Ramazan Kılınç is associate professor of political science and director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author of Alien Citizens: State and Religious Minorities in Turkey and France (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and a co-author of Generating Generosity in Catholicism and Islam: Beliefs, Institutions and Public Goods Provision (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
When the Arab uprisings started in 2011, a question that many asked was if Turkish democracy could be a model for the Muslim world. Turkey was offering a success model where Islam, secularism, and democracy could coexist. At the time, the AKP defined its ideology as “conservative democracy” that was based on formal democratic processes, conservatism, economic growth, and reconciliation with various stakeholders. Many scholars and pundits noted the AKP’s pluralist outlook, willingness to work with marginalized groups including Kurds, and its enthusiasm to work with international actors, particularly members of the European Union.
In contrast to expectations of many, the AKP took an authoritarian turn and departed from “conservative democracy” in the wake of the Arab uprisings, especially after late 2012. The party gradually turned to a new type of Islamism that was hegemonic, nationalist, and populist.
After June 2013, the AKP firmly set its hegemony over the Turkish political system. It controlled the judiciary by creating special courts with politically-appointed judges and prosecutors. Through state-appointed trustees, it indirectly seized the control of television channels and newspapers that were critical of the government. Due to its access to enormous public and private resources, the elections gradually became less competitive for the opposition parties.
The AKP reversed its relatively more liberal Kurdish policy to an iron-handed one recently. In early 2013, the government initiated a negotiation process with the Kurdish actors, including the terrorist organization Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), to end decades-old armed conflict. However, after the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) passed the electoral threshold and caused the AKP to lose its single party government in the June 2015 elections, Erdogan suspended the negotiations and successfully used the nationalist card to regain the AKP’s single-party government. As a result, the AKP again won a majority in the November 2015 elections; however, the reconciliatory momentum ended and an exclusivist nationalism took the stage.
After the Arab uprisings, the possibility that the groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood would take over the governments in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria led the AKP to polish its Islamist credentials. By reverting back to Islamism, the AKP aimed to become a regional leader in Middle East’s anticipated new political landscape. As the AKP espoused sectarian tones in its foreign policy, it also embraced Islamist ideology in domestic politics with a strong populist flavor. Erdogan presented any domestic opposition to his governments as a plot designed by foreigners, which he conspiratorially called “higher mind.” The pro-AKP newspapers offered narratives to their readers in which the West was presented as a conspirator of chaos in Turkey.
The July 15 coup attempt facilitated the AKP’s transformation toward a more hegemonic, nationalist, and populist Islamism than was already underway. In the days after the coup, the AKP further increased its control over the system. Holding Fethullah Gulen and the soldiers affiliated with his religious movement solely responsible for the coup from the very first moments of the coup attempt, the AKP fired tens of thousands of public employees for being affiliated with the movement, redesigned Turkish bureaucracy, and increased control over media and civil society. Despite its support for the elected government and stance against the coup, the Kurdish HDP was excluded by the AKP in the post-coup period. While the president and prime minister met with all political party leaders and sought their support in the post-coup period, the leader of the HDP was not invited to many of the official meetings. Further, the Gulen movement was accused of collaborating with the PKK, further boosting the nationalist rhetoric. Populism mostly in the form of anti-Westernism also rose as the AKP officials pointed to the United States as being behind the coup. In short, the coup attempt completed the process of Turkish Islamism’s evolution to its new version.