The Turkish election of November 2002 may be seen as counter-evidence to the notion that political Islam had finally run its course in the world. Articles and books have been written about the “Demise of Radical Islam in Turkey,” and The Failure of Political Islam. This thesis also provided the impetus for Gilles Kepel’s book, Jihad: The Political Trail of Islam. While Kepel’s description of “The Forced Secularization of Turkish Islamists” is largely accurate and cannot be dismissed, it is also the case that the massive victory of the “AK partisi” in 2002 was not foreseen within his paradigm. The subsequent success and relative longevity of this victory may also remain to be adequately accounted for.
In seeking to account for the success of the Islamist movement in Turkey, an appropriate thesis will need to consider the general decline of the global Islamist trend and reconcile this with Turkey’s situation. It does not seem sufficient merely to say that Turkey is an exception, despite the unique social and civil circumstances that exist there. While there is a unique character to it’s situation, Turkey does not exist in a global political vacuum, and Islamism in Turkey is certainly not detached from similar movements around the world.
The approach of this paper will be to propose a moderation of the thesis that political Islam has “run its course.” The forces of secularization that Kepel appeals to are undeniable and have certainly forced a new direction for Islamism in Turkey; however, this has not translated into the demise of Islamism. Rather, Turkey’s Islamists have wisely tempered their agenda so as to create a careful balance of pressure and compromise in their relationship with the secular establishment. Political factors have also combined with this strategy to provide an otherwise unexpected success for this movement. While the result is the emergence of a somewhat moderated Islamism which has alienated some of the radical extremists, Islamism as a political agenda has endured. On the other hand, the nature of the concepts of secularism and Islamism also have to be understood in their context in Turkey, which differs significantly from Western understandings of these terms.
Islamic Diversity in Turkey
While Islamism in Turkey usually refers to conservative Sunni Muslims, there is a significant diversity of Islamic expression in Turkey. There is undoubtedly an overlap of common concerns and political interests along this spectrum, although the diversity is often overlooked in deference to the orthodox Sunni majority. In describing Turkish Islam, Hakan Yavuz explains that “pluralism is the major characteristic of Turkish Islam. This pluralism has been the major sustainer and support base for the democratization movement in Turkey.”
The most significant example of this diversity is Turkey’s Alevi population. Alevis are a heterodox sect with roots in Shi’ism, although Alevis today often prefer to simply be considered distinct from Sunnism or Shi’ism. Alevis claim to constitute 25% of the population of Turkey, which would amount to more than 15 million people. These numbers are hard to confirm, however, since historically Alevis have been secretive about their identity because of oppression by Sunnis.
Alevis are typically very open to liberal positions with regard to the West, secularism, and democracy. This liberalism is also evident in Alevi worship, where women and men share greater equality and prayer is normally not performed in mosques. The heterodox nature of Alevi beliefs makes it difficult for the Islamist movement to integrate them. For example, Alevis have a body of secret initiation rites and oral traditions which include a veneration of Ali which, for Sunnis, crosses the line into idolatry.
On the other hand, a voting block of 15 million can’t simply be ignored. For this reason recent Turkish politicians have been courting the Alevi vote by increasing recognition of festivals and even providing assistance to Alevi associations. Still, Alevis raise legitimate complaints about the favoring of Sunnism in government policy and assistance in such areas as religious education in public schools, where Alevism is not allowed to be taught.
Another significant block can be collectively described as the tarikatlar. A tarikat is a religious brotherhood, often of a Sufi sect. The tarikatlar have deep roots in Turkish Islam, but were restricted toward the end of the Ottoman Empire and prohibited under Ataturk. Despite these obstacles, they have survived and have recently experienced a tremendous boom in popularity. In fact Marvine Howe writes “the return of the tarikatlar has been just as important as the rise of Refah in the Islamic revival.”
Historically, the most famous of the tarikat are the followers of Celaleddin Rumi, called Mevlevi in Turkish. This Sufi sect incorporates a religious inclusivism with elaborate meditation rituals, one of which has earned them the nickname of “whirling dervishes.” Today the Mevlevi are experiencing a boom in interest, membership, and influence.
