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Leviathan in the lure of Mammon: limits of political Islam in Turkey

Turkey's political leadership has created a distinctive form of rule. But growing strains now make it harder than ever to sustain the model, says Kerem Öktem.

Kerem Oktem
26 April 2014

The news from Europe's eastern borderlands has been worrying to say the least. Whether in the Ukraine, the western Balkans and even in the European Union member-state Hungary, hopes for liberal democracy are being countered by authoritarian power arrangements. Western-style liberal democracy is also losing its appeal elsewhere in the world, from India to China, while Putin-style despotism ("Putinismo", as Timothy Garton Ash calls it), is gaining traction.

Nowhere are these trends more apparent than in Turkey. A hopeful candidate for EU accession only a few years ago, the country now seems to be caught in a vicious cycle of polarised politics, Islamic conservatism and authoritarian governance. The conflict is between a political leader and his followers, who see the future of Turkey's social contract in Hobbesian terms, and everybody else, who feel they have no part in this project.

Yet is it conceivable that Turkey can be remade in the image of the 17th-century English political philosopher's most bracing work? How probable is the coming of an "Islamic Leviathan" in a country so diverse and strategically important for its overlapping neighbourhoods, ranging from Europe to the middle east, from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea? Can a Hobbesian-style social contract be imposed when Turkey's majority, in fact considerably more then 50%, seems to be disagreeing with many of its core requirements?

The Islamic Leviathan

Where answers are to be found, they must lie in consideration of the character of the political leadership that has ruled Turkey for almost twelve years. The leading cadres of the Justice & Development Party (AKP) and its chairman, Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have their roots in Turkey's mainstream Islamist current, the Milli Görüş movement. Since coming to power in November 2002, they have attempted to create a synthesis of traditional Islamist ideals rooted in Sunni-Islamic state tradition with elements of capitalist modernity: the dynamics of globalisation, neoliberal growth, and Turkey's continued membership in the western security alliance.

The Islamist part of the synthesis is applied through a range of political goals: the desire to realise Turkey's return to the Muslim world (thus annulling what are considered the destructive effects of the Kemalist revolution), a quest for leadership of Muslim countries inspired by the Ottoman heritage, as well as classical state-led developmentalism. Crucially, these goals also include a commitment to legitimate "just rule" and a form of social contract that (surprisingly) has much in common with some of the liberal and statist elements of Thomas Hobbes's political theory as manifested in his Leviathan.

This synthesis of a traditional Islamist agenda with a liberal perspective created conditions of growth and the inclusion of large segments of the electorate that would otherwise have been wary of an Islamist political course. The synthesis also incorporated a largely opportunistic flirtation with the European Union. During the first five years of the AKP government, the prospect of EU membership induced several relatively liberal reforms -  from a progressive civil code to a weakening of the racialist foundations of the Turkish republic. These, however, served to obfuscate the fundamental political vision behind the AKP's accumulation of ever greater power. Now that the government is suffering increasing pressure from critics within Turkey and from abroad, this vision has become much clearer. In response, the prime minister has outlined his understanding of the nature of power and of a covenant with those he rules in the starkest of terms.

Erdoğan's view of the world may not be deeply ideological. But it has been shaped both by these deeply held Islamist considerations and in the context of Turkey's Manichean political struggles, where influential forces (the military, bureaucracy, judiciary and mainstream media) have often colluded in cynical deals to maintain in power the republic's Kemalist guardians. Erdoğan's party and he himself have often been the target of such manipulative power-plays - for instance when the election of Erdoğan's ally Abdullah Gül to Turkey's presidency was threatened in 2007 because Gül's wife wears a headscarf, or when the AKP narrowly avoided being banned by the constitutional court in 2008.

The dark theatre of Turkey's politics has accelerated since the massive street-protests  of Istanbul's Gezi Park in June 2013, and Erdoğan has been interpreting the shift as a fight for survival under conditions approaching civil war. Under these conditions of near anarchy, the "sovereign" - to put it in Hobbesian terms - is required to prevent a "war of all against all". Erdoğan's public speeches prior to the local elections in March 2014 were saturated with references to the "willpower of the nation", thus adding a dash of Rousseau, while his supporters emphasised his legitimacy as a just and legitimate leader. The AKP's qualified election victory - it received 43%-48% of the national vote, depending on how votes are counted - allows him to claim, slightly disingenuously, that a majority has consented to his rule and the minority will need to abide by the outcome.

