[Marxism] Is Turkey Leaving the West? (from "Foreign Affairs")

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 29 09:55:27 MDT 2009


Nestor Gorojovsky wrote:
> Not been following Turkish events. But the posting by Emrah Goker 
> puzzled me.
> 
> Could somebody describe the different divisions in the ruling classes in 
> Turkey today?
> 

This is very long, but since it is behind the NLR firewall I have 
posted the entire piece.


New Left Review 44, March-April 2007

Analysing the current hegemony of Erdoğan’s AKP in Turkey, Cihan 
Tuğal argues that the party has been the agent of a classic 
passive revolution, effectively shoring up the Kemalist state. 
Paradoxes of ‘Americanization with Muslim characteristics’, 
against the backdrop of Western military intervention in the 
Middle East.

CIHAN TUĞAL
NATO’S ISLAMISTS
Hegemony and Americanization in Turkey

The tensions currently convulsing the Middle East—Western military 
offensive, Islamicized resistance, economic turbulence, 
demographic upheaval—have taken a peculiarly Americanized form in 
Turkey. [1] The secular Republic of Kemal Atatürk, nato’s 
longstanding bulwark in the region, is now ruled by men who pray. 
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (akp)—the 
latest incarnation of a once-banned Islamist movement—has a 60 per 
cent majority in the Assembly, or Meclis, forming the first 
non-coalition government in Ankara for fifteen years. Prime 
Minister Erdoğan is himself a possible candidate for the 
presidency, a seven-year appointment in the gift of the Meclis 
under the Republic’s notoriously unrepresentative democracy. 
Predictably, perhaps, though elected primarily by the votes of the 
poor—above all, the young, informal proletariat now crowding 
Turkey’s cities—Erdoğan’s government is slashing government 
spending, aiming at a fiscal surplus of 6 per cent of gdp in the 
coming year. Though proclaiming solidarity with the Muslim world, 
it has dispatched Turkish troops to join the un occupation force 
in Southern Lebanon, and was only restrained from sending them to 
Iraq by the urgent pleas of the Iraqi-Kurdish President, Jalal 
Talabani. Yet the akp is widely expected to win the Autumn 2007 
elections, and has largely retained its support among provincial 
capitalists, the pious small bourgeoisie, the newly urbanized 
poor, important fractions of the police and much of the liberal, 
left-leaning intelligentsia.



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To grasp the paradoxical nature of the changes in Turkey, it is 
first necessary to consider the peculiar meaning that ‘secularism’ 
(laiklik) has had for the Kemalist state. Between 1919 and 1923, 
with the defeated Ottoman Empire effectively partitioned by the 
Entente powers, the founding wars for the Turkish Republic waged 
by Kemal’s troops had appealed not only to the national liberation 
‘dream’ of fatherland and freedom, but to the Muslim duty to 
resist the infidel occupation. Religious homogenization was an 
important constituent element of national unity, with the birth of 
the Republic attended by the expulsion of Orthodox Greeks, as 
pendant to the 1915 massacres of Armenians. The question, rather, 
was of the relation between religion and the state. In this sense, 
secularization—as expanding state control over religion—was a 
project of the 19th-century Tanzimat reforms. In 1924, the 
founding Constitution of the Republic retained Islam as the state 
religion, even as the Caliphate, fez, religious courts and 
schools, et cetera, were swept away and the Latin alphabet and 
Western legal code introduced; the clause was removed in 1928. 
Secularization was formally enunciated as one of the six 
principles of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party’s programme 
in 1931, and finally incorporated into the Constitution in 1937.

In the official view, rehearsed by many Western scholars, the 
1924–25 modernizations constitute categorical proof of the 
disestablishment of religion in Turkey. [2] With Islam removed 
from every official public site, this argument runs, religious 
sectors of the population will eventually adapt to the ruling 
reality and become thoroughly secularized. Others have argued, 
however, that the Turkish state has controlled and 
institutionalized Islam, rather than disestablishing it. [3] Thus 
the (non-elected) Directorate General of Religious Affairs 
exercises a monopoly power over the appointment of preachers and 
imams throughout the country, and controls the distribution of 
sermons. In this view there are clear continuities between the 
Turkish Republic and the Ottoman system, where state and religion 
were deeply imbricated.

Arguably, however, Turkish secularization may best be seen as an 
ongoing struggle over the nature and development of an ‘official 
Islam’, characterized by the public use of religion for national 
cohesion. Rather than reproducing some universalist (or Ottoman) 
logic, the secularization project was continually remade, its 
(partially unintended) outcomes the result of a series of 
interventions by different social forces. This process has 
involved conflicts both within the ruling power bloc constituted 
by the reforms of the late Ottoman period and the early years of 
the Republic, and with social layers excluded from it. Since the 
1930s, the dominant sectors within this bloc—the military 
leadership, the modernizing layers of the civil bureaucracy, an 
officially protected industrial bourgeoisie and a West-oriented 
intelligentsia—have favoured a more-or-less authoritarian 
exclusion of religion from the public sphere. The bloc’s 
subordinate sector—conservative elements of the bureaucracy and 
professional middle class, an export-oriented bourgeoisie, 
merchants, provincial notables—tended to advocate a larger space 
for Islam, albeit still under ‘secular’ control. This could also 
mobilize broader popular layers—workers, peasants, artisans, the 
unemployed, small provincial entrepreneurs, clerics—against the 
dominant sector, and often succeeded in extracting concessions 
from it. [4] Meanwhile, although excluded from the power equation, 
the religious groupings themselves, as well as numerous 
semi-clandestine Islamic communities, put up quite powerful forms 
of passive or active resistance around questions such as education.

At the same time, these struggles to define the secularization 
process were themselves in part determined by the peculiarities of 
Turkish socio-economic development. The overwhelmingly Greek and 
Armenian merchant bourgeoisie of the Ottoman period had been 
virtually liquidated through war, population exchange and 
massacre. [5] The vast majority of Turks—over 70 per cent—were 
peasant smallholders, scattered in innumerable relatively 
self-contained villages. This left the military and civil 
bureaucracy as the only effectively organized forces capable of 
undertaking the social-engineering tasks of the new nation. 
Inevitably they tried to ensure the import-substitute industries 
they created served, first and foremost, the national interest. To 
this end, both industrialists and factory workers were offered 
different forms of state protection, which for the latter included 
social security, collective bargaining, unionization and the right 
to strike. The manufacturing bourgeoisie, itself protected by 
heavy state subsidy against both internal and external 
competitors, tolerated these concessions in as much as they 
bolstered the development of a domestic market. [6] But by the 
late 1960s an increasingly self-organized working class soon 
threatened to break loose from state tutelage. The Turkish 
Workers’ Party took 15 seats in Parliament in 1965. [7] 
Large-scale metalworkers’ strikes led to a split in the 
state-sponsored union Türk-İş, culminating in the formation of the 
militant Confederation of Revolutionary Worker Unions, dİsk. As 
the left’s power grew in the 1970s, the state backed both 
hard-right nationalist vigilantes and Islamist groups against 
them. Finally, from 1980, a military coup d’état put paid to the 
militant left with three years of state terror, during which 
executions, torture and imprisonment effected a permanent 
alteration in the political landscape.
Radicalization of Islam

The military take-over of 1980 would also shift the vectors 
between religion, class and power. During the early 1970s, 
Islamist politics had mainly been the resort of small provincial 
entrepreneurs, on the defensive against state-industrial policies, 
rising labour militancy and rapid Westernization. [8] It was the 
lack of response of the established business organizations and 
parties to the needs of small enterprises, facing extinction in an 
import-substitution economy, that led the ex-president of the 
Union of Chambers, Necmettin Erbakan, to found the Milli Order 
Party (mnp), in 1970. [9] As well as defending the economic 
interests of provincial businessmen and traders, the mnp also 
appealed to their religious feelings and their distaste for 
Western consumer culture. This stance won support from 
conservative peasant farmers and artisans, who were also attracted 
by Erbakan’s rather sketchy programme of economic development 
based on communally owned private entreprise, shielded and 
regulated by the state. Closed down by the military in 1971, the 
mnp was refounded in 1972 as the Milli Salvation Party (msp), with 
virtually no change in its programme. [10]

The msp’s most significant gain during the 1970s was increased 
freedom of operation for the country’s İmam-Hatip schools, whose 
graduates would provide the main activists and leaders of the 
Islamist movement in the coming decades. These were officially 
intended to educate prospective preachers (hatips) and prayer 
leaders (imams). But since it was not possible for students to 
observe the precepts of Islam in regular public schools, they also 
attracted enrollment from religious families who did not 
necessarily want their children to become preachers or prayer 
leaders. In time, this generation of İmam-Hatip graduates came to 
occupy important public positions, constituting a religious middle 
class capable of competing with the secularist intelligentsia in 
economic, cultural and political realms. In a country where 
intellectuals had previously been equated with the left, the 
emergence of this new avowedly Muslim intelligentsia would be a 
significant element in the construction of Islamism as a hegemonic 
alternative.

