January 13, 2015 § 18 Comments
There’s been lots written about the Paris attacks, and I don’t feel the need to add much to the cacophony on the issue of what specifically motivated the attackers, or whether this represents a problem with Islam, or how best to respond. I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts for a few days, and the one thing that I keep returning to in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher is not so much the attacks themselves, but the responses to the attacks, and I find it difficult to conclude anything other than the fact that we have lost.
The use of “we” here is somewhat loaded, and I don’t use it as a means of implying a Samuel Huntington clash of civilizations argument. I don’t think that the West is fated to clash with the “Muslim world” – however one wants to define such an amorphous term – and I also don’t think that vast hordes of Middle Eastern Muslims are seeking to overrun the West or reestablish a caliphate. Different people coming from different cultural environments are going to have different worldviews, and most just want to live their own lives according to their own values. There exists in France a cadre of extremely nasty, retrograde, barbaric, brutal Islamist terrorists, three of whose lives were thankfully extinguished by French security forces last Friday. There are more where those three came from, and the fact that they are Muslim is neither an irrelevant piece of information nor the only relevant piece of information one needs. The situation is bad enough; there’s no need to exaggerate it and extrapolate from Paris that all Muslims are terrorists, that all Muslims are responsible for the acts of some, or that holding intemperate views of Western society, Israel, or Jews automatically makes one a suicide bomber in waiting (although it certainly doesn’t speak well for most people who do hold those intemperate views). There is also no need to pretend that the Islamist views held by these three particular terrorists are simply a coincidence, that they were motivated solely by poverty and cultural alienation, and that their womanizing and weed-smoking pasts mean that their late-in-life religious awakening makes them completely unconnected from any authentic and authoritative version of Islam.
With that out of the way, by “we” I mean non-extremists of all stripes, and we are losing the fight against extremists. I don’t mean this in a military sense, as committed Western states will always be able to kill far more terrorists thugs than terrorists can kill civilians. As I wrote a few of months ago in relation to ISIS, the real fight here is against an ideology rather than against a specific group of people, and until the ideology itself becomes discredited, the symptom of jihadi violence is going to be here to stay. Contra Francis Fukuyama circa 1992, we have not yet arrived at the end of political history and reached some sort of political equilibrium, and until the ideology motivating jihadi extremism is defeated on the battlefield of ideas, we can kill as many al-Qaida leaders as we can find and station as many soldiers in front of synagogues and Jewish schools as we can manage, but it won’t end the problem. Ideas are defeated by more powerful ideas, not by military hardware and firepower.
This may be my own bias at work here given my obvious personal and professional interest, but the largest bellwether to me in illustrating the fact that we are losing is Turkey. You’ll never see me spout the simplistic platitudes about Turkey having one foot in the West and one in the East or using the metaphor of Istanbul being a land bridge between continents to glean some larger lesson, but it is highly relevant that Turkey is a Muslim-majority country that is part of NATO and is looking to join the EU, as these variables make it exposed to Europe and the West in a significant way. If Turkey buys into the extremist rhetoric and outlandish ideas rocketing around the Middle East, then we have little hope of convincing those who have less firsthand experience with the West that we aren’t evil personified.
So what do we see coming from Turkey? For starters, as Steven Cook highlighted yesterday, there’s the unwavering belief that jihadi terrorism is caused by Islamophobia, and thus victims such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have it coming to them due to their actions (never mind the inconvenient fact of Jews murdered in a kosher grocery store just for being Jewish rather than for anything they have allegedly done). This line of argument is spouted not just by uneducated Anatolian farmers, but by the president, prime minister, and foreign minister of Turkey. It is an argument that deeply believes free speech must have limits, and that when those limits are violated, the responsibility for any ensuing terrorism or violence primarily lies at the feet of those whose speech went too far. If you want a sense of the zeitgeist in Turkey with regard to this issue, Ibrahim Kalın – President Erdoğan’s top foreign policy advisor – has a column in this morning’s Daily Sabah that lays out the argument dominating the thinking of Turkey’s government and pro-government elites, in which he explicitly makes the case that Islamophobia is as large a problem as al-Qaida terrorism, and that stopping and condemning hate speech against Muslims is as important to preventing future attacks as is taking counter-terror measures. I do not mean to imply that Islamophobia isn’t real, or that it’s not a genuine problem, but when your initial reaction to a terrorist attack is, “that’s what happens when you let free speech get out of control,” I’d suggest that you are well outside the proper and appropriate Western consensus. I have a personal mantra that I am sure I have used on this blog and that my coworkers make fun of me for spouting ad nauseum, which is that the response to objectionable speech should always be more speech. It should certainly not be terrorist violence. I am a free speech absolutist and I do not believe that speech should ever be censored; if someone says something you don’t like, then use your right to free speech to argue with them and make sure that your speech, rather than theirs, wins in the marketplace of ideas. If you are not willing to unreservedly condemn terrorism against Charlie Hebdo, Jyllands-Posten, Theo van Gogh, and others because you are offended by what these publications and people had to say, then you’re doing it wrong. But the fact is that large swathes of people, not just in Turkey but also in countries ranging from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, disagree with me, and that means that we are losing.
