BACKGROUND: To make the claim that Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) would have anything to do with “Islamic fascism” at first appears astonishing. This is, after all, a party that was for many years defined – by itself and by sympathetic observers in the West – as the Turkish equivalent to Western conservative-democratic parties. The dominant scholarship on modern Turkey has for several decades produced an image of an authoritarian and even fascist Kemalist regime that was ended by the “democratic” Muslims of the AKP. Two fundamental mistakes have thus been committed: one concerns the nature of the regime that the AKP replaced and the second is about the nature of the Islamists.
The narrative peddled by the AKP and its supporters is that the party has ushered in democracy by putting an end to what is portrayed as a regime run by elitist Kemalists, Westernizers who were alien to the culture of their own country, and who for eighty years supposedly suppressed the Anatolian conservative Muslims; and these latter are taken to be the sole and legitimate expression of the popular will.
That there was such a wide expectation that the AKP would indeed usher in pluralist, liberal values and democratization in Turkey was to a considerable degree based on the Turkish liberals’ role in legitimating the party as the “voice of the oppressed.” From their chairs in prestigious universities, for nearly two decades, liberal Turkish academics drummed in the message of how the awful “Kemalist state” was repressing and harassing pious Muslims. In doing this, they uncritically – and certainly very usefully – reproduced and transmitted the most emotionally powerful narrative trope used by the Turkish Islamist movement.
In reality, a “Kemalist state” has not existed in Turkey since the end of the Republican
People’s Party’s (CHP) one-party regime in 1950. With the coming to power of the conservative Democrat Party at that date, the Turkish regime ceased to be based on the idea of radical and utopian modernization; from then on, it has effectively been a nationalist-conservative regime that has made considerable use of religious symbols and themes. In this sense the “normalization” process attached to the AKP was consummated already during the 1950s, when, in the words of British scholar David McDowall, the Democrat Party government “assisted the revival of traditional Islamic values at the heart of the state.”
Secondly, the notion of conservative Anatolian Muslims as a “natural” force that would compel the authoritarian Turkish state to democratize represents an enormous misrepresentation of the Turkish socio-political reality. The tradition of Turkish conservative and Islamist parties is fundamentally undemocratic. If one scratches the surface of the AKP’s ideological background, it becomes clear that the party’s agenda is deeply undemocratic. The only major difference between the current AKP and the previous Islamist parties is that the AKP has learned to adjust its economic policies to the global free market regime. Through economic liberalization, inaugurated by Turgut Özal, prime minister and later president, during the 1980s the Anatolian conservative middle class was integrated to the global economy.
IMPLICATIONS: Those who claim that democracy in Turkey has been handicapped because of the repressive “Kemalist” regime somehow manage to overlook that the conservative right has totally dominated Turkish politics; it is the traditions of the Turkish right that need to be scrutinized in the search for the matrix of current undemocratic practices.
The AKP is in fact a large ideological coalition that has absorbed both the nationalist-conservative tradition – represented by conservatives like Adnan Menderes, Süleyman Demirel and Turgut Özal – and the Islamist tradition that was led by Necmettin Erbakan from the early 1970s to the 1990s. In addition, the AKP until recently collaborated with the movement of Fethullah Gülen, the leading “civil society” component of the Turkish Islamist movement.
Ali Bulaç, who is one of the leading intellectuals within the Gülenist camp, has pointed out that the “political” (AKP and previously the Islamist “National Outlook” parties) and the “cultural” (in particular the Gülen movement) components of Turkey’s Islamist movement share a common ideological background. This common background is the İttihad-i Muhammedi Fırkası (Islamic Union Party) established in 1909, during the Second Constitutional Era of the Ottoman Empire. According to Bulaç, it was within the ranks of this party that Turkish first modern Islamic intellectuals emerged, and they have provided the intellectual basis for both the “political” and the “cultural” manifestations of the Islamic movement.
