Ali Ağcakulu
Jul 30 2018

The irresistible appeal of seizing property

Turkey’s Islamist government has most likely already taken the decision to seize the property of some segments of the population.

Pro-government professor of theology Hayrettin Karaman hinted as much in his column for Yeni Şafak newspaper, highlighting a 13th century fatwa.

“If necessity forces an individual to seize people’s property, this seizure is permissible; in fact, if the individual fears he might die from hunger, cold, or heat, it is not only permissible but also necessary for the individual to seize property to meet his needs,” the fatwa reads “It is more important, even preferable, to meet the needs of a society that likely includes Allah’s chosen subjects than to fulfil the needs of one individual.”

One may assume that Karaman counts himself among Allah’s chosen subjects. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, enjoying wide-ranging executive powers since elections last month, issued a presidential decree creating a State of Emergency Economic Coordination Committee and an Asset Seizure Evaluation Commission. After all, one of the markers of every new regime is laying claim to the nation’s capital wealth.

The newly acquired capital is not meant to fill the coffers of the Treasury, but rather, to create a new wealthy class that will support the regime. As Karaman said, the goal is sustaining a society of Allah’s chosen ones.

Prior to the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, sociologist and Islamist columnist for Zaman newspaper (which has since been shut down) Ali Bulaç wrote, “the seizure of property is a tradition of the pre-Islamic age of ignorance”.  Pro-government media criticized Bulaç for this, and insisted that seizing the property of the Gülen movement, an erstwhile government ally accused of carrying out the coup, was not only necessary, but supported by examples from Islamic history.

Once this groundwork had been laid, with the catalyst of the July 15th coup attempt, the government proceeded to seize the property of the Gülenists.

According to al-Ghazali, a prominent Islamic theologian who first articulated the fundamental rights guaranteed in Islam, it is the duty of the state to protect the five essential components of “religion, life, intellect, offspring, and property”. In the first Islamic state of Medina (622-661), the state only confiscated the property of government officials who had unfairly acquired their wealth, and did not lay claim to private property.

The first examples of property seizure can be found during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (571-632). In this instance, the state treasury confiscated gifts that a governor had received. Under the reign of Omar (634-644), the second Islamic caliph, some governors who misappropriated taxes for their own gain, neglected their government duties, or accepted gifts and bribes were forced to relinquish their property to the state. Extant sources contain no information about illegal seizure of private property.

However, under the ensuing Umayyad (662-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) Empires, and later the Ottoman Empire, the state frequently relied on property confiscation in order to undermine and eradicate opponents.

Muawiyah bin Abu Sufyan forcefully seized the office of the caliphate from the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hassan, destroyed the Medina government, and established the Umayyad Empire. He transferred the capital from Medina to Damascus. Under the reign of his son Yezid, the prophet’s grandchildren were slaughtered, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were destroyed with trebuchets under the preteens of eradicating rebels. Houses belonging to the prophet’s family were demolished. These measures went beyond confiscating property; they were geared towards destruction. As time passed, property seizure became a vehicle for threatening and exacting revenge for the Umayyad Empire, and many former rulers were forced to relinquish their property.

The Abbasids also used property confiscation to quell opposition, and laid claim to not only individual property but also family assets. Rather than depositing these assets into the state treasury, the government distributed them amongst the sultan’s inner circle. The Abbasids also made a habit of seizing the property of merchants and wealthy families in order to fund military campaigns and close budget deficits.

Under the Ottoman Empire, property confiscation was employed from the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror until the Tanzimat reform period, an era spanning the mid 15th century until the early 19th century. Mehmed was responsible for seizing the property of the Çandarlı family, an influential political family that was second only to the Ottomans in dynastic power. Mehmed ordered the execution of a member of the Çandarlı family, Grand Vizier Halil Pasha, and all of his property was confiscated by the state. This incapacitated the Çandarlı family and nullified its threat to the Ottoman dynasty.

Following Mehmed’s rule, all government officials outside the clergy were subject to property seizures. The Ottoman political tradition held that the property that government officials acquired belonged not to the individual, but to the office. As confiscation of property became more widespread and turned into a source of revenue for the treasury, Ottoman provincial administrations began to seize the property of rural notables in order to cover their expenses and provide the sultan with taxes and gifts.

The most expansive property confiscation in Ottoman history occurred under Sultan Mahmud II, who reigned in the early 19th century in the lead up to the Tanzimat Era. Under Mahmud II, the death of a feudal lord was enough cause to seize the property of the deceased notable. He used property seizure as a tool for strengthening central government and weakening feudal notables. His reign marked the first time that religious foundations were seized by the government. The first example of this phenomenon was the seizure of the Bektaşi dervish foundations.

One of the victims of Mahmud II’s property confiscation campaign was Bedr Khan Bey, leader of the Kurdish Botan tribe. Following the Soran and Baban tribes, the state ended the Botan tribe’s autonomy and confiscated its property. However, Bedr Khan Bey’s children and grandchildren struggled fiercely to regain the property. In fact, the Kurdish nationalist movement that began in Istanbul is rooted in this family’s struggle against the government. Celadet Ali Bedir Khan’s activism is a prime example.

Some statesmen criticised property confiscation, which exemplified despotism and lawlessness. Seventeenth century statesman and Ottoman treasurer Defterdar Mehmet Pasha voiced the concerns of the intelligentsia with his criticism that the unjust confiscation of the people’s property would harm the state treasury and cause the collapse of the state. Tanzimat era scholar Ahmet Cevdet Pasha argued that property seizure violated the rules of Islam.

While Europe transformed through the Industrial Revolution, Ottoman sultans instead focused on seizing the property of the wealthy, thereby hindering the accumulation of capital. The absence of large sums of capital in turn prevented the development of industry in the Ottoman Empire, which rendered impossible any industrial revolution. Europe’s progress through the Industrial Revolution, and the Ottoman Empire’s inability to follow suit, allowed the Ottoman Empire to become both a colony and marketplace for Europe. By the time the Tanzimat reforms banned property seizure in the mid-19th century, it was already too late.

The tradition of seizing property is not limited to the Islamic world. Just as everywhere else in the old world, Europe and America also implemented property seizure. The institutionalisation of seizing property in Europe extends back to Roman law. During feudal times, European empires would also confiscate private property. In the modern era, as a wartime measure during the American Civil War (1861-1865), rebels were subject to property seizure. The most striking example in Europe took place in Germany. In the Nazi Era (1933-1945) as part of the Holocaust, Jewish property was systematically confiscated. Today, property seizure only occurs in order to undermine and prevent the financing of terrorism.

Property seizure in modern Turkey deserves a study of its own. Beginning with the Armenian deportation of 1915, continuing through the Wealth Tax of 1942 that transferred capital from non-Muslims to the Muslim bourgeoisie, and reaching new heights after the July 15th coup attempt, property seizure in Turkey should be the subject of an in-depth research project.