INTERVIEW: Cihan Tuğal on the rise and fall of the 'Turkish model' and Islamic liberalism

INTERVIEW: Cihan Tuğal on the rise and fall of the 'Turkish model' and Islamic liberalism

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Cihan Tuğal on the rise and fall of the Turkish model and Islamic liberalism

Supporters hail President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a rally in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district on April 9. AA photo

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's trip to Washington last month showed just how far the Turkish government's reputation has plunged in the West. Erdoğan’s security team stirred outrage by roughing up both protesters and ordinary reporters trying to enter the Brookings Institution think tank, where he spoke on March 31. President Obama was also reluctant to grant Erdoğan any kind of meeting during the visit. While he once described him as among his most trusted friends in politics, Obama now reportedly believes Erdoğan is a “failure and an authoritarian.”

It all marks a sharp turnaround. Just a few years ago, the “Turkish model” led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was eulogized as a successful combination of economic development with Islamic democracy. UC Berkeley sociologist Cihan Tuğal’s new book “The Fall of the Turkish Model” (reviewed in HDN here) explores this deterioration from the left. Tuğal argues that the model’s collapse was inevitable due to the fragility of the combination of free market economic policies with the AKP’s conservative religious base. He spoke to HDN about his book.

INTERVIEW: Cihan Tuğal on the rise and fall of the Turkish model and Islamic liberalismThe idea of Turkey as a “model” goes back to the start of the Cold War. It has meant different things at different times, but under the AKP government it came to mean a marriage of free market capitalism and moderate Islamic democracy. Why has the collapse of this model happened now?

We should first understand what the model was. The combination of Islam and democracy was most publicly emphasized. But when you read between the lines you see that neoliberalism - an extreme form of free market capitalism - was part of that combination too. But we should even further qualify it, because we're really talking about just one kind of Islam and one kind of democracy. We're not talking about either a more progressive or a more reactionary kind of Islam. We’re talking about a middle-of-the-road moderate conservative Islam. The Justice and Development Party [AK Parti] had been turning Turkey into a more and more conservative country and this was seen as the inescapable price of the combination of Islam and democracy. 

This builds to the second qualification: What kind of democracy are we talking about? Of course it is a liberal formal democracy, but it is a restricted form of that liberal democracy. The people who espoused this model never really expected Turkey to become as liberally democratic as the Anglophone world. Even throughout the AK Parti’s first two terms in government, the party never got close to, (or never even intended to get close to), liberal democracy of the Anglophone type. 

This - in my eyes, very depressing - combination of authoritarian liberal democracy, free market capitalism and conservative religion, has turned out to be very short-lived in Turkey. And I think there is something wrong in the model itself: Conservative religion, plus liberal authoritarian democracy, plus free market capitalism, does not seem to be a very sustainable combination.

There were also conditions quite specific to Turkey - like the exclusion of Kurds and Alevis from this model - from the very beginning. The Alevis were excluded by definition, while there were fluctuations regarding the exclusion/inclusion of Kurds. If the Kurds dropped their goal of autonomy or independence, if they weeded out any remnants of Marxism and became more conservative, then perhaps they could be included in the model too. But that process has not developed as the regime desired. So the Kurdish and Alevi specificities in Turkey made the model more exclusive than it is in its home countries of Britain and the U.S.

The new idea of the AKP was very attractive in the West, which was looking for a moderate, economically open partner in the Middle East. Why was the narrative so seductive?

First of all, the West itself had been moving in that direction for a while - rediscovering the virtues of the free market and conservative religion. It seemed to work in the 1980s and 1990s. What happened with Reagan and Thatcher, and in Turkey with Turgut Özal and then more forcefully with the AK Parti, was the popularization of neoliberalism. That happened mostly through conservative religion. 

