Where is Turkey Headed? The Rise of the Political Islam in the Recent Past

Dr. Cüneyt Ülsever, Journalist, Author & Economist – Research Turkey – March 31, 2013

I. Introduction – This article analyzes the rise of Islamist politics in Turkey, a country that has, for a long period of time now, applied a policy of strict secularism. Its purpose is to examine the dynamics that have led a modest democracy to unavoidably bring about the very Islamist politics that it resists, even though Turkey has opposed these policies, occasionally, through direct military interventions. Instead of interpreting each policy applied by each Islamist party one by one, the overall sociological and economic forces bringing Islamist parties and policies into power will be analyzed.

Thus, the article will examine:

1) The meaning that Islam has in Turkey,

2) The closing down of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) during the intervention of February 28 (1997), and

3) The Justice and Development Party (the AK Party or AKP), the party currently in power.

4) Finally, a general evaluation of the AK Party’s ruling ability within the first 8 years of its government will be made.

II. Islam and Turkey

Islam is historically one of the most, if not the most, significant factor shaping the people in Turkey. In the Ottoman Empire, Islam not only culturally shaped the population but it also led to a constitutional monarchy as part of its ideological system. However, this new ideology, introduced during the last period of the Ottoman Empire but embodying the concepts of secularism adopted by the Republic, tried to remove this religion, Islam, from its occupancy of both the ideological and the cultural domains, aiming to demote it to a mere act of worship, thus clearing some room for itself – the Republic.

Really, we need to accept quite frankly that the Republic regarded Islam as an obstacle to its goal of modernization. The Republic based its Western legitimacy and its drive towards “Modernity” on the control of religion, regarding Islam as unique among religions and so never examining how Christianity was intertwined with the history of capitalism. Turkey’s system of secularism is one of those rare, few constitutions that have subjected religion to state control. Rationalist ideas lie at the root of this: there is no room for religion in a world in which the mind can discover everything.

Although the Turkish secularists were interested in the material elements of the capitalism, they made no effort to understand its moral components. Therefore, a huge ideological and cultural gap appeared in the Turkish Republic: Turkish modernism developed independent of any ideological or cultural foundation, while the people continued to live with their own religion, being forced to regard modernity as something external to themselves. So, Turkey, currently knocking on Europe’s door, has unfortunately been deprived of its identity, with the Republic continuing to resist the masses and their demands to express their identity even though, instead, it should be supporting them.

The central core of the opposition of the masses to “modernity” can thus be summarized in one single word: Secularism!

Some people act against secularism, and then others regard them as “the enemy of secularism” or even “Islamic revivalists”. But both parties miss the important point! The point is that this opposition takes its meaning not from the separation of religious and state affairs, but from this special meaning of “secularism!” Otherwise, as certain Islamists have set forth, the argument that “Islam is different from other religions: only Islam commands a worldly order” is not correct. If we accept this argument, then the claim that “secularism is only applicable to the believers of the Bible and Torah, as these only describe the spiritual world” is also incorrect. These religions also describe a worldly order, just as Islam does.

However, every country has some history of a “struggle with secularism.” Turks only have the history, not the struggle. In Turkey, secularism is not any result of a social struggle. No: it has come directly from above!

Religious education in Turkey naturally runs in parallel to the understanding of secularism in Turkey. In 1913, Sheikh-ul Islam Mustafa Hayri Efendi, then Minister in charge of the Estates of Mortmain, announced the “Regulation on the Reform of the Madrasahs” and merged all the madrasahs in Istanbul. The madrasahs outside of İstanbul were then united as “Country Madrasahs” during 1914.

When the “Law of Unification in Education” was enforced in March 1924, all Madrasahs became religious high schools. For the purpose of “the unification of education”, all madrasahs and schools under the Ministry of Religion and Estates in Mortmain, and those run under private trusts, were all attached to the Ministry of Education. In 1924, there were 29 religious high schools. During 1925 their number was reduced to 26, and in 1926 to 20. In 1927, all such schools except for those in Istanbul and Kütahya were closed down. In 1930 these were closed down as well.

The 1940s were wasted years in terms of religious education. Some go even further, seeing these years as those of “religious hostility.” As a compromise with the Democratic Party policy that arose during 1949, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) opened religious courses in ten provinces. When the Democratic Party then came to power in 1951, it opened seven-year religious high schools in 7 cities. In 1958, the number of these schools was increased to 19, and to then to 26 in 1962. The “General Directorate of Religious Education” was found under the Ministry of National Education in 1964. In 1969, the number of Religious High Schools was 71. The secondary-school divisions of these schools were closed down by the coup of March 12, 1971. However, during the 1993-1994 academic year there were a total of 398 religious high schools across the nation.

Article 32 of “The Basic Law on National Education” number 1739 sets down that religious high schools are “institutions applying programs in preparation for higher education” independently from their duty to train the personnel later to be appointed to carry out religious responsibilities. The number of students in religious high schools as a percentage of those in studying in all intermediate schools is approximately 10%. However, the share of religious high schools’ student to all vocational schools is 20.3%!

In light of this historical data, I would like to talk about these masses that today we still disregard. First, yes, it is true that there certainly is a mass of people that all the secularists, Kemalists, leftists and elitists used to disregard. And indeed, this was a huge mass of people! These people do not regard Islam as an obstacle to the modernity as the secularists do; yet they do not want their mundane lives to be lead only by “Islam” as all Islamists suppose they do. They do not take offense, at all, at the state providing them with religious services, as the Liberalists suppose. They perform their namaz on Fridays, they have fun on Saturdays and then off to their football matches on Sundays.

However, they do want to live with Islam, in this world, without rejecting the blessings of the material life. These are the majority, but they have been quiet as long as they have been unorganized! These people, spread throughout the whole country, are mostly artisans and tradesmen. There are civil servants and workers among them, but they are mostly small dealers, greengrocers, carpenters, plumbers, white-washers, house painters, bakers, drivers and such people. Since they take part in production and trade through their own manual skills and efforts, they are different from those peasants who are a product of the agricultural order and who expect everything from God. But, they are not so intimate with “Western civilization” as the scholars – the professionals – are. Therefore, they are neither as stationary as the peasants, nor as open to the world as the educated scholars and the professionals are. They welcome any blessings (physical, social, political) from the West, yet “all they want is to not be deprived of their own culture (religion)”! They do not think, either, that Islam only has a function in the next world. A lot of the customs and local practices that enable them to perceive and experience this world are shaped by Islam.

Concerning the action-worship-faith relationship, this majority does not contend themselves only with faith: they perform the namaz, they give offerings, they read Mawlid and go on their pilgrimage to Mecca. They are devoted to Islam in their moral principles, in their families, in their neighborhoods and in their religious communities. If it is possible and practical in realm of the real world, they do not engage in anything contradicting the Quran!

They derive their identities and develop their personalities all based on Islam. Maybe they think Edward O. Wilson was right! Religion is a part of their natural life!

Yet, they do not feel any obligation to comply entirely with Islamic law. In their marriages and divorces they ignore the rules which allow for the marrying of up to four wives; they do not divorce their wives by saying “I divorce you” three times. They perform neither the custom of hilla marriage nor do they follow the rules of retaliation. They do not expect the testimony of two women in the absence of a man as a witness. They do not favor the penalty of 100 lashes for those who commit adultery. And it is not even possible that they could approve of death by stoning for an adulteresses – which is also not in the Quran – either.They do not think that Islam organizes every matter and regulates everything. Instead, these people know how to “use the mind”, as stated in the Quran fifty-one times as the Quran authorities say, and they can and do separate the objective rules (universal rules) from the rules of means (customs and practices).

Either, it was a useless attempt to search for modernity in Turkey by disregarding this “quiet majority” – the mass of the people – and the same time strip them of “their cultural identity”, or it was a doomed search for a world – yet to be established – that did not include “them” in it.

III. The Welfare Party (Refah Partisi)

In Turkey, political movements and the significance of each are mentioned separately from the leaders of the associated political parties. The leaders can even seem to cut themselves loose from their parties!

It is appropriate to first mention here that the Welfare Party – the party that best perceived the role of Islam in Turkish society – was developed by Necmettin Erbakan Hoca on the basis of the set of the nationalist/regionalist ideas that have come to be known as the National Vision.

Hoca spent his whole life keeping the parties thus founded, and dissolved, following a certain line. Erbakan worked hard to sit in the same chairs that his school-mate, Süleyman Demirel, did. In fact, since it was Hoca’s party that first discovered through their accurate analysis that the “economically pressured” and the “sociologically (religiously) pressured” were in fact effectively husband and wife, and since the most modern party of Turkey was under his control, in 1996 Hoca finally became Prime Minister as a Coalition leader, with a vote of 21%.

Erbakan was the first person to carry Turkey’s “quiet majority”, with their high religious sensibilities, to the Prime Ministry! But, what type of Prime Minister was he? A Prime Minister willing to compromise anything to remain in power! A Prime Minister seeming to be against the system, yet always striving to make a room for himself inside the “structure of the state” in Ankara!

However, he never came to understand that the apparatus of the state chose and created a “boogeyman” for each period, that the state then preserved its legitimacy by protecting people from this “boogeyman”, and that this always targeted his own party, no matter what he did. Finally, upon the first attempt at power of an Islamist party, the military overthrew Erbakan and his Welfare Party in 1997. He carried the “quiet majority” to the power, but he could not maintain the situation.

So, what is the phenomenon behind the Welfare Party and Erbakan? In order to understand the function of the Welfare Party to the nation, it is necessary to analyze the mass of population who were voting for it back in 1995. Who are this mass of the population? Before answering this question, we first have to admit that, as sociological research is quite inadequate in Turkey, we can only adopt an “analytical approach” to this investigation, some intellect-oriented method based only on the limited “empirical” data that we have access to.

Our first identification is that the voters of the Welfare saw themselves as “separate from the system!” In the elections of 1995, these voters tended to vote for the Welfare Party, a party that had positioned itself as separate from the system and that had questioned the system (!) after they gave a chance to the parties that are “aligned with the system” (Demirel, Ecevit, Özal). But a “separate from the system” mass could seem intimidating to the “with-the-system” people. And, indeed, it did!

However, if we instead look at the actions of the people involved, and at the limited empirical data that we have, it becomes explicitly clear that they were in no way aimless vagrants or “revolutionary” activists! Their passive attitudes during the dissolution of the Welfare Party, their simple activities against eight-year continuous education and the hollow reactions of turban-wearing students to the cruelty they encounter show that it is almost impossible for such people to have an aim of “using force against the system.”

Anyway, field studies have indicated how they conceive being “separate from the system”. A 1996 Piar-Gallup Research Company study entitled “What do the voters of the Welfare Party want?”, showed that these people’s demands from the system were just ordinary demands, like those of any other people, such as “curing unemployment”, “defeating inflation” and “preventing terrorism.” The demand for “Sharia” comes in at 12th, which then scares 80% into not voting for the Welfare Party!

So, what is “their” separation from “the others”? In the survey: “Why do you vote for the party that you selected?”, conducted before the local elections in 1994, in İstanbul-Beykoz district the voters for the Welfare Party selected as their first choice “to have a change”, and only as their second choice “A Muslim governs its country rightly.”

However, in both of the studies mentioned above, the inability “to live the Muslim identity” took an important place among the reasons given. In the survey undertaken in Beykoz district, the choice of selecting a party “out of ideological reasons” (which could be interpreted as “Sharia” for the voters of the Welfare Party) amongst the supporters of the Welfare Party was almost the same as for supporters of the Motherland Party and the True Path Party, followed by the Republican People’s Party and the Democratic Left Party.

When we combine this limited research with our own observations, we can come up with two important findings that separate this mass of the population from all others:

1) the demand for “non-corrupt” politics, expressed in a religion-orientated manner, from the otherwise degenerate world of Turkish politics (“A Muslim governs its country rightly”) and,

2) the demand “to live the Muslim identity”.

Those who want to live the ‘action’ part of their religion, from the action-worship-faith triangle, are the most important demanders of this identity. After these identifications, the importance of the Welfare Party becomes apparent.

The Welfare Party, targeted at “low-income groups” just like the left-leaning parties of Latin America, became the first political party representing the National Vision that identified that those “economically pressured” and remaining “separate from the system” were also “sociologically pressured” in their search for their “identity” as well. The party then reassured its voters by saying that only a Muslim can understand a Muslim, and that a Muslim is fairer when it comes to economics! As, for its voters, the Welfare Party was just “one of them”. It composed an “in-group” in sociological terms. The masses more easily accept proposals of an in-group that they regard themselves as belonging to, while they can act with suspicion towards even the most decent proposals of other groups.

Since Turkish intellectuals (for example, the rivalry CHP) do not share this sociology, they cannot ever see that the “economically pressured” and those “sociologically pressured” are one and the same: they have never cared about religious sensitivities, while they have lost all their potential “poor” voters to a right-wing party, the Welfare Party. In the period during which the left went into decline world-wide, Islam now appeared as the only “ideology” struggling against “imperialism” after the collapse of the communism, but the CHP-oriented left just could not adopt any appropriate identity. So, the Welfare Party received great advantages from the “multiplier effect”, as seen in economics, in the increase it saw in its votes. And its votes soared. In the elections of 1995, the Welfare Party justified the expectation that “A Muslim governs his country rightly” during its struggle for the local administrations, being elected in 1994 and achieving “leadership” by increasing the share of its votes – from first attempts that started at 5 to 6% – to 21%.

We should admit here that as the Welfare Party implemented in its own political organization the most modern version of the form first identified by Lenin as “the capillary theory”, the path to power was now open for the Welfare Party. And this happened in a period when the party did not expect such an outcome at all. Unfortunately, this highest stair turned out to be the last stair for the Welfare Party for the Welfare had not prepared itself at all to take its stand at the top. Having climbed to the top with such great preparation and patience, the Welfare Party had no plans about what to do when it got there! Why?