The 1979 Iranian revolution came as a watershed for the Islamist 
movement. In the minds of many Muslims this mass upheaval, 
overthrowing one of the most oppressive Western-backed regimes in 
the region, shook the accustomed identification between Islam and 
obedience, and redefined Islamist politics as the revolutionary 
struggle of the mustazafın—the oppressed. This was an electrifying 
message for the impoverished young workers streaming towards the 
cities in hope of jobs. Under conditions of increasing inequality, 
the left was politically and ideologically absent after the 1980 
military crackdown. The squatters of the neo-liberal period, who 
encountered the consumerist wealth of the city without being able 
to partake of it, could look neither to the social-revolutionary 
option that had mobilized earlier generations nor to the hope of 
joining an expanding industrial working class. In this 
environment, a militant, socially radical Islamism had much to 
offer. Religious responses multiplied to fill the political 
vacuum, while faith-based welfare substituted for the formal 
social security system gutted by expenditure cuts. The msp had 
been closed down by the military in 1980. When parties were once 
again allowed to organize in 1983, Erbakan’s Welfare Party 
embodied this transformed Islamism. The Welfare Party was also 
very vocal on the Kurdish question, promising to recognize the 
Kurdish language and culture; this won it substantial support not 
only in the south-east of the country but also among the huge 
numbers of Kurdish migrants to the central and western cities.
First moves in the passive revolution

The 1980 coup was a turning point in the state’s relation to 
Islam. Crushing the challenge from the left, the ruling bloc also 
initiated a highly controlled opening to religious groups. Islamic 
studies were introduced as part of the national school curriculum, 
while the emphasis on scientific theories such as evolutionism was 
reduced. Certain hitherto semi-clandestine religious communities 
were now afforded increased public visibility, under the 
protection of the state. In the 1982 Constitution drafted for the 
junta, the definition of ‘Turkishness’ included unprecedented 
references to Islam. [11] These concessions can be seen as an 
attempt to contain and defuse the appeal of the Iranian Revolution 
and of socially radical Islamism through a ‘passive revolution’ at 
home, in the classic Gramscian sense—the absorption of (possible 
or actual) popular demands by counter-revolutionary regimes, as a 
typical response to revolutions abroad. The other side of this 
process was the demobilization of potential revolutionary forces. 
Such ‘revolution-restoration’, as Gramsci put it in the context of 
post-1815 European responses to the French Revolution, kept 
ruling-class regimes intact, while partially satisfying the 
popular sectors. [12] During the 1980–83 military dictatorship, 
the Turkish regime likewise took some steps towards implementing 
Islamist demands, while defusing their insurgent potential. Yet 
while these changes were intended to consolidate rather than 
undermine secularization, they nevertheless opened the way to 
further conflict, as they increased the weight of religious 
sectors in a nation that defined itself as secular.

At the same time, the structural reforms initiated under the 
dictatorship served to increase the income disparities and social 
dislocation to which radical Islamism appeared an answer. During 
the 1970s attempts to restructure the crisis-ridden 
developmentalist model had been stymied by the entrenched 
clientelistic nature of electoral politics and high levels of 
labour militancy. [13] The 1980 military coup offered a solution 
to this impasse, by marginalizing the one and violently repressing 
the other, thus rendering neo-liberal reform possible. With 
opposition crushed, strikes outlawed, political parties shut down 
and activists arrested, wage levels could be cut and fiscal 
austerity imposed. The reduction of agricultural subsidies 
intensified the crisis in the villages, accelerating the mass 
migration to the swiftly de-industrializing cities. Meanwhile the 
police force was purged of its substantial left-wing elements, and 
hardline nationalists and Islamists were recruited in their place.

After 1983, Erbakan’s Welfare Party became the beneficiary of 
these reforms; yet the Islamists themselves were divided and 
subject to contradictory class pressures. [14] The provincial 
entrepreneurs who had constituted the driving force of the party 
in the 1970s were no longer on the defensive. Expanding global 
markets, cheap labour and flexible production had turned the small 
and medium-sized export-oriented firms into emerging ‘Anatolian 
tigers’. But the party’s base included these same firms’ workers. 
The Welfare Party’s 1991 programmatic statement, ‘The Just Order’, 
reflected these contradictions. While it emphasized the virtues of 
private enterprise, appeals to workers’ rights and social justice 
predominated. In a ‘just’ Islamic economy, workers’ 
representatives would be assigned a crucial role, there would be 
full employment and wages would be universally set by the state. [15]

But although electorally successful—the Islamist vote rose from 8 
per cent in 1987 to 16 per cent in 1991—the programme soon came 
under attack from the party’s business wing. These entrepreneurs 
would need to differentiate themselves from the radical poor to 
gain legitimacy with the ruling power bloc: they increased their 
pressure on the rp to tone down its social-justice promises, dealt 
savagely with strikers and declared trade unions un-Islamic. A new 
layer of middle-class Muslim professionals also voiced its 
dissatisfaction with the movement’s pro-labour orientation, and 
were more sympathetic to pro-business policies. In 1994 the 
Welfare Party issued another programme proclaiming that ‘The Just 
Order is the real pro-private sector order’. The tasks of the 
state were now restricted and there was little criticism of labour 
exploitation; it was explained that there would be no strikes or 
lockouts under the Islamist order, since there would be no need 
for them. [16]
A secularist swamp

Yet while shifting right, the Islamists still appeared a clean 
alternative to the venality and incompetence of the mainstream 
parties during the 1990s. Çağlar Keyder has described the Turkish 
economy’s lurch throughout the decade from one financial blow-out 
to another—in 1994, 1999, 2001—via a trail of bankruptcies, debt, 
graft, inflation and fiscal crises that required continuous credit 
infusions by the imf. [17] Politically, the 1990s saw a series of 
short-lived coalition governments, with both foreign and interior 
policies effectively dictated by the military-led National 
Security Council, established by the 1982 Constitution. The 
mainstream parties, whether Kemalist or centre-right, proved 
incapable of either voicing or soothing the grievances caused by 
neo-liberalization; nor could they provide any coherent 
ideological identity to replace the (now badly compromised) 
secular national-developmentalist model.

Social inequalities were worsened by the successive governments’ 
programmes of fiscal austerity, and by the brutalities and 
deprivation visited upon the Kurds. Lifted elsewhere in 1983, 
martial law had only intensified in the Southeast, where the war 
against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (pkk) would eventually claim 
some 30,000 lives. The un Security Council’s establishment of the 
no-fly zone in Northern Iraq after 1991 inevitably raised the 
question of the treatment of Turkey’s far larger Kurdish 
population. Soon after, President Özal entered into secret 
negotiations with the pkk, offering to relax the ban on the 
Kurdish language, and in 1993 the pkk announced a ceasefire. But 
the rapprochement damaged relations between the Motherland Party 
(anap) and the military. Özal lost control of his party, whose 
electoral support had declined steadily since 1991. After his 
death in 1993, anap slid back to the conventional position of 
silence on the Kurds, while maintaining its flagrantly pro-rich 
policies.