But there was one difference that was largely neglected throughout this whole process. While Özalism in Turkey, through the Motherland Party government, was similar to the Reagan-Thatcher combination of democracy and conservatism, the AK Parti combination was politically different. Because it involved a lot of people who came from a distinct background: The Islamist movement, with its strong populism, anti-establishment message, and kind of anti-capitalist rhetoric. The explosiveness of this combination was not perceived in the West, which saw the AK Parti as simply a Middle Eastern repetition of the Thatcherite and Reaganite model. 

So you think the Islamist Refah Partisi [RP] roots of the AKP were stronger and exerted a force over the party that ended up superseding its neoliberal first term in power.

Yes. This change started to happen in the third term, but the roots were already there. What is even more interesting is that when it was founded the AK Parti was not just about the RP. It integrated a lot of people from the Islamist movement who were even more radical than the RP. These were intellectual and political activist circles of the 1980s and 90s who were so anti-establishment that they rejected political parties altogether and even rejected the RP. Some of these were more sympathetic to the Iranian revolutionary path. So in that sense the AK Parti, while bringing Turkey to the center of the global system and closer to the West, also short-circuited the Islamist populism of the RP and supported itself on the platform of the more radical populism of these anti-RP elements.

You specifically refer to the Arab Spring as exposing the limits of the Turkish model. That’s ironic because there was a lot of talk during the Arab uprisings about Turkey’s lessons for the region. How did the regional meltdown expose the failure of the Turkish model?

What happened first was an honest push to export the model - as it existed in the AK Parti's first two terms - to Egypt, Libya, Syria and other regions of revolt. Egypt is the most interesting case because links already existed between the AK Parti and the Egyptian government. There were also many free trade zones in Egypt where Turkish businesses operated. So Turkey was already part of the neoliberal development of the Hosni Mubarak regime. What the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood basically promised the world when it came to power in June 2012 was the continuation of that neoliberalism in a more democratic and Islamic fashion. This is what the AK Parti was said to have done in Turkey and the world hoped the same thing could happen in Egypt. 

There were increasing contacts between Turkey and Egypt - some diplomatic, some economic and some directly political. On the economic front, hundreds of businessmen traveled to Egypt, organized meetings, and new business opportunities were opened. In the background something else was happening too: Egyptian politicians, especially from the Muslim Brotherhood, were coming to Turkey and taking seminars behind closed doors. Nobody knows exactly what was discussed but it was broadly speculated that the AK Parti was advising them on how to marginalize the military and get hold of the reins to assume total power. The transition was not complete in Egypt; the military was still in control and the situation resembled the first one-and-a-half terms of the AK Parti. The AK Parti in Turkey decisively changed the balances between 2007 and 2010, and it was thought to be teaching, behind closed doors, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood how to do the same thing. But apparently they couldn't do it because they rushed. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt wanted to assume total control too quickly and this prompted a coup. 

Of course, the most tragic case is Syria. Once the Turkish regime could not get its way, it militarized the struggle further and further. The more the struggle became militarized, the more sectarian it became, drawing in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Russia. The whole Arab Spring started to be perceived through sectarian lenses, which had internal repercussions in Turkey. The regime and the part of the population that supports it started to perceive themselves as much more Sunni and anti-Shia. Due to the regional sectarianization, rifts in Turkey started to be more perceived along sectarian lines, even though the Shiites, the Alawites, and the Alevis in Turkey are only very loosely connected. 

I'm not saying the Sunni-Alevi distinction in Turkey didn't matter before, but it went to extremes after the Arab Spring. There are many examples of this, but just one blatant example is Erdoğan starting to underline that the main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi. Whenever he mentioned this in public meetings there were strong boos from the crowd. This kind of sectarian tension had not been so open in election rallies before. 

Do you think also that the breakdown with the Gülen movement has affected the AKP’s ability to propagandize for the Turkish model in the West? 

