The Erdogan administration
Turkey's paradigm shift

Since coming to power 12 years ago, Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has launched the most far-reaching process of democratisation the country has ever known and facilitated an unprecedented economic upswing. According to Cemal Karakas, however, it has not all been positive; there have been some worrying developments too, particularly in recent years

"Yurtta sulh, cihanda sulh" – "Peace at home, peace in the world". This is one of the best-known quotes from Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), the pro-Western, secular founder of modern Turkey. Initially, it seems contradictory that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), the sole governing party since 2002, has now adopted this equivocal maxim.

Indisputably, Turkey has flourished under the AKP government, becoming one of the world's most dynamic economies, and has also experienced a push on reform and democratisation that prompted the beginning of accession negotiations with the European Union (EU).

Simultaneously, however, recent years have seen an intentional strengthening of Sunni identity and morals and increasingly authoritarian governance under Prime Minister Erdogan, which has led – aside from the events around Gezi Park – to worrying restrictions on freedom of opinion and the press. In terms of minorities too, however, there are still problems, especially with the Kurds, Christians and Alevis all pressing for greater rights for their communities.

Democracy as a means to an end

The government's zigzagging policies make it clear that the AKP does not have a liberal democratic understanding of democracy and its promotion, but rather an instrumental one. In other words: democracy and the promotion of democracy are not seen as a (universal) norm, but as a means to achieve the government's own preferences above all else.

People demonstrating in Istanbul against Turkey's new Internet laws (photo: Reuters/Osman Orsa)
A recent example of Erdogan's understanding of democracy: Turkey's new Internet laws give the government the right to block individual Internet websites without having to obtain a court order. Journalists and legal practitioners in Turkey and the EU have roundly criticised the law. Opposition groups have demonstrated on Taksim Square and elsewhere, shouting slogans such as "Stop the censorship" and "Hands off my Internet"

This shows that an interesting paradigm shift has taken place in Turkey. Under Atatürk, Westernisation and progress were seen as synonymous, with Islam viewed as a hindrance to modernisation. Under Erdogan's AKP, however, Islam functions as a dynamo for modernisation, whereby an intellectual distinction is made between Westernisation and development. The latter is understood above all in the socioeconomic sense and advocated, whereas cultural Westernisation is rejected.

One might think that the AKP's success had not only made the party a role model for Islamist parties in the course of the "Arab Spring", but that certain values might result from its religion; after all, Christian Democratic parties also have recourse to the influence of their religion on their policies and actions.

The defective democracy

However, one must not forget that Turkey is what we call a "defective democracy". One of its core problems is that religion has – in principle ever since the Ottoman sultan caliphs – been abused as a tool by both state and politics. To give just one example: ironically, it was the secular Kemalist military that drove the most comprehensive re-politicisation of faith in recent times using the ideological sledgehammer of "Turkish-Islamic synthesis" after the 1980 putsch.

To aseptic Kemalism was now added a metaphysical component. In other words, Islam was promoted theoretically and materially – in harmony with the "green fence" policy supported by the Turkey's NATO partner the USA during the Cold War – and took on the function of a social-integrative "antidote", above all to various leftist, Alevi and Kurdish protest movements.

Yet along with the intended nationalisation of Islam, or the propagation of a turkifying Sunni state Islam, came a non-intended Islamisation of the nation. Coupled with the neoliberal market-opening policy of the religious prime minister Turgut Özal from the Motherland Party (AnaP) and the flow of "green capital" from abroad, the provinces of Asia Minor experienced an unprecedented boom during the 1980s, resulting in the emergence of the "Anatolian tiger" and the "Anatolian bourgeoisie" (the antipode of the Kemalist middle and upper classes), confidently articulating its own domestic and foreign policy preferences as the backbone of the AKP.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy (right) shake hands in Brussels (Photo: Reuters)
Prime Minister Erdogan travelled to Brussels for the first time in five years at the end of January 2014. The purpose of his visit was to inject some new life into negotiations about Turkey's accession to the EU

Yet the Kemalists could not exorcise the ghosts they had once summoned. The AKP is democratically legitimated, having won the past three parliamentary elections with an absolute majority – a result many parties in the West can only dream of.

Nevertheless, the current situation is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Erdogan's party has brought about the most pervasive democratisation process and economic boom in Turkey's history. On the other, despite its single-party dominance, the AKP has been unable to offer the country a liberal-democratic outlook. Turkish nationalism is still the strongest intellectual movement, and the country is still characterised by centralism and a personality cult that is considered more important than party manifestos or intra-party democracy, for example.

Ankara as the honest broker

Of course the AKP's mentality and worldview have also shaped Turkey's new value-oriented foreign policy. Essentially, this view envisages a role for Ankara as an "honest broker" and a policy of "zero problems" with neighbouring states.

Among other things, this pro-active foreign and development policy became possible because Turkey, with its scarce resources, is now free from the political constraints of the Cold War and free to react to increasing globalisation. Moreover, in contrast to previous, Kemalist governments, the AKP has the will and the (financial) means to postulate a foreign and domestic policy that promotes peace and stability in the philosophy of a civilian force, in line with the motto of "political change through trade".

Furthermore, the Turkish government is attempting to position the country on the side of the aspiring "Global South" in the course of the worldwide shift of power. As part of its "Strategic Depth" doctrine, the AKP has since mid-2000 also expanded its relations to the anti-Western and authoritarian regimes in Russia and Iran, at the same time suspending the country's strategic partnership with Israel.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands in Ankara (photo: dapd)
"Turkey is not considering leaving NATO in order to gain greater scope for action. After all, NATO is the only international organisation where Ankara has a direct influence over Washington, if need be by means of blockades," writes Dr. Cemal Karakas

On the other side of the equation, Ankara continues to be tied into the Western dispositive of norms and interests and to negotiate over accession to the EU. This is doubtlessly a difficult balancing act, revealing the interesting fact that Turkey's radius of action and reaction as part of its partnership with NATO and the EU tends to be normatively restricted rather than extended – as illustrated by the current dealings with the Assad regime in Syria or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Despite this, Turkey is not considering leaving NATO in order to gain greater scope for action. After all, NATO is the only international organisation where Ankara has a direct influence over Washington, if need be by means of blockades.

Lack of social peace

To return to the Atatürk motto quoted above, it is worth noting that a country can only credibly diffuse peace and stability on the outside when it its own society is at peace.

In Turkey, however, this is far from being the case. In this context, the new value-oriented foreign policy is riddled with contradictions and gaps in credibility – for instance, when the AKP government unilaterally addresses the issues of rights for Sunni Muslims but remains silent on the issue of the rights of Christians or Shia Muslims in Sunni-governed countries such as Egypt, Bahrain or Yemen.

If, despite all the turbulence, one believes a number of pathos-laden commentaries in Turkey's pro-Muslim press, it is Allah's will for Turkey to become an ordering force in the world once again, picking up its Ottoman heritage.

Yet the Turks ought to know better when it comes to divine assistance and hubris. Let us remember that the Ottomans, despite their overwhelming military superiority, were not capable of conquering the residence and seat of power of the Habsburg dynasty in 1683. It would seem that Allah did not want Vienna to fall.

Cemal Karakas

© 2014

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

Dr. Cemal Karakas is a political scientist and research fellow at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF). His research areas include Turkey, political Islam, European integration issues and external promotion of democracy in theory and practice.

More on this topic