Turkey’s Splintered Islamic Movement at Crossroads


After the Constitutional Court banned the Fazilet (Virtue) Party (FP) on June 22, 2001 on the grounds that the party became focal point of anti-secular activities, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former popular mayor of Istanbul, and his friends founded the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi = AK Party) in mid-August. 51 deputies joined the AK Party, 46 of them were deputies of the defunct FP. The AK Party became the fifth party in the parliament. The remaining former Fazilet deputies joined the Saadet (Felicity) Party (SP) led by Recai Kutan, caretaker leader of the defunct Fazilet. Thus the National Outlook Movement (NOM), led by Necmettin Erbakan for three decades divided into two major blocks. Although the SP will continue to follow Erbakan’s footsteps, the AK Party preferred to take part in politics as a conservative democrat party. According to the pools, it looks like that Erdogan’s AK Party will be able to get more votes from the former Refah/Fazilet voters than the SP can.

What Caused Division in Turkey’s Islamic Movement?

In order to understand the split within the NOM, we have to look at three broad categories outlined below:

All these issues are very broad issues to address in a short article. I will try to make some general explanations on each of them.

I-Changing Social Conditions and the NOM

One of the most important factors that have to be mention in this category is the changing constituency of the movement. The NOM, in the beginning, emerged as a party with the support of petty bourgeoisie (small merchants and industrialists) of provincial towns in Anatolia and Kurds of eastern and southeastern Anatolia who alienated from the system not only because of being Kurd but also devoutly religious. Although the movement’s constituency was not very educated in its early years, the movement had been led by the middle class professionals who remained loyal to cultural codes of their provincial town origins despite the education they got in secular higher educational institutions. The constituency of the movement has, however, rapidly changed during the late 1980s and early 1990s although the leadership stayed same. New entrepreneurs, industrialists, and professional middle class, which emerged among the newly urbanized sectors of big cities and rapidly developing provincial towns, new Muslim intelligentsia, the Kurds moved into big cities in the Western Turkey in addition to the ones living in the East and Southeast parts of the country, and the squatter town dwellers constituted the new support base of the NOM movement represented by the RP in political arena.

Secondly, the rigid ideological conflicts of the Cold War years were being replaced by the politics of identity and the search for justice. During the 1970s, the worldview of the NO movement was heavily influenced by the rigid ideological conflict between the rightist and the leftist movements of that period, and Islamism presented itself as the third party in the severe confrontation between the two. The common characteristic of all these three ideological formations was to look at the world from a confrontational logic and see the world as an arena of conflict between the right and wrong. Pluralism, diversity, and difference were not in the vocabulary of that period. During the 1990s, the identity politics has risen and replaced the ideological cleavages of the Cold War period. Indeed, Refah could correctly be able to read these changes and felt the need to be more inclusive and representative toward new cultural and social cleavages within the society. Thus, Refah became both a platform of Islamic activism and a platform for those who demanded reforms in the system. Nevertheless, Refah failed in doing two things, which opened the way for the split of the movement in future:

First, The RP failed to develop a pluralist discourse, program, and policy to accommodate these competing interests without confronting the political system. Second, despite the party’s success and capability in mobilizing diverse social groups for its cause, its leadership remained reluctant to develop channels of participation in the administration and decision making process for its popular support base. As a result, the RP began to carry the seeds of conflict between the competing poles such as democrats versus authoritarians, reformists versus conservatives, modernists versus traditionalists, and supporters of participation versus supporters of rigid hierarchy.

