Has Turkey turned?

Rumours of an Islamic revolution have been greatly exaggerated.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘Anatolian Revolution!’ screamed the front page of Turkey’s Sabah newspaper on 4 November 2002, as the Islamist-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power in the Turkish general election over the weekend.

The AKP was formed last year by the deputies of previously banned Islamist groups and is led by former mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayyipp Erdogan. It won what BBC Online calls a ‘crushing victory’ (1). It polled 34.2 percent of the vote, in contrast to the pitiful 1.2 percent won by (former) prime minister Bulent Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party. The AKP’s closest rival, the Republican People’s Party, won 19.3 percent – giving the AKP a big-enough majority to form Turkey’s first non-coalition government in 15 years.

The victory of an Islamic party in Turkey has caused much handwringing in the West. Turkey is a strategic NATO ally in the Middle Eastern region, and provided crucial support and airspace to Britain and the USA during the Gulf War of 1991. UK foreign secretary Jack Straw is keen for Turkey to become a fully signed-up member of the European Union, and US officials have twice visited the state over the past year to win support for any new attack on Iraq.

Now, BBC News wonders whether the AKP’s victory ‘could threaten Turkey’s secular constitutional order’ (2). The Daily Telegraph is concerned that ‘this Islamic victory’ will ‘re-ignite tensions between religious conservatives and the military-led secularist elite’ (3). A senior NATO official has warned the AKP not to upset Turkey’s secular order with ‘any hardline Islamic ambitions’.

According to the UK Guardian, ‘something rather fundamental has happened’ in Turkey (4). That is true – but it is not the rise of Islam that has been claimed by some. The AKP’s victory is less a positive vote for political Islam than a reaction against Turkey’s former corrupt and collapsing ruling party, giving the finger to Turkey’s previous rulers. In this sense, the Turkish result has more in common with other elections around the world than many think.

The AKP is not particularly Islamist, and is certainly not hardcore. Leader Recep Tayyipp Erdogan’s first statement after the election was to declare that his party would ‘remain respectful of the lifestyle of all our citizens’, promising that the AKP ‘is a centrist party and its policies are not based on religious criteria’ (5).

Despite concerns that the AKP’s victory could ‘jeopardise America’s influence in the region’, in fact the AKP is not remotely anti-Western. According to AKP vice-chairman Yasar Yakis, ‘Our first priority in government will be to complete the framework document for the Copenhagen criteria’ – the document that requires wannabe EU members to live up to Western standards of human rights and democracy (6).

Yet still many headlines focused on the AKP’s alleged threat to international relations. Some claimed that an invasion of Iraq might not be so straightforward following the AKP’s victory. ‘Turkish party opposes US strikes’ said the Guardian website’s breaking news about the AKP’s victory, reporting that the ‘leader of the winning party in Turkey’s elections said he is opposed to a US military strike against neighbouring Iraq’ (7).

But Erdogan and his party have exactly the same position on Iraq as that of the outgoing Democratic Left Party – namely that there should only be an invasion if it is okayed by the United Nations. In their rush to quote Erdogan’s statement that ‘we do not want war, blood, tears and dead in our region’, many commentators seem to have overlooked the ‘unless approved by the United Nations’ bit.

Others have raised concerns about what effect the AKP will have on politics and equality within Turkey. One US commentator asks whether we can expect ‘Turkish women to be disenfranchised from political life’ as women have been in other ‘Islamist-ruled states’, asking ‘[a]re we going to see a new breed of oppressed women on the outskirts of Europe?’.

But women have hardly been central to Turkish political life over the past 50 years. The proportion of women in the Turkish parliament stands at four percent. In the run-up to the weekend’s general election, a coalition of women’s groups pointed out that, out of the 550 seats in the Turkish parliament up for grabs, a maximum of 21 could have been won by women. If women remain on the edge of Turkish politics, you can hardly blame the AKP’s supposedly Islamist policies (8).

Those concerned about the ‘women issue’ also point to the AKP’s policy of allowing women to wear the veil as evidence that the party wants to impose Islamic codes. But even this policy is promoted in the Western language of multiculturalism. During Turkey’s previous secularist regime, the army imposed a ban on women wearing Islamic headscarves in any university or state institution, and now the AKP wants to overturn the ban out of ‘respect for people’s choices’.

AKP leaders have linked their lifting of the ban to their commitment to European standards of human rights. As one report says, the AKP ‘has an ally in the European Union, which has laws upholding religious freedom’ (9). Referring to religious freedom in Western states, AKP deputy leader Abdullah Gul says: ‘It’s not good that a Turkish girl who wears a scarf cannot go to university in Turkey, but she can in London, Paris, Bonn or Washington.’ (10)

The veil issue captures how support for the AKP is largely a reaction against the old regime. It is unlikely that thousands of Turkish women are demanding the ‘right to wear the veil’. But for many, putting on the veil is a way of objecting to the previous regime.

The AKP claims that its veil policy is a stand against the ‘old ways’, arguing that ‘[w]hen the army gets involved in politics we don’t like it’. Most of the Turkish women interviewed in the Western press about their desire to wear the veil talk about the ‘despair caused by the army’s ban’ and call for a ‘new way of thinking’. ‘Most Turks now see the army-imposed ban as wrong’, says one report (11).

