Turkey, the end of Islamism with a human face

Turkey's AKP government has over a decade promised a new model of governance: progressive and reformist, Islamist and democratic. But a series of developments, including the expanding power of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is now exposing the party and its policies to ever-deeper scrutiny, says Kerem Oktem.

For eight decades after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the dominant ideology and political model was one of authoritarian secularism. In November 2002, the election victory of the Justice & Development Party (AKP) brought with it a double promise: to accommodate growing demands for inclusion (from both Turkey's majority Muslim population and the country's subordinated ethno-religious minorities), and to marry Turkey’s mainstream Islamist tradition and conservative political right with a programme of modernisation geared towards accession to the European Union.

The prospect of historic change struck a chord far beyond Turkey, especially among liberals in Europe and the United States but also across the middle east. The culture wars unleashed by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida and George W Bush's administration had both polarised world opinion and created longing for a new reconciliation between "Islam" and "democracy" (or more accurately, between Islamism and popular sovereignty). Many read in the Turkish result a sign of hope.

The AKP's ambition could hardly be exaggerated: to reconcile conservative religious values and modern politics in a way that resembled the achievement of Christian Democrat parties in late-19th century Europe when they carried Catholic voters and Christian values into democratic politics. The party, after several false starts and legal sanctions from a still confident and intimidatory state, had built a broad coalition of old Islamists, moderate nationalists and new liberals. It seemed a strong foundation for a change-making project inspired by the notion of “Islamism with a human face”.

The AKP's election breakthrough of November 2002 was the prelude to an exciting decade-long political roller-coaster ride where impressive economic growth, progressive legal reforms, empowerment of civil society and modernisation of infrastructure was counterbalanced by growing nationalism and chauvinism, spreading machismo and untamed neo-liberal restructuring. Amid many setbacks and frustrations, the ride more often than not seemed to lean towards the former. Now, however, Turkey’s politics appear to have come full circle. The country’s Kurds are even more antagonised than during the highpoint of the Kurdish war of the 1990; the non-orthodox Alevi community (which numbers at least 10 million) feels more disenfranchised even than under Kemalist dictatorship; and virtually all societal groups that diverge from the AKP’s notion of the "Islamic middle-class family" experience a sense of exclusion as a result of state attitudes.

It is a good time to take stock, and re-evaluate the actors and dynamics which have reshaped Turkey over these ten years. In particular, to ask: why has the human face of Islamism appears to have gone missing; why has the country’s political realm experienced a puzzling a loss of decency; what do these developments mean for the people of Turkey and the country’s overlapping neighbourhoods; and what are the available alternatives?

A discredited legacy

Turkey shares with other middle-east regimes a tradition of secular authoritarianism whose combination of rigorously controlled institutions, populist nationalism and repressive security systems enabled it to remain in power for decades. Turkey differed from countries such as Egypt, Syria or Tunisia not in the underpinnings of power, but in its state legacy and geostrategic environment. The Republic of Turkey, which had its foundations in the Ottoman empire's modernisation of the late 19th century, was able to avoid the colonial domination that was to shape the experience of modern Arab statehood. Moreover, at the onset of the cold war, Turkey's political elites were able to secure a place for the country in the western security alliance, thanks above all to its geographical proximity to western Europe and its status as a frontline state vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, this place facilitated the maintenance in Turkey of a semi-democratic hybrid regime which kept a balance between some socio-economic and ethno-religious groups while repressing and/or denying the existence of others (especially the Kurds, a middle-eastern nation with a long history of local statehood and a distinct literary tradition). The reality of the Armenian genocide, on which the relative religious homogeneity of modern Turkey as a Muslim majority state was built, was also denied.

At heart, Turkey over these decades was a deeply unjust society marked by profound ideological and ethno-religious divisions, which came to the fore particularly in the years of near civil war (as in the 1970s) and was then controlled by the extreme security state established after the coup d’etat of September 1980. By the early 2000s, however, the version of modernity projected by the Kemalist regime  - so-called after the state's founder, Kemal Atatürk - was looking anachronistic, reminiscent as it was of the leader-worship, mass events and orchestrated nationalist fervour of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany; while political and social developments in Turkey had massively undermined its claim to represent the country.

