AKP is too Turkish – not too Islamic
From a liberal perspective, the past Turkish decade has largely been a pleasant one. The Turkish military, which has ousted four elected governments since 1960, has been gradually pushed to where it should be in any democracy.
Systemic human rights abuses, such as torture and summary executions, have disappeared. Reforms encouraged by the European Union have expanded the rights of Kurds, Christians, women and basically all minority groups. Meanwhile, the Turkish economy has boomed, creating more jobs and more prosperity.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002, deserves a lot of credit for this transformation. No wonder Turkey’s liberal intellectuals, who had long been calling for democratic reforms, have by and large supported the AKP. That is also why the Kemalists, the sworn enemies of the AKP, have labeled the liberals as “traitors” who “sold” themselves to the AKP. (In Turkey, liberalism and Kemalism have always been conflicting political lines; Kemalism venerates the authoritarian state, liberalism criticizes it.)
However, in the past year, the reformist edge of the AKP has dramatically waned. The “Kurdish opening,” which promised a liberal and peaceful solution to the country’s decades-old conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was replaced by a more hawkish policy of “counter-terrorism.” Various journalists were arrested for “propaganda on behalf of terrorism,” with indictments that would not be considered serious in most democratic countries. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s intolerance to criticism continued, with “insult” cases opened against even friendly journalists.
Therefore, the current widespread opinion among many Turkish liberals, and even some conservatives, is that the AKP is not a promising party anymore. Rather, the governing party is criticized for its increasingly authoritarian style, and even for creating its own authoritarian establishment.
I agree with most of these liberal criticisms against the AKP. I, too, feel less enthusiastic about “New Turkey” and its potential to becoming a truly liberal democracy.
However, there is a crucial point to note: Almost none of the problems that we see today in the AKP stem from its “Islamism,” as Kemalists and some Westerners think. In fact, the AKP’s transformation to post-Islamism remains genuine, as the party promotes nothing more “Islamic” than a secular state that has respect to religion. Moreover, in its approach to Turkey’s non-Muslims, the AKP is still more liberal than the Kemalist nationalists.
The real problem lies in not the “Islamism” of the AKP, but its “Turkishness” – i.e., the problems that it inherited from Turkey’s political culture: an over-powerful leader, a love affair with conspiracy theories, an obsession with “honor” that limits freedom of speech and a concept of “terrorism” that criminalizes even ideas. These are the standard troubles that Turkish governments, let them be Kemalist or center-right, have displayed for many decades. The AKP is only proving that it too is not free from these negative Ankara traditions.
That is why some of the Islamic critics of the AKP are blaming the party these days for being “Ankara-icized.” One of them is Faruk Ünsal, the head of Mazlumder, an Islamic Human Rights Organization, who gave a long interview to daily Taraf two weeks ago. “The AKP transformed the bureaucracy to some extent,” he said, “but the bureaucracy transformed them, too, and they met at a midpoint.” He went on to criticize all the illiberal tendencies of the AKP from a Muslim point of view.
The next big question is whether the AKP will be stuck in this new equilibrium, or whether it will have the wisdom to shake and renew itself, curb its own temptation to unlimited power and revive its reformist agenda. We will see. And we will push as well.