BACKGROUND: The polls indicate that the Justice and Development party (AKP) is set to retain its position as the leading party in the upcoming June 7 general election. However, the party that has governed Turkey since 2002 is not expected to attain the levels close to fifty percent that it did in the 2007 and 2011 general elections. According to a recent survey, the major concern of the voters is the economy and high unemployment, 48 percent saying that they think the economy is worsening. For the first time since 1990, there is a shift to the left: 24 percent of respondents define themselves as standing to the left, up from 15 percent in 2002. 40 percent are to the right, down from 47 percent in 2007.
The rise of the left is not simply a reflection of the discontent with the economic policies of the conservative AKP. There was no move to the left of opinion during the 1990s when the Turkish economy was in a permanent state of crisis. That was because there was another alternative that canalized working class discontent away from the left: political Islam. The Islamist Welfare Party (RP) under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan became Turkey’s leading party in local and general elections in the mid-1990s as it succeeded in capturing the urban poor and the working class that in the 1960s and 1970s had voted social democratic. That latter alternative had been brutally crushed by the military junta in the 1980s, which opened the way for the rise of the Islamists.
The fact that there is an increase for the first time in twenty five years of the percentage of those who identify themselves as standing to the left is suggestive of an ideological sea-change underway. What this shift above all shows is that Islamic identity politics no longer automatically absorb popular discontent with the capitalist system. That is because the Islamic movement – after the outbreak of the turf war in 2012-2013 between AKP and the Fethullah Gülen fraternity – to all intents and purposes is a spent moral force.
The Islamists came to power and then kept it in successive elections not only because they represented managerial competence, but also because the Islamic “cause” (dava), the promise of a “New Turkey,” supposedly prosperous as well as pious and socially just, captured the imagination of broad, popular masses. Not only is managerial competence called into question today, but more consequentially, the Islamists have forfeited the moral high ground.
While the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself have become tainted by the accusations of corruption, the Gülenists have been exposed as a dangerous secret society that has no moral qualms about using any methods whatsoever in its bid to usurp power. The dirty war that the erstwhile Islamist allies have been waging against each other has sapped the moral authority of both protagonists, fatally undermining, in the eyes of the deeply pious part of the population, their pretentions of representing a supposed, higher morality.
IMPLICATIONS: That is ultimately why more people have started to define themselves as being of the left. The damage is not confined to these two Islamic movements; it is inevitable that henceforth, anyone seeking political legitimacy by appealing to religious sentiments is going to be met with a certain suspicion. Playing the Islamic card is no longer going to pay off as handsomely as has been the case for several decades. What is called into question in the wake of the moral self-destruction of the Islamic movement(s) is nothing but the central assumption that has informed Turkish politics since the 1940s – that Islam is indispensable for the protection of the capitalist system.
Islam and neo-liberalism are the two legs of the state ideology that has been in place in since the 1980 military coup; capitalist interests have enjoyed unrestricted liberty of action, and the popular masses’ acquiescence have been secured with Islamic identity politics. The bourgeois parties that have enjoyed monopoly on government power have typically kept working-class voters onside by appealing to them on social and religious identity issues. What has distinguished AKP is only that it has been the most successful of these rightist parties.
The working class has been encouraged to stick to the mosque congregation instead of joining the trade unions (whose activities are strictly limited), and as pious believers accept low wages, appalling working conditions and the lack of basic employment rights as part of fate. As “opium for the people,” Islamic identity politics has been an invaluable instrument for maintaining capitalist hegemony.
The indispensability of Islam for the system was recognized early on: In 1946, Hamdullah Suphi Tanrıöver, a leading deputy of the ruling Republican People’s Party (CHP), presented a motion in parliament, calling for religious education with a view to ensuring “moral resistance against the threat of communism.” In the 1980s, Kenan Evren, the coup leader, read out passages from the Quran, and cited the examples of the Prophet Muhammad, urging the youth and the workers to embrace religion instead of falling for the sirens of “perverse ideologies.”
Last week, Erdoğan, on a campaign tour in the Kurdish southeast of the country, took the tactic of using religion as the supreme power instrument a step further when he delivered speeches with a copy of the Quran (in Kurdish translation) in his hand. The representatives of the opposition parties denounced Erdoğan, saying that he was exploiting religion, pointing out that not even Erbakan, the founder of political Islam in Turkey, had used the Quran like that. It was not a coincidence that Erdoğan displayed the Quran in speeches in the Kurdish region; that is part of his strategy to woo the deeply conservative Kurdish constituency away from the pro-Kurdish but secular and leftist People’s Democracy Party (HDP) in the upcoming election.
That may win Erdoğan’s AKP some votes. Yet the rationale for Islamization in the service of the capitalist system is no longer as strong as it used to be. While the moral self-destruction of the Islamic movement(s) is undermining Islamic identity politics, making referring to Islam less effective as a method for keeping the working class away from the left, Islamic conservatism is also becoming partly counter-productive from a capitalist perspective: If Turkish capitalism is to move to the next stage of development, with more value-added production – absent which Turkish companies will not be able to compete successfully on world markets – it will need an environment in which innovation is fostered, the education system is geared to raise students in science – and not as is increasingly the case today, in religion – and increased female participation in the workforce. The social and religious conservatism that is the hallmark of the “New Turkey” of AKP is conducive to none of this.
Historically in Turkey, hurdles in the way of capitalist development have as a rule always been cleared. This would suggest that Islamic conservatism and state-run Islamization has no future. However, for the first time in Turkey, the religious factor may be escaping the control of the system. The AKP’s “innovation” has not been Islamization or the use of religion for power purposes, but its invitation of a sectarianism – through its foreign policies – that has exposed Turkey to the risk of sectarian conflict in society.
Erdoğan crossed the Rubicon in the wake of the “Arab Spring:” He and his lieutenant Ahmet Davutoğlu got carried away by the enticing prospect of restoring Turkish imperial grandeur; they imagined Turkey becoming the leading Sunni power of the Middle East, its position bolstered by the emergence of allied Muslim Brotherhood regimes from Cairo to Damascus. But when Turkey became a principal sponsor of the Sunni extremist rebellion in Syria, the sectarian fault-line inside Turkey – between Sunnis and Alevis, heterodox Muslims – was also activated.
Erdoğan’s Sunni regime has indirectly, and sometimes explicitly, singled out the Alevis, against whom discrimination has become widespread during the AKP’ rule, as the “other”. Turkey is now caught in a vicious circle: Alevis are increasingly giving vent to their resentment, which in turn risks triggering Sunni reactions against them.
Recently, in an unprecedented show of force, Alevis advanced their positions in the opposition CHP when the party selected its candidates for the upcoming general election; as a result, more than a third of CHP’s parliamentary group are going to be Alevis, for the first time bringing their total number in the next parliament – together with the Alevis in the Kurdish HDP – to a level that is commensurate with their proportion of the population. A higher Alevi political profile is bound to draw the ire of the Sunnis, who tend to hold the Alevis in utter contempt.
CONCLUSIONS: Islamic identity politics are no longer as effective in holding back the left, since they have been discredited by the moral self-destruction of the Islamists. Meanwhile, continued Islamization may in one sense have become counter-productive for Turkish capitalism. But even though the Islamists no longer occupy the moral high ground, and even if Islamization to a certain extent may have ceased to fulfill the systemic purposes it has historically done, what beckons is not the disappearance of the Islamic factor, but its irruption in new, uncontrolled form. The principal legacy of “New Turkey” is the portentous exacerbation of sectarianism.
Halil Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Editor of the Turkey Analyst, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons)