"Is AKP a reformed Islamist party leading its country towards the European Union and European principles?
By İsmail Duman, World Bulletin
“Is AKP a reformed Islamist party leading its country towards the European Union and European principles? Or is it an Islamist party disguised as a reform party leading its country towards a fulsome embrace of political Islam?” asks Jonathan Kolieb in the name of the people who have not an exact definition about Turkey’s AKP(Justice and Development Party).
On the other hand, according to Bulat Akhmetkarimov, “Many observers of Turkish political life have argued that secular foundations of Turkey have been significantly challenged since the 1970s and tensions between secularists and ‘Islamists’ reached apogee during the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).”
Nowadays, Turkey’s political history is witnessing one of the most interesting periods under the rule of AKP government. On the one hand, secular elites try to describe the dynamics of AKP in the light of its both domestic and foreign policies; on the other hand, Muslim groups have confusion about the identity of AKP. Is it an Islamic party or a liberal party? Although it describes itself as a conservative democratic party, Islamic backgrounds of its leaders and emphasizes on Islamic values cause some question marks in people’s mind.
There is no any other period in which many opponent groups who are both Muslims and leftists are so incorporated into ‘the system’. Thus, AKP’s eight years deserve to be questioned in terms of domestic and foreign policies and its relations with global system.
The Emergence of the AKP
As is known, after the closure of the Fazilet Party, which had been led by the Islamic leader Necmeddin Erbakan, after a postmodern coup in February 28th 1997, a group led by the current Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul split from Erbakan’s Islamic movement, Milli Gorus (National Consideration), and formed the AKP on August 14, 2001.
What are the causes of this separation? Although we can simply say that there were ideological reasons, this cannot be a selective analysis. According to Soner Cagaptay, “The AKP has roots in Turkey’s Islamist movement, including the Welfare Party (RP), the mother ship of Turkish Islamism. The AKP’s founders, including party leader and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cut their teeth in the RP, an explicitly Islamist party, which featured strong anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and anti-secular elements” because “Erdogan and his comrades drew a lesson from this experience(the closure of the party); the Turkish Islamists would be better served to reinvent themselves in order to be successful. In due course, Erdogan re-created the party with a pro-American, pro-EU, capitalist and reformist image”.
I think, here, it can be an important step to give an ear to Ozan Örmeci in order to understand the main causes of separation between Erbakan’s group and Erdogan’s group:
“While comparing the two important Islamic parties, it is worth to take into account some concepts defined by Daniel Brumberg. He mainly distinguishes the types of Islamism into three categories; namely ‘radical or militant fundamentalism, reformist fundamentalism and strategic modernism or Islamic Liberalism’. Accordingly, parties who pursue radical fundamentalism aimed at changing the system of the country through force and at the end form a regime based on Islamic laws. In reformist fundamentalism, the parties have the same aim with the radical fundamentalist that is establishing a state based on Islamic laws but those parties pursue moderate policies and continuously reject violence. In other words, through establishing mass electoral support they try to win the elections and construct a hidden agenda. This is also called dissimulation (takiyye). On the other hand, ‘Islamic Liberals, which are quite rare in the Middle East, seek to extend religious freedoms in a broadly democratic environment.’ Unlike the radical and reformist fundamentals, Islamic Liberals do not aim at forming an Islamic state. Instead of doing this they try to co-exist with the secular establishment of the state. In this sense, we can call WP a reformist fundamentalist party having some elements of militant fundamentalism and JDP an Islamic Liberal party carrying some aspects of reformist fundamentalist party by looking at analyzing their policies and the deeds of their leaders.”
