Islamism and Populism in Turkey and Beyond

Turkey was amongst the first Muslim countries to initiate a programme of secularisation. As early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, its leaders introduced reforms which reduced the political power of organised religion. By the 1930s, Turkey’s now republican and authoritarian administration had imposed an approximate replica of a European, secular nation-state. This was strongly resisted by many sections of society and with the arrival of multi-party politics in the 1950s some of the more extreme measures taken against organised religion, such as the wholesale closure of places of worship, were withdrawn. In a rather simplified sense, then, politics in Turkey over much of the last two centuries can be seen as a contest between an established, pro-Western secularising elite made up of the higher echelons of the state military and civil bureaucracies and supported by sections of the ‘modernist’ intelligentsia and more extensive networks of societal resistance with varying degrees of religiosity.

This has been no less true of the last ten years. Initially supported by the state elite as a means of offsetting the rise in revolutionary socialism during the 1970 and 80s, political Islam, firstly in the form of the Refah (Welfare) Party, began to make gains in local council elections. By the end of 1995, they emerged as the leading force in a coalition government headed by Necmettin Erbakan. By mid-1997, however, the administration had been forced out of office by the military’s highly influential National Security Council for breaching constitutional restrictions on the use of religion by political organisations. This only served to sharpen the contest between the secular state and their allies and enlarging networks of populist Islamism – a conflict indicative of so many Middle-Eastern polities.

Things reached something of a head when, in the elections of November 3rd 2002, a spin-off from Refah – the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – became the first party since 1987 to secure a clear majority in parliament. The coalition members of the incumbent, broadly secularist government suffered severe losses with the Prime Minister’s own party incurring a reduction in support of over 20 per cent. In fact, other than the triumphant AKP, which secured 363 of the 550 seats available, only one party managed to gain more than the 10 per cent required to take up any seats at all giving Turkey the first two-party government since 1954. Such a huge victory for the AKP was utterly unexpected and has given rise to considerable debate – particularly regarding the organisation’s Islamist roots.

Commentators have primarily sought to explain the AKP’s success in terms of the failure of previous administrations to deal with issues such as Turkey’s hyper-inflation, bureaucratic corruption, urban poverty and rural under-development. It is argued that only by seeing the election as a protest vote can the rejection of Turkey’s staunchly secular political paradigm be plausibly explained. Despite the fact that evidence of the tenacity of Turkish, and indeed Middle Eastern, religiosity is everywhere, the notion that the AKP may have come to power because of its Islamist pedigree appears to be largely ignored.

In reality, the AKP was not driven to power simply by frustration or even by the oft-cited conservatism of small businessmen. It was elected because it offers a progressive vision of the future. The party’s message, like the views of the vast majority of those in the Middle East (now mostly obscured by the drive to construct Islamists as the new reds under our beds), is that democracy and human rights are integral to an Islamic view of humanity. The role of a Muslim government is not, they argue, to drive an unwilling citizenry towards its own ideological goal. So, while there will be no imposition of religious reforms in Turkey, there should, the AKP insists, also be a review of the ways in which the state represents the values of its people – particularly the political elite’s enforcement of laicism. Can, for instance, state and religion really be said to be separate when the government prevents women, who have chosen to wear a scarf on their heads, from attending school or university and from obtaining employment in the public sector?

Indeed, the way that this particular problem is approached by the AKP gives some indication as to their overall method. Rather than moralising, they have simply stated that it is strange that something is banned in Turkey which is not banned in London, Paris or Rome. Here we see a sharp difference between the AKP’s leadership and that of the previous Islamist administration headed by Erbakan. Instead of using his confrontational style and anti-Western rhetoric, AKP leaders Abdullah Gul and Recep Tayyip Erdo_an have focused on a pro-European agenda which positions human rights at the forefront of their reform programme. Particularly important is the AKP’s unreserved commitment to the 1993 Copenhagen criteria which sets out the political reforms necessary for countries applying to the join the European Union. Of the points specified by the EU, the vast majority deal with the protection of individual liberties, judicial independence and increased government accountability. Many, particularly those relating to minority (and thus Kurdish) rights, have caused deep cracks within previous administrations. For the AKP, though, they provide both a means of strengthening civil society and increasing religious freedoms. EU accession is thus crucial to the party’s pre-election promise to institutionalise the protection of human rights more fully within Turkey’s public sector thereby resolving the headscarf issue.

This more pro-Western outlook, which offers both widespread electoral appeal and a means of competing with entrenched secularist elites, is shared by numerous organisations in the Middle East. Writers, such as Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, the exiled leader of Tunisia’s An-Nahdah movement, and the Palestinian political scientist Azzam Tamimi, have argued that it is vital to incorporate pluralistic facets of Western liberalism into a broadly Islamist vision of the state. A key element of this strand of political Islam is an emphasis on individual autonomy. The latter, for instance, writes that the pursuit of an Islamic state “must be aimed at achieving a national or a humanistic interest such as independence, development, social solidarity, civil liberties, human rights, political and cultural pluralism, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, and freedom of worship”.

As such, populist and progressive political Islam has become a means of resisting the arbitrary and despotic administrations which predominate in the Middle-East. There is an increasing awareness that both Turkish and Arab secularisation programmes have primarily served to keep civil society weak, to institutionalise an oligarchic concentration of political power and, more recently, to weaken populist resistance to the inequitable imposition of neo-liberal economic reforms. The electoral victories of Islamist parties in Tunisia, Algeria (both bloodily abrogated), Morocco and Turkey and the considerable difficulties that regimes elsewhere are having in keeping popular Islamist organisations from following suit are testament to the enduring political efficacy of Islam. In Turkey and elsewhere these predominantly constitutional movements are becoming amongst the region’s most important loci of not only dissent, but also societal power as a whole.

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