Then there is the related idea that Islamophobes are the ones who actually carry out terrorist attacks and purposely frame Muslims in order to discredit Islam in the West. Just read this column from Ibrahim Karagül in Yeni Şafak – one of Turkey’s most prominent Islamist newspapers – in which he says that the attack was a false flag operation designed to discredit Muslims, that the global war on terrorism was concocted by the U.S. and Europe as a way to shape the 21st century, and that terrorist attacks in the vein of the Charlie Hebdo massacre share the characteristic of being linked to intelligence agencies. To quote from this vile abomination of a column directly: “In this context, an extremely strategic target was chosen in the latest attack. The perfect excuse has been handed to the rising racist tide by killing a magazine team with a previous record. No better target could have been chosen to spur the European public to action. No other place could be found to nourish hostility against Islam and spur the masses to action. No better example could be provided to depict the link between Islam and violence.” On second thought, don’t read the column, as Yeni Şafak doesn’t deserve any more clicks that it already gets.
Keep in mind that this is not coming from the fringe, but from one of Erdoğan’s favorite papers and a reliable government mouthpiece. While the esteemed Mr. Karagül never fingers the true Paris culprit or culprits by name, you can imagine whom he believes is responsible. Just in case your imagination has limits, we can thankfully turn to the always reliable AKP mayor of Ankara, “Mad” Melih Gökçek, who is happy to let us know that the Mossad carried out the attacks in Paris in retaliation for France’s recognition of Palestine, and that it is all part of an effort to stir up Islamophobia by framing Muslims for the attacks. That this attitude is widespread within the AKP should not be surprising, as the tone was set from the top in 2009 when Erdoğan insisted that Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir could not be responsible for genocide in Darfur because “it is not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide,” and therefore ipso facto it cannot have occurred. The same logic applies here, and thus it requires a search for the real killers, ignoring any shred of evidence that maybe, just maybe, the terrorist attacks in France were indeed carried out by Islamist jihadis inspired by ideas promulgated by groups like al-Qaida and ISIS.
I could go on, but hopefully by now you get the point. A NATO-member country, with massive commercial and defense links to the U.S. and Europe, whose leaders speak English and many of whom have been educated in the U.S. and Europe, should know better. It should know that terrorism against civilians must be condemned full-stop, that drawing offensive cartoons does not mean that you deserve to be killed, that the Mossad did not just engage in a deadly false flag operation, and that no government is killing its own people in order to gin up anti-Muslim sentiment and create a pretext for persecuting its own Muslim population. When it doesn’t seem to know these things, it means we have lost the battle of ideas, and the extremists are winning. Not insignificant numbers of educated and sophisticated people in the Middle East genuinely believe that what happened in Paris is part of a larger conspiracy to frame Muslims for violent acts, that the U.S. created ISIS as an excuse to launch new military operations in Iraq and Syria, that 9/11 was a false flag operation designed to further a clash between the West and Islam, and on and on. The debate over whether the appropriate approach to combating jihadi terrorism is a military one or a law enforcement one is the wrong debate, because it misses the point. Neither approach is going to do the job, because this is a war of ideas, and so killing or prosecuting terrorists will only get you so far. People need to be convinced that extremism is both futile and the wrong way of seeing the world, and I don’t know how best to wage that battle, but I am pretty confident it is the one that needs to be waged.
