Friday, 19 December 2008

Regeneration of Traditional Islamists Challenges the Political System

Published in Articles

By M. K. Kaya (vol. 1, no. 20 of the Turkey Analyst) 

The traditional Islamists of the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi) are mounting a new challenge to the ruling, Islamic moderate AKP. For the first time since Turkey’s Islamic movement split into two parts – one moderate and reformist in the form of AKP and the other traditional in the form of the Felicity party – the former, victorious tendency could be facing a serious challenge from within its own core movement. A good showing of the Felicity party in the upcoming local elections would be likely to affect the internal balances of the Islamic movement.

BACKGROUND: The ruling AKP and the Felicity party share the same political roots. Both parties are outgrowths of the Milli Görüs (National Outlook) movement. The movement first entered the Turkish political scene at the beginning of the 1970s with the founding of the Milli Nizam (National order) party under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan. Erbakan subsequently headed a succession of Islamist parties, all of which were eventually shut down. 

The last closure case, the closure of the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) and the banning of Erbakan from politics, lead to the split of the movement into two parts. Identifying themselves as reformists and led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gül, a group consisting mostly of a younger generation of Islamic conservatives formed the AKP in 2001.

Meanwhile, the mainstream of the Islamic movement regrouped as the Felicity Party under the leadership of Recai Kutan. Remaining true to the traditional line of Turkish political Islam, the Felicity Party has until now been effectively marginalized. In the two latest elections, in 2002 and in 2007, the party received only around 2,5 percent of the votes. 

Until now, very little attention has been paid to the prospect of a possible resurgence of traditional Islamism in Turkey. It has been more or less assumed that the makeover realized by the AKP also implicated that the broader Islamic movement had been brought into the moderated mold, or that its more radical parts had been rendered insignificant. The poor election results achieved by the traditional Islamists of the Felicity party seemed to confirm those assumptions.

However, a change could very well be under way. The reasons have to do with the evolution of the AKP, notably with the problems that the party has encountered as it has – rather unsuccessfully – tried to appear to be a centrist alternative. Meanwhile, the AKP has kept an eye on the expectations of its Islamic core, just as the Felicity party recently embarked on an effort at regeneration.

In October, the U.S.-educated Numan Kurtulmus was elected as Felicity’s new party leader.  Kurtulmus, born in 1959, is a young member of the Milli Görüs movement, connected with the influential Nakshibendi brotherhood. The Nakshibendis have traditionally formed the core of the Islamic movement in Turkey, supplying much of its ideological basis as well as its cadres. Many of its members have risen to political prominence, such as former president Turgut Özal and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

IMPLICATIONS: Although the election of Numan Kurtulmuş obviously represents an important rejuvenation, the older, founding generation of the party still constitutes the majority of the party cadres. The older generation’s reluctance to give up their positions of power restricts the new leader’s room for maneuver in the short run. It should however be noted that there is dynamism inside the party in spite of Felicity’s introvert image. There is awareness that the AKP can no longer credibly aspire to represent the traditional Islamic movement, a fact that has raised the self-confidence of the Felicity party cadres, which have never tried to be anything other than the “true” representatives of classical political Islam. The Felicity party now sees a renewed potential for a reassertion of traditional Islamism.

By not seeking to position itself in the political center as the AKP has tried to do, the Felicity party is tuning in with other Islamic movements globally. These relationships are rapidly evolving in both ideological and emotional terms. The party is paying renewed attention to educational programs, the training of the young cadres, to local gatherings at homes, and to aid programs to the needy. The new party leader, Kurtulmus, is yet to prove himself, but the activities of the party organization are proof of newfound confidence and purposefulness. The first test he has to pass is the March 29 local elections. A possible achievement, such as reaching a 5 percent share of the vote – something that does not appear impossible – would set the stage for the return in earnest of traditional political Islam, making it a force to reckon with once again.

The strategy of the Felicity party is based on the assumption that the AKP’s experiment with “moderate” Islamism has reached the end of the road. The party basically expects the ideological vote, that of the Islamic core, to turn away from the AKP. Felicity is also counting on exploring the rising discontent with the ruling party in the wake of the economic crisis, and is expecting to be able to exploit widespread anti-Western sentiments in Turkey.
The extent to which the Felicity party will prove capable to capitalize on these political undercurrents will obviously depend on a range of factors, not least on the image that the party succeeds in conveying. The election of a new party leader has enhanced those chances. Yet, perhaps more importantly, the reasoning behind the strategy of regenerated Islamism serves to highlight the difficulties encountered by the AKP.

Trying to become a party of the center, in fact the new establishment party, the AKP had to open up to the traditional, secular center-right. The AKP became a coalition of the classical Islamic movement and parts of the old center-right. Trying to straddle both political worlds was always difficult. And after escaping closure, the AKP has had to further distance itself from its religiously conservative roots. After the ruling of the Constitutional court, it has become increasingly difficult for the AKP to appeal to its traditional core. The ruling of the Constitutional court, while not closing the party down, has set new, constitutional barriers against efforts to challenge the secular order. That effectively reined in the AKP. As the AKP no longer is able to play the religious card, it is left vulnerable for the kind of challenge that the Felicity party is mounting.

The Felicity party is counting on being able to thrive on the desire among religious conservatives to change the system, and is also counting on discontent with the evolution of the AKP, which is seen by the most conservative segments as having changed itself rather than changing the system. This desire is usually met by closures and bans by the control mechanisms of the system. However, an Islamist challenger which has the potential to weaken the AKP seems less likely to attract considerable reaction from the system, at least initially.

CONCLUSIONS: It is definitely possible that the AKP could lose ground in the upcoming local elections. The Felicity Party, led by a young and well informed leader like Kurtulmuş and with its regenerated Islamic alternative, stands a reasonable chance to make important inroads among the supporters of the AKP. As even a small increase in the votes generally has an energizing effect in these types of movements, the Felicity party seems set to increase its weight in the Turkish political arena.

As the AKP has been forced to tone down much of its Islamic ambitions in order to survive, and seems intent on securing survival by following in the footsteps of the traditional center-right parties, a new political space is opened up for a party that represents the old current of political Islam.

That old tradition has now got a new, young face. It is a symbolically important change, one that could signify the end of the time when it was generally assumed that un-moderated political Islam belonged to the past.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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