Turkish democracy is under assault. The increasingly conservative rhetoric of the AKP, the country’s dominant political party, is fueling widespread concern that the secular Turkish Republic might soon be supplanted by an Islamist regime. The end result, many worry, could be a repressive state dominated by sharia law—one similar to Iran.
But a different geographic analogy might be more appropriate. The AKP’s conservative leanings notwithstanding, Turkey isn’t about to go Islamist. In fact, the party’s systematic campaign to eliminate political rivals is rooted not in religious fervor but in the secular aspiration to retain and consolidate power. A deeper look at Turkey’s political trajectory under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggests that he is steering Turkey in an authoritarian but secular direction, toward a state not unlike President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
THE TURNING TIDE
Perhaps the reason so many observers suspect the AKP of pushing Turkey toward an Islamist future is the party’s historical legacy: the AKP is the offspring of a long line of Turkish Islamist movements. The AKP’s two immediate predecessors were the Welfare Party, active from 1983 to 1998, and the Virtue Party, from 1998 to 2001. Both were widely considered pro-Islamic—a reputation that led to their eventual dissolution—and continue to be remembered as such today.
But the two parties’ Islamism loomed larger in the perception of their secular political opponents than in their actual political and ideological stances. The closest Welfare ever got to pursuing Islamist policies were its proposals to eliminate interest-based banking and to cement economic ties to other Muslim-majority nations. Virtue maintained an even more secular agenda. Yet many political elites—particularly in the military and the judiciary—suspected the parties of harboring a secret desire to overthrow the existing secular order. Turkey’s Constitutional Court ultimately shut both parties down for violating the state’s principle of secularism.
By the time the AKP was born, in 2001, the history of political Islam in Turkey had been fading for
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