Wide Angle Explores “Faith and Prosperity in Turkey”

By Sarah Swick, Minaret of Freedom Institute, www.minaret.org

The latest episode of PBS’ Wide Angle, which highlighted successful businessmen in Turkey, explored the relationship between Islamic piety and business. The film followed a devout Muslim man who had founded a clothing line which caters to pious Muslim women. (The film also followed a secular businessman catering to a more “Westernized” clientele.) The owner of the Muslim clothing store, Tekbir, pointed out that two of the five pillars of Islam require business: Hajj and Zakat. Afterall, how can someone afford to go on the pilgrimage or afford to give charity if they haven’t made any money?

The various Muslim businesses in central Turkey featured in the film not only cater to Muslim clientele but also Muslim workers. They provide buses to take workers to Friday prayer services and in one area they built a beautiful mosque near the factories. These successful international businessmen believe that there is no conflict between Islam and business. Moreover, despite accusations that they are “fundamentalists,” the men do not wish to see Turkey turned into a “Shariah state” and do not want Turkey’s future looking like that of Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Another interesting aspect to the film was the role and status of women in the rising market. One worrying sign presented in the film is that the businessmen in one town meet weekly for a “unity lunch,” which inherently excludes women from this networking opportunity. But one of the businessmen has taken a positive and active stance on women’s inclusion by establishing a training program for women to become executive assistants. While this fits the stereotype of women’s limited skills, one of the women participating in the program expressed a desire to someday become a CEO—proof of the lofty aspiration of Turkish women.

The film also discusses barriers to female advancement in business. The foreign minister of Turkey, who is part of the ruling Islamic party, explained that while previously girls didn’t usually attend school, more women are staying in school longer because of the economic progress in the last decades. So while, the wives of the businessmen did not work, their daughters do. Another barrier is the strict laws against the hijab. Under Turkey’s extreme interpretation of secularism women are not allowed to attend university or enter government buildings while wearing the headscarf. This restriction has inhibited many women from pursuing higher education and even prevents the foreign minister’s educated wife from practicing law. So while the West views the headscarf as oppressive, it seems that the laws which force “liberation” from the hijab are truly the oppressive agent which dramatically hinders female empowerment in Turkey. And as the businessman who runs the female executive assistant program alluded, while prevented from government work due to the headscarf, pious Muslim women may find an outlet for empowerment through business—as, according to him, business cares about money, not the scarf.

For more information on the program, the Washington Post recently hosted a discussion forum with the director and producers of the program. And the New York Times also published an article (Turks Knock on Europe’s Door With Evidence That Islam and Capitalism Can Coexist) about Islamic businesses in Turkey.

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