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From Radikal, a high-brow Turkish daily, 23 April, 2007. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton.

The AKP is the party of the Republic’s alternative elite

An interview with Neţe Duzel

WHY? Naci Bostancý

It has been an earth-shattering week for Turkey. Last week, on the one hand, she witnessed one of the largest public meetings in her history, and watched with satisfaction as opposition groups expressed themselves through democratic means. On the other hand, she was left traumatised as, in Malatya, one of the vilest murders in her recent past was committed. Both of these are perceived to be symptoms, one encouraging and one terrifying, of heightening social tension as the Çankaya elections approach. I spoke with political scientist and sociologist, Naci Bostancý, who lectures at Gazi University, about the strength of popular opposition to an Erdođan presidency; the message given by the crowd; the connection between the murders and the Cankaya elections; the AKP’s contribution towards this tension; and the concerns of the AKP’s opponents. Professor Bostancý, who before 1980 was a director in the National Hearths and served time in prison, has written books about modernization, nationalism and Islamism.

As the presidential elections draw near, the number of murders, and the death toll, increases. Intolerance towards non-Turks and non-Muslims grows. Xenophobia is on the rise amid claims that we are being robbed of our Muslim and Turkish identity and that our country faces partition. Does the current spate of murders and brutality have a social basis, or is it related to the presidential elections?

Both. Such techniques that use tension-heightening events to maintain political control are not unknown in Turkey’s recent history. They are commonly associated with 27 May, 12 March and 12 September. I know the 12 September period very well. Three months prior to 12 September, there was an exceptional increase in the number of murders. On the 23.00 evening radio news broadcast, murder figures were rolled out as if they were traffic accident statistics and, at that time, it was not unusual for 20-25 people to be killed in various places in the country. There is no sociological explanation for this

So, how can it be explained?

It is implausible that in three months radical change could transform a Turkey in which one or two people were killed every day into a Turkey in which 20-25 people were killed every day. The explanation is cloaked in darkness. In any case, Turkey has this side to it. This kind of sinister background lurks behind Turkish politics. It is impossible for me to know who is responsible and who provokes such things, but there is a crucial point: no provocation can be staged unless it corresponds to some kind of social reality. In other words, if people are not strongly predisposed to respond to that provocation, it will not succeed. Thus, what we are experiencing today must of necessity have a social basis.

What is this social basis?

On the one hand, there is speculation about the European Union. Certain milieu view the business of EU membership, that is globalisation, as very detrimental for Turkey. On the other hand, there is the set-up in Northern Iraq. This development creates an existential syndrome among certain people. They see this Kurdish entity as a challenge to Turkey, and think that it must be prevented and that such an entity will in the future tear territory away from Turkey. All of this creates an atmosphere of serious tension and exaggeration in Turkey. Exaggerated, provocative assessments are made such as: they will partition us, we are being robbed of our Turkish and religious identity and the missionaries are coming. Such exaggeration brings xenophobia into being, because Turkish society has only recently started opening up to the world.

It has been nearly thirty years. Can this still be called recent?

Yes. Turkish society established relations with the outside world in 1980 and became confused. It thought that its identity and faith would be compromised, that it would lose its Turkish and Muslim identity. Actually, the first phase of any relationship involves childish worries and fears. The social psychology that has existed in this society since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire was further fed by new encounters within Turkey’s process of reintegration with the world such as the EU, globalisation and the Kurdish question.

One of the largest meetings in our history was held in Ankara on 14 April. These people were brought together by serious concerns. Despite this, it was later claimed that a large number of those present did not agree with the views expressed from the rostrum. What are these people demanding?

Peoples’ concrete demand is for Erdođan not to be president. The AKP interprets the power it wields in Parliament, which it acquired legitimately in the 2002 elections, to mean, “What I say goes; I will take the decisions. I have the power.” The AKP’s policy can be summed up as: “I will confer with my own authorised bodies. I will have the final word.” There is a saying, “The crowned head becomes wise.” This saying points to the need of the ruling power to establish a meaningful relationship with groups other than those which support it. But not all crowned heads become wise.

Has the AKP not become wise in power?

The opinion of a wide section of society is that it has not. The AKP has not brought sections apart from those that voted for it into the process of exercising power.

Well, did people attend the meeting in Tandođan because they wanted to prevent Erdođan from going to Çankaya, or in order to express opposition to globalisation and the EU, as was suggested by the views expressed from the rostrum? Or both of these?

Above all else, these people were saying, “We think differently. We exist in this country. We have our strength. Notice us.” Of course there are anti-EU and anti-globalisation strands to this, and these are important, but people did not pour onto the streets with such passion in support of abstract themes of this kind. Above all else, the single factor that made this meeting so well attended was opposition to something concrete; a focus on, an obsession with something concrete. This was Tayyip Erdođan. The most dominant principle driving opposition to Erdogan is the headscarf. In any case, the headscarf has brought political culture in Turkey to a head. It has managed to split Turkey in two. The headscarf has become a kind of litmus paper for everyone. They dip it in and say that you are that; they dip it in and say you are this. Nobody listens to one another and everyone classifies everyone else according to their stance on the headscarf. If you wife wears a headscarf, you are a certain kind of person. You have no chance of being anything else. Or if your wife does not wear a headscarf, you are also a certain kind of person and you cannot be anything else. Despite countless examples to the contrary, the headscarf has been turned into just such a litmus paper.

Why did opposition to Erdođan’s presidency and opposition to the EU find expression in the same meeting? Do these two views have a common denominator? Does support for one imply support for the other?

There is a significant overlap. For these people, Erdođan, apart from the headscarf, represents a kind of unbridled globalisation and a firm intention towards the EU. Thus, in opposing Erdođan, to avoid placing too much emphasis on the headscarf and base their opposition on something more meaningful and intelligent, the questions of the EU and globalisation are brought to the fore.

Why do nearly a million people come out onto the street and voice their opposition to an Erdođan presidency in such a moving manner?

This opposition does not have a great deal to with concerns that Turkey will undergo grave changes under Erdođan, and that the country will be shrouded in darkness. In fact, all of these fears are the consequences of a power struggle. In Turkey, power is gradually changing hands. The people who assembled in Tandođan actually feel themselves to be powerless in Turkey’s current political order. They do not see themselves as important and influential people within decision-making processes. These are the very sections of society that were previously in power and have now lost that power. Moreover, these groups also appear to have no prospect of bringing their ideas to power in the foreseeable future.

If we approach things from the point of view of class, segment and social group, who has lost power in Turkey; who are the new holders of power?

In terms of the classic sociological distinction between the ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’, those social groups inhabiting the periphery are currently in power. These are the new town-dwellers, villagers and small-town people. These wish to participate in the political game in the country, take advantage of this political structure’s propensity for distributing graft and largesse, and to prosper from this. At the same time, the country is opening to the world. As it does so, they see that Turkey requires to rationalise, introduce certain standards and develop intelligent economic relations. This is another reason why they support the EU. An important point is that a key segment of the AKP’s base consists of those who have grown fat since the 1980’s, that is people who have made the leap from being tradesmen and merchants to engagement in industry, export and business; groups whose markets are no longer restricted to Turkey. This social group not only trades in goods and services with the world; it enters into human, cultural and political relations with the world. These people are gradually opening up their lives to the world, they are undergoing a transformation. They are basically the Republic’s alternative elite. They are very well aware that they owe their political and economic elite status, and their intellectual status, to Turkey’s democratic structure, to the Republic.

So, who has lost power?

These are people who became urbanised two or three generations ago. They are educated, secular social groups who positioned themselves around the core elite echelons who founded the Republic and have until now managed the state. This group, having in the past benefited from the largesse distributed by the political structure and having grown accustomed to graft from the state, identifies itself with the state. It perceives itself to be the owner of the state and is troubled by AKP rule.

It is said that the prospect of an Erdođan presidency has created a fear among people that, “Sharia law is on the way”. Do people believe that, if Erdođan goes to Cankaya, the AKP will introduce Sharia law?

In 1996 we conducted detailed field research in 14 provinces. This was one year before 28 February. Debate on the issue of secularism had begun to flare up. The Aczemendis had moved into the open. We asked if there was a Sharia threat in Turkey. The proportion of those believing there was a Sharia threat turned out to be 2%. The notion of a Sharia threat has no place within the social reality of this country. In the 1999 elections, the CHP conducted a campaign with a strong focus on secularism and received 8% of the vote. The CHP was unable to address the people when it made secularism its main plank. Of course, there exist people who are sincerely concerned by the prospect of Sharia, but I don’t believe this concern was shared by all of those who assembled in Tandođan. The AKP does not wish to implement Sharia and the like, either. In any case, the vast majority of AKP supporters do not want this.

In fact, when people say, “Sharia is coming”, they are referring to moderate Islam. The phenomenon known as 'fear of Sharia' is actually a certain degree of Islamisation of life in this country. So, does the AKP wish to introduce moderate Islam?

The AKP makes no such claim. However, one thing is clear: the AKP inevitably brings its own sociological reality with it into politics. This is nothing but moderate Islam. In other words, the AKP brings moderate Islam into politics, not as a project, but ‘per se’. Turkey’s sociology is brought into politics. Then, the thing we call the “AKP” is not a speculative entity. It is a section of society. Their way of thinking and living in one sense determines the way they appear in politics. It is just this appearance that has heightened some people’s concerns.

What kind of mass base does the AKP have?

These people wish both to remain Muslim and to enter relations with the world. But they are changing through the experience of maintaining industrial, commercial, political and intellectual relations with the Islamic world. These people are also changing through their relations with groups which are concerned about the Sharia threat. For example, those who only yesterday would not shake a woman’s hand now extend a hand towards women. Only when it comes to matters like the headscarf - since it is seen as an area in which identity itself is created there a tendency to stand one’s ground on this matter.

Have the law on adultery, municipalities that try to remove places which serve alcohol outside cities and strange texts in certain children’s books not played any part?

They have. The AKