The ruling Islamist party in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), lost the re-election it had forced for the mayoralty of Istanbul on 23 June. Some have wondered if this is the beginning of the end for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has led the AKP since 2001 and the country since 2003. The more important question is whether, after Erdogan and AKP depart, the societal changes Turkey has experienced after being under political Islam for nearly two-decades can be reversed.
The Founding of a Secular Republic
After the advent of Islam and the Arab conquests under the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate “successors” (khilafa or caliphs), the Islamic community and Empire was ruled by the Umayyads and then the Abbasids, both Arab dynasties. After the Mongol invasion of the Middle East in the thirteenth century and the sacking of Baghdad, the Abbasid caliphate was formally reconstituted for a time in Egypt, until the Ottoman Turks conquered Cairo in 1517 and moved the seat of the caliphate to Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, where it would remain for the next four-hundred years.
The Ottomans entered the First World War in 1914 on the side of Germany and Austria, and by the end of the war had not only been defeated but occupied by Britain, France, Italy, and—most provocatively—Greece. A national resistance movement formed, led by Mustafa Kemal, an army officer who had gained stature during the Great War by repelling the British incursion at Gallipoli, and by 1923 Kemal had prevailed.
The change of circumstances on the ground meant the Allies had to revoke the Treaty of Sevres that had proposed to partition the former Ottoman lands, and instead to sign the Lausanne Treaty in July 1923. In October that year, a republic was declared on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. The administrative office of the Sultan—who was running a rival administration to Kemal’s Ankara-based Grand National Assembly (GNA)—had been formally abolished by the GNA in November 1922, and in March 1924 the spiritual office of the caliphate was abolished by the Kemalist government.
Kemal instituted nothing less than a revolution, in the “real” sense of that term as applied to the French or Russian Revolutions; convulsions that alter the entire socio-political order of a country. The crucial reform was the disestablishment of Islam as the religion of government. French-style laïcité, hard secularism, was enacted. Where previously, Ottoman law was the shari’a, the Holy Law, Kemal imported the Swiss legal code and adapted it for Turkish needs. The Turkish government is “national and materialistic: it worships reality”, Kemal announced. “It is not a government willing to commit murder or drag the nation into the swamps in search of useless ideologies”. Kemal was hostile to all transnational ideologies, whether pan-Turanism or pan-Islamism, seeing them as damaging to his project of remaking Turkey as a modern state accepted within the international state system.
During the independence war, Kemal had received considerable assistance from the Soviet Union to fight against the Western powers occupying Turkey. But in the aftermath of the war, Kemal looked away from the East—both Communized Russia and the former Ottoman-Islamic lands—and towards the West. The Turkish language was changed from the Arabic to Roman script, as decisive a break with the past as the abolition of the caliphate: most Turks simply cannot read their own history written before 1929. Surnames in the Western manner were adopted: Mustafa Kemal became Kemal Atatürk (Father of the Turks). Distinctively Muslim items of clothing, the fez for men and the veil for women, were outlawed. Polygamy was banned and women were given equal rights in marriage. And Turkish citizens were, against the virulent opposition of an outraged clergy, given the legal right to change their religion.
When Atatürk died in November 1938, after eighteen months of illness, he left behind a one-party structure overseen by his Republican People’s Party (CHP). Within eight years this had given way to a multi-party system and in May 1950 a “momentous event, without any precedent in the history of the country [or] the region,” took place: a ruling party in a Middle Eastern country, having arranged a genuinely free and fair election that it then lost, peacefully withdrew from power, handing over to the opposition.
The paradox of Turkey being a “torn country” nearly immediately made itself apparent. If the Westernized and Westernizing elite lived up to its ideals and allowed greater freedom to the population, the population would opt to take the country in a more religious and illiberal direction. This was among the reasons that the Turkish military intervened for what would be the first of four coups d’état in 1960, removing and ultimately executing Prime Minister Adnan Menderes.
Rather to the surprise of many, the military swiftly withdrew from power and handed over to a civilian government. The rewritten constitution that the military left in place was a liberal document that allowed greater space for socialists than had previously been available, and over the next decade political polarization would grip Turkey. With clashes in the street between Leftist and Rightist forces, the military stepped in again in 1971, with a “coup by memorandum”. The subsequent crackdown, ineffective as it was in restoring order, largely impacted the Left, seen—not unreasonably—as the primary threat in the Cold War context.
Throughout the 1970s, the Turkish military’s attention was drawn primarily by the militant Left, which was receiving support from outside, from the Soviet Union acting through its ally in Syria, the Hafez al-Assad regime. Assad in turn deputized the Palestinian terrorists in their camps in Syria and the Syrian-occupied areas of Lebanon to train the Turkish Leftist “urban guerrillas”. By the end of the 1970s, the hard-Right in Turkey was beginning to put together paramilitary forces, too. It was in this atmosphere, facing foreign-supported Left-wing subversion and an increasingly violent ultra-nationalist Right-wing response, that Islamism began to take root seriously in Turkey.
Necmettin Erbakan founded the first Islamist party to enter the Turkish parliament in 1970, and that party would eventually morph into Erdogan’s AKP. Erbakan managed to enter government in the 1970s in coalition with the Left, and in his brief stint in office began the process of politicizing Turkey’s police after gaining control of the Interior Ministry. Erdogan joined the youth wing of Erbakan’s party in 1976. The Turkish military simply did not have the resources to divert to the nascent Islamist movement, even had it wanted to, but the military was also reassessing it view and was beginning to see Islam as a binding agent and bulwark against the political mayhem that had overtaken Turkey.
In September 1980, with Marxist guerrillas taking over neighbourhoods of major cities and ultra-nationalists trying to respond in kind, Turkey was in a quasi-civil-war situation and this time the military would step in decisively. Though the Islamists this time felt a greater brunt of the repression than they had in 1971—Erbakan was banned from politics, among other things—it the Left that was hardest hit, and the trend of the military seeing religion as a safeguard against political radicalism would be institutionalized.
The savagery of the junta led by the Chief of the General Staff, General Kenan Evren, filled the jails with hundreds of thousands of prisoners, where they were routinely tortured, and drove many more into exile. The military succeeded in restoring order; the radicals who had pushed Turkey to the edge of the abyss were among those imprisoned and expelled. Inadvertently, however, Evren’s campaign against the Left—which worked: the Left was shattered in Turkey and has never recovered—laid the foundations for the Islamist triumph later on. The Islamists picked up those working-class voters that had previously gone to the Left, and Evren’s injection of nationalist variant of Islam into the public square to inoculate it against Communism normalized the invocation of faith in a way Atatürk would never had dreamed of and gave the more militant, Muslim Brotherhood-influenced politico-religious forces around Erbakan the space they needed.
By the mid-1980s, the ban on Erbakan and others in politics had unravelled; it simply became unenforceable. Erdogan was a rising star within Erbakan’s movement by late 1980s and in 1994 was elected as mayor of Istanbul, where, even his critics had to concede, he did a good job. Services improved, as did the lot of the poor, under Erdogan’s management. The old patterns of patronage and graft were hardly eliminated, but they were kept within bounds. With the fragmentation of the nationalist Right, and the utter corruption of every party in parliament, Erbakan was able to find his way to the prime ministership in June 1996, only to be dismissed by the military in a “postmodern coup” a year later.
Erdogan took his lesson from the fall of Erbakan: he broke with his old mentor and presented a more moderate face. This newfound democratic credibility, in tandem with the corruption and economic mismanagement by the mainstream parties, left Erdogan well-positioned for the elections in November 2002. The final ingredient for this “perfect storm” was the 10% threshold to enter parliament: designed by the Evrenists, who left in place a deeply authoritarian constitutional structure, to keep out extremist forces, namely the Islamists and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), it backfired spectacularly. The disgust the population felt for the mainstream parties meant that most of them fell below the threshold, and AKP entered parliament with a super-majority on just one-third of the votes.
Turkey Under the AKP
In its first few years in office, the AKP carried out policies that were very popular with Turkish voters and, on any objective measure, positive. Much of the architecture the 1980 junta had put in places was unwound. The hyper-restrictive secular laws were relaxed. And in under ten years, the Turkish economy tripled in size, taking the country from a peripheral state and turning it into a regional power. Alongside this, though, were the negative trends.
While Erdogan was undoing the version of authoritarianism the military had set in place, he did so in part by outsourcing to his allies in the Gülen movement, who ran the judiciary and National Police, to go after the Kemalist elite and take it apart in two massive show trials, the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer), based on blatantly fabricated evidence, which was not even internally consistent or coherent. After Erdogan fell out with the Gülenists in 2013 and moved to purge them from the bureaucracy, and even more so after the Gülenists’ attempted coup in 2016, freedom has been further eroded in Turkey, with inter alia a judiciary that no impartial observer could call independent and a media that is almost entirely in the hands of the government and its loyalists. (In a complement that vice pays to virtue, however, Erdogan now decided that the entire episode of the show trials was a criminal disgrace, blamed it entirely on the Gülenists, and pardoned all those caught up in the witch hunt.)
As much institutional damage as Erdogan has done to the Turkish government, it is possible to imagine how that could be set right by a new president. More difficult is how to reverse the societal changes implemented by his Islamist government, which have mainstreamed the extremist ideas that shaped Erdogan.
