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Soner Cagaptay is one of the best political analyst writing on Turkey in the world today. His excellent article on the current islamic regime in Turkey and its march toward Islamism, originally appeared on Majalla on Nov. 26, 2009; 7 Years of AKP Rule. This article was also published on Soner Cagaptay’s website.

7 Years of AKP Rule

Turkey’s Bend Under The AKP

The rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a party rooted in Turkey’s Islamist opposition, to government in 2002 introduced new social, political, and foreign policy winds across the Turkish society. After seven years of AKP rule, the Anatolian Turks are bending over to the power of the AKP, orthopraxy and the Islamist mindset in foreign policy are taking hold. Where is Turkey heading under the AKP, and what are the lessons that can be drawn from the AKP experience?

by Soner Cagaptay,

The Anatolian landscape is dotted by a tall slender tree in the aspen family, known to the Turks as kavak. This is a fragile-looking but sturdy tree, so when the harsh Anatolian wind blows across the steppe, kavak can bend at incredible angles, adjusting to the power of the wind, and somehow not break. Turkey is like the Anatolian kavak. The country has come to bend with the powerful political, social and foreign policy choices that its elites have ushered in over the ages, bowing to the power of the Anatolian winds. Ever since the sultans started to Westernize the Ottoman Empire in the 1770’s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk continued these reforms making Turkey a secular republic in the 1920’s, and the various political parties of the Turkish democracy in the twentieth century cast their dice with the West, the Turks have adopted a pro-Western stance in foreign policy, embraced secular democracy at home, and marched towards the European Union (EU).

This is changing. The rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a party rooted in Turkey’s Islamist opposition, to government in 2002 introduced new social, political, and foreign policy winds across the Turkish society. These forces include solidarity with Islamist and anti-Western countries in foreign policy and orthopraxy in the public space, promoting outward displays of homogenous religious practice and social conservatism, though not necessarily directed by faith. After seven years of AKP rule, the Anatolian Turks are bending over to the power of the AKP, orthopraxy and the Islamist mindset in foreign policy are taking hold. According to a recent poll by TESEV, an Istanbul-based NGO, the number of people identifying themselves as Muslim increased by ten percent between 2002 and 2007; in addition, almost half of those surveyed describe themselves as Islamist. Moreover, orthopraxy seems to have become internalized: bureaucrats in Ankara now feel compelled to attend prayers lest they be bypassed for promotions. Public display of religious observance, often devoid of faith, has become a necessity for those seeking government appointments or lucrative state contracts. Where is Turkey heading under the AKP, and what are the lessons that can be drawn from the AKP experience?

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and president Abdullah Gul (middle), both from the AK Party and Chief of the General Staff of Turkey General Ilker Basbug (right); with a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk overlooking the scene

The Rise and Demise of Moderate Islamism

The AKP has roots in Turkey’s Islamist movement, including the Welfare Party (RP), the mother ship of Turkish Islamism. The AKP’s founders, including party leader and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cut their teeth in the RP, an explicitly Islamist party, which featured strong anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and anti-secular elements. The RP joined a coalition government in 1997 before alienating the secular Turkish military, the courts, and the West, leading it to being banned in 1998. Yet the party never truly disappeared. Erdogan and his comrades drew a lesson from this experience; the Turkish Islamists would be better served to reinvent themselves in order to be successful. In due course, Erdogan re-created the party with a pro-American, pro-EU, capitalist and reformist image.

When the AKP came to power in 2002, after taking advantage of the implosion of the country’s centrist parties in the 2001 economic crisis, it tried to reassure the moderates’ concerns it might chip away at the country’s secular, democratic and pro-Western values. The AKP renounced its Islamist heritage and began working instead to secure EU membership and to turn Turkey into an even more liberal and pro-Western place. At the time, few thought that the party could transform Turkey for the worse. After all, Turkey had been a multi-party democracy since 1946; it had a vigorous free media, secular courts, a large business class, and a strong army, all deemed to be guardians of Western values. What is more, the United States support for the secular, Western Turkey and the EU process were viewed as the fail-safes of Turkish liberalization process that would entice the AKP to maintain its pro-West stance and reform path.

The AKP indeed promoted reforms, pro-business and pro-EU policies after coming to power. However, soon the party’s transformation appeared to be a cynical one. The AKP began to undermine the liberal values it supposedly stood for. For instance, it began to hire top bureaucrats from an exclusive pool of practicing, religious conservatives. Concurrently, the percentage of women in executive positions in government dropped. In years past, Turkish women served as chief justice, prime minister, and ministers of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. Some 30 percent of Turkey’s doctors and 33 percent of its lawyers are women. Yet under the AKP, women are largely excluded from decision-making positions in government: there is not a single woman among the 19 ministerial undersecretaries appointed by the AKP. Moreover, whereas in 1994, the percentage of women in executive positions in government was 15.1 percent, according to IRIS, an Ankara-based women’s rights group, today this statistic is at 11.8 percent.

The AKP’s lacking commitment to liberal values is a testimony to the party’s tactical view of EU membership: the AKP pushes for EU membership when it brings the party public approval, but not to make Turkey truly European. The nail in the coffin for the AKP’s EU tactical drive came in 2005, when the European Court of Human Rights upheld Turkey’s old ban on Islamic headscarves (known in Turkish as turban) on college campuses. The AKP had hoped Europe might help recalibrate Turkish secularism into a more tolerant form. But this wasn’t in the cards. Thus, as soon as actual talks of EU membership began in 2005, the AKP became reluctant to take on tough, potentially unpopular reforms mandated by the EU, making accession seem less and less a likely. Statements such as Erdogan’s calling the West “immoral” in 2008 only eroded popular support for EU membership: by last year, about one-third of the population wanted their country to join the EU, down sharply from more than 80 percent in 2002, when the AKP first came to power.

Efforts by secular Turkish institutions to curb the AKP have backfired. In 2007, the secular opposition and the military, which issued a declaration against the AKP on its website in spring that year, attempted to block the AKP from electing its own presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul. The AKP successfully challenged the claim, suggesting that the secular opposition and the military did not want Gul to run because of his personal religious views. The AKP thereby created a secular-vs.-Muslim divide, in lieu of Turkey’s traditional Islamist-vs.-secular political divide along whose fault line it had always lost in the past. The party successfully positioned itself on the winning Muslim side of the new fault line. Additionally, when the Turkish Constitutional Courttried to prevent the AKP from appointing Gul as president, the AKP cast itself as the underdog representative of Turkey’s poor Muslim masses. The two strategies worked: the AKP won 47 percent of the vote in the July 2007 parliamentary elections, defeating the opposition in a monumental victory and exposing the fact that hell does not freeze over when the Turkish military is ignored.

Rise of Authoritarian Democracy and Orthopraxy

The effective elimination of military and court pressures against the AKP has hastened the party’s return to its core values. The AKP began abandoning its displays of pluralism, dismissing dissent, ignoring checks and balances, and condemning the media for daring to criticize them. In due course, Turkey’s media has been transformed for the worse. The government used legal loopholes to confiscate ownership of independent media and subsequently sell them to AKP supporters. In 2002, pro-AKP businesses owned less than 20 percent of the Turkish media; today pro-government people own around 50 percent.

In the meantime, the relationship between the AKP and Turkey’s secular business lobby, organized through the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TUSIAD), also changed. TUSIAD support for the AKP had been a crucial source of support for the AKP. The pro-business, pro-EU group provided the party with domestic and international legitimacy, and armed it with the means to fight off accusations that it was an Islamist party. But in 2007, the relationship between TUSIAD and the AKP, always an uneasy one, faltered when Erdogan targeted TUSIAD, a key node of secular power in Turkey. The AKP attacked Aydin Dogan—whose family holds the presidency of TUSIAD and owns roughly half the Turkish media in a group of companies known as Dogan Yayin—characterizing Dogan as a rich and corrupt businessman. In two waves in 2009, the AKP slapped Dogan Yayin, a conglomerate whose media outlets have published corruption allegations against the AKP with a record 3.2 billion tax, forcing the media mogul to come to terms with him and stop of the AKP criticism in Dogan media outlets.

Together with the punitive use of taxes and audits, the party’s use of wiretaps, especially as part of the Ergenekon case which alleges a coup plot against the government, has been its other vehicle for cracking down on the opposition. When the case opened in 2007, AKP watchers saw it as an opportunity for Turkey to clean up corruption, such as security officials’ involvement in the criminal underworld. But the case is much more than that. It is a tool for the AKP to curb freedoms. Hundreds have been detained in over a dozen waves of arrests. Legally, the case is unfitting of a country in accession talks with the EU: some people arrested in relation to Ergenekon have waited eighteen months in jail before being taken to a court or seeing an indictment.

These arrests, alongside fears of illegal wiretaps to build evidence for Ergenekon, have left Turkish liberals paralyzed, and the country has dangerously shut off frank political conversations. As a sage once said, “countries become police states not when the police listens to all citizens, but when all citizens fear that the police listens to them.”

