BACKGROUND: One of the ideological catchwords of Turkish secular nationalism was “to create a new human being.” He or she was supposed to be secular and “rational”; in particular someone who had internalized the idea that religion was a private matter, not to be mixed with politics or public life in general. This Kemalist vision has been interpreted both as intolerant and elitist or, alternatively, as nothing but a rhetorical device to justify the rule of the Westernized elite. Both interpretations are simplistic and do not capture the very ambiguous relationship between nationalism, liberalism, and communitarianism inherent in Kemalism.
Today, that secularizing vision must be re-evaluated because there is a new – depending on the interpretation preferred – equally strong or rhetorical attempt to create a new human being in Turkey, one that, in the absence of a better term, can be called an “AKP human.”
In evaluating whether this recent desire to forge a new human being is genuine or rhetorical one needs to acknowledge that the first attempt – of building a secular Turk – was indeed genuine. So is the second one. The first attempt has been labeled as futile. However, a new secular constituency was indeed created in Turkey, and no matter how “shallow” this constituency’s attachment to the Western world might have been at some occasions, there is no doubt that republican secular-nationalism did become a genuine worldview. What needs to be analyzed is whether or not the constituency composed of the “AKP humans” has become strong enough to secure the future dominancy of the authoritarian Islamic-conservative Turkish regime.
There are powerful models of explanation both within international relations theory and comparative politics that underscore the difficulty of maintaining a strongly ideological or revisionist state project in today’s world, characterized by complex interdependence. Likewise, the ability of a regime to produce material benefits to its citizens is seen as crucial for the future prospects of any given regime. All this is of course true, but it needs to be understood that these constraining factors can nevertheless leave considerable space for ideological, sometimes even utopian projects. Today’s Turkey is in fact a living proof of this.
IMPLICATIONS: What has been imposed in Turkey during the last years is best defined as a conservative radical-utopian project. Even though it can probably never be realized in the way and to the extent desired by the AKP leadership, the domestic and international environment currently allows the AKP to further its utopian project to considerable lengths. Regarding the first attempt to forge a new human being – a secular Turk – there was an international system allowing and even to some degree encouraging the Kemalist project. On the other hand, domestically this was nonetheless a utopian project; crucially constrained and limited by powerful forces of tradition and inherited forms of political legitimation, as well as socio-economic structures prevailing in Anatolia.
The current utopian project, on the other hand, has successfully exploited a powerful narrative, based on restructured capital accumulation and religiously based nationalism. The domestic structures, being in line with the type of political articulation that was never overcome by the Kemalist forces but which was nevertheless seen as being oppressed and marginalized by the previous state elite, is now a powerful domestic “enabler” or “permissive factor.” The external systemic constraints, in contrast, are to a large extent against the political Islamist project; however not so much that they force the AKP to abandon its cause – most of all because in economic terms the AKP project is a pro-status quo project, well-adjusted to the global capitalist regime.
Further, in intellectual terms, the AKP has benefitted from the abandonment of the modernization and secularization paradigm in Western academia. Especially the European liberal left is characteristically incapable to analyze the current regime in Turkey, mainly because in that intellectual tradition, political Islam is seen either as a liberating force – the rise of the suppressed – or, in its other major version, reduced to socio-economic factors and thus predicted to wither away as soon as its “target constituency’s” economic situation improves, and as its representatives are allowed to get their share of political power. But those who advance these arguments are bewildered by what is happening in Turkey. There, a political Islamist movement has been allowed to rule for over a decade, while at the same time the socio-economic situation of its main support base has improved considerably. So if anywhere, the dictum according to which economic development and political inclusion transforms the political Islamists into liberal democrats should have been witnessed in Turkey. But it has not – quite the contrary.
It would at first sight seem that dominant Western powers – especially the United States – would not tolerate a pan-Islamist regime in Turkey; however, as long as Ankara does not start to confront Western interests directly, these powers have little interest in deterring the AKP’s utopian Islamic-Conservatism.
On the other hand, an argument that is always made regarding the AKP’s neo-imperial vision is that the Arab regimes would not allow Turkey to re-establish its hegemony in the Middle East, and that this can thus only remain a daydream espoused by the AKP enthusiasts. However, two points need to be observed in this regard.
First of all, the AKP has very consciously built Turkey’s state identity as the voice of the oppressed, especially in the Middle East, clearly aspiring to make Turkey the leading Sunni state pushing the pan-Sunni Islamist agenda. Second, even though the regimes of the Middle East (at the moment especially Egypt, obviously Syria, and to lesser extent Saudi Arabia and Iraq) clearly oppose Turkey’s aspirations, the Muslim Brotherhood forces and their affiliates provide a reservoir of popular support base that may, in the long run, give a considerable amount of credibility to AKP’s pan-Sunni Islamist foreign policy. However, at least as important is this pan-Islamist foreign policy’s function as a tool in internal regime legitimation.
The use of foreign policy for domestic purposes is a well-known yet somewhat under-researched topic. There is a fundamentally circular logic at work in this sense: the credibility of the domestic Islamist narrative calls for a foreign policy dimension (that is, the Islamic-conservative narrative bashing the secularist Westernizers requires a foreign policy challenging the West’s legitimacy), while on the other hand this revisionist foreign policy is used to legitimize the intolerant, authoritarian Islamic-conservative rule at home. The idea that the international system illegitimately dominated by the Western powers forced Turkey to abandon its “authentic” Islamic culture after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and replace it with Westernization, is part and parcel of the AKP narrative.
The current dynamics in world politics are such that a considerable degree of space for maneuver is left for Turkey to implement its Islamist grand strategy. In discussing this, the example of Iranian foreign policy during the 1980s and 1990s provides a good comparison, highlighting that Turkey’s Islamist grand strategy and its more immediate cooperation with the NATO and EU are not, in the short term, necessarily mutually exclusive. Iran was a radically revisionist state after its Islamic revolution, advocating its Islamist agenda all over the world. However, even this ideologically driven, revolutionary regime could not afford to reject cooperation with the United States on several occasions, in issues where long term strategic goals demanded short-term cooperation.
It is from this perspective that the U.S. and the EU should learn to look at Turkey under the AKP – a country that is now in the opposite camp ideologically, but with which cooperation is necessary and practically wise on certain issues. This would mean implementing a more realist approach that corresponds with the existing reality – instead of desperately repeating that Turkey is “our key strategic ally.”
CONCLUSIONS: Can the Islamic-Conservative, utopian state project endure? This is the crucial question as Turkey approaches parliamentary elections, to be held on June 7. The whole political system is at stake, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to transform Turkey into a presidential system with no checks and balances. The AKP may not secure a strong enough majority; however, there is little reason to doubt that, as long as the AKP is the biggest party, its leaders will carry on with their mission to build the conservative utopian society they truly believe in.
Even in the case of not being completely supported by other AKP constituencies, these groups, as well as the leading party officials believing in their mission to represent the “true nation,” combine to sustain a permissive and “enabling” political system where Erdoğan and his most enthusiastic “new Turkey” zealots can push their utopian Islamic-Conservative regime forward, to the very limits allowed by the international system.
Now that the Middle East is in flames, Russia openly challenges the West, and the U.S. is unwilling to engage militarily in the Middle East, the international environment may in fact be even more permissive than what is generally assumed.
The Islamic-conservative utopian state project in Turkey is not yet exhausted. However, looking ahead, one may surmise that increasing unemployment and decreasing economic growth are going to test the legitimating power of ideology as never before.
Toni Alaranta, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of the recently published 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).