BACKGROUND: The bloody attack against the French journal Charlie Hebdo has like no other previous incident of international terrorism reverberated in Turkey. Turkey’s own domestic political situation has formed the backdrop to the public discussion that the massacre in Paris has triggered. Nothing similar happened after for example 9/11. And that is not a coincidence. What provided the context for the intense Turkish debate these days is the policies of Islamization at home of the government of Justice and Development Party (AKP) – which are being pursued alongside an Islamist imperial foreign policy that cooperates with Islamist groups, regardless of whether these are “moderate” or radical.
In the West, the AKP was until very recently believed to be the perfect example that supposedly demonstrated the compatibility of Islamism and democracy, and the party consequently benefited from the support of the West. Now, even experienced Turkey experts in the West appear puzzled by the AKP’s change, which to them has something “mysterious” about it.
However, there was never any “mystery” about the AKP for critical academics and journalists in Turkey. Ever since the AKP was founded, they have pointed out that the party viewed democracy only as a rhetorical tool, and that the mission of the AKP was to found a new regime. What has happened during recent years has amply demonstrated that these predictions are now on the verge of being realized.
The regime that the AKP is constructing certainly deserves to be defined as “new.” However, a proper understanding of the rise of the Islamists requires that their ascent be put in the right historical context, and that the true nature of the old Turkish regime be appreciated. Turkey’s Islamization has a long prehistory; the seeds were sown during the decades that preceded the AKP’s advent to power.
The first era of the Turkish republic – the years between 1923 and 1946 – was marked by the radical modernization of the Kemalist “revolution.” During this period a relatively independent and balanced foreign policy was pursued. The period ended because the ruling elite of Turkey took the decision to join the Cold War as eager champions of anti-communism. The Turkish bourgeoisie sought American and Western protection against the Soviet Union. Communists and other leftist groups were identified as the main threat, and the security policies of the state were geared toward containing and ultimately crushing the left. Nationalism and religion were identified as the superior ideological tools in the battle against the left. It was precisely for this reason that the radicalism of the Kemalist revolution from then on was replaced with a nationalist-conservative state ideology.
It was thus not a coincidence that Turkey’s application to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the NATO – the institutions of the Western world order – occurred at the same time as the radicalism of Kemalist secularism was discarded, with the state instead actively encouraging religious instruction.
Nonetheless, starting from the 1960s, the left began to rise in Turkey. Leftist labor organizations were formed and a socialist party, The Labor Party of Turkey (TİP) had electoral success, getting fifteen members elected to parliament in the elections in 1965. Increasingly frequent strikes and manifestations of university students toward the end of the 1960s shook the ruling elite. The reply of the state to the rise of the left was twofold: one part of the strategy was to employ violence and the second part was to further encourage the growth of nationalist-conservative movements.
The military coup in 1971 succeeded only temporarily in halting the advance of the left. After 1974, labor and student movements were on the rise again, against which fascist paramilitary groups were deployed. The ensuing violence gave the military the excuse to stage yet another, this time much more brutal coup. The military junta that took power in 1980 set about to mercilessly crushing the left. Leftist activists were hanged and tortured to death, labor unions were shut down, their leaders were imprisoned and strikes were outlawed. The junta implemented a comprehensive program of social engineering. While every kind of leftist activity was banned, the doors of the state were flung wide open for religious fraternities – which from then on started to get entrenched in the state bureaucracy. In particular, the fraternity of Fethullah Gülen was to benefit from the opportunities offered by the state, starting to staff the bureaucracy with its sympathizers. Meanwhile, Islamic organizations in general and businesses received all kinds of encouragement from the state. In the absence of the left, Islamic parties could gain increasing electoral strength, culminating with the AKP’s victory in 2002.
IMPLICATIONS: The representatives of the AKP, and chief among them President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – who although the constitution requires him to be “impartial” nonetheless is unabashedly partisan – have lately taken to regularly using the term “New Turkey.” The new regime that is in the process of being constructed has two characteristics: It is bent on Islamization of the society and it is authoritarian.
Islamization does not mean that the AKP regime is about to institute Sharia law. Such a move would not make any sense in the context of the relatively advanced stage of Turkish capitalism and it is thus not to be expected. But it is nonetheless apparent that the AKP regime is engaged in a deliberate endeavor to make society more “religious.” The restrictions on the sale of alcohol, the discussions about birth control and abortion, the fact that the mixing of male and female students has been called into question and finally the changes that are being introduced in the education system all unequivocally point in this direction.
The Islamization of the education system is already comprehensive. The age at which students can be enrolled in imam-preacher schools has been lowered. All restrictions on wearing the headscarf have been removed; this allows for the early indoctrination of girls who are not at the age when they can make a decision based on their own free will. Mandatory instruction in Islam will begin from the first year of elementary school; while instruction in citizenship, democracy and human rights have been cut down, the time for religious instruction has been expanded. Finally, religious instruction – under the name “education in values” – has been introduced at preschool level. However, as a result of vocal public resistance, a recent proposal that was made by an Islamic teachers’ union to separate girls and boys in the schools failed to get the approval of the authorities – at least for the moment.
As to the second leg of the new regime, authoritarianism, it is of course not possible to claim that Turkey was not authoritarian before the AKP came to power, and that the AKP has dismantled a perfectly functioning democracy. Rather, this above all refers to the fact that the separation of powers has to all intents and purposes ceased to exist.
CONCLUSIONS: A new regime is being constructed in Turkey, but it is an altogether different question whether this regime is also going to be stable. That is less likely. The corruption charges continue to hurt the AKP, even though the parliamentary committee charged with investigating the corruption charges, where the AKP holds the majority, last week voted against trying the four former cabinet ministers who were forced to resign after the corruption charges were leveled against them.
The struggle between the AKP and the Gülenists continue, and the latter refuse to yield, putting up a resistance using their cadres, media power and financial clout, and to a certain extent, the Gülenists have succeeded in hurting Erdoğan. Meanwhile, the outcome of the Kurdish issue remains fraught with uncertainty. And the economic signals – inflation, unemployment figures and the current account deficit – signal that rougher times are ahead for the AKP.
Perhaps most important is that there are signals that suggest that the political dynamics that surfaced during the Gezi protests in 2013 have far from disappeared. The protesters may have disappeared from the streets, but initiatives are being taken to give the demands and dynamics of the Gezi protests a political expression. If these initiatives are successful, a popular, anti-authoritarian opposition movement, coalesced around the defense of secularism and equal citizenship, will present itself.
What is clear is that rough days await the “new Turkey” and its regime, and that the present situation is pregnant with tumultuous political developments.
Dr. Fatih Yaşlı teaches at Abant İzzet Baysal University, Turkey. He is also a columnist of the Turkish daily Yurt. He has most recently published AKP, Cemaat, Sünni-Ulus – Yeni Türkiye Üzerine Tezler (AKP, Cemaat, Sunni-Nation – Theses on New Turkey)
(Image Attribution: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)