That the AKP has effectively outsmarted the internal checks which had hitherto imposed moderation on its policies has not been without consequences: the AKP has become Turkey’s new elite in charge politically, economically, and socially. The party is supported by a growing business community, which it nurtures through government contracts that are awarded by using orthopraxy as a yard stick. The AKP has sway over the media, and exerts power over the Turkish military through the Ergenekon case and proven ability to force political opposition into submission through its control of domestic intelligence. Last but not least, the AKP controls the executive and legislative branches. Former AKP member Abdullah Gul is now the Turkish president with the power to appoint judges to the high courts.

As the new elite, the proverbial “wind over the Anatolian landscape,” the AKP is shaping Turkish society in its own image, promoting orthopraxy through administrative acts. Accordingly, it is not religiosity that is on the rise in Turkey — i.e., the number of people attending mosque services or praying — but rather government-infused social conservatism. Indications of social conservatism, such as wives wearing turbans, are used as benchmarks to obtain government appointments, promotions, and contracts. Social conservatism, however, is not in itself the problem, and a conservative Turkey can certainly be European. The problem is that a government-led project of this type is incompatible with the idea of a liberal democracy. And given Turkey’s nature as an elite project, AKP-led social conservatism is reshaping Turkish society. Last year in Istanbul, I came across a young Muslim-Greek Orthodox Turkish woman who had applied for a job with an AKP-controlled Istanbul city government branch. In her job interview, she was told the government would hire her if she agreed to wear a headscarf. When she responded that she was Greek Orthodox, the woman was told “you don’t need to convert; all you have to do is cover your head.”

Solidarity with anti-Western and Islamist Regimes

If religion constitutes one part of the AKP’s foreign policy calculus, domestic aspirations are another. The AKP has drawn a lesson from the events of the 1990s, when its predecessor, RP, was forced to step down from government through a show of popular discontent. The AKP now knows that it can stay in government only so long as it has strong popular support. Therefore, the party relies on an easy tactic of populist foreign policy that criticizes the West to enhance its domestic standing—a strategy that has seemingly been successful for the AKP. Not only are Turkish attitudes toward the United States and the West deteriorating, but the AKP also now draws broad support for its foreign policy through the transformation of the Turkish identity. If Turks think of themselves as Muslims first in the foreign policy arena, then one day they will think of themselves as Muslims domestically, further strengthening the position of party.

In the past, Turkey’s foreign policy paradigm centered on the promotion of national interests vested in the West. Starting in 1946, Turkey chose to ally itself with the West in the Cold War, and since then successive Turkish governments have pursued close cooperation with the United States and Europe. Turkey viewed the Middle East and global politics through the lens of their own national security interests. This made cooperation possible, even with Israel, a state Turkey viewed as a democratic ally in a volatile region. The two countries shared similar security concerns, such as Syria’s support for terror groups abroad — radical Palestinian organizations in the case of Israel, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. In 1998, when Ankara confronted Damascus over its support for the PKK, Turkish newspapers wrote headlines championing the Turkish-Israeli alliance: “We will say ‘shalom’ to the Israelis on the Golan Heights,” one read.

The AKP, however, viewed Turkey’s interests through a different lens — one colored by a politicized take on religion, namely Islamism. Senior AKP officials called the 2004 U.S. offensive in Fallujah, Iraq, a “genocide,” and in February 2009, Erdogan compared Gaza to a “concentration camp.”

The AKP’s foreign policy has not promoted sympathy toward all Muslim states, rather, the party has promoted solidarity with Islamist, anti-Western regimes (Qatar and Sudan, for example) while dismissing secular, pro-Western Muslim governments (Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia). This two-pronged strategy is especially apparent in the Palestinian territories where at the same time that the AKP government has called on Western countries to “recognize Hamas as the legitimate government of the Palestinian people,” AKP officials have labeled Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the “head of an illegitimate government.” According to diplomats, Abbas’ last visit to Ankara in July 2009 went terribly.

As the cancelled military exercises with Israel show, the AKP’s a la carte, moralistic foreign policy is not without inherent hypocrisies. An earlier example came last January, when, a day after Erdogan harangued Israeli President Shimon Peres, as well as Jews and Israelis, at the World Economic Forum for knowing “well how to kill people,” Turkey hosted the Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha in Ankara. This is a dangerous position because it suggests — especially to the generation coming of age under the AKP — that Islamist regimes alone have the right to attack their own people or even other states. In September, Erdogan defended Iran’s nuclear program, arguing that the problem in the Middle East is Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Some analysts have dismissed such rhetoric as domestic politicking or simply an instance of Erdogan losing his temper. But Erdogan is an astute politician, and he is now reacting to changes in Turkish society. After seven years of the AKP’s Islamist rhetoric, public opinion has shifted to embrace the idea of a politically united “Muslim world.”