Erbakan remains a key influence on Erdogan. The future Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who entered into Islamist militancy by first joining the Muslim Brotherhood, saw inspiration in Erbakan, and made his first trip to Turkey because of Erbakan. It is not difficult to see why.
Erbakan’s worldview, a rejection of traditional Turkish Islam, is heavily influenced by currents from the Arab world, notably the doctrines promulgated by Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb that would later form pillars of the jihadist movement. It is extremely anti-Western, seeing Europe and America as materially wealthy and spiritually barren. It is also a worldview that embraces conspiracy theories, antisemitism above all. Erbakan tied the Jews’ apparent bid for world domination to more traditional conspiracy theories—indeed, to all the traditional conspiracy theories, around the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, and the rest of it.
Even more important to Erdogan’s thinking is Necip Fazıl Kisakürek, a poet and writer whose ideology is much more distinctively Turkish than Erbakan’s. Kisakürek rejected the Salafi-inspired anti-Sufism of Qutb and Abul Al’a Mawdudi; he thought this blinded them to the inner meanings of Islam, as glimpsed by people like the medieval theologian Al-Ghazali. While this might seem to make Kisakürek more “moderate”, in fact Kisakürek’s view, directly influenced by European fascism and Bolshevism, was outright totalitarian: he despised democracy, wanted to suppress all forms of diversity, and did not believe in a private life for Muslims. Kisakürek was a racist in a way Erbakan was not, and Kisakürek’s antisemitism was more overwhelming: Kisakürek did not believe in conspiracy theories so lurid as Erbakan; instead he fit Jews into his national and racial story of eternal betrayal, beginning with Jewish responsibility for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Kisakürek advocated straightforward ethnic cleansing of Jews from Turkey. Still, fanatical as he was, Kisakürek was also pragmatic: he argued for taking from the West what worked—like technology—and even for maintaining good relations with the West while the Muslim states were weak, only becoming overtly hostile once the Islamist revolution was victorious.
Erdogan continues to attend events honouring Kisakürek, and has testified many times to the influence “the Master” has over his understanding of the world. The restructuring of the Turkish government, creating an executive presidency and suffocating the independence of the courts, are inspired by Kisakürek’s view of the perfect society. Likewise, the fact that Erdogan regards it as part of his role to bring up a “pious generation” and to preach on social and moral matters: Kisakürek wanted a supreme leader who was also a moral guide, and since there is no private life everything is the business of the state. Erdogan’s treatment of Israel and his use of poorly concealed antisemitic tropes like the “interest rates lobby” to describe the problems of the country flow logically from Kisakürek’s ideas.
The mainstreaming of Erbakan’s and Kisakürek’s ideas has gone beyond the Islamists in Turkey; antisemitism and conspiracy theories are now a mainstay of the secular opposition, which substitutes the roles of various actors in the Islamists’ narrative to suit their own needs, while often ending up in the same place of blaming the Jews. And this is not only a problem for Turkey. From rise of the Seljuks onwards, the Turks have been a dominant force in the world of Islam. At present, a salient case is Egypt: after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, many of the Brothers took shelter in Turkey, where they have been allowed to broadcast their extremist ideas and incite against the new government.
An underemphasized case is former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus, where the AKP government has engaged in extensive outreach and dissemination of Islamism through providing religious literature and education. Though these Muslim communities are ethnically Turkic, it is on religious grounds that Ankara has made its connections in the post-Soviet space. Ankara had some difficulty because the Communists have so thoroughly smashed up the religious infrastructure, if not exactly secularized, these states, but it has not been wholly without success. What is interesting is that most of this outreach was undertaken by the Gülenists, before they split from AKP. Turkey has pressured these states to close the schools and other institutions linked to the Gülenists that were opened under the auspices of this outreach, but, for example in Turkmenistan, the anti-Gülenist crackdown was indigenous amid accusations of using the schools to groom the elite and infiltrating the government.
Further east, the Uyghur’s in Xinjiang, facing massive repression by the Chinese government, have found an advocate in Erdogan. But the Turkish government has made little distinction between the innocents being persecuted and the extremists. Uyghur jihadists have been able to move from China through Turkey to Syria as a matter of routine.
The End of Erdogan?
AKP’s candidate, Binali Yildirim, lost the local election for the Istanbul mayoralty in March 2019 to the CHP candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, only for Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) to cancel the vote, in a seven to four decision, and order the election to be re-run. There is no doubt that Erdogan’s control of the state exerted the pressure to force YSK’s decision. One CHP leader denounced the verdict as “plain dictatorship”. This was, indeed, an unusually brazen attack on the Turkish democratic system.