When we look at differences between the preferences of two parties, we cannot only say that this is a simple separation. I think, we should read this process in the light of changing global system projects. In Turkey, whenever political Islam has gained a power, some liberal-religious parties have emerged. I am evaluating Democratic Party, Motherland Party and lastly AKP in a same picture. In last period, AKP has liberalized many ‘radical’ groups successfully. So, when we describe its position, we should more focus on its dynamics. As Seyfeddin Kara says, “AKP’s official program and ideology are not dissimilar to many political party platforms in the West. The AKP adheres to ‘democratization’ and civil society, rule of law, fundamental rights of freedom, and liberal economic policy. The official party program has no reference to Islam or Muslims and none of the policies have had any Islamic discourse. Even the leader of the party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is known for his Islamic background, has so far not made any statement indicating an Islamic agenda. Yet it has been branded by Western analysts to be an ‘Islamist’ party.”
Then, we should ask this question: How is it possible to entitle AKP as an Islamist party?
The Agenda of the AKP
As Ozan Örmeci has said, the AKP has sought to bring morality, integrity and democracy to the forefront of politics, and to meld values based on a religious belief system with the contemporary vision of a secular Turkey moving forward toward further Westernization and full membership in the European Union. Prime Minister Erdoğan has put forth considerable effort to strength the ties with the West.
“Contrary to widespread stereotyping, the AKP barely fits the image of a Muslim Democrat party. Probably, much better it presents an image of a unifying centrist party that gets electoral support from all segments of the society across the country. The Turkish prime minister and leader of the AKP, Erdogan, refused various descriptions and repeatedly stated that his party supported a liberal regime based on laicism. Many of the AKP officials have also rejected their ties with earlier Islamist parties in Turkish history and referred to the Justice and Development Party as a conservative democratic party.” says Bulat Akhmetkarimov. “Looking at the AKP’s own discourse and performance, the Justice and Development Party cannot be regarded as even mildly Islamist. Rather, it seems to be a party aimed at preserving traditional cultural values and advocating liberal tenets in politics.... Contrary to widespread accusations, the AKP has never attempted to install or even discussed the possibility of adopting Sharia law.”
So, when we evaluate its agenda, we can say that AKP has a very liberal agenda. Although leader of the AKP, Erdogan, mentions the rights of the headscarved students, he describes this right in terms of EU standards. Although it seems that many problems have been solved in favour of Muslims, actually, it does not stem from AKP’s Islamic agenda. On the contrary, it evaluates these issues in the context of civil liberties in relation to EU. Interestingly, although many opponent groups, both Muslims and leftists, have remained out of the line in Motherland Period in 1990s, today; they are active members of this process. So, this period is very interesting in order to be questioned. While seculars say that the AKP is the member of a transformation of the global Muslim community from a cultural-religious one into a religious-political one, today, we are witnessing that AKP’s performance and actions do not stem from their dissimulation (takiyye).
When we look at the AKP’s agenda more deeply, we come across two issues; one is economic policies and the other is civil rights. The AKP was born in the midst of a Turkish economic crisis which took the country to the brink of bankruptcy; but it tried to solve this problem by undertaking bold economic reforms and a liberal market economy approach. On the other hand, in AKP rule, civil liberties and freedom of expression have greatly improved. Again also, as Seyfeddin Kara says, “The AKP has also significantly curbed the influence of the Turkish army that had formerly held great sway over political affairs and carried out four coup d’états.” But, when we evaluate this picture, we can see that they are all liberal reforms, not Islamic reforms. This should be taken into more account.
Criticisms of the Secular Elites
The role of the AKP in the political arena has mainly discomfort Turkey’s secular elites. According to them, AKP’s political actions aim to change the regime which was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Actually, the article of Soner Cagaptay entitled “Turkey’s transformation under AKP: Rise and demise of moderate Islamism” represents the anxieties of Turkey’s secular elites.
“Ever since the sultans started to Westernize the Ottoman Empire in the 1770′s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk continued these reforms making Turkey a secular republic in the 1920′s, and the various political parties of the Turkish democracy in the twentieth century cast their dice with the West, the Turks have adopted a pro-Western stance in foreign policy, embraced secular democracy at home, and marched towards the European Union (EU). But, today, THIS IS CHANGING” says Cagaptay.
