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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Turkey’s AKP and the Myth of Islamist Moderation

Filed under: Radical Islam, Turkey
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 30, Numbers 3–4

The Adalat ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) or Justice and Development Party has been in power since 2002, and during the Arab Spring protests beginning in December 2010, much of the Arab world looked to Turkey as a role model on how to be both democratic and Muslim.1 Indeed, Turkey’s economy grew under the stewardship of the AKP with youth unemployment decreasing.2 This was especially important for the country given its youthful demographic profile. Working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the AKP embarked on structural economic reforms that saw Turkey’s economy grow at an annual rate of 6.5 percent from 2002 to 2007. Recognizing that without investment there would be no economic growth, Ankara also moved quickly to restore foreign investors’ confidence. Once again, the dividends of these prudent measures were quick to follow. Foreign direct investment (FDI) rose from a paltry $1 billion in 2002 to a more respectable $8.4 billion seven years later.3

Modern Turkey, established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on October 29, 1923, was strongly secularist in orientation with the military serving as the final bulwark of this secularism.4 Not only did the founder of the Turkish Republic abolish the caliphate, he also ensured that the state, as opposed to religious institutions, had a monopoly over education. He also abrogated Islamic law and adopted the Swiss Civil Code instead, albeit with modifications. Perhaps more to the point, the 1924 constitution removed a sentence that identified Turks as Muslims.5 As such, the election of the AKP stirred fears among the politico-military establishment, defenders of Ataturk’s legacy, that the party would attempt to Islamize the society. The AKP managed to assuage those fears by largely pursuing pragmatic policies during its first two terms in office – 2002-2007 and 2007-2011. It thereby avoided overt confrontation with the entrenched secular establishment, comprised of other political parties, the judiciary, and the powerful military.6

Moreover, given Turkey’s fraught civil-military relations since the founding of the republic,7 these tensions seemed to be resolved in favor of the civilian establishment – as it should be in a democracy. It was, however, not only the Arab street that viewed Turkey as a role model but also Western powers. In June 2004, President George W. Bush said of Turkey, “I appreciate very much, the example that your country has set on how to be a Muslim country which embraces democracy, rule of law and freedom.”8 From Washington’s perspective, the moderate Islamists of the AKP, who ostensibly embraced both liberal democracy and a market economy and sought membership of the European Union, had much appeal as the Turkish model could presumably be exported to other Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, President Barack Obama made that a point when he chose Turkey as his first destination to visit; when meeting with former Turkish President Abdullah Gul (also of the AKP) he stressed the importance of the Turkish model both for the United States and the world at large.9 Yet the Turkish model no longer exists, tarnished by a growing fundamentalism and sullied by the authoritarianism of its strongman leader President Erdogan.

So what went wrong?

In retrospect, Erdogan’s AKP were never far from their Islamist origins in Necmettin Erbakan’s National Outlook Movement or in Mili Gorus10 and the Islamist Fazilet Partisi (Virtue Party).11 Their initial pragmatism stemmed more from the strength of the secular establishment and from their avoidance of emulating their Islamist predecessors who were forcibly ejected from the political arena.12  At the same time, the AKP sought to erode secular institutions through appointments of Islamist-leaning bureaucrats.13 The introduction of the hijab in the public space, along with public visits to mosques by political leaders, became the norm in the AKP’s first two terms in office. Hundreds of senior military officers were also imprisoned after April 2007 to ensure that the tutelary capabilities of the men in uniform were neutralized.14 In addition, the Islamization of education grew, and Islamist businessmen with ties to the AKP were brought into the mainstream economy through an elaborate patronage network.15 The more malevolent elements of Islamist rule were also seen in the seizure of Christian churches and the persecution of non-Sunni Muslims.16 All the while, the growing Islamization of Turkey was taking place. In January 2017 Erdogan’s government passed legislation stipulating that security officials could lose their posts if they married a “known adulterer.” The legislation also included a new measure forbidding security officials from drinking alcohol, gambling, or “going to places that would ruin your reputation.”17

The ugly face of Islamist rule was exposed during the AKP’s third term in office (2011-2015) as economic reforms stalled or were reversed. Economic growth plummeted while unemployment spiraled upward. Popular disenchantment grew with AKP rule and the increasingly autocratic (and erratic) style of its prime minister and later president, Erdogan.18 Erdogan and his AKP attempted to deflect attention from the declining public confidence by engaging in an ethnocentric nationalism, which had the effect of alienating Turkey’s 15-25 percent Kurdish population,19 and in a more aggressive foreign policy that scuttled Turkey’s remaining EU-membership aspirations.20 It should be noted that such hyper-nationalism was something the AKP had ostensibly opposed when it was founded in 2001.21 Increasingly, then, the party was prepared to sacrifice its founding principles in order to hold onto political power.

Such deflection, however, did not work and popular discontent with the government further intensified as was seen in May 2013 during the Gezi Park protests. Gezi Park proved to be a harbinger of the future trajectory of Turkey under the AKP. The protests began innocently enough with youthful environmental activists attempting to protest the local municipality’s removal of the trees and lawns in Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul to make way for a new shopping mall.22 But Erdogan and the AKP, far from viewing the protests as an environmental issue directed at a local municipality, overreacted and saw them as the start of an Arab Spring-type uprising against their rule. The ensuing heavy-handed security crackdown turned a local protest into nationwide unrest23  that resulted in at least five deaths with another eight thousand wounded.24 It took the government several weeks to suppress this unrest. In an attempt to prevent information about the repressive measures from leaking, Ankara cracked down on journalists and all independent media outlets.25 This crackdown has mounted since 2013, and by 2018 Amnesty International, noting the number of journalists incarcerated in Turkey, said the country had become a “dungeon” for journalists.26

Undermining free speech and the press along with strong-arm techniques did not endear the AKP to the Turkish public. This eroding support resulted in the AKP losing its majority in the June 2015 parliamentary elections. Yet, far from accepting the results of this poll, the AKP prevented opposition political parties from forming a coalition government, instead calling snap elections in November that year.27 In these elections the AKP managed to increase its share of the vote to 49.5 percent from the 40.8 percent secured in June. This “electoral victory,” however, took place as more independent and opposition media houses were closed down and more journalists were jailed,28 and with Erdogan forging an alliance with the ultranationalists of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The Islamist nationalism29 of the AKP-MHP alliance resulted in Erdogan adopting more aggressive policies against the Kurds and a more aggressive foreign policy toward Syria and the broader region.30 Such policies only served to undermine national security. The suspension of peace talks between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which had taken place between 2013 and 2015, resulted in the PKK once again engaging in a campaign of bombings,31 while Turkey’s incursion into Syria hardly returned dividends as it failed to undermine Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power.32 Indeed the incursion merely highlighted the contradictions of Ankara’s foreign policy. Erdogan has in recent years gotten closer to Moscow, a chief ally of Damascus, while Turkey has grown more distant from its NATO allies, who (initially) shared Ankara’s conviction that Assad needed to be overthrown if Syria were to have a chance at sustainable peace.

The AKP’s ultranationalist stance and invasion of Syria, however, failed to deal with the smoldering discontent at home over the escalating cost of living, the mounting evidence of the ruling party’s corruption,33 and the increasing authoritarian tendencies within Erdogan’s AKP. Yet Ankara seemed oblivious to these concerns and pushed through measures to centralize more power in Erdogan’s hands by moving him from the prime ministerial position to that of an executive president. The AKP did so through a referendum on April 16, 2017, which was preceded by repressive measures against opposition political parties, civil society, and the media.34

The importance of the April 2017 referendum cannot be overstated. The constitutional amendments accompanying the executive presidency for Erdogan also centralized power with him in unprecedented ways. As Ozgun Topak notes, Erdogan now “had the ability to freely act outside the law, thus being exempt from the law and accountability, while having the full power to suspend the law and fundamental rights and freedoms, hence governing the society through a permanent exception.”35 With so much power concentrated in the hands of a single individual, a personality cult soon developed around Erdogan. For instance, Hayrettin Karaman, an Islamic-law professor and close confidant of Erdogan, argued that membership of the Turkish nation was contingent on one’s love for Erdogan.36 Erdogan himself claims to embody the “will of the nation.”37 Thus, while the AKP has maintained its stranglehold over Turkish politics, its leader has maintained his iron grip over the party, sidelining more liberal members, including the charismatic former President Abdullah Gul, from positions of power.38 In the process, “Erdoganism” has come to dominate the public space. According to Ihsan Yilmaz and Galib Bashirov, Erdoganism has four main components: electoral authoritarianism holds sway over the political space, neopatrimonialism characterizes the economic system, populist rhetoric characterizes the political discourse, and the political ideology is rooted in Islamism.39

Following a July 2016 failed coup attempt, the AKP’s democratic pretensions were utterly stripped away as human rights violations, mass incarcerations, and state surveillance became the norm.40 Gulenists, Kurds, and liberals – anyone opposed to the AKP – bore the brunt of the security crackdown. Indeed, 110,000 people were detained.41 Moreover, 130,000 public servants were dismissed,42 including 28,000 teachers. Judges and other civil servants were either dismissed or incarcerated while many of the 160 media outlets not under the AKP’s control were closed down and 213 journalists were arrested.43 It was clear that many of these charges were fabricated. For instance, many of the teachers were imprisoned for ostensibly being members of the Gulen movement, which Ankara accused of being behind the coup, despite evidence that the teachers actually belonged to the left-leaning Egitim-Sen union.44 It is quite evident that Erdogan viewed the coup attempt in a positive light – that is, an opportunity to further monopolize power. He indeed referred to the attempted coup as “a gift from God”;45 he now ruled by emergency decree thereby bypassing the parliament and the political opposition.

Far from creating an Islamist nirvana, Erdogan’s Turkey resembles a Stalinist gulag. Under the circumstances, the prominent Algerian writer Kamel Daoud stated in an open letter to Erdogan: “History will remember your wiles to stay in power, your clandestine coups, your manhunt and rejection of differences, the victims of your tortures and the deaths on your conscience, in all the regions of Turkey.”46

In retrospect, it is clear that despite the hope that Turkey under the AKP could successfully marry Islamism and liberal democracy, the AKP never intended to do so despite its own pretensions. While initially not confronting the secular establishment in light of its own weakness, it quietly went about undermining Turkey’s republican institutions, seeking to centralize ever more power in its own hands and that of its autocratic president. Indeed, Erdogan himself remarked, “Democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”47 It is apparent now that the AKP used the rhetoric of democracy as a tactic to neutralize the military, ostensibly in an effort to restore civil-military relations while also assuaging the secular establishment’s fears of the AKP’s Islamist orientation. Now, having wrested power, all democratic pretensions have been set aside.

The AKP’s move from accommodation to authoritarianism also has implications for the inclusion-moderation hypothesis, which contends that once included in formal democratic processes, radical Islamist parties will become more moderate over time.48 As Wickham put it, “can Islamist opposition leaders and groups be ‘tamed’ by inclusion within the political process? Can the integration of Islamists within formal representative institutions induce them to moderate their goals?”49 The Turkish example undermines this hypothesis. Turkey’s AKP, which has been in power since 2002, has actually radicalized, growing more antidemocratic and more violent over time.

Why, then, did the Islamist AKP not moderate? Bashirov and Lancaster convincingly argue that there are two aspects to moderation, behavioral and ideological, and that both aspects must be present if Islamists are to be tamed.50 Behavioral moderation refers to political parties entering the political space in a strategic effort to secure their ideological goals through nonviolence and compromise. Ideological moderation runs far deeper and involves a genuine change of the political party’s ideological makeup as it embraces “popular sovereignty, political pluralism, and limits on arbitrary state authority.”51 Ideological moderation also entails abandoning or revising radical goals and accepting the peaceful transfer of power from incumbent to political opposition and vice versa.52 In retrospect, then, while the Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP engaged in behavioral moderation for tactical reasons, this did not translate into ideological moderation. In the words of Murat Somer, these Islamists make use of their participation in the system to “conquer the state from within as opposed to democratizing it.”53

* * *


1 Muhammad Muddasir Quamar, “AKP, the Arab Spring and the Unravelling of the Turkey `Model,’” Strategic Analysis 42,  4 (2018): 364.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 366.

4 “History of the Republic of Turkey,” Wikipedia, (accessed January 23, 2019).

5 Istar B. Gozaydin, “The Fethullah Gulen movement and politics in turkey: A chance for democratization or a Trojan horse?” Democratization 16, 6 (2009): 1215.

6 Quamar, “AKP,” 367.

7 Hakki Tas, “A history of Turkey’s AKP-Gulen conflict,” Mediterranean Politics 23, 3 (2018): 395.

8 Quamar, “AKP,” 364-65.

9 Ibid., p. 365.

10 Tas, “History,” 396.

11 Gozaydin, “Fethullah Gulen movement,” 1217.

12 Ihsan Yilmaz and Galib Bashirov, “The AKP after 15 years: Emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly, 2018, 4-5, (accessed January 31, 2019).

13 Quamar, “AKP,” 367.

14 Tas, “History,” 398.

15 Ibid., p. 367.

16 A. J. Caschetta, “Turkey’s Revolution Looks like Iran’s – but in Slow Motion,” Gatestone Institute, October 12, 2018.

17 Burak Bekdil, “Soft Sharia in Turkey,” Gatestone Institute, June 18, 2017, (accessed February 6, 2019).

18 Caschetta, “Turkey’s Revolution,” 368.

19 The reason for the wide range is that Ankara outlaws the capturing of ethnic-affiliation datasets in censuses.

20 Sinan Ulgen, “Get Ready for a More Aggressive Turkey,” Foreign Policy, July 2, 2018, (accessed January 24, 2019).

21 Kumru K. Toktamis and Isabel David, “Democratization Betrayed – Erdogan’s New Turkey,” Mediterranean Quarterly  29, 3 (2018): 2.

22 Cenk Saracoglu and Ozhan Demirkol, “Nationalism and Foreign Policy in Turkey under the AKP Rule: Geography, History and National Identity,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 42, 3 (2015): 317.

23 Toktamis and David, “Democratization,” 2.

24 Nicole Pope, “Turkey: Marching toward One-Man Rule,” Journal of International Affairs 71, 1 (2017): 17-30.

25 Toktamis and David, “Democratization,” 1.

26 “Turkey: For journalists, Turkey has become a dungeon,” Amnesty International, May 3, 2018, (accessed January 28, 2019).

27 Yilmaz and Bashirov, “AKP after 15 years,” 6.

28 Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, “Rising competitive authoritarianism in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly 37, 9 (2016): 1581.

29 Saracoglu and Demirkol, “Nationalism,” 306.

30 Quamar, “AKP,” 370.

31 “Bombing in Southeast Turkey kills mother and infant,” Hurriyet Daily News, August 1, 2018, (accessed January 28, 2019).

32 Tas, “History,” 398.

33 Ibid., 400.

34 Quamar, “AKP,” 371.

35 Ozgun E. Topak, “The Making of a Totalitarian Surveillance Machine: Surveillance in Turkey under AKP Rule,” Surveillance and Society 15, 3-4 (2017): 536.

36 Yilmaz and Bashirov, “AKP after 15 years,” 1.

37 Pope, “Turkey,” 17.

38 “The future of Islamism: Can political Islam make it in the modern world?” The Economist, August 26, 2017.

39 Pope, “Turkey,” 17.

40 Quamar, “AKP,” 373.

41 Tas, “History,” 402.

42 Topak, “Making of a Totalitarian Surveillance Machine,” 536.

43 Ibid.

44 Quoted in Toktamis and David, “Democratization,” 5.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid., 1.

47 Quoted in Caschetta, “Turkey’s Revolution,” 3.

48 Galib Bashirov and Caroline Lancaster, “End of moderation: The radicalization of AKP in Turkey,” Democratization 25, 7 (2018): 1210.

49 Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, “The Path to Moderation: Strategy and Learning in the Formation of Egypt’s Wasat Party,” Comparative Politics 36, 2 (2004): 205.

50 Bashirov and Lancaster, “End of moderation,” 1210.

51 G. M. Tezcur, Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 10.

52 Wickham, “Path to Moderation,” 206.

53 Murat Somer, “Conquering versus democratizing the state: Political Islamists and fourth wave democratization in Turkey and Tunisia,” Democratization 24, 6 (2017): 1024.