Turkey’s increased prominence in the world has been a point of discussion for political observers and analysts of late, something not lost on the average layman who has any interest in politics. Much of this prominence is owed to the activities of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), even if some of these have been more symbolic than others. Turkey was most vocal in attempting to muster international action to tackle the famine that hit many parts of East Africa and played a role in NATO’s assault against Ghaddafi. Over the past couple of years, the AKP has attempted to position itself as an effective broker in the Syrian crisis and made a powerful statement in support of the successful endeavours of the Palestinians to gain observer status at the UN.
This flurry of international activity comes after decades of stubbed economic growth, the woes of the Kurdish question and successive military coups. From its inception after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in a post WWI world, Turkey has been built on a firm secular and nationalist foundation. That these were to be a fundamental part of state identity is not surprising. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had led the Turkish nationalists against the Allies in the Turkish war of independence and was of the opinion that secularism and modernisation go hand in hand, completely rejecting the dynastic and religious principles that underpinned the Ottoman system of government.
It may seem ironic then, that after decades of staunch adherence to secularism, Turkey’s newly found confidence is owed to a party that has Islamic roots. In spite of Turkey’s successes, the AKP has been dogged by questions of its nature as a party prior to Erdogan’s presidency. Descriptions such as Islamists (a problematic term in itself), fundamentalists, and reformist Islamists have all been used at one time or another by Western commentators to describe the AKP, but who exactly are they and what does the AKP mean in the wider Muslim context?
The AKP was founded in 2001 by an amalgamation of individuals with various ideological leanings. Most were from the reformist sections of various Islamist parties who were banned under the constitution. Recep Erdogan was subsequently elected three times, in 2002, 2007 and 2011, each time with an increased margin. 2011’s election saw an affirmation of faith in the AKP given Turkey’s booming economy and increased international profile, but did little to alleviate the suspicions of Turkey’s secularists. As far as many of them were concerned, the AKP is an Islamist party in all but name, a concern shared by a number of western liberals. However, in 2005 Erdogan insisted that ‘we are not an Islamic party, and we refuse labels such as Muslim democrats’, preferring instead to describe the AKP agenda as ‘conservative democracy’. We may ask, what’s in a name? In the Turkish context, the answer could almost be everything. Islamic parties in Turkey have had a very short life span – The National Order Party was banned in 1971, its successor The National Salvation Party succumbed to the military coup of 1980, and the Welfare Party which was incidentally the first Islamic party to win an election in 1995 was banned in 1998. The decision rested on the view that the party’s existence violated Turkey’s constitutional principles of secularism, a decision upheld at the European Court of Human Rights.
Many of those who went on to found the AKP were former members of the various Islamic parties, and in such a political climate, one can hardly blame the AKP for defining itself in ways that did not leave it vulnerable to the fate that befell its predecessors. In essence, they have been compelled to use politically acceptable rhetoric which makes no explicit mention of Islam. And it is not just the Turkish context which forces the party to avoid overtly religious language, Turkey’s hopes of joining the European Union is another factor.
On the other hand, it may be argued that AKP rhetoric is not merely fashioned to portray itself as less threatening to secularists inside Turkey, Europe and to some extent the world. In fact, the AKP are not, for all intents and purposes, an Islamic political party – that is if we define an Islamic party as one that seeks to organise state and society on the basis of the values and principles of the religion.
Erdogan indeed has referred to himself in the past as the ‘Muslim prime minister for a secular state’, terms often used in juxtaposition. However, the AKP seem to have created a solution for the Turkish context, which they hope will be emulated by other political parties across the Muslim world. Those who accuse the AKP of Islamism have failed to give any example of the party making political claims using religion, since there haven’t been any calls for Islamic law, none for changes to state institutions, and no imposition of societal values. Some have chosen to find evidence of the AKP’s supposed Islamist credentials by pointing to the headscarves worn by the wives and daughters of various AKP members. For them, this new and outward expression of religion is evidence of an emergent political and religious identity. This, however, is a very simplistic reading of the situation.
Political Islam was never an agenda the AKP intended to pursue; it would never have worked in the context of Turkey’s muscular, and at times, uncompromising secularism. In the Turkish context, secularism (also known as Kemalism) is not merely the separation of state and religion, but also an intrusion of the arm of the state into the religious lives of individuals in the private sphere. This was epitomised amongst other things by the ban on headscarves in schools and universities. The AKP hoped to democratise secularism and carve out a bigger space for religion in the every day lives of Turkish citizens. Rather than proselytise, the party also reflects and articulates the religious values of those who take their religion seriously without having to make religiously motivated political claims, a move that would inevitably put it into a headlong collision with the secular state as well as disaffecting voters averse to what many see as religious blackmail. Using this formula, they were able to reverse the ban on the hijab in 2011, Erdogan citing the fact that they wished to be ‘more like America and less like France’ in reference to the type of secularism he wished to see in a modern Turkey.
The AKP also aspires to serve as a model for political parties in the Muslim world. After his election victory, Erdogan told the crowd gathered in Istanbul that ‘Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul. Beirut won as much as Izmir. Damascus won as much as Ankara. Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, [and] Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.’ A couple of months later, Erdogan visited Egypt and put forward the argument that secularism need not mean the renunciation of religion, but rather that people would be free to practice their religion as ‘a secular state respects all religions’.
What cannot be denied is that the AKP is the most successful Islamically-inspired democratic party in the world, at least as things stand today. For some, the party may not be Islamic enough, for others, it is in fact too Islamic. Whether it should serve as a model for other Islamic parties is a different debate altogether. However, there is certainly something that all Muslims can take from the AKP.
The AKP attracts critics from all sides and some of its staunchest critics are actually from some groups of Muslims. These critics would, on the whole, argue that the party has merely reinforced a secular system that contradicts the laws of God. Unfortunately, much of the discourse on the matter actually ignores the reality of a secular system that is so firmly entrenched in the fabric of the state. There is much less discussion of a more salient but important social reality, Turkey’s ever changing society. It is one that has seen the emergence of a more educated and more politically astute group of individuals who display far more religious confidence than anything seen in Turkey since its birth.
The Party also stands as a live counter to the widely held idea that Islamically-inspired parties are by nature regressive and doomed to fail. In its 11 years in power, the AKP has strengthened democracy in the country by finally improving relations between the military and civilian government; it has brought economic progress through tough spending cuts coupled with investments in key industries and has commanded a greater role in international politics. Turkey has proved to be a decisive force in handling the Syrian refugee crisis, according to Turkish government figures, some 182,000 Syrians are living in camps all over Turkey. In addition to focusing the world’s attention to the East African famine, Erdogan became the first non-African head of state to visit Somalia in 20 years, a powerful sign of support for Somalia’s fragile transition to peace. These two examples illustrate how Turkey views its role in the international community, notably the Muslim world. Its interests are not merely limited to its immediate geopolitical sphere, a break with much of the politics of the region.
Although the AKP has yet to receive a final assessment, the successes thus far prove that neither Muslims of the West, nor those of the Muslim world can afford to dismiss it without closer study. Turkey is geographically where it has always been, a gateway between East and West, but in many ways with the AKP, Turkey may just finally be transcending that historic divide. Turkey’s Islamic heritage was always fundamental to the construction of that divide, and for this reason, the AKP’s victory will have repercussions that extend far beyond just Turkey.