II- Disapproval of and Discontent with Erbakan’s Policies

The dissatisfaction with Erbakan’s policies within the Refah Party started with the establishment of the coalition government with the True Path Party (TPP) of Tansu Ciller, who described herself during her election campaigns as a barrier in front of radical Islam represented by Refah in political arena. In order to establish and continue this coalition government, the RP had to vote in the Parliament against the Refah-introduced corruption charges accusing Ciller and demanding parliamentary investigation. In the eyes of some Refah parliamentarians and supporters, this coalition was established on morally wrong grounds. The dissatisfaction within the party increased during the tension between the Refah-led government and the military. According to many Refah deputies and supporters, Erbakan bowed to military in order to stay in power and accepted their demands that were totally objectionable by the Refah’s constituency. Despite that, his government was ousted from the power and he and his party were banned from politics by the Constitutional Court. Although the FP, founded after the closure of Refah, emerged with a claim that it was a new and different party, it could not be very convincing because of Erbakan’s constant interventions into the party’s affairs despite the ban on him. According to his critics in the party, his interventions gave the public opinion an image that it was managed by a remote control. Especially, reformists did not like Erbakan’s use of the party to remove his political ban in return for supporting agendas of other groups or parties in the parliament. They kept Erbakan responsible for the unexpectedly low election results in 1999. The differences of opinion within the party aggravated within time and ended up with the elimination of all reformist parliamentarians from the party’s administration. The division within the party became clear when Abdullah Gul challenged Recai Kutan in the first party convention as a candidate for the party leadership. Although reformists lost the election in the convention, the unexpected support they got from the delegates encouraged them to establish their party in future if they would not be able to change the FP from inside.

III-The Differences in Opinions

The military intervention into politics during Erbakan’s premiership did not end with ousting Erbakan from power in June 1997. Indeed, it turned to be a secularist crusade against Islamic oriented segments, even including the groups which have never supported the NOM, and continued until today. This intervention is called as the “28 February Process,” named after the date of the ultimatum that the military presented Erbakan. In this ultimatum, the military demanded the closure of the middle section of religious schools, re-regulation of Qur’anic courses, monitoring financial and economic activities of religious segments, tightening control on religious brotherhoods, and a crackdown on Islamic dress. During the 28 February Process, the legal system was being politicized by issuing arbitrary prison terms and closing political parties. The military officers and academicians were dismissed from their positions on the grounds of being religious and many female students were denied the right to education because of the ban over headscarf. . In addition to these restrictions, a psychological war has been conducted over religious segments throughout the media. Under these circumstances, many deputies and supporters of the NOM, Islamic oriented intellectuals, and various Islamic formations began to think that an Islamist politics, at least in the short run, would continue to produce more problems for religious segments. Instead, the idea that Muslims would enjoy most of the rights they want to have in a truly democratic society became popular. In a sense, this was also a search for reconciliation between Islam and democracy. Moreover, the reformists thought that having a democratic agenda would eliminate obstacle in front of them both inside and international arena.

Why Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

Although what we said above explains the roots of the split within the party, it does not tell us specifically why Erdogan emerged as the leader of the reformists. These are the several factors that led to emergence of Erdogan as a charismatic leader:

Prospects for Erdogan in Turkish Politics

The reformists, as a splintered group from the NOM, were aware that they must be recognized by national and international centers of power in order to survive in politics. The overthrown of the Erbakan-led government and the ban on the Refah were results of concerted efforts of both centers of power. Although Europe and the US did not allow an overt military coup against the Refah-led government, they did not object the military’s pressure over it. The reformists also got the impression that the US would positively look at a political party that seeks reconciliation between Islam and democracy although it would not approve an Islamist political agenda through the channels of communication they established with the US policy makers. The full-pledged support of the American Consul to Erdogan when he was given the 10-months prison sentence because of a speech he delivered was an early indication of the positive view the Americans had about the reformist wing.

Before the establishment of the AK Party, both Erdogan and Gul had some contacts with certain US officials. As a result, both sides came to a mutual understanding about each other. However, it is still possible to say that the US will remain cautious about the AK Party. On the other side, the US saw a golden opportunity in the new political formation for two reasons. First, for Americans, keeping the doors closed to Erdogan, the only popular figure in the country at this moment, would extent the political and economic chaos and instability in a strategically very important country. Second, for the certain segments among the US policy makers, a compromise between Islam and democracy would bring political stability to Muslim world and might reduce the tensions between Western and Muslim cultures. In achieving such a compromise between Islam and democracy, Turkey and Turkish Islamic movements have the greatest potential in comparison to other parts of the world.