With a reference to a recent poll by TESEV, which says that the number of people identifying themselves as Muslim increased by ten percent between 2002 and 2007; in addition, almost half of those surveyed describe themselves as Islamist, seculars ask this question: Where is Turkey heading under the AKP, and what are the lessons that can be drawn from the AKP experience?
There is an agreement between all the groups that “The AKP firstly promoted reforms, pro-business and pro-EU policies after coming to power.” But according to Soner Cagaptay, “soon the party’s transformation appeared to be a cynical one. The AKP began to undermine the liberal values it supposedly stood for. For instance, it began to hire top bureaucrats from an exclusive pool of practicing, religious conservatives.”
As Alex Stevenson emphasizes, secular elites think that ‘after the Gul episode returned the party to power with a strengthened hold over parliament, the AKP's party changed. Now it is state-oriented, pursuing "Islamic populism", and paying only "lip service" to the EU accession process.’
According to them, in parallel with Ergenekon case, the effective elimination of military and court pressures against the AKP has hastened the party’s return to its core values. The AKP began abandoning its displays of pluralism, dismissing dissent, ignoring checks and balances, and condemning the media for daring to criticize them.
While AKP claims that Ergenekon case is a step to advance towards EU, secular elites see this picture as an elimination of main owners of the Kemalist regime. For them, elimination of opponent media is another step which follows the elimination of military and judiciary institutions.
On the other hand, according to these criticisms, the AKP is shaping its own agenda and regime. As an example to this argument, they mention the new elites of AKP. “The AKP has become Turkey’s new elite in charge politically, economically, and socially. The party is supported by a growing business community, which it nurtures through government contracts that are awarded by using orthopraxy as a yard stick“ says Soner Cagaptay. “As the new elite, the proverbial ‘wind over the Anatolian landscape’ the AKP is shaping Turkish society in its own image, promoting orthopraxy through administrative acts. Accordingly, it is not religiosity that is on the rise in Turkey — i.e., the number of people attending mosque services or praying — but rather government-infused social conservatism.”
It is very interesting point that although they know that the actions of the AKP do not aim to radicalize people, they discomfort ‘government-infused social conservatism’. I think, ‘social conservatism’ concept is important to think over it because with this concept, the AKP represent a new type of a group, neither Islamist nor secularist.
Interestingly, at the same time, the foreign policy of the AKP is very debatable for secular elites. As a main opponent of American-EU regimes, Iran tries to enter into good connection with Turkey. And today, Turkey’s giving green light to Iran has been causing to important criticism. On the other hand, the support of the AKP for Hamas and Palestinians is also controversial. “Far from being the gateway to a long-standing alliance, Turkey's new engagement with the Middle East and vocal support for the Palestinians could trigger Iranian suspicions and eventually restore the formerly competitive relationship between the two countries” says Cagaptay.
As a conclusion for secular groups, “In Turkey, the AKP has shifted Turkish foreign policy away from the West, helped catalyze a transformation of the Turkish identity towards Islamist causes, and is busy imposing an illiberal view of society, defined by orthopraxy as well as a disregard for check and balances”.
Criticisms of the Islamists
As Seyfeddin Kara said, in a short time, the AKP was embraced by most of the supporters of Erbakan’s Milli Gorus movement, conservatives, democrats, Sufis and some moderate nationalists and leftists. This picture is a very new position for Turkey’s political arena.
I think that ‘social conservatism’ concept can be very definitive in order to understand this picture. Today, some people, who were against the Kemalist regime and they had never goes to polls because of the corruption in the regime, began to join the AKP.
There is, according to some Islamists, an important problem because people began to abandon their ideals at the expense of conservative thoughts. For new conservative people, every thought can be blurred because liberal thought needs to respect for other thoughts. Actually, this is a new global project within neo-liberal times. We should think over it more and more.
According to Akif Emre, a columnist in Turkey’s Yeni Safak Newspaper, the AKP has changed the understandings of the people about thoughts on laicism. “Any person can deny that people who were accused of engaging in deception underwent a transformation about their political discourse, especially about the issues like the relation between politics and the religion.” says Akif Emre. “The AKP stands in front of us as a party which underwent a transformation in favor of the system(regime).”
