Issandr El-Amrani has a terrific post over at The Arabist on the various labels that people assign to Arab political parties, and he makes the case that there is too much inappropriate conflation between different types. For instance, he says that all non-Islamists in the recent Libyan election were dubbed as liberals, when in fact that group included many parties and that were neither economically liberal or socially liberal. Similarly, secularists and liberals are often used interchangeably, when in fact secularists might be moderate Islamists or decidedly non-liberal conservative felool. He also argues that the term Islamist is overly broad (an argument that most knowledgeable observers have made and would agree with) but dives down even deeper than the Salafi/non-Salafi divide, asserting that in Egypt one can speak of Ikhwani Islamists, Salafi Islamists, and Wasati Islamists. He has a lot more in there, and you should go read the whole thing for yourselves.
It got me thinking about Turkish politics and the labels that outsiders tend to use with regard to Turkish parties. You almost universally see the AKP referred to as Islamist, but this is wrong in many respects. To begin with, the AKP itself rejects the Islamist branding, and looking at virtually every other Islamist party in the world, it is easy to see why. The AKP does not advocate for disbanding the secular state or legislating according to the principles of sharia, and it has not made any overt moves to do so. The AKP governs not as an Islamist party, but as a secular party whose members are personally devout. The fears that many expressed upon the AKP coming to power in 2002 have not come to pass, and even if the party has led the way toward a more visibly pious or conservative Turkish society, nobody can credibly argue that it has done this through legislative government action. Compared to Arab Islamist parties, the AKP is not even in the same ballpark, and should reasonably be characterized as a socially conservative party rather than a religious one. Prime Minister Erdoğan won himself no Islamist fans in Egypt when he traveled there last fall and lectured a Muslim Brotherhood audience about the vital need for a secular state, which is a strange move for the head of a supposed Islamist party to make.
Similarly, the terms secular and liberal have not traditionally coincided in Turkish politics. The current incarnation of the CHP under Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has tried to remake itself as a socially liberal party, but historically the CHP’s fealty was to Kemalism above all else. Atatürk and Inönü were not liberals in the sense we use the term today although they were (to turn a phrase) religiously secular and carried out socially liberal reforms that conformed with their secular vision, and the CHP and other secular parties abetted much illiberal behavior on the part of politicians and the army. Turkey’s military coups were carried out by staunch secularists, but the coups were the very apotheosis of illiberal behavior. The 1982 constitution enshrined military-imposed secularism basically at gunpoint (yes, I know that there was technically a referendum, but that was not exactly what we would call a free and fair election free from coercion), which may have enshrined principles that we associate with liberal governance but was certainly not a liberal document. The nationalist party, the MHP, is also a secular nationalist party that is not a liberal one, and thus the secular-liberal fusion that we are used to in the West does not apply to Turkey quite so neatly.
None of these ideas are new, but they bear repeating. It is considered common knowledge in most of the world, and even within some quarters in Turkey, that the AKP is Islamist, which is what drives much of the talk about applying the “Turkish model” to Arab states where Islamist parties are strong. It is also assumed that any secular parties in government will automatically be less authoritarian and more committed to liberal democracy than the AKP appears to be at times. Both of these assumptions are fallacies, and those of us who work on Turkey might want to take El-Amrani’s words to heart and be a lot more careful about the terms we use and what those terms imply when we discuss Turkish politics.