The Gülen community was a crucial part of the AK Parti's "old new regime" in Turkey, from 2002 to around 2013. It has links with the West and understands marketing much better than the AK Parti's typical constituency and activists. Also, the Gülen movement's religious understanding and ideology are more along the lines of Reaganism and Thatcherism: The combination of liberal democracy with moderate conservative religion and free market capitalism. If you listen to Gülen's sermons from the late 1970s, he sounds like an American conservative preacher. His organizations in the U.S. are very well linked in Washington DC - from the middle ranks of American academia to the political elites. They know how to market themselves and how to market Turkey. So Gülen was a very important part of the AK Parti regime and its international links.

The Gülen community also had a large number of high-quality cadres. In its first two terms, the AK Parti pushed out a lot of secularists from within the government bureaucracy. It cleansed the police, the courts, the education system, and it was mostly the Gülenists who filled the gaps. The non-Gülen part of the AK Parti had successful politicians, but not so many successful civil bureaucrats or judges. This what the Gülen people contributed. Their absence is going to be disastrous for the AK Parti in the long term, as its own people are not of the same caliber.

You describe in the book how politically and economically disadvantaged sections of the population were included into established institutions, and by extension were subsumed into the market system. Is that necessarily a bad thing? In healthcare, for example, there has been a big expansion of health insurance coverage to poorer people, as well as other measures. It’s not a utopia but it’s an improvement. How has Turkey’s economic model completely collapsed in your opinion?

I wouldn't talk of a complete collapse yet. There is certainly a crisis but not a collapse. It is true that some parts of the population started to get advantages that they wouldn't even have dreamed of in the regular neoliberalism applied in Turkey in the 1980s and 90s. We have to look at this as a global transformation of neoliberalism, not just specific to Turkey: Now there is the Clinton, Blair or Obama version – This is a more socialized version of neoliberalism, but it is still neoliberalism. 

What was known as the Washington Consensus characterized neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s. This was a very straightforward dismantling of welfare, de-unionization, and making everyone prey to the market.

But by the end of the 1990s it was realized that this didn't work - not in the West, not anywhere else. So social programs had to be added to neoliberalism. This came to be known as the post-Washington consensus. Economists, the IMF and the World Bank still coalesced around the same ideas, but they also had to add some social programs in this new neoliberal consensus of the 2000s. We saw that in healthcare in Turkey, for example, but not in much else.

More broadly, we should still see this "social neoliberalism" as persistent class war. The idea of "bottom billion capitalism" was about helping people who live in extreme poverty, but this did not mean trying to level the playing field. So inequality actually persisted under the AK Parti. If you look at indicators such as income distribution and distribution of wealth, they got worse and worse. The top 1 percent phenomenon that everyone talks about in the U.S. and the U.K. has become worse in Turkey under the AK Parti. 

Neoliberalism also hasn’t solved problems like unemployment, which has kept rising. Perhaps the most devastating indicator is worker deaths. Up to 1,500 workers have died in work accidents in Turkey every year under the AK Parti, meaning a total of 15-20,000 deaths under the AK Parti due to work accidents. So overall this is extremely exploitative capitalism with just a few social programs.

Perhaps holding Turkey up as a model neoliberal country has always had limits. It could be argued that the cronyism and patronage systems of the “old Turkey” have simply continued under the AKP and Erdoğan. In a way this represents the failure of the free market to operate properly in Turkey. The old state-dependent, patronage-based economic model remains in place but with different masters in charge.

Some people in Latin America have used the concept of "neoliberal populism." We could also apply that to Turkey. We can see this populism in the persistent patronage system. This strong patronage system also indicates why there isn't a strong reaction from within the AK Parti or among its supporters against the corruption charges. The corruption allegations infuriate leftists, liberals, and old-regime secularists, but they don't infuriate the AK Parti's base. Some people are puzzled by this but there's nothing puzzling about it, because - depending on how you define corruption - half of the population is already part of this system. The "big master" at the top may be procuring a huge palace for himself, but a lot of people are themselves getting breadcrumbs from this. It is so much part of the system that even the term "corruption" is perhaps misleading.

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