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In November 1997, people in living rooms and offices all over Turkey were hotly debating the seemingly inexorable progress of the Constitutional Court toward a decision to shut down Turkey’s most prominent and successful Islam-based political party, the Welfare Party. This party had attracted a much greater variety of supporters than any previous Islam-inspired party: conservative townspeople and poor urban migrants, but also up-and-coming professionals, intellectuals, and wealthy industrialists. Many working-class and conservative women became political activists for the first time, going door to door to get out the vote for Welfare. Even people who were against the party, or any Islamic party, having a place in national politics spoke with awe of the extent to which the party had organized its followers, street by street. Whatever the party was doing, it was working. In the local elections of 1994, the Welfare Party doubled its votes nationally and captured almost half the mayoral seats in provincial capitals, including six of Turkey’s fifteen largest cities. To the great consternation of the country’s secular elites, Istanbul, Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city, elected a Welfare Party mayor, as did the capital, Ankara. In the 1995 general elections, Welfare won the largest number of seats in parliament . The political interests of its constituents ranged widely, from social and economic reform to replacing the secular state system with one founded on Islamic law. INTRODUCTION The Constitutional Court, arguing that the party posed a threat to the laic foundations of the state, opened a case against it. Laicism, one of the founding principles of the secular Turkish state, refers to the subordination of religion to the state. The laicist state aims to control all public expressions of Islamic practice, down to training the prayer leaders of mosques and vetting their sermons. Public debate revolved around whether or not an openly Islamic party should be allowed to participate in the political system. People against the party speculated darkly about what would happen if it came to power. Others were conflicted and mused that closing a legitimately elected party of any kind was undemocratic, although perhaps that was the price that had to be paid to keep the country secular. Given the political elite’s hostility to the party and anxiety about the party’s ultimate intentions, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the party would be closed down. To my great surprise, Welfare Party activists seemed unconcerned . When I asked what they would do if the party was closed, they invariably answered that nothing would change. Some scoffed that closing the party was meaningless. One bearded businessman, a Welfare Party member who volunteered with an Islamic charity founAtaturk banner in Beyoğlu, Istanbul’s shopping and entertainment district. 4 · Introduction dation, looked bemused at my question. “If they close the party, then a few politicians lose their jobs; that’s all. It has no effect on us. We’re a social movement, not a party.” Others gave similar explanations. They shrugged and said that their social and political networks would not be affected by closing the party. I found this calm unconcern striking, given the decibel level of national debate and the assumption behind the court action—that closing the Welfare Party would eliminate the threat of Islam in politics . It gave me to wonder, if not party politics, then what kind of politics was I witnessing? If the party was dispensable, how then were people organizing themselves politically? In such a tightly run party, how did activists remain independent? Perhaps, I speculated, they formed civic organizations that worked together with the party while remaining autonomous. But the number of civic organizations involved with Welfare, and their range of activities and membership , did not account for anywhere near the level of organized activism mobilizing behind the party. And what was mobilizing them? How important was Islam in all this, given the wide variety of supporters? The global spread of Islam-based politics gave these questions broader importance. They concerned the nature of political processes that were developing in major urban centers worldwide, attracting hybrid populations and frequently taking inspiration from Islam. The questions also seemed applicable to political mobilization that did not revolve around an Islamic interpretation. In February 1998, the Welfare Party was closed and its leader temporarily exiled from politics. Another Islam-inspired party, the Virtue Party, was formed within days and continued to attract a strong and equally diverse following. Before long, a case was opened...


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