One of the widespread techniques used when teaching international relations to undergraduates is to look at the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and apply different schools of international relations theory toward explaining this earth-shattering event. If you are a realist, you point to the fact that U.S. military spending and economic superiority were too much for the Soviets to overcome, and they were brought down by overwhelming American hard power that can be measured. If you are a constructivist, you look at the battle of ideas and trace the way in which Communism became so discredited in the face of Western liberal democracy and capitalism that the entire Communist edifice collapsed as it lost its legitimacy. I have always been more drawn to the latter explanation for a number of reasons, but most of all because it wasn’t just the Soviet Union that disappeared overnight, but Communism itself. Yes, small pockets of it remain (and no, China is not Communist today in any meaningful way), but for a political and economic system that controlled nearly half the world to just disappear is remarkable, and it wouldn’t have happened had the only blow been the fall of its largest state patron.
The same thing needs to happen when it comes to the philosophy of extremism motivating the type of jihadi terror as we saw in Paris last week. There is no way to prevent these types of attacks from a logistical perspective; Paris was not an intelligence failure, and while the French police can deploy thousands of soldiers and police to protect nearly every potential Jewish target in France, there is not enough manpower to sustain that permanently. Even if there was, it wouldn’t be a failsafe solution. Until attitudes change in a major way, until jihadi extremism is discredited, until more extremists believe that there is a better way, and until the ideas animating jihadi extremist terror are demonstrated to have failed abjectly and completely, we will continue to lose. Pretty depressing way to start the new year, huh?
October 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
I wrote the following piece for Foreign Affairs, arguing that the true threat to Turkey from ISIS is not a military one, but is rather the spillover effects that are going to impact Turkish domestic stability as a result of ISIS’ rise.
To listen to officials from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and read Turkey’s pro-government press is to dive into a happy place in which Turkey has never been better. It is a democratic beacon shining its light on the rest of the Middle East, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is leading the charge to consolidate Turkish democracy and create a new regional order, the Turkish economy is humming along despite villainous credit rating agencies’ efforts to destroy it, and Turks of all stripes are united behind their government’s various initiatives. The official view from Ankara is sunny indeed — yet the clouds massing on the country’s border presage a hurricane.
AKP rule has brought a measure of stability previously unknown to Turkey. Here, a growing economy and concerted efforts to address Kurdish grievances have contributed. On a more disturbing note, so have the gradual reining in of the free press and open dissent. For better or worse, the country has become safely predictable and the AKP has been able to govern without seriously being challenged. Even those not in the AKP camp acknowledge that today’s Turkey seems eons removed from the days of terrorism and assassinations in the streets, military coups, and runaway inflation.
But the chaos on Turkey’s border with Syria threatens to upend all of this. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has threatened Turkey’s internal balance in a number of ways. But the danger does not come from ISIS itself. Although the group has proved its military bona fides during its rampage through Iraq and Syria, it does not present a serious territorial challenge to Turkey, which has a large NATO-backed army, a modern air force, and the resources to hit back at ISIS should it choose. Rather, it is the follow-on effects of ISIS’ march through the region that may herald a return to the bad old days.
To read the rest, including my analysis of Turkey’s economic problems, burgeoning issues with the Kurds, and the rise of nationalism, please head over here to Foreign Affairs.
September 23, 2014 § 1 Comment
Now that U.S.-led airstrikes – or according to the UAE’s press release, UAE-led airstrikes – have begun against ISIS positions in Syria, it seems we have an actual coalition to size up. Participating in one way or another were the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, with Qatar the only one of the six to not actually drop bombs or shoot cruise missiles. One of these things is obviously not like the others, and that is Qatar. Aside from the fact that Qatar’s participation is going to remain limited to logistics and support, Qatar’s inclusion in this group is striking given that the four other Arab states represent one distinct camp in the Middle East, while Qatar represents another. There has been lots of talk the past few years about a Middle Eastern cold war taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but there is a separate battle taking place between what I’ll call status quo Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. and revisionist Sunni states Qatar and Turkey. The latter are trying to upend the current regional order, and have thus spent lots of capital – both actual and rhetorical – supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups and other actors opposed to the current regional configuration. It is interesting to see Qatar openly participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, and it is likely a response to the charges that Qatar is tied to terrorism and has been funding shady jihadi and Islamist rebels. Qatar wants to demonstrate that it is not aiding ISIS, and this is the best way of going about that.