The new coalition government of the Social Democrat Populist Party 
and the centre-right True Path further deepened the 
neo-liberalization process with its economic reforms of April 
1994. The Social Democrats did nothing to curb the extensive 
police intelligence, torture and prison system that had expanded 
after the 1980 coup. They also failed to defend the Kurdish 
deputies who had run on the Social Democrat ticket in order to get 
round the 10 per cent barrier (erected by the 1982 Constitution 
precisely to block the representation of Kurdish and other 
non-establishment parties). The Kurdish deputies were ousted from 
the Meclis after speaking out on their ethnic identity in 1994, 
and several spent the next decade in prison. The Social Democrats’ 
passivity in this drama cost it the Kurdish vote, while its 
reputation for corruption at the municipal level helped destroy 
the credibility of the reformist left in Turkey. Yet another 
reason for the Social Democrats’ ultimate marginalization was its 
shift back to the rigid secularist position of the early 
Republican People’s Party, at a time when Islamic identity was 
becoming more widely asserted. This also meant that the centre 
left’s base shifted from a working-class/middle-class coalition to 
one of secular professionals, bureaucratic elite and worker 
aristocracy. During the 1990s, the growing ranks of informal 
labour began to desert the centre left, while the centre right 
lost a part of its traditional small and medium business base. 
These were the classes that would turn increasingly to the Islamists.
Town Hall Islamism

Despite their internal tensions, the Islamists emerged as the 
leading party in the 1994 municipal elections, taking over the 
administration of most key cities. Islamist municipalities 
channelled more services to poorer districts and distributed free 
coal, food and clothes. With this came tighter controls on bars 
and the consumption of alcohol, and a larger place for Islamic and 
traditional symbols in public. [18] In contrast to the majority of 
Turkish politicians, united across party lines by their pursuit of 
the spoils of privatization, the ideological impetus of the 
Welfare Party had enabled it to stay clean in the post-1980 
environment; simply by curtailing municipal corruption, the 
Islamists achieved a notable improvement in the quality of urban 
services.

The Welfare Party emerged as the largest force in the general 
election of 1995 largely on the basis of its achievements in local 
government. After several months of resistance by the secularist 
establishment, Erbakan managed to form a coalition government with 
the True Path. Among its first acts, the Islamist-led coalition 
implemented the highest wage increases since 1980 and moved to 
limit profits on interest. In the municipalities, the Welfare 
Party started to organize well-publicized events to advertise its 
sympathy for the Palestinian struggle and for Islamic causes. 
Initially Erbakan signalled an intention of working towards a 
‘global democracy’ based on the cooperation of Muslim nations 
under Turkish leadership. [19] However he soon caved in to 
pressure from the Turkish Army, even signing a historic military 
cooperation agreement with Israel.

Indeed, once in office, the Welfare Party appeared to lose 
direction. Rather than using governmental power to fight 
corruption, it covered up for its coalition partner, the True 
Path—deeply immersed in both political and economic graft—and soon 
began to show signs of the same disease in its own ranks. The 
campaigning energies of the religious communities and 
organizations also now slackened, as most turned their attention 
to reaping the fruits of office. The Islamists seemed to be 
integrating themselves into the neoliberal system. Nevertheless, 
even the now-muted radicalism of the Welfare Party aroused the 
anger of the traditional ruling bloc. Erbakan talked frequently 
about the need to open more İmam-Hatip schools, a particular 
bugbear of secularist military leaders, and hosted a 
prime-ministerial dinner to which prominent mystic şeyhs were 
invited. Such a gathering was a first in the history of the 
Republic, and hardliners interpreted it as a formal recognition of 
religious orders that had been banned since the early Kemalist 
reforms.

Such were the grounds on which, in February 1997, the military 
once more intervened in Turkish political life, demanding that the 
Erbakan government restrict İmam-Hatip schools, increase 
obligatory secular education from five to eight years, and control 
religious orders. The Welfare Party proved too divided to mount an 
effective resistance, and the government resigned. The generals 
proceeded to shut down the party, banned Erbakan from political 
activity and initiated another round of torture and repression, 
though not on the scale of the 1980s. At this stage, too, the Army 
undertook a thorough purging of Islamists from its ranks. 
Significantly, however, the police forces—notorious for their 
coercion and brutality—were not reorganized to anything like the 
same extent.
Global currents

After the crisis of 1997–98, the Islamists initially regrouped as 
the Virtue Party, which was likewise kept under close scrutiny by 
the authorities. But they could now hope to gain some external 
backing from the European Union, which by this stage was funding 
extensive networks of human-rights and civil-society ngos in 
Turkey; the country would be granted candidate status for 
accession in December 1999. [20] The Islamists toned down their 
criticism of the establishment, but they also ventured to put up a 
headscarved woman as a parliamentary candidate. The ban on the 
headscarf in government buildings was a linchpin of Turkish 
secularization, and though the Welfare Party had frequently hinted 
that it should be rescinded, it had never dared to take such a 
major step while in office. Now its ideologues started to reframe 
the veil as a matter of human rights, rather than of religious 
obligation, in the expectation that the eu would intervene on 
their behalf. In the short term, their tactics backfired. Merve 
Kavakçı, the headscarved deputy, had to leave the Meclis before 
she could be sworn in, as the secular-establishment parties forgot 
their old quarrels to unite in violent condemnation of the 
‘intruder’. [21]

But although the period from 1997 until 2001 seemed one of setback 
for the Islamists, the conditions were building that would bring 
about the second stage of Turkey’s passive revolution, broadening 
the role of Islam within the national ideology. Domestically, 
although subjugated, the Islamists retained widespread support, 
while the economy plunged deeper into debt as successive secular 
coalitions accelerated the neoliberal reforms that had been 
partially interrupted under the short-lived Welfare government. 
The crash of 2001 saw a devaluation of about 50 per cent, and open 
disarray among the country’s political leaders.

Internationally, more far-reaching reconfigurations were underway. 
Islamism in Turkey had arisen in the global context of the 1980s 
and early 90s, when international forms of Muslim solidarity, in 
part fostered by militantly Islamist regimes, had raised hopes of 
constructing an independent Islamic pole on the world stage. By 
the second half of the 1990s, however, it was becoming clear that 
the Islamist regimes in Iran and Afghanistan were corrupt, 
inefficient or coercive, while international Islamic banks and 
credit institutions were plagued by scandal. Faced with state 
repression, Islamist resistance movements in Algeria, Egypt and 
elsewhere alienated their supporters by resorting to 
indiscriminate violence. ‘Actually existing’ Islamist radicalism 
was becoming broadly discredited. This disillusion with religious 
militancy in the Muslim world was given powerful impetus by 
Washington’s change of line. Having been willing to arm the 
crudest Islamist groups against Communism during the Cold War, and 
to back such murderous confessional states as General Zia’s 
Pakistan, the us had started to distinguish between fundamentalist 
and ‘moderate’ Islam. The latter referred to religious movements 
that cooperated with Western hegemony, while oppositional forms 
were now redefined as terrorists.

In Turkey, the global disillusionment with radical Islamism 
manifested itself in the turn to the European Union. With no 
sustained support coming from the Muslim world, religious 
activists now thought that only the eu, with its discourse of 
human rights and democracy, could save them from the elitism and 
repression of the secularist Republic. But following the us, and 
with an eye to policing their own growing Muslim populations, West 
European elites were quite happy to turn a blind eye to state 
authoritarianism as long as it targeted ‘fundamentalists’. Thus 
the Welfare Party’s initial approach to Europe bore little fruit. 
The Islamists would have to demonstrate to the West’s satisfaction 
that they had abandoned all radical claims and become good Muslim 
‘moderates’.
The akp breakaway

This changing balance of forces was a crucial determinant in the 
Islamists’ shift towards a thorough-going Americanization. The 
term is used here to mean not only political support for 
Washington and the global capitalist order, but a much broader 
allegiance to American economic, social and religious models. If 
the first two of these have always been dear to the establishment 
elite in Turkey, the Islamists’ breakthrough would lie in 
naturalizing a new version of all three of them among much broader 
layers.