The Islamist movement, partly supported by the generals of the 1980 coup as a prophylactic against socialist infiltration, had matured significantly. The leading cadres within Turkey’s Milli Görüş (National View) movement, the mainstream Islamist tradition from whom the AKP's leading cadres hail, had come to embrace non-statist, globalised economic thinking and to accept the need to work within the parameters of the secular state. Islamic networks such as Fethullah Gülen’s HIzmet, which combined conservative social values with successful educational enterprises and trust-based business networks, facilitated the emergence of internationally successful industrial establishments in medium-sized towns and cities in the Anatolian heartlands. These flourishing “Anatolian tigers” in central Turkey - led by a new "Islamic bourgeoisie" whose hard work and focused business ambition even attracted the sobriquet "Islamic Calvinists" - created what Cihan Tugal calls a "passive revolution" which integrated Islamists into capitalism and municipal politics, thereby keeping radicalisation at bay.

The Kemalist model was also exposed by the dirty war against the Kurdish guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish civilian population, which by the 2000s had left more than 30,000 dead and up to 2 million Kurds internally displaced. The loss of legitimacy was shared: among a series of weak coalition governments, among the "deep state" that effectively co-opted them, and among the Kemalist modernisation project as a whole.

Thus, by the time the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey was over-ready for a change - and change it did. In a relatively short period, and at breakneck speed, the government embarked on an ambitious programme of legal and institutional reform. The prospect of accession negotiations with the European Union unleashed a frenzy of liberal initiatives: the enacting of a progressive civil code, the opening to scrutiny of the repressive institutions of the post-1980 era (including the Higher Education Council, devised to keep unruly universities under control, and the National Security Council, which did the same for the country's politics).

All vestiges of the ancien regime were open to consideration. The media brimmed with public debates about hitherto unspeakable taboos: from the repression of the Kurds and the marginalisation of Alevis to the denial of the many crimes against humanity which the Turkish nationalist modernisers committed in the dying days of the Ottoman empire and the early ones of the Turkish republic. This liberal moment was framed by high levels of economic growth and a tripling of GDP per capita, which allowed the government to reorganise public services and infrastructure. Significant portions of the public gained unprecedented access to healthcare, with visible results on public health (particularly in underprivileged areas like the Kurdish provinces). This aspect of neo-liberal adjustment came with better services and a more courteous public administration. 

A new balance

True, even at the time, there were signs of an undercurrent of religious chauvinism, and an element of Islamist "revenge" for the reprisals inflicted upon them throughout the republic (and particularly after the "mini-coup" of 1997). From 2005, the country witnessed an almost inexplicable nationalist backlash in which prominent liberal public intellectuals such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak were publicly assaulted and subject to a barrage of court cases. These campaigns of psychological warfare against Turkey's faint but vital liberal voice were supplemented by targeted violence whose victims included the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink (murdered in January 2007) and several Christian priests and missionaries.

The operations of the deep state, a remnant of Nato’s "stay behind" forces that went viral during the Kurdish war, had been supported (unknowingly or cynically) by parts of the secular establishment and the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The latter's efforts extended at times into a form of brinkmanship aimed at deposing the AKP government, preventing the AKP foreign minister Abdullah Gül from competing for the presidency, or even (via the constitutional court) attempting to shut down the governing party. All of these manoeuvres failed; though they did succeed in polarising the political space and galvanising support for the AKP government, which could rightfully accuse the Kemalist establishment of undemocratic conduct. They also opened the door to a direct popular election of the president.

There were other worrying signs. An amended anti-terror law in 2006 significantly expanded the definition of terrorism to make the expression of ideas that happen to be shared by terrorist organisations a punishable offence. At a stroke, demands for education in the Kurdish language or for regional autonomy became a security matter. In tactics reminiscent of Israel's tactics in the occupied Palestinian territories, Turkish security officers abused demonstrating children in Diyarbakir and other Kurdish cities and imprisoned them for minor offences like hurling stones or carrying placards with the insignia of the PKK. The legal attacks against pro-Kurdish parties and politicians - established tools of governance since their emergence in the 1990s - continued. In the late 2000s, a legal battle was unleashed upon the whole domain of Kurdish politics, with hundreds (and soon thousands) of Kurdish politicians, activists and employees of municipalities run by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) taken into detention, sometimes under humiliating circumstances.

A successful referendum initiative in September 2010 then broke the hegemony of Kemalist judges in the high courts and made possible the prosecution of the hitherto protected leaders of the 1980 coup. This fuelled the zeal of prosecutors close to the government in their undeclared war on the old establishment, which involved bringing charges against former and serving chiefs of the general staff and leading figures in the media and politics for alleged involvement in a series of (averted) coup attempts. Turkey’s history of military interventions made the accusations not unreasonable, and they helped the government to scare the military into full cooperation. Yet if the court cases against the BDP were aimed at marginalising the AKP’s main rival in the Kurdish provinces, those against the military and secularist figures were directed against the Kemalist establishment as such, not necessarily at any actual acts individuals might have engaged in. The ever-growing number of those detained, and the mounting incidents of half-baked evidence, secret witnesses, and (in line with Turkish judicial tradition) fantastic indictments, gradually eroded the legitimacy of the prosecutorial assault.

But prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government had been able - at least until the 2010 elections - to counterbalance such highhanded moves with more benign ones in other policy domains. TV and radio broadcasts in Kurdish were legalised, and Kurdish education gradually phased in. This led to multiple contradictions: as the first university degree programmes for Kurdish teachers began, for example, detained Kurdish politicians were charged for insisting on defending themselves in their mother tongue. This doesn't diminish the importance of the fact that Kurdish, denied its very existence throughout the entire history of the republic, is now a recognised subject in state schools and universities.

The court proceedings cannot be defined as anything but "exceptional justice". There is little doubt, though, that the Kemalist establishment (including the CHP) had been deeply implicated in dodgy dealings with the deep state to overthrow or at least weaken the ruling AKP. Turkey’s visibility in its neighbourhood, and its seemingly successful foreign-policy activism, also helped to convince a global audience that the AKP government was still engaging in a struggle to defend the popular will against the machinations of the authoritarian Kemalist establishment and the deep state.

An authoritarian shift

So, what changed after the 2010 elections, which returned the AKP to government for a third time and with almost half of the popular vote? Many secularists argue there was no such change: rather, that the cadres of this Islamist party had artfully manipulated the public in Turkey, the European Union and pretty much everybody in the world in order to subvert the military and then rule supreme. They now had the strength to fulfil their "real" motive, to create a sort of theocracy. Some liberals, and even more reflective Islamist actors, would make a different case, based on Lord Acton’s dictum that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Indeed, ten years in government is a long time.

Both explanations have a grain of truth, though the proponents of the first might recall that the secular establishment has played a major role in cornering the AKP elites and socialising them into the very exceptional use of force which the government and its supporters in the judiciary and bureaucracy is now engaged in. The flipside of the secularist explanation hence suggests that the Kemalist state has managed to shape the Islamists in its own image, turning them into the same kind of authoritarian modernisers and social engineers; the difference being that the core reference-points are now Islam, Ottomanism and neo-liberalism rather than Turkish ethno-nationalism. In the government's defence, its apologists proclaim that Erdoğan wants to attract the nationalist vote with hawkish policies in order to ensure his election as president, insinuating that he might become more moderate when that is achieved.

Geostrategy has also helped. Turkey happens to share borders with states that are vilified by the western security establishment. In the past, it was the Soviet Union; then Iran, followed by Iraq, and lately Syria. The United States needs Turkey as an ally in its middle-eastern policy, no matter what shape this policy may eventually take. It is not a good time to criticise Turkey - and thanks to geostrategy, the time never seems to be just right. The rebranding of Turkey as an economic powerhouse and model of Muslim democracy, professionally and aggressively conducted globally by civil-society organisations and pro-business Islamic networks, also remains potent. Turkey is still able to depict itself, albeit in a far less convincing way than before, as a model for the democratic transitions in the Arab world.

