Away From Secular and Islamic Certitudes, Turkey Moves to Phase of Uncertainty

In all likelihood, we will hear in the days to come the shrill rhetoric of Turkish nationalism and anti-Kurd pronouncements much more than at any time in the recent past.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at an election rally. Photo by Hilmi Hacaloğlu - Voice of America (VOA)

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at an election rally. Photo by Hilmi Hacaloğlu – Voice of America (VOA)

The results of last Sunday’s general elections in Turkey are full of puzzling surprises. That the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to get a majority in the parliament – it won only 258 out of 550 seats – is the least of them.

Though the Islamic party may manage to form a coalition government with support from others, the fate of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s controversial plan to amend the constitution to give himself more powers is now decisively sealed. As such, the verdict of the Turkish people is unmistakably against the manifest authoritarian tendencies of the president. That elements within his traditional support base, such as the various Islamic groups and also a section of the Kurds, played a role in bringing about the current situation is especially significant. Historically, the gradual shift in Turkish politics over the past few decades has been one from secular authoritarianism towards an authoritarianism that instrumentalised Islam as a powerful symbol of mobilisation. What we are seeing now might mark the beginning of a new phase.

In tandem with an economy that is in shambles, Erdoğan’s sinister use of religiosity, his intolerant and often uncouth manner, his open defiance of the rule of law as evidenced by his dismissal of corruption charges against cronies, the cult of personality he built around himself, and the lavish presidential palace he built all precipitated the AKP’s downfall.

While many supporters shifted their loyalties in protest against the government’s negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), many Kurdish supporters of the AKP deserted it in frustration over what they perceived as the ruling party’s lack of sincerity in resolving the ethnic conflict.

Rise of Kurdish factor

The fact that the HDP, the Kurdish party, won 80 seats in the elections is hugely significant. For the first time in Turkish history, the Kurds will have an influential parliamentary presence, as opposed to having independents without the collective strength of a party. Given the long history of repression and marginalisation of the Kurdish minority in Turkey, the presence of 80 members to represent their voices in parliament is a historic feat sure to transform the political dynamics in the country. One of the new MPs from HDP, the 33 year-old Seher Akcinar, a Kurdish native of Erzurum in central eastern Turkey, told The Independent: “This has been a revolution in Erzurum. I’m Kurdish, I wear a headscarf and I am a woman, so I will fight for all of these issues when I get to parliament.”

This statement is reflective of the newfound assertiveness in the beleaguered Kurdish community. That the triumph of the Kurds was made possible because of the unprecedented support they received from erstwhile allies of the AKP, such as the Gülen Movement, and a substantial chunk of civil society groups, leftists and democratic forces, is significant. The core support base of the HDP, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) cadre, constituted only 7% of the national vote, and the rest of the 13% they won came from elsewhere, including AKP’s Kurdish supporters. Among these, the Gulen factor is particularly important.

The Gülen Movement, a non-political religious group founded by the Pennsylvania-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, is a fascinating network of organisations spread across the world. The movement focusses primarily on promoting modern education with a moral Islamic content, and runs some of the finest educational institutions in various countries. The movement is also known for its culture of tolerance and commitment to religious pluralism. Although there were allegations in the past that Gülen was hand in glove with the AKP, relations between the two have worsened over the past two years, with Erdoğan launching a nation-wide purge against the Gülenists. Tens of thousands of people were thrown out of their jobs and a large number of people put behind bars without following the due process of law. Imagine this is happening to the followers of a movement that in all fairness can be described as the most progressive and sophisticated of all Islamic movements in the world right now.

The June 7 election results make any prognosis on the future course of politics in Turkey nearly impossible. In order to gain lost ground, the AKP is likely to foment anti-Kurdish feelings and play the Turkish nationalist card in the days to come. When all is said and done, animosity towards the Kurds in the Turkish polity is still very strong. The large number of seats they have in parliament will definitely intensify this animosity even more.

Lessons for India?