There hasn’t been anything approaching an ‘Islamic overhaul’ in Turkey. Indeed, Turkey’s recent history illustrates the worldwide decline of political Islam. In June 1996, Turkey got its first Islamic prime minister when Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Islamist Party won the general election. According to Gilles Kepel, author of Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam:

‘[M]ost observers saw this development as yet another episode in the triumphant advance of a worldwide movement that had already won control of the back country of Algeria, had threatened the Egyptian government, and had just unleashed a wave of attacks in France…. Islamism seemed to be ascendant.’ (12)

But in reality, as Kepel points out, ‘The Islamist government in Turkey lasted only a year, and its demise embodied the waning fortunes of political Islam around the world in the last years of the twentieth century.’ (13) In June 1997, the parliamentary coalition that supported Islamist Erbakan fell apart under severe pressure from the Turkish army, causing the prime minister to resign.

Today, the election of the AKP doesn’t show that political Islam has recovered from its ‘waning fortunes’, but rather that the Turkish electorate is reacting against the former ruling parties – giving what one journalist calls ‘a massive snub to the country’s political establishment’ (14).

The most striking thing about the results was not any ‘rise of political Islam’ or even the scale of the AKP’s victory, but rather the scale of the former elite’s defeat. Former prime minister Bulent Ecevit, leader of the Democratic Left Party that headed Turkey’s shaky coalition for the past three years, won just 1.2 percent – way below Turkey’s 10 percent threshold for being allowed to sit in parliament, and more like, in the words of one Turkish commentator, ‘the kind of result won by joke parties’.

Anyone who had anything to do with the former coalition or who had previously held power got a drubbing in the general election. Tansu Ciller, who was Turkey’s first female prime minister from 1993 to 1996, announced her resignation from politics on 4 November 2002, after her True Path party won just 9.5 percent of the vote. The New Turkey Party, set up by former foreign minister Ismail Cem and former deputy prime minister Husamettin Ozkan after they defected from the former ruling Democratic Left Party three months ago, won just five percent of the vote.

Over the past year, Turkey’s rulers have lost all legitimacy, spinning from one crisis to another. Like other struggling states, the Turkish elite’s political and economic ambitions have been thwarted by limited economic expansion – resulting in an international debt of $16billion and huge inflation. At the same time, Turkey has suffered a loss of political authority, rendering its rulers incapable of resolving the state’s problems.

In the past year, the word most often used by Turks to describe their leaders is ‘corrupt’ – and the Democratic Left Party was blighted by resignations and demands for prime minister Bulent Ecevit to go. In the end, he was forced to call a general election, after which his weeks were numbered.

So the general election was won by an unknown quantity – not so much because the AKP had anything visionary to offer the Turkish people, and certainly not because there has been a rise in Islamic fervour, but because the AKP hasn’t been in power before.

Some Turkish commentators have asked why people voted for someone who cannot officially become prime minister. In 1998, AKP leader Erdogan was charged with ‘Islamist sedition’ and served four months in prison – resulting in his being banned from holding political office.

But if anything, the court’s 1998 ruling against Erdogan can only have heightened his attraction in the eyes of the electorate. Just as the wearing of the veil is often a reaction against the army’s ban, so voting for Erdogan can be seen as a snub to the court’s decision.

Turkey’s election result has been generally received as a one-off and strange affair. Many have talked up the country’s distinct mix of Western ambitions and Islamic sentiment and how the state straddles modern Europe and the not-so modern Middle East. In fact, the nature of the result has much in common with other election results around the world – particularly the recent presidential elections in Brazil.

There, the victory of Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) of the Workers’ Party in the presidential elections has been interpreted by many as a ‘return to the left’. But in Brazil, as in Turkey, the electorate has reacted against former corrupt and failing elites rather than endorsing Lula’s (non-) programme. As Brazil suffers economic crisis after economic crisis, Lula hasn’t won people over with a vision for a new Brazil. Rather, people have reacted against the old elite and Lula has benefited. The AKP is now reaping similar benefits in Turkey.

‘Something rather fundamental’ has certainly taken place in Turkey, but not in the way described by commentators in the West.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

The myth of the ‘parallel state’, by John Conroy

(1) Turkey’s old guard routed in elections, BBC News, 4 November 2002

(2) Turkey’s old guard routed in elections, BBC News, 4 November 2002

(3) Islamic ‘clean’ party sweeping board in Turkey, Daily Telegraph, 4 November 2002

(4) Islam and democracy combine forces, Guardian, 5 November 2002

(5) Turkey’s old guard routed in elections, BBC News, 4 November 2002

(6) Turkey’s Islamic party makes EU entry top priority, Owen Bowcott, Guardian, 4 November 2002

(7) Turkish party opposes US strikes, Guardian, 4 November 2002

(8) Turkey’s ‘men-only’ politics angers women, Tabitha Morgan, BBC News, 22 September 2002

(9) Turkish Islamic party on the rise, William Horsley, BBC News, 4 November 2002

(10) Turkish Islamic party on the rise, William Horsley, BBC News, 4 November 2002

(11) Turkish Islamic party on the rise, William Horsley, BBC News, 4 November 2002

(12) ‘The forced secularisation of Turkish Islamists’, in Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel, IB Tauris

(13) ‘The forced secularisation of Turkish Islamists’, in Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel, IB Tauris

(14) Turkish press stunned by ‘revolution’, BBC News, 4 November 2002

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