Far more intriguing is who is not part of this coalition, and that would be the other member of the Sunni revisionist camp. Along with Jordan, Turkey is the country most threatened by ISIS given its long border with Syria and the growing number of Turks being recruited as ISIS fighters. Turkey’s hostages have just been released by ISIS, so the biggest reason for Turkey’s hesitation has been removed, and yet Turkey is adamantly not joining the coalition. Aaron Stein has a good rundown today of what Turkey is doing behind the scenes to help out, but there are still reasons why Turkey is not going to publicly join the fight. The big one is that Turkey isn’t actually for a particular outcome; it only knows what it doesn’t want. It does not want Bashar al-Assad to benefit from any moves taken to degrade ISIS, but it also does not want ISIS to permanently control territory in Syria, but it also does not want the Kurds to benefit from ISIS being rolled back. Where Turkey runs into trouble is that not one of these outcomes can be realized in its entirety without limiting the success of the other outcomes. Eliminating ISIS will benefit Assad and the Kurds, while removing Assad creates a vacuum that will be filled by ISIS and/or the Kurds, and limiting any gains by the Kurds necessarily means that ISIS is maintaining its strength in northern Syria. Turkey wants a combination of goals that cannot be filled simultaneously, and yet it does not want to or cannot choose between which ones should be shunted aside.
The irony here is that by not throwing the full force of its weight behind getting rid of ISIS, it is risking a bigger domestic problem with Turkey’s Kurds, some of whom are crossing the border to fight with Kurdish forces against ISIS. Turkish Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even empowering the group with its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy, and thus the more half-hearted the Turkish government behaves with regard to getting rid of ISIS, the harder any Kurdish peace process and any effort to fully integrate Kurds into Turkey will become. In trying to appease ISIS by not taking a public role in the fight against the group – and thereby attempting to head off any jihadi terrorism inside of Turkey’s borders – Turkey is going to reignite an entirely different type of domestic problem. It is also foolhardy to believe that ISIS is a fire that won’t burn Turkey if the country steps away from the issue. At some point, ISIS violence is bound to come to Turkey whether Ankara participates as a full in open partner in the fight against the group or not, and when that happens, the vendetta against Assad and the worries about Kurdish nationalism are going to seem myopic.
The other regional player absent – although this is altogether unsurprising – is Iran. John Kerry and others have expressed hopes that the U.S. and Iran can cooperate together against ISIS given that the group presents a common threat. While I don’t rule out an eventual U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement (although I am skeptical), there is never going to be open Iranian cooperation with the U.S. on any shared goal such as the fight against ISIS, despite the optimism running rampant today following Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive in New York. Iran is an ideological state, meaning that it references explicitly ideological claims or a programmatic mission in justifying political action and allows those claims or mission to constrain its range of actions. Ideological states behave very differently from non-ideological states because ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, and so fealty to the state ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. To the extent that the ideology is institutionalized, its protection becomes vital, as a blow to the ideology is a blow to the state’s legitimacy among its citizens. The ideology also becomes the most important feature of the regime’s legacy, and no true guardians of the state ideology want to be responsible for its downfall or delegitimization. A large element of the Iranian regime’s ideology is opposition to the U.S.; it is the reason that the regime has harped on this point for decades on end. When you base your legitimacy and appeal in large part on resisting American imperial power, turning on a dime and openly helping the U.S. achieve an active military victory carries far-reaching consequences domestically. It harms your legitimacy and raison d’être, and thus puts your continued rule in peril. Iran wants to see ISIS gone as badly as we do, if not more so, and ISIS presents a more proximate threat to Iran than to us. Despite this, Iran cannot be seen as helping the U.S. in any way on this, and simply lining up interests in this case is an analytical mistake as ideological considerations trump all when you are dealing with highly ideological regimes. The same way that the U.S. would never have cooperated with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to defeat a common enemy – despite being able to come to agreement on arms control negotiations – because of an ideological commitment to being anti-Communist, Iran will not cooperate with the U.S. against ISIS. Those naively hoping that ISIS is going to create a bond between the U.S. and Iran are mistaken.
August 14, 2014 § 4 Comments
Now that Prime Minister Erdoğan is set to take over as President Erdoğan, analysts are pivoting to figure out what comes next. While many are speculating about who the next PM will be (I still think it comes down to Ahmet Davutoğlu or Numan Kurtulmuş), Soner Cagaptay has an op-ed in the New York Times looking at a much longer time horizon. He argues that Turkey’s future after Erdoğan will be a liberal one because the AKP’s support has peaked, and while the last great wave to sweep over Turkish politics was a conservative religious one, the next wave will be a liberal one. Thus, Cagaptay predicts that once the younger and more liberal generation turns its grassroots angst into political power, the AKP’s time at the top will be over.