After the crisis of 1997, when it became clear that larger 
concessions were necessary to win the toleration of the ruling 
elite, a new generation of Islamists began to challenge Erbakan’s 
leadership. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, this generational 
conflict had been expressed as a clash between ardent young 
radicals and a more conservative mainstream. After 1997, the 
former radicals were quick to adopt a free-market, ‘moderate 
Muslim’ position. Prominent among them were R. Tayyip Erdoğan, 
Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç, all of them differentiated from the 
old guard by their professionalism, media savvy and attentiveness 
to the pro-business agenda. Erdoğan, though his family was from 
the city of Rize in the Black Sea region, was born in Istanbul in 
1957 and raised in the run-down neighbourhood of Kasımpaşa, where 
he attended an İmam-Hatip school. A university graduate and soccer 
player, he has honed his charisma during years of grass-roots work 
as an activist and organizer. Gül is from Kayseri, a Central 
Anatolian city closely integrated with global markets. Born in 
1950, he received a PhD from an Istanbul university in 1983, and 
studied in England. He was an economist at the Islamic Development 
Bank until 1991, when he became a full-time politician. Arınç, a 
lawyer, was born in 1948 in Bursa, a conservative city in the 
industrial Marmara region, and has been politically active since 
his youth. Arınç still retains links with his old Islamist party, 
while Gül serves as a bridge between the Islamists and 
international business, Turkey’s ruling elite and the liberal 
intelligentsia. This new generation of political entrepreneurs was 
far more receptive to cooperation with the West.

Thus a new alignment emerged from the seeming impasse of 1997. It 
had become clear that the ideological and class differences among 
the Islamists were too sharp to be contained within a single 
party. There were insoluble tensions between the liberalizing 
business wing and the more conservative and working-class sectors. 
The authoritarian structure of the party did not allow aspiring 
young activists to have a say in decision-making. In 2001 the 
rebels established their own organization, the Justice and 
Development Party (akp), having failed to take over the existing 
structures at a major party congress. Erdoğan and the other akp 
leaders moved quickly to reassure the military and media 
establishments that religion would not be used for political 
purposes and that the akp would not challenge the headscarf ban. 
They were also vociferously pro-European. They made frequent trips 
to the United States, holding meetings whose agendas have remained 
private. Gül helpfully explained to an American audience that the 
akp were ‘the wasps of Turkey’. It was clear that the new 
leadership was trying to reclaim the territory of the centre-right 
in Turkish politics—in effect, to reconstitute an updated version 
of that alliance of provincial businessmen, religious 
intellectuals and state elite at which the subordinate fraction of 
the ruling power bloc had traditionally aimed, but which had 
become impossible with the rise of a radical Islamism. Now, this 
alliance could also offer to strengthen the hand of the 
neo-liberal and export-oriented sectors of Turkish capital. Large 
numbers of centre-right politicians, intellectuals and supporters 
soon swelled its ranks.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the secular centre-right intelligentsia 
played a forceful role in the constitution of this new alliance. 
Turkey’s major establishment daily Hürriyet supported the 
formation of the akp as an antidote to the Islamists and the 
shrinking political centre. Both columnists and editorials like to 
emphasize the fact that the new party called itself ‘conservative 
democrat’ rather than ‘Muslim democrat’; the latter option had 
been discussed around 1999–2000, but dropped after high-level 
consultations. Hürriyet, along with like-minded media, worked 
systematically to legitimize not only Erdoğan and the akp but also 
what came to be their trademark: ‘conservative democracy’.

Even more interesting was the support from the liberal and 
democratic socialist intelligentsia for the akp. The liberals 
reasoned that, in contrast to the proximity of the established 
parties to the state bureaucracy, the akp stood out as an 
exception with roots in a civil society movement. Moreover, it had 
shaken off the authoritarian aspects of that movement, and its 
understanding of Islam no longer constituted a threat to 
individual liberties. As a result, the akp was the only political 
agent that could integrate Turkey into a liberalizing and 
democratizing world, and above all lead it into the eu. This view 
was voiced not only by liberal newspapers such as Radikal, but 
also by social scientists at Turkey’s elite universities, where it 
had become common sense to see the former Islamists as the 
expression of civil society against the authoritarian state. While 
the democratic socialists by no means shared in this euphoria, 
their journals nevertheless presented the akp as the party most 
capable of carrying forward democratization and integration to the 
European Union, and in any event far preferable to the hard-line 
nationalism which might prove the only alternative.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s working-class background, militant roots and 
plain-talking populist flair retained the support of the many 
millions who saw in him someone who spoke their language and 
understood their problems. The akp also benefited from strong 
support in the Kurdish regions. In sum, all major classes could 
see something for themselves in the akp; this was, in the 
classical sense, a potentially hegemonic capitalist project. In 
the general election of November 2002 the akp won 34 per cent of 
the vote; the Republican People’s Party was the only other 
electoral force to clear the 10 per cent hurdle, leaving the akp 
with 60 per cent of Meclis seats.
First tests

The new akp government’s first test came just three months later, 
on Iraq. Successive polls had indicated that 90–95 per cent of 
Turkish citizens were against the American invasion of their 
next-door neighbour, and opposed still more strongly Turkey’s 
playing any role in such a conflict. Most of the akp membership 
had the same positions. However, the leaders of the party and 
their parliamentary supporters insisted that Turkey needed to go 
along with American demands, or risk losing its ‘most strategic 
ally’. The Meclis voted on Turkey’s involvement in the war on Iraq 
in three steps. First, in February 2003, a majority of akp 
deputies authorized the government to allow the us to ‘modernize’ 
its military bases in the country. A second vote, to allow 
American troops to use Turkish bases for the invasion of Iraq, was 
to follow in March. Gül, the second man of the party, convinced 
the Cabinet to vote unanimously in favour. But in the absence of 
Erdoğan, who would only enter Parliament on March 10th, nearly 
half the akp deputies joined the opposition (rpp) to vote down the 
motion. [22] The third vote was carried out in Erdoğan’s 
authoritarian presence: a crushing majority of akp deputies now 
voted in favour of sending troops to Iraq. In the event, the White 
House blocked Turkey from becoming a part of the occupation force, 
due to objections from Kurdish members of the interim Iraqi 
government and, according to some, the Bush Administration’s 
resentment at the March vote.

More lastingly, the votes demonstrated that the akp could prevail 
against the will of 90 per cent of Turkish citizens on a matter of 
international war. The legacy of decades of Islamist activism had 
been appropriated to support an Anglo-American military invasion 
in the Muslim world. Most striking of all has been the reception 
of the akp’s pro-imperialist foreign policy among its 
working-class base. Here, via such populist Islamist newspapers as 
Vakit, it is repeated even at coffee-shop level that Erdoğan is 
playing a long, deep game; that these concessions to the Americans 
may have to be made for now, to strengthen ‘our’ position, but 
that the leader knows what he is doing. To maintain this degree of 
conviction among such numbers, in face of such evidence, is 
hegemony indeed. One litmus test for the consolidation of a 
passive revolution is its capacity for demobilization. Since most 
of the religious population now believed that their party was in 
power, the Friday prayers—usually occasions of protest during 
anti-Muslim wars—were largely silent. [23] While there were 
anti-war protests after 2003, these were mainly supported by the 
remnants of the left. Among Islamist groups, only Erbakan’s 
Felicity Party, the Islamist rump left after the akp’s split, some 
human-rights organizations (Mazlum-Der and Özgür-Der), and a few 
radical grouplets carried out relatively feeble protests. The akp 
government had succeeded in pacifying the religious masses, 
mobilized by the Islamist movement before 2002.

Domestically, the new ‘conservative democrats’ have worked closely 
with the imf to cut public spending—aiming at a 6 per cent 
surplus, as noted above—and privatize both public enterprises and 
natural resources. The akp is undertaking an extensive 
privatization of public forests—justified by the claim that it 
will only sell off tracts that have ‘lost their qualities’ as 
forests. Real-estate speculators have known how to interpret the 
message: there were 829 fires in the first seven months of 2003 
which scorched 1,755 hectares of forest, qualifying them as fit 
for privatization. Like other imf-led governments, the akp also 
aims to control wages, curtail unions and limit strikes. [24] 
Nevertheless, while real wages keep shrinking, unemployment rising 
and the numbers living below the poverty line increasing, the Gini 
coefficient of inequality has decreased slightly, possibly due to 
an amelioration in the informal labour sector and some 
means-tested benefits for the poorest layers. This is another 
reason for the akp’s continuing popularity among these classes.
Transformations

More generally, what differentiates the akp from Turkey’s other 
neo-liberal parties is its capacity to transform attitudes towards 
the marketization of the economy at a molecular level. Although 
previous Islamist programmes had already shifted away from social 
egalitarianism, this still mattered to the movement’s supporters. 
That resistance to neo-liberalism has now been removed, and there 
is a broader acceptance of ‘market realities’ among the popular 
sectors. One reason for the change is that, for the first time in 
Turkish history, practising Muslims are spearheading the 
liberalization of the economy; it is their religious lifestyle 
that wins them mass consent. The akp is nevertheless a decidedly 
secular party, if secularism is understood as the separation of 
the religious from the political and economic spheres, rather than 
the purging of religion from public life. [25] While akp leaders 
are to be seen attending mosques, they also emphasize that 
politics and economics have their own self-regulating logics, 
which should be shielded from religious influence. This stance, 
too, is grudgingly accepted by the akp’s working-class supporters, 
who have come to suppose that, if even these pious Muslims have to 
take such steps when they come to power, then secularism and a 
pro-Washington foreign policy must somehow be embedded in the 
logic of the modern state.