From an Indian perspective, however, this first major setback in 13 years for a seemingly invincible strongman holds lessons for both the supporters and detractors of the highly personalised, ‘presidential’ style of governance that Prime Minister Narendra Modi clearly favours. Modi and Erdoğan, and to a lesser extent the parties they have complete sway over, are similar in many ways, as Amitav Ghosh wrote last year:

“It was only when I arrived in Istanbul that it struck me that Turkey had been through a similar moment eleven years before, in March 2003, when an election had brought in a new Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He too was heir to a long tradition of opposition to his country’s dominant secular-nationalist order; his party had also been closely linked with formerly-banned religious organizations. He had himself been accused of inciting religious hatred and had even served a brief term in prison.

“The margins of victory too were oddly similar: in 2003 Prime Minister Erdoğan came to power with 32.26% of the popular vote and 363 of 550 seats in Parliament. In 2014 the coalition of parties headed by Prime Minister Modi won 336 of 543 parliamentary seats; his own party’s share of the vote was 31%.

“The parallels are striking. In both cases an entrenched secular-nationalist elite had been dislodged by a coalition that explicitly embraced the religion of a demographic majority. Secularism was itself a point of hot dispute in both elections, with the insurgent parties seeking to present the concept as a thinly-veiled means for monopolizing power and discriminating against the majority. But the ideological tussle over secularism and religion was a secondary matter: the winning candidates had both campaigned primarily on issues related to the economy and governance, promising to clean up corruption and create rapid economic growth.”

“The parallels extend even to biographical details. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was raised in straitened circumstances in a poor part of Istanbul; his parents were immigrants from the small town of Rize, on the Black Sea, and he had earned money in his childhood by selling ‘lemonade and pastry on the streets’. Narendra Modi was born in the small town of Vadnagar, in Gujarat, and as a child he had helped his father sell tea at the local railway station. Later, he and his brother had run a tea-stall of their own. Both men have been associated with religious groups since their early youth and both profess a deep personal piety. Both also have claims to physical prowess: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a semi-professional footballer, and Narendra Modi has been known to boast of his 56-inch chest. Both leaders are powerful orators; both exert a charismatic sway over their followers and maintain an unchallenged grip on their party machinery.”

There was, however, one major difference between the secular nationalist elites of the two countries.

While secularism in India was largely understood, and largely practiced, in the benign sense of a paternal accommodation of the diverse faiths in the country, it took a rather fundamentalist form in Kemalist Turkey, resulting in the forcible deracination of the people and the de-sacralization of their beliefs and practices.

Political Islam & Turkish nationalism

This form of government-sponsored and imposed secular puritanism left large segments of Turkish society deeply resentful of the state. This popular resentment paved the way for the emergence of several short-lived Islam-oriented parties such as the National Salvation Party in the 1970s (in which Erdoğan made his political debut), the Virtue Party in the 1990s, the Felicity Party and the AKP in the 2000s.

It is important to note that none of these Islam-oriented political parties was Islamist in the strict sense of the term. They did not advocate the establishment of a Sharia-based political system, but only sought official legitimation for the manifestations and symbols of the faith of everyday believers in the country. As such, it may be erroneous to club Turkish parties like AKP with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite superficial similarities.

However, during the last phase of his three-term premiership, Erdoğan’s  instrumentalisation of Islam as a political tool began assuming alarming proportions. What emboldened him in this pursuit of political Islam – in contrast to the previous phase in which he played democratic politics with a profusion of Islamic symbolism – was the initial successes of political Islam in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In all likelihood, we will hear in the days to come the shrill rhetoric of Turkish nationalism and anti-Kurd pronouncements much more than at any time in the recent past. The AKP’s propaganda will hark back to the perceived glories of the Ottoman Empire, while the secular nationalists will grow more nostalgic about the Kemalist period. The expressions of hatred against the Kurds and other non-Turkish minorities may become stronger. Turkey is entering a phase marked more by uncertainty than by secular or Islamic certitudes.

Shajahan Madampat is a writer based in Abu Dhabi. He can be reached at [email protected]