Bringing The Koran To The Corner Office

As the son of one of Turkey's best-connected industrial magnates, Erol Yarar was sure of a place among the country's business elite. Even before he inherited the reins of his father's conglomerate, Atom Kimya, in 1991, Yarar was in line for a spot in Tusiad, the powerful, career-building industrialists' association his father helped found. But the opportunity to hobnob with Tusiad's high-living tycoons held little appeal for Yarar, who was in the midst of a spiritual awakening. "At that point in my life, my thinking was moving in very different angles," he says.

Instead, Yarar helped form an alternative group, Musiad, in 1990, for executives and industrialists who share his commitment to Islamic values. Although he remains firmly convinced that capitalism is the best system for Turkey, the 35-year-old Yarar objects to executives who "think only about making money, even if it means exploiting workers." The solution, he says, is to blend Western-style business methods with the Islamic business principles outlined in the Koran. "At Musiad, we think it's possible to earn money while following the ideals of the Creator," Yarar says. "We can show that being a righteous businessman means being a fruitful businessman."

In the 71 years since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish state upon the collapsed Ottoman Empire, Turkey has remained a resolutely secular state. Now, the separation of Islam and the Turkish Establishment seems to be eroding. Yarar can be counted among the growing ranks of Turkish businesspeople often termed "fundamentalists." But such distinctions are meaningless, says Nevzat Yalcintas, a top consultant to Ihlas Holding, one of Turkey's biggest companies. "Business is business. If you're building cars or houses, how can anyone say what you're doing is Islamic?"

But in a country where about 98% of the population is Muslim, a rising number of businesspeople distinguish themselves as "conscious Muslims." In general, they follow the Koranic rule against charging interest (riba in Arabic) on borrowed money. Many of Musiad's 1,800 members--all but two of them men--pray five times a day and, according to Yarar, strive to earn money the helal (righteous) way, by providing good pay and safe working conditions to their employees.

"MONEY ISN'T OURS." Beyond business practices, an ethics committee keeps an eye on members to make sure they are donating part of their income to charities and avoiding alcohol, gambling, and conspicuous consumption. Thirty-eight misbehavers have been expelled since Musiad was formed. "It's important how we spend our money," Yarar says. "We believe the money isn't ours, and we'll be asked how we spent it when we get to the other world."

Musiad members are mostly young men, often from the Anatolian heartland, who have "awakened to the fact that religion can help them find solutions to many of their problems," says Omer Bolat, Musiad's secretary-general. "And the networks that form [among them] have been very useful in a business sense." Many Musiad members own the kind of midsize textile-making companies that form the backbone of Turkish industry, though some of the country's largest companies are headed by "conscious Muslims"--including Ulker Food, Industry & Trading, the region's biggest cookie and candy maker, and Ihlas Holding.

The rising visibility and financial muscle of the so-called fundamentalist business community has alarmed many secularists, who claim religious executives are feeding the coffers of the pro-Islamic Refah Party, Turkey's fastest-growing political force. Although party leaders often state their commitment to democracy and other Western-style institutions, opponents fear that Refah's religiously conservative leadership seeks to turn this nation of 60 million--Europe's second-most-populous--into an Iranian-style Islamic state. They also fear Algeria-type civil strife between Islamic militants and secular forces. Turkey's next national election is set for 1996.

SWEET STATUS QUO. But if Turkey seems to some to be headed in the direction of Iran or Algeria, it's doubtful that the country's Islamic business community will have much to do with it. According to Binnaz Toprak, chair of the political science department at Istanbul's Bosporus University, it should be seen as a buttress rather than a threat to the secular state. "Businessmen of all types favor stability," she says. "If [Islamic executives] feel they're flourishing in the current system, they're liable to try to preserve it."

Musiad officials and other devout businesspeople say they avoid special ties to any one party but contribute to the campaigns of candidates from a variety of conservative parties--even Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's decidedly secular True Path Party. "Turkish businessmen are very pragmatic," says Yalcintas. "They don't put all their eggs in one basket."

Whatever their political leanings, "business is business" is the common refrain among Turks. Secular Turks and Western businesspeople say they've encountered few obstacles in their dealings with "fundamentalists." For example, they say Muslims who object to interest charges on loans and leases will usually agree to financing arrangements that call for higher monthly payments with an embedded interest equivalent.

"I've found them to be a straight, honest, educated people with a strong understanding of compoundings, inflation rates, and interest rates," says one Western analyst. "They are generally easy to work with. We're not talking about Khomeini's bazaar merchants here."

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE