North Africa, West Asia

Turkey as a model of democracy and Islam

Democracies are about more than elections and majorities: they require genuine separation of powers, autonomous institutions and associations, all regulated by the rule of law. The current Turkish situation is the product of social and institutional patterns, now in question, in which multiple centres of institutional power confronted and checked one another, unlike the centralised and personalised regimes of much of the Arab world.

Sami Zubaida
30 May 2011

In the diverse discourses on the ‘Arab spring’, Turkey often comes up as a positive model of democracy, and one which is harmonious with Islam. In that model Islam is friendly to democracy and distant from militant jihadism. The system is favourable to enterprise and open to world markets, and has achieved enviable economic growth and a degree of generalised prosperity. It is reassuring to the west: a friendly and capitalist Islamic democracy, at peace with its neighbours, and indeed a force for stability and problem-solving in the Middle East.

The main demands and slogans of the oppositional and revolutionary movements in the Arab countries are to do with liberty, democracy, jobs and livelihood and an end to corruption. Islam does not appear to be an issue. But, of course, there are diverse Islamic elements in the field, notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, and al-Nahda in Tunisia, those chiming in with the main thrust of the movement emphasising liberty and democracy. They are opposed by Salafi conservatives for whom Islamic observances and disciplines are paramount, to be enforced by just government, and who reject alien and infidel models of society. This confrontation is now raging in Egypt. In these ideological fields, Turkey is regularly cited as a model of co-existence of Islam with democracy and pluralism, as well as a healthy capitalist economy.

I should like to discuss two issues: the present condition of Turkey is the result of historical trajectories of politics and society which are very different from those of the Arab states; and, is the rosy image of Turkish Islam and democracy accurate? The two are related. 

Present conditions and past influences           

Turkey developed from the aftermath of World War 2 as an authoritarian state with electoral democracy. Elections and political parties actually functioned and there was alternation of government subject to election results. But the process was under strict monitoring and control by a powerful army upholding the principles of the Kemalist foundation, emphasising national unity, and therefore suppression of any regional or ethnic claims, mainly the Kurdish, and the principles of secularism. This latter did not actually banish religion from state functions, but subordinated it to state controls. The Religious Affairs Directorate, controlling mosques, schools and ritual functions and insuring political compliance, became one of the largest and best financed arms of government. Within this arrangement, Islam was Sunni Islam, and the considerable Alevi population was marginalised, an issue which has acquired renewed significance in the present situation.

Turkish electoral democracy was subject to periodic disruption by the military, whenever the high command feared challenges to the Kemalist model of statist control and ‘secularism’, and the intensification of social conflict and violence. Military coups occurred in 1960, 71 and 80, and most recently in 1997 when a warning from the military members of the National Security Council (a body of government ministers and military commanders, and an instrument of military control) regarding the government coalition which included the pro-Islamic Refah Party, led to its resignation. It is important to note that this military guardianship enjoyed wide popular support. Turkish nationalism, always acute and often xenophobic and paranoid, was firmly supportive of the military, and opinion polls  regularly revealed this support. During the 1970s and 80s, Islamic political groups were close or convergent with extreme nationalists against the leftist movements, the Kurds and the Alevis, leading to escalating and violent confrontations and disorders, which were part of the pretext for the military coup of 1980.

The Ozal opening

The restoration of electoral democracy in 1983, after the 1980 coup, brought to power Turgut Ozal, a modern and modernising conservative, a former functionary at the World Bank, with personal Islamic roots and affiliations. His policies chimed in with global neo-liberalism and the pressures on Turkey to open up its economy, institute structural reforms, including privatisation of what has been a highly state- and military-controlled economy. Unlike most Arab countries, notably Egypt, Turkey has always had an independent business bourgeoisie, though restricted by state enterprise and regulation. Ozal’s reforms strengthened and expanded this bourgeoisie, especially in the provincial centres of Anatolia, a conservative and mostly religious bourgeoisie, distinct from and resentful of the cosmopolitan and secular bourgeoisie of Istanbul and Ankara. Ozal’s regime was much more tolerant of religious manifestations: Ozal himself had been affiliated to Naqshabandi Sufi groups, strictly suppressed by Ataturk, but functioning in private networks and incubating many of the Islamic social and religious movements that were to come to prominence from the 1970s. Ozal also broke many of the Kemalist cultural taboos, most notably in patronising so-called Arabesque music and associating with its prominent singers. This genre had been excluded from the official canon and from state broadcasting, qualifying as ‘oriental’ music banned by the Kemalist functionaries. The Istanbul bourgeoisie of that era, worried about the Anatolian ‘invasion’ of their city, concocted the stereotype of the Anatolian nouveau riche frequenting Lahmacun saloons (named after an Anatolian/Armenian/Arab dough crust topped with spiced meat, now dubbed ‘Turkish pizza’ in European cities), drinking whiskey and enjoying Arabesque songs.