On the other hand, evaluations of Atasoy Muftuoglu, who is well known Islamist writer, are very important in order to understand the criticisms of Islamists: “The lives, intellects and perceptions of the dependent existences are governed by the sovereign authority. So, as a dependent to America and Israel, Turkey’s emotional responding rather than real responding against to Israel and America is a sign of its dependent to these powers.”
I think, here, giving an ear to Seyfeddin Kara can be very productive in order to describe the problems of Islamist with the AKP:
“There remain some areas in which the AKP has performed poorly during its eight-year rule, thus prompting criticism from some intellectuals and activists.
The AKP has failed to implement a social justice policy. Using the principle of a liberal capitalist economic model, the AKP distributed wealth disproportionately. The party has been implementing controversial International Monitory Fund (IMF) dictated policies which prioritise the rights and prosperity of capitalist elites. Consequently, the working class and civil servants have continued to suffer under the IMF regime. Due to intensifying criticism in March 2010, the government announced that it would not sign a stand-by agreement with the IMF; however the same policies remain in place.
There have been limited developments in terms of religious freedoms, especially the rights of practicing Muslims. A strictly implemented headscarf ban still exists at schools, universities, work places and official institutions. There have been great restrictions for students of the Imam-Hatip School (semi-Islamic vocational schools) in their entry bid to Higher Education and difficulties remain for opening of Qur’an schools.
Despite ameliorating the fundamental rights and freedoms of other groups, Muslims so far remain left out. In 2008, an unsuccessful attempt was made to remove the headscarf ban. The AKP-dominated National Assembly enacted a short-lived amendment to the law annulling the headscarf ban. However, in June 2008 the Constitutional Court overturned the amendment on the grounds that it contradicted the founding principles of the constitution.
Failure to embrace the rights of Muslims has put the AKP in a strategic dilemma domestically as it could not deliver promises made to its grassroot supporters. Since the first days of its rule, the AKP has followed pro-EU policies which it has used as a tool to curb the influence of the military and secular oligarchy. Hence, rights and freedoms have been granted according to EU standards. The policy worked fairly well for weakening the “internal foes” but did not do much to recognize the rights of its allies. The EU, due to its own Islamophobic stance, showed no interest in pressing for the rights and freedoms of Muslims.
Although the AKP has managed to contain some aspects of the widespread corruption in politics, it has not been able to erase it from the system. At lower levels, some party members have been exposed to corruption. Critics also argue that the AKP has created its own wealthy class by awarding lucrative business contracts. Many party members suddenly became wealthy, jumping through social classes. The extravagant lifestyle of these members has been exposed in the media, sharpening the tone of critical voices against the AKP. “
New elites and the green bourgeoisie
As Seyfeddin Kara emphasizes in his third point, there is a new wealthy class which is related with AKP. This point is very supportive in order to claim that the AKP is a liberal project rather than Islamic project because in global system, every global project wants to shape a new elite group rather than identified groups.
The Hurriyet Daily News, Turkish newspaper, has prepared a file about this issue. This file is very interesting with its examples.
“It helps to be pious when doing business with Erdoğan’s government, says Hakan Kalkan, who helps oversee $1 billion in investments at Autonomy Capital Research in London. “Let’s say you want some business from the government; you’re going to have to act a little more religious now,” he says. The success of these enterprises has begun to create wealth approaching that of older business dynasties.”
With the conservative democrat identity of the AKP, there emerged new type of Muslim profiles. Today, there are many people with Islamic identity who are in the same areas with the secular elites. According to Morton Abramowitz and Henri J. Barkey, “Turkey has always been a conservative country, and the vast majority of Turks have traditionally voted for center-right parties. The rise of the AKP represents a struggle between the military and civilian bureaucratic elites -- which have controlled the state and the economy since independence -- and the new, largely provincial and pious middle class. This new bourgeoisie took advantage of the market reforms of the 1980s to build an export-driven industrial base in the backwater of Anatolia. As its wealth grew, it began to challenge the economic elites traditionally favored by the state and its military backers.”