Having engaged in such extensive political maneuvering in order to come to power, Erbakan Hoca then never allowed any “intellectual development” in any of the parties that he was in charge of. Hoca derived all of the “intellectual elements” that he required, including those required to save his last “party” from Arab Socialism – as he had for each party he founded – from the unrefined “statism” that formed the core of his “National Vision”. And this was a state-socialism popularized by the Baath-type parties during the 1950 and ’60s.

The “Just Order” that collapsed during the first congress that it held during its reign, was tarred with the same brush of the Baath mindset and was an economic administration guided through a clear police state. For example; it was necessary to obtain a certificate of “good conduct” from one’s neighborhood’s “commissioners” just in order to take out a loan! In reality, the Welfare Party took neither “Just Order” nor “National Vision” seriously at all. So, when it came to power, the Welfare Party demonstrated in just in a few short months that it was unprepared in almost every domain. And, what’s more, as a person who knew that his personal power was only possible under the auspices of the “state’s” power, Erbakan tried to appear friendly to both the “state,” and to the people who resisted to the orders of the state, at the same time. And the result? A perfect cacophony!

Since the Welfare Party when it came to power – as the party which had best interpreted the sociology of Turkey – did not have good tools to carry the people it supported “forward”, it was left with only the Islam-oriented discourse of “the past”. The party could no longer promote itself as defending the “rights of the Muslim” and the “rights of the people”, and so it became not a manager, but a secretary. And, at the same time, the party still looked like a party that was questioning the “state ideology”, despite the best efforts of Hoca.

So, in conclusion, the Welfare Party looked like a party that both questioned the interests of the state and of the people, but which could not persuade the majority of population (80%) of this! However, it was the first time in Turkish history that there had ever been suitable conditions for the removal of the “dilemma”, as Turks perceived it, of the “conservatism-Westernism” conflict. All of the “political projects” were, until recently, caught between the “Westerners” on one hand who disregard the sociological facts of Turkey, and the “Conservationists” on the other hand who produce “forward-looking proposals” that are, in reality, poorly disguised “retrospective longings”.


Despite all of its compromises, the Welfare Party scared the established order, and the “social engineering” project of February 28th (1997) steadily grew. The most significant phase of the project was realized on January 16th, 1998, with the Welfare Party being dissolved.In its place, the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) was founded.

Having been born out of the Welfare Party, the Virtue Party started by incurring all of the paranoia formerly directed at the Welfare Party. This was, indeed, a heavy burden. Yet, the members of the Virtue Party continued to have to explain what “they were not”, feeling like a footballer playing an away-match. They could not present their own “plans” for the “future”, and they could not care about who accepted them or not.

The preliminary elements included in the draft plan announced by the Virtue Party seemed just like some repetition of what political parties today claim “in everyday discourse”. Concepts such as the free market economy, public freedoms and a state of law were then the talk of the whole political spectrum! Maybe what was new here was to hear these modern concepts come from past members of the Welfare Party, whom we remembered presenting such concepts as “Just Order” and “Islamist devotion!” Their positive attitude towards the European Union, and therefore towards the Customs Union, was indeed a radical attitude for the Virtue Party.

However, what caught my attention were the discussions concerning the National Security Council (NSC), the State Security Court (SSC) and the secularism now targeted by the Virtue Party. These issues were deemed effectively taboo by the political parties prevalent at the end of 1990s. Although, in the proposed program, the issue was suspended for the NSC with the statement “as it is in the West…,” it was explicitly stated that the SSC would be dissolved.

The National Vision (now Virtue Party) tradition had conducted its last debate on secularism at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (GNAT) in 1964. With its new targets, the party now walked into a forbidden zone, an area that everyone in Turkey accepted to be difficult but that they could not bring themselves to approach. Yet, the Virtue Party, without the barred Erbakan, could not carry the burden that the Welfare Party had, and since the establishment was afraid of it, the new party was also dissolved in 1999.

IV. Justice and Development Party -or Rather Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

At the Virtue Party’s last congress, in 1999 before its dissolution, the consensus for an “association” based on the National Vision was destroyed. This consensus was destroyed by the trio of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç. The consensus held until that day as indestructible – the National Vision – was the principle of “single truth; single leader”. This trio now came to challenge this dogma. And, only three years earlier, in 1996, a phenomenon occurred which would have led them to rise from their beds and perform a ritual ablution if they had even dreamed about it.

The grassroots of the Virtue Party supported Abdullah Gül’s opposition to Erbakan by 42%. How did this “miracle” come into existence? The answer is simple: This “miracle” happened because of a change at the grassroots level.

A continuation of the mass of the population represented by the National Vision – and it would be naïve to believe that they were only represented by this opinion – who appeared in Turkey during the last 15-20 years and whom I have called conservationist-change supporters, these people now demanded change not in “retrospective” but in “forward-looking” terms. Indeed, that happened for the first time in Turkish history!

A brand new socioeconomic development appeared in Turkey, a tradition based on an intense conservationism started demanding that Islam and globalization should embrace each other under a Republican regime.

What is behind this socioeconomic development? Who are these Conservative-change supporters? They are a new enterprising class that started to emerge in 1990s, and who are, for the first time in the history of Turkey, separate from the apparatus of the state.

The members of this class had mostly grown up in Anatolia. They are called either the Anatolian Tigers or the Anatolian Lions! The majority of those who had stayed the course of the “export-oriented production” introduced by the late Turgut Özal in the mid-1980s exhibited the following traits during 1990s:

a) They generated capital accumulation through their own activities. They were separate from the classical backbone of the Republic, İstanbul-Ankara collaboration; they were away from the center and they developed themselves only through their own endeavors.

b) They did not (and could not) take advantage of the state rents offered by the current favored-son based capitalism. This class, separate from the center, was a group of people who had not yet benefited from the policies of “creating rich people through state intervention policies” that were prevalent throughout the country until then. Instead they were hindered by the state. They used to lose the taxes they paid to the favored-son capitalistic system, and even then the center continuously intervened in their “lifestyle”. At times they were even regarded as an “enemy of the regime.”

c) Nevertheless, they were quite open to the outside world, as they were conducting export-oriented production. Turgut Özal supported this class with his “export support policies”. These people made good use of the incentives which, while generally moral, were sometimes material. They learned to sell goods and services to the Middle East, Russia, North Africa and even to Europe, and they learned to target these markets.

d) They adhered strictly to the conservative lifestyle, and they still do. They embraced the lifestyle common in Anatolia in its Islamic traditions. What is more, it was this aspect that led them to the forefront on February 28th coup (1997), and it was their voice of opposition to the alliance of İstanbul-Ankara axis that was attempted to be suppressed besides the Welfare Party.

e) Even if their fathers had not had a modern education, their sons (and even daughters) were equipped with the best level modern tools in this regard. The traditionalists started to educate their sons, and even their daughters, in Europe and the USA.

In short, the composition of this new enterprising class emerging in Anatolia was as follows: Primary school graduate, devout fathers; white-collar university graduate sons!

In the period from 1985 to 1995, cities such as Denizli, Uşak, Çorum, Kayseri, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş and Konya were being filled with factories under the leadership of this new class; these cities were growing fast, white and blue-collar workers crowded the fronts of their workplaces with their private cars, and they ran to pay the bills of their winter and summer cooperative houses. The unemployment rate in these cities, before the 2001-2 crisis, was 0%!

This new class, which I have roughly described here, now displayed a quite different appearance, completely disjointed from the classical patterns. They were both conservatives and change supporters! They were well aware that the process of globalization was evolving in their favor.

They are conservationist in that they demand the Islamic lifestyle; however, they had noticed that Islam-based politics did not benefit them at all, especially during the Welfare Path (Refahyol) Coalition period. A huge group had already left the line laid down by Erbakan.  Based on the description outlined above, the reader can see that, at the start of the 21st century, the conservationist-change supporters created a very dynamic mass of people.

They were a new class:

a) who realized that their (previous) demands for change would take the country backwards during the time of the Welfare -Path Coalition (the coalition of Erbakan and Çiller), and so were now pointless,

b) whose will to participate in globalization was high,

c) who were also open to other knowledge, other than Islamic doctrine,

d) who embraced technology.

They were still conservatives, yet, thanks to these characteristics depicted above, they made it possible that other conservative majorities also welcomed their “forward-looking outlook”. The other conservatives welcomed them because they were the in-group. They had taken hold of the nation’s social dynamics. They met both the “conservationist identity needs” of the population, and they contributed to the need for “change.” They were attempting to bring the provinces to the center. After 1990, also the Fethullah Hoca movement – especially the younger generation – followed a similar path.

The new demands emerging from the conservationist- change supporters appeared due to the developments that I have summarized in four broad points:

1) The wind of change throughout the world affected these people as well.

2) They noticed that “classical politics” based on epic discourse and utilizing Islam, which used to excite them, was a vain hope, and that it did not meet their demands to protect their class interests. They eventually came to constitute a new capitalist class.

3) They developed significant momentum in both production and trade.

4) They perceived the significance and necessity of liberal policies, the free market economy and of certain democratic gains in order to preserve and improve their new-found economic status.

They were now aware of the futility of being classically “puritanical” or “reactionary” just for its own good.