For the reformists, the approval of the state elite was the most critical factor. Nevertheless, they were not completely without the leverage vis-a-vis the state. The lethargy of the political system would bring the state elite into a negotiation table with the reformists. The most important condition by the state elite was that the new party should not resemble the Refah or Fazilet Party of the past. In order to prove that, having a political agenda approved by the state would not be enough in a country where Islamists have always been accused of hiding their real intentions (takiyye). There is no doubt that there were some contacts between reformists and the military. Despite the fact that he was politically banned from politics, Erdogan’s visits to Anatolian towns for political reasons were signs of the tolerance towards him. Even the media was portraying a relatively positive image of the reformists in the FP. Obviously; Erdogan was given a conditional green light. In the beginning, the reasoning behind this was that after the split, none of new parties emerged out of Fazilet might not be able to get 10 percent of votes, the electoral threshold to have seats in the parliament. Nevertheless, when it became clear that Erdogan could be able get up to 30 percent of votes, which allows a political party to come to power alone, the media began to call Erdogan to prove that he left his Islamist past behind and became a real democrat. This media campaign aimed at two things in the beginning: First, the media, the mouthpiece of the regime, was warning Erdogan and his friends that they could not continue to go on their ways without coming to an agreement with the system. Second, the campaign aimed at creating suspicions around Erdogan in order to discourage voters of other parties to vote for him and his party.

For the state elite, who did not prevent the Court of Constitution from making a decision that removed the ban over Erdogan, the names of founding members and members of party’s central decision making committee were more important than the political message the reformists were trying to give. At this point, AK Party failed to convince the state elite. In addition to 6 women founding members with headscarf, most of the decisions making committee and founding members were the former Refah/Fazilet members. Then, the media campaign against Erdogan changed its shape and style from questioning his sincerity in his new orientation to an assault on Erdogan and his party. Even a columnist went too far by saying that the march of the periphery’s people toward power must be stopped. This was a call to the center of the power to act to protect the country from non-urbanized, uncivilized, anti-Western social forces (!) before it would be too late to do so. As a part of this campaign, the private Kanal D television aired videotapes of the speeches Erdogan made in 1992, in which he said “you cannot be secular and be Muslim at the same time.” After the broadcasting of the videotape, a prosecutor launched an investigation into whether Erdogan should be prosecuted for insulting the state in according to the article 159 of the Turkish Penal Code, which demands prison term up to 6 years.

Moreover, chief prosecutor Sabih Kanadoglu asked the Court of Constitution to remove Erdogan from the leadership of the AK Party. He also demanded that 6 female founding members of the party who wear hijab should be barred from party membership. On August 30, the Office of the Joint Staff did not invite Erdogan to the reception held due to the Victory Day celebrations although the Office even invited leader of a part that does not have any seats in the parliament.

The most recent campaigns of lynch against Erdogan attempted to damage his reputation as an honest politician. Following media speculations about how Erdogan favored certain companies in biddings of the municipality, the Istanbul police department detained former municipality bureaucrats of Erdogan era and representatives of the Albayraklar holding company. The police tortured some of the detainees and forced them to testify against Erdogan. During these raids, when the police could not find one representative of the Albayraklar at home, they took his wife and three children (all of them are under 12) as hostages. The common conviction is that Mesut Yilmaz, the deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Motherland Party masterminded this operation. Yilmaz’s party is a partner of the three-party coalition government and holds the post of the Ministry of Interior. The Dogan Media group, favored by Yilmaz in many government biddings, served as the propaganda machine of Yilmaz with the hope that the eradication of Erdogan from politics might help the Motherland Party to protect its votes.

At this moment, the near future does not look very promising for both reformist and conservative wings of Islamic movement. The Saadet Party led by Recai Kutan and under Erbakan’s surveillance, does not look like that it would be able to pass 10 per cent threshold even if the Erdogan’s party will be prevented from participating elections. The party’s poor performance within last four years even alienated some of the most loyal party supporters. The AK Party did not satisfy the ruling elite because the NOM was heavily represented in it. Although the party could be able to continue, Erdogan would possibly be prevented from continuing his political life. Without Erdogan, a charismatic and popular figure, the AK Party is not expected to perform very well. The common opinion is that Erdogan can only survive if he makes an alliance with another center right party or formation approved by the state. Otherwise chances for Erdogan are very slim. Even the international conjuncture began to work against Erdogan due to recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. During the time when the Pentagon gained the upper hand in the US policy making process, the US would not want to alienate the Turkish military for the sake of Erdogan, who may hesitate to bow to the American demands in many occasions.

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