In this arrangement, the sovereign has commanding rights: to do whatever he thinks necessary to maintain peace and to prevent discord, to prescribe the law (including in matters of honour) and be the judge in all cases, and to make war and peace. So, how much of a Hobbesian is Erdoğan? If not yet crystallised in a de jure arrangement, these appear to be the principles that inform Erdoğan's speeches and decisions at least since Gezi. His party has reneged on a decade of reform and brought the judiciary under close government control (and Erdoğan has personally chided judges over rulings he disagreed with).

In the widely debated case of the government's ban on Twitter, Erdoğan scolded the president of the constitutional court for lifting the ban and described the verdict as against the national interest. Turkey has never formulated a clear casus belli with regard to Syria, yet Erdoğan pronounced that Turkey is in a state of war with its southeastern neighbour. The prime minister considers himself the defender of honour (albeit the principle might refer to different values than Hobbes's), particularly of Turkey's female citizens, whose right to abortion he has curtailed.  His insistence on "the values of the Turkish family" takes odd forms: even in the relatively humane endeavour of commiserating with a family who had just lost their child in an unfortunate accident, he advised the aggrieved father to beget three more children.

Many of Erdoğan's recent actions seem to be dictated more by personal whim than the rule of law, casting doubt on whether he can be considered a good sovereign even in his own terms.

A covenant for the Commonwealth?

The Leviathan, however, is about more than the rights of the sovereign. For it to be considered a commonwealth, it requires a covenant between the sovereign and the ruled, with the latter voluntarily giving up their right to govern themselves in exchange for legitimate rule. Erdoğan and his advisers pay lip service to a majoritarian form of democracy, and claim to despise aristocracy (which in Turkish terms is embodied in the "guardian state" of Kemalist provenance); the type of commonwealth they seem to prefer is, rather, a sort of monarchy. Yet even for a monarchic path, the majority's consent to the basic principles of the commonwealth is indispensable - both in Hobbesian and classic Islamic political theory. This raises the question to what extent conditions are favourable to such consent in a commonwealth governed by Sunni-Islamic principles and social conservatism.

The local elections in March give some insight. The ruling party treated them as a final stand against the forces of guardianship and the enemies of the national will, with the prime minister resorting to the full register of Islamist rhetoric and sectarian scorn. He decried his opponents as atheists and drunkards, appealed to the religious sentiment of Turkey's majority Sunni Muslim community, and lambasted the opposition for treating the pious majority as ignorant and backward (which, it must be said, some unfailingly do). The followers of the charismatic Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, whose opaque Hizmet movement turned against the government after a decade of mutually beneficial power-sharing, faced the accusation of "being worse than Shi'a" and threatened with "being driven out of their dens".

Erdoğan's frustration at his former ally may be excusable, his Shi'a reference is not. He is, after all, incriminating the members of the second largest tradition within the ummah, Shi'ism, from which Turkey's Alevi community and Syria's Alawis descend. To compound the insult, the prime minister publicly humiliated the mother of Berkin Elvan, who died after 269 days in coma as a result of wounds inflicted by a teargas capsule shot at him by the Istanbul police. Berkin was one of six young Alevis who were killed during the Gezi events or in their aftermath. Turkey's only substantial community that has escaped the prime minister's wrath are the Kurds. Political expediency demands that the languishing peace process between the state and the Kurdish nationalist movement cannot be allowed to endanger Erdoğan's survival.

These speeches and the fervent pre-election atmosphere suggest that the prime minister and his party are prepared to go to the bitter end in defence of power. Erdoğan trampled on every taboo of Turkish politics - especially the one on sectarianism - as he sought to unite the pious Sunni-Turkish mainstream behind him, while vying for additional support from the non-nationalist constituency of Turkey's Kurds. This "scorched-earth" election strategy secured the AKP around 45% (and ensured several disputed results wins in hotly contested areas such as Ankara and Antalya, as well as in Kurdish towns along the Syrian border) In the capital, vote-rigging and government intervention in the counting process may even have been a game-changer.

