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The ’Ankara-ization’ of the Islamo-liberal AKP ?

Wednesday 7 May 2008, by Mustafa Akyol

As often said, nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. The AKP just needs to make sure that it sticks to the right idea.

On May 1, Istanbul was like a city ruled by marshal law. Drones of policemen tried to “protect” Taksim Square from workers and left-wing groups who had been craving to “celebrate” Workers’ Day in this crucial spot, which had become the area of tragic deaths in 1977, in those heydays of Turkish communism and anti-communism. The tensions between the police and demonstrators turned into a street war conducted by tear gas, rubber bullets and pavement stones.

I have never been a fan of the idea of declaring May 1 a national holiday — it is, after all, a day of the political left, not the whole nation. Yet I think workers and others — the socialists, Leninists, Trotskyites, Maoists, etc. — should be able to celebrate it wherever they want. Police should interfere, of course, if they go wild. But pre-emptive interference is not a good idea. It just makes it certain that things will go wild.

Islamic versus nationalist

This is not what I want to talk about today, though. What I have found particularly interesting in this whole May Day war was the rhetoric used by some officials. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, which itself is currently under the threat of our all-powerful state, praised “state authority” in the face of workers. “The state will not accept being challenged,” declared Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin. “No, the state does not allow being challenged.” And two weeks ago, Prime Minister Erdoğan had created a controversy by arguing, “The foot should not mess with the head.” He had sounded as if he were one of the classical Ankara bureaucrats who look down upon the unwashed masses.

I believe Erdoğan must be sorry with what he said. But this whole Taksim affair, along with other signs such as the much-debated decline in AKP’s reformism in the past two years, tell us something. My sense is that a process, which can be called the “Ankara-ization” of the AKP, is at work. The party, which actually represents Turkey’s “periphery,” is coming to the “center” and internalizing some of the latter’s illiberal attitudes. The belief in “state authority” starts to ascend over social and individual liberty.

It might be worthwhile to recall Ibn Khaldun here, the medieval Muslim scholar who is sometimes considered as the forerunner of sociology. One of Khaldun’s famous analyses was about the barbarians of the desert who conquered sophisticated coastal cities. Before their conquest, and right after, these barbarians had a strong zeal and impetus. But once they settled and became masters of the cities whose elites they had overthrown, they started to internalize the established habits. Then, eventually, the former barbarians were conquered by a new set of barbarians, who would repeat the process.

I am in no way likening the AKP to Khaldun’s barbarians. I am just saying that conquering a system often transforms the conquerors. This might be a good thing, a bad thing, or a hybrid. In AKP’s case, it seems to a hybrid, but a one which tends to have more negative effects than positive ones. And what is striking is that the negative sides come from not the customary Islamic identity of the AKP, but its newly emerging “Turkishness,” which implies a more nationalist and illiberal stance on many issues.

Ömer Taşpınar, the co-director of the US-Turkey project at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, had captured this brilliantly in his column in Today’s Zaman early this year. In his piece titled “Nostalgia for the old AK Party,” (Jan. 21, 2008) he noted the following:

The philosophy of the [AK Party] was never Islam pure and simple. The core ideology of the AK Party was the famous Turkish-Islamic synthesis of the 1970s. Since the July 2007 election, however, the balance between Islam and Turkishness is rapidly changing in favor of the latter. In other words, the party is becoming less Islamic but more nationalistic. This is bad news for liberals who support the AK Party for reasons connected to the European Union. I have personally begun to develop a sense of nostalgia for the old AK Party, the one with Islamic proclivities instead of nationalist tendencies.

Of course the “Islamic proclivities” of AKP would be hardly impressive if they were an extension of Milli Görüş — the Islamist line of the Erbakan tradition, that AKP had in fact denounced. They were rather the expressions of a synthesis between Islamic values and liberal politics, which has a history in Turkey dating back to the late Ottoman Empire. In politics, it was Turgut Özal who put this “Islamo-liberal” synthesis in action between 1983-93. And after ten years in the wilderness, the same tradition had come back to life with AKP’s incumbency in 2002.

Stick to the right idea

Therefore those who are asking from AKP to de-Islamize its value system and replace it with the orthodoxy of Ankara are dead wrong. That would make AKP just another dry, boring, and reactionary party. The people who love such parties already go for the CHP or the MHP. Why would they prefer a quasi-illiberal AKP to the fully illiberal ones? Moreover, it is obvious that the real citadel of illiberalism, the state establishment, will never like the AKP folks no matter what they do. It is just an unnecessary effort to try to become a part of their club — as evidenced by the closure case. So, the only way out is to change the definition of the club, and even disband it.

Thus the AKP folks indeed should keep their distance from the Ankara orthodoxy, but make sure that their commitment is toward the Islamo-liberal synthesis, not to Milli Görüş. This means that the party should be more open-minded in issues relating to the rights of Kurds, Alevis, Christians and other cultural minorities. They also need to be bolder in their stance for the freedom of speech, and they should prove that they are in favor of pluralism in the media.

If that turns out to be the case, the party will continue to be Turkey’s best hope. Even if the Constitutional Court decides to close it, it will go on with another name, and with a different team. As often said, nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. And the AKP just needs to make sure that it sticks to the right idea.

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Source : TDN, Saturday, May 3, 2008

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