By Lewis King
The recent political upheaval across Turkey has generated an unprecedented volume of media coverage that has drawn international attention to the underlying social and ideological differences that divide Turkish society and politics. Many actors emphasise this ideological divide in order to galvanise their bases, thus ensuring that these divisions continue to play an important role in the ongoing unrest. The reality, however, is more nuanced, with less attention being paid to the failures of the AKP in reforming authoritarian institutions and moving towards inclusive democracy. In spite of their reformist rhetoric, the ruling AKP party has co-opted rather than abolished invasive state institutions for their own purposes and done little to protect individual autonomy, especially during the last half decade of their rule.
Arguably one of the most divisive debates is over the relationship of the state to Islam and religion in general. While secularists accuse the AKP of attempting to impose Sharia and drawing the country into regional sectarian conflicts, Erdogan and his cadre insist that they are simply aligning the legal system with Turkey’s true Islamic beliefs and norms. Founded on secular principles and the abolition of the Islamic caliphate, a common assumption has been that the Turkish state is antithetical to Islam, but the realities are not so clear cut. In fact, rather than attempting to drive Islam from the public sphere, the state subsumed Islam as an institution and used it to further its own agenda by promoting an inherently Turkish version that emphasised nationalism and service. One could go so far as to say that Ataturk and successive Turkish statesmen attempted to reform Islam after years of corruption and stagnation under the Caliphate. Whatever their motives, the result was the establishment of the Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) and an intrusive top-down state influence over how individual Turks practiced their religious affairs.
It would logically follow that any political actor attempting to remove the influence of Kemalism from Turkish Islam would remove the restrictive apparatus and return autonomy to religion, but the opposite has been the case. Under the AKP, the Diyanet had ballooned into an even more pervasive and intrusive organisation. Its budget has more than doubled while its personnel count increased by more than 30%. Its current level of funding is almost twice the level received by the ministry of health. In short, the Diyanet exemplifies the way in which the AKP has subsumed coercive institutions put in place by their secular predecessors and used them to increase state penetration into civilian life.
When secularists bemoan the flood of tax dollars being used to build garish new mosques, their complaints have more to do with growing state intrusion into public and religious life than the mosques themselves. If autonomous religious organisations were behind the boom, it is unlikely that the secular response would be as vitriolic. However, what is taking place is a massive state push to promote a very specific brand of Sunni Islam, with no such assistance being offered to Shi’a and other minority practices. Moreover, the growing presence of overtly Muslim participants in protests shows that the secularists are not the only ones uncomfortable with the AKP’s politicisation of Islamic practice in Turkey.
The case of the Diyanet is an example of the underlying dissatisfaction that many Turks have with their national politics. While Erdogan deserves credit for reforms, he must be judged based on his current policies as well as his past successes. While he is quick to point to his role in Turkey’s remarkable economic growth and accuse his detractors of jealousy and sabotage, his rhetoric is accompanied by a dismal human rights record and suppression of dissent, which shows that the country’s democratic aspirations continue to grow while his falter. Modern Turkey is young, educated and ambitious, and the paternalistic and violent criticism of Erdogan juxtaposed against an educated and sophisticated public relations campaign by the protesters shows how disparate their political positions and tactics have grown.
This deadlock cannot last forever and the prospects for its resolution are encouraging for the following reasons. Large scale social mobilisation that aims to affect specific policy changes demonstrates that Turkish citizens are growing increasingly active in grassroots level politics. In a country without primary elections, televised debates and straw polls, party platforms often feature the positions of party elites, but with rising levels of social participation, this is rapidly changing and parties that do not adapt will become redundant. A new generation is being socialised into politics in a profoundly different way than that of their parents. Regardless of whether or not Erdogan is authoritarian, he will be forced to pay the cost of failing to negotiate with opposition parties. Even if he maintains his hold on power, the political process is evolving towards increasing debate, aggregate decision making and empowered society. Under such circumstances, authoritarian leadership is far more vulnerable.
Lewis King is pursuing his graduate studies in International Relations with an emphasis on labour migration, political re-socialization and migration policy. He is also a freelance arts and culture blogger in Istanbul, where he currently lives.