Friday, 20 June 2008

What Went Wrong With Turkey's Moderate Islamists?

Published in Articles

By Halil Magnus Karaveli (vol. 1, no. 9 of the Turkey Analyst) 

As the storms gather around the AKP, its rule is by all accounts likely to draw to a close. What went wrong with Turkey’s experiment of moderate Islamism? It is tempting for western observers to conclude that it was sabotaged by a supposedly autocratic, dogmatically secularist state establishment which is unwilling to surrender its positions of power. But the fatal mistake of the Islamists has precisely been to expect the seculars to accept surrender.

Judges of the Constitutional Court at Atatürk Mausoleum 

BACKGROUND: The decision of the Turkish constitutional court to cancel the constitutional amendments lifting the ban on the Islamic headscarf in the universities reveals how the court will decide in the closure case against the AKP, which stands accused of contriving to undermine secularism. With the ruling that the constitutional amendments lifting the headscarf ban were in breach of secular constitutional principles, the consensus developing in Turkey is that the party’s closure has become a mere formality.

However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not backing down. Turkish political observers generally assume that the AKP will regroup under a new banner, and that Erdogan is planning to call an early general election once the decision of the constitutional court, due this summer, is made public. If, as expected, Erdogan is banned from party politics together with a number of other AKP parliamentarians, the prime minister will not be able to stand as a candidate for the successor party to the AKP. There are nevertheless no legal obstacles to his seeking reelection as an independent candidate. Once re-elected, Erdogan may even be called by president Abdullah Gül to form a new government. Consequently, the ban of the AKP will not in itself be a conclusive blow in the ongoing confrontation between Islamism and secularism.

The moderate Islamists expect the successor to the AKP to repeat the electoral success of July 2007, when the party received 47 percent of the votes. The AKP’s victory followed on the military’s intervention, via an e-memorandum, in the presidential election process in April 2007 and the subsequent decision of the constitutional court that stopped Abdullah Gül from being elected president in May that year. “The people will deliver the same answer this time”, Nihat Ergün, deputy chairman of the AKP group in the parliament, confidently told this author. No doubt, the AKP benefited from protest votes – not only from the religiously conservative voters – against the interference of the military and the judiciary, even if the extent of that protest is yet to be substantiated in detailed surveys. The interference of the General Staff in particular, may nevertheless have had a demobilizing effect on secular voters who at the time were mounting protests under the banner “No to Sharia, and No to a coup”. Yet it can not be assumed that history will repeat itself.

In opinion polls commissioned by the AKP itself after the chief prosecutor submitted the closure case to the constitutional court, 40 percent supported the ban of the party, while 50 percent opposed it. Other surveys indicate that the AKP has lost support, down to around 40 percent. Perhaps more ominously for the Islamists, a majority seems to hold the ruling party responsible for the political division of Turkish society into seculars and religious. In one recent poll conducted by A & G, a company renowned for having accurately predicted the results of several elections, 42,6 percent held the AKP responsible for the crisis while 34,7 percent put the blame on the secular opposition CHP, the Republican people’s party. 23,6 percent blamed the lifting of the headscarf ban. As that was the making of the AKP (together with the right-wing nationalist MHP), those blaming the policies of the AKP amount to a total of 66,2 percent. It may not be a coincidence that these figures – 66,2 percent versus 34,6 percent – correspond almost perfectly with the results of another recent survey, according to which 63 percent of the population of Turkey identified itself as modern religious, with strong secular sensibilities, while those identifying themselves as traditional religious amounted to 37 percent.

The percentage of those expressing concern about the fate of the secular order have risen by ten percentage points – to 50 percent – since 2007. The percentage reaches 72 percent among those with the highest education and 60 percent in urban areas.

These surveys suggest that the common international perception of the confrontation in Turkey, as one in which a religious population is seen as pitted against a secularist state establishment, is distorted. Secularism is in fact well implanted at the popular level, and secular sensibilities are far from being restricted to the state establishment or an urban, westernized  elite, as it is often depicted. Neither does such a simplistic dichotomy allow for a full appreciation of the ideological and power dynamics of the Turkish state.

The ban of the AKP will inevitably confirm the notion, entertained by western observers and anti-seculars in Turkey alike, of an autocratic, obstinately secularist establishment. It should however be recalled that that establishment, whatever its democratic shortcomings, was responsible for steering Turkey towards the EU, a process that preceded the coming to power of the AKP. The republican state establishment has by and large adjusted itself to the demands of the EU, acceding to the abolition of the state security courts and the subordination of the military to the government in the national security council. 

But above all, since the 1950s there is little support in the republic’s history for the presumption that the state establishment is dogmatically secularist, unable to accommodate religious demands, and unwilling to share power with religious orders. The Islamist community led by Fethullah Gülen has in fact come to control vast tracts of the state bureaucracy since the 1990s, notably in the Education and Interior ministries and the police force.

IMPLICATIONS: Given the history of accommodation of religious ideology – which has come to impregnate the educational system – and the record of power-sharing in the state bureaucracy with religious elites, the  judiciary’s intervention against the AKP is not easily explained by reference to a programmatic “kemalist” intransigence of the state. Ideologically, the republic has rather been characterized by conservatism during most of its history. 

Indeed, a confluence of the centre-right ideology of the state and moderate Islamism – and the inclusion of the ascendant religious bourgeoisie in the establishment coalition of the military and the secular business community – was not impossible to envisage. Between 2002 and 2007 the AKP notably received the support of the secular, mainstream media controlled by secular business groups. Neither has the military been uniformly opposed to the moderate Islamists, provided they are moderate. Former chief of staff General Hilmi Özkök helped to secure the AKP government during its first term in power, supporting the EU harmonization reforms and notably cracking down on opposition in the military ranks. And it seems that the incumbent chief of staff, General Yasar Büyükanit, sought an accommodation with the AKP after the row over the aborted presidential election the spring of 2007.

Influential secular, establishment commentators, while being increasingly alienated by the religious reorientation of the AKP, continued to issue calls for compromise as the Islamist government, emboldened by the resounding electoral victory in July 2007, chose confrontation with secularism. Ertugrul Özkök, editor-in-chief of the country’s largest daily, Hürriyet, is a case in point. Özkök gave full support to the AKP during its first term in government. He only began to criticize the Islamists when they persisted in electing a “religious” president instead of reaching an understanding with the opposition, which has been the common practice. When the AKP embarked on the road to a constitutional amendment over the headscarf issue, Özkök pleaded for a reasonable third way, for a solution that would have made it possible for girls wearing headscarves to enter university, while leaving the constitution un-amended. “If the constitution is amended, then suspicions will be aroused that what is sought after is a change of the nature of the regime, and not a practical solution to a problem”, warned Özkök, and several other members of the secular establishment media.

What has galvanized a secular opposition within the state and in civil society during the past year is the AKP’s unwillingness or inability to remain ideologically in the center, and the perception that the Islamists are not ready to share power with the seculars. Significantly, the insistence that the president should be “religious”, with a wife wearing the Islamic headscarf, confirmed long-standing indications that religiosity, measured by the headscarf, is going to be the criterion for advancement within the bureaucracy under the AKP. Indeed, it is already becoming established as such, to which the ongoing changes in the bureaucracy testify.

Professor Mesut Parlak, president of Istanbul University, recently remarked that twenty-four new university presidents are due to be appointed. “If they (the Islamists) get control over the universities, Turkey will be in dire straits”, Parlak warned. It is easy to dismiss such language as expression of the secularist unwillingness to surrender positions and power. But the fatal mistake of the AKP has precisely been to act in a way that has created the impression that the Islamists expect the seculars to accept surrender.

CONCLUSIONS: A substantial reason for the AKP government’s current troubles is that it underestimated the resolve of the secular parts of the state, and their support in society. Indeed, more fundamentally, the AKP is foundering because it failed to take the popular implantation of secular values in society into account. What ultimately makes the intervention of a part of the state establishment against the AKP politically viable is the fact that secularism is espoused by a majority of the population; what lends it certain legitimacy is the have-it-all attitude taken up by the Islamists. That does not make the closure of a party re-elected less than a year ago any more acceptable democratically. However, it does call for a better appreciation of the democratic deficiency of the exhortation to secular surrender.

Read 11022 times

Visit also





Joint Center Publications

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "The Rise and Rise of the Turkish Right", The New York Times, April 8, 2019

Analysis Halil Karaveli "The Myth of Erdogan's Power"Foreign Policy, August 29, 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell, A Road to Understanding in Syria? The U.S. and TurkeyThe American Interest, June 2018

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "Erdogan Wins Reelection"Foreign Affairs, June 25, 2018

Article Halil Karaveli "Will the Kurdish Question Secure Erdogan's Re-election?", Turkey Analyst, June 18, 2018

Research Article Svante E. Cornell "Erbakan, Kisakürek, and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey", Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, June 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell "The U.S. and Turkey: Past the Point of No Return?"The American Interest, February 1, 2018

Op-ed Svante E. Cornell "Erdogan's Turkey: the Role of a Little Known Islamic Poet", Breaking Defense, January 2, 2018

Research Article Halil Karaveli "Turkey's Authoritarian Legacy"Cairo Review of Global Affairs, January 2, 2018


The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


Sign up for upcoming events, latest news and articles from the CACI Analyst