Work Ethic, Religion and Moral Energy: The case of Turkish sme owner-managers

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Work Ethic, Religion and Moral Energy:

The case of Turkish SME owner-managers


This paper explores the hitherto neglected issue of how religious beliefs influence the work ethic of Turkish SME (Small and Medium-sized Enterprise) owner-managers. We draw on Weber’s notion of Lebensführung, which captures the manner of living one’s life, as a theoretical and explanatory lens. The research is conducted among religious Muslim entrepreneurs, which showed strong diaspora characteristics in its early emergence in 1990s. Based on qualitative research on Turkish entrepreneurs (SME owner-managers), we find that a new Islamic discourse –appearing as more liberal and pro market oriented- together with the Muslim work ethic, drive entrepreneurialism in Turkey. We demonstrate that the contemporary Muslim work ethic comprises a ‘moral energy’, which manifests itself variously as rational/secular, shared/communicated, and action-oriented driver for Muslim entrepreneurs, helping to sustain their entrepreneurial activities in the Turkish context.

Key Words: Work ethic, Moral energy, Islam, Turkey


Turkey is a unique context within the Islamic world with its predominantly Muslim population but secular governance mechanisms. Since early 90s, Turkey witnessed the emergence of a new business class that is well known by its religious characteristics. Afterwards, it did not take too long to see their business associations and establishments in many Anatolian cities in Turkey and they have become important players in the economy. Once the religious business people become a well-known phenomenon, they faced a strict reaction of the secular state. Business owners have been accused and blacklisted as being religious fundamentalists or financially supporting radical Islamic groups (Kuran, 1993; Arslan, 1999). The famous motto of the era (90s) was “being stranger in your native land” (an example sayings influenced by a Turkish poet, Necip Fazil). According to Cohen (1998:20), diaspora is “concerned with the way in which nations, real yet imagined communities, are fabulated, brought into being, made and unmade, in culture and politics, both on the land people call their own and in exile”. In this respect, Turkish religious business people in their early emergence present diaspora characteristics within the strict secular structure of the state that is aiming to be a member of the European Union. Considering the fact that Islamic moral principles are becoming more appealing topic in management studies (Syed and Metclafe, 2014), it becomes crucial to know how Muslim identity shapes work ethic values of religious business people in Turkey. Therefore, we discuss and position the Turkish context as peculiar, as it might add to our understanding of Islamic practices within Western diaspora.

This article sets out to demonstrate the influence of Muslim belief on the work ethic of Turkish SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) owner-managers. Understanding different work ethic perceptions, as a factor behind motivation, effort and employment related values, is an important concern particularly in today’s globalised business world. Work ethic has been defined as “a commitment to the value and importance of hard work” (Miller,, 2002:452), or values, beliefs, intentions, and objectives that people bring to their work and the conditions in what is undertaken (Clarke, 1983:122). Max Weber in his well-known essay, the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, argued that ascetic Protestantism, namely hard work, rational act and a disciplined life played a vital role in the formation of modern rational capitalism (Weber, 2004). The characteristics of the Protestant work ethic (PWE) have been widely used to conceptualise and understand the concept of work ethic in the management literature (i.e. Buchholz, 1976, 1978; Furnham, 1984, 1986, 1990; Jones, 1997; Niles, 1999) highlighting the importance of hard working and disciplined life as main characteristics of the PWE.

However, this body of literature is mostly concerned with measuring work related values and attitudes using quantitative scales so that, as Niles (1999) argues, the PWE has been ‘converted’ to a personality dimension separate from the socio-political and religious background that Weber proposed. Further, while PWE scales have been applied to different cultural settings, including some Muslim countries (Ali and Al-Shakhis, 1989; Furnham et al.; 1993; Arslan, 2001; El-Kot and Burke, 2014; Khan and Rasheed, 2015; Mohammad 2015), this literature tends to overlook the intrinsic significance of Islamic moral principles. Thus, drawing on Weber’s work, some Muslim scholars/academics have developed and applied “Islamic Work Ethic” (IWE) scales, with almost comparable characteristics to PWE (Ali, 1988; Ali, 1992; Yousef, 2001; Mohammad, 2015). Taken together, the above-mentioned studies tend to overlook Weber’s central question - crucial to understanding religious influence on work ethic. This central question draws on Weber’s notion of Lebensführung as manner or conduct of one’s life (Hennis, 2000) to consider the implications of religion for how people live their everyday lives. This paper seeks to fill this research gap by demonstrating how Islamic moral principles as conduct of life construct work ethic values of Muslim Turkish entrepreneurs, giving a particular emphasis on the newly emerging religious entrepreneurs of Turkey (Yavuz, 2003; Özdemir, 2006) and their way of life.
History demonstrates that the entrepreneurial spirit has not been a strong characteristic of Muslim countries (Ülgener, 1991; Arslan, 2001). Nevertheless, since the 1980s, Turkey’s political economy has changed radically and shifted from a state-oriented to a free-market liberal economy (Bugra, 1994). This rapid liberalisation makes the concept of work and the meanings applied to it within the Turkish context a fruitful focus of inquiry. Turkey, as a Muslim country with secular institutions, has been going through a major transformation at both the economic and societal levels which have been accelerated by European Union reforms and structural changes within the last two decades (Yavuz, 2003; Polat, 2013). Recently, Turkey has also witnessed a newly emerging business class best known by its piousness and religious commitment (Yavuz, 2003; Özdemir, 2006). Simultaneously, perhaps more importantly, Turkey has produced a new moderate and liberal Islamic discourse, which could be considered as a contemporary interpretation manifested within civil initiatives rather than political Islam (Yılmaz, 2005). We characterise this new Islamic discourse as civil, liberal, and moderate; therefore compatible with Western influences of secularism and liberalism. Moreover, we are facing an irreversible change in Middle Eastern nations (Ottoway, 2013) from authoritarian regimes to strong democratic demands. Although it is too early to know the direction of the uprisings in the Middle East countries, it is usually predicted that this transformation will lead to a more moderate interpretation of Islam in the region, which is in peace with democracy and free market economy (Bayat, 2013). In this sense, the findings of this paper provide useful insights from a country that has gone through strong transformation. Therefore, studying the work values of this business class, and the relationship between religion and economic activities in the context of doing business, gain special importance. Following this, and drawing on a Weberian perspective, this paper is shaped around the following research questions: How does Islam influence Turkish SME owner/managers’ conduct of life (Lebensführung)? How does Islamic moral principles/ethic provide a driving force for entrepreneurialism in the Turkish context?

We argue that the concept of ‘moral energy’ defined as ‘stimulating action of society’ by Durkheim (2001) captures the ways in which religion influences how Turkish SME owners live their business lives. Islamic Work Ethic (exemplified by hard-work, good intention, responsibility, generosity and balancing one’s life) within the Turkish context becomes a driving source for Turkish SME owner-managers (Arslan, 2001; Karakas et al., 2014; Author, 2009). The main sources of the Islamic work ethic, as in many disciplines, are Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the prophet). However, we are witnessing a contemporary understanding or interpretation of these sources. In this respect, the concept of moral energy appears as a rational/secular, shared/communicated and action-oriented concept in the Muslim Turkish context. We argue that this concept provides a more nuanced account for understanding the influence of religion.

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