Nevertheless, this “new bourgeoisie” and its economic development slowly came to frighten the older “layers of the bourgeoisie who were a product of the Republic”, and who owed their existence to Ankara, the capital. And further, as these “old conservationists” left behind their image of being just some destitute Anatolian community, started to demand new policies and assumed more economic power, this led to greater fears.

The fundamental source of this fear was that they would inevitably demand some sort of “redistribution.” These conservative change supporters were Turkey’s first ever independent bourgeoisie.

Having chosen capitalist modes of production, the Republic strived during the 1930s and 1940s to create a bourgeoisie – under the custody and supervision of Ankara – as there was no entrepreneurial class left in the country, recently coming out of a war. Yet, contrary to expectations, this favored-son class never stood on its own feet, and it did not even suit this class’s purpose to become independent. As Şerif Mardin put it in his famous metaphor: the more that “wealth by the hand of state” as institutionalized in İstanbul-Ankara relied on the center, the more the demands of the conservative change supporters came to demand the collapse of this welfare-dispersive authority at the center. As, for free capital, the state is only necessary for some principal duties and assorted non-financial activities. While, for the classical “old-progressives”, Ankara should remain a “source of welfare creation”; this did not suit the new entrepreneurs. While the former got rich from the hand of the state, the latter saw that every unnecessary penny the state took instead prevented their becoming rich.

Years ago, in 2001, I published in the Hurriyet newspaper an interview I had conducted with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, shortly after he was released from prison. At the time, I was criticized, first in my own newspaper and then in other media, by several authors; and a caricature was published in my newspaper in which I painted R. T. Erdoğan from green to white and the caricature claimed that I would change my surname, “Ül-loving”, to “Tayyip-loving” [from “Ül-sever” to “Tayyip-sever”]. I warned in that interview: “You may not appreciate R. T. Erdoğan and the AKP, but you should watch them.”

The point I was trying to make was: the AK Party met both the “conservative” demands and the “change” demands of the new entrepreneurs. In fact, it built what the Erbakan groups had but it even built what they could not- integration with the global world. From the very beginning I have held the same opinion. This party has tried to represent the bourgeoisie and notables of Anatolia, whom before them Adnan Menderes, Süleyman Demirel and Turgut Özal had all tried to represent, a group and a class that has finally evolved into today’s “conservationist-change supporters.” This group is not in economic conflict with those masses represented by Erbakan, but its focus is more: Anatolian Bourgeoisie! The new Anatolian capitalism – with its workers and employees!

During the period of Adnan Menderes, Anatolian capital was carried from the countryside to big cities of Anatolia. At the local level, Süleyman Demirel then turned this class into a bourgeoisie. Turgut Özal, in turn, guided this class at the international level. He introduced Anatolia to the world. In the period following 1950, the first agrarian elite became merchants, carrying goods from Istanbul back to their homelands. The merchants then, slowly, started to produce on a small scale and at a local level. Finally, Özal turned this class into capitalists carrying out foreign trade-oriented production, turning their peasants into workers. To understand what I mean here, it is enough to observe just any such city in Anatolia as Çorlu, Denizli, Uşak, Çorum, Gaziantep, Kayseri, Kahramanmaraş or Trabzon.

In 2002, with its workers, peasants, capitalists and its new sense of the world, the conservative mass now wanted to take up a position in Ankara, to be represented directly in politics! Since this power group’s leadership was held by a new bourgeoisie which, while new, was still bourgeoisie in classical terms, they had no conflict with the capitalist system. They just wanted to increase their share!

Interestingly, the AK Party was actually created by the Turkish Armed Forces, the keeper of the established system that overthrew Erbakan on February 28th and opened the path for the new conservative but capitalist class. Well, has the AK Party completely broken loose from its old tradition? Partially yes! Partially no! The base on which National Vision sits is itself changing, and the AK Party has had to change accordingly.

Now the Anatolian capital is managed by primary school graduate, tie-less, pious men and their white-collar sons who have studied in the USA! However, the old National Vision, and Hoca, were not able to develop past these “tie-less pious men.” This new synthesis makes the demands of this new power more than some mere ideological reaction (Islamic politics!). Now, its main demand is to gain share of the modern capitalist state. To become integrated with the modern state! To be embraced by the modern state, with all its conservative values! In summary: to settle at the center!

Nevertheless, this development does not stop the AK Party from using an approach that it derived from the National Vision. I have said: The tradition that first correctly noticed that the economically pressured (poor people) and the socially pressured (veiled people) overlap in Turkey is the very tradition of the National Vision. The AK Party continues to conduct its politics on the basis of this realization, and it is successful.

