BACKGROUND: The unprecedented intra-party conflict that has erupted within the Justice and Development Party (AKP) creates the impression that Turkey’s ruling party is in the throes of a deep crisis that could even end up costing the party its majority in the upcoming June parliamentary elections. There is no doubt that AKP is experiencing a crisis of a kind that the party has not known since its founding in 2001. However, the main components of the AKP’s ideological “winning bloc” have far from disappeared. They ensure that the party continues to have a hegemonic hold on Turkey, which neutralizes the effects of intra-party polemics.
The ideological character of the present Turkish regime is conveyed in the following statement: “In our civilization and culture, all books are written in order to explain the Quran.” This is not a statement delivered by some medieval Islamic scholar or by someone like Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but by an AKP deputy and Deputy Parliamentary Group Chair, Mahir Ünal, during a book fair in Turkey in December 2014. As it is obvious that not all books by Turkish authors have in reality been written in order to explain the Quran, what the statement suggests is that only those who think this way are the real representatives of “our civilization and culture.” In all its simplicity, this statement sums up the core proposition of political Islam.
In addition to explicitly asserting that there is a distinct Islamic civilization that Turkey belongs to, the statement of the AKP representative further makes the claim that the Quran is an unchallenged guide not only to an individual believer but also to the political community.
Statements like these are now commonplace in Turkey. Rather than being isolated expressions of a few individual politicians, they reflect something that is at the heart of politics: an attempt to nurture a collective political consciousness that underpins power. Thus, even though appearing nonsensical and anachronistic, these statements in fact have their own inherent logic; they are the tools of an indoctrination that produces and maintains a collective political actor. And the same Islamic-conservative thinking shines through also those statements that purport to tone down the Islamic ideological aspects of the AKP.
In the AKP’s self-definition, the party represents “conservative democracy”. In the party’s official 2023 political manifesto this is defined by specifying that conservative democracy rejects all attempts to change society from above, and instead defends change that takes place through a natural, gradual process. Only this kind of transformation is seen as genuine and defensible. Conservative democracy entails seeing the interruption of socio-economic, cultural, and political patterns, or the replacement of historical institutions and practices, as unacceptable.
Part of the AKP’s self-identification as a “conservative democrat” party is the claim that the AKP has carried through “system normalization” in Turkey. According to this account, Turkish political life had until AKP been characterized by tensions produced by conflicts between religion and politics; tradition and modernity; religion and the state; and between the state, society and the individual. These tensions are seen as the reason why democracy in Turkey was limited in the past and account for the great pain that has historically been inflicted on the country. “Normalizing” the political system means ending tutelary practices, and freeing society.
IMPLICATIONS: However, talking about “normalization” serves to effectively cover that the AKP has managed to create a situation where politically manipulated, transient, historical phenomena are seen as natural – and this is precisely what successful political ideologies do.
One may for instance pay attention to what Nureddin Nebati, an AKP deputy, says: He observes that the AKP originates directly from the Islamic “National Outlook” movement, Turkey’s own tradition of political Islam, and he underlines that “every movement is defined by its own history”. However, in line with the conventional discourse of the AKP, he argues that the party re-evaluated this tradition and started to utilize more inclusive political discourse, thus becoming the party of the whole of Turkey. In this view, the claim that Turkey is becoming more conservative is inadequate. Instead, “Turkey is only becoming itself”. And Turkey’s true self is religious and conservative. In other words, what the AKP has done is to enable Turkey to live its true identity.
The AKP sees Turkey as a naturally devout and conservative nation. This undeniable state of affairs cannot and should not be altered. As is explicitly stated in the AKP’s “2023 manifesto”, all attempts to engage in social engineering or otherwise intervene in the “natural” forms of culture and society are deemed dangerous, harmful, and wrong.
However, this essentialist conservatism would have been insufficient to achieve hegemony in contemporary Turkey. To this end, conservatism needed to be wedded to the strong nationalism that has historically characterized all Turkish parties.
There are several nationalist discourses in Turkey – leftist and rightist – but they all share an uncompromising anti-Westernism. The extreme anti-imperialism of the nationalist-leftist version of Kemalism has catered to the feelings of xenophobia, self-victimization, and ultra-nationalism among part of the Kemalist-minded constituency. However, more significant in terms of the number of followers and social justification are the anti-Western and Muslim Turkish nationalism espoused by the nationalist far-right, and the anti-Western and also highly anti-Semitic tradition of the Islamist National Outlook movement. For a while, during the early era of its existence, it seemed as if the AKP had broken with this tradition. However, the nationalist and anti-western discourse has made a comeback in recent years as it has come to be widely disseminated by the AKP leadership, especially by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
After a few years marked by an internationalist and liberal discourse, the AKP has fully embraced the strongly anti-Western stance inherited from its National Outlook roots, thus potentially broadening its appeal in society. Above all, the merger of Islamic conservatism and Turkish nationalism that the Islamic conservatives have operated has provided the regime with an extremely useful ideological tool. The essentialist Islamic conservative nationalism accomplishes two things: it creates and sustains a collectivity – the “natural” Muslim Turkish nation – and its opposite – a threatening domestic “other” against which the true nation must and has the right to defend itself.
Within this narrative, all those who oppose the Islamic conservatives in power can be depicted as defenders of an elitist and undemocratic “tutelary regime” against the “genuine Turkish nation.” During the Gezi protests of 2013, it was indeed this discourse that the AKP leadership utilized in the attempt to depict the demonstrators as artificial and as somehow alien to the true Turkish nation. This discourse now includes the Gülenists, an Islamic community itself, as well.
One crucial aspect of the Islamic conservative-Turkish nationalist discourse is the appropriation of the founder of the state, the secularist Kemal Atatürk. In this discourse, Atatürk is not a Westernizer, but “Gazi,” the warrior of the Muslim faith. In the worldview of the Turkish Islamists, Atatürk is the national hero and savior who not only prevented the partition of the Muslim fatherland but also put an end to the treacherous activity of “Jews and Freemasons” whose political designs had rendered the Ottoman sultans as powerless marionettes in the hands of Western imperialists. This is why the “rotten Ottoman tree” had to be cut down. Atatürk successfully accomplished this task, after which the glorious Ottoman-Turkish Islamic civilization could take its revenge and re-establish its power in the world.
Accordingly, the Anatolian resistance struggle that Atatürk led was not only about a national independence war but was as much, if not more, a religious war. In this war, Islam fought against Christendom and this was the final battle in a war that had lasted for 1 400 years. It is noteworthy that Erdoğan repeated this confrontational interpretation of history during the recent commemorations of the centennial of the Gallipoli victory 1915.
CONCLUSIONS: According to the Islamic conservative narrative, those who are depicted as “pseudo-Kemalists” have distorted Atatürk’s allegedly true mission, to save Turkey as an Islamic power, and have always wrongly claimed that Kemalism was meant to stand for Westernization. What thus emerges is a historical interpretation that frames Atatürk squarely within the Islamist camp. By laying claim to Atatürk, the unrivaled national hero, the Islamic-Turkish nationalist narrative endeavors to further isolate Turkey’s Western-oriented section from the “true nation;” by singling out the Westernizers as traitors to Atatürk’s supposedly real goals, the politically powerful image of a “domestic other” that threatens the Muslim Turkish national self is further enriched.
As the June 2015 parliamentary elections are approaching, this discourse is utilized more consistently than ever before. By constantly conjuring the specter of an imagined, threatening “domestic other,” the essentialist Islamic conservative Turkish nationalism of AKP has been able to form and sustain a collective political actor that is not going to be easily undermined by day-to-day intra-party polemics.
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)