Even in the prime-minister's majoritarian understanding of democracy, this should not justify the belief that the elections represent a legitimate covenant of the "national will". It may be premature to say - as have a number of respectable pollsters and political actors - that the AKP in its current form and with this most polarising strategy has reached (and overstepped) the zenith of its power. But the view can't be dismissed, particularly since the elections took place under the relative comfort of a still growing economy.

Turkey's societal diversity is another obstacle in the way of establishing consent. True, the opposition is divided and has missed every single opportunity to turn the AKP's internal contradictions and weaknesses into political capital. Its main contender, the Republican People's Party (CHP) has failed to move beyond its heartlands in Turkey's western provinces and the Aegean coastal regions, where it also lost some municipalities to the nationalist right. Where it did pose a robust challenge to the incumbents, such as in Ankara and Istanbul, its candidates came from outside the party.

The fact remains, however, that around 55% of voters decided against the AKP. They include the country's secularists, social democrats and the left, and followers of the nationalist right. Alevis, who make up 15%-20% of society, feel increasingly affronted by anti-Alevi sentiment and the government's Sunni Muslim rhetoric. And despite strong approval for the AKP's relatively pro-Kurdish policy, more than 35% of Kurds in the southeast cast their votes for the Kurdish national movement the Peace & Democracy Party (BDP), which won most of the region's cities. The BDP's support for Erdoğan is contingent on a resolution of the Kurdish issue along the lines of a federal arrangement and equal citizenship rights, which would be a formidable challenge even for a very strong government.

Several other constituencies are wary of Erdoğan's rule, including a growing number of environmental movements that have flourished wherever new dams, hydroelectric power-plants and nuclear-reactors are threatening the livelihoods of locals. Thousands of these projects are now being planned and constructed, and local resistance has been robust even amid collusive attempts by private investors and security forces to suppress any form of dissent. The hundreds of thousands who protested at Gezi Park and many more beyond the vicinity of Istanbul's Taksim Square went far beyond white-collar employees and students, and their recent politicisation adds yet another obstacle in the way of Erdoğan's search for majority consent.

In comes Mammon

Both in Hobbes's Leviathan and in Sunni state theory, consent to the sovereign is predicated upon provisions of just rule (including a measure of redistributive justice). In Turkey, the AKP government has overall been able to guarantee the latter, though it has also overseen growing income inequality and the emergence a fragile, debt-laden new middle class.  

This mixed picture is becoming even more problematic for the sovereign. A stream of media leaks following the aborted corruption investigations of 17 December 2013 has revealed the AKP's operational logic  and exposed political-economic arrangements that are scarcely reconcilable with the principles of justice. The emerging picture in Turkey is of a narrow oligarchic network of power characterised by political cronyism, where a select circle of businessmen, media bosses and political advisers ensure that political power and economic opportunities created by public tenders mutually reinforce each other. Such deals between political and economic power-brokers are unexceptional under the conditions of neoliberalism, but they undermine the symbolical foundations of just rule.

Oligarchy, the "misliked" equivalent of aristocracy in Hobbes's theory of the commonwealth, is probably the least stable arrangement of political power. More importantly, its presence hints at a grave flaw in the Islamist project: its vulnerability vis-à-vis the dynamics of the market - or the forces of Mammon - which, in the absence of strong institutions and the rule of law, tend to operate according to the logic of aggravated self-interest.

The last few years of Turkey's political economy have indeed been a monument to the supremacy of avarice. From the privatisation of water resources, forests and coastal areas to rent-generating urban-development projects, the logic of rent-maximisation has ruled supreme. Infrastructure projects like the third bridge over the Bosphorus, the location of a third airport, and the city's transformed skyline bear testimony to both the imperatives of oligarchic wealth-generation and the absence of the rule of law.

