Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Will Clinging to the EU and Atatürk Save the AKP?

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By the Editors (vol. 1, no. 5 of the Turkey Analyst) 

Just as it has been faced with the threat of dissolution, the AKP’s faith in Europe has been rekindled. More remarkably, the party is even clinging to the Atatürk legacy in an unprecedented way. The AKP’s change of heart is testimony to the party’s distress. Although displays of “kemalism”, in particular, are confusing, the new rhetoric has not convinced analysts that the party’s ideological orientation has been altered.

BACKGROUND: Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and other leading representatives of the ruling Justice and development party reacted viscerally when the chief prosecutor at the High Appeals court recently submitted his case for the dissolution of the AKP. Plans were made for constitutional amendments – ultimately to be decided in a referendum – changing the composition of the Constitutional court and abridging its rights to ban political parties. Yet, while still keeping its options open, the AKP has instead come to opt for an approach presenting an image of moderation aimed at easing political tensions. The AKP has deployed a dual strategy, on the one hand reconnecting with the European Union, and on the other, going as far as suddenly paying homage to the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

As European leaders and EU officials issue statements of support for the AKP, the government is preparing a re-launch of EU harmonization efforts. The infamous article 301 of the penal code (which criminalizes “insults” to “Turkishness”) is expected to be revised and reforms strengthening women’s and children’s rights are to be enacted. “The only good thing to come out of the court case against the AKP is that both sides – the AKP and the EU – have renewed their relationship”, comments Ertugrul Özkök, editor-in-chief of Hürriyet.

The AKP’s reconnection with the EU is logical and fits well into the traditions of the party. During their first two years in government, the moderate Islamists prioritized relations with Europe. Significant efforts were made to further Turkey’s membership bid. The EU’s decision to initiate membership negotiations with Turkey crowned the AKP government’s policies. Thereafter relations cooled. While European heads of state and government voiced second thoughts about Turkish membership, the Turkish government on its part seemed to have lost much of its initial European zeal. It may be that the 2004 ruling of the European court of Human rights, upholding the ban in Turkish universities on the Islamic headscarf, contributed to cooling the AKP’s attitude towards European institutions. The ruling was in any case a reminder that these institutions could not always be counted on to serve as levers against republican secularism. The government stalled the EU reforms, refraining from making any changes in the penal code, significantly not decriminalizing insults to Turkish identity.

Liberal columnist Cüneyt Ülsever in Hürriyet recently remarked that the AKP “has not lifted a finger for the EU during the past two years”. “Getting a date for the start of membership negotiations was enough for securing its internal and external legitimacy”, speculated Ülsever. Undeniably, Europeanization has given way to a more pronounced religiously conservative orientation, at full display since the general and presidential elections of 2007. Initially however, the European and Islamic tacks ran together.

Breaking with the traditional hostility of Turkish radical Islam to Europe and the West in general, the founders of the AKP assumed the role as the vanguard of the EU in Turkey, and courted European intellectual and political circles. Indeed, the notion of moderate Islamism itself was validated and legitimized by the European orientation of the AKP. The AKP’s EU fervor and the encouragement it received from Europeans bestowed a liberal legitimacy on the party, lending credibility to the break with radical Islamism.

However, it is doubtful whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will succeed in repeating the original feat of the AKP, making the wedding of moderate Islamism and Europeanization credible in the eyes of the secular middle class that mobilized against the government last year, and which is increasingly alienated from the EU. There is no longer a vast reservoir of popular support for EU accession into which the AKP could tap, as it did when first elected in 2002. And given the AKP’s record during the past year, it is inevitable that the question will be raised whether the party, if saved from dissolution, will not revert to policies that subordinate Europeanization to Islamicization.

Above all, the way in which European support for the AKP has been expressed at the present juncture risks being counterproductive. It makes it more, rather than less difficult for the government to dissipate the fears of those who believe secularism to be under threat. The statements of EU officials and European politicians have been interpreted by secular Turkish commentators as one-sided, and as testimony to a mentality which is seen as lacking in secular sensitivity. If perceived as a safeguard of secularism, the EU may be able to accord legitimacy to an AKP which orients itself towards Europe. But with that perception contested, it is unlikely that efforts at Europeanization will secure the AKP.

While there is a certain consistency in the AKP’s rediscovery of Europe, the same cannot be said of Prime Minister Erdogan’s tributes to Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic, and his brand of secularism. Stating that “our nation has no problem with secularism”, and that “secularism was instituted by Atatürk together with the people and has been fully internalized by the people”, Erdogan has seemingly departed from the post-kemalism and the explicit questioning of the Atatürk legacy which had been lauded by not least European observers. Indeed, paying tribute to Atatürk’s secularism contrasts sharply with Erdogan’s rhetoric to date. Only last year, the prime minister stated that “individuals cannot be secular”. Neither did Erdogan distance himself from the speaker of parliament at the time, Bülent Arinc, who called for a “redefinition of secularism”. Erdogan’s reaction to the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling in favor of the ban against the Islamic headscarf in universities – that this was not a matter for European institutions but “something to be decided by the Ulema (Islamic scholars)” – did not indicate any adhesion to secularism.

It is obvious that the tributes to secularism and Atatürk are dictated by tactical necessity. In a spectacular, rather bizarre display of “Kemalism”, the opening of the recent congress of the youth organization of the AKP in Istanbul was accompanied by delegates singing the “10th year march” (a hymn celebrating the 10th anniversary of the republic) and the song “We follow in the steps of Atatürk”. The “un-Islamic” character of the gathering was further underlined by the fact that the delegates were not separated according to gender, which is otherwise customary at AKP gatherings. 

The “10th year march” is not only associated with Atatürk’s achievement; it was recycled by the military during the process that eventually led to the downfall of Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1997. Since then, the march has been a symbol of the secular opposition.

Deemed the “most important political event of the week” by Deniz Baykal, leader of the opposition Republican People’s party, the appropriation of Kemalist songs by the AKP youth has drawn heavy criticism from within the moderate Islamist ranks. Islamist commentators have issued warnings that far from securing the respect of those wanting to close down the party, displaying such “weakness” will only embolden them further.

The “Kemalism” of the AKP is clearly overdone, and it is a telling sign of the party’s distress. But it is also indicative of a phenomenon that transcends the AKP:  the common political use – or rather misuse – of the memory of Atatürk. Atatürk has been appropriated by a wide variety of political movements from left to right. Even a radical Islamist politician such as Necmettin Erbakan used to assert that Atatürk would have been a member of his party had he been alive in the 1990s. The generals in power between 1980 and 1983, who introduced a “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” as state ideology and encouraged Islamic movements as a counterforce to Communism, concurrently never stopped referring to “Atatürkism”, inserting it into the constitution.

Opposition leader Deniz Baykal rejoiced in AKP’s clinging to Atatürk: “Atatürk was such a great man that even they (the moderate Islamists) have to concede to his ideas and force eighty years later.” However, there is little to indicate that the AKP is conceding to the ideological heritage of Atatürk.  Rather, Erdogan has had to acknowledge the impossibility of surmounting the founder of the republic as a symbol of the nation. As AKP member of parliament Zafer Üskül put it last year, “Atatürk is our founder and our common value. But there is no need to make place for his principles and reforms as an ideology in the constitution”. 

Paying allegiance to secularism does not dispense with the need to define its content. Foreign Minister Ali Babacan stated last week that it is a problem that there is no clear definition of secularism. As other AKP representatives have done before, Babacan declared “I see it as freedom of religion”. Secular critics of the AKP have countered that freedom of religion has in fact never been restricted, that nothing has prevented Muslims from fulfilling their religious obligations. What Turkish secularism has done – in principle, though not consistently in practice – is that it has restricted the freedom of religion to interfere in public affairs. Taha Akyol, a prominent conservative columnist in Milliyetsupporting the AKP, recently gave a clue as to what the redefinition of secularism sought by the AKP would entail: Calling for the introduction of “democratic secularism”, Akyol writes that old fashioned secularism which confines religion to “the conscience and the shrine” should be abandoned.

CONCLUSIONS: The AKP can be expected to go to great lengths in order to disarm the case against it. As a way of defusing the regime crisis triggered by the lifting of the ban on the Islamic headscarf in the universities, constitutional amendments pointing out that the symbols of radical Islam will remain banned from elementary and secondary schools as well as from public offices are said to be under preparation. Ultimately, however, Turkey will not come to rest until religious conservatism has made its peace with the confinement of religion to the conscience and the shrine.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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