The AK Party, the failure of Islamism and traditional Turkish politics

Published on Nthposition, 8 January 2008

The Armed forces and the hopeful parties who sought to capitalize on their chance for power portrayed the last elections in Turkey as a choice between a secular state and a theocracy. The Western media picked up this rhetoric, and the elections were turned into an archetypal struggle between Islamism and democracy as the Turkish nation was said to be deciding on her 'soul'.

There were signals all along that the things were not what they seem to be. A significant portion of liberals, non-Muslims and ethnic minorities in Turkey voted for the AK Party, which was presented as a taqiya movement with mischievous plans to implement an Islamic state. These groups would face the harshest treatment if Turkey turned out to be ruled under Shari'a law; yet, they chose to take the 'risk' because the AK Party has been one of the governments most committed to addressing issues of human rights and religious freedom in the country.

Many observers abroad feared that with the reselection of the AK Party, Turkey would severe her ties with the West and turn Eastward, which would have significant implications on international security and economic relations. Yet foreign investors and most of the Europeans who hope for Turkish integration into the EU openly supported the AK Party because it has been the most proactive and serious government Turkey has ever had on EU negotiations as well as legislative changes, which led to an increase in foreign investment.

Learned commentators who sought to trace an agenda from the AK Party's long-abandoned roots in the Islamist Refah Party (Welfare Party) read the AK Party's increasing appeal in Turkey as a return or strengthening of the Islamist goals, which were brought to a halt by a soft intervention of the Armed forces on 28 February 1997. Yet Refah Party's successor, the Saadet Party (Felicity Party), and the nationalist-cum-Islamist BB Party (Great Union Party) openly condemned the AK Party as an un-Islamic party which had sold out to the West. Meanwhile, books claiming that Abdullah Gul and Tayyip Erdogan were Jews and Zionists topped the bestseller list.

Similarly, as doomsday scenarios of incompatibility of Islam and Secular Democracy found flesh in mass demonstrations, most of the interested onlookers missed the covered women amidst the 'secular' crowds. A couple of Turkish journalists picked on a middle-aged woman in a headscarf, who had 'naively' responded to the question of whether Turkey would become an Islamic state by saying: "Turkey will remain secular, Inshallah."

Ironically, it was the naivety of the journalists who did not realize that a clash between Islam and a secular state existed only as a prescriptive discourse, rather than as a descriptive reality. Turkish Islam has evolved to such a level that a Muslim could seek the help of Allah to sustain a secular state.

Now, the elections are over: we have a reaffirmed government and a promising new president. Turkey is on the same path as she was a year ago. However, the question of what was really happening in Turkey still needs to be asked. Once again, the developments in Turkey signal new formations of Islam and its relationship to politics.

The AK Party is a newcomer to the Turkish political arena. It won a majority vote in its first ever election on November 2002. Its conservative stand, which reflected traditional Turkey, and its commitment to pursuing full EU membership and economic reform struck a chord with a significant portion of the country. The brand-new face of its leaders presented a way out of the never-ending cycles of Turkish political tail chasings between the 'left' and the 'right'. Its young leadership presented a worldview driven by realpolitik in line with the demands of a global world and the need for modernization, unlike the traditional Islamist appeals for a return to a Golden Age and the establishment of the global rule of Islam in solidarity with the Muslim world.

Many people gave the AK Party the benefit of the doubt for want of any other viable option and as a reaction to the then ruling elite. The exception to the disappearances of the older folk is Deniz Baykal, who remains the ineffective and not-so-loved leader of the opposition party that no longer has a clear political stand. After five years in office, however, the AK Party's performance has matched initial expectations, and it achieved one of the highest elections results ever in the Turkish history.

There are no legitimate signs that Turkey has turned out to be more Islamic under this administration. The legendary misuse of Article 301 - with its courtroom dramas and its fatal attacks on liberal intellectuals and non-Muslims - has been undertaken by the followers of an increasingly dangerous Turkish rightwing nationalism... which is also anti-AK Party.

This may come as a surprise to those who have been shown a Turkey - either by certain groups in Turkey or by clumsy Western journalists - that is deciding between the East and West; Islam and democracy; international openness and national isolation. None of these frameworks are helpful in trying to understand contemporary Turkey. The AK Party represents a new paradigm both in Turkey and for the rest of the world. It can be understood only on its own terms as a unique product of the failure of Islamism, which chased after the utopias of caliphate and umma, and the traditional political structures of Turkey that existed in a bittersweet love triangle of left, right and the Armed Forces.