Perhaps the most influential religious leader in Turkey today is Fethullah Gulen, who is deeply influenced by Rumi. Once a follower of another prominent Turkish tarikat leader, Said Nursi, Gulen has now founded his own organization, which also serves as its own tarikat. Fethullahis, as they are called, occupy prominent positions at all levels of Turkish society.
Today, Gulen controls a powerful network of schools, charity organizations, media networks, and publication companies. He has been known for his moderation, although recent allegations attempt to associate him with an extremist agenda. Still many feel that Gulen represents a hope for creating a moderate bridge between Islamism and secularism.
On the other side of the Islamic spectrum are the struggling extremist groups in Turkey. Turkish Hizballah, for example, has maintained a presence with occasional bombings or assassinations. In January 2000 a major crackdown revealed that Hizballah was responsible for the assassination and torture of dozens of people, mostly Kurds. The group was also blamed for the 2004 simultaneous bombings of the British consulate and the British HSBC Bank in Istanbul, which motivated the successful raids resulting in what has been considered the defeat of this group. While no conclusive proof exists, the Turkish government has been trying to shake accusations that the extremist group was supported or even created by the government as a covert means of combating the PKK.
In the meantime, several other extremist groups continue to maintain a presence. These groups include the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front (IBDA-C), the Anatolian Federated Islamic State (Hilafet Devleti), and Turkish Islamic Jihad. It is perhaps significant that these groups remain at the very fringe of Turkish society and are condemned by the AK party.
Defining Secularism and Islamism in Turkey
The tension between Islam and secularism has played a defining role in Turkey since 1928 when the clause that preserved Islam as the state religion was removed from the constitution. Turkey had risen from the remains of the collapsed Ottoman Empire in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, later given the name Ataturk, “the father of the Turks.” Ataturk boldly implemented a secular government, whose constitution is largely based on Switzerland’s, and imposed a separation between the functioning of the state and the religion of the vast majority of its citizens.
This historic transition entailed the abolition of the Islamic caliphate, an implication that Ataturk consciously intended. The reforms implemented during this period included prohibitions on headscarves in many civil contexts and the popular Ottoman fez. It also involved sweeping educational reforms and the transition from an Arabic-based script to a modified Latin script for the Turkish language. The true mark of the “Kemalist” reforms however, was the development of secularism or “laicism,” laiklik in Turkish.
In order to understand the nature of the tension between religion and state in Turkey it is essential to distinguish Turkish secularism from the more common Western notion of the separation of church and state. Turkish laiklik is not merely the separation of the religious domain from the civil, governmental one; it is the subjection of all aspects of religion to the state. This important distinction has entailed the intentional control of the state over religious institutions and expression in Turkey.
This gives Islamism a much different role to play than might be imagined by the West. Rather than advocating overthrow of democracy in favor of a totalitarian rule by a religious elite, the appeal is to freedom of religious expression. The issue of headscarves, for example, is often taken up with rhetorical fervor on opposite sides of the argument. On the one hand, many conservative Muslims have campaigned for a woman’s right to wear the headscarf in universities, government buildings and other settings where it is currently banned. They insist that their interest is not in imposing headscarves on anyone, but only in establishing the right for women to choose whether to wear them or not.
On the other hand, secularists, or Kemalists as they are often called, view such a campaign as a politically motivated initiative to introduce religion into the government. In this context Islamism can be defined as opposition to laiklik, a resistance to the state control of religion. More perilous, perhaps, is the temptation of Turkish politicians to define any opposition to the doctrines of Kemalism as Islamism, and with this designation gain the sympathy of the United States and Europe.
