Western liberals: desperately seeking Turkish despots

Islamist Turkey only exists in the minds of cosseted commentators.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

Turkey’s election certainly delivered a reality check. For Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the results meant that for the first time since the 2002 election, they were unable to form a majority government. With 41 per cent of the vote, the AKP may actually have won more votes than it did in 2002, when it gained 34 per cent of the vote, but it gained far fewer seats, thanks in the main to the assertive, confident performance of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – appealing not just to Kurds, but also to a youthful, left-leaning constituency – which promptly gained parliamentary representation for the first time. And with that loss of seats, Erdogan’s plans to have an AKP government grant the president more executive powers lay in tatters.

But the results were also a reality check for those Western pundits and politicos who, for too long, have seen Turkey as an Islamist threat in the making. Those, that is, who have accused the AKP of creating an ‘authoritarian Islamist regime’, who have suggested that Turkey is ‘sleepwalking towards dystopia’, who have said that Erdogan and Co believe they are ‘carrying out God’s mission of revenge against the godless secular system’, who have reckoned, in short, that Turkey’s secular trajectory had been put into reverse by the AKP’s ‘religious and Muslim-world-centred policies’.

No wonder many Western observers were surprised by the election result. Having grown accustomed to seeing Turkey through Islamist-fearing specs, with the ‘Putinesque’ Erdogan successfully playing to the Muslim beliefs of ‘uneducated villagers who could barely read or write’, the idea that Turkish society is not actually universally besotted with the AKP, or shaking with Islamist fervour, must have come as a bit of a shock. Hence the results were presented as a rupture, an ‘awakening’, ‘a resounding vote for change’. Because that’s how they appeared to those who thought Turkey was regressing into an Islamist state – as a political bolt from the progressive blue.

The truth, however, is rather less dramatic. Yes, there is a divide between the more secular, socially liberal metropolitan areas and the more socially conservative rural regions, from which Erdogan and the AKP have always drawn support. And this is a division compounded by the profound legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923, after which, for much of the twentieth century, the ruling, military-backed elite effectively imposed secularism on Turkish society, driving a cultural wedge between the rulers and those over whom they ruled. But despite the 13-years-long reign of the AKP, the secular, modernising impulse in Turkish society has remained broadly ascendant. Turkish society has not been drifting back to some pre-Atatürk, semi-theocratic era; rather, it is a society increasingly at ease with its secular present, as happy tolerating Istanbul’s 100,000-strong gay-pride festival as it is the thousands-more mosques that have been built during the AKP’s period in office. It seems that too many have mistaken some of the more religiously strident or authoritarian pronouncements of Erdogan and Co for the attitudes and sentiments of the Turkish populace. But the government is not the same as the people.

And Erdogan and the AKP know this. The AKP’s modern success, following the banning and dissolution of its five previous, more forcefully Islamic incarnations, was never built on Islamist ideology. Rather, its rise to power rested on pragmatism and opportunity. In the early 2000s, when the AKP began its rapid political conquest, the major parties that had dominated Turkish politics during the 1990s, the centre-left Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), were mired in assorted corruption scandals and overseeing a stagnant economy. The AKP, with ex-Istanbul mayor Erdogan to the fore, was innocent by non-association. It also promised democratic change (in order to comply with European Union membership guidelines), market reforms and a whole raft of new welfare provisions – not to mention a pledge to be ‘respectful of the lifestyle of all our citizens’. What the AKP never promised was the authoritarian promotion of Islam. In fact, Erdogan has steadfastly refused to define the AKP in religious terms. ‘We are not an Islamic party, and we also refuse labels such as Muslim-democrat’, he said in 2005. If anything, he said, the AKP is the party of ‘conservative democracy’.

Where the AKP has indulged its conservative impulses, it has only been able to do so to the extent wanted by Turkish society, especially those vast swathes of Muslims who had long been subject to the top-down secularist dictates of the Kemalist establishment. So Erdogan’s government did finally lift the longstanding Kemalist ban on wearing Islamic dress – or headscarves – in the public sector, but that was because it was a popular measure, supported, not least, by the 50 per cent of Turkish women who do cover their heads. And where the AKP’s social conservatism went too far – such as the 2004 plan to criminalise adultery – it soon ran up against the wall of public opinion.

That’s not to say Erdogan’s reign has been a beacon of democracy and public accountability. His plans to enlarge the powers of his own presidency had more than a whiff of self-aggrandisement about them. And his clampdown on dissent, including the rough-ish dismantling of the Gezi Park protests in 2013, and the subsequent attempt to ban ‘Twitter-schmitter’ (thrown out by the Turkish judiciary), positively reeked of a ruler sensing his support ebbing. But the tedious analogies drawn by Western pundits between Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin mystify rather than illuminate. They’re the product of the bad-guy-seeking need of Western liberals, who find it easier to rail against obvious attacks on liberty abroad than resist its subtle betrayal at home. But Erdogan is not ‘Putin’ (nor is Putin ‘Putin’, given ‘Putin’, this Hitler-Stalin archetype, is largely a figment of shallow Western liberals’ imagination). His reign, like that of the AKP, has been built on a bedrock of public support, initially for not being part of the old corrupt elite, but later for the economic growth the AKP has overseen, its market reforms which have freed up entrepreneurship (creating the so-called Anatolian tigers) and the improvements in social-service provision. It’s hardly the stuff of either Islamist dreams or dictatorial nightmares. (Likewise, the AKP’s slight decline in popularity recently is largely for prosaic rather than sensational reasons: corruption scandals, the slowing down of economic growth and rising unemployment, and Erdogan’s less assured public performance.)

The Turkish election doesn’t just tell us a lot about the modern secular impulse still prevalent in Turkish society; it also tells us a lot about the fearmongering, good-cause-seeking Western imagination, too.

Tim Black is deputy editor at spiked.

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Topics World


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