The AKP’s foreign policy now has a welcome audience at home, making it more likely to become entrenched. After Erdogan stormed out of his session at the World Economic Forum, thousands gathered to greet his plane as it arrived back home in what appeared to be an orchestrated welcome. (Banners with Turkish and Hamas flags stitched together appeared from nowhere in a matter of hours.)

Together with the establishment of friendly and money-based relations with Russia, under the AKP Moscow has become Turkey’s top trading partner, the transformation of Turkish identity under the AKP has potentially massive ramifications. Guided by an Islamist worldview, it will become more and more impossible for Turkey to support Western foreign policy, even when doing so is in its national interest. Turkish-Israeli ties — long a model for how a Muslim country can pursue a rational, cooperative relationship with the Jewish state — will continue to unravel. Such a development will be greeted only with approval by the Turkish public, further bolstering the AKP’s popularity. Thus, the party will be able to kill two birds with one stone: distancing the country from its former ally and shoring up its own power base.

U.S. president Barack Obama is escorted by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara; april 6 2009

The same dynamic will also apply to Turkey’s relations with the European Union and the United States. As the United States devotes much of its energy abroad to Muslim countries, from opposing radicalism to countering Iran’s nuclear program, the AKP will oppose these policies through harsh rhetoric and opt out of any close cooperation.

Lessons of the AKP Experience

Like the Anatolian kavak¸ Turkey has been transformed under the AKP with the prevailing winds inside the country. In this regard, the various lessons can be drawn from the AKP experience in Turkey.

Since the advent of Islam, Muslims have come to think of themselves as a cultural-religious community, just like people from other faiths do. However, the attacks of September 11 have changed this identification, jumpstarting a transformation of the global Muslim community from a cultural-religious one into a religious-political one. For a long time it was assumed that the attacks of September 11 primarily aimed to hurt the United States. However, now it seems that while the attacks aimed to hurt the United States, their primary target was to mobilize Muslims around the concept of a united “Muslim world,” a politically charged and new union which Al Qaeda defines as a political-religious community in perpetual and violent conflict with the West.

The AKP’s transformation of Turkey’s identity into one that identifies with Islamists should be viewed within this background. If this transformation had happened before the attacks of September 11, one would have ignored it. However, the transformation of the Turkish identity after September 11 means that the Turks are losing their ability to view the U.S. and West as allies.

The AKP experience also demonstrates that Islamists distort Islam, re-imagining it as inherently illiberal at home. What is more, the Islamists also distort Islam by casting it as the basis of their anti-Western and ideologically-driven foreign policy.

Seven years after the AKP came to power, Turkey’s Islamists have returned to their roots. The AKP experience also shows that when in power, even when they are elected democratically, Islamists are driven by their illiberal and majoritarian instincts, subverting democracy and transforming societies. In Turkey, the AKP has shifted Turkish foreign policy away from the West, helped catalyze a transformation of the Turkish identity towards Islamist causes, and is busy imposing an illiberal view of society, defined by orthopraxy as well as a disregard for check and balances, such as media freedoms.

Additionally, the AKP experience demonstrates that when Islamist parties moderate, it reflects not a strategic change but a tactical response to strong domestic and foreign opposition. Once these firewalls weaken, Islamist parties regress in a process driven by popular sentiment. A recent survey shows that the AKP’s popularity jumped 10 percent after the Davos incident, suggesting the party could pass the game-changing 50 percent threshold in the upcoming March 29 local elections. The AKP’s renewed Islamism may play well at the polls. But the country’s democracy and liberalization process, including the EU accession process, as well as its Western allies, will be left worse off for it.

In 2002, many suggested that the AKP’s rise to power presented Turkey with an opportunity to “go back to the Middle East” and adopt more of an Islamic identity. The hope was that such a shift would help “normalize” Turkey, recalibrating the secularizing and nationalist reforms of Kemal Atatürk, who turned Turkey to the West in the early twentieth century. The outcome, however, has not been so positive. Turkey’s experience with the AKP proves that Islamism may not be compatible with the West, after all.


About the Author:

Soner Cagaptay is Senior fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has written extensively on Turkish policy in scholarly journals and major international print media, including Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, Jane’s Defense Weekly, and Newsweek Türkiye.


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