It’s a compelling theory, and certainly one for which I am hopeful, but I’m not entirely convinced just yet. For starters, Cagaptay relies on the fact that the AKP has plateaued in order to argue that it will be replaced, and he cites the fact that 48% of the country voted against Erdoğan on Sunday as a measure of the country’s polarization. I agree that the AKP has almost certainly reached the apex of its support and that the only direction in which its voteshare can go is down, but the relevant question is not whether more people are going to start voting for someone else; it’s whether enough people will start voting for the same someone else. Based on the presidential vote, Turkey is not close to being at that point. The 48% who were opposed to Erdoğan voted for two candidates from three parties, with CHP/MHP candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu receiving 38% and HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş receiving 10%. There is still a 14% gap between Erdoğan and Ihsanoğlu, which is obviously lots of ground to make up. Furthermore, CHP and MHP do not see eye to eye on a number of issues and banded together for this election, but the parties are not going to merge and are going to fragment the opposition vote even further come parliamentary elections in 2015. So while 52%-48% makes it sound like the AKP could be imminently be in trouble, the real story is quite different.
The crux of Cagaptay’s argument though is that the next big trend in Turkish politics will be liberalism as a response to AKP rule, and I partially agree with him on that count. Many Turks are fed up with AKP authoritarianism and demagoguery, and at some point soon the economy is going to crater thanks to Erdoğan’s bizarre ideological obsession with low interest rates, which will cut hard into the AKP’s electoral support. Much as the conservative and religious wave that the AKP rode to victory was a logical response to Turkey’s history of military coups and enforced secularism, a liberal backlash to AKP rule makes sense in a host of ways. The question, however, is whether this liberal wave will be enough to overcome Turkey’s religious and conservative majority. As I wrote with Steven Cook last week, the notion of Muslim-ness is well-entrenched in Turkey and the AKP is the only party poised to capture the gains from this dynamic. While a liberal opposition can tap into discontent on other fronts, I find it difficult to imagine a liberal party easily grappling with the majority of Turks who strongly feel this Muslim identity. While secularism and liberalism do not always go hand in hand – and in fact, they traditionally have not in Turkey – let’s not forget that the CHP in its current incarnation has attempted to meld these two together and has failed miserably.
Let’s set this aside for the moment and assume that a liberal party can manage to appeal to strongly self-identified Turkish Muslims. There is the larger problem of turning this liberal undercurrent that has mobilized for protests into concrete political action. Cagaptay’s conclusion is instructive here:
The liberals do not yet have a charismatic leader or a party to bring them to power, as Mr. Erdogan and the S.P. eventually did for Islamists in the 1990s. The country’s opposition, the Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., is a mix of secularists and die-hard leftists. It needs to undergo a metamorphosis to become a real force. And although the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., has promoted a decidedly liberal message and increased its share of the national vote from 5 to almost 10 percent, it’s still a small party and having violent Kurdish nationalists among its ranks won’t help win broader support.
Turkey’s future liberal movement will have to bring together liberal Kurdish nationalists and liberal secular Turks. Its leader is yet to emerge. But the energy and ideology are there, and he or she will one day step forward to transform Turkish politics the same way Mr. Erdogan revolutionized the country after surfacing from the youth branch of his party.
He will go down in history as the leader who transformed Turkey economically, but the liberals will transform it politically.
There is an enormous gap right now between energy and action. I see it with my Turkish friends, who are primarily young, secular, liberal, and outraged at Erdoğan and the AKP, but do not know how to translate that into political power, or even political change. Some vote for the HDP despite not being Kurdish because they view that as the only appropriate way of expressing their electoral liberalism, but a plurality of Turks are never going to vote for a Kurdish party with a history of too-close ties with the PKK. Most simply express apathy with the entire system. Translating energy into action is the phase where protest movements and nascent political groundswells die. Look at Egypt, where millions of Egyptians went into the streets to oust Hosni Mubarak – and where a vast majority of protestors were not affiliated with or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – and yet could not translate that into political organizing or electoral victory. Think about the dearth of new parties right here in the U.S., where granted the barriers to electoral victory for a new party are enormous due to the first-past-the-post voting system, yet massive discontent with both parties has not turned into a serious third party organizing effort. It is one thing to be outraged, another to spend all of your time recruiting candidates, writing party platforms, organizing voter drives, raising campaign money, building support, amassing a party organization of professionals and volunteers, and on and on.
