Monday, 12 October 2009

Rhetoric and Reality: The AKP's Liberal Vision

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 18 of the Turkey Analyst) 

In landmark speeches, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül have celebrated Turkey’s multicultural diversity, and declared that the state is to defer to societal pluralism. The liberal discourse departs from the tradition of statism, but its credibility is undermined by the government’s illiberal policies. And the “mosaic” of Turkey is  far removed from the ideals of tolerance evoked by the rhetoric of Erdoğan and Gül.That represents another, major impediment to the realization of the liberal vision.

BACKGROUND: The preservation of the omnipotence of the state has been the preeminent article of faith of the Turkish political elite ever since the founding of the republic. The strength, indeed survival of the state was believed to require a homogenous nation. The expressions of societal heterogeneity – ethnic, religious and social – have consistently been perceived as threats to the dominance exerted by the state and as such dreaded by the holders of state power. In a landmark speech in parliament that reassembled two weeks ago, President Abdullah Gül introduced a novel approach at the highest level of the state. Gül made the case for a liberal approach that heralds a departure from traditional statism, at least in rhetoric: “It is contrary to the very nature of a democratic state to cast what is diverse in the same mould and to subject those who are different to treatment as the other”, Gül declared. The president went on to remind his parliamentary audience that “a state that is fearful of differences will not be able to attain the modernity that Atatürk had set as a goal.”

In a subsequent speech delivered at his party’s congress, AKP leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan further expounded the liberal vision proposed by the AKP and supported by the president: Celebrating cultural diversity and Turkey as a “mosaic”, Erdoğan enumerated fourteen names of historical and cultural standing that summarize Turkey’s cultural heritage, despite – or indeed because, as Erdoğan underlined – they all appeal to different constituencies. Among those enumerated was the prominent Islamic thinker Said-i Nursi and Nazım Hikmet, the communist writer revered by the Turkish left. Although Said-i Nursi and Nazım Hikmet were worlds apart in every other imaginable respect, they did share the fate of having been persecuted by the Kemalist regime. It was only recently that his citizenship, of which he had been stripped after he was forced to flee the country, was posthumously restored to Nazım Hikmet. Erdoğan vowed to transcend differences, and to ensure that those who express Turkey’s ethnic and cultural diversity are no longer subjected to state oppression.

Nazim Hikmet

The embracive discourse adopted by Erdoğan is in line with the AKP’s ambition, on evident display since the party was founded, to establish itself as the preeminent force of the centre in Turkish politics. Indeed, the AKP has successfully laid claim to the ideological terrain of not only liberalism but of social democracy as well, reaching beyond its core of Islamic conservatism.

Above all, the liberal discourse serves to impress that the AKP is on the right side of history, in tune with the aspiration to attain modernity. It is a rhetoric that further legitimizes the party’s hold on power – concurrently delegitimizing the nationalist opposition – and which gives a boost to AKP’s self-confidence. In similar fashion, Kemalism had once enjoyed modernist/progressive legitimacy as the standard bearer of Enlightenment civilization. Yet, it was to be an unfulfilled promise, as the dominant strain of Kemalism soon evolved into a conservative statism more concerned with securing the omnipotence of the state – in the process colluding with religious conservatism – than with pursuing any particular ambitions of enlightenment. There is reason to fear that the liberalism of the AKP can end up as a similarly unfulfilled promise. Although it seems to hold out the prospect of an enlightened evolution of state and society, Islamic conservatism displays semi-authoritarian inclinations as well.

As political scientist Ahmet İnsel recently remarked, the AKP has yet to make up its mind about the state, whether it is going to dismantle the edifice of state authoritarianism bequeathed by the military junta of the 1980s – which would require a comprehensive constitutional reform – or if it is going to employ it in the service of its own, particular ideological agenda. In fact, the discrepancy between the liberal rhetoric of the AKP and some of its policies is striking. The promise of respecting diversity is belied by the government’s attempt to secure full control of the realm of the media. (See February 27 and September 14, 2009, issues of the Turkey Analyst) Nor does the AKP live up to the standard set by President Abdullah Gül in his speech to parliament, according to which those who are different are not be subjected to treatment as “the other”. The evidence that those who seek employment and advancement in the bureaucracy are increasingly required to conform to certain, religious norms – such as participation in the prayers and that spouses wear the headscarf – is on the contrary accumulating, as sociologist Binnaz Toprak  among others have showed (See January 30, 2009 issue of the Turkey Analyst). The portion of the population not conforming to  religious conservatism is indeed in the process of being marginalized, of being treated as “the other”, rather than embraced.

IMPLICATIONS: The AKP’s celebration of cultural multitude and tolerance is insufficiently sustained by political and bureaucratic practices. But it is also poorly rooted in societal realities. According to Fehmi Koru, an influential commentator with close ties to the leadership of the AKP, “ethnic differences and the existence of an assortment of views in the country are no longer divisive; they have instead become unifying”, as a result of the speech of Prime Minister Erdoğan. However, as many other commentators have remarked, Erdoğan has painted a picture of a Turkey that ought to exist, rather than describing the existent Turkey.

Indeed, several recent surveys have suggested that Turkey has to all intents and purposes ceased to be imagined as a shared community. (See Turkey Analyst, July 3, 2009) Contempt for and intolerance toward “the other” is widespread. The vast majority of the inhabitants of Turkey refuse to share neighborhood with atheists, with those who hold different beliefs in general. The dogmatic secularists abhor the sight of women in headscarf and don’t want them anywhere near their neighborhoods, while conservatives don’t tolerate such “permissiveness” as liberal women wearing shorts.

Although Prime Minister Erdoğan honored Pir Sultan Abdal, the medieval poet that is an icon of the Alevi minority in his celebration of Turkey’s multicultural mosaic, Pir Sultan Abdal – indeed like every other figure named by Erdoğan – remains contested outside his own constituency, and the Alevi creed is fiercely despised by the Sunni majority. The communist Nazım Hikmet is hated by the nationalist right.  To secularists, Said-i Nursi is a symbol of Islamic reaction. Turkey suffers from a lack of common language: as has been noted by political scientist Fuat Keyman, lacking such a language, “we cannot negotiate our differences and establish the norms that are necessary for securing our concord as a commonwealth”. And historical experience offers less guidance in the efforts to nurture societal bonds than what is assumed by those – Islamic conservatives and liberal intellectuals – who regard the republican, Kemalist era as an aberration, as a parenthesis of intolerance.

Rejecting the Kemalist attempt to oppress diversity, conservatives and liberals seek inspiration in what is supposed to have been the Ottoman experience of tolerance. Typically, Abdullah Gül has stated that “The Ottoman caliphate had enough confidence that it didn’t mind Kurds and Christians. There was no religious hatred in Anatolia. All the violence was a problem of the republican period.” Gül’s attribution of “all the violence” to the republican period is problematic, since it helps sustain an illusion, that it was the republican, homogenizing endeavor that introduced intolerance and that closing that parenthesis will enable Turkey to more or less effortlessly reconnect to its pre-republican, tolerant heritage.

Yet, societal relations in the Ottoman Empire – between Muslims and non-Muslims and between Sunni Muslims and Alevis – were marked more by mutual contempt and fear than by any universal religious-cultural understanding and tolerance. The Ottoman realm grouped a plurality of ethnicities and religious denominations, of parallel societies, but was by definition itself never any society. Similarly, Turkey of today displays a multitude of identities – pluribus – but is deficient on a sense of unity that recognizes the right of “the other” to be different: “E pluribus Unum” is far from being anywhere near the current Turkish reality. The radicalism of that liberal vision in the Turkish context needs to be properly appreciated.

CONCLUSIONS: Indeed, liberalism would represent a more profound departure from tradition than what Kemalism in fact did. State authoritarianism was not a novelty introduced by Atatürk; it was in part an Ottoman heritage.  Kemalism certainly took statism to new heights and it did break with tradition  when it embarked on nation-building. Yet, although it was hostile to ethnic aspirations, Kemalist statism refrained from confronting the conservative worldview of the dominant, Sunni Muslim culture. The persistence of religiously motivated intolerance toward “the other” bears testimony to the Kemalist appeasement of conservatism. The notion of liberalism, on the other hand, challenges the entrenched intolerance that is common to secularists and conservatives alike.

The liberalism of the AKP, indeed very much in the image of the secularism of Kemalism, is at best incomplete, at worst insincere. But the liberal discourse has nevertheless the merit of holding up a mirror to society: Celebrating diversity and acknowledging that the state has a duty to defer to the pluralism of the society serves, whether deliberately or unwittingly, as an invitation to society to examine its values and certitudes. Illiberal government practices inevitably undermine the credibility of the AKP’s liberal discourse. Yet, what ultimately makes democratization elusive is the fact that Turkey the “mosaic” is far removed from the ideals of tolerance evoked by Erdoğan.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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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.


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