Thusly, as seen by the research undertaken by Binnaz Toprak and Ali Çarkoğlu, “Değişen Türkiye’de Din, Toplum ve Siyaset” (Religion, Society and Politics in the Changing Turkey- in English), TESEV Publication, 2006): “One of the results of our research is that, in Turkey, people are becoming more and more religious. In comparison to our research of 1999, the proportion of those who both called themselves “very religious”, and who initially described their identities as “Muslim” increased in 2006. While the proportion of those calling themselves “very religious” was only 6% in 1999, this increased to 13% in the 2006 research. Likewise, while the proportion who first described their identities as “Muslim” was 36% in 1999, this rose to 45% – an increase of 10% – in this research. Together with increasing religiousness, there has also been an increase in the percentage of respondents saying that there should be parties involved in religion-based politics. While the proportion was 25% in 1999, it had increased to 41% in this research.”   It is interesting, though, that the positive responses to the question “Do you want a Sharia-based religion state be established in Turkey” decreased from 21% in 1999 to only 9% (in 2006) during the rule of the AK Party”. The conservatives, who now feel freer to express their religiousness under the rule of the AK Party, have decreased the “their demands for Sharia”.

On the other hand, there is also a huge and sincere mass of the population who justifiably act with suspicion towards AK Party because of its past, who refrain from it and who think that it could turn out to be an even more strict rightist, while presenting itself as only moderate rightist. It is quite beneficial to remind these people of some certain historical facts.

At one time, the elite of the Republic deeply opposed “the agrarian elite Adnan Menderes” as well. “The Shepherd Sülü” (referring to Süleyman Demirel) was also marginalized and became an object of derision. “Sandal-wearing Özal” was believed to make the country retrograde. Özal even became a candidate for the parliament as a member of the National Salvation Party of which he was then a representative.

It is interesting though that the changes in this country have not generally been achieved by the metropolitan-left, but rather by the Anatolian-right which is allied with the population’s conservative values. They can also turn into a metropolitan-right (Turkish-style half-measure bourgeoisie), but these two are different in their revolutionary approaches. Yet, the townsfolk also have justified objections. The right-wing parties – of which Erbakan Hoca is the core example – have resorted many times to playing shoddy politics with religion.  While the crippled foot of Turkish secularism is its intervention in matters of faith, its other foot is those ring-wing politicians who effectively force faith to intervene in politics

On the other hand, in the early 2000s, Turkey appeared like the only country who “could draw Islam and democracy together” in the world with the frame of the demands of the new class in Turkey following the trauma of September 11th.

Therefore, Turkey, as a test center, could take the lead in the participation of the Muslim Middle-East, North Caucasus and Near East into the process of globalization in the next 20-25 years, if it makes a good use of this situation. Turkey could be bestowed the title of big brother of the region if it succeeds in this duty.

V. Conclusion

In Turkey, political Islam developed within the tradition of the National Vision. In the classical period, in the various parties that they set up, Necmettin Erbakan and his friends protected those people who adopted a religion-oriented conservative lifestyle and who believed that the Republican period had cast them aside. At the same time, these people were also the poor who could not obtain the share that they deserved of the national income. Using the idea of a husband and wife in some poor family created for a TV series, I have caricatured these groups, in this article, as a husband and wife sociologically pressured (in terms of their lifestyles) and economically pressured (poor).

Nevertheless, the period of Erbakan prioritized the nationalist aspects of the National Vision, separate from its religious aspects. Therefore, just like the Muslim Brotherhood, it never did relinquish its anti-imperialist / anti-capitalist attitude. It envisaged creating a conservative country, closed to the West with a priority on its statist economy. Due to expressing this opinion, its ratio of the popular vote increased to 21%; yet it could become integrated with neither the country’s other powers nor with the outside world.

On the other hand, when the National Vision received a severe blow from the military on February 28th, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “learned his lesson” – in his own words – and then succeeded in allying himself and his party with the new conservative bourgeoisie of Anatolia that came into being during the time of Turgut Özal. He adopted their expectations of becoming integrated with the world as his own principle, controlling the market economy but not compromising their conservative lifestyles. At the same time, he did not neglect to adopt both the conservative middle class (craftsmen, artisans, civil servants, organized workers and landowner peasants) who saw themselves as completely cast away on February 28th, and the conservative poor (such as landless peasants, unrecorded workers, apprentices, employees of SMEs, the unemployed and peddlers). He identified this mass of people as having a common ground of being conservative within the new world order.

Under a natural leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the AK Party first joined with the conservative masses who had voting for the central-right previously when the central-right was devoid of a leader, thus winning the elections of 2002 with 35% of the votes, and the elections of 2007 with 47% of the votes. Thus, since 2002, the party has effectively ruled Turkey on its own. Turkey has been ruled by the Islamist, but free market supporting, AK Party for almost 8 years now.

