25] President of the eponymous brotherhood, exiled in the United States.

[26] See the working document of the European Commission on Turkey: EU enlargement strategy report, Brussels, 10.11.2015, SWD(2015) 216 final.

[27] The highest decision-making authority in Turkey treating cases connected to “national security”, many of which are handled secretly.

[28] The equivalent of the High Council of the Judiciary 

[29] Ruling of 28th February 1997.

[31] They were realeased on the 26th February 2016

[32] Turkey is 149th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Freedom of the Press ranking by Reporters Sans Frontières, even though 40 journalists were freed (on probation with charges maintained). RSF has noted the worsening of cyber-censorship, legal prosecutions, sacking of critical journalists and prohibition to publish on certain subjects. Shaken by a vast scandal of alleged corruption, the executive team has done everything to put the lid on it and fight the influence of its archenemy, the Gülen Brotherhood.

[33] Turkish secret services

[34] See website of Reporters Sans Frontières.

[36] See Today’s Zaman of 29 December 2015.

[37] In particular Gendarmerie Colonel Veli Kuçuk, accused of being the key person of the Ergenekon coup and supposed mastermind of Hrant Dink’s assassination.

[40] Halkların Demokratik Partisi, or Peoples’ Democratic Party, which is pro-Kurdish.

[41] It should be noted that none of the terrorist attacks of 2015 (Suruç, Ankara) and early January 2016 in Istanbul was claimed by “Daesh”. No serious enquiry was launched and journalists were prevented from carrying out their own investigations into these matters.

[42] Bülent Arinc, Abdüllah Gül

[43] Former Minister of Foreign Affairs




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