Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 6   No. 6-7 Table of Contents
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June/July 2004 

Turkey's Justice and Development Party: A Model for Democratic Islam?
by Thomas Patrick Carroll


In November 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) captured a majority of parliamentary seats in Turkey's national elections - a political feat that had not been achieved by any party in fifteen years. With a genealogy that clearly places it in the tradition of Turkey's Islamist political trend, the rise of the AKP was at first greeted with trepidation by the country's Kemalist military and political elite.[1]

The AKP's victory also caused concern in the capitals of many of Turkey's Western allies. When Erdogan's political godfather, Necmettin Erbakan, unexpectedly won the premiership in the mid-1990s, he promptly made official state visits to Libya and Iran, then proceeded to lobby vigorously for the establishment of a new Muslim economic bloc. Erbakan soon alienated the military and was ousted. Since then, conventional wisdom in the West held that an Islamist government would either "succeed" by staying in power and eroding the country's secular political tradition and pro-Western foreign policy, or fail and prompt the military to intervene - either of which would be a setback for Turkish democracy.

However, much to the surprise of its critics, Erdogan's administration has pushed harder (and more successfully) for liberal and democratic reforms than any previous Turkish government. Moreover, it has strengthened Turkey's relations with both Europe and the United States.

The rise of the AKP and its performance in governing Turkey is an encouraging story. Under some circumstances, at least, religious political movements in the Muslim world can take the lead in introducing greater social, political, and economic freedom to their societies. And in Turkey's case, the evolution of a modernizing Islamist political force was facilitated by external pressures for reform. If Western governments hope to see this evolution take place across the Middle East, they would do well to study closely what is happening in Ankara.

Turkish 'Secularism'

It was long believed that the secret of Turkey's democratic success over the past half century lay in its forcible exclusion of Islam from political life. After the founding of the Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk insisted that Turkey's future security and prosperity required that "backward" Ottoman customs and institutions be shed in favor of modern, European ones. Sharia (Islamic law) was effectively repealed and replaced with nonreligious civil and criminal codes.

At the political level, Kemalism was enshrined in the principal of laiklik. This term is often translated into English as 'laicism' or, more commonly, 'secularism,' which implies the separation of religion and state into two distinct and autonomous realms. But laiklik, as practiced in Turkey, is not so much the separation of religion and the state, as it is the subordination of religion to the state. As one prominent expert notes,

This is a crucial difference in the Turkish context. The state controls the education of religious professionals and their assignment to mosques and approves the content of their sermons. It also controls religious schools and the content of religious education and enforces laws about the wearing of religious symbols and clothing in public spaces and institutions.[2]

With the military firmly entrenched as guardian of laiklik, Turkey's democratic era began in 1950, when the ruling party lost a general election and yielded power to the opposition - a process that has repeated itself again and again in the last half century. Although there have been three military coups in the last half century, as historian Bernard Lewis notes, "what is remarkable is not that these interventions took place" but that each time "the military withdrew to its barracks, and allowed, even facilitated, the resumption of the democratic process."[3]

The Persistence of Islam

Although Turkey's achieved considerable social and economic progress in the twentieth century, strong Islamic beliefs, customs, and social structures persisted among the bulk of the Turkish populace. Notwithstanding official laiklik, Islam was allowed limited political expression. It started in 1950, when the Democrat Party defeated the Kemalist Republican Peoples Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP) in national elections and and its leader, Adnan Menderes, became prime minister.

Menderes adopted a more tolerant stance toward Islam, which worried his Kemalist opponents, who feared the prime minister was endangering Ataturk's legacy. Moreover, Menderes adopted policies that led to economic stagnation and, toward the end of his tenure, took repressive measures against his critics and political opponents. A military coup (Turkey's first) in May 1960 removed Menderes (who was later hanged) and dissolved the Democrat Party.

The next serious Islamic venture into party politics came in 1970, when Necmettin Erbakan founded the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi, or MNP). The MNP advocated the restoration of conservative morals and the reduction of economic ties with Western countries, while championing small businesses, local merchants, independent craftsmen, and traditional economic interests.

The MNP was banned after the 1971 military coup (Turkey's second), with the generals accusing it of mixing politics and religion. However, it was reincarnated in 1973 as the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi, or MSP), again headed by Erbakan and offering much the same platform. For a time, the Kemalists encouraged Erbakan's movement as a counterweight to the radical left - National Salvation even joined three coalition governments in the 1970s. But by the end of the decade Turkish society was verging on anarchy and another military coup was inevitable. In September 1980, the generals stepped in, declaring martial law and banning all of Turkey's political parties, including National Salvation.

After the coup, the generals supervised the writing of a new constitution, considerably less liberal than its predecessor. Not surprisingly, it included explicit restrictions on religion. Article 24, for example, stated that "no one shall be allowed to exploit religion in any manner whatsoever for the purpose of personal or political influence."

On the other hand, the generals also recognized that religion was a stabilizing social force and barrier to Communist influence. In an effort to avoid a replay of the massive violence and civil disorder that plagued Turkey in the late 1970s, the junta introduced mandatory religious studies in the public school system. If young people had a foundation of religious values, the generals reasoned, perhaps they wouldn't gravitate into political radicalism that had so shredded the social fabric in the previous decade. The time was ripe for a rethinking of the place of Islam in public life.

The first stirrings came with the rise of Turgut Ozal, leader of the conservative Motherland Party (ANAP) and Turkey's first prime minister after the 1980 coup. Both Turgut and his brother, Korkut, were struck by the American model of church/state separation, in which religion is free of government control. Korkut lived for a time in Utah and was especially impressed with the Mormons. He saw them as modern, wealthy, and successful, while at the same time drawing strength and social cohesion from their strong religious faith. In an interesting tribute to his Mormon inspiration, Ozal chose the beehive (a prominent fixture in the Utah state flag) as the symbol for his Motherland Party.


Meanwhile, Erbakan founded the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) as a successor to the banned National Salvation. Its political impact was initially modest. Welfare was disqualified by the junta from participating in the 1983 parliamentary elections. Four years later, it received only 7% of the vote in parliamentary elections, short of the 10% threshold required to win seats.

However, Welfare's emphasis on economic fairness, social justice, small business, and a public ethic of common provision began to attract more support as the public grew weary of government incompetence, graft, and political deadlock. Its attempt to bring humane religious traditions to bear on contemporary economic and social problems was not unlike the Christian Socialist Movement in Great Britain, or the 'distributivist' economic philosophy of Catholics like G.K. Chesterton. During the early 1990s, the party became the breeding ground for a new generation of competent and pragmatic activists and began to make inroads into territory traditionally held by the Turkish left, such as the urban lower class. Moreover, Welfare's emphasis on the people's common religious beliefs (rather than nationalism) appealed to Kurds who had grown disillusioned with the radical separatists.

In 1991, Welfare captured 17% of the national vote and sixty-two parliamentary seats. In the 1994 local elections, Welfare candidates for mayor won in 28 out of 76 provincial capitals, including Istanbul and Ankara, with 19% of the popular vote. In the 1995 general elections, Welfare won 158 out of 500 parliamentary seats, giving it a plurality. Erbakan then became prime minister in a coalition government.

However, Erbakan's tenure was short-lived. His efforts to establish warmer relations with Iran, Libya and Iraq; open encouragement of women to wear veils, and opposition to Turkish membership in the EU steadily alienated secular political elites and his coalition government crumbled in June 1997. The following year, Turkey's Constitutional Court banned the Welfare Party. Although Erbakan quickly organized its reincarnation as the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi), his political star had fallen. In the 1999 parliamentary elections, Virtue placed third behind the Democratic Left Party (DSP) of Bulent Ecevit and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) of Devlet Bahceli.

When the Virtue Party was banned in 2001, Erbakan formed yet another reincarnation, the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi), but this time the aging politician faced a revolt against his leadership by a modernist faction of younger Islamist activists, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul. This "new guard" had long pushed for a more democratic, decentralized, and transparent party structure, but encountered stiff opposition from Erbakan and his cohorts. They also objected to Erbakan's anti-Western policies. While the old guard talked about international Muslim solidarity, Erdogan and his allies were enthusiastic about accelerating Turkey's economic integration with the West. Following Erbakan's political humiliation, the reformers broke away and formed the AKP.

Something New Under the Sun

Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to national prominence in 1994 when he won the race for mayor of Istanbul. Like most of his fellow Welfare mayors around the country, Erdogan earned a reputation for clean, effective, and competent management of the city's affairs. In contrast to Erbakan, he developed a keen understanding of when not to push his agenda. He banned alcohol from municipal establishments, but wisely took no steps to ban drinking in restaurants (as a number of other Welfare mayors attempted to do). After initially endorsing a project to build a large Mosque complex in the heart of the city, he quickly abandoned the idea when his constituents organized protests. Even hardcore Kemalists, who feared that Erdogan and his colleagues were the thin end of the wedge for a more radical Islamist takeover of Turkey's political life, had to admit that Istanbul was well administered.

Erdogan nevertheless got into trouble in 1997 by publicly reading a passage from a well-known poem written by Ziya Gokalp (1876-1924), sociologist, writer, and theoretician of Turkish nationalism: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers."[4] Charged with crimes against laiklik, Erdogan was jailed for 10 months and banned from politics for the rest of his life - an experience which led him to appreciate the futility of confronting Kemalist political traditions head on.

While Erdogan and other AKP leaders unabashedly affirm their private religious convictions, they advocate secularism in the conventional Western sense of the term. "Before anything else, I'm a Muslim . . . I have a responsibility to God, who created me, and I try to fulfill that responsibility, but I try now very much to keep this away from my political life, to keep it private," Erdogan told the New York Times last year. "A political party cannot have a religion, only individuals can . . . religion is so supreme that it cannot be [politically] exploited or taken advantage of," he explained.[5]

But the AKP also rejects the illiberal repression of Islam that the Kemalists practiced for so many decades. For example, while Erdogan opposes state enforcement of Islamic dress codes, he maintains that female university students should be free to wear Islamic headscarves in class. Under the current Turkish law, they are not. Erdogan is fond of pointing out that his two daughters chose to attend college in the United States (both at the University of Indiana), where they are free to wear their headscarves. Indeed, Erdogan has called his view of secularism 'American-style laiklik.'

The AKP also adopted a platform of staunch support for Turkish integration into the global economy, membership in the EU, and overall alignment with the West. The AKP's explicit pro-Western agenda not only reflected the modernizing ideals of Erdogan and other younger generation Islamists, but made perfect sense politically and helped the party attract middle class support. Another consideration may also have been at work. After Erbakan was ousted from office and the judiciary moved to dismantle his Welfare party, he repeatedly called upon Western governments for help, but was completely ignored. The septuagenarian may have had friends in high places in the Islamic world, but they were politically useless when push came to shove in Turkey. The AKP's pro-Western platform would prove to be a much more effective hedge against the Kemalists.

The AKP in Power


The AKP scored a remarkable landslide victory in the November 2002 parliamentary elections, garnering 34% of the national vote and capturing a commanding 363-seat majority. Aside from the CHP, led by Deniz Baykal, no other party broke through the 10% vote threshold constitutionally required to win a place in the 550-seat Parliament. The AKP's triumph ejected an entire class of established politicians from government. Leading figures who were denied parliamentary seats included former prime ministers Tansu Ciller, who heads the True Path Party (DYP); Mesut Yilmaz, who heads ANAP; and Bulent Ecevit, the head of DSP.

Because Erdogan had been banned from political office in 1998, his deputy, Abdullah Gul, initially assumed the premiership. But it was clear from the beginning that Erdogan was calling the shots. In December 2002, US President George W. Bush stunned the Turkish political establishment in Ankara by inviting Erdogan to the White House. "You believe in the Almighty, and I believe in the Almighty. That's why we'll be great partners," the American president is said to have told his counterpart.[6] Proceeding on to Europe, Erdogan received assurances that the EU would commence accession negotiations with Ankara in December 2004 if Turkey undertook sufficient political and economic reforms.

In part because of American and European de facto recognition of Erdogan's authority, the Turkish military accepted the new administration's amendment of the constitution to lift the ban on Erdogan's political activity and holding of a by-election to allow for his entry into parliament (a requirement to be prime minister). In March 2004, Erdogan formally assumed the premiership.

Over the past year and half, the AKP has introduced a remarkable array of political and economic reforms. Most of them, not coincidentally, closely reflect the so-called "Copenhagen criteria" required for Turkish accession to the EU - a consolidated market economy, stable democratic institutions, rule of law, respect for internationally recognized human rights, and protection of minorities. Decades-old restrictions on Kurdish cultural expression have been eased, the death penalty has been revoked, and legislation designed to curtail torture has been passed. The government has abolished the notorious state security courts and removed military representation from the higher education board. The AKP has brought Turkish legislation into conformity with the Copenhagen criteria on a host of other issues, such as press freedom, civilian control of the military, and transparency in public finance.

The AKP has striven to bolster Turkey's relations with the United States and Europe. In sharp contrast to Erbakan, Erdogan has expressed unequivocal opposition to the idea of an Islamic economic bloc.[7] The AKP government was able to deliver complete Turkish and Turkish Cypriot agreement on a United Nations plan to reunify the divided island of Cyprus, thereby alleviating the single greatest source of tension between Turkey and Europe.

Ironically, the old line Kemalists, who for 80 years preached about the need to modernize and Westernize Turkey, have in many ways become the reactionaries in Turkey, while the "Islamists" have taken the lead in promoting Western-style reforms. In spite of the dismal electoral fortunes of nationalist political parties in 2002, the Kemalist elite continues to dominate not only Turkey's military, but also its civilian bureaucracy, judiciary, and media. The so-called "deep state" in Turkey has resisted many of the changes introduced by the AKP.

That Erdogan has nevertheless managed to score impressive victories against these entrenched interests is due in no small part to the support he enjoys in the United States and Europe. "What we are seeing are the demands of the EU and pro-Islamic groups overlapping for the first time in Turkish history, with Islamic groups finding in the West an ally that can protect them against the excesses of the Kemalist state," notes Ihsan Dagi, a professor of international relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara.[8] According to David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Erdogan wouldn't have been able to change Turkish policy on Cyprus had it not been for the clear-cut support he enjoys from the Bush administration. "Turkey's security establishment would never have tolerated concessions [on Cyprus] if it still enjoyed Washington's unwavering support."[e]

Reasons for Hope in the Middle East

Turkey, a country of about 70 million Muslims, most of whom are religious, is ruled today by a conservative party with an Islamic pedigree and a humane, tolerant, and democratic track record. Can we generalize from the AKP's experience? Not without some care. Turkey is quite different from the rest of the Middle East, whether Arab or Persian. What works in Ankara will not necessarily work in Tehran, Damascus or Baghdad. Nonetheless, there are definitely lessons to be learned.

The most important one is that external pressure for political reform can achieve results. Unlike other Muslim countries in the region, Turkey has been cajoled, pressured, and encouraged by the West in its journey toward full and mature democracy. The political and economic conditions attached to Turkish membership in the EU have greatly reinforced domestic pressure for reforms, while Western support for the AKP has clearly bolstered its ability to overcome entrenched bureaucratic and military interests. Secondly, the Turkish experience suggests that Western support for moderate Islamist political parties can strengthen their commitment to political and economic liberalization. If the United States is serious about promoting human rights and democratic values in the Middle East, it should take note of all that Erdogan has accomplished.


  [1] Kemalists are followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. Among other characteristics, Kemalists take a dim view of Islam in politics, fearing a rollback of Ataturk's Westernizing reforms.
  [2] Jenny B. White, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 35.
  [3] Bernard Lewis, Why Turkey Is the Only Muslim Democracy, Middle East Quarterly, March 1994.
  [4] Turkey bars Islamic leader from poll, BBC News Europe, 20 September 2002.
  [5] Deborah Sontag, "The Erdogan Experiment," The New York Times, 11 May 2003.
  [6] Deborah Sontag, "The Erdogan Experiment," The New York Times, 11 May 2003.
  [7] "I disapprove of the concept of an Islamic common market," Erdogan flatly declared in January 2004 at the fifth Jeddah Economic Forum in Saudi Arabia. "We will not base [economic] relations on ethnic or religious roots or geography." See "Turkish Premier Rejects Idea of Islamic Common Market," Anatolia news agency (Ankara), 18 January 2004.
  [8] Helena Smith, "New Breed of Islamic Politicians Start to Find Their Feet," The Guardian (London), 10 March 2003.
  [9] David L. Phillips, "Turkey's Generals in Retreat," Radikal, 10 April 2004.

2004 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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