A political faultine

If the AKP government is now in more or less full control of the Turkish state, unconstrained by foreign-policy pressures, and able to benefit from a relatively well-performing economy, what exactly is it doing? The answer is that it is concentrating extreme power in the hands of the prime minister, and conducting remorseless policies without a modicum of balance. There are thousands of Kurdish activists and hundreds of university students in jail, who are by any definition political prisoners; they are joined by critical journalists who are often held on terrorism charges. The judiciary is cracking down on pretty much any individual who dares to question the legitimacy of "Islamism with a human face" and of Turkey's neo-liberal restructuring. Critical academics such as Büşra Ersanlı and Pınar Selek have been imprisoned or face charges. Some campuses, like that of the Aegean University in Izmir and now that of the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, are subjected to a state of emergency, where police snatch away protesting students and intimidate intervening faculty members.

The balancing-act between neo-liberal adjustment and redistribution was one of the great success stories of earlier AKP governments. Now that the economy is slowing, redistribution has become harder and industrial action more pronounced. Turkish Airlines is a showcase for intelligent management, brand consolidation and growth thanks to high levels of productivity. Yet working conditions are harsh, and when a few hundred employees staged a short strike earlier in 2012, all of them were dismissed (via SMS) after an angry intervention by Erdoğan. Istanbul’s skyline is slowly being destroyed by what will soon be called the Turkish property bubble; the prime minister himself, usually not responsible for urban planning, is pushing through plans for the largest mosque in Turkey on a hilltop overlooking Istanbul, and for an ill-advised plan to "beautify" the city’s heart around Taksim Square. All of these projects have been finalised behind closed doors, with no regard to public consultation.

Erdoğan’s is a sad story, especially in relation to the promise he represented as a child of poor immigrants to Istanbul who rose to the top echelons of power via the municipality of greater Istanbul, along the way defying the Kemalist establishment and enduring a jail term. Now, he has become a choleric figure who lectures the world about all and sundry; plays down the Armenian genocide (while accusing China of the same crime against the Uyghur people and maintaining cordial relations with Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, whose regime is accused of genocide in Darfur); lambasts Israel (rightly) for its brutal occupation regime, while failing to apologise for the killing of thirty-four Kurdish civilians in an airstrike near the village of Roboski; tells Turkish women how many children to have (three) and threatens to rescind relatively liberal abortion laws.

That socially conservative politics would eventually close in on the female body and, as Deniz Kandiyoti suggests, attempt a "masculinist restoration", is probably not so surprising. That Erdoğan now even seeks to have a popular TV series on Suleiman the Magnificent banned, because it depicts the Ottoman Sultan as a man concerned more with his harem than with conquest, however, is. Could Erdoğan be approaching the threshold to ludicrousness?

A contested hegemony

The hegemonic aspect of Turkey's new governing system is a case of the phenomenon different from Egypt's, where Andrea Teti and colleagues view Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as non-hegemonic actors that consequently face widespread protests that contest their power-base. The foundations of post-Kemalist hegemony run deeper, as they have been built gradually and in a more deliberate manner. In ten years, the AKP and sympathetic Islamic networks have succeeded in educating a new generation of administrators, judges and foreign-policy experts in private schools and new universities, who approximate in mindset and persuasion to what Erdoğan calls a "pious youth". The part of the population which has benefited from the AKP's economic growth and redistribution policies is incomparably larger than in Egypt; and Turkey is much richer now than it was in 2002-03.

The infinitely self-confident Erdoğan is not without possible challenge, however - though not from the main opposition party, which is failing to unite its two main factions into a progressive social-democrat coalition (the division is between a nationalist and anti-Kurdish Kemalist establishment, and a more liberal left-wing faction with a strong Alevi component). The challenge, rather, comes from two other sources. The first could emerge from within the Islamist movement and the Islamic networks, which have played a key role in mobilising their constituencies for the AKP in the preceding elections. Many people here regard "decency" as not (or not exclusively) a matter of piety and modest dress. Some wonder whether their longstanding struggle really was for a Turkey with more mosques, shopping-malls and high-speed trains, ruled by an autocratic dictator who gasps for even more power than he already holds. The extent to which they will be able to revoke the implicit agreement between Islamists not to compromise a fellow brother, and to find a voice in the AKP (or beyond) will be decisive for the future of Turkey’s politics and of Erdoğan himself.

The second challenge may come from Turkey's current president, the much less divisive Abdullah Gül, who enjoys considerably more approval for a second term in office than Erdoğan does in his bid for the presidency. The two are now in open conflict over a wide range of policy issues. This struggle will unfold over the next year.

In the meantime, Turkey veers ever closer to an abyss of multiple crises on different geographical scales: in its neighbourhood, in Syria, in its own Kurdish regions, in its higher-education system, its courtrooms, and in its inner cities. If there is anything like "path dependence", the possibility of Erdoğan returning to the politics of decency, with which he initially captured the hearts and minds of the electorate in Turkey, can be precluded. For now, Turkey’s experiment of "Islamism with a human face" seems to have come to a tentative end.

That this is happening at the same time as the Muslim Brotherhood's grip on Egypt seems to be slipping, and unrest is mounting in Tunisia, might offer some hints about the future of this ideology. Olivier Roy’s repeated insistence that Islamism is nearing its end might still be unfounded. The Turkish experience, however, suggests that its neo-liberal, pro-American version cannot provide credible or sustainable answers to the needs of complex modern societies, and certainly not to the demands for social justice and inclusive governance.

About the author

Kerem Oktem is an Open Society Fellow of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University, a senior associate of St.Antony's College and currently Mercator IPC Fellow at Sabanci University Istanbul. He is one of the co-authors of the recently published booklet, Freedom in Diversity. Ten Lessons for Public Policy from Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the United States. He is also the author of Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989 (Zed Books, 2011) and co-editor (with Ayse Kadioglu and Mehmet Karli) of Another Empire? A Decade of Turkey's Foreign Policy Under The Justice and Development Party (Bilgi University Press, 2012). His website is here

Kerem Oktem's earlier books include (co-edited with Kalypso Nicolaidis & Othon Anastasakis), In the long shadow of Europe: Greeks and Turks in the Era of Postnationalism (Brill, 2009); and (co-edited with Celia J Kerslake & Philip Robins) Turkey's Engagement with Modernity (Palgrave, 2010). He is the principal researcher of the British Academy-funded project on Contemporary Islam in the Balkans

Read On

Kerem Oktem, Ayse Kadioglu & Mehmet Karli, Another Empire? A Decade of Turkey's Foreign Policy Under the Justice and Development Party (Istanbul Bilgi University Press, 2012)

Kerem Oktem, Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989 (Zed Books, 2011).

Kerem Oktem

Kerem Oktem, Kalypso Nicolaidis & Othon Anastasakis, eds., In the long shadow of Europe: Greeks and Turks in the Era of Postnationalism (Brill, 2009)

Angry Nation

Celia J Kerslake, Kerem Oktem & Philip Robins, eds., Turkey's Engagement with Modernity (Palgrave, 2010)

Republic of Turkey, ministry of foreign affairs

Gareth Jenkins Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? (Palgrave, 2008)

Foreign Policy

Erik J Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History (IB Tauris, 2004)

The Turkey Analyst

Cihan Tugal, Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism (Stanford University Press, 2009)

More On

Kerem Oktem is research fellow of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University. His latest book is Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989 (Zed Books, 2011). His website is here

Kerem Oktem's earlier books include (co-edited with Kalypso Nicolaidis & Othon Anastasakis), In the long shadow of Europe: Greeks and Turks in the Era of Postnationalism (Brill, 2009); and (co-edited with Celia J Kerslake & Philip Robins) Turkey's Engagement with Modernity (Palgrave, 2010). He is the principal researcher of the British Academy-funded project on Contemporary Islam in the Balkans