I think Cagaptay is correct to highlight liberalism as a significant trend, but it’s far too early to assume that this means a liberal future for Turkey. New parties have enormous barriers to entry (not to mention the 10% vote threshold in the Turkish parliament), and the CHP is so feckless that despite being Turkey’s founding party, it has not been the leading vote getter in a parliamentary election since 1977. Many in the party believe that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempt to infuse liberalism into the CHP has been an electoral disaster, and the electoral results do not contradict this view. How a vehicle for the significant subset of liberal Turks functionally emerges I’m not sure, but Cagaptay is a bit too sanguine about its inevitability. He is right that the mood is there, but unfortunately when it comes to politics, the right mood is never enough.
August 9, 2014 § 4 Comments
This post is a co-production with my friend and colleague Steven Cook, and is cross-posted on his blog From the Potomac to the Euphrates.
When Turks go to the polls on August 10 to directly elect their president for the first time in the Turkish Republic’s history, the potential leading vote getter will be a man of impeccable religious credentials. This candidate has a graduate degree from al-Azhar University and previously served as the secretary-general of the Jeddah-based Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Before being appointed to this position that he held for eight years, he was the founding director-general of the OIC-affiliated Research Center for Islamic History, Art, and Culture. While in Saudi Arabia, he proved himself both an adept and savvy leader of the multinational organization in his charge as well as a faithful servant of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its worldview. He has decried the loss of spirituality in Islam and is himself the son of a well-known Islamic scholar. Yet this candidate is not Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; it is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, who is carrying the banner as the joint candidate of the secular Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the rightwing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
For all of its militant secularism and decades of dominating Turkish politics, the secular old guard has lost the battle with the political forces that represent piety and religious conservatism, a fact that they implicitly acknowledge with Ihsanoglu—their white flag of surrender. Despite his formal training as a chemist, Ihsanoglu has devoted a considerable portion of his career to religious study and outreach. Of Ihsanoglu’s 25 books, nine are devoted to Islamic thought and culture. That Turks are being offered a choice between two religious candidates should be the final death knell for the meme that Turkey is a state being pulled apart by a battle between Islam and secularism. The truth is that religion won out a long time ago, and the fundamental divides in Turkish politics and society are organized around different fault lines.
Today in Turkey there is an unmistakable sense of “Muslim-ness.” Conventional accounts of Turkish politics since the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power often use “Islamist” and “Islamism” to describe the party, but these terms have become one-dimensional and suggest parallels to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood without capturing the true nature of Turkey’s ruling party. The Justice and Development Party’s Muslim-ness is less targeted and more diffuse than Islamism, and while it certainly belongs within a broad classification of Islamist groups in the Muslim world, its underlying philosophical concerns and agenda are quite different from those organizations. This is a function of the Turkish experience, in which Muslim-ness involves a style of politics and a social setting in which piety flows through society. Limits on alcohol consumption or women donning the hicab reflect this religious sensibility, but Muslim-ness is broader. Toward this end, Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party have made exploration and expression of one’s Muslim identity not only safe and acceptable, but indeed valorized. Erdogan himself personifies the new Turkish man whose singular quality is being both proudly pious and Turkish. And the new Turkish woman, best represented by the wares of upscale fashion houses like Zühre or its down-market cousin, Armine, is quiet, confident, gorgeous, and covered. What is striking about these developments is how unremarkable they are in a political setting where not long ago, the hicab and public expressions of religiosity were indicators of reactionary backwardness.
Of course, drawing conclusions about the direction of society on the extent to which Turkish women are covering their hair in public is bound to be fraught with misunderstanding as well as bad social science, but taken with a range of other developments, the hicab is an important sociological and anthropological factor in the story of Turkey’s religious evolution, which is not as dramatic as one might assume. Observers of Turkish politics and society have long assumed that because Turkey was an officially “secular” republic, the Turkish people had unquestionably accepted the secularizing reforms of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal . This was likely a function of the fact that scholars of an earlier generation and policymakers wanted to see in Turkey what they wanted to see, rather than a complex society that is extending well beyond the municipal boundaries of either cosmopolitan Istanbul or Turkey’s dreary republican capital, Ankara. It was also the result of dominant non-religious—or even irreligious—elites who were the primary interlocutors with the outside world. This group fervently believes in Kemalism, and when it ruled during the first eight decades of the Turkish Republic’s existence, its members enforced secular politics and secular social mores through a variety of non-democratic political, economic, and cultural mechanisms.