The Ozal reforms initiated the opening up of the Turkish economy to world markets, a development which has proved highly beneficial to Turkish capitalism, offering opportunities for companies and entrepreneurs in trade and contracts in the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of Europe. Small businesses in provincial centres were among the main beneficiaries of these developments, many growing to considerable importance, and now dubbed the ‘Anatolian tigers’. This is also the milieu for the cultivation of conservative Islam, with some Sufi connections. They became the main constituency for the Islamic political parties, favouring stability and social disciplines, quite distinct from and antithetical to the jihadist Islam feared by the west: hence the benign consideration of Turkish Islamic democracy. This is especially the case after the defeat of the more ideological and strident politics of Necmettin Erbakan, the first charismatic leader of the Islamic parties of the 1970s to 90s and frequent partner in coalition governments of the period. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gul and their Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged as the modern, reformist, capitalist face of pro-Islamic politics, often preferring to characterise themselves as a conservative party than as Islamic. Their rule, with repeated electoral successes since 2002, is credited with radical democratisation of Turkish state and society through legal and constitutional as well as institutional reforms. These reforms were aided by the process of negotiating accession to the European Union.

The European Union

There was an odd alliance between the AKP and the European Union. The Kemalist establishment and institutions, primarily the army command and its representation in the National Security Council, but also the judiciary and the media, were the main antagonist of the Islamists and the AKP. The authoritarian and repressive controls of this establishment restricted the range of legitimate expression and association. Vague legal formulations of offences such as undermining or insulting Turkishness or threatening national unity or abrogating the laicity of the state, were all used to prosecute Kurdish activists, human rights campaigners, those pursuing discussions of the Armenian massacres of the early twentieth century, as well as disapproved religious manifestations and parties, including veiled women in public institutions. The aspirations for EU accession were widely shared in both the secularist establishment and the Islamic party. The conditions imposed by the EU regarding democratisation, the so-called ‘Copenhagen criteria’ exerted pressures for legal and institutional liberalisation which favoured the AKP. Military interference and the threat of coups diminished, and the range of options for military commands were severely restricted. This opened the way for reforms.

Multiple power centres: checks and balances

Here we come to a crucial characteristic of the Turkish political field post 1983 which makes comparisons with Arab states (though not necessarily Iran) inappropriate. The Kemalist establishment of the army, the judiciary, much of the press and the secular bourgeoisie, remained powerful and vociferous. But their dominance was being eroded with the increasing prominence of Islamic parties, institutions, media, education and public spaces, aided by electoral successes and the EU-influenced liberalisation. Electoral success was brought about through meticulous grass roots organisation, aided by social welfare networks at neighbourhood level and community organisation, a feature of all Muslim forces in the region. This contrasted with the complacent and fragmentary efforts of the traditional secular parties. Limited liberalisation opened up spaces for Kurdish activism. The net result was a situation in which there were multiple centres of power and influence, confronting and checking one another. None of those centres was liberal or unambiguously ‘democratic’, and the repressive and vaguely formulated laws continued to operate. Yet, the fact that none of those centres was totally dominant introduced measures of liberty and latitude, which allowed diverse forces, including human rights and Kurdish advocacy to function, and to challenge the draconian nationalist impositions. Judicial persecution of liberal intellectuals and human rights activists, as well as of religious manifestations, faced increasing and sometimes successful challenges, aided by European institutions and public opinion. Extreme nationalists resorted to violence, notably in the assassination in 2007 of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in the middle of Istanbul. Nationalist violence continued to feature in relation to Kurdish issues and regions. A crucial element in this field is the rise and increasing power of the Anatolian business elite, socially conservative and economically liberal, aided by the opening up of the Turkish economy to international markets, and the business opportunities in neighbouring countries. The ‘Anatolian tigers’ are part of the power base of the AKP party and of Islamic communal and conservative associations.

