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Turkey: Battle of the Islamists - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat – “We were successful because we presented the best ideas for the Turkish economy, not because we are an Islamist party. We do not describe ourselves as an Islamist party. The Justice and Development Party [AKP] has never conceived the Islamization of Turkey,” said Adiba Susan, a member of the AKP in Turkish parliament. Behind her hangs the picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on the wall of her office and on the opposite side are pictures of the Turkish Prime Minister and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Susan, who is one of many female members of the AKP who do not wear the hijab continued to talk as she fixed her neat short hair saying, “By virtue of the fact that my office is a governmental one, I must hang up a picture of Ataturk but even if I was not subjected to this rule, I would have hung his picture up because I have much so respect for him and for what he has done for Turkey.”

After the AKP with its Islamist roots took over government, parliament and presidency in Turkey, the secularists were clearly angry. They sought to understand why the AKP had managed to achieve 46% of the votes. Committees were held at the headquarters of the Republican People’s Party, which was set up by Ataturk, to discuss the outcome of the elections and prepare for the local elections to be held in a year and a half’s time. Some demanded that party leader Deniz Baykal resign. The then-Democratic Party leader Mehmet Agar resigned so that the party would search for a new leader and a new strategy. Although all this anger was explicit, there was one political faction that hid its anger and hurt. This faction represents Turkish Islamists who emerged from Necmettin Erbakan, at whose hands the experience of political Islam in Turkey was born approximately 30 years ago through the National Salvation Party, the Welfare Party, the Virtue Party, and the Felicity Party. Erbakan and other Turkish Islamists, who are now rallying round the Virtue and Felicity Parties, feel deceived. They feel that the AKP’s experience has “stolen” and “distorted” their experience. Consequently, the fiercest criticisms against Erdogan were leveled by the Islamist parties rather than secular parties in Turkey. These Islamist parties believe that the AKP has somewhat succeeded in distancing itself from the experiences of the other Islamist parties in Turkey and depicts itself as a “new experience with a new moderate spirit”.

Oya Akgonenc, one of the prominent leaders of the Islamic Felicity Party that was set up after the dismantling of the Islamic Virtue Party, said in this respect, “In some way, the AKP could do with a lot of propaganda as it has separated itself from the Virtue Party’s experience and focuses on being a new party, a new experience and new ideas. It continued to frequently state that it is a new and different party in the media and in its political discourse and this attracted many Turks,” continues Akgonenc. “When they say that they are politically different, they are correct because they abandoned the ideology that made the Virtue Party a significant one and its presence necessary. They have become an ordinary popular political party like many political parties in the world. They followed popular policies in order to obtain people’s votes but, in reality, there is nothing new in what they are presenting. They were supported by a large propaganda machine where they used all possible means to influence the Turks. For example, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was depicted in their propaganda as being able to work miracles. In fact, I know Erdogan who belongs to the Virtue Party. He is an ordinary person who is famous for his love for playing football. He was educated in a religious school, advanced gradually in the Virtue Party and was elected mayor of Istanbul. The whole party stood behind him and helped him to succeed and make progress, but he reached the point where he thought that he and the party were one.”

“When he sensed opposition from within the leaderships in the party, he began to show hostility towards the leaders of the Virtue Party and began to portray it as a rivalry between the party’s new generation and the conservatives. Yet the conditions were favorable to promote this image. In the 1990s, Tony Blair in Britain and Bill Clinton in America were elected and were both young. Erdogan has benefited from this atmosphere and decided to secede from the Virtue Party and set up a new party. At that time, the way it was depicted was that Erdogan, who is “more moderate”, has left the Virtue Party, which is “more conservative”. But of course, that is not the case. The truth is that the Virtue and Felicity parties are representing the middle class and the poor. They take the policies that can help ordinary Turks with respect to education, for instance, economic policies and fighting corruption, while the AKP is the party of the businessmen and the rich, who benefited most from its policies and some of its members are involved in corruption. In fact, Erdogan’s achievement is not a victory for Islamists. Although their slogans contain something that is Islamic, they are practically acting with the United States, serving the rich and giving crumbs to the poor.” However, Akgonenc does not deny that the Felicity Party, which used an electoral agenda that focused on attacking the International Monetary Fund [IMF] and warned of the impact of its policies on the Turkish middle class, was too complicated to be understood by the average Turk.