Few checks now remain on Erdogan’s authority, but one form of accountability has persisted in Turkey’s “competitive authoritarian” system: elections. Erdogan’s own narrative of his rise to power—as the voice of the dispossessed silent majority of pious Turks against Atatürkist hegemony—relies on electoral legitimacy. Even as the votes got more unfair, with the playing field tilted ever-more harshly against the opposition, Erdogan was constrained from outright rigging elections or cancelling them. Events in Istanbul were, therefore, a novel development.
The reason Erdogan risked losing the most important remaining pillar of his legitimacy by such blatant anti-democratic skulduggery in Istanbul was explained by the man himself. “If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey”, Erdogan is reported to have said. This is not—or not solely—a matter of prestige and political authority. Istanbul provides an enormous amount of the cash needed to keep AKP functioning. The city is governed by a web of pro-AKP businessmen working side-by-side with state officials to create jobs and services through construction and infrastructure projects, which boost AKP’s popularity and make both the businessmen and the AKP wealthy.
It is, then, a serious blow for the AKP to have lost the Istanbul vote a second time—and to have lost by such a decisive margin (nearly ten percentage points). As important as Istanbul is for AKP, Erdogan could have tried to keep more of a distance, yet he went all-in and it still did no good. Even Fatih, the ultra-conservative Istanbul district, voted for CHP for the first time in anyone’s living memory. There have been other signs since the election that the AKP is in retreat, and the opposition has clearly been emboldened. It is an open question how much Erdogan can be rolled back; he and his loyalists still have control of levers within the state and outside it that can be used to undermine Imamoglu. And however far the opposition gets politically, undoing the ideological damage done, in Turkey and beyond, will take even longer.
 Mark Lowen, ‘Istanbul mayoral vote: Is “disastrous” loss beginning of Erdogan’s end?’, BBC News, 24 June 2019.
 Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961), p. 241.
 Ali Kazancigil and Ergun Ozbudun [eds.], Ataturk: Founder of a Modern State (1981), p. 127.
 Ibid, p. 22.
 Ibid, p. 110.
 Alexandre Barmine, Memoirs of a Soviet Diplomat: Twenty Years in the Service of the U.S.S.R. (1938)
 The Emergence of Modern Turkey, pp. 263-80.
 Erik Zurcher, Turkey: A Modern History (2004, Third Edition), pp. 183-6.
 The Emergence of Modern Turkey, pp. 303, 312.
 Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996).
 Michael Koplow, ‘Officers and Democrats’, Foreign Affairs, 6 July 2013.
 Soner Cagaptay, The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey (2017), pp. 34-7.
 Ibid, pp. 51-2.
 Ibid, pp. 39-51.
 Ibid, pp. 38-9.
 Ibid, pp. 55-60.
 Ibid, pp. 69-76.
 Ibid, pp. 77-89.
 Dani Rodrik, ‘Plot Against the Generals’, Harvard University, June 2014.
 Gareth Jenkins, ‘Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation’, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, August 2009.
 ‘Turkish court acquits 235 suspects in notorious Ergenekon trial’, A News, 1 July 2019.
 Hassan Hassan, ‘Bin Laden journal reveals he was shaped by the Muslim Brotherhood’, The National, 2 November 2017.
 The key Qutbist concept adopted by the jihadists is hakimiyya (God’s sovereignty). See: Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea (2016).
 Svante Cornell, ‘Erbakan, Kısakürek, and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey’, Hudson Institute, 4 June 2018.
 Yotam Feldner, ‘Muslim Brotherhood TV channels, a hotbed of extremism’, MEMRI, 9 January 2019.
 Bayram Balci, ‘Turkey’s Religious Outreach and the Turkic World’, Hudson Institute, 11 March 2014
 Gonul Tol, ‘Turkey’s Bid for Religious Leadership’, Foreign Affairs, 10 January 2019.
 Bayram Balci, ‘Turkey’s Religious Outreach and the Turkic World’, Hudson Institute, 11 March 2014
 Nick Ashdown, ‘Turkmenistan Cracking Down on Gülen Followers’, EurasiaNet, 8 December 2016.
 Michael Clarke, ‘Uyghur Militants in Syria: The Turkish Connection’, Jamestown Foundation, 4 February 2016.
 Murat Baykara and Tara John, ‘Turkey’s election board orders revote for Istanbul mayor’, CNN, 7 May 2019.
 Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, ‘Rising competitive authoritarianism in Turkey’, Third World Quarterly, 19 February 2016.
 ‘“If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey”: why the mayoral election is so critical to Erdogan’s hold on power’, The National, 20 June 2019.
 ‘CHP’s Imamoglu wins in 28 districts in Istanbul rerun’, Daily Sabah, 23 June 2019.
 ‘Journalist Coşkun acquitted of insulting Turkey’s president’, Turkish Minute, 20 June 2019