Monday, 14 September 2009

Fusing Statism and Religious Conservatism: Is the AKP Introducing a More Formidable Version of Semi-Authoritarianism?

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 16 of the Turkey Analyst) 

The determination of the Turkish government to muzzle critical media is the clearest sign to date that Turkey is drifting towards semi-authoritarianism. Contrary to the expectations of its liberal supporters, the AKP is not about to dismantle statism. Fusing statism and religious conservatism, the AKP could be introducing a semi-authoritarian model more comprehensive and potentially more enduring than the defunct Kemalist model.

BACKGROUND: The Doğan Media Group (DMG) owns two of Turkey’s three top-selling newspapers as well as two of the four most popular television stations. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused the DMG’s outlets of being biased against the AKP government, and has overtly and repeatedly called his supporters to boycott them. (See February 27 issue of the Turkey Analyst) Last week, the tax authorities imposed a record US$2.5 billion fine on the DMG for allegedly unpaid taxes. The penalty is the largest ever in Turkish corporate history, and follows on a US$500 million fine imposed earlier this year. The latest penalty exceeds the market value of the DMG and its parent company Doğan Holding, and clearly threatens the very existence of the companies.

However, Prime Minister Erdoğan denies any political motivations, arguing that the tax authority is an independent body. That assertion has little credibility in light of Erdoğan’s repeated outbursts against the Doğan Media Group during the last year and his call for a boycott. The Prime Minister was particularly incensed after Doğan media outlets reported about an embezzlement scandal in Germany with links to the AKP. (See September 26, 2008 issue of the Turkey Analyst) In that light, it will be difficult for the AKP government to credibly refute the interpretation that it indeed does seek to muzzle critical media.

The DMG is the last remaining significant media group that is not controlled by business groups close to the AKP government. However, Aydın Doğan’s newspapers were in fact largely supportive of the AKP government between 2002 and 2007. The DMG’s flagship, the daily Hürriyet – the largest-circulation in the country – ran sharply critical editorials and columns against the anti-AKP rallies that were held in 2007. The relationship between Doğan and Erdoğan soured after the AKP’s reelection in 2007, as Doğan realized that the prime minister was not planning to accommodate his non-media business interests. Ertuğrul Özkök,Hürriyet’s editor-in-chief, then began to level heavy criticism against the AKP after having derided the secularist opposition up until then, and DMG outlets started to report on the corruption of AKP officials.

The changing business atmosphere that prompted Doğan to withdraw his support from the AKP is in itself a reflection of the ideological shift that has taken place in Turkey. Doğan is a representative of Turkey’s old, Westernized business elite which is being effectively marginalized by a religiously conservative bourgeoisie that is supported by the government. Doğan’s daughter is the chairman of Tüsiad, The Association of Turkish Businessmen and Industrialists, which has tellingly ceased to wield the kind of power it did for decades. The expectation of the traditional business elite that the AKP would act as a typical center-right party and indulge them has not been met. Above all, the predatory attempt on the very existence of the Doğan Media Group represents a severe blow against the perception of the Justice and Development Party as a liberal and democratizing force.

The AKP has received the critically important support of liberals both in Turkey and abroad in its successful onslaught on the Kemalist version of Turkish state semi-authoritarianism. That support is certainly not about to be withdrawn; the columnists of the influential liberal daily Taraf – indeed, the members of the liberal intelligentsia in general – have remained conspicuously silent on the issue of the fine imposed on the Doğan Media Group. Taha Akyol, a columnist in the DMG-owned daily Milliyet, has so far been alone among pro-AKP commentators to point out that the attempt of the government to crush critical media is as illiberal as the past practices of the military, notably during the “postmodern” intervention in 1997, when the General staff pressured media owners to fire columnists that did not tiptoe to the state’s official Kemalist line.

IMPLICATIONS: Turkey has a long tradition of semi-authoritarian statism, with the state dictating the rules for society. In particular for its liberal supporters, the AKP has appeared to represent the embodiment of the desire to reverse that traditional state-society relation. Indeed, the AKP Government’s recent “Kurdish opening” at least initially gave rise to expectations along those lines. Fehmi Koru, an influential columnist in the pro-AKP daily Yeni Şafak, wrote that the open-ended approach that was adopted by the government suggested that not only was the Kurdish problem going to be dealt with in a novel fashion, but the state itself was about to change, from being a “closed box” to becoming democratized, with civil society being offered the right to participate in a negotiation set to determine the rules of the commonwealth. “However, the interventions (of the General staff) led to the abandonment of that approach. If a solution is going to be produced, it will now be of the usual kind, something offered by the state”, anticipated Koru.

With its history of challenging the order imposed by the secularizing state, the Islamic conservative movement does indeed harbor a strong tradition of civil societal resentment against state power. However, it is far from obvious that the retreat into statism in the Kurdish question, so regretted by Fehmi Koru, is attributable solely to the opposition of the General staff. Etyen Mahçupyan, a prominent anti-Kemalist Turkish-Armenian intellectual, has observed that Islamic conservatism and Kurdish nationalism, although being reactions to the secularist nationalist ideology that has underpinned authoritarianism, do not in fact represent any departure from the historically inherited authoritarian statist mentality itself.

Once entrenched in power, Islamic conservatism has fit easily into the statist costume. After having accused the Kemalist state of imposing a particular order on society, Islamic conservatism has embarked on its own version of social engineering, employing state power in order to mold the realm of the media in its own vision.  Indeed, the determination of the AKP government to create a subservient media cannot but kindle the suspicion that the long-term goal is to mold society along Islamic conservative lines.

And in a twist of irony, Islamic conservatism, the erstwhile opponent of statist power, could turn out to be offering the ultimate answer to the question that has haunted the Turkish political elite for two centuries. Far from challenging the power of the state, Islamic conservatism could ultimately ensure that the power of the Turkish state becomes more difficult to contest than it has ever been.

The survival of the state has been a Turkish preoccupation since the late 18th century. Keeping the state strong and the civil society subdued has ever since been the overriding concern of the political elite. Secularism served to emancipate the state from the 19th century on, culminating with the founding of the republic; severing the state’s dependency on religious legitimacy, secularism freed it to determine the rules of society as it saw fit. Meanwhile, nationalism was supposed to homogenize a multiethnic society, making it easier to govern while establishing a common bond between state and society.  Yet, the Turkish state nevertheless remained brittle. Its official secularism notwithstanding, the state could never afford to disregard Islam; it consistently sought to accommodate religious conservatism in order to secure its power and hold over society. In the end, society overran the state.

As the Islamic conservative movement becomes entrenched in power, controlling most of the state bureaucracy, weighing heavily in the judiciary and setting the rules for the media, it is possible to envisage a fusion of statism and dominant societal dynamics that would be historically unique in the Turkish context and that would ultimately secure the illiberal, strong state.

CONCLUSIONS: The Kemalist state had to appeal to and appease certain popular sensitivities in order to shore up its power, since the foundations of its legitimacy were fragile.  The secularist-nationalist semi-authoritarianism had to be accommodating, if not when it came to ethnic diversity, then at least concerning religion. The Islamic conservative state on the other hand, less brittle than its Kemalist predecessor, risks becoming a more formidably semi-authoritarian edifice.

The fact that the popular foundations of the Islamic conservative rule are so much stronger than what the foundations of secularist-nationalist rule were makes it less probable that the AKP state will feel the need to accommodate dissent the way the Kemalist state was forced to do. The treatment of Aydın Doğan is a telling case, and it stands in sharp contrast to past practices. The currently ascendant pious bourgeoisie once benefited from the care extended to it by the secularist state, and owes some of its success to the business relations that the Westernized bourgeoisie forged with it. It is apparent that the latter does not stand to benefit from any similar, future government care.

Contrary to the expectations of its liberal supporters, the AKP is not about to dismantle statism. Fusing statism and religious conservatism, the AKP may be introducing a semi-authoritarian model more comprehensive and potentially more enduring than the defunct Kemalist model.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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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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