BACKGROUND: Since the Gezi protests last summer in Turkey, an increasing number of liberal-oriented previous AKP supporters have become disillusioned, some even feeling embarrassed due to their unconditional backing of the AKP. For many liberals, the answer has taken the form “it is the AKP that changed,” which implies that the party initially did indeed deserve their endorsement. But the liberals should have known better: the liberal tradition is extremely fragile in Turkey, and this is why declarations of liberalism should not be taken at face value.
What caused the liberals’ attitude? Mostly, it is explained by their one-dimensional reading of Turkish twentieth century history. The reason for the liberal enthusiasm for the AKP stems from a decades-long historical interpretation shared by many academics in Turkey. According to this view, Turkey’s road to modernity was hijacked by the Young Turk nationalist-secularist state elite that was able to conquer the omnipotent state and exclude the ‘periphery,’ as society is referred to.
Ever since the Young Turks – and especially after the so-called Kemalist one-party regime – the dominant historical narrative espoused by the conservative centre-right parties and Islamist parties alike, has proclaimed that the ‘genuine’ nation, composed of poor, pious, and conservative Anatolian Muslims needed to be liberated from the elitist, suppressive and intolerant Kemalist elite in charge of the centralizing state. This populist discourse, utilized so effectively from 1950s onwards, is perhaps best captured by the election slogan of the conservative Democratic Party in the 1950s: “Enough, the people will decide!”
The idea that the allegedly culturally and economically excluded conservative periphery represents the natural democratic force in Turkey was thus established as conventional wisdom by generations of Turkish social scientists. It is telling that the prominent historian of modern Turkey, Kemal H. Karpat, started his famous work Türkiye Demokrasi Tarihi (The History of Turkey’s Democracy) from the emergence of the Democratic Party, thus implying that the previous rule of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) had had nothing to offer in terms of establishing the structural-ideational grounds of a modern democracy.
The top-down attempt to create a modern nation-state through social engineering is not unique to Turkey but has many equivalents in European history. However, the centralizing-modernizing-secularizing state had come to be utterly detested by the beginning of the Democrat Party era, mainly because it had challenged the existing value system and also because it had proven unable to bring material benefits to the majority, only its police and gendarmerie.
The Kemalists were to subsequently claim that the center-right forces embarked on a counter-revolutionary project that aimed to roll back all of Kemal Atatürk’s cultural revolution. Even though there is much of Kemalist apologetics in these claims, they are correct in the sense that the democratic pretentions of the right-wing tradition from the Democrat Party to the AKP have been compromised by the mentality of reproducing the inherited patriarchal, conservative structures.
The economic liberalism that came to characterize this Turkey’s main political force – the right – has since the 1980s transformed Turkey by opening its economy to the global capitalist system. The great liberal expectation that now has been shattered – that the neo-liberal structuring of the state and society would finally lay the ground for a liberal-democratic political culture as well – was the main component in the liberals’ uncritical support for the AKP.
IMPLICATIONS: The liberals expected that with the conservative constituency integrated into the capitalist world economy, a liberal-democratic regime would come into being. This expectation was naïve. The “liberalism” that emerged was always strictly attached to the mainstream Turkish conservatism. This alternative synthesis of conservative values and liberal economic policies had already displayed its highly intolerant face during the 1980s, when the military abandoned its previous secularist doctrine and together with Islamist and conservative ideologues re-formulated Turkish national identity through the adoption of the so-called Turkish-Islamic synthesis. That is to say, the liberal intellectuals of the 2000s who were uncritically endorsing the AKP should have been wary in the first place of the conservative and the Islamist circles’ willingness and ability to take the democracy project beyond the purpose of carving out a more prominent place for their own religiously-inspired constituency.
The conservative constituency in Turkey has benefited greatly from the hegemonic narrative which depicts them as being supposedly harassed by the Kemalist state. In this context, the ‘Kemalist state’ becomes the catchword of populist, rightist political articulation which has now managed to conquer the omnipotent state. Seen from this perspective, there is more than enough democracy and tolerance in Turkey now that the Kemalists have been ousted from power.
That there would be groups with legitimate demands for recognition and inalienable rights other than the Muslim conservatives is duly dismissed by the AKP, whose discourse of the national will first reproduces the essentialist idea that all genuine members of the Turkish nation are pious (Sunni) Muslims and, whenever criticized of being intolerant, recalls the crimes of the Kemalists, implying that there could no longer be any legitimate cause for dissent now that the intolerant, elitist, suppressive secularist regime has been wiped out.
Unlike what the liberals have assumed, the conservative constituency in Turkey – although it is by now deeply integrated to the neo-liberal world economy – is very fragile in terms of political liberal components. The ‘freedom’ espoused in this context and by the representatives of this constituency is indeed of a peculiar kind.
The AKP reproduces the Islamic-conservative ideology produced by intellectuals like Ali Bulaç, who genuinely believe that the Western world, and its hegemonic version of modernity, has very little to offer to Turkey. Once this current of thought separated its own concept of freedom from that of the European liberal, Enlightenment-based, and by definition secular tradition, the hollowness of their liberal-democratic discourse became all too apparent.
The Islamists’ and conservatives’ concept of freedom is very different from the idea of what liberal political theorist John Rawls called “reasonable pluralism” at the center of social life in modern liberal democracy.
The Rawlsian idea of reasonable pluralism never became a component of Kemalism either. As Turkish scholar Hakan Yavuz has pointed out, the Kemalists knew very well the hegemonic position of Islam in the Ottoman/Turkish realm, and this is why their secularism was not of an inclusive type like in the U.S., but instead an exclusive one where the state became a vehicle to keep Islam within ‘acceptable’ boundaries. This is usually taken as a clear evidence of the Kemalists’ intolerance, but as has been underscored by Yavuz and many others, it would have been extremely difficult to lay the grounds for democratic regime in Turkey with the inclusive type of secularism due to Islam’s unchallenged monopoly of truth.
The absence of a liberal, “reasonable pluralism” in the Islamic-conservative political tradition – which is defined by the idea that there is solely one moral truth for the Turks as a Muslim nation – means that this tradition cannot be a vehicle for liberalism either. On the contrary, the notion that there is solely one moral truth has become the essential component of AKP’s attempt to create and maintain a coherent socio-political bloc as the basis of its legitimacy and mass-support.
CONCLUSIONS: From the current perspective, the conclusion that imposes itself is that the democratizing potential of the AKP was vastly exaggerated by the Turkey’s liberal intellectuals. The lack of tolerance (liberalism’s ‘reasonable pluralism’) which is integral to the AKP’s discourse of freedom -- and the tendency to reject liberalism’s close affinity to secularism as a provider of non-religious base for negotiating the boundaries within which different value systems may operate -- has produced a neo-liberal version of Islamic conservatism that strongly discourages and even actively represses pluralist expressions.
Now that the Islamic-conservative constituency has managed to conquer the instruments that enable it to impose its own values upon society, the political party that represents this constituency naturally has little inclination to expand liberal pluralism to those persons and groups who challenge the dominant nationalist-conservative-neoliberal order. This should have been predicted by the liberal supporters of the AKP.
The AKP uses this highly internalized conservative articulation in its otherwise very eclectic usage of different ideological traditions. Under these circumstances, the liberal notion of “reasonable pluralism” remains elusive in Turkey.
Toni Alaranta is Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. His most recent publication is Contemporary Kemalism: from universal secular-humanism to extreme Turkish nationalism, Routledge 2014
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov)