Conservative Islam 
From Moderate Islam to Totalitarianism

Reyhan Gulec argues that Erdogan's Turkey is increasingly totalitarian

Protestors in Turkey by Eser Karadağ via Flickr

Protestors in Turkey by Eser Karadağ via Flickr

What started out as a peaceful protest by environmentalists in Gezi Park last summer turned into the largest civil commotion amongst Turkey’s young liberal population the country had ever seen. The protests started on 27 May 2013 with police intervention on a small group of protestors who were against building a shopping mall in Gezi Park. After that, thousands of people gathered to protest – according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the casualty list during the 19 days of protest were substantial: 746 protests in 79 out of 81 provinces, 7836 injured in 13 provinces, 60 seriously injured, 101 head traumas, 11 losses of eyes and 8 deaths.

Although the protests began in response to the tree cuttings in Gezi Park, it is reported by commentators that it was the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan’s, antagonistic anti-protestor discourse – Erdogan labelled them not only as drunkards, looters and terrorists, but also as Atheists and Jews – which turned the protests into one fighting the oppression imposed by the government on the private life of Turkey’s citizens. Certain restrictions were introduced in a short period of time before the protests, such as bans on alcohol consumption, abortion and mixed student housing, and have been associated with the rise of political Islam in Turkey. These religiously-based restrictions have suggested to many that moderate Islam is not compatible with democracy. It is seen that the pressure imposed on Turkish society by the AKP government’s militant-Islamic agenda, finally exploded during the Gezi protests.

The second onslaught against the AKP government came with a series of huge incidents of corruption revealed through recordings of phone-tapped conversations, leaked onto the internet by the “hizmet”, the “service” run by Gulen, a former ally of the government.  Gulen is an Islamic opinion leader and the founder of the Gulen Movement, teaching the Hanafi version of Islam. He is spreading his teachings all over the world through more than 1000 modern private Islamic schools. Beyond these schools it is believed that many Gulenists hold positions in Turkey’s police forces and judiciary besides his sympathisers in the Turkish parliament. Gulen is currently in conflict with the Turkish government as Erdogan attempted to shut down many of his movement’s schools. It is worth pointing out that Turkey, with the constitution of a secular democratic republic state, has a government allied with a conservative Islamic opinion leader.

The Prime Minister was allegedly caught on tape ordering his son to dispose of a billion dollars kept physically at five different houses. After that, he was called to resign by the opposition party and refused to do so. However, the incident led to the resignation of four ministers and the replacement of ten.

As the corruption allegations and the spirit of Gezi have not ceased to bedevil Erdogan, his support among voters was, for the first time after these incidents, put to the test in municipal elections on March 30th 2014. The AKP subsequently announced its victory in most of the Turkey’s cities, despite fraud allegations in certain areas.

A civil rights movement, “Vote and Beyond” which describes itself as compromise between all political parties and deriving from collective spirit of the Gezi protests, succeeded in mobilising more than 25,000 citizens in Istanbul, with 4,000 more in other cities, to take an active role in the election as observers. Even this initiative could not prevent the alleged fraud. The legitimacy of the elections was called into question by the refusal of the Supreme Committee of Elections to repeat them.

What are the factors affecting the AKP’s victory?

When the AKP came to power twelve years ago, they focused on a strategy, which successfully gained them grassroots support in local government. They divided rural areas into smaller units and left them out of the scope of the Public Tender Act. In doing this, they were able to bring in more investment and extend public services into rural areas in order to enlarge their supporter base. Turkey’s rural population have long been “othered” by the minority republican elite, and under the AKP, have started to enjoy various financial benefits and recognition. For this reason, the government has consistently employed a dangerously polarising rhetoric rather than work towards reaching societal peace and reconciliation.

Erdogan’s rhetoric turned into a series of hate speeches alleging that protestors were led by foreign forces as part of a conspiracy to overturn the government. Such antagonistic discourse perfectly accords with the AKP government’s traditional strategy of undermining the grievances of many of Turkey’s citizens in order to protect the loyalty of its grassroots supporters.

Thus, although it is well-known that corruption is one of the most endemic problems in developing countries, and Turkey has its fair share, the most loyal segments of Erdogan’s supporters have not been affected by the recent corruption scandals. First of all, they are composed of the poorly educated part of society and may never achieve financial support without the AKP. One reason underlying the ingrain of corruption as a normal way of life is the non-functionality of bureaucratic processes in the country. People see corruption and bribery as natural way of navigating personal relationships instead of forcing public institutions and authorities to improve the system.

Even though some of the AKP’s grassroots supporters are uncomfortable with political corruption, there exists no alternative right wing party to favour. The opposition party also followed a wrong strategy by attacking the government, falling into the error of treating this election like the general election, instead of convincing the Turkish people that their policies would solve current social and economic issues. As a result, there has been no increase in their electorate support despite all of the corruption allegations against the AKP.

Another factor affecting the success of the AKP is its hegemony in the mainstream media, given that they control all TV channels and newspapers and even web sites, in order to prevent any criticism. As Erdogan’s government has control over all executive, legislative and judicial powers as a single party it has the capacity to easily interfere with both public and private sector and impose sanctions on persons or institutions who do not toe the party line. For instance, one of the media bosses was hit with a tax penalty of 2 billion Turkish liras due to his opposition stance.

Is Turkey in danger of changing from an imperfect democracy into an authoritarian regime with the dominant single party system of AKP?  When the AKP came to power in 2002, it was criticised for their religious-based approach. Such criticisms then turned out to generate moderate Islamic discourse. However, it can be clearly seen that the AKP’s approach started to deviant from the moderate since the party came to power. It is worth mentioning that while religious related discussions were ongoing, there was a crucial point missed by the critics – totalitarianism. Through a merger of all powers into government hands, a single body now controls the media, legislative and judicial authorities, producing an illusion of democracy in the eyes of public.  Secularism is one of the fundamental requirements for democracy and separation of powers and the rule of law are inextricably bound up with it.