When one takes a thorough view on the dominant articulation of the religious and conservative constituency from the 1950s to the contemporary AKP, there is nothing that points towards genuine pluralism. The Islamist-conservative poet and political ideologue Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (1904-1983) is in many ways a key figure in this context, and his writings are revealing. Kısakürek is the esteemed partisan of both Turkish nationalist-conservative and Islamist circles. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan especially admires Kısakürek, often reciting his poems in public. Indeed, several representatives of the AKP have stated that understanding Kısakürek is a precondition to understand the great “cause” (“dava”) that the AKP represents. However, the admiration expressed for Kısakürek is ill-boding: he never hid that he hated parliamentary democracy.
Political scientist Taner Timur has recently noted that Kısakürek was not only a poet but an ideologue who propagated for the introduction of a totalitarian Islamist-fascist regime in Turkey, to be ruled by an Islamic version of a Führer, that is, a “supreme leader” (called “Başyüce”).
Erdoğan is yet to implement Kısakürek’s program in detail; but his attempt to establish presidential rule and the way the majority’s Sunni Islamic faith is increasingly presented as the only legitimate expression of the national will is worryingly well in line with Kısakürek’s blueprint for an Islamic-fascist regime.
During the 1950s, Kısakürek published his articles in the magazine Büyük Doğu (Great East), in which he called for the banning of CHP, the Republican People’s Party. It is thus noteworthy that Erdoğan, who has made such an enormous issue about the “Kemalists” always supporting party closures, himself admires a man who called for the banning the political organization of his opponents.
Kısakürek’s writings offer keen insights into the way the Turkish Islamists relate to a notion such as freedom. According to Kısakürek, freedom is not a goal, but a tool, because a human being is not free in that sense: a dog and a donkey are free, but a human being is made by his Creator and thus above a mere nature and its meaningless “freedom.” The Turkish Islamists have not in any way abandoned the basic idea according to which a human being is not “free”: according to the ideological worldview of Islamists, the kind of freedom espoused by European Enlightenment – within which man measures all things by solely depending on his rational mind – is a perversion. Also those who are deemed “moderate” share this worldview.
When key AKP figures speak about their mission, to build a “New Turkey” and to “close a hundred year old parenthesis” – as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has recently said – they refer not only to the Young Turk and Kemalist Westernization project, but to the whole of the modernization project that started in the Ottoman Empire in the latter part of the 18th century. There is a telling statement in this respect in Kısakürek’s key work İdeolocya Örgüsü, (“Plait of Ideology,” published in 1977): “Ever since the Tanzimat [the “Reorganization” reforms of the beginning of the 19th century], the ongoing artificial reforms, and the artificial heroes produced by these reforms, have been the main problem obstructing our cause.”
Also the highly emotional discourse which makes a radical distinction between the elitist, westernized so called “white Turks” and the supposedly “real” and “authentic” nation composed of so called “black Turks,” which has been widely disseminated by AKP and its partisans in pro-government think tanks and media, emanates directly from Kısakürek.
CONCLUSIONS: The earlier assumptions about the AKP – that the party’s political mission and ideology is to produce and disseminate a “healthy synthesis” of Western political thinking and Islamic religious-political traditions – were deeply flawed. From the İttihad-i Muhammedi Fırkası to Necip Fazil Kısakürek and the current AKP, the Turkish Islamist tradition selectively utilizes Western political concepts, but ultimately its purpose is to reject them in order to rebuild an allegedly more superior and legitimate, “authentic” Islamic socio-political order.
The AKP is a deeply anti-western political movement. It does not aim to “correct” or “normalize” past “excesses” but to annihilate the republican and Ottoman secularizing-westernizing reforms altogether. Unlike in previous decades, the Turkish Islamic movement has now made its peace with the state – by totally conquering it. President Erdoğan did not suddenly change from a genuine democrat to an authoritarian Islamist: the ideological and organizational matrix of the AKP is deeply undemocratic.
Toni Alaranta, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of the forthcoming book National and State Identity in Turkey: The Transformation of the Republic’s Status in the International System (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). His previous publications include Contemporary Kemalism: From Universal Secular-Humanism to Extreme Turkish Nationalism (Routledge, 2014).
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0)