Other Turkish Islamists warned that describing the AKP in many local and international media as an “Islamist party” has helped the party significantly although the party itself is keen on stripping its “Islamist” trait. “To many Turks, the AKP is not perceived as an Islamist party. It is pro-US and Europe and is liberal in its economic policies. Many of the party’s founders came from Islamist roots; therefore, they easily succeeded in communicating with the Turks. Throughout five years in power, the Party’s policies, ideology, its main covenants and activities have focused on good relations with Europe, the United States and Israel. Consequently, the AKP itself or political analysts, monitoring its course, would never accept branding it “Islamist” according to political affairs deputy chairman Numan Kurtulmus from the Virtue Party. Kurtulmus pointed out that the reason behind the electoral victories achieved by the AKP is due to that fact that in light of an unprecedented political polarization, Turkey has transformed into what resembles a football pitch. Additionally, the weakness of political parties in Turkey in general, since the military coup in 1980, and the absence of social rules related to them exacerbated the crisis of Turkish politics.

Kurtulmus told Asharq Al-Awsat, “There was an unprecedented political polarization. A team is polarized towards democracy and freedom and another towards maintaining the principles of the secular Turkish Republic. Therefore, throughout the election period, no real debate was conducted over the essential issues concerning the majority of Turkish people such as poverty, urban issues, unemployment, inflation and congestion. Issues regarding foreign policy, which concern Turkey, regarding the Middle East for example, were not discussed. The media along with a number of prominent politicians and economists have succeeded in making the debate on the elections center on the supposed conflict between two parties or wings: One represents modernity and the other represents religious conservatism. It is like a football match and people’s votes in the elections were like choosing to support one team over another, especially after the military had warned in a statement published on the internet (27 April 2007) the AKP regarding the party’s selection of Abdullah Gul for presidency. The internet statement was metaphorically described in Turkey as a post-modern military coup, as it took place using the internet rather than tanks. This warning created a feeling among the majority of the Turks that the military should not interfere in politics.” Although Turkish Islamist trends consider the AKP and Erdogan’s experience a defeat for political Islam in the true sense of the term or a “Western stab” at Turkish political Islam in the wake of Erbakan’s experience in power, Turkish secular parties believe that the AKP is gradually penetrating with its moderate liberal discourse and that it actually conceals an “Islamic agenda” with the goal of Islamizing Turkey.

Merve Petek Gurbuz, foreign relations official at the Republican People’s Party, told Asharq Al Awsat, “There is always a danger. Turkey is the only Islamic state that follows the secular ideology. We have a very strong inheritance of secularism in Turkey. We cannot say that 46% of the Turks who voted for the AKP want a religious state in Turkey. If someone asked them whether they actually wanted to transform Turkey into a religious state, that is, an Islamic system of governance, I do not think that the 46% as a whole would agree. However, we have witnessed some things that may be a cause for concern. For example, Erdogan once stated that democracy is not an end but a means. In fact, we are skeptical of the true nature of the AKP. We have seen some AKP political signs in some villages and cities reading: You can beat your wife, but do not hit her face. This is something that we cannot comprehend in Turkey.” Merve Petek Gurbuz is apprehensive that the AKP conceals its real agenda by demonstrating that its relations with the United States and Israel are strategic.

Jorpuz continued, “Regarding some Islamic changes, Prime Minister Erdogan stated that it is premature to carry them out for the time being. Following 14 years in exile in Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after the Iranian Revolution had achieved victory. Step by step, he changed everything. This is what happened in Iran. We are living in a very dangerous geo-strategic situation. Our neighbors are not Germany and Spain. However, we have a strong state structure in Turkey. If the AKP wanted to change the state, then it would have to gradually demolish the existing system and rebuild something new. My personal opinion is that Erdogan’s relations with the United States and Israel are temporary. These are not like relations between Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Habib Bourguiba (Bourguiba was influenced and inspired by Ataturk’s Turkey). This is something else and I do not think that the AKP’s relations with the United States and Israel will continue for a long time. Throughout long periods of their political lives, Fethullah Gulen (a prominent Turkish religious leader), Abdullah Gul and Erdogan stated that Israel is the representative of Zionism bearing hatred for Muslims and that the United States is the Great Satan and Israel is the small Satan. Therefore, how, within a matter of two or three years have they become political allies?” Islamists such as Akgonenc from the Felicity Party have accused secular opposition in Turkey of contributing to the victory of the AKP by attacking anything that is Islamist.

Jorpuz continued, “There is a small group within the Republican People’s Party, which whenever caught sight of a veiled lady, would be scared and claim that she posed a threat to the state. Shortly before the elections, newspapers reported that a government hospital refused to treat a veiled old woman. She was asked to remove the veil but she refused. People are tired of these acts. This was the reaction.” However, Merve Petek Gurbuz denied that the secularists have acted as “fascists” in confronting everything emanating from the AKP. She said, “We have supported all the reformatory laws in parliament that were adopted by the AKP to meet the standards of joining the European Union, including the expansion of the freedoms of opinion and expression. But sometimes, we have noticed that there exist articles in these new legislations that are irrelevant to the European Union. For example, they wanted to give permission to set aside areas to pray in government institutions, which cannot be done in Turkey. When you do that, these places become the backyard for some religious schools. We have mosques everywhere, so why would we need to allocate areas to pray in government institutions? Do you want to build a backyard for your religious school? If you had not violently opposed the law that incriminated adultery as we had done, the parliament would have passed it. Have you heard about the red line law? Two years ago, they drafted a law preventing people from drinking alcohol in certain areas of Istanbul surrounded by a red line. I am not saying that all people should drink because that is not the issue but you cannot divide people on the basis of their personal choices if we want to apply the meaning of democracy. Although we appealed to the Turkish Constitutional Court which rejected the law, what worries us is that the AKP is proceeding step by step.” Between the two antitheses, namely, the AKP on the one hand and the Republican People’s Party on the other, the other Turkish political parties are suffering from a lack of communication with the people as they are smaller, less affluent and some are suffering from leadership crises. They swing between the leftist and right-wing ideologies.

Obahan Obaoglu, Chairman of the Technological Committee in the Democratic Party said that these small parties were also treated unjustly because of the absence of significant issues from the political arena in the interest of the ideological polarization. He indicated to Asharq Al-Awsat, “The two parties that benefited the most from the current crisis on the identity of the state are the AKP and the Republican People’s Party. They have benefited and triggered political polarization in Turkey. The Turkish people, in fact, can solve the dilemma of being secular and Muslim at the same time.”

This seems to be valid to a large extent as many Turks did not vote because of the religious or secular agenda of this party or that party but rather because they wanted an improvement in their economic conditions. Many Turks in the poor local districts of Ankara told Asharq Al-Awsat that they voted for the party that distributed fuel for heating, food or winter clothes. Hassan, in his fifties, sitting in a cafe with three unemployed people, told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Both my son and wife are working, but what we are getting is not enough. I was working but I was dismissed soon afterwards. I would take any job I could get.” Akgonenc noticed that “During the election campaign, the AKP made use of everything from distributing food to the poor in the underprivileged areas and slums to distributing early winter assistance for the poor. Elections were held in July, which is a hot month in Turkey, yet assistance for the winter months was given early and fuel for heating was distributed free of charge. It is as if the party’s message to the people was ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. In fact, money played a considerable role in these elections and in buying people’s votes.”

Although many Turkish businessmen acknowledged that Erdogan’s economic policies led to a reduction in inflation and unemployment and helped to attract capital and foreign investment, others argue that the AKP’s policies only helped some people and not others. For example, traditional occupations suffered from the fall in growth. Mustafa Ozafar, a goldsmith in the Grand Bazar in Istanbul, said that he personally did not benefit from these policies: “I used to sell one or two kilograms of gold. Today, I usually sell only 200 grams.” One of the causes for concern for many Turks, who are not supporting the AKP government, is the impact of these economic policies in the long run. Merve Petek Gurbuz, from the Republican People’s Party, said that the increasing rates of foreign investments in Turkey are not a sign of improvement in the Turkish economy’s performance but an indication of the high interest rate given by the Turkish state to capital inflows and that this high rate of interest will be the cause of an economic crisis.

Jorpuz told Asharq Al-Awsat, “If you have 100,000 pounds sterling, what is the rate of interest you can obtain in Britain within a year? At most, it is 5%. In Turkey, if you bring the same amount, the rate of interest is 17%. Therefore, those who own capital need not invest in anything. It is just enough to bring these funds, deposit them in a bank and obtain the large rate of interest, to the point that they can purchase this bank through the profits that they have gained. This is the situation in Turkey; therefore, foreign investments come to us. I can understand the position of international investors. If I were one, I would probably do the same but no rational person can call it an economic stability. This economic stability is short-lived. At present, we are not facing difficulties in financial liquidity but these difficulties will appear later.

In Turkey, some joke about the yacht that belongs to the son of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan’s son, who graduated from university a few years ago, is now working on the board of a large company in Turkey and bought a yacht within a short period. Turkish newspapers frequently talked about the yacht and how a young man can possess a yacht in this short period. Because of the uproar caused by the yacht issue, Erdogan commented on the matter saying, “I do not know why there is all this talk about the yacht. It is a very small yacht.” Sinan Tafshan, a Turkish journalist working as a correspondent for the Japanese Nikkei newspaper, laughed as she told Asharq Al Awsat this story, pointing out that one of Turkey’s problems is corruption and even Erdogan’s government has not spared itself of criticism with regard to this sensitive issue. But many Turks believe that Erdogan’s government record is better than others with respect to corruption.

“Erdogan is a pious man who cannot be corrupt. These simple news items are taken by newspapers and exaggerated in the interests of some people,” a Turkish merchant in the Grand Bazar in Istanbul told Asharq Al-Awsat.

In Turkey, there is a fear for the future of democracy where the current Turkish parties are weak in one way or another. The weakest are the liberal, leftist and national parties that were dismantled by the numerous military coups. Merve Petek Gurbuz stated “Until 1946, the Republican People’s Party was the only party in Turkey. In 1946, we had ratified the application of plurality in Turkey but since then, Turkey has experienced three military coups. In each one, the Republican People’s Party was accused of being behind the coup but in reality, it is the Republican People’s Party that paid the price for these military coups. Military coups harmed the Left, socialist democratic parties and the intellectuals. It is a complicated crisis. We, the secularists in the Republican People’s Party, Ataturk’s party, were always accused of being the party of the military and the state. But whenever a military coup took place, we paid the price. For example, in the 1980 coup by Kenan Evren, the Republican People’s Party was the first to be banned. Then the party leader had been sentenced to imprisonment and deprived of practicing politics. If we are the party of the military, why were we banned? I do not believe that we are the military’s party. These military coups have harmed us, the entire Left and the socialist democrats. Unfortunately, because of the reputation of the former Soviet Union towards the people of Anatolia, the Left as a whole was atheist. It is not easy to convince people otherwise. The largest percentage obtained by any Leftist party in Turkey was 30%, thus, the Left was always in coalition governments. Nevertheless, this battle is not over; there are local elections in Turkey in a year and a half’s time and these are followed by the parliamentary elections. There will always be elections. We want to be represented in the government. People are no longer interested in ideologies, as they are only interested today in who can run the country better. We should solve our problems within our party. We have no problem with respect to the policies that we are adopting; rather we have a problem in the method of applying these policies. Therefore, we are yet to succeed. It will take time but that is not a problem. We are not the AKP, which is only six years old; we are the oldest party in Turkey. People may come and go but this party will always be here.”

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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