Another reason why the akp could sink roots in the popular classes 
is its approach to the question of geography. Gramsci once noted 
that the Italian left, like the bourgeoisie, believed that the 
South was the reason why Italy was backward: southerners were lazy 
and criminal by nature. [26] This is more or less how the dominant 
bloc and the left intelligentsia in Turkey have looked at Central 
Anatolia, the Black Sea region and (especially) the East. The 
inhabitants of these parts of the country carry their accents and 
other markers of regional status like a stigma, one that blocks 
upward mobility in cosmopolitan venues. The Westernized elite 
continues to see these regions and their emigrants as uncivilized 
and backward, the true causes of Turkey’s slow and problematic 
modernization. Many in Europe share this view, and point to these 
people as the reason why Turkey should not be allowed into the eu. 
Much of the Turkish left has historically reproduced these 
stereotypes, explaining away its failures by the ignorance and 
reaction of the provinces.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Islamists won these regions not only 
by glorifying conservative values—in the way the centre-right has 
always done in Turkey—but by integrating the ex-provincial masses 
in the expanding urban centres, transforming the cities themselves 
in the process. The akp appropriated the strategies of their 
Islamist forerunners in their approach to the rural immigrants and 
the provinces. But they also worked more consistently for the 
integration of Central Anatolian capitalists into world markets, a 
process under way since the 1980s. Consequently, both groups see 
the akp as their natural leaders against Western Turkish elitism, 
and are therefore more willing to forgive any particular 
government policy.
Eastern advance and retreat

How has the multi-class coalition mobilized under akp hegemony 
stood the test of time? Kurdish support had been an important 
component of the 2002 majority. The akp had initially taken a more 
ambivalent position on the Kurds than its predecessors in the rp. 
Erdoğan referred vaguely to the equal worth of all God’s creatures 
during the 2002 election campaign, but there was no programmatic 
commitment to realizing such equality. In office, however, and 
under pressure to conform to norms of democratization for eu 
entry, the akp implemented historic, if still very modest, 
measures: allowing Kurdish-language tv programmes to be broadcast 
(within certain time limits), and permitting private 
Kurdish-language classes, although these were still banned from 
state schools. In August 2005, Erdoğan declared for the first time 
that there was a ‘Kurdish question’, a phrase that is anathema to 
the national-secular establishment, as it implies a bigger problem 
than terrorism and poverty. All these steps were warmly welcomed 
by the liberal and democratic socialist intelligentsias, which had 
been quite suspicious about the Welfare Party’s positive attitude 
toward the Kurds. This had been seen as threatening to stir up the 
disgruntled masses with religion, in contrast to the pro-eu 
liberalism of the akp.

By 2006, as we shall see, these issues had been substantially 
recast by the increasing salience of the Kurdish statelet in 
northern Iraq and through the slowdown in eu negotiations. But it 
should also be stated that the Kurdish question cannot simply be 
reduced to a question of democracy. While eu convergence criteria 
hold many promises for the Kurds politically, the same cannot be 
said for their socio-economic situation. The reforms dictated from 
Brussels are not intended to heal the imbalances that 
marketization creates, but to produce an environment in which it 
can proceed more safely. Rural Kurds have been among the hardest 
hit by the economic reforms, and the fifteen years of military 
campaigns and guerrilla war did much to destroy their traditional 
means of livelihood, stock-breeding, forcing them to migrate to 
eastern or western cities. Diyarbakır, Istanbul, Adana and Mersin 
are now filled with poor Kurdish families, whose children 
contribute to a subsistence-level income by begging, polishing 
shoes or petty crime. These activities exacerbate the tension 
between the Kurds and the Turks.

There is also a more structural problem: while the state did not 
spend much on Kurdish regions in its national-developmentalist 
phase, there has been even less investment since the 
liberalization of the 1980s. The transition to a free-market 
economy was bad news for regions that were already at a 
disadvantage: capitalists had little incentive for investing, and 
the risk factor in the Kurdish zone only compounded their 
reservations. Although other pockets in Anatolia have also 
suffered, the major geographical losers from economic 
liberalization have been the Kurdish-populated east and 
south-east. A flow of eu-backed cultural funding has been largely 
cosmetic. With the aggravation of their economic conditions, the 
Kurds are starting to lose their cautious optimism vis-à-vis the akp.
Democratization?

The appeal of the akp to liberals and intellectuals in 2002 rested 
primarily on its pro-democratic, pro-European stance. Yet on 
democratization, the party has never demonstrated more than a pro 
forma commitment. Erdoğan is well-known for his authoritarian 
tendencies, and as the can-do mayor of Istanbul between 1994 and 
1998 he ruled with an iron fist. [27] At its founding congress, 
the akp leadership had pledged itself to a regime of internal 
party democracy, but initial moves in this direction were soon 
overturned. In 2003, the akp’s Board of Founders annulled internal 
elections to the Central Committee and invested the party 
president, Erdoğan, with sole authority to appoint or dismiss 
members of the Central Committee. These authoritarian moves had 
their counterparts in the relation of the party to the people. 
While Erdoğan’s government legislated a series of democratic 
reforms at the instigation of the eu, it has also disregarded the 
most basic norms of representivity and accountability with regard 
to its electorate—most blatantly, of course, over Iraq. Rather 
than taking popular grievances seriously, Erdoğan will publicly 
scold anybody who talks to him about hunger, unemployment or 
housing problems. At party rallies he has told the poor to pull 
themselves together and do something for themselves, instead of 
expecting the government to do it for them. [28]

A further test of democratization—and another stumbling block for 
eu entry—is the official approach to the Armenian massacres of 
1915. The military elite has always denied any responsibility for 
these killings, and it is a criminal offence to say they 
constituted genocide. In 2005, with expectations of 
democratization rising, an international group of scholars 
attempted to organize a conference at which the genocide thesis 
could be openly debated. The akp Interior Minister Cemil Çiçek 
reacted by saying that the conference organizers were ‘stabbing 
the nation in the back’. The scholars first called the meeting 
off, then moved it to a different university. While holding such a 
gathering would probably have been harder, if not impossible, 
under any previous government, the incident was a stark reminder 
of the nationalist-authoritarian tendency within the akp, of which 
Çiçek is a leading figure.

As well as democratization, an important question for the akp’s 
new liberal-democratic supporters is whether the government will 
make any strong moves towards further Islamization. So far, they 
have had no real cause for concern. The akp did try to lift the 
military’s 1997 restrictions on graduates from the İmam-Hatip 
schools entering secular universities, channeling them instead 
into theology faculties. The military had also enforced statutory 
eight-year attendance at non-religious schools. There had been 
waves of protest from pious Muslims at the time, but enrollment at 
İmam-Hatip schools had dropped considerably in the following 
years. This was a serious blow to the Islamist movement, as most 
of its activists were the product of these schools. The akp’s 
draft bill to permit İmam-Hatip students to attend the 
universities was greeted with outrage by sections of the 
secularist establishment, who claimed it revealed the party’s 
hidden Islamist agenda. The military insinuated that it was a 
threat to the secular Republic, and it was vetoed by President 
Ahmet Necdet Sezer (an appointee of the previous Meclis, in 2000). 
Establishment journalists and commentators who had supported the 
akp in 2002 announced that this was crossing the line, although 
few actually broke with the government.

