The contributors to Secular and Islamic Politics in Turkey: The Making of the Justice and Development Party explore the relationship between religion and politics in Turkey. Instead of merely being an introduction to the political identity of the ruling Islamist party, however, the book makes the case that the AKP has lost its potential to democratize Turkish politics. The internal and external catalysts that could have contributed to the transformation of Turkey’s political system, as well as the developments and constraints that brought the process of reform to a standstill, are subjects of discussion. It is the contributors’ belief that, at present, the AKP is no longer either able or willing to engage in transforming, let alone questioning, the fundamental characteristics of Turkish politics. Instead, it is securing its own power base by preserving the status quo with the army and engaging in increasingly nationalist rhetoric.
How did the AKP come to this point? Before investigating the reasons for the present pessimism, the contributors to this book demonstrate that the AKP in the beginning had the potential to profoundly change the Turkish political system. Erdogan’s party was a breakaway from its predecessors under Erbakan’s leadership, as explained in the chapter by Ahmet Yildiz. The AKP is not, as the Turkish secular establishment believes, an Islamist party that aims to install an Islamic political order. What the party endeavours to do is improve the political, sociocultural and economic opportunities of Muslims through the democratization of the state apparatus. Not only has the AKP sought to reconfigure the political system, it has sought to reconfigure political Islam as well. Menderes Cinar and Burhanettin Duran explore more specifically the different trajectories of Islamism. Comparing Turkey with Egypt and Indonesia, they point out the particularities of Turkish Islamism. Kenan Cayir then attempts to answer the question of how Islamic actors reassess their position regarding fundamental issues and practices, in interaction with modern, democratic and secular values. He argues that the emergence of the AKP and its new discourse is to be understood within the wider context of Islamic revival and transformation of the last 30 years in Turkey. The AKP is not a product of the 1970-’80s period of “collective Islamism,” where “Islam” was repositioned as an action and belief system in opposition to Western capitalism and socialism. It is the outcome of a “self-critical Islamism” that developed from the late 1990s to the present and which criticized the ideology of political Islam as unrealistic and utopian.
The reasons for AKP’s rapid ascent are further to be found in its use of the “opportunity spaces” within the international and European political arena. Their pro-European foreign policy was an instrument that increased the legitimacy of the AKP in the eyes of the Turkish state elite and the international system. The AKP turned the EU accession process into an “amplifier for its political program” (p. 87). This enabled it to transform, to some extent, the Kemalist state structure. The AKP implemented reforms in order to reduce the influence of the military over politics, abolished the death penalty and the State Security Courts, broadened freedom of the press, and established the supremacy of international agreements over internal legislation in the areas of fundamental freedoms. As a consequence of these reforms, EU accession negotiations were opened in October 2005. The AKP presented the process of Europeanization as a way to enhance the influence of Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and the Muslim world over issues of human rights and the promotion of democracy.
It is here, however, that we start to see the impediments to sustained reform. The EU accession process currently seems to be weakening the AKP government’s early transformative dynamism by bringing tension-creating issues onto the Turkish political agenda. The conservative nationalist wing of the AKP has won over the party’s democratic and transformative aspirations. Burhanettin Duran argues that the relations with the United States and the EU accession process can no longer strengthen the AKP’s position and policies, a point that will definitely spark discussion among scholars and international observers. The EU accession process introduced issues into domestic politics that caused sharp debates, and the AKP did not succeed in opposing the criticism from nationalist and secularist circles. Duran thus argues: “The dilemma the JDP faces is that it can only reform the system by solving the deeply rooted political tensions emanating from the undemocratic management of identity claims in Turkey without upsetting the status quo. This dilemma necessitates consensus-building between the JDP, the Republican People’s Party (CHP or RPP) and the secularist establishment, which is not happening” (p. 91). Duran demonstrates this dilemma by looking more closely at the debate over the definition of secularism and over the Kurdish question. The secularist elite considers any demands for changes in the strict interpretation of secularism as a security threat. As to the Kurdish question, while initially its cultural and identity dimensions could be discussed, the AKP has now shifted back to its economic and security dimensions.
In addition to Duran, Ali Resul Usul highlights politically sensitive issues that still form major impediments to Turkey’s acceptance as an EU member, such as the Cyprus problem, the shortcomings of the Copenhagen criteria, the Kurdish issue and the recognition of the religious minority of Alevites. These problems, taken together with a rising Euro-scepticism within Turkey and in Europe in general, and among the AKP’s own conservative circles, are endangering the AKP policy of positioning EU membership at the heart of its agenda.
The obstructions for the AKP put in place by the Kemalist establishment are explained in more depth by Menderes Cinar. The Kemalist establishment has adopted two strategies to deal with the AKP government. First, it has persistently warned the public about the Islamist identity of the AKP; second, it has tried to impose institutional limits on the political sphere. The president of the Republic (Ahmet Necdet Sezer when this book was written), the judiciary and the upper echelons of university administrations carry out their functions with constant reference to protecting secularism. Cinar defines this as “secular populism,” which “communitizes” the state, since it tolerates no ideology within the bureaucracy other than secular Kemalism (p. 113). This ideology curtails the AKP and perceives political debate as a redundant activity that can be harmful to the interests of society. The AKP thus has to prove its loyalty to the secular republic on a daily basis. As a result, constitutionalism is more and more replacing parliamentary sovereignty, since the Constitutional Court is governing by means of verdicts. The politicization of the judiciary obstructs further democratization.
However, the AKP has a flawed understanding of democracy as well. It does not recognize the need for changed relations between state and society and between different groups within society and thus actively reproduces the establishment's fear of a “politicization” of society. Moreover, the leadership of the party has problems with being criticized publicly and uses the language of pluralism only in a very selective way. Finally, just as the secular establishment tries to close off positions within the bureaucracy for devout Muslims, the AKP is promoting them. It reciprocates the same strategy of community-creating and personalizing politics: it does not trust individuals outside of its own community. Cinar concludes: “Turkish society is thereby increasingly divided into two parallel power-oriented sectors that are mutually exclusive of each other in the sense of linking their own survival to the perpetuation of the state as a community and/or the party-in-office as the community rather than to the establishment of the rule of law” (p. 126). He considers it to be most likely that under AKP rule the state will develop towards an “AKP-friendly community” instead of undergoing liberal transformation (p. 126).
Elaborating further on the tense relationship between the AKP and the secularestablishment, Ümit Cizre analyzes the interactions between the AKP and the military. Since the 1990s, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) have redefined their mission ridding public life of Islamic and Kurdish dangers. The fact that the AKP, at the beginning of its term in office, managed to instigate reforms to curtail the political power of the military thus came as a surprise. This was made possible by EU backing and the support of the international community. In light of the events of September 11 and the War on Terror, Turkey (under AKP’s rule) had come to be seen as an important security partner in the region and promised the possibility of a reconciliation between Islam and democracy. However, after the opening of the accession negotiations in October 2005, the TAF increased its voice in politics. General Büyükanit, a hardline opponent of the AKP government promoted to chief of the General Staff, has defended political interference as the military’s “duty.” The political autonomy of the TAF is presented as necessary to protect secularism. The question is, how did the TAF manage to keep its political influence in spite of the reforms that were put into place? Cizre answers this by pointing at new strategies the TAF is using in order to sustain its traditional functions, such as press briefings on political developments in the country and activities intended to increase popular support, by reaching out to sectors of society and the media. As a consequence, the AKP finds itself in a defensive position and is careful to avoid any confrontation with the army. This, together with the failure of the party's discourse on democratization, its engagement in popular nationalism and its following of the military bureaucracy's approach on security matters, has led the AKP to neglect the building up of democratic civil-military relations in order to further democratization.
This book is thus not so much about “the making of the AKP,” as about the party’s promises and pitfalls as an actor in democratization. A weakness of the book is the way the authors use the concept of the “Kemalist establishment.” Only two contributors make an effort to define the term more concretely, and nowhere in the volume is there an exploration of possible divisions and alliances within this “establishment.” This flawed image stands in contrast to the authors’ valuable and nuanced picture of Turkey’s ruling party. Nevertheless, the volume does add significantly to an understanding of how the AKP has become what it is today. The interactive approach of the authors makes it possible to explore how the AKP has developed in relation to other Islamist movements, parts of the establishment, the military and the European Union, and how its project of reform became entangled with longstanding institutional conflicts.