Good Governance according to Islamic NGOs in Turkey: Political Autonomy or Technical Expertise?

By Gizem Zencirci
Submitted to Session P5107 (Civil Society and Governance in the Middle East, 2018 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The civil society literature often focuses on the question of whether Islamic organizations in the Middle East are autonomous from public institutions, political parties and state power. This question is shaped by the dominant scholarly framework which equates autonomy with political legitimacy: Islamic organizations are included in the domain of civil society to the extent that they can prove their independent “non-governmental” status. The existence, or lack of political autonomy is also frequently used as a measure of democratic governance. The underlying assumption is that a country is more likely to become (or remain) democratic if it has a plethora of civic organizations that operate independently of state power.

Such a focus on political autonomy, however, overlooks other strategies through which Islamic organizations claim NGO legitimacy. In contrast, this paper examines how Islamic NGOs in Turkey perform legitimacy through adopting the technical language of “audit culture” (Strathern 2000). Instead of emphasizing the norm of political autonomy, these Islamic organizations instead focus on the norm of transparency as the penultimate measure of good governance. To this end, these organizations provide extensive narrative reports, perform frequent financial audits, and use a range of data collection instruments as well as performance indicators. They also make information about charitable donations and the amount and kind of aid distributed to the poor available to the public through online and print publications. Put another way, the primary concern of Islamic NGOs in Turkey has become the collection, management, and standardization of information about their donors and recipients. By examining how these organizations approached governance as a “technical” instead of a “political” matter, this paper shows the limits of the democracy bias that is dominant in the civil society literature. I argue that the rise of a managerial logic among Islamic NGOs is best understood as a form of depoliticization. Furthermore, I also discuss how these NGOs legitimized the construct of good-governance-as-transparency with reference to Ottoman institutions and Islamic ethics. Evidence is drawn from a 14-month ethnographic fieldwork conducted with Islamic charity organizations in Turkey in 2009-2010 and 2012-2013.