Islam and Democracy in Turkey

Squaring the Circle

Ioannis N. Grigoriadis takes a closer look at the AKP and its drive to democratise the Turkish Republic and bring it into the EU following the Turkish Constitutional Court’s decision not to ban the ruling party

Ioannis N. Grigoriadis takes a closer look at the AKP and its drive to democratise the Turkish Republic and bring it into the European Union. He concludes that the Turkish Constitutional Court’s decision not to disband the ruling party prevented serious damage being caused to efforts to reconcile democracy and Islam

Erdogan in front of an AKP banner (photo: AP)
"Turkey's European dream seemed closer to realisation than ever before, and all due to a party with Islamist political roots," says Ioannis Grigoriadis.

​​ The summer of 2008 was yet another turbulent one for Turkish politics. The closure case filed on 14 March 2008 by the chief prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, against the country's ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) was not a novelty in itself. Twenty-four political parties have been closed by the Turkish Constitutional Court since its foundation in 1962. Yet this was the first time a case was launched against an incumbent party.

The reason for bringing the case against the AKP was the party's transformation into a "focal point of anti-secular activities." The case was heard on 1 and 3 July, and on 30, the court delivered its verdict. While six of the eleven judges agreed with the prosecutor's proposal that the party be closed, they failed to reach the qualified majority of seven votes necessary for such a decision.

This meant that the party only faced a written warning and a curtailment of its state subsidy by 50 percent. In short, what had been coined "Turkey's judicial coup" was averted at the last moment by a single vote. The country avoided a major political crisis, early elections, and an escalation of the tension between secularist and Islamist groups in society that could have taken on extremely dangerous proportions.

The decision came as a huge relief to the Turkish financial market and was hailed by the international community and supporters of Turkey's EU membership in Turkey and abroad.

Muslim party as the motor of reform

What attracted so much attention to the fate of this party? The very idea of banning a party that obtained almost 47 per cent of the vote in the July 2007 parliamentary elections on the basis of inconclusive evidence would have made a travesty of Turkish democracy. Besides, the AKP has become the key political actor in the process of Turkey's democratisation reform.

European and Turkish flags (photo: AP)
According to Grigoriadis, the Turkish Constitutional Court’s decision not to disband the ruling party prevented serious damage being caused to efforts to reconcile democracy and Islam

​​ Despite its Islamist roots, the party has adopted a clear pro-European position since it took power in November 2002 and has implemented a reform programme that is unprecedented in recent Turkish history. The AKP government's policy triggered the decision of the European Council in December 2004 to start accession negotiations. Turkey's European dream seemed closer to realisation than ever before, and all due to a party with Islamist political roots.

To understand this apparent paradox, one needs to delve into the conditions surrounding Turkish modernisation. When Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, launched a radical reform programme to "bring Turkey to the level of contemporary civilisation," he wanted to put Islam into firm state control and minimise its social and political appeal.

Creation of a secular state

Islam was considered one of the primary reasons for Ottoman underdevelopment. Turkey's modernisation was built on the development of a secular, "religion-free" society. Early republican attitudes towards religion were clearly reminiscent of French principle of laicité. Islam came under direct state control and Islamic brotherhoods were closed. While references to Islam as the country’s official religion were removed, secularism (laiklik) was elevated to a principle of the Republic of Turkey.

Nonetheless, the appeal of this top-down modernisation effort was limited beyond the circles of a secularist middle class that had espoused the principles of the Ataturk reform. The large majority of Turkish people did not dismiss Islam and remained sceptical about the radical aspects of Ataturk's modernisation programme. This became clear when multiparty politics were introduced in 1946. Parties that deviated from the Kemalist secularist orthodoxy retained consistently strong popular appeal.

The threat of Turkey's Islamisation became one of the main pretexts for the repeated military interventions and closures of parties that allegedly sought to turn Turkey into an Islamic state. Yet what escaped the attention of Turkish secularist elites was that the country was undergoing a parallel modernisation process. Alongside the Kemalist modernisation paradigm, an alternative path towards modernisation emerged.

Emergence of a new middle class

A new rising urban elite refused to dismiss Islam, was critical of the excesses of Kemalist reform, and suggested a new version of Turkish modernity that would combine Islamic and Western values. Members of this new Muslim bourgeoisie benefited the most from Turkey's opening to the world economy in the 1980s. Eventually they saw the clear economic, political, and social benefits of Turkey's membership of the European Union.

Map of Turkey with a Turkish flag (photo: AP/DW)
"With its solid parliamentary majority, the AKP can re-launch a democratisation reform programme that could bring Turkey closer to EU membership," says Grigoriadis

​​ The AKP, a product of the transformation of Turkish political Islam, became the political representative of this social movement. Having shed Islamist suspicions against "Christian Europe," they subscribed to Turkey's EU candidacy. Turkey's European integration would establish most favourable conditions for the country's economic development.

At political level, the implementation of the Copenhagen Criteria for EU membership would inevitably lead to the consolidation of Turkish democracy. Turkey would realise her long-standing ambition to join the European zone of peace, stability, and co-operation.

At social level, the establishment of a liberal, tolerant public sphere would help create a framework for full protection of human rights and mutual toleration between the diverse segments of Turkish society, secularists, and Islamists, Turks and Kurds, Alevis or non-Muslims.

At the same time, Turkey's secularist elite, which had traditionally represented the West, failed to respond to the AKP's transformation of the political agenda and suggested an alternative vision of Turkey's European integration. This failure was exemplified by the main opposition Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP). Instead of spearheading the EU reform process, it increasingly adopted a nationalistic, isolationist, and phobic attitude towards the European Union which allowed the AKP to monopolise Turkey's EU membership vocation.

Rising tensions

In effect, it identified with the most reactionary elements of the military and civil bureaucracy, which saw that Turkey's democratic consolidation would mean the end of the tutelary role they enjoyed. In addition, it fomented the fears of the secularist middle class, which became increasingly uneasy about the growing social and political clout of the social forces the AKP represented.

The AKP was accused of using the European Union and democratisation as window-dressing for its real agenda, the Islamisation of Turkey. The candidacy of Abdullah Gul for the presidency of the country in April 2007 was interpreted as a symbolic step in that direction. The concerted reaction of the CHP and the bureaucracy led to the July 2007 elections, a triumph for the AKP. Yet even after the elections, the CHP continued its fear-mongering campaign on the issue of the alleged Islamisation threat, while it was insensitive to much more serious threats to Turkish democracy, such as the bureaucratic intervention into democratic politics and the existence of nationalist secularist terrorist groups such as the Ergenekon.

Ioannis N. Grigoriadis (photo: private copyright)
Ioannis N. Grigoriadis

​​ One should underline that the AKP was also responsible for allowing this climate of mutual suspicion to develop. In the years following 2004, the reform zeal clearly abated. The AKP was caught up in the rising nationalist rhetoric, which grew more suspicious of the European Union and vehemently opposed US foreign policy. The lack of progress regarding the rights of Alevis and non-Muslims also led to doubts about its commitment to human rights in those cases where these rights did not favour Sunni Muslims.

Fear of a hidden Islamist agenda

The AKP also failed to make any moves to approach the secularist middle class, which would signal that lifting the limitations that Muslims faced would not result in the imposition of similar limitations on secularists. Focusing in the aftermath of the 2007 elections on the headscarf issue and not treating it in the context of a wider constitutional reform encapsulating the full protection of the rights of all Turkish citizens was a grave tactical error. It allowed the CHP to instigate fears about a hidden Islamist agenda and gave the chief prosecutor the pretext to file a closure case against the party.

Despite its shortcomings, the AKP is still – given the absence of a secularist pro-European party – the main motor of democratic change. With its solid parliamentary majority it can re-launch a democratisation reform programme that could bring Turkey closer to EU membership and also eliminate all suspicions about its true intentions at domestic level.

Due to its popular origins, the AKP is also uniquely positioned to influence the bulk of Turkey's population towards adopting the European project. Encouraging the majority of Turkish people to adopt European liberal democratic values is a difficult task. Yet no party is better poised to achieve this than the AKP. Its success could also have a positive effect on relations between Europe and Islam. In the light of this fact, the court decision of 30 July averted the dealing of a grave blow to the effort to reconcile democracy and Islam.

Ioannis N Grigoriadis

© Kulturaustausch

Dr Ioannis N Grigoriadis is a lecturer at the Department of Turkish & Modern Asian Studies at the University of Athens and a research fellow at ELIAMEP (Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy). He has worked at Columbia University, the University of Oxford, and Sabancı University, Istanbul.

Related Topics
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.