The Hurriyet Daily News discusses this new elite group with examples so:
“Kiler Holding, which built this $250 million blue glass tower, the tallest in Europe outside of Moscow, was primarily a grocery operator as recently as a decade ago. Since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became Turkey’s prime minister in 2003, beginning a period in which gross domestic product per capita has climbed by 150 percent, the company has expanded into construction, energy and tourism and tripled its revenue.
‘Today we are among the biggest companies in the construction sector,’ Kiler says.
Kiler Holding is one of a crop of companies, thriving under Erdoğan that threaten to overshadow the business dynasties that have dominated Turkey for decades. ‘We’ve seen a lot of them being very successful, even in sectors where they weren’t involved at all,’ says Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst who tracks Turkish politics at Eurasia Group in London.”
On the other hand, Rizanur Meral, who runs Tuskon, one of the Islamic business groups that works with the government promoting Turkish industry, says complaints about favoritism are misplaced. Newly successful Turkish companies, including members of Tuskon, have been far-sighted and smart. “They are reading the world of politics and economics much better than anyone else,” he says.
According to Ozan Örmeci, the Welfare Party and the Justice and Development Party at first glance seem to have much in common as Islamist parties, but given a closer look, the differences in many areas outweigh the similarities. “Looking at three examples of these differences – the first issue is the development of further relationships with Islamic countries versus Western countries. While the Welfare Party was quite determined to make a statement to the world of wishing stronger ties with Islamic countries, the JDP has maintained close relations with the West while also keeping friendly relations with the Islamic countries when possible. The top priority of EU membership is undoubtedly a strong factor in this position of the JDP’s foreign relation policies.
Secondly, while both governments desired an improvement of the vocational/religious schools, and passed legislation accordingly, the WP was very forceful in implementing changes in the number of Prayer Leaders and Preacher Schools and the Koran courses that were offered, while the AKP(JDP) did not force the legislation to pass and has put this issue on the “back political burner” at the current time. The third issue – that of wearing headscarves in the public arena has been handled entirely differently – the WP once again forcing the allowance of headscarves in the public, which in part contributed to their political demise by the military, but the JDP has not made this an issue to do battle over; rather having remained sensitive to the wishes of the secular state and downplayed the issue as much as possible.”
Örmeci’s conclusion is very remarkable: “The final conclusion that can be drawn from these comparisons is that the Justice and Development Party, while having strong personal religious beliefs, truly believes Islam and secularism can co-exist, and has hopes for the future, as stated by Prime Minister Erdoğan, “I dream of a Turkey which will be the strongest bridge between civilizations”.
Although Ozan Örmeci made an entry for this article so: After the victory of AKP in 2007 general elections, the party’s liberal Islamism quickly turned into reformist fundamentalism in many areas including foreign policy, internal policy and cultural policies, and AKP started to act differently. But, actually, I could not see any structural differences between the actions of AKP before 2007 elections and after this election.
After referendum success, this issue has been debated most times. But, although I accept the differences between AKP’s operations, in my opinion, this new type of discourse is very romantic and nostalgic because main reference sources of AKP are very liberal. So its dependent to global system prevents the AKP from acting freely.
There are some people who claim that this regime will change gradually. This is very wrong argument because states always possess a melting effect. We can see this melting process in the AKP period. Although some people in AKP had evaluated some actions and operations in the past as a dissimulation (takiyye), today, the system has transformed their beliefs with parallel to global ideological thought system.
Hence, this should be understand properly that today, dominant political ideology is ‘liberalism’ and if the AKP insist on playing with the rules of this global political system, it is obliged to undergo a transformation in its own right and to transform Muslim population as a new religious liberals. Maybe, this action can be irreparable damage for Turkey’s Muslims.
Even, it can be the part of Greater Middle East Project which is supported by US.