Fraternity of past generations to shed light on today's business

Published 17.10.2010 23:59

Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, disguised in the clothes of an ordinary man, visited a small store selling dairy products one morning. The shopkeeper welcomed him with a smiling face. The sultan asked for some cheese first and, after paying the man and checking the package of cheese, asked for some olives, too. The shopkeeper answered, saying: “I have some, but I can't sell them to you. Please buy them from my neighbor because he has made no sale yet.”

When anyone talks about ahilik, this story is always mentioned as an example of its altruism, of course in an exalting tone.

Turkey these days is commemorating the institution of ahilik, a medieval guild system based on fraternity and solidarity among craftsmen and artisans while exalting the quality of production and consumer rights, with a special emphasis on honesty and commitment to ethics. A series of events are being held throughout the country.

In a nod to the past, şed tying ceremonies, which included wrapping a belt around the waists of apprentices as they become foremen, are being re-enacted. The best artisans and craftsmen of the year are selected and presented with gifts. Many other practices of ahilik, completely obsolete now, are remembered every year with a commemorative week receiving particular encouragement from the Ministry of Industry and Trade. Events during the week are held under the auspices of Parliament and the government.

Are the state's efforts to remember this tradition and to keep its memory alive simply a folkloric display showing allegiance to the past or, in a broader sense, a signal of an intention to revive it in a more modern fashion?

Ahilik week celebrations are not very old. They were first introduced 23 years ago and have since become successful in drawing the attention of modern Turks to ahilik.

Every year, regardless of who the parliament speaking is or who is administering the Cabinet, top-tier state officials voice similar messages regarding the noble values of ahilik and the need to have these values as guides for today's business life, of course flavored with special compliments and material incentives tailored for artisans and craftsmen.

Indeed ahilik has been one of the fundamental pillars of Turkish society since the Turks first started settling in Anatolia. The system, which earned its name from the Arabic word for "my brother," had been known since the sixth century, but Ahi Evran, a religious preacher in the 13th century, adopted it to gather and unify Turkish businessmen around a solid and strong ethical code to secure a steady increase in wealth for these new inhabitants of Asia Minor and give them the upper hand against non-Muslim competitors. He tried to do exactly what his contemporary scholar and Sufi Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi did for the spiritual lives of the people of the time, with the only difference being that he focused on worldly welfare without neglecting the guidance of the faith. It was one of the main factors that helped spread Islam in Anatolia.

Besides operating as a strong civil society organization to establish economic solidarity among artisans, it also helped create a military force. What is more striking, it was to the Ottoman state what yeast is to bread. Ahis played a prominent role in setting the basic philosophy of the Turks' strongest state ever, a state that lived for more than 600 years and ruled over three continents with glory.

Speaking to Sunday's Zaman, İstanbul Chamber of Commerce (İTO) executive board member İsrafil Kuralay says the business world must seriously consider reviving the exact same values of the ahilik institution by translating them into the modern language of business. Life is extremely fragmented today, with ranks separated from one another with bold and thick borders, he argued. "But I see life as a single whole and believe that ethics lie at its core. In that sense, the universal values of ahilik must be introduced to resolve social problems," he said.

Kuralay also underlined how large of an effect ahilik has had on even some modern institutions. For instance, he spoke about how İTO, founded in 1882, rose on the basic principles of ahilik. He specifically mentioned modern quality standards, such as those set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), saying ahilik's control mechanisms were the forerunners of the modern amplified emphasis on quality.

As a final remark, Kuralay expressed the urgent need for the revival of and commitment to the pillars of ahilik in order to prevent events such as the latest global financial crisis, accepted as a byproduct of the unfettered greed dictated by capitalism.

Turkish Tradesmen's and Artisans' Confederation (TESK) President Bendevi Palandöken also believes ahilik must be reinterpreted in accordance with the changed conditions of the modern world, advancements in technology and with a particular emphasis on knowledge and science. To do just this, he said, Ahi Evran University in Kırşehir opened a center to conduct research on the culture of ahilik. He said this facility is quite good at conveying the universal values of ahilik, albeit with a modern interpretation, to younger generations.

Unemployment can be overcome through particular emphasis on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are responsible for close to 98 percent of employment in Turkey, he said, adding that the situation is not much different in other parts of the world. He believes the world is increasingly approaching the ideals of ahilik, especially after learning the lessons of the latest global economic crisis.

Today's business associations may be seen as reinterpretations of ahilik in modern terms. The Business Life Cooperation Association (İŞHAD) is a good example of a modern ahi-type institution, İŞHAD President Recep Ekşi said.

In the past, ahilik basically codified the relationship between apprentices and foremen and among rivals in business life, he said. İŞHAD also aims to establish a similar system with members from all segments of business life and of various sizes under İŞHAD's roof without any barriers among themselves, Ekşi told Sunday's Zaman. Large companies are conveying their experiences to small enterprises to help them grow more rapidly and get rid of problems, he said, to exemplify the generosity among members. Similarly, İŞHAD members already engaged in exports pass on their knowledge about export markets to other members, a practice entirely contradictory to the premise of capitalism, in which companies value information as the most valuable asset and avoid sharing it with rivals.

Another aspect that resembles ahilik, Ekşi says, is the commitment to business ethics. He says no company can continue being a member if it is involved in ethically wrong behavior or works to the detriment of other association members.

Ahilik ruled the commercial life of Eastern nations when business life was simple to govern. In today's highly globalized world, where goods and capital easily move across continents thanks to advancements in telecommunications and transportation in the last couple of decades, however, steering business life is clearly not as simple. However, it is a self-evident fact that the world must turn its face once again to universal values such as honesty, respect for others, avoiding deceit and fraud, standing in solidarity and helping the disadvantaged avoid the harm that comes along with unfettered greed brought about by capitalism.

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