None of the Arab states, except Lebanon in a very different pattern, featured any elements which could remotely approach this pluralism of centres of power. Iran, especially after the Iraq war and the death of Khomeini in 1989, exhibited elements of this plurality and contention of power centres, notably during the Khatami presidency (1997-2005), but in a very different political system. This plurality was considerably curtailed with the subsequent rise to dominance of a security state coalition under Ahamadinejad. The Turkish model, then, is quite inappropriate for the Arab countries in which the ruling regime holds dominant control over all centres, and bypasses state and economic institutions in personalistic networks of family, clan, patronage and cronyism. The removal of the heads of those regimes in Egypt and Tunisia has, so far, left much of the regime and its rickety institutions in place. Whatever government is brought in by elections, free or not, will inherit the opportunities and constraints of this situation. Reform remains an uphill struggle, especially under adverse economic, demographic and social conditions.

Authoritarian creep?

The entrenchment of the AKP in power after repeated, and probably continuing, electoral success, is now seriously encroaching on the plurality of power centres checking one another. In policy and legislation which seem to be steps in greater democratisation, the AKP is acquiring greater powers for the executive (itself) at the cost of the other centres. The extensive powers of the army command have been considerably curtailed. Constitutional amendments and legal reforms have given the government and the President powers over the appointment and management of the judiciary. The government has also been able to slot its appointees into the important institutions and bureaucracies of government, notably education and higher education. All past governments in Turkey, and the components of their coalitions had engaged in infiltrating their appointees into bureaucracy, police and education. The AKP, ruling alone without coalition, and ruling continuously since 2002, has been able to fill important posts consistently and cumulatively.

Backing the AKP is the Gulen movement, a conservative religious organisation with extensive wealth and power, extending its educational and charitable activity far and wide in Turkey and beyond. Its superior educational institutions, at all levels, have been producing graduates with qualifications for a wide variety of government service as well as business and the professions. It is widely believed that these constitute networks of influence favouring the AKP and social conservatism. A book by a journalist, Ahmet Sik,  documenting the Gulen network in the security services was recently confiscated by police and the author arrested. He was one of several journalists arrested on the accusation of being associated with a 2007 military conspiracy to overturn the government, the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy. This has been used as a pretext for arrest of many public figures, detained without trial. In this respect the AKP in government is showing itself as a worthy heir of the Kemalist establishment. Critics of the government and its personnel in the media have been harassed and intimidated, sometimes sending in the tax inspectors to assess crippling sums in supposedly unpaid dues. Commentators have noted parallels with Russia and Putin in these respects.

These authoritarian developments are, in themselves, unrelated to the Islamic roots of the AKP: as the comparisons with Russia indicate, they are features of electoral authoritarian regimes, using electoral popularity as a mandate for executive control. Democracy is about more than elections and majorities: they require genuine separation of powers, autonomous institutions and associations, all regulated by the rule of law. There are, however, other aspects of authoritarianism which are related to religion.

Religious conservative groups, whether Muslim or Christian or other, have always sought to impose moralistic controls on family, sexuality and personal conduct. They also seek to control and censor cultural productions in conformity with religious doctrine and ‘respect for religion’. Legislation to those effects is difficult in Turkey, being under the watch of European institutions. Still, in 2004, the AKP parliamentary majority, supported by Erdogan, introduced legislation criminalising adultery. Erdogan backed down in the face European objections and widespread protests. By 2005 it became clear that EU accession would be unlikely in the foreseeable future, which lowered the pressure on the AKP to conform to European sentiment. Will this make it more likely for future moralistic legislation? Apart from the law, however, there are local, municipal and communal pressures towards moralistic conformity. Alcohol consumption has always been an emblematic target for Islamists everywhere. After the success of the then Refah Party in the 1994 municipal elections in Istanbul, the mayor of Beyoglu, the prime cosmopolitan entertainment district of Istanbul, tried to restrict the visibility of drinking by requiring establishments to hide drinkers behind curtains. This was greeted by outrage, demonstrations, and threats by the military, which forced a speedy withdrawal. That was a different age. Now, there are many reports of bans and restrictions on bars and liquor shops in many provinces, though obviously not in the main urban centres. The taxes on alcohol, however, have been raised in recent years.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the foregoing: the connection of Islam to democracy in Turkey is unique to the particular history and institutional pluralism of the country, and not applicable to any of the Arab neighbours; and that pluralism is now threatened by the repeated electoral successes of the AKP, establishing, in effect, the bases for a majoritarian authoritarianism, at both the institutional and the communal levels. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has championed democracy and pluralism in its proclamations over the past years and to the present. But what do they understand by ‘democracy’? They are ambiguous and contradictory over issues of women and Christians, and over questions of cultural production, freedom of expression and ‘respect for religion’, all harbingers of authoritarian moralism. ‘Democracy’ then becomes majoritarian authoritarianism.


See Sami Zubaida’s latest book: Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East I.B.Tauris, December, 2010

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData