The Islamists Show Their Hand

By Cagaptay, Soner | Newsweek International, February 23, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Islamists Show Their Hand


Cagaptay, Soner, Newsweek International


When Turkey's justice and development party (AKP) first took power in 2002, it tried to reassure moderates fearful it might chip away at the country's secular, democratic and pro-Western values. The AKP renounced its Islamist heritage and began working instead to secure European Union membership and to turn Turkey into an even more liberal and pro-Western place. Almost seven years later, however, the AKP seems anything but reformist. The recent performance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the party's leader and Turkey's prime minister, at Davos--where he stormed off a panel with Israeli President Shimon Peres, vowing never to return--has convinced many skeptics that the party is turning its back on the West. So have moves like saying he wants to represent Hamas on international platforms and defending Iran's nuclear weapons. The AKP now sides with Islamists and ignores their crimes. This is radically different from the Turkey of old. What happened?

To understand the AKP's turnaround, remember where it came from. The party's founders, including Erdogan, cut their teeth in an earlier, more explicitly Islamist party, which featured strong anti-Western, anti-Semitic and antisecular elements. The Welfare Party, as it was known, joined a coalition government in 1996 before alienating the secular Turkish military, the courts, and the West, leading it to be banned in 1998. Yet the party never truly disappeared, and Erdogan re-created it as the pro-American, pro-EU, capitalist and reformist AKP.

Its transformation was a cynical one, however, and no sooner had the party gained power than it began to undermine the liberal values it supposedly stood for. In 2002, for instance, it began to hire top bureaucrats from an exclusive pool of religious conservatives, and the percentage of women in executive positions in government dropped.

Efforts by secular institutions to curb the AKP only backfired. When the Constitutional Court tried to prevent it from appointing one of its own as president in 2007, the AKP cast itself as the underdog representative of Turkey's poor Muslim masses and won a monumental election victory. This hastened the party's return to its core values. The AKP began abandoning its displays of pluralism, dismissing dissent and ignoring checks and balances and condemned the media for daring to criticize it. …

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