Such reactions were, to say the least, exaggerated. The akp had no 
agenda of Islamicizing the whole education system. It was only 
striving to retain what was an important resource for any 
religiously oriented project—as the Catholic Church, for example, 
has long understood. The main point is that the akp’s brand of 
Americanism does not negate all things Muslim; schools with 
religious curricula flourish within the American system. At stake, 
rather, are negotiations over the new boundaries for religion in 
the Turkish public sphere. Other changes, such as the downplaying 
of evolutionary theory in textbooks and the increasing number of 
religious programmes on tv, are similar symptoms of the ways in 
which these boundaries are becoming defined by a framework closer 
to American conservatism than to Islamist demands.

Most crucially, the Erdoğan government has given the clearest 
signals that Islamism will play no part in its foreign policy. It 
has aimed to play a leading role in the Bush Administration’s 
self-styled Greater Middle East Initiative. akp leaders and their 
media relays have marketed this project to their religious base as 
an opportunity for Turkey to have a greater say in the region; one 
that combines closer relations with Islamic countries with the 
chance to reap broader economic and political benefits from the 
assertion of us control. The akp launches ‘Islamic’ foreign-policy 
salvos, but an attentive reading reveals that these are usually 
voicing Washington’s demands in Muslim phraseology. The akp’s 
approach to hamas, after its victory in the 2005 Palestinian 
Authority elections, was designed to convey the West’s 
message—‘Disarm!’—rather than to signal militant Islamist 
solidarity. When hamas representatives visited Ankara, the us 
ambassador promptly issued a statement of support for akp policies 
in Iraq, which appeased establishment worries about American 
reactions to the Palestinians’ visit. Gül has become a travelling 
emissary in the region, going to Tehran in June 2006 to deliver 
the West’s latest demands on the nuclear issue. The visit pleased 
both the Islamic states, who were happy to see Turkey overcome its 
secularist prejudices and value its neighbours, and the Western 
powers, who could get their messages conveyed to the mullahs by 
their co-religionists rather than their ‘enemies’. Similarly, Gül 
has pressed Damascus to exert a moderating influence on Hezbollah 
in Lebanon. One result of this foreign policy has been greatly 
improved relations between the party and the more liberal wing of 
the military under Hilmi Özkök, Chief of Staff until 2006.
Challenges

Yet for all its successes in retaining the support of the 2002 
coalition, the akp faces a number of difficulties ahead which, if 
severe enough, might pose challenges to its hegemony over certain 
sectors. Among the most dangerous is the economy. During its first 
three years in office the Erdoğan government benefited from the 
post-2001 recovery, following the dramatic devaluation of that 
year. Growth, built on heavy borrowing, sustained consent for the 
economic reforms even among those worst hit by fiscal austerity. 
But the Turkish economy is highly exposed. A widening 
current-account deficit requires constant capital inflows, and the 
privatization programme that the akp is undertaking to attract 
these is bedevilled by legal problems, graft and the run-down 
state of public utilities and infrastructure. As Turkey has opened 
to global markets, the traditionally strong textile and clothing 
industries, the basis for Central Anatolian growth in the 1980s, 
have lost out to countries with cheap labour, primarily China. 
Turkish capital investment is now mainly directed towards finance, 
tourism, and construction—all highly dependent on the vicissitudes 
of the global economy. A shake-out of world stock markets would 
have a very serious effect.

In May–June 2006, Turkey experienced its first serious financial 
shock under the akp. There was a sudden outflow of short-term 
capital after the us Federal Reserve raised interest rates. The 
lira plummeted, and inflation rose sharply with more expensive 
imports. Weak sectors of the economy—textiles, clothing, 
agriculture—were hard hit, as interest rates, rents and food 
prices continued to climb after the financial crisis subsided, and 
the lira continued to tremble with every mild fluctuation on the 
global scene. In July 2006 the akp faced the first mass protest 
over its economic policies: 80,000 hazelnut producers in the Black 
Sea region blocked the Samsun highway to protest the government 
cuts in agricultural subsidies that had left the growers’ 
co-operative unable to purchase their crop. They targeted 
Erdoğan’s close advisor Cuneyd Zapsu, chairman of the exporters’ 
association that stands to gain most from low prices. In all 
probability, these workers had been akp voters. In late August, 
public officials’ unions threatened major strikes to counter 
falling real wages. With economic tensions growing, opinion polls 
suggest that the right-wing Nationalist Action Party has been 
regaining ground. In the last year, nationalist gangs have 
attempted more than a dozen lynchings of Kurdish immigrants living 
in western Turkish cities, and stoned akp members after a 
nationalist rally. One result is that it is becoming harder to 
sell Turkey as an ‘emerging market’ success story to foreign 
investors.

A second problem that the akp confronts is the faltering accession 
talks with the eu. The Republic of Cyprus’s overwhelming rejection 
of the Annan Plan in its April 2004 referendum scotched the West’s 
‘solution’ for the island, and confronted Turkey with the 
necessity of recognizing the roc, initially in the form of 
extending its 1995 Customs Union agreement with the eu to include 
the latest members, Cyprus among them. In July 2005 Erdoğan signed 
the protocols, while announcing loudly that this did not amount to 
a recognition of the Cypriot government. By the eu deadline of 
December 2006, Turkey had not opened its ports and harbours to 
Cyprus. Accession talks were partially suspended, and Brussels 
extended its inspections of Turkey’s ‘progress’ over a still 
longer time-span. It also complained of Ankara’s foot-dragging 
over the requested amendments to the Turkish penal code’s Article 
301, which criminalizes critics of the state. It is no longer so 
easy for the akp to offer accession to the eu as a highway to a 
better future.
Opponents

Amid these uncertainties, the akp still possesses the advantage 
that all political alternatives to its rule are totally 
discredited. Yet it has opponents, whose hands may be strengthened 
if the akp government loses its lustre in worsening economic 
times. The most significant of these include hard-line factions 
within the state, the growing nationalist backlash and radical 
Islamism. Among official circles, including the nationalist wings 
of the judiciary and the military, there are still many who watch 
the akp with suspicion and would like to see it toppled. Deniz 
Baykal, the leader of the Republican People’s Party and the 
political representative of these circles, has frequently implied 
the need for military and street action against the akp. Elements 
of the deep state have given this more concrete form.

In 2005, several people were killed in a series of bomb blasts in 
the Kurdish town of şemdinli in Hakkari, one of the poorest places 
in Turkey. Official sources attributed the explosions to the pkk 
and the increasing tension in the southeast since the end of the 
ceasefire in 2004. But in November 2005 one of the bombers was 
caught red-handed. Passers-by had seen him leave a case in front 
of a bookstore. He then waited around to watch the ensuing 
explosion, in which a man was killed. The angry onlookers 
surrounded the bomber, who panicked and shouted, ‘Stop, I’m a 
police officer!’ He was only saved from lynching by the security 
forces. The suspicion that clandestine elements of the state were 
behind the other şemdinli bombings—a suspicion voiced even by the 
establishment press—was virtually confirmed when the Army’s 
Second-in-Command, Yaşar Büyükanıt, coolly remarked of the bomber: 
‘I know him; he is a good boy.’

In response to this, and in line with Erdoğan’s promise that all 
responsible parties would be punished, a local public prosecutor 
in Van began an investigation which implicated Büyükanıt in 
organizing paramilitary activities in the southeast. The 
prosecutor came under attack from the establishment media, which 
claimed—without evidence—that he had connections with a 
clandestine religious community, and that the accusations against 
Büyükanıt were a part of a conspiracy to denigrate the military 
because of its struggle against ‘fundamentalism’. The insinuation 
was that the akp was behind this scheme. The prosecutor was 
disbarred for preparing a ‘faulty indictment’, and soon anybody 
attempting to investigate the şemdinli affair became suspect. 
Ultimately, two low-ranking officers were sentenced, and further 
legal proceedings were deemed futile. The akp, which had initially 
backed the prosecutor, fell silent—another disappointment for its 
liberal supporters. In August 2006, after months of speculation as 
to who would be Özkök’s successor as Chief of Staff, the akp 
appointed Büyükanıt to the post.

Further evidence emerged of a deep-state campaign against the 
akp’s Islamist supporters following the assassination of the head 
of the Danıştay, a high administrative court, in May 2006. Some 
months before the Danıştay had blocked the promotion of a nursery 
schoolteacher on the grounds that, though of course unveiled 
during working hours, she covered her head for the journey home. 
This was seen as an extreme reactionary measure even by the 
establishment media, and provoked an indignant response from the 
popular Islamist press, with Vakit publishing photographs of the 
Danıştay decision-makers on its front page. The assassination of 
the Danıştay’s top judge, apparently by a young Islamist lawyer, 
ignited a storm of secular outrage, and there were large 
demonstrations, led by top members of the judiciary, protesting 
against the Islamists and the akp. A few days later, however, the 
conservative and pro-akp daily Zaman revealed connections between 
the assassin and a group of retired army officers, who were 
members of an emerging network of paramilitary, hard-line 
nationalist organizations. These officers also apparently had 
links with the state: police had found secret official files in 
their homes. Their plan was to discredit and perhaps bring down 
the akp government.

Initially demoralized, the establishment press soon hit back by 
denouncing all this as an Islamist confection: the ‘secret files’ 
had been manufactured by conservative religious elements in the 
police, and handed to Zaman. Put together with the attempts by the 
‘religious’ prosecutor to implicate Büyükanıt in the şemdinli 
bombings, this new conspiracy demonstrated rather that the 
tentacles of Islamism ran deep into the farthest reaches of the 
state. Neither the secularists nor the Islamists could provide 
conclusive evidence for their claims. But the drama revealed the 
depth of the hitherto covert conflict between the military and the 
police. The concentration of hard-line secular nationalists in the 
Army, and of religious conservatives in the ranks of the police, 
threatens low-level conspiratorial wars within the security forces 
as well as against the civilian population. Amnesty International 
has reported a decrease in state torture under the akp; but the 
şemdinli and Danıştay affairs raise the question of whether the 
forces of coercion have not resorted to more intricate methods of 
control and intimidation than ‘simple’ torture and repression.

With the assassination of Hrant Dink these issues were sharply 
posed again. The editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian 
newspaper Agos, Dink was a conciliatory figure who emphasized 
democratization and Turkish-Armenian dialogue rather than focusing 
on the genocide debate. Despite this caution, he was charged 
several times with ‘denigrating Turkishness’; one of around fifty 
intellectuals to be indicted under Article 301 in Erdoğan’s 
Turkey. Unlike most of the others, Dink was convicted in 2005 and 
given a suspended sentence. He had also been frequently threatened 
by nationalist paramilitary organizations. On 19 January 2007 Dink 
was shot in the head outside his newspaper office by an unemployed 
youth from Trabzon. The killer was arrested, but within a few days 
investigators revealed that not only had a police informant been 
involved in organizing the crime, but that high-level members of 
the police apparatus had known about the planned assassination 
beforehand. No sooner were these details disclosed than the 
investigation came to an abrupt halt. Emboldened by the popular 
anger at Dink’s killing—100,000 had marched in his funeral 
procession—several civil and political organizations began to 
campaign for the forces behind the murder to be fully unmasked. 
Yet, as of early March 2007, things remained at a standstill. In 
the already strained atmosphere before the April presidential 
elections, Dink’s assassination has heightened tensions and 
demonstrated the akp’s powerlessness to act against this 
continuing campaign of coercion and terror.
Islamist quiescence?

A second locus of potential opposition to the Erdoğan government 
is radical Islamism—voiced by those left behind by the akp’s 
Americanization. Local akp activists have tried to reassure their 
more militant Islamist brethren by circulating ‘hidden 
transcripts’ arguing that they still believe in the same 
principles, but longer-term methods are now required. Some akp 
leaders—such as Bülent Arınç, who led the Meclis vote against the 
Iraq war in March 2003—remain in touch with the traditional 
Islamist Felicity Party. Others demonstrate their commitment by 
praying in public places. On the whole, as noted above, radical 
Islamists have been loath to criticize the government. There were 
large-scale protests against the Danish caricatures of the 
Prophet—especially in the east and southeast, hinting at a radical 
Islamic reorganization in the region—but these were a safely 
non-political distraction.

A major test for the Islamists was the dispatch of Turkish troops 
to join the un force in Lebanon in October 2006. As with Iraq, a 
majority of the population was strongly opposed to the Israeli 
invasion and the idf destruction of south Beirut. The terms of 
deployment of the un force under Resolution 1701—to help disarm 
the region ‘south of the Litani River’—seemed clearly intended to 
finish the job of downgrading Hezbollah that Israel had failed to 
do. Characteristically, the akp attempted both to act with its 
main military partners, the us and Israel, and to convince its 
base that it was on the side of the ‘oppressed’. In July 2006, 
Erdoğan’s condemnation of Israeli ‘excesses’ at the Organization 
of the Islamic Conference in Kuala Lumpur was warmly received in 
the Muslim world, although it differed little from the G8 Summit’s 
formula of ‘disproportionate response’.

Following the passage of Resolution 1701, both Erdoğan and Gül 
urged the need for Turkish troops to ‘come to the aid’ of the 
suffering Lebanese people. akp leaders have invoked the Ottoman 
Empire traditions of ‘the nation’s ancestors’: Turkey must not 
remain aloof from the problems of its neighbours and ignore the 
Middle East, as it had done for the past eighty years. Or, 
repeated in the language of Americanization: Turkey had to 
intervene in the region to become a global player. There was also 
a war of disinformation: Islamist media in favour of sending 
troops reported that Hezbollah had actually invited Turkey to 
Lebanon. This seems highly unlikely, given the formal military 
agreement between Israel and Turkey signed by Erbakan in 1996. 
Although the scale of this military partnership is secret, it is 
known to involve joint training exercises, shared intelligence, 
assistance in counter-insurgency operations and modernization of 
equipment—that is, Turkish purchases from Israeli arms 
manufacturers. The akp, of course, has taken no steps to annul it.

Yet Islamist protests against the dispatch of Turkish troops to 
Lebanon were muted, if somewhat bigger in the east of the country. 
Ironically, it was the more concerted opposition to the deployment 
from the Republican People’s Party and the nationalist right that 
helped to rally akp deputies’ support. At the end of August 2006, 
the rigidly secularist President Sezer—anathema to the religious 
conservatives—declared that, rather than send troops to Lebanon, 
Turkey should be dealing with its domestic problems, implying the 
resurgent pkk in the southeast. This was sufficient to convince 
the akp parliamentarians that the enemies of ‘conservative 
democracy’ were united in trying to prevent the government from 
sending troops. The Cabinet convened immediately after the 
President’s statement and agreed to the deployment; a decision 
ratified by 340 to 192 in an emergency session of the Meclis on 
September 5th, despite opinion polls which showed that some 80 per 
cent of the public was against the measure. The decision was also 
welcomed, of course, by the eu, the Western media and pro-Western 
liberals in Turkey; some European commentators even saw it as a 
good reason to speed up eu accession talks.
A hardening stand

A third potential basis of opposition to the akp lies in the 
rising nationalist sentiment in Turkey, which has been demanding a 
tougher position against the Kurdish rebels, more controls on 
markets and more cautious relations with the West. Support for the 
eu has decreased markedly over the past year. The emergence of a 
potential Kurdish statelet in northern Iraq has alarmed Turkish 
nationalists who think that this might be a first step towards a 
greater Kurdistan, which would inevitably lead to the 
dismemberment of the country. This has led to the establishment of 
several racist and ethnic segregationist groups in the last years. 
These groups, some of them armed and led by retired officers, are 
becoming popular especially in western regions with large Kurdish 
migrant populations. Equally, the potential Kurdish statelet has 
emboldened Kurdish nationalists. In 2004 the pkk ended the 
ceasefire it had maintained since the arrest of its leader 
Abduallah Öcalan in 1999, citing the akp government’s refusal to 
grant a total amnesty. But by taking up arms, the guerrilla have 
inevitably provoked both a security clampdown and a nationalist 
backlash. The pkk declared another cease-fire at the end of 
September 2006, which again fell on deaf ears.

