Islamic Capitalism: The Turkish Boom

Mr. Elliott works for the Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think tank in London. He is a regular contributor to the journal Economic Affairs, published by the institute of Economic Affairs.

Once dismissed as the “sick man of Europe,” Turkey is now building a prosperous future. The Turkish economy has been growing at a faster rate than that of any other country in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)—including Japan, Great Britain, and the United States. The Turks seem to have evolved a successful union of Islam and capitalism, not always a comfortable mix.

My own impressions were formed on a recent trip to Istanbul, during which I witnessed the frenetic commercial activity that is fueling the Turkish economy. Istanbul is a city with a fast pace, a whirlwind of people hurrying about their business, working hard.

For a country that is still relatively poor, it is a surprise to find no beggars. Instead, everyone works, in whatever niche he can find. To the Western eye, some of these jobs appear very menial: outside the railroad station a row of men crouch over jars of polish, offering to shine shoes. Everywhere men and boys squat beside flagons, with a drink of cold water for sale. To the Turk, these simple jobs are a way to make a living; and all of these people in their small ways are contributing to the economic expansion.

Turkey needs a booming economy to support a booming population. The current population of 52 million may reach 75 million by the end of the century.

In Istanbul, children are everywhere. Turkey is still emerging from a Third World culture, in which children are a valued part of the family economy. They go to work in the family business, and they provide for their parents in old age. In Istanbul, young children work in shops, sell packets of postcards to tourists, sell birdseed to visitors who want to feed the pigeons, or learn the trade of shoe-blacking.

To the visiting Briton, the sight of a small child cleaning shoes clashes with the taboos we have constructed around “child labor.” In Britain we have legislated to make children attend school until the age of 16. We force children to be taught about kings and queens and glacial striations, and to go on cross-country runs. Many of the children who pass through the system pick up little in the way of useful knowledge or values.

In Istanbul, children start learning early how the world works. They learn the rewards of hard work and application. They learn something about the pressures and pleasures of independence and responsibility. The sight reminded me of the bootblack hero in Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick.

Younger Turks have realized that a large part of their future will depend on working with foreigners from the West. Many of the young children have learned the benefits of being able to sell in more than one language. Stopping at a postcard shop in Istanbul, I was surrounded by a group of small boys who asked me where I was from, and proceeded to tell me in fluent English what I could buy. When a German stopped to look, they spoke to him in German. These boys had learned their skills from finding a use for them in everyday life.

Istanbul is a city that bridges two continents, in more than the geographical sense. On Turkey’s eastern border is Iran, the focus of a world fundamentalist revival, a movement for vigorous and uncompromising imposition of Holy Law. In Istanbul women cover their faces, and the wailing from the mosques resonates around the city, part of a culture that stretches across Islamic Asia. Yet modern Turkey is founded upon the ideas of Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), who sought to make Turkey a secular republic. The Turks are serious about their religion, but recognize that it has its place.

One reason why Moslems are sometimes suspicious of capitalism is that it can disrupt the Islamic pattern of society. Capitalism entails an extension of choice, as its foundation and as its result. By making available new arrays of material goods, it tempts the Moslem with Western values. Capitalism pays no respect to hierarchies of power. It allows individual people to live independently of government, and disperses power to the many. It opens up new networks of communication, beyond the critical supervision of the guardians of Holy Law. Where Islam is imposed as a rigid code of uniformity, capitalism is a threat.

In Istanbul, alongside the mosques are shops selling Japanese cameras. In amongst the symbols of a traditional and ancient culture you find the trappings of Western materialism. A contrast it may be, but it is also a compliment to the tolerance of Turkish society. Turkey remains an Islamic country—a member of the Islamic Conference Organization—but Turkish society retains a flexibility that can admit deviation. It is marked by an openness that has never been more valuable than today.

From the East, Turkey must incorporate the pull of the fundamentalist revival, popular in universities. From the West come the attractions of liberalism and permissiveness. Potentially a conflict of values that could fracture their society, this meeting of East and West is more likely to be the making of modern Turkey. Turkey can find prosperity and status as the go-between in trade and international relations.

Some Turks frown upon the changes that have accompanied new riches. In Britain some observers already have started to lament the loss of the “simple life” in Turkey. Their fears are groundless: Turkish culture is too deep to be subsumed by Western life. To most Turks the future must be an exciting prospect, in a country gaining respect and influence.

Many Third World governments have foundered in their attempts to modernize their countries by pursuing false ideas to unworkable conclusions. Turkey is one of the better examples, a country where progress is succeeding by being left to evolve through the efforts of individuals. []