Journal Essay

Turkish Democracy and Political Islam

David Ghanim

Spring 2009, Volume XVI, Number 1

Dr. Ghanim is assistant professor in Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

In a global trend toward democratization, the Middle East has for many years proved to be the exception. Nevertheless, very recently this region has started to come out of its stubborn resistance to democratic change, resulting in the ascendancy of political Islam. In the dominant authoritarian order, religion tends to provide the Islamist parties a sort of protection from the repression of political regimes. This structural advantage has put the Islamists in a better position to capitalize on the recent changes in the region, giving them the opportunity to emerge as winners in many recent free elections throughout the region. This is hardly surprising, since a heavy legacy of authoritarianism, a lack of democracy, and the oppression of secular political forces would surely make this outcome almost inevitable for any election in this region. Thus, after the 1992 experience in Algeria, where authorities canceled a general election dominated by radical Islamists and precipitated a bloody civil war, several Islamist parties have managed to come to power in the Middle East. This has been the case in Turkey since 2002, Iraq since 2005 and in the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election of 2006. An Islamist party coming to power in democratic elections is a new phenomenon that is likely to be replicated.

While the rise of political Islam creates a new political reality in the Middle East, it clearly shows the degeneration of politics in the region. The plurality of political configurations in most of the 20th century stands in sharp contrast to today’s political polarization. Recent developments in the region have produced two antagonistic poles: authoritarian regimes and the Islamist challenge. The poverty of this political configuration tends to aggravate, rather than alleviate, the sharp political and economic crises in the region. With their emphasis on identity politics, extremism, violence and conflict with the Other, the Islamist parties have proved to be a part of, rather than a solution to, the crisis.

However, the November 2002 election in Turkey put in power the Islamically rooted Justice and Development Party (in Turkish, Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi or AKP) with a landslide electoral victory (34.3 percent of the vote). The party was also able to strengthen its position in the local election in 2004 (42 percent). These victories were taken to an even more remarkable level by getting 47 percent of the vote (that ensured 342 seats in the parliament) in the election of July 2007, where the turnout was as high as 85 percent. Given the heavy Kemalist heritage of secularism in Turkey, the electoral success of the Islamists is astonishing indeed. I will argue that this electoral victory and the success of AKP rule rest on at least two grounds: moderate politics and success in economic reform. Considering the disappointing realities of the political economy of the Middle East, it is precisely these distinctive features of the Turkish experience that the region is lacking. The Turkish experience of Islamists in government could offer a model for the whole region.

Politics of Moderation

While the electoral success of the AKP illustrates the domination of political Islam in the Middle East during the past quarter century, it is actually the story of the success of moderation. The Turkish experience illustrates that only moderation in democratic politics can ensure success. This is an important lesson for a region that is still engulfed in the politics of extremism and violence and suffers from a deficit of moderation.

The Islamists of Turkey were able to develop a more tolerant and pragmatist politics than the Afghani, Arab, Iranian or Pakistani Islamists, who still represent the extremist and violent mainstream of radical Islam. In fact, the success of the Islamists of Turkey was only possible because they distanced themselves from this mainstream. Some perceive this development as un-Islamic; others say the AKP is becoming more secular. However, labels are often misleading. Whether they are called Islamists or liberals is not very significant, if the essence of the democratic process exists. More important is that this distancing from extremism not only ensured success for them as a political party, it also proved to be in the interests of the Turkish people. The Islamists of Turkey did not subscribe to the destructive fallacy that “Islam is the solution,” a slogan that not only failed to prove viable, but also exacerbated the political, economic and intellectual crises in the Middle East. Instead, they advanced the idea that Islamists can respect and engage in the democratic process.

However, the success of the Islamists in Turkey is also a result of a struggle within the Islamist movement between the politics of moderation and pragmatism, on the one hand, and the politics of ideological rhetoric and conservatism, on the other. It also reflects the internal reform from within the Islamist movement that was led by Erdogan and Gül, who succeeded in abandoning the old Islamist movement of Erbakan and establishing a new party to reflect their moderate politics. Graham Fuller contends, “This development is the product of an evolving Turkish Islamist tradition that has grown ever more moderate as it has moved closer to the realities of politics and the requirements of pragmatism.”1

It seems that the success of the Turkish experience manifests itself in the ability to solve two of the most important, yet difficult, challenges facing political Islam in the Middle East. The first challenge is the relationship between Islam and democracy; the second is the relationship with the Other, whether domestic or foreign.

The relationship between Islam and democracy is a controversial issue that has triggered a heated academic debate over the compatibility between the two. It has been argued that the Islamists do not understand democracy except as a vehicle or a one-way road to power. However, the Turkish experience has repeatedly demonstrated the fallacy of the argument. The AKP has shown, while in power, a strong commitment to the democratic process. The election of 2007 illustrated that the party is investing in democracy, that political success for the Islamists only comes through democracy, and that the continuation of its success is strongly linked to the consolidation of the democratic process.

One strong aspect of the relationship between Islam and democracy is the willingness and the ability of the elected Islamic party to deliver on electoral promises. In this regard, the Islamists of Turkey are proving themselves capable and committed to deliving. Their success in this area far outweighs even teh well-established secular political parties in Turkey.The success of the AKP to deliver stands in contrast to the total failure of the other ruling Islamists in the region. The inefficiency and the nondelivery on electoral promises of the elected Islamist parties in Iran, Iraq and Gaza illustrate this fact. These experiences tend to support the widely believed argument that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

Thus, the Turkish experience shows that compatibility between Islam and democracy can only be achieved through the politics of moderation. Moderate politics makes respect for democracy a reality, while this respect for democracy reinforces political moderation. This mutual reinforcement has been beneficial for both the Islamist party and the democratic process in Turkey. Respect for the electorate leads to success in delivering on promises, which was only possible by prioritizing the economy. However, commitment to delivering on electoral promises adds to a more general respect and commitment to the democratic process. Success in election and reelection furnished the Islamists of Turkey with the necessary motives for the inevitable reexamination of the nature and sources of legitimacy that all Islamist movements will eventually face. Considering that legitimacy derives from people rather than God is a huge step in the direction of political moderation and a serious commitment to democracy. The implementation of electoral pledges has resulted in an even deeper conviction that the people are the source of legitimacy.

The second challenge that political Islam is facing is the nature of the relationship with the Other. The politics of extremism sees the Other as an enemy and perceives the relationship with the Other mostly as a conflict. However, the experience of the Islamists of Turkey indicates a rather different orientation. Political moderation and democracy are permitting Turkey to reconcile itself internally. This has a positive impact on the problem of ethnicity, particularly for the Kurds. The recent opening towards the recognition of the Kurds has been a serious departure from the highly exclusive and authoritarian policies toward the Other since the time of Ataturk. This internal reconciliation is concomitant with reconciliation with the outside world, with a positive outcome for constructive integration in globalization and the international community. Baran argues: “In fact, the AKP’s position is often aligned with that of the West, while anti-AKP groups evolved anti-Western positions.”2 These two processes of reconciliation are mutually reinforcing; they are two sides of a process that refl ects moderation, tolerance and democracy. This experience encourages a different avenue for dealing with the Other, whether domestic or foreign.

Mainstream political Islam advances and encourages a relationship of conflict and animosity with the Other. It considers any non-conflict dealing with the Other to be a betrayal of national interests and a capitulation to the pressures of outside forces. Nevertheless, the experience of denying the American army free passage through Turkish territories during the Iraq War unmistakably shows the fallacy of such a contention. This experience demonstrates that democracy is the best way to resist pressures from the outside world and the best way to ensure an independent decision making.

Tolerant and positive engagement with the Other are plainly manifested in the way the elected Islamists of Turkey are dealing with the complex issue of EU membership. More than the secularists in Turkey, the AKP government is pushing very hard for a successful accession to the EU. Reforms that were stipulated by this process were enthusiastically implemented by the Islamically rooted government. The influence of the prospect of EU membership in promoting democracy in Turkey is undeniable. Yet one can still wonder if this is a one-way relationship. One can also argue that a thriving Islamist party that is deeply committed to democratic reforms is successfully using the prospect of EU admission to advance its own reform agenda. While the pressure from Europe helped Turkey to reform, there is also an internal dedication to internal reform and democratization. In other words, when the Islamists of Turkey are thriving and building political success by engaging in the democratic process, one can surely talk about strong self-interest and motivations for the success of these reforms.

The prospect of becoming a member of the European Union is a stimulus for reforming Turkish society. However, this prospect is uncertain, and the negotiations have become a long, complex and controversial process. Regardless of the outcome, it is in the interest of the Turks to recognize and appreciate the merit and strength of the Turkish reforms per se. Success in economic performance, implementation of economic and legal reforms, and democratic consolidation should be considered by the Turks as worthwhile achievements even if a full EU membership may not be realized. While one can have both at the same time, these successes are a better prize than EU membership in itself.

After all, when Ataturk modernized his country and cut Turkey’s links with the Islamic world in favor of an orientation toward Europe, he symbolically changed Turkey from the most advanced country in Asia (before the rise of Japan) to one of the most backward and marginalized countries in Europe. However, Turkey would feel at home in the Middle East, where it serves as a model for a new, moderate and democratic region.

The moderation of the Turkish Isla-mists in power is manifested in a conscious policy of not antagonizing other domestic forces: a well-established bureaucracy and a strong army that also functions as the guardian of secular tradition. This has clearly been demonstrated during the recent crisis involving the violent activities of the PKK, which is using territory in northern Iraq as its base. Despite escalation and pressure from the army, the crisis was defused wisely and peacefully. It was confined to limited military responses, a mild and non-escalating reaction by Middle Eastern standards. It is true that the way the AKP government handled this crisis was motivated by the self-interest, preventing the army from getting an upper hand in Turkish politics. Denying the army an opportunity to interfere in politics is one of the fundamentals of the democratic process. The fact that the government did not exacerbate this crisis is a sure sign that the Islamists in Turkey are adopting the politics of moderation.

The AKP was able to show its moderate tendency and commitment to democracy in another instance too, this one involving the presidency. Despite political escalation, the crisis of the presidential nomination was solved not only peacefully but also democratically. This experience stands in sharp contrast to, for instance, the presidential crisis in Lebanon, where the politics of extremism, violence and narrow sectarianism have won out. The demonstrated ability of the AKP, through a rationally calculated policy, to prevent Turkish society from descending into a major crisis, is a clear sign of political maturity and a strong belief in democracy and nonviolence as solutions to confl ict. This stands in sharp contrast to the radical politics of other Islamist and authoritarian regimes that use any crisis to achieve short-term gains at the expense of their people. Under these policies of confrontation, even trivial incidents can escalate into a major crisis, as has been repeatedly demonstrated by the Islamists of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

Finally, the moderation of Turkey’s Islamists is also manifested in the way they are solving the issue of the past versus the future, one of the dominant topics preoccupying political Islam in the region. Limiting the political vision of the Islamist project to the utopia of the past, when going back to the past is impossible, strengthens the politics of extremism. Centering the historical vision around unachievable objectives is an invitation to radicalism. In contrast, investing in a forward-looking vision that is achievable and logical cannot be conducted except through the politics of moderation. The Turkish case is the fi rst Islamist experience that invests in the future, in contrast to other movements that regard this past as the pinnacle of human development and want to recreate it. It is the first experience that considers the heritage of the past to be no hindrance to a positive engagement with the future. In power, the AKP has proven, so far at any rate, that there is no hidden agenda to Islamize Turkish society. Rather, they are investing in solving concrete socioeconomic and political problems.

Prioritization of the Economy

Dealing with the economy presents a serious challenge. Economic reforms are too complex even for secular parties to implement successfully. The inability to manage the consequences of economic crisis has led secular parties to lose power to the moderate Islamists. Yet, capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the economy to win votes is one thing; to manage the effect of an economic crisis while in power is something else. The success of the AKP with democracy is closely linked to how they perform on the economic front.

Part of the drive for democratization is intended to break the stranglehold on the economy of what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. According to Tepe: “State control over the economy has been declining, and today’s Turkey is more successful at incorporating more of the once-marginalized groups than ever before.”3 The Islamist ruling party is closely linked to the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association, MÜSIAD, a business organization that represents the interests of small and medium-sized businesses in Istanbul and inner Anatolian towns. This organization emerged as a counterbalance to the secular and well-established Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSIAD), which represents the interests of big businesses in Istanbul and the Marmara region.4 Still, as the AKP government is implementing economic reforms and addressing economic issues, the relationship between the ruling party and these two business organizations becomes even more complex.

However, the achievement of the ruling Islamist party is remarkable. It seems that the AKP is managing the economic crisis and economic change much better than its secularist predecessors did. Since the AKP came to power in November 2002, the GDP of Turkey had risen from $181 billion to $410 billion by 2007. This is a remarkable achievement, not only for Turkey but for the whole Middle East. The AKP economic vision is to achieve a per capita income of $10,000 by the year 2014, compared to the present figure of $6,548.5 The labor market is improving so much that, for the first time, Turkish labor migration is slowing down. The annual rate of economic growth now averages 7.3 percent.6 Exports have also soared, reaching a figure of $486 billion in 2006, with a shift away from the traditional textiles. The currency has stabilized, psychologically assisted by the introduction of the New Lira at the start of 2005. Inflation, a chronic problem in the Turkish economy, is finally under control. The once-awesome inflation rate, which often hit triple fi gures in the late 1990s, is now down to around 10 percent7 or even 8.2 percent.8 According to UNCTAD, Turkey was the largest recipient of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 2006, with an inflow of $20 billion.9 This figure represents almost 25 percent of the total inflow of FDI into the whole region. It shows a remarkable confidence in the Turkish economy and the economic policies of the AKP government. This can be contrasted with meager figures of less than $1 billion when the Islamists took power and only $2.2 billion in 2004.10 The government was successful in implementing several pieces of legislation to improve the business environment in Turkey.

These achievements, however, should be weighed against the seriousness of the economic crisis facing Turkey. As such, they are astonishing indeed. Yet they should not blind us to the enormous economic challenges facing the country. Unemployment is still a serious problem, particularly among the youth.11 The country has to create jobs for around 700,000 Turks who enter the labor market every year.12 Corruption is a stubborn challenge with severe repercussions for the whole economy. According to Transparency International, the Corruption Perception Index for Turkey in 2008 is 4.6 (out of ten), fifty-eighth in the world, lagging behind other Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, Cyprus, Israel, UAE, Malta, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan and Greece. Statistics show that Turkey’s rank in this index did not improve much from 1995 to 2007.13

The remarkable re-election of the AKP in 2007 provided evidence that ideology and Islam are less important issues than who is able — in deeds, not words — to offer the change and development to ensure better living standards. For the electorate it does not matter if this comes from the Islamists or the secularists. While the victory of the AKP in 2002 was mainly due to dissatisfaction with earlier governments, the victory in 2007 was different. It was a vote of confidence in the AKP reform policies. It was confi rmation that this government is delivering to its people. This indicates that the economy, rather than ideology or religion, is the more important consideration in political life. The democratic process in Turkey, which involves the Islamists, is no different from processes elsewhere.

This is an important lesson for the Islamists in the region. It is not the Islamist appeal of the past but, rather, the tangible improvement in daily life that matters most. The politics of realism works better than the politics of emotion and rhetoric. The track record of radical Islam in the region is very disappointing indeed. Fiery yet empty rhetoric and conservative religious discourse cannot build an economy or achieve economic reforms. It is rare in the Middle East to witness the ascendancy of economics over politics, and even more rare for it to be achieved by a government with Islamist leanings. The Turkish experience is also proving that a constructive engagement with the world is not only possible but beneficial for the region. The increasing inflow of international capital is in Turkey’s interest.

A Model for the Middle East

Given the increasing complexity of the region’s political developments and the economic and governmental crises, the success of the Islamists in Turkey is positive for the whole region. It helps to reconcile Islam and democracy and transform Islam from a force of violence, extremism, conservatism and opposition into a force of change and development. This could help bridge the gap between authoritarianism and Islamism.

There is disappointment with the Islamists in Iran, the Sudan, Gaza, and Iraq. Discontent with Shiia Islamic rule in Iraq was so great that, only by distancing itself from religious discourse and emphasizing the rule of law and the promise of better government and services, could Dawa — the party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, — emerge triumphant in the January 2009 local election, capturing 25 percent of the votes. The election in Jordan in November 2007, where the Islamists suffered a serious defeat, losing two-thirds of their seats in parliament (from 18 to only six), shows that discontent is widespread. The defeat in Jordan is very significant, considering that the Islamists were the only party that was legal during the long period of suspension of parliamentary life from 1957 to 1989. That they were not outlawed before has increased the expectation that they should have a better opportunity to succeed and thus be in a better position to serve the Jordanian people. Nevertheless, their participation in parliamentary politics did not result in tangible laws or policies that could improve the living conditions of ordinary people. This defeat, however, is a wake-up call for all the Islamists in the region.

This stands in contrast to the emergence of the quite different experience of constructive engagement with society and the outside world in Turkey. Whether the Islamists of the region like it or not, Middle Eastern people will certainly compare the experiences of their own Islamists with those of Turkey. Obviously, such a comparison is not in the interest of the Islamists of the region if they insist on following the same futile politics. No doubt, the experience of Turkey will exert strong pressure on the Islamists to reevaluate their experience and more in a direction of moderation and pragmatism.

The politics of radical Islam are dominated by ideology, theology and identity. They are in bitter conflict with political regimes when they are in opposition, and in conflict with the outside world or even with other Islamist movements and non-Islamist when they are in power. There are many examples to illustrate this politics of confrontation: Hamas and Fatah, Hamas and Israel, Hizbollah and Israel, Shiia political rivalry in Iraq and Iran’s conflict with the international community over its nuclear facilities. In the Sudan, there is the conflict between Islamist rule and the international community over the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged with responsibility for genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur. In the Middle East, there is the accumulated experience of the failure of the Iranian Islamist model as well as the repeated failures in applying this model to other parts of the region: Afghanistan, the Sudan, Iraq under religious Shiia politics and Gaza under Hamas. These failures would tend to augment the appeal of the Turkish model and perhaps make it the only viable option for development in a region that insists on preserving an Islamic identity.

After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of nationalism in the Middle East, the experience of Ataturk in building a nation-state and modern economy also became a model for the rest of the region. Are we witnessing yet another Turkish model, this time moderate Islam, for the region to follow? Abdulla Gül states, “The Turkish experience might serve as a source of inspiration for countries of the region.”14 Graham Fuller continues: “Based on the remarkable realities of its evolution during recent years, Turkey is in fact now becoming a genuine model that finally offers a degree of genuine appeal to the region.”15 An important question arises: If Western liberal experiences are rejected by the region as alien or infidel, does the Middle East perceive the Turkish experience that is linked to Islam and comes from within the region more appealing and inspiring?

Certainly Turkey is different with its longer and more coercive process of secularization, greater experience of democracy, and deeper engagement with the outside world. Nevertheless, the other countries of the region share numerous features: a legacy of secularism, a strong role for the army, authoritarianism, corruption, ethnic strife, and severe economic problems. Turkey’s legacy of secularism also exists in most of the other Middle Eastern countries. After all, Turkey was the model. It is different from Western secularism, which is based on democracy and the separation between religion and politics. The Middle Eastern model, by contrast, is an authoritarian secularism that is based on state domination over the whole of society, including religion. No wonder that this type of secularism has led the region into a deep economic and political crisis. It is true that Turkey has a legacy of secularism that no political force, not even Islamism, dares to refuse or disrespect. Yet, this experience can still offer valuable lessons for the rest of the Middle East.

The region has demonstrated a stubborn resistance to democratic change. This failure to seriously engage in democracy has been described as the “exceptionalism” of the Middle East in a world that is increasingly democratizing.16 This exceptionalism seems to be a counter-historical development that makes little sense in a changing world. Will the Islamists in Turkey remain an exception — a positive one — within this overall negative exceptionalism of the Middle East or will they start a process that will end it? Their success would offer strong evidence in the theoretical debate on the incompatibility of Islam and democracy.


The achievements of the moderate Islamists in Turkey are quite remarkable, particularly given the short time frame. Yet these attainments do not minimize the serious challenges ahead or the weaknesses of this experience.17 It is an ongoing process that is still developing and maturing. However, these accomplishments should be evaluated against the grim political and economic realities in the Middle East. The experience of the Islamists in Turkey offers a new perspective for political Islam and indeed the whole region. Their success in economics and democracy will surely offer a new perspective on the complex and controversial issue of the meaning of modernity, and the compatibility of Islam and democracy. It obviously shows that an Islamist party can go beyond the simple aim of taking power, into political and economic reform and democratization. It is the first time in the Middle East that an Islamist party in power has not only continued to respect the democratic process that led it to power, but acted as an agent of reform and democratization.

Apart from ensuring political success, their investment in the democratic process has enabled the Islamists in Turkey to consolidate their initial politics of moderation. This has ensured pragmatism and rationalism in dealing with the realities of Turkish society. This is quite different from the first Islamist government in 1997, which was successful mainly in antagonizing other forces, leading to its eventual demise. This lesson was not lost on Erdogan. His politics of moderation permitted the Islamists of Turkey to create a new perspective regarding relations with the Other. The AKP government is the only democratically chosen government in the Middle East that is not in conflict with the outside world and benefits from integration in a global and dynamic world. This experience is a clear departure from the extremism and identity politics that dominate Islamist movements in the region. The experience of Turkey is also a serious departure from the depoliticization of the authoritarian ing political rights. It is to be hoped that regimes. A democratic political process this will be the light at the end of the long is finally emerging, in which a Middle dark tunnel of authoritarianism and radical Eastern people, like any other, is exercis-Islam in the Middle East.


1 Graham E. Fuller, “Turkey’s Strategic Model: Myths and Realities,” The Washington Quarterly, 2004, pp 27 (3), 53.

2 Zeyno Baran, “Turkey Divided,” Journal of Democracy, 2008, Vol. 19, No. 1, p. 61.

3 Sultan Tepe, “Turkey’s AKP: A Model ‘Muslim-Democratic’ Party?” Journal of Democracy, 2005, Vol. 16, No.3, pp. 70-71.

4 For further details, see Z. Önis, “The Political Economy of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party,” in Hakan M. Yavuz, ed., The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Party (The University of Utah Press, 2006); and Hakan M. Yavuz, “The Role of the New Bourgeoisies in the Transformation of the Turkish Islamic Movement,” in Yavuz, ed., The Emergence of a New Turkey.

5 Newsweek, December 24, 2007.

6 The Economist, July 19, 2007.

7 The Middle East, December 2007.

8 Newsweek, December 24, 2007.

9 UNCTAD, World Investment Report 2007, Geneva.

10 The Middle East, December 2007.

11 E. Yildirim, “Labor Pains or Achilles’ Heel: The Justice and Development Party and Labor in Turkey,” in Yavuz, ed., The Emergence of a New Turkey.

12 The Economist, July 19, 2007.


14 Abdullah Gül, “Turkey’s Role in a Changing Middle East Environment,” Mediterranean Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2004, p. 6.

15 Fuller, “Turkey’s Strategic Model,” p. 51.

16 For details about this see, for instance, the debate in the Journal of Democracy, 2004, Vol. 15, No.4; and 2003, Vol.13, No. 3.

17 For a discussion of these weaknesses, see, for instance, Tepe, “Turkey’s AKP.”