The Historical Development of Civil Society in Turkey

Religious foundations were an important element of civil society in the Ottoman Empire. These foundations, known as vakifs in Turkish (from the Arabic word waqf), were religious establishments created for humanitarian purposes (Gurbuz, 2012). They were established according to Islamic law (Bikmen, 2008) mainly with religious motivation (?izak§a, 2006). Vakifs were a tool through which Muslims could fulfill their religious obligations such as the charitable deeds stated in the Koran (?izak§a, 2000) . In addition to many others (?izak§a, 2006), healthcare, shelter, and poor relief were among the main functions of vakifs (Zencirci, 2014). The Ottoman state did not provide many social welfare services, being mainly responsible only for justice, safety, and freedom of religion, and this made vakifs strong in terms of their assets, numbers, and services (Bikmen, 2008). The financial resources of the vakifs were either cash, which later turned into an income-generating divestment, or real estate, donated by rich Ottomans, that generated rent for the vakifs (?izak§a, 2006).

Vakifs were relatively independent from the central state in terms of both their financial affairs and administration (Gurbuz, 2012; Zencirci, 2014). However, especially during the nineteenth century, the increasing intervention of Europeans in Ottoman territories, financial difficulties, and the emergence of a centralized modern Ottoman state resulted in the weakening of vakifs (Zencirci, 2014). The centralization of the Ottoman state had the strongest impact on vakifs, as the state founded a Ministry of Evkaf (the plural Turkish form of vakif) which brought the vakifs under state control (?izak§a, 2006). Later, the Ministry of Finance was charged to collect the revenue of the vakifs (?izak§a, 2006), which in the long run caused many vakifs to lose their financial power and eventually disappear. While there were 18,000 vakifs in the Ottoman Empire during the eighteenth century, in 1923, the Republic inherited only 5859 (?izak§a, 2006).

Centralization policies for the vakifs continued after the foundation of the Republic, which confiscated vakif properties and lands. The state’s confiscation of the vakifs was a part of larger secularization project initiated by the founders of the Republic, who viewed the foundations as an obstacle to secular modernization (Zencirci, 2014). For example, the income and properties of education vakifs were transferred to the Ministry of National Education (?izak§a, 2006). The Ministry of Evkaf was transformed into Directorate General of Foundations to manage and oversee both Ottoman vakifs and those established after 1923. A Committee for the Abolishment of Vakifs was created in 1937 with the task of sale and transfer of vakifs (Zencirci, 2014).

The state expanded its restrictive and centralizing attitude toward the vakifs to all kinds of civil society organizations during the republican period. Indeed, one reason for the current low level of volunteering in Turkey is the tradition of government control, harassment, and even bans on civil society organizations, a tradition that goes back to the establishment of Turkey as a republic in 1923. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created Turkey in 1923 out of the remnants of the Ottoman empire, he pushed the country into a period of radical reforms in its social, cultural, and political life that caused, among other things, the development of an elitist class that tried to modernize society in a top-down fashion. Civil society organizations became an issue as the new secular and national government needed to consolidate its power. The state, therefore, either closed or strictly controlled all such organizations through legal regulations until 1946, when the Democrat Party (DP) was founded. As this party promised more democracy and a liberal economy, the Republican People’s Party (RPP) also liberalized its own policies, which included softening its control of civil society organizations. After winning the 1950 elections, the DP softened the until-then harsh civil society regime in Turkey. The DP supported the activities of religious groups, causing an increase in the number of religious associations and associations founded with the goal of building mosques. However, the DP restricted leftist movements and intellectuals by closing or pressuring leftist associations, banning leftist literary works, and censoring the leftist press (§en, 2005).

The Democratic Party’s mismanagement of the economy and suppression of the opposition led to a military coup in 1960 and a new constitution in 1961. Despite originating in a military coup, the new constitution guaranteed freedom of expression and assembly, and the following period was a time of relative freedom for the media, universities, and civil society organizations . Given this new legal environment, there was an enormous increase in the number of civil society organizations. However, leftist movements were on the rise, and civil society organizations became so politicized that they could not manage to be civil. Almost all of them were on either the left or the right, and street violence grew so intense that people were even killing each other. On the political level, it became almost impossible for political parties in the parliament to form any government. The many subsequent, short-lived coalition governments created such political and economic instability that, in 1980, the military intervened once again.

The 1982 Constitution reversed the 1960 Constitution. The army, which wanted to depoliticize society by decreasing political participation, closed and banned many civil society organizations. It also forbade civil servants, students, and teachers to join political parties, banned all forms of cooperation between trade unions and political parties, and made it illegal for political parties to open women’s or youth branches. However, all these bans achieved the exact opposite of what they intended, for many people began to see civil society organizations as the main tool to prevent or end the oppression that always followed the military’s intervention, elevating the status of civil society organizations to that of the solution to all problems in society (§en, 2005). The opening of Turkey’s economy and society to the world also shaped this process.

With the advent of the 1990s, many civil society organizations were established. Human rights, women’s, and environmental organizations increased their levels of activity, and religious people and Kurds organized to fight for their rights and freedoms. Toprak (1996) asserts that one reason why civil society became a popular concept during the 1980s was the rise of Islamist groups and Kurdish nationalism, as well as the growing momentum and influence of the national women’s movement. Employing the language of civil society to receive public acknowledgement of their identities and differences, and also to politicize their discourses on their subordination by the status quo (Onba§i, 2008), all of them challenged the state’s official secularist and nationalist ideology and its definition of citizenship. Turkey’s attempt to join the European Union (EU) was also decisive, because certain changes had to be made regarding state-society relations. The EU’s demands of Turkey to create a new discourse for the citizens’ freedoms, rights, and responsibilities, as well as to make the state administration more efficient, effective, and transparent, opened new space for civil society organizations (Keyman, 2006).

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