We could categorize the positive and adverse changes seen in the country respectively:

Positive developments:

1) The party has made it possible for the mass of the population, who for a long time had thought that they had been forgotten, to adopt a conservative lifestyle (50-55%): they can now leave the suburbs and outskirts and move to the center, to the main streets. The conservative mass has started to feel that they are the country’s owner.

2) The poor masses have been provided with:

i) A coal-supplies benefit from the fund set up for the poor,

ii) Free school book-notebooks,

iii) a universal, free health service.

iv) The party has ensured that land transport is convenient and cheap with four-lane intercity roads and likewise for air travel with free competition between airlines, thus ensuring a great degree of mobility throughout the whole country,

v) TOKİ has constructed modern and very cheap apartments, putting an end to the slums.

3) The party has broadly enforced the reform measures taken before 2002 (during the old coalition), ensuring that Turkey could get over the world economic crisis that marked in 2008 with a minimum of losses.

4) It has showed a great courage in the face of the military domination which has greatly hindered the progress of democracy in Turkey, and it has brought this period to a close, at great risk to itself. Now, we have a “quiet” military base.

5) For the first time, the Kurdish people have started to express their problems and their demands.

6) The mono-centric approach to foreign politics (i.e. the USA) has been eliminated. A clear understanding of a polycentric approach to politics has been introduced. Turkey, as a nation, has for the first time established close relationships with Russia, China, Brazil and many African countries. We now attached a special importance to events in the Middle East. We have tried to develop relationships that target having zero problem with our neighbors.

Adverse developments:

1) While the party embraces the conservatives, it excludes those who have adopted a modern (Western) lifestyle, which may be 45-50% of the country. The party has started to push these people towards the outskirts. Those who previously “governed” the country have now become concerned. These are minority when it comes to voting, but the majority in the fields of culture, the economy, thought, science and art.

2) The party has not been able to change the peculiarities in Turkey’s income distribution.

3) The economic boom is based largely on the flow of “hot” money from outside markets.  In reality, there is no real growth. The supply of hot money flow is too risky: it could be halted at any time

4) There are clues about a transition to civil domination:

i) The actions brought against coup plotters (the Ergenekon case) have come to cover almost all opponents. The bills of indictment are full of contradictory and unfounded accusations. The period of pre-trial detention becomes longer and longer. This pre-trial detention has turned directly into a sentence. It is probable that mere opponents, and the accused but innocent, will suffer along with actual criminals.

ii) In order to get remove military jurisdiction, all judiciary power (the courts) are now directly subordinate to the legislative power (the government).

iii) Unauthorized telephone tapping continues to increase. The opposition thinks that it lives in an empire of fear.

iv) The opposition media are attacked with tax penalties and with the having to fire any journalists that the government disapproves of. Some journalists have now been in jail for a long time, with no reason for their imprisonment yet stated. On the other hand, the partisan media are very strongly supported.

v) The prevailing opinion is that the Ministry of Domestic Affairs and the Ministry of Justice are dominated by a community who disregard laws and who only defending their own supporters.

vi) Some think that the AK Party has allied itself with a very powerful community.

vii) Every passing day, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s lone ruler psychology, or psychosis, is increasing.

viii) Following 2012, the Prime Minister plans to strengthen his lone ruler ideology with a transition to the Presidential system.

5) The Kurdish Initiative Policy, which would have provided the Kurdish people with an alleged freedom has ended in complete failure. Likewise, the policy initiatives for the Alevi and the Gypsy populations, who believe that their rights or identities are violated, have not passed beyond mere show.

6) In the Middle East, we have established close relationships with both Iran and with Hamas, in such a way that the West is disturbed. The search for hegemony in the Middle East has started to disturb both the West and certain Sunni Arab countries. The claims that Turkey has started to become detached from the West bother both the modern (who have adopted Western lifestyles) and the educated professionals (the elite). The policy of zero problems with neighboring countries has mostly been fruitless (for example: the Armenia-Azerbaijan problem). Mediation efforts have either gone nowhere or have been abandoned. The hostile attitude towards Israel creates great disturbances both internally and in the West. As a final note, the setting up a missile-shield against Iran in alliance with NATO in 2011, and the adoption of an explicitly hostile attitude towards the Assad regime in Syria are both quite new events that are both worthy of study and re-evaluations, which will be made in another article.

Dr. Cüneyt Ülsever, journalist, author & economist

PhD., Harvard University – Columnist, Daily Yurt Newspaper

Please cite this publication as follows:

Ülsever, Cüneyt (March, 2013), “Where is Turkey Headed? The Rise of the Political Islam in the Recent Past”, Vol. II, Issue 1, pp.33-48, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey.