• Carl Bengtsson

The Rise of Political Islam

The coalition between Erdoğan’s AKP and the nationalist MHP, which took form after the election in spring 2015, may have appeared strange to many people. The collaboration between Islamists and nationalist is, however, by no means anything new, but rather has deep underlying causes – causes which have paved the way for the situation we see today. The final power overtake of the Islamists may at the same time not be seen as a paradigm change, but rather as part of a continuum.

Photo by Haidan on Unsplash

‘National will’ against ‘national destiny’

Since Turkey’s first free election in 1950, political Islam’s struggle for power has been perennial. The introduction of free elections meant per definition that politicians had to fight to win votes. Seemingly, there was for sure no better way of doing that than by appealing to the people’s religious sentiments[1]. Less surprisingly, the first free election ended up with a landslide victory by the Islamist Demokrat Parti (DP), sending an echo of the forces of Islam[2].

The DP was established by Adnan Menderes in 1946 with the goal to provide a party that was softer towards religion, while being more economically liberal than the Kemalists. The Kemalists, seeing their ‘secular’ legacy threatened, stroke back by ousting the Islamist DP government in the military coup of 1960, while Menderes was hanged the year after[3]. Due to its connection to the military and as the founder of the state, the Kemalist party was the state power par excellence[4].

As in the majority of the world’s rudimentary democracies, Turkey’s democratic struggle has first and foremost been a struggle for the ‘right’ democratic order[5]. The country’s democratic struggle may be seen as fight between the ‘national destiny’, represented by the Kemalists, who by all means wants to stick to Atatürk’s legacy, and the ‘national will’, represented by the culturally conservatives, which appeal to religious sentiments[6].

‘Secularism’ through Islamization

In the 1970s, a paradigm change in Turkey’s Kulturkampf occurred, as the movement Aydınlar Ocağı (“Hearts of the Enlightened”) was born. Its goal was to break the hegemony the intellectual left had established on the social, cultural and political debate. The movement consisted of right-wing politicians, who advocated a model for society labelled Türk Islam Sentezi (Turkish-Islamic Synthesis), emphasizing Turkey’s pre-Islamic culture and Islamic civilisation, referring to a 2500 year old Turkish culture and 1000 year old Islamic element. This ideology gained popularity particularly in the Milleyetci Hareket Partisi (National Movement Party, MHP)[7].

Despite its secular traditions, the ideology also gained popularity in the military, and General Kenan Evren, was a devoted adherent. The popularity of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis within the military should, however, be seen in the light of the fact that the military traditionally had perceived communism and socialism the most gifted enemy of the state. Hardcore nationalism combined with a state-friendly version of Islam was therefore considered a perfect counterweight[8]. The ostensibly pathological fear of the Soviets and communism may, however, also be seen in the light of the traditional Turkish-Russo rivalry.

The left-right cleavages in Turkish politics grew extraordinary strong during the Cold War[9], and, in the late 1970s, Turkey was plagued by political violence, as left-wing and right-wing militias fought each other in the streets. The situation came to an end on the 12th of September 1980, as the military staged another coup[10]. As the military aimed to reconstruct society in accordance with the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, the position of political Islam was strengthened[11]. Seemingly, this was a modification of the original socio-political synthesis in the sense that Islam and nationalism got stronger at the expense of Kemalist secularism. As a result, the socialists, communists, and the social democratic left were crushed[12], while Islamists and neo-liberals were able to mobilize. The Islamists could further benefit of the fact that the mixture of Islam and nationalism was considered a tool for national cohesion[13].

The competing ideas within the ideological debate were, however, by no means new. Rather, the political landscape since the very beginning of the 20th century had been characterized by the ideas of Unionists and Islamists. While the Unionists advocated a union of various communities, the Islamists wanted to revive the Empire through Islamisation. Since the Young Turks hailed from the bureaucracy, they considered changes were to be conducted by the state, while their opponents considered changes to be achieved by the society, seeing decentralization, and private initiatives as means to achieve it. The degree of Westernisation had been a perennial subject to discussion and constituted the source of the socio-political debate in Turkey ever since. The key question was how to synthesize European modernity and Ottoman identity[14].

Social and economic change in the 80s

In the election of 1983, Turgut Özal’s Anavatan Partisi (Motherland Party, ANAP) went on to win. The era of Özal was characterized by economic liberalisation, and opening to the outside world. Özal, an admirer of Thatcher and Reagan[15], was a devoted adherent of capitalism and free market, and wanted to integrate Turkey to Western trading institutions. Moreover, Özal could benefit from the fact that he did not differ too much from the man on the street, hailing from a rural town in Anatolia[16]. While Özal was an economic modernizer he was culturally conservative, and may accordingly be considered a successor to the Young Turk ideologist Ziya Gökalp, since he adopted the latter’s perception of combining Western innovations with Islamic values.

It is no exaggeration to say that Özal’s economic policies changed the country’s whole dynamic. If the military intervention in 1980 strengthened the position of political Islam, the economic liberalisations removed the last obstacle to unleash its forces. Due to the inequalities the accession to the world economy created, and in the absence of leftist parties, political Islam could count with the support of not only the politically aware Muslims, but also of the people who felt they were left behind as the forces of capitalism swept the Anatolian hinterland. Seemingly, political Islam also appealed to people who aspired to social justice[17].

Political Islam had, however, not been able to ascend if it were not for the fact that the social and economic changes affected such a big part of the population, many of whom had, in the wake of the implementation of the new world order, sought refuge in the outskirts of the big cities, in their search for a better life. Accordingly, the voting base of the Islamist parties were no longer limited to Anatolia but appeared also in the metropolitan areas[18]. In the elections in mid-90s the Islamist party took over both Istanbul and Ankara[19].

Since the liberalisations paved the way for the Islamic right, led by men such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan[20], the real consequences of the military coup would be felt decades later. Therefore there is no coincidence that 1980 is sometimes named Year Zero in Turkish politics. Nor does Erdoğan differ too much from Turgut Özal, and they, together with Adnan Menderes, are known as the country’s three great Muslim presidents.

Religious fervour in the 90s

The surge of religion was further helped by the fact that Islam was embraced by the MHP, which formed an alliance with the Islamist party, led by the bête noire in Turkish politics, Necmettin Erbakan. This embracing of religion took form as, for instance, the defense of the right to wear headscarves in universities[21].

The bigoted 90s would also see the smashing rise and giddy fall of Tansu Çiller, who, similarly to Özal, had a strong belief in the free market[22]. Çiller would surprise everybody by founding a short-lived government with Erbakan’s Islamist party. Çiller’s move should, however, be seen in the light of the dynamics of Turkish political culture. Apart from being nationalistic, a deep belief in a strong state has traditionally constituted a breeding ground for what may look like odd coalitions to take form. Since these values are widespread in Turkish society, parties which emphasize them can always count on support[23]. Erbakan’s government was however ousted in 1997 in what usually is referred to as the ‘postmodern coup’ as his Islamist inclinations became too much for the Kemalist establishment[24].

In order to catch up with people’s rediscovered religiosity, politicians saw the need to establish relations with select Islamic societies, which Atatürk had banned[25]. There is likely no coincidence that the movement of the preacher Fethullah Gülen, which aims to combine Western technology with Islamic values, gained momentum around this time. The rise of Gülen contributed in that sense to involve the civil society in the realm of politics[26].

The final win of ‘the national will’

With previous Islamists’ failed attempts to gain power in fresh memory, Erdoğan appeared in another guise. In its early years the AKP labelled itself as pro-West and keen to access the country to the EU. Seemingly, this was in remarkable contrast to the anti-Western approach of his predecessors[27]. The EU-accession talks further facilitated the ascend of political Islam in the sense that ‘illiberal’ practices, established by the anti-clerical Kemalist elite, were replaced by ‘liberal’ ones, which Islamists could piggy-back on.

Among the reforms the party conducted were reducing the military’s influence in politics one of the most remarkable. The military with its Kemalist ties had for long time supported Turkish EU-membership, though well aware that it would reduce its power. However, the military thought the economic and political stability a membership would bring would well compensate for loss of political power[28]. Since the Kemalists perceived EU-membership the ultimate proof of “Europeanisation” the military could accept going back to the barracks if it facilitated accession to the EU.

After the end of the Cold War skirmishes arose between Ankara, the EU and the US about the Kurdish question. The fact that Erdoğan’s neo-Ottomanism seemed able to overlap the tensions between Turks and Kurds was yet another reason for the West, keen on maintaining ties with its NATO ally, to hail Erdoğan. The US were not hostile to the AKP, but rather preferred a party with a soft Islamic profile, considering it a counterweight to the radical, anti-Western Islam that had gained momentum in the region. Accordingly, it was of great interest for the US to establish good relations with the AKP to avoid a Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilizations’.

Overlapping identities – Islam as political entity

The nationalist aspect in the Turkish Republic’s original socio-political synthesis is based on its French counterpart, according to which all minorities are expected to adapt to the majority population[29]. Similarly to the religiously conservative Islamists, the Kurds were excluded from said original socio-political synthesis. In the socio-political synthesis established by the AKP the Islamists and Kurds could gather under the umbrella of Islam. Seemingly, Islam served to reduce tensions between Turks and Kurds, as was the case in the Ottoman Empire[30].

Erdoğan’s aim to bind the people around the entity of Islam was in glaring contrast to Atatürk’s doctrine to bind a disparate people around the concept of Turkish nationalism, and a centralized state[31]. Contrary to previous Islamist politicians, who were stuck in the quagmire of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, Erdoğan managed to create a socio-political synthesis solely on Islam by tweaking the socio-political synthesis even more towards a Sunni Muslim approach.

Similar to Özal, Erdoğan could benefit from his humble background as having grown up in Kasımpaşa, a rough working class neighbourhood of Istanbul[32]. AKP differed from previous Islamist parties in the sense that its politics promoted civil society, not the least by putting forward people’s Muslim identity. The landslide of AKP was a watershed moment in the sense that it challenged the traditional dynamic in Turkish politics, where ordinary people traditionally would not have been so involved. The approach of AKP was considered more appealing to the pious population of Anatolia, who never had been included in Atatürk’s reforms, and felt alienated from the culturally westernized elite in the bigger cities in Western Turkey.

During the Ottoman era the Islamist movement enjoyed its last peak during the latter half of Sultan Abdülhamid’s reign. The year after the Young Turk revolution in 1908 the Islamists conducted an attempt to counterrevolution, which failed. Ever since the Unionists and their like-minded successors have by all means tried to suppress Islamic activism[33]. In the 21st century it seems like the Islamists have finally succeeded.


Seemingly, the Turkish republic’s socio-political synthesis has been subject to modification to free the country from what has been considered the most urgent threat of the day. Since the socio-political synthesis established after the creation of the 3rd republic in 1980 highlighted Islam and nationalism to save the Kemalist Republic from perceived Soviet aggression, one can speak about a ‘secularization’ through Islamisation. Erdoğan’s and previous presidents’ attempts to synthesise various ideological currents may be seen as yet another attempt in the eternal struggle to bridge the past with the present, and the ‘national will’ with the ‘national destiny’. Seemingly, there is a continuity to be found all the way from the founding of the Kemalist Republic until today.

Due to its traditional connections within the bureaucracy and the military, the Kemalist establishment has, rather than focusing on political argumentation, put their faith in the military to get rid of undesired forces in the politics. This worked relatively well as long as the undesired forces presented themselves with values that were considered completely out of touch with the Republican ideals, or could enjoy no support from the EU or the US.