[This article is part of a roundtable on "The Shifting Islamist Sector in Turkey." Read the other contributions to the roundtable here.]
I am reading Utku Balaban and Nihat Celik’s most helpful contributions at a time when massive fires are burning forests across the country and the AKP government is failing in its response. The Turkish Lira is on a free fall in its value, the pandemic is not under control, once almost tangible dreams of EU accession have been replaced by tense relations with Europe, and the country has recently been shaken by the revelations of a mafia boss who explained how the state apparatus is routinely utilized to expropriate property to the benefit of those close to circles of power. The economy, security, education, democracy, as well as foreign relations are in shambles. As the support for the AKP rapidly diminishes in polls, the government is becoming more authoritarian. After twenty years of Islamist rule, Turkey feels close to a failed state. Can this be explained as the failure of Islamism, or something else?
Utku Balaban argues that “Islamists in Turkey successfully purged the strongest secularist political establishment in the Muslim world without dismantling the state apparatus. Islamists now control that apparatus and deploy it, together with the language of democracy, in their own favor.” The first decade of the 2000s definitely corresponded to Balaban’s depiction. However, at the moment ultra-nationalist political actors with close ties to the mafia from the 1990s are back in the state establishment. Patronage and deep corruption seem to have made the state apparatus practically non-functional. The state is not able to respond effectively to any natural calamity, from flood to fire, or deliver many services including basic rule of law. Islamists and nationalists do control sources of power, but they no longer use the language of democracy. And at this point, it is not clear whether what unites the ruling minority is Islamism or their desire for controlling money and power. How can we explain this major change from the first to the second decade of rule by the AKP?
Both Celik and Balaban emphasize the importance of economic relations behind the choices made by the AKP. Balaban argues that Islamism came to power in Turkey through the support of small industrialists. He rightly argues that the AKP rose on the shoulders of small industrialists “who emerged in the 1980s initially in the most industrialized regions of the country and played a pivotal role in export-led industrialization in the decades to come.” Yet as Turkey no longer plays the role it used to play in the 1990s and early 2000s and as the world is shifting to a new age of nationalism, AKP rule no longer benefits the small-scale industrialists. At the moment, the AKP government mainly provides for a very small group of construction companies. Serving the interests of such a small group cannot be maintained through democracy.
Celik emphasizes how humanitarianism is built on the global connections established since the 1980s and the accumulation of wealth from those connections. He argues: “in the last decade Turkish humanitarian NGOs witnessed a rapid growth, in part supported by the growth of conservative capitalist groups and in part due to the preferential treatment that they received in regulatory oversight and tax treatment from the AKP government.” It is important to point out that Turkey is following global trends in humanitarian aid, which are moving away from being neutral and based on international human rights and towards far more purpose-driven, interest-based relations. It is again important to point out that even though Turkey has received a large number of migrants, it is also a country where migrants are forced to live in deeply unfavorable conditions. Turkey does not follow the standards of the 1957 Refugee Convention or the 1967 protocols and does not afford migrants any rights. Furthermore, humanitarian efforts and even the goal of projecting soft power globally are inevitably hampered by the failure of the Turkish economy.
Treating the current state of Turkish politics and the economy as a result of policies initiated by the AKP, which might end if the party leaves office, may be a mistake. The early economic success of the AKP might have benefitted industrialists but was detrimental to workers and farmers. These policies were made possible by the structural changes put in place following the 1980 military coup. It is again the same military coup that changed the constitution and built the foundations that made the contemporary turn towards authoritarianism possible. The language of Islam was effective in mobilizing votes and establishing social and political control. But it proved to be easily replaceable with ultra-nationalism when necessary. It might be useful to approach the dominant ideology in Turkey as a combination of Islamism and ultra-nationalism for which the groundwork was laid by the 1980 military coup. While this roundtable is engaged with shifts in the Islamist sector in Turkey, what has proven most durable and also most dangerous is perhaps even more important: the toxic brew that for decades has intertwined Islamism with ultra-nationalism. This combination has been astonishingly successful in enabling an increasingly smaller group of elites to accumulate exponentially larger amounts of wealth at the expense of the people who voted for them.