"Tell me where Allah is and I will give you an orange. Tell me where Allah is not and I will give you an orange grove." This particular Koranic phrase graces a whiteboard at the entrance to the third biggest company in Gaziantep, a city of 1 million close to Turkey's border with Syria.
Naksan Holding exemplifies what Turks call the "Anatolian Tiger" economy. Set up 40 years ago by a successful local tradesman, it is now the largest producer of plastic bags anywhere in the Balkans or Middle East. Its rise has been phenomenal, dwarfing even the 7 percent per annum growth of Turkey's economy between 2001 and 2007. A decade ago, Naksan was the country's 480th largest company, according to statistics from the Istanbul Chamber of Industry. Now, with a turnover of US$450 million, it ranks 136th.
"We've done very well, and our future looks bright", says Taner Nakiboglu, 35, describing how the company has just invested US$300 million to build a power station in western Turkey.
Plump and loquacious, the US-educated Nakiboglu is representative of the new generation of Anatolian businessmen: he is as pious as the "thought of the day" posted at the corporate offices' main entrance.
Like the wives of most deputies in the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, his wife covers her head. Like the daughter of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, his cousins are studying in the United States to avoid a ban on headscarves in Turkish universities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"That ban has opened us up to the world", he says, before bemoaning what he calls "the breakdown of morality" in the West. "All Western youngsters think about is having fun, good cars, and girls," he states. Run by an Islamic-rooted government, today's Turkey meanwhile strikes him as capable of repeating the successes of the early Ottoman Empire. "Our ancestors worked to bring peace via the values of 'true Islam' -- no forced conversions, only a good example," he says. "Look at Turkey today: leading talks between Israel and Syria, for no reason other than to see peace spreading around us."
Coinciding with the growth of conservative political parties, the rapid rise of industrial Anatolia has attracted widespread attention, not least because its apparent combination of piety and worldly success contradicts a perception held by many Westerners' and westernized Turks.
Highlighting the recent trend in Anatolia, one Berlin-based think-tank titled its 2005 study of the wealthy Anatolian city of Kayseri "Islamic Calvinists," a reference to the German sociologist Max Weber's theory that capitalism sprang from Protestantism. "Economic success has created a social milieu in which Islam and modernity co-exist comfortably," the European Stability Initiative (ESI) concluded. "It is the Anatolia shaped by these values that is now pressing its case to join the European Union."
A sociologist in Konya, a conservative city 500 miles west of Gaziantep, Yasin Aktay agrees that the growth of conservative capital has changed religious life-styles. "Frugality has been replaced by what you could call 'comfortable' religiosity," he says. "Consumerism used to be seen as extravagance. Now, owning a big house isn't a luxury, it's a display of [God's] blessings."
A doctor in Islamic theology whose spare parts factory in Konya now has an annual turnover of US$50 million, Huseyin Ciftci has seen the transformation closer to home. "Look at my family: two brothers married to Europeans," he says. "Just 20 years ago, that would have been out of the question around here."
Yet ESI's talk of "Islamic Calvinism" pushes it dangerously close to the cliché it seeks to correct -- of an Anatolia united in its religious conservatism.
That is far from true. While Konya and Kayseri have long been strongholds of political Islam, both Gaziantep and the western Anatolian textile hub Denizli have traditionally voted for secularist parties. If AKP won 51percent of Gaziantep's votes at general elections last July, it is because "people here vote with their pockets," says Murat Ozguler, owner of an ultra-chic pastry shop in the city centre.
Saban Copuroglu, head of a business association in Kayseri with close ties to the AKP, casts the issue differently. "Where is Sabanci from; where is Tuncay Ozilhan from?" he asks, referring to one Turkey's prominent entrepreneurial families, and the owner of the country's biggest brewery. "Kayseri. If they are conservative then, yes, we are conservative too."
The key to the transformation of the Turkey's heartland is implicit in his words. In the past, Anatolian businessmen went to Turkey's industrialized western regions to make money. Now they stay put.
The Boydak family is the best example of this. Kayseri-based owners of Turkey's two biggest furniture companies, with a turnover of US$2.5 billion, the family decided earlier in July not to move the company's headquarters to Istanbul.
Owner of a factory near Gaziantep that exports cooking oil across the Middle East, Erhan Sayin has faced a similar decision. "Turkey's best olives are on the Aegean coast," he explains. "But I want to benefit my hometown -- I love Turkey, but I love Gaziantep above all."
Perhaps the biggest factor in Anatolia's economic transformation was a trend toward the decentralization of the Turkish economy, especially in the financial sector. The trend began under Turgut Ozal, who served as Turkey's prime minister for most of the 1980s. Yet, while he began the process that AKP is continuing today, rampant inflation encouraged Turkey's banks to cleave closer to the state. The financial sector only recently became coming out of its shell. "Until the 2001 banking crisis, banks didn't need to get off their backsides to make money," remembers Deniz Gokce, a Gaziantep-born economist. "They got rich buying and selling government securities at 90% interest. They were closing down regional branches left, right and center."
With government finances in better order today than at any time in Turkey's recent history, and interest rates down to 13 percent in 2006, banks had to start doing what banks are supposed to do: lend. All the sector leaders now set aside roughly 20 percent of their balance sheets for small-business loans. The stronghold of SMEs, Anatolia has jumped on the change. In Gaziantep, commercial loans rose from US$450 million in 2004 to US$3 billion last year.
"In the past, only state banks gave loans, and that depended on political contacts", says Deniz Gokce. "Now, capital is available to everybody. Getting a letter of credit is all it takes for a small tradesman to become a fully-fledged exporter."
Small wonder Kayseri considered applying to the Guinness Book of Records in 2004 for laying the foundations of 101 new factories in one day.
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.