About a decade ago, Turkey was widely seen as the shining star of the Muslim world - an increasingly liberal democracy and a booming economy led by a cadre of reformist Islamists united under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Today, the same party is still in power, but there is little left shining about Turkey. What we have instead is an increasingly illiberal (i.e. authoritarian) democracy that is regressing in almost every liberal criteria, and which is disillusioning everyone except the AKP’s hardcore supporters.
Here is a brief story of what went wrong. The “Islamo-liberal synthesis” that the AKP seemed to embrace in its initial years (2002-2010) was caused by some genuine soul-searching, but also a burning necessity: Turkey was still under the thumb of hardcore secularist generals who could overthrow the AKP. The safest life tube out from this danger was the “Copenhagen Criteria” of the European Union, which the AKP clung onto.
Some significant names in the party, such as Abdullah Gül, had genuinely internalized liberal democracy. But the most significant name, current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, apparently saw it just as an instrument. Once Erdoğan subdued the military in 2010 and further consolidated power with a great election victory in 2011, he trashed out what he now saw as little more than “Copenhagen blah blah.” He redefined democracy as amounting to nothing but elections, granting full hegemony to the winner of the elections.
The next two years saw an ever more assertive AKP, returning to the Islamist narrative that it had supposedly abandoned, and poking the fears of secular Turks. The latter’s reaction triggered the Gezi Park protests of June 2013, which initiated the third era of the AKP: Paranoid authoritarianism. Erdoğan interpreted Gezi not as a spontaneous social phenomenon, which it was, but as a heinous conspiracy concocted by nefarious global powers. Rather than seeking understanding and reconciliation, he opted for flexing his muscles and demonizing the opposition.
Things got worse with the intra-state political war between the AKP and the movement of U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, which broke out with the corruption investigations of December 2013. Instead of seeing this as a power struggle with a group that he himself had empowered, Erdoğan interpreted it as yet another heinous conspiracy by nefarious global powers. The result was not only a witch-hunt against the Gülen movement, but also an even more paranoid outlook that sees a plot behind every stone - and every critical comment.
Meanwhile, all critical voices and independent minds in the AKP have been muted, as the party has been taken over by Erdoğan’s cult of personality. Both Gül - and the “Gül line” - have been carefully purged, and sycophants have been promoted.
This is a very sad story, especially for people like me who had much higher hopes and expectations. What is most tragic is that it did not have to be this way. Had the AKP just been a little more modest, a little less ambitious, and little less hungry for revenge, it could have accomplished a historic reconciliation with the social groups that it is busy demonizing these days.
Future generations should take lessons from this story. The big moral problems are arrogance, self-righteousness, machismo, nepotism and corruption. Conspiratorial thinking also plays a big role, pointing to a burning intellectual poverty. At the end of the day, it turns out that our political culture is not yet mature enough to achieve liberal democracy. We will begin to mature only when we look at the mirror and dare to see who we really are.