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Turkey’s New Islamic Republic

“What I just heard seemed to me to like a recipe for fascism.”

So remarked Turkey scholar Gareth Jenkins [1] during a recent lecture on Turkish politics, part of the Middle East Institute’s 2016 annual conference [2] on Turkey. The participants soberly analyzed the dissolution of Turkey’s once superficially vaunted model of Muslim modernity.

The conference focused on the 15-year rule of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP [3]) under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan [4], who became Turkey’s prime minister in 2003 and then president in 2014. The AKP and Erdoğan’s Islamism broke sharply with the secular legacy of modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [5], who established Turkey’s republic after the Ottoman Empire’s demise in World War I. Former American ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey [6] said that the rise of Erdoğan’s AKP presented to Turkish political history the “most dramatic political [event], almost revolution, since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s time.”

Prompting Jenkins’ fascism considerations, John Jay College Professor and Muslim sociologist Mucahit Bilici [7] examined in detail how the AKP had exposed “simplistic clichés” about the Kemalist ideology’s vision of a Western society amidst a Muslim population. “Kemalist secularism was never progressive,” he said. “The Kemalist republic was oppression by a secularist minority and the Kemalist pretense of modernity forced them to allow electoral politics.”

By contrast, Bilici noted that Turkey has been going through a “silent and bloodless revolution” since the rise of the Justice and Development Party. In this “civil war in a civil way, the religious and nationalist masses of Anatolia fulfilled their dream of taking the state back from the Kemalist minority.” He added that the AKP and Fethullah Gülen [8]’s shadowy Islamist movement [9] in a “religious alliance defeated the secular establishment both by legitimate electoral, and illegitimate bureaucratic, means.

“In place of the Kemalist republic’s Turkish nation, now we have the religious republic’s Muslim nation,” he continued, pointing out that “President Erdoğan is the new Ataturk.” Turkish parliamentarian Garo Paylan [10] from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP [11]) called Erdoğan a radial Islamist who made a failed bid to be the leader of the Sunni world by supporting Islamists throughout the Middle East. Bilici returned that “All Turkish political actors will eventually have to make their peace with Islam,” while the Republican People’s Party (CHP [12]) – Kemalist secularism’s Turkish standard bearer – “remains a loser and a most miserable party.”

He also called the AKP and the Gülen movement “two allies that were complementary with each other in the process of defeating the Kemalist establishment,” but that “turned against each other once the common enemy was gone.” He referenced an AKP-Gülen feud [13] that erupted in 2013 and culminated in the Gülen movement’s involvement in Turkey’s July 15 coup attempt [14], a fact that juxtaposed the image of a benign Gülen that had been painted by MEI Turkey expert Gönül Tol [15]. “For many people, especially here in D.C., Gülen movement has been a very moderate Islamic movement that has invested in education and interfaith dialogue, but on July 15, we have seen that it was something else,” Tol explained.

Paylan concluded that, following Erdoğan’s post-coup crackdown and power consolidation, “in Turkey, it’s over. We have no checks and balances.” He compared the situation to that which came after the 1933 Reichstag fire [16] in a nascent Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, United States National War College Professor Ömer Taşpınar [17] noted that a “very strong neo-nationalist ideology [with] Eurasian elements” currently dominates the Turkish military. Many current officers “did not attend much training in NATO countries; in the United States. There is definitely a kind of anti-American, anti-Western streak in the new ethos within the core of the military.”

Taşpınar said that Turkey’s political development has foiled past American plans “to project Turkey as moderate Islam” in opposition to stricter Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia. Although he said that the “Turks are the good Muslims against the Wahhabis – the bad guys,” Karim Sadjadpour [18] from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained how this vision had failed. “Over the last decade, there was a hope that Iran might emulate Turkey’s democracy, and increasingly what is happening is Turkey is emulating Iran’s theocracy,” he said.

Accordingly, Michael Meier [19] – the United States-Canada representative of German Social Democratic Party’s Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a conference cohost – said that “we have a huge challenge ahead,” which was perhaps a tremendous understatement. Meier focused especially on the wish of his party colleague, SPD foreign affairs spokesman and German parliamentarian Niels Annen [20], “to accompany a democratic Turkey along the path to membership of the European Union. It is in the genuine interest of the Europe, the United States and Turkey to arrive at a close, value-based relationship,” he said, particularly given the “crucial geostrategic importance of Turkey in a troubled and difficult region.”

Meier emphasized the long-term domestic desirability in Germany of Turkish EU membership, because with “more than 3 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany, every event in Turkey has domestic policy repercussions in Germany.” Annan said, concerning his Hamburg district, that “conflicts between President Erdoğan and his opponents are also fought out in my constituency. Ninety-nine percent of those conflicts are resolved peacefully – discussions, demonstrations – but there also has been violence.”

As with Turkey and Europe, the “integration of Turkish-Germans into the society is not a real success story in all aspects,” Annan said, commenting on something that is disturbingly documented [21]. Turkish-descent members of Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, required police protection [22] against violent threats after supporting the Bundestag resolution [23] condemning the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 Armenian genocide. Meanwhile, Turkey’s reprisals prevented Bundestag members from visiting [24] German military personnel stationed in Turkey.

AKP Turkish parliamentarian Volkan Bozkır [25], former Turkish Minister of EU Affairs, only highlighted Turkey’s hollowness as a once globally touted Muslim democracy and EU candidate [26]. While he emphasized Turkey’s EU application efforts [27], Bozkır’s past bizarre theories [28] concerning Vatican condemnation of the Armenian genocide do not comport with the open-mindedness expected of a citizen in a democratic community.

“We would like to promote democracy in the Middle East, we would like to see liberal actors come to power, and that is a distant dream at the moment,” Sadjadpour concluded.