Neither Erdoğan's social conservatism and his communitarian reflexes nor his resort to the national interest can conceal this colonisation of the Islamist project by crony capitalism. If one thing is certain in the world of capitalism, it is that after an impressive boom comes bust. Once the bubble of Turkey's debt-fuelled property boom bursts, redistribution through social services will become impossible to finance. The cultural emptiness that has been created by the reduction of public space to the unholy trinity of shopping-centres, fancy new mosques, and disconnected residential areas, however, is likely to outlive the looming bust. The same is true for the AKP's trial by capitalism. Political Islam seems for now to have surrendered its lure to mammon.

The limits of Leviathan

Among the three different types of commonwealth he considers, Hobbes prefers the monarchy, though he concedes that monarchy without consent translates into tyranny. Erdoğan, embattled by his former allies and growing public discontent, has entrusted his future, knowingly or unknowingly, to oligarchs in the economy and media and among his immediate circle of advisers. But in conditions of contestation, oligarchy is the least defendable power arrangement and will almost certainly have to incorporate elements of tyranny. Such are the decisions to ban Twitter and YouTube, the calls for a nationally controlled internet, the attempts to dominate the media and the judiciary. The project for an executive presidency, which Erdoğan and parts of his party are now seeking in anticipation of the presidential elections in August 2014, points in the same direction. These are signs not of strength but of a leader in dire straits.

But tyranny too is not a stable form of government, at least not in the medium run. And it is not what Erdoğan and the Justice & Development Party initially set out to establish. They were earnest in their quest to atone for the injustices that the secular-nationalist Kemalist regime had inflicted upon Turkey's pious Muslims, its Kurds, other non-Turkish ethnicities and its Christian communities. They embarked on a project inspired by political Islam that sought alternatives to western liberalism and its stepchildren, European and American colonialism and racism. In power, however, they have been carried away by premature illusions of grandeur and Ottomanist fantasies of regional leadership.

Those fantasies were welcome tools to lift the spirits of a people humiliated by its ontological insecurity vis-à-vis the west, of which Turkey's perennial wait at the doors of the European Union is the most symbolic manifestation. Erdoğan and his party were confident that their Leviathan would be a just sovereign which the vast majority of the people of Turkey would endorse. Yet they failed to read the signals from a majority that may be less organised and committed as the AKP base, but which is unlikely to be cowed into consent, unless under conditions of unfettered tyranny (which in any case can impose only obedience, not consent).

In terms of this political project of sovereignty, Erdoğan and his party have failed, both at home and abroad. The success of the AKP growth-engine was made possible by the synthesis of political Islam with global capitalism, firm membership in the western security community, and commitment to the European Union. Unravelling this synthesis will require deepening authoritarianism, which in turn will undermine the foundations of economic advancement and alienate the many votes cast for stability and growth.

This does not mean that Erdoğan cannot be elected president or that the AKP may not stay in government for some time to come. It does mean, however, that political Islam in Turkey has failed to create a commonwealth based on the voluntary consent of a large majority of the ruled. The AKP could probably have created a new Islamic Leviathan had it stayed on a more democratic path. With the current aristocratic or monarchic option (i.e. oligarchy or autocracy), Erdoğan can only fail to acquire consent from many of Turkey's constituent groups, which for existential or ideological reasons or out of self-interest stand against him, and without whom any social contract remains untenable.

Erdoğan may still think of himself as a just sovereign in the Sunni-Islamic tradition. But his commonwealth is a Hobbesian fantasy-world, in which even the minimal requirements for consent are not met, the threat of tyranny is ever-present, and where Leviathan - whether Islamic or not - has become a growth-machine for the oligarchy.

In the absence of consent and short of full tyranny, no form of government can be stable. With some stretch of the imagination, this proposition should hold true for other countries in Europe's eastern borderlands, where the rule of law and liberal democracy appear to be in jeopardy. True, this is a victory neither for western liberalism nor for the European Union, both of which are badly worn; and in the case of Europe more generally, its time as the self-perceived  lighthouse of enlightenment may have come to an end. But the foundation of consent is, nevertheless, a reason to believe in the future of democracy.

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