AKP and Turkish Religious Fascism
By Murat Cem Mengüç
They say, “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and waving a cross.” While historically incorrect, I like this quote because it underlines a form of fascism often ignored. It is only true that fascism have not yet arrived in America, if one is willing to ignore its racist industrialism, and one interprets fascism strictly according to its German or Italian variants. This being said, today I can almost use the same quote for Turkey, and say, a new fascism have arrived in Turkey, which is wrapped in a flag and waving a Qur’an.
While fascism in Turkey relied less on religion, a variant is now promoted by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, and it seems to have strike a fine balance between patriotism and piety. At this point, it is no longer necessary to offer evidences of AKP’s authoritarianism. During 2011 and 2012, the government reinvented itself as an inward looking, dialogue free ideological machine. It cracked down on all criticisms and its victims include ethnic and religious minorities, journalists, artists, intellectuals, doctors, patients, children and finally unborn fetuses. Once there was an AKP which resembled a forward looking innovative institution, which paid tribute to human intelligence, science and universal ideals such as freedom and equality. Today, AKP has caved back to its roots, to its original dogmatic world view, with a fascist flavor.
The origins of religious nationalism in Turkey goes back to the last century of the Ottoman empire, when both the idea of nationalism was communicated to its intellectuals and an institutionalized state Islamism reigned. Throughout the nineteenth century, Ottoman intellectuals struggled to explain their ideas regarding nationalism and Islamism. They tried to reconcile the two, or at least explain why such reconciliation was wrong. As long as the empire remained ambitious about its national identity, such reconciliation remained impossible too. By the end of the century, we observe that Islamism took a back seat while Turkish nationalism became the leading force. Nevertheless, three generations of intellectuals, for example, roughly represented by literary figures Namık Kemal (d. 1888), Ziya Gökalp (d. 1924) and Halide Edib Adıvar (d. 1964), still struggled to establish a Muslim Turkish nationalist discourse.
I should note that AKP’s interpretation of the Ottoman history, the legacy and heritage of the old days often harks back to this period, mainly the turn of the century frame of reference. There are some obvious reasons for this. First, the turn of the century represents and era of struggles between religiosity and nationalism, which resembles AKP’s struggle for an over arching ideology. Second, the literature of the period remains the most studied and easily accessible one, both in terms of its language, grammar and references, to modern concepts which governed late Ottoman and Turkish identity. This literature is well printed, still collectible at reasonable prices in its original, and probably consumed more than anything else by historians and fans of history today. One can argue that its vocabulary and form, its Ottoman serves as the core from which the Turkish Islamist discourse nourishes its speech.
Finally, and most importantly, the turn of the century produced one of the last Ottoman Islamists who was able to give Islam priority over nationalism, without denigrating Turkish nationalism, namely Said Al-Nursi (d. 1960). Nursi’s importance for the AKP ideology and Turkish Islamism is well documented. Although was not the only Islamist intellectual who struggled to explain the relationship between modernity, nationalism and Islam, he became the most influential one in the case of AKP. Meanwhile, the split between Said Nursi’s Islamist nationalism and Turkish secular nationalism under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal which occurred in 1925, more or less represents the origin of AKP’s unique fascism.
Presently, Turkish fascism is associated with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), while many claim they are patriots of one sort or the other. Yet, the oppressive nationalist dictatorship during the Republican era, therefore the most successful fascist institution in Turkish history was Republican People’s Party (CHP), first led by Mustafa Kemal (d. 1938) and later İsmet İnönü (d. 1973). CHP’s reign lasted until mid twentieth century, and embodied all forms of nationalist/fascist sympathies, as long as they supported an anti-Ottoman, secular and a state sponsored military industrialist discourse.
Outside the RPP quarters, there grew an Islamist Turkish nationalism, often in exile, prison, or underground. The dictatorship of CHP was transformed into a dictatorship Turkish Military during 1960, whereon, in a series of military coups, the military established itself as the prestigious defender of so called Turkish democracy. Overthrowing a number of democratically elected governments, the military preserved the secular and nationalist, and at times fascist constitution of the country. Each coup targeted the socialists and Islamists, more than anyone else. The fact that the military had to interfere a number of times with the democracy underlines the fact that old CHP tailored state nationalism/fascism did not resonate with the people after 1960’s. Thus, the days of one ideology fits all came to an end, and coup after coup Turkish political establishment fragmented into smaller ideological camps. By 1980, even CHP was transformed, posing as a socialist nationalist opposition party, although mainly catering to the military’s needs for an agent provocateur in the parliament. It would be a mistake to think that at this point CHP abandoned its fascist tendencies; yet ultra nationalist fascism was now mainly gathered under the banner of MHP. Meanwhile, Islamist nationalism struggled to carve a sphere of influence, forming parties like Nationalist Salvation Party (MSP) in the 1980’s, and Welfare Party (RP) in the 1990’s.
When the economic and political atmosphere of the late 1990’s and the early second millennium carried the later version of RP, the AKP into power, their governing concern was establishing a competent image, in the eyes of both domestic and international capitalism. Reforms to this end ran parallel to the reforms for European standards, required the promoting of more civil government and less military influence. AKP happily fought a stand off with the Turkish Military during the last decade, and it has at least for the time being emerged as the winner.
Then came the adaptation of a fascist discourse and world view by AKP which seems to have shocked its observers. Why would an anti Turkish Military camp later turn Turkish fascist? There must be many factors at play but some of the reasons for the emergence of this new ideology are obvious. First, the Islamist Turkish nationalism is no longer an underground phenomenon or considered an unusual hybrid. Turkish state nationalism has represented by a Turkish Islamist party for over a decade. Second, in some of the key regions, the MHP members shifted their alliances to the AKP, in order to find a place in the election ballots, who brought with them ultra nationalist views. However, to suggest that AKP changed its ideology under outside influence will be wrong. AKP adopted its ultra nationalist discourse recently mainly because it could do so. After the last general elections, AKP remained far ahead of any opposition and it no longer faces the wrath of the Turkish Military. Given that the Middle Eastern revolutions made it obvious that what became known as the crony capitalism (where a handful of well connect people controlled a nations wealth) of the previous decades was no longer maintainable, AKP had to re-brand itself. Finally, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict required all Turkish governments to adopt heavily nationalist discourses. When the dissolution of first Iraq and now Syria galvanized the Kurdish insurgency, AKP was somewhat caught unaware and it grabbed the reserved to the last strong hold of a government facing a challenge towards its territorial integrity.
Beyond these factors operate the global phenomenon, which could help us identify why a flag wearing and cross waving American fascism is resurging at the same times with a flag wearing and Qur’an waving equivalent in Turkey. These are the days of civil disobedience and crisis of capitalism. No matter how alternatively it may brand itself, AKP represents an old order in a deep crises. Ecologically and economically, capitalism as it is practiced today is no longer maintainable. All arguments to save it fall on deaf ears; even when well sponsored media and shareholders in giant international corporations try to keep it alive. In Switzerland, Panama and Cayman Islands, the talk is about banking reforms, alternative and more transparent ways to transfer wealth from one place to another. These are the days in which even the unregulated beg to be regulated. In the grand scheme of the things, to see religious fascism resurface and preach a moral order harking back at the golden days of history is no surprise. One wonders if a radical alternative can be formulated against these fundamentalist discourses. Globally, there are signs of it in the eco-conscious and anti capitalist camps. In Turkey’s case, such camps don’t seem to exist.
- Turkey’s Syria split (globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com)
- Turkey: Will AKP Government Crack Down On Military’s Business Interests? (eurasiareview.com)
- Turkey’s ‘Islamists’ Remarkably Like Republicans (theatlantic.com)