Reform Policies of the Turkish AK Party, Setting an Example for Arab Islamists?

Many still regard the experiment represented by the Islamic AK Party with skepticism. Nevertheless, there is hope that the party could develop into a reform model for political change among the Islamic movements in the Arab world. By Slaheddine Jourchi

 Turkey’s Prime Minister and AKP leader Erdogan (photo: AP)
 In the words of Turkey’ Prime Minister and AKP chairman Erdogan, the party is based on “humane and not on religious principles”

 The founders of the Turkish-Islamist movement never expected that the political pragmatism of engineer Necmettin Erbakan would prompt some of his students to risk a one-of-a-kind experiment – an experiment that would give rise to much debate and a never-before-witnessed confusion among the governments of the Islamic states, as well as in the ranks of Islamist and secular intellectuals.

Is this all about an innovative new way for Islamists to form a government? Or does it merely represent a tactic born of necessity due to Turkey’s special situation? Is it a consequence of trying to come to terms with the painful, failed experiments of earlier generations of Turkish Islamists? Or is it perhaps instead a re-interpretation that departs sharply from the culture of political Islam (especially the Arab version) as we have known it until now?

Potential impact of the Turkish reform model

But the most important question of all is: Will this experiment remain limited to Turkey, since its unique features cannot be readily transferred to other political cultures? Or will this new wave – despite its idiosyncrasy – in some way influence the political thinking of the more reform-oriented Islamist movements?

When the “Justice and Development” party (AKP) won an overwhelming victory in the last parliamentary elections in November 2002, with 34.4 percent of the vote and 365 seats, Islamists everywhere reacted with euphoria. They saw in this triumph a clear sign of Turkey’s return to the fold of the Islamic nations, and positive proof of the failure of “Turkish secularism” – and a defeat for all defenders of secularism in the region.

The victory of the AKP bolstered the self-confidence of the Islamists in the Arab world and reinforced their conviction that the Islamic peoples would back the Islamists when given the choice. They assumed this to be the “natural course” of events, since the Islamists are associated most closely with the religion of the “community of believers” (umma).

The Islamists’ positive reaction to the electoral triumph of the AKP would not last long, however. The big shock came when the AKP leaders announced their party platform. They denied the experiment’s Islamist aspirations and spoke out against viewing the AKP as one of the Islamist movements. They were referring here to the Refah party, the Fadila party and all the other Islamist-Turkish parties.

The AKP as representative of a “moderate Islam”

The AKP is based – in the words of its chairman, Erdogan – “on humane and not on religious principles. Its goal is the good of the Turkish nation and the promotion of democratic and political standards.” The nation should be founded on the principles “of secularism and on democratic as well as social values.”

This doesn’t mean that the AKP has totally renounced Islam, even though its platform does not make explicit reference to the religion. Instead, Erdogan maintains that the AKP represents a “moderate Islam.” The party program not only espouses secularism, but even praises the nation’s founder, Atatürk, and quotes his guiding principle: “The nation’s salvation lies in its resolve and perseverance.”

These statements prompted diverse reactions. Most of the secularists viewed them as a victory for their own model of how society and government should function. Although many doubted the actual motives of the AKP, they did see in the party’s commitment to secularism an important indication that these Islamists had given up on their previous political projects. Radical secularists, however, whether Turks or Arabs, are impatiently waiting for this experiment to fail so that they can once again marginalize their opponents.

Many Arab and western governments still regard the experiment represented by the AKP with caution. But they have nevertheless not yet given up hope that it could evolve into a “model” for the region, one that would contribute to squelching “Islamic fundamentalism.”

The Turkish AKP experiment can be helpful in the quest for ways to politically integrate the majority of the non-violent and democratically inclined Islamist reform movements. In this regard, two positions can be discerned among the Islamists:

A genuine change in attitude or mere lip service?

Some believe that the leaders of the AKP have genuinely left their Islamist past and disposition behind them and consciously want to integrate themselves into Turkey’s political landscape – which would also mean that they accept the separation of church and state.

Others are convinced, however, that the new discourse being embraced by Erdogan and his party cronies can be explained by the political circumstances prevailing in Turkey today.

After the failed attempt by Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of the modern, Turkish-Islamist movement, to defeat the red lines of the Turkish army – which was supported by the “secular fundamentalists” – the Islamists saw a need to change their course and their tactics.

According to this viewpoint, the AKP’s about-face is therefore merely a “feint” aimed at getting around the strategic difficulties otherwise encountered by Turkish Islamists.

To date, very few Islamists have tried to separate out the positive aspects of this experiment. And those that did think along those lines neglected to face the fundamental questions; for example, the relationship between church and state or the compatibility of Islamic and European values.

The issues that preoccupied them were instead more practical aspects of party work, such as the structure of the AKP, its ability to mobilize women and young people, or its success at overcoming the economic crisis in Turkey.

Mutual interest instead of ideology

Notwithstanding the Islamists’ reserve with regard to the AKP, which by now has been in power for three years, it cannot be ruled out that this experiment will leave its mark on some of the movements of political Islam – particularly those in the Arab world.

It is thus conceivable that some of the Arab-Islamist movements will embrace a more flexible line, gradually taking leave of their conservative stance on questions of faith, and will be prepared to enter into alliances based on mutual interests – and not merely on shared ideologies – although it must be emphasized here that the Turkish democracy, despite its deficiencies, was what made the emergence of the AKP possible in the first place. And in the process it also gave the Islamists a chance to unfold.

Conversely, Arab despotism is one of the biggest obstacles to the political and intellectual development of Arab-Islamist movements, which have been forced to put most of their energy into the bare struggle for survival. If these movements are ever to mature, there are several factors that need to change – above all, it is urgent that the Arab states carry out fundamental political reforms in order to afford at least a modicum of democratic freedoms.