The Paradox of Military Democracy
Turkey’s heritage of laiklik, then, constitutes a major element of the context in which Islamism is understood. This secularist tradition has historically been held in trust by the Turkish military which understands itself as the “guardian of secularism.” This guardianship is not taken to be a symbolic or passive responsibility; rather, the military feels obligated to intervene in the normal democratic process whenever the elected government deviates from official Turkish laiklik. As Hakan Yavuz writes, “Turkey’s experiment of Westernization resulted in the formation of two conflicting sources of legitimacy: on the one hand there is an elected parliament of people’s representatives...on the other hand there is a nonelected military-bureaucratic elite that wields ultimate authority on the basis of Kemalism being a Westernizing and progressive ideology.” Yavuz’s characterization of this tension is not uncommon, but reveals a bleak interpretation of its implications, he continues, “But the history of modern Turkey is the story of conflict between democracy and Kemalism.”
Turkey’s Kemalists would of course interpret the situation very differently, understanding laiklik as the condition of possibility of true democracy. Still, the paradox of a democracy which is maintained by powerful armed forces is striking. New York Times columnist Philip Taubman coined the phrase “military democracy” to describe the situation of Turkey. He added that “elections are fair, the press is relatively free and the rule of law prevails to a point, as long as the generals permit.” The generals have in fact played a prominent role in stemming the tide of Islamism in Turkey, but it seems evident that their success in this regard has come at the cost of a democracy which is less than genuinely democratic, stifling the organic processes which integrate popular concerns and priorities into the political system.
The Historic and Ephemeral Islamist Victory
June 28th 1996 is the date which inaugurates the significance of the Islamist movement in Turkey. Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Refah Party was elected Prime Minister on this date, becoming the first Prime Minister in Turkey with a distinct Islamist agenda. The Refah party had campaigned on a platform of Islamist advances. The Kemalist establishment, reeling in disgust that such a victory could have occurred, responded with suspicion and anxiety. The military quickly decided that the Refah party was “anti-secularist” and less than a year after he had taken office, Erbakan’s fragile coalition broke apart and the military effectively forced his resignation in June 1997. Six months later, the Constitutional Committee abolished his party. 
This was not Erbakan’s first political venture, however. In fact, he had formed his first political party in 1970, against the historic backdrop of Nasser’s death, the increasing triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Khomeini’s conferences on Islamic government. A disciple of a Naksibendi sheik, Kepel characterizes his Islamism as ideologically comparable to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or Mawdudi’s Jama’at-i Islam-i, arguing that only the constitutional constraints prevented him from pursuing more radical advances. Despite this relative moderation, the Constitutional Council dissolved this Milli Nizam Partisi (Party of National Order) for antisecularism in 1971 after a military coup successfully gave the army control of the government.
The next year Erbakan emerged with a new party, the Milli Selamet Partisi (National Salvation Party), and won 12% of the vote in the national election, and 49 seats in the parliament. During this time, he was able to enact a reform which allowed graduates of the imam hatip lisesi (religious schools for aspiring clerics) to apply to universities on a level playing field with graduates from secular schools. This served to create an “Islamist intellectual elite” over the next several years. While the effects of this reform have profoundly impacted politics in Turkey, the party itself was not so long lasting. Another military coup in 1980 resulted in a ban on Erbakan’s party again and he was prohibited from entering national politics. It is often claimed that the military rigged the 1980 elections “in order to repress democratic opposition...and institutionalised an oppressive regime through a new constitution.” This constitution officially expanded the powers of the National Security Council, a committee of generals, enabling the council to proactively address potential “threats to the regime.”
In 1983, after a short time in prison, Erbakan formed a new party, the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party), but because of the ban, he was not able to be recognized as the leader until 1987 when the prohibition was lifted. It was Refah that experienced the short-lived victory in 1996, which resulted in Erbakan’s third encounter with the Turkish military culminating in the third successive dissolution of political parties which he had founded.
The Fazilet Transformation
Before the court case closing Refah was completed, Erbakan had his lawyer found a new party, Fazilet Partisi (Virtue Party). This turned out to be a wise maneuver since part of the court’s decision was to ban Erbakan from politics for 5 years. Still remaining active, though unofficially, Erbakan went about the task of transforming the image of Islamism in Turkey. Great efforts were made to distance Fazilet from the extreme Islamism that Refah had become associated with. The new party leader, Recai Kutan made an appearance on the pro-Islamist television station Kanal 7 to announce that the party’s goal was no longer the establishment of the “just order,” which had been the rhetoric of Refah’s pro-Sharia platform. Rather, the goal of the new party “now included the promotion of democracy, human rights, political liberties and freedom in Turkey.”
The transformation, though perhaps significant, was not sufficient to garner votes in the 1999 election. Fazilet was beaten badly, signaling a crisis for the Islamist cause in Turkey. In the months that followed, an internal political fault line within the Islamist movement became a decisive factor in the forming of a new party. The “new guard” of the movement was looking to make more significant concessions to democracy and secularism, while the traditionalists, still in the shadow of Erbakan, held to a party line which included rhetoric of democracy, but failed to gain credibility in the eyes of the electorate. An internal challenge for the leadership of the Fazilet Party in May 2000 resulted in a close race between Abdullah Gul, the challenger, and Recai Kutan, the ideological successor to Erbakan. Kutan retained leadership, but only by a 633 to 521 vote. Despite losing the internal election, Gul was launched to national prominence as a potential party leader and the division within the movement became strikingly apparent.
Fazilet, in its turn was also banned in 2001, but was reformed as the Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party). This also provided the opportunity for the party to divide, however, and the formation of the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Reconciliation Party), or AK Partisi, was a product of this split. The AK party’s unofficial leader and true founder was Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul with the Refah party. He had been banned from politics in 1998 for reciting an Islamist poem that equated mosques to barracks, but was still playing a very prominent role in the shaping of the new party.
Victory for “Moderate” Islamism
Both parties campaigned in the 2002 election, with 21 other parties as well. The result of the election was the vindication of the AK party, which succeeded in establishing itself as conservative, but Westward looking. Winning 34% of the vote, the AK party emerged as the clear victor. Although this only represented slightly more than one-third of the voters of Turkey, only one other party, the Cumhurriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party), succeeded in surpassing the 10% threshold required to have representation in the parliament. This translated into 363 of the 550 seats in the Turkish Grand Assembly. This was particularly astonishing since the party’s leader was unable to assume the post of Prime Minister. Erdogan chose Abdullah Gul to assume the post, but in reality this was only a request to keep Erdogan’s seat warm since the new parliament overturned his prohibition from politics, and Gul promptly stepped aside to allow Erdogan to become Turkey’s Prime Minister.
For the second time in Turkey’s history a party whose political identity was Islam was able to win a national election and govern the country. However, this was the first time that such a party won such a substantial victory in the parliament and the success has been much longer-lasting than the Refah’s single year in power in 1996. Several factors are cited in explanation of this victory. Among them, perhaps the most common is the “public disgust over corruption within the long-feuding coalition parties.” AK party’s ability to retain the perception of a champion of morality and as resistant to corruption has certainly aided its success. However, the political factors preceding the election must also be taken into account as do the state of Islam in Turkey and the actual activities of the Party since taking power.
Sami Zubaida presents what he calls the three “ideal types” of Islamic movements worldwide. This typology is particularly helpful in describing the situation of Islamism in Turkey. Type 1 is Conservative Islam, characterized by an emphasis on morality and social control. This type of Islamism seeks to implement Islamic values through “government and law.” Often this is expressed in a desire to implement Sharia law, perhaps through democratic channels. Type 2, Radical Islam, seeks to effect immediate change directly, often through assassination or force. Type 3 is Political Islam, which embodies “ideas and programmes of socio-political transformation based on Islam.” This type of movement is also often associated with “nationalist and leftist projects.” Turkish Islamism, as Zubaida observes, is most clearly a type 3 Islamic movement.
Erdogan and the AK party have arduously kept up a campaign to balance the often opposing interests of secularism and Islamism, however. For example, shortly after the victory in 2002, Erdogan announced that “Secularism is the protector of all beliefs and religions. We are the guarantors of this secularism, and our management will clearly prove that.” This represents a departure from the typical Turkish understanding of secularism. By declaring that secularism is the protector of religions he adopts the language of laiklik, but applies it to a religious concern. Also interesting from that statement is his declaration that his party is the “guarantor of secularism,” a statement which seems to challenge the military’s role in this regard. Similarly, the Party Principles include a description of laicism as “the state’s impartiality toward every form of religious belief and philosophical conviction,” so that “the state, rather than the individual, is restricted and limited by this.” While this is interpreted by some as a movement away from an Islamist message, the real force of this statement seems to be its co-opting of the language of secularism and imbuing it with Islamist meaning.
On the other hand, Erdogan also makes very clear statements which do move away from an Islamist direction. For example, he now insists that, “Our identity is that of a conservative democrat political party. We will never have a religious identity. This is a founding principle of our party: We are neither Islamic nor Islamist.” He has also clearly abandoned appeals for Sharia in Turkey, at least for the present time, and distances himself from “political Islam.” These statements offer some balance to his proposals to criminalize adultery and to allow graduates from Islamic secondary schools to enter secular universities without the necessary secular academic requirements.
Still there is enduring suspicion on the part of many, that the AK party is merely disguising a radical Islamist agenda in the language of democracy and secularism for the sake of gaining power. This type of fear seems unfounded given the party’s 3 years in power, including a sweeping victory in the 2003 elections, winning 66% of the seats in parliament. A more moderate suspicion may be that the party has wisely tempered its short-term goals and adopted a strategy to appease Islamist and secularist concerns in Turkey. This idea is vindicated by a recent interview with Erdogan in which he was asked whether he could now recite the poem which caused his arrest in 1998. Erdogan responded ominously, “I did recite that poem in a different situation in a different time. Now, for a limited period of time, I am on leave, so to speak. Maybe later I will recite it again.”
Creationism: A Plank in the Islamist Platform
An interesting development related to Islamism in Turkey is the emergence of creationism as a political, religious, and scientific movement. The major contributor to this genre, particularly in Turkey, is Adnan Oktar, who writes under the pseudonym, Harun Yahya. However, many have speculated that one person could not be responsible for the sheer volume of publications that are attributed to him, and conclude that the Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, (Science Research Foundation) may be collaborating to produce the publications. The books are extravagantly produced with sophisticated full-color photos and use high quality materials. Similarly, the website, www.harunyahya.com, is well designed and organized and offers all of its books, pamphlets and videos for free to download. His books, The Evolution Deceit, and Darwinism Refuted have become extremely influential in Turkey and have since been distributed throughout the Muslim world and the West.
The political nature of creationism in Turkey is of particular significance. In the literature itself, Darwinism is associated with Marxist ideologies, and Masons and Jews are credited with driving the evolutionist agenda. In terms of the actual scientific support for creationism, the Turkish creationist movement borrows nearly all of its research from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), a conservative, evangelical Christian organization that promotes scientific creationism in the United States.
The introduction of creationism as a “solid plank in the Islamist platform” occurred during the rise of the Refah party. Much of the initiative in the 1980’s and 90’s was to introduce creationism into public schools. Then minister of education Vehbi Dinçerler sought to eliminate the strictly Darwinian curriculum and introduce one which also included elements of creationism. By appealing to Western scientists, the movement gained credibility as both Islamic and Western and so became a popular Islamist issue. While AK party doesn’t include the drive to incorporate creationism in public education as part of its official platform, Vehbi Dinçerler is now associated with AK party and the BAV has dramatically increased its activity and publications, providing the Islamist result without the political risk.
The E.U. as Opportunity
A major point of departure between the Refah party of Erbakan and the AK party of Erdogan are their respective stances on the European Union. While Erbakan preferred cultivating relationships with Muslim neighbors, and resisted any interest in joining the E.U., Erdogan was able to read the public interest in EU membership and move his party in that direction.
The European Union, on the other hand, met with their own tensions about including Turkey, and several reforms were placed as pre-requisites for the consideration of Turkey as a candidate nation. Many of the required reforms addressed human rights and democracy issues, and required the Turkish government to enact broad commitments to reform. In 2000, Turkey was officially recognized as a candidate nation.
However, no date had been set for membership negotiation talks and a thick sense of frustration and skepticism had been mounting in Turkey. Since the AK party had made such a dramatic turn-around in their position on the EU, they also risked losing credibility if some progress was not made. Several issues proved to be complicated, including the recognition of Greek Cyprus, since this would be seen as a capitulation among many Turks.
Erdogan successfully marketed EU membership as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of Islam in a democratic system. This was a shift in the popular perception that membership in the EU was purely for material or political advantage at the cost of Turkey’s Islamic identity. He explains that entering the EU, “is going to provide an opportunity to show that a culture of Islam and democracy can work together. Eighty percent of Turks want to be in the European Union—a figure higher than most countries already a part of the EU.”
In July 2003 the political tides also turned somewhat to Erdogan’s advantage. While making concessions to EU reform requirements was a clear way to appease secularist forces in Turkey, this move also risked alienating the more conservative Islamist sentiments. However, as part of the seventh package of EU-motivated reforms, the parliament passed a proposal which limited the power of the Turkish military and the National Security Council. Since this body has been the historic enemy to Islamism in Turkey, limiting its power had the effect of appeasing the EU, gaining favor with Islamist voters, and significantly disarming the council which had shut down four previous incarnations of Islamist political parties. As a result, Erdogan can speak of the military as no longer “at an equal level” as the “political will,” but is now merely “one of the organizations that supports the political will.” This momentum was only increased by the recent announcement that negotiation talks will begin on October 3, 2005.
Turkey seems to be emerging from a protracted economic crisis and the AK party is also benefiting from the public sense of economic well being. Erdogan has also enacted several “inexpensive but popular reforms,” such as distributing free textbooks to students and proposing tax cuts on consumer goods and cigarettes, which is significant since nearly half of all adult Turks smoke. Similarly, of important psychological impact was the recent decision to cut six zeros from its currency, since inflation now seems to be somewhat under control. The introduction of a “New Turkish Lira” is a long awaited action which signals stability to the public and removes the memory of a flagging economy which was only worsened by the fact that a Coca-Cola could cost 1,000,000 Turkish lira.
Economics also play an important role in among the established class of Islamist wealthy businessmen, sometimes called “green money.” Paradoxically, the existence of Islamists within a market economy, despite their occasional ideological protests, has created a class of wealthy “religiously inclined entrepreneurs” in Turkey. The formation of Musiad, a conservative small-business organization and lobby, accompanied the rise of this new class, and their political influence became evident.
Erdogan is a classic example of this phenomenon, and is estimated to be worth one billion dollars in holdings. His government also sits under the shadow of suspicions that the political activities of his party are funded by such “green money” both from within Turkey and from undeclared, outside sources. The most skeptical accusations imply that Saudi Arabia or other Middle Eastern countries are contributing, although such allegations would be difficult to prove. Still, as Michael Rubin has pointed out, the influx of millions of dollars of unaccounted for money into the Turkish economy is troubling. He writes, “Turkish officials and economists estimated the green money infusion into the economy at between $6 billion and $12 billion.
In any case, the economic prosperity of the emerging wealthy Islamists creates a moderating, rather than a radicalizing effect. Although this Islamist elite has political influence, they are inevitably tempered in their zeal for risky, extremist advances by their own concern to preserve their financial success. This combined with the popular reforms such as tax cuts and free textbooks, which appease the young urban poor, creates an atmosphere of contentment which has contributed significantly to the stability of AK party’s government.
Although the question remains unanswered as to whether the AK party is a secular but conservative democratic party or a Trojan horse for radical Islamism, such a question seems misdirected. At least to some degree, Erdogan can be seen to represent the integration of Islam into democracy in Turkey. This integration has not come without incongruities and unresolved tensions, but at least for the present time, coexistence seems possible.
Perhaps the greatest long-term benefit of the Islamist movement in Turkey will be the tempering of Turkish laiklik. If Erdogan is able to redefine secularism, shaking off the element of state control of religious life, while preserving the freedom of religious expression, all of Turkey’s citizens could benefit. In the meantime, it seems inevitable that anti-secularism in the form of political Islam will continue to find ways of expressing itself in Turkey.
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 Edis, 33
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