Friday, 05 December 2008

Turkish Liberals Disenchanted With AKP, But Soul-Searching Has Yet to Come

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By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 1, no. 20 of the Turkey Analyst) 

Turkey’s influential liberal intellectuals have become disenchanted with the ruling AKP, which they accuse of having abandoned its initial, reformist agenda. However, disappointed liberals have yet to acknowledge that events could have taken a different turn if they had chosen to exert a corrective influence on their Islamic conservative allies in the AKP. Above all, liberals who truly aspire to be a vanguard of freedom will have to revisit the question of secularism and its democratic implications.

(Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2008)

BACKGROUND: The small, liberal intelligentsia of Turkey has played an important, even vital role as promoters of the Islamic conservative AKP. The alliance that was formed between moderate Islamists and liberal intellectuals at the beginning of the decade has served to legitimize the Islamic movement in the eyes of liberal opinion in the West, as well as in Turkey itself. The benediction of the liberals was crucial in constructing the image of the AKP as the party of liberal reforms. Today, the liberal benediction has more or less been withdrawn.

The relationship between the liberals and the Islamic conservatives did begin to cool subsequent to the AKP’s second electoral victory in 2007, as the ruling party increasingly displayed authoritarian tendencies, in particular towards the media. (See June 4 Turkey Analyst)  Yet, the fact that the Islamic conservatives were not pursuing a relentlessly liberal reform course had been apparent for several years. As it were, the period of liberal reforms only lasted for approximately two years. Since 2005, the AKP government has not made any serious efforts to enact any significant liberal reform package. However, that fact had until recently not served to encourage any liberal rethinking about the AKP, though a smaller number of the AKP’s liberal cheerleaders began exhibiting doubts following the increasingly Islamic-oriented agenda espoused by the AKP following its re-election.

It is the increasingly nationalist rhetoric lately adopted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that has caused the current consternation among the liberal intellectuals. Notably, Erdogan recently invited Kurds who have a problem with Turkey to “leave the country”. Liberals now charge Erdogan with having allied himself with the “system”, by which is meant the military high command. They accuse the Prime Minister of following the lead of the General staff on issues such as Kurdish rights, Cyprus settlement and recognition of Armenian demands.

Those critics who take the more benevolent attitude towards Erdogan explain his seeming change of heart with reference to what is deemed to have been the insupportable pressures of the traditional state establishment. Bülent Kenes, editor-in-chief of the pro-Islamic daily Zaman holds that “the civil-military relationship in our country is undeniably pathologic” and declares that he still harbors the hope that the AKP government will ultimately be successful in “adapting that relationship to the requirements of the modern age”. Others, such as Cengiz Aktar, a liberal academic, are less hopeful, declaring that the AKP has become a traditional Turkish center-right party allied with the state. The most disenchanted former liberal supporters of the AKP maintain, somewhat counter-intuitively, that in fact they knew all along that the AKP was not a truly democratic party set on the liberalization of Turkey.

Both explanations, blaming the “system” and/or the AKP as inherently undemocratic, may indeed be pertinent as far as they go. But they are also conveniently self-serving. They acquit the liberals, rendering superfluous any soul-searching about their own responsibility for the illiberal direction that Turkish politics has taken.

IMPLICATIONS: It is not entirely inconceivable that the AKP might have remained on a reformist and moderate track if the liberal intelligentsia – which did carry political weight with the AKP as its support was crucial for the Islamic conservatives – had played an ideologically restraining role rather than, as it were, encouraging an intransigent attitude towards the secular opposition.

If there indeed was, as is claimed, any early liberal awareness about the proper, undemocratic nature of Islamic conservatism, it was never publicly stated. Yet, the kind of evidence that critical observers of a liberal leaning could have submitted against the AKP was not lacking. The AKP attempted to push through legislation that would have criminalized adultery during its first term; the attempt was abandoned after heavy criticism from the EU, the opposition and from liberal supporters, who in that particular case remained true to liberal principles. But that was to prove to be an exception; in most other respects, the liberal intellectuals did, almost to a man, abstain from voicing principled dissent. On the contrary, when they could have had a moderating impact, the liberals fatefully chose to abet Islamic conservatism.

Even before the eruption of Turkey’s regime crisis in 2007-2008 over the issue of secularism, evidence had accumulated that religious conservatism exerted a stronger pull on the AKP than liberal reformism. Religious observance had become a chief criterion for advancement within the state bureaucracy. It was in line with that trend that the AKP demanded that the country’s next president be “religious”. Orthodox religious notions, concerning for instance the evolution, increasingly made themselves felt in the regular education offered in state schools. The liberals remained insensitive to the contextual ramifications of these changes; they did not reveal any consciousness about the possible causality between the political messages about the need to “redefine” secularism issued by leading AKP representatives and the concomitant spread of an atmosphere of religious bigotry throughout Anatolia.