As a result of this ingrained secular commitment on the part the Kemalist elite, Ihsanoğlu’s nomination was not without controversy. When leaders of the Republican People’s Party and Nationalist Movement Party announced their surprise challenger to Erdoğan, prominent commentators immediately declared it a cynical gambit intended to siphon religious voters from the AKP that was bound to fail. That seemed like a fair interpretation. Why else would the CHP choose someone like Ihsanoğlu, who violates core secularist principles and who neither looks nor sounds like traditional CHP standard bearers? Predictably, the nomination caused a firestorm within the CHP especially, whose more militant factions reacted with anger and vows not to vote for Ihsanoglu, dooming him from the start. What was shaping up to be a debacle would not be the CHP’s first misstep of the Erdogan era. There was a 2010 sex tape that felled the party’s longtime leader Deniz Baykal and more recently there was the party’s open support for Bashar al Assad in his blood soaked campaign to save his regime.
Baykal’s peccadilloes and the party’s strange position on Syria are a symptom of CHP fecklessness rather than its cause. Over the last decade the party has struggled to expand its constituency beyond its traditional bastions of support in Izmir, Aydin and other cities along Turkey’s western rim. It is the CHP’s electoral weakness that has made it what seems like the perpetual also-ran of Turkish politics, which is why its leaders and those of MHP turned to Ihsanoglu. Ihsanoglu must have seemed like a low risk-high reward gamble. Since neither the CHP nor the MHP had a chance of winning the election and toppling Erdoğan no matter who they nominated, why not join forces in an effort to expand their narrow constituencies and cut into the AKP’s base by running someone with strong religious credentials? As the thinking goes, if the Ihsanoglu experiment fails, then CHP and MHP will have lost no ground since it will be just the latest failure in a string of them dating back to the rise of the Justice and Development Party in 2002.
Yet the idea that CHP and MHP can dabble in religion for purely instrumental electoral reasons misinterprets where Turkey stands in 2014 on religious issues. The West’s romantic notion of Turkey as a secular country is a myth. According to the 2012 Pew survey of Muslims worldwide, 97% of Turks believe in God, 67% of Turks say that religion is very important in their lives, 44% of Turks attend mosque at least once a week and 42% pray multiple times a day. Religion is ingrained in a way that elides a meaningful religious-secular distinction. This phenomenon is the natural result when the AKP lifted the drab conformity of Kemalism, allowing Turks to express their Muslim identities in new ways without fear of punishment or discrimination. Even among the ardently secular, religion is an important means of cultural and political expression. A young secular Turkish woman recently declared that among her many problems with Erdogan was that he “did not believe in God.” When challenged, she declared that nobody who believes in the God in whom she believes could ever act the way the prime minister does. Religion is baked into the Turkish cultural pie, which is why it was actually a crucial ingredient for Atatürk, who coopted Islam in his effort to forge the Turkish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Justice and Development Party has merely buttressed and extended these social and cultural dispositions with the Islamization of Turkey’s institutions—rules, laws, decrees—that has been underway throughout the AKP era. This is a process in which Islamic legal codes, norms, and principles are either incorporated into existing laws, or supplant them. By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, the Justice and Development Party has created an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized. It is not just restricting sales of alcohol or lifting the ban on headscarves at publicly funded universities, but also less obvious but more lasting measures like laws allowing graduates of preachers schools to enter the bureaucracy or alterations to the way judges are selected an promoted that will further embed Muslim-ness as a defining feature of Turkish society. In this way, society will transform state institutions rather than the other way around.
This is why Ihsanoğlu’s candidacy does not actually represent a radical departure. It is a logical progression of trends that have been in place for years, and is a harbinger of things to come rather than an outlier. The AKP’s success has been built on many factors besides for an appeal to religion, including nationalism, economic growth, and regional political power. Even if a majority of AKP voters—in the last parliamentary elections AKP voters represented a majority of the country—do not vote for AKP primarily because of its religious appeal, they are nevertheless made comfortable by the religious sensibility that the party conveys. The CHP and MHP have finally bowed to the demands of the electorate and through Ihsanoğlu have communicated that they understand this message. The dividing lines in the presidential race have nothing to do with religion, but rather revolve around the role of the state, Turkey’s place in the West, its treatment of minorities, and economic inequalities. Those looking for staunch defenders and guardians of a secular tradition that never really existed to begin with are fated to be eternally disappointed.