Secularism in trouble in Islamists’ Turkey

Turkey’s leadership, dominated by the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), has several ideological components.

To begin with, the Islamists are the dominant group, but they have many sub-groups. One might view them as many Islamic groups organized around President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan’s main hope from these groups is not to gain their votes. Most Islamic groups are small and thus unable to make any real impact on elections.

First and foremost, Erdoğan employs these groups as human resources. For example, many members of the Menzil Islamic group are employed in critical ministries like the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Energy. The Grand Mufti of Istanbul is from the Erenköy group. Likewise, many pro-government judges and prosecutors were socialized within the İskenderpaşa group.

Propaganda is the next topic. As organized movements, Islamic groups are able to work through various media, like radio stations, TV channels, journals and newspapers. These groups offer their channels to Erdoğan, and make a significant impact with incessant propaganda in favor of the regime.

Similarly, public figures of Islamic groups like academics, public speakers, and representatives of professional unions play key roles in legitimizing Erdoğan’s policies in public debates.

In exchange, Islamic groups receive various means of economic support and employment opportunities. Islamic movements are also economic entities, and the incentives they secure from the government are more effective than traditional methods of support, such as donations.

The second ideological component of the regime is nationalists. Erdoğan’s AKP is in a coalition with the Nationalist Action Party, or MHP.  But what’s equally critical to that political coalition is the cooperation of Turkish nationalists within the bureaucracy, as they constitute a fairly large group within the Turkish civil service.

The number of teachers employed by the government is almost 900,000. According to recent statistics, the nationalist teachers’ union (Türk Egitim-Sen), which is known for its pro-MHP stance, represents more than 200,000 teachers. Meanwhile, just 31,000 teachers were fired in the anti-Gülenist purge following the failed coup of July 2016.

To get a sense of the colossal size of the Turkish civil service, consider that all purges since the coup represent less than 5 percent of it.

The MHP is a very disciplined, doctrine following party that has at least 10 percent of the popular vote. It urges party supporters to take positions within civil service. As a result, it has always had a considerable presence within the Turkish civil service, including the top bureaucratic positions.

The nationalist factor should not be ignored in analyzing how Turkey is doing on a number of key issues, such as the Kurdish problem.

The third ideological component is the Ulusalcı group, or Turkey’s Eurasianists. These nationalists are more radical in terms of excluding religion and policies towards the Kurds. What we know popularly as “Ergenekon” is usually attributed to the Ulusalcı group.

This group has virtually no popular base. However, symbolized by Doğu Perinçek, the leader of the marginal Patriotic Party, this group’s leverage originates from its influence in the higher echelons of public institutions like the army and the judiciary.

At the same time, the group ironically helps the regime attain legitimacy among larger secular constituencies. For example, many secular Turks appreciate the arrests of journalists like Ahmet Altan or Nazlı Ilıcak, remembered for their support for the Ergenekon trials.

Like the nationalists, the Ulusalcı group is influential in shaping Turkey’s policies on a variety issues, including relations with Syria and Russia as well as the Kurdish problem.

So, what is the ideological glue that keeps all these groups together? The answer lies within the grand principles of Turkey’s state tradition.

Firstly, the historical Turkish state must always maintain a state-centered model in politics, economy and society. Sunni-Islam is the second principle, which regulates the religious field as well as state-society relations in regard to institutional religion.

The third principle is Turkishness, which means that other ethnic and cultural groups cannot claim equal status to Turks. Their status and rights are unilaterally decided by Turks.

Islamists, nationalists and Ulusalcıs agree on these three grand principles, and all have been marginalised at one time or another.

In the 1990s, Islamists were the challengers of the status quo in Turkey, with a more globalist identity. They would have never been in consensus with nationalists and Ulusalcıs on any issue. But the Islamists’ transformation has enabled them to share a similar approach.

Finally, I’ll address secularism and Westernisation. Fifteen years ago, I would definitely have added this as the fourth principle of the Turkish state tradition. Today, Westernism has become almost an orphan of Turkish politics, with no major group or party showing much interest.

As a result, the fate of secularism is dim; it is unclear how it might survive in a Turkey led by Islamists with no Western orientation.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.