Prime Minister Erdogan’s statement in 2007 that “individuals cannot be secular” even if the state can, failed to ring any alarm bells in liberal intellectual circles. Neither were any liberal objections raised to the AKP’s thrust to “redefine” secularism – specifically, to move from a definition that entails a restriction of the societal impact of religion to a new one that allows for public religious influence, “outside the conscience and the shrine”.

The liberals did not counsel restraint as the AKP heightened the confrontation with the secular system after its election victory in 2007; instead, they encouraged the ruling party not to waver in its challenge of secularism. The question is why, as it seemed to run against the basic principles of liberalism. The answer may be found in the liberal repugnance to the influence that the military has traditionally exerted over the political system. That in turn seems to have led liberals astray in the issue of secularism. Since the military is – simplistically (see August 29 Turkey Analyst) – perceived as the unwavering guardians of the secular system, secularism itself has become tainted in liberal eyes. In that respect, the weakening of secularism could be termed the collateral damage of the liberal effort to democratize Turkey. 

Obviously, Turkish liberals are not anti-secular, although there is a liberal intellectual tendency to embellish the Ottoman, Islamic past of Turkey. Ottoman nostalgia, and the concomitant belief that the republic’s break with that supposedly more authentic culture has created an existential void in modern Turkey, is notably a theme that runs through the writings of Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. Still, liberals like Pamuk belong to the thoroughly Westernized, mostly Istanbulite bourgeoisie of Turkey. (The last decade has seen the emergence of a new, religiously pious bourgeoisie in Anatolia.) Indeed, it may be argued that the existence of the former bourgeoisie and a liberal intelligentsia are in themselves testimony to the relative success of the secularist revolution that created modern Turkey.

The liberal assault on the republican system is in its implacability suggestive of an adolescent impulse to tear down the icons of a former generation. It has the unforgiving character of an intra-family settlement of accounts. The contrast between the ire that the liberals reserve for Kemalism and the indulgence displayed towards the Islamic conservatives, with whom they have little socio-cultural affinity, is nevertheless striking. Liberal intellectuals customarily refer to Kemalism as a reactionary ideology, when they do not label, and thereby libel, it as outright fascism. The reputation of the founder of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, has gone from idolization to evisceration at best. Atatürk’s revolutionary enterprise has in the currently hegemonic Turkish academic narrative come close to being judged as an unmitigated calamity, as it failed to institute democracy, and did not develop a philosophy about what is “good, right and aesthetic”, to quote liberal academic Serif Mardin.

CONCLUSIONS: What has been decisive for the paradigm shift under way in Turkey is not so much the rise of Islamic conservatism as the defection of the ideology-producers of the liberal, Westernized bourgeoisie from the republican ideals of secularism and nation-state. As noted, liberals have not only legitimized Islamic conservatism as a reform movement, but have also encouraged a radical showdown with the founding ideology of the republic.

While die-hard, increasingly marginalized, and consequently further radicalized Kemalists desperately refute that these ideological tenets may need to be reconsidered at all, the equally dogmatic liberals have made the mistake of perceiving secularism as the appendix of an undemocratic political order, not appreciating its importance for the evolution of democracy. The liberal assumption, never thoroughly elaborated or justified, has been that greater public space for religion would somehow precipitate the advent of a more liberal society. Liberals will have to admit that that is not a foregone conclusion. The liberals’ prejudices about the Kemalist heritage have also misled them to perceive the military as a staunchly secularist force. (See September 12 Turkey Analyst)

The reconciliation between the AKP, or at least the Prime Minister, and the General staff that disgusts the liberals does not imply any conversion to Kemalism by Prime Minister Erdogan. What it does imply is that there is a search for a common ground between religious conservatism and nationalism, with the perspective of securing the integrity of the nation state. In ideological terms, the rapprochement bears resemblance to the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” that the military junta in the 1980s promoted as state ideology. It points towards a semi-authoritarian, religiously conservative as well as nationalistic Turkey.

Meanwhile, there is no reason why Turkish liberals should leave secularism untended to. After all, the ideological current that they purport to represent invites them to shoulder the responsibility as promoters of secularism. The future of Turkish secularism, and consequently democracy, depends partly on whether liberals and Kemalists of the anti-authoritarian mold will recognize the importance of forming a common ground.

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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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