Whereas two years ago the Erdoğan government—admittedly, at eu 
urging—emphasized the need to acknowledge Kurdish identity, it is 
now obsessed with arresting the leaders of the pkk. In terms all 
too familiar from the 1990s, it has dismissed a mass demonstration 
in the east as ‘terrorism’, and brushed off criticisms of the 
security forces for having killed ten civilians. In June 2006, the 
akp introduced amendments to the anti-terror legislation that 
seriously curtailed existing civil rights. Suspects under arrest 
will no longer have access to lawyers for the first 24 hours of 
their detention, increasing the likelihood of torture. It is now a 
criminal act to publish statements by illegal organizations, or 
even to sympathize with their views. This could hurt the Islamists 
and sections of the left, but will most probably be used against 
supporters of Kurdish organizations. The akp seems likely to ride 
the nationalist tide by shifting in a more authoritarian 
direction, especially where the Kurds are concerned.

At the same time—such are the contradictions of client-state 
nationalism—many establishment figures have argued that Turkey has 
to make itself ever-more indispensible to the Americans in order 
to persuade Washington to set limits on the emergence of any form 
of Kurdistan. This was one of the arguments used by 
secular-nationalist journalists, policy advisors and intellectuals 
in favour of joining the un occupation force in Lebanon—that this 
was the only way to get the us to crack down on the pkk bases in 
northern Iraq. Given their current plight in Iraq the Americans 
are in no position to antagonize the Kurds, but they have 
appointed a retired American general as a facilitator to soothe 
Turkish fears and negotiate between Ankara and the Kurds. 
Ironically, the logic of a growing Turkish nationalism thus leads 
to intensifying Americanization, even as it demonstrates the akp’s 
incapacity to implement this latest twist on its own.

Internally, then, the Turkish ruling bloc has reasserted its 
hegemony through the passive revolution of the past decades: 
integrating and demobilizing the provincial bourgeoisie and 
religious communities, while maintaining its control. The 
new-formed akp, less than two years old when it won its first 
overall majority, has been the main agent of this 
‘revolution-restoration’. Its leaders had absorbed aspects of the 
radical Islamist revolt of the 1980s, to which they added big 
business, the Pentagon and a keen understanding of New World 
religiosity. Is the model exportable? In 2006, Hamas announced 
that it would take the akp as its exemplar when it moved into the 
offices of the Palestinian Authority. [29] But the akp’s current 
hegemony, as we have seen, rests on a very specific conjuncture of 
mobile class forces, state structures and cultural traditions. 
However eager other Muslim leaders in the Middle East may be to 
follow Erdoğan’s example, it remains to be seen whether Turkey’s 
brand of Islamized Americanization can be easily reduplicated 
elsewhere.


[1] I would like to thank Michael Burawoy, Dylan Riley and Aynur 
Sadet for helping me develop the ideas in this piece.

[2] The Western versions include Daniel Lerner, The Passing of 
Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East, New York 1967; 
and Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, New York 1961.

[3] See especially Simon Bromley, Rethinking Middle East Politics: 
State Formation and Development, Cambridge 1994; Metin Heper, The 
State Tradition in Turkey, Beverley, Yorkshire 1985; Nikki R. 
Keddie, ‘Secularism and the State: Towards Clarity and Global 
Comparison’, nlr 1/226, November–December 1997, pp. 300–32; and 
şerif Mardin, ‘Religion and Politics in Modern Turkey’, in James 
Piscatori, ed., Islam in the Political Process, Cambridge 1983.

[4] The Kemalist Republican People’s Party (chp) has long been the 
political vehicle of the dominant, statist sector of this bloc, 
while the more traditionalist-religious layers have been 
represented by a variety of different parties since the end of 
single-party rule in 1950: Adnan Menderes’s Democratic Party in 
the 1950s, Süleyman Demirel’s Justice Party in the 1960s, Turgut 
Özal’s Motherland Party in the 1980s and 90s.

[5] See Taner Akçam, From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism 
and the Armenian Genocide, New York 2004.

[6] Çağlar Keyder, State and Class in Turkey: A Study in 
Capitalist Development, London 1987.

[7] Dankwart Rustow, ‘Turkish Democracy in Historical and 
Comparative Perspective’, in Metin Heper and Ahmet Evin, eds., 
Politics in the Third Turkish Republic, Boulder, co 1994, pp. 3–12.

[8] I define Islamism as an ideology that seeks to shape the 
state, the economy and society along Koranic lines. Islamism 
should thus be contrasted to more conservative understandings of 
the religion, which assign it a restricted and subordinate 
political role while stressing pious observance.

[9] In contemporary Turkey, the word milli implies both national 
and religious identity. Islamists utilize the ambivalence of this 
term to appeal to the Muslim identity of their constituency in a 
country where the only officially legitimate collective identity 
is Turkishness.

[10] Ali Yaşar Sarıbay, Turkiye’de Modernleşme, Din, ve Parti 
Politikası: Milli Selâmet Partisi Örnek Olayı, Istanbul 1985.

[11] Taha Parla, Türkiye’nin Siyasal Rejimi, Istanbul 1995.

[12] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, New 
York 1971, pp. 114–20.

[13] Joel Beinin, Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East, 
Cambridge 2001.

[14] For further details, see Haldun Gülalp, ‘Globalization and 
Political Islam: The Social Bases of Turkey’s Welfare Party’, 
International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 33, no. 3, 
August 2001, pp. 433–48.

[15] Necmettin Erbakan, Adil Ekonomik Düzen, Ankara 1991, pp. 29, 
65–66. For a critical left analysis see Ayşe Buğra, ‘Political 
Islam in Turkey in Historical Context: Strengths and Weaknesses’, 
in Neşecan Balkan and Sungur Savran, eds., Politics of Permanent 
Crisis, New York 2002.

[16] Refah Partisi, Adil Düzen: 21 Soru/21 Cevap, 1994, pp. 1, 23.

[17] Çağlar Keyder, ‘The Turkish Bell-Jar’, nlr 28, July–August 2004.

[18] Alev İnan Çınar, ‘Refah Party and the City Administration of 
Istanbul: Liberal Islam, Localism and Hybridity’, New Perspectives 
on Turkey, vol. 16, Spring 1997, pp. 23–40.

[19] See Elizabeth Özdalga, ‘Necmettin Erbakan: Democracy for the 
Sake of Power’, in Metin Heper and Sabri Sayarı, eds., Political 
Leaders and Democracy in Turkey, New York 2002.

[20] For more details of eu involvement in Turkey see Keyder, ‘The 
Turkish Bell-Jar’, p. 78.

[21] See Müge Göçek, ‘To veil or not to veil: the contested 
location of gender in contemporary Turkey’, Interventions, vol. 1, 
no. 4 (1999), pp. 521–35.

[22] Erdoğan was banned from standing in the 2002 elections under 
a sentence handed down during the repression of 1998, for having 
read an (allegedly) Islamist poem to a public meeting. For all the 
trumpeted European opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of 
Iraq, this brief flare of resistance in the Meclis made Turkey the 
only state to have refused a material request. France opened its 
air space to the usaf-raf bombers, and Germany put its field 
hospitals at Bush’s disposal.

[23] The ‘caricature demonstrations’ in February 2006 are an 
exception to this. However, it is worth noting that these protests 
had no national political aim, or even a palpable target, unlike 
the Islamist demonstrations of the 1990s.

[24] The akp government has twice banned a major strike on the 
grounds that it threatened national security.

[25] For this specific definition, see José Casanova, Public 
Religions in the Modern World, Chicago 1994.

[26] The Socialist Party even circulated ‘scientific’ texts that 
proved this inferiority. Gramsci, Selections from Political 
Writings, 1921–1926, New York 1978, pp. 441–62.

[27] Mehmet Metiner, ‘Dünden Bugüne Tayyip Erdoğan’, Radikal İki, 
6 July 2003.

[28] Blaming the poor for their poverty is another dimension of 
the akp’s Americanization, and its break from both traditional 
Islam, which sees poverty as fate, and Islamism, which blames the 
secular-capitalist system for the condition of the poor.

[29] ‘Ankara Warns Hamas: Renounce Violence and Negotiate’, Zaman, 
17 February 2006; ‘Hükümet Kurarken akp’yi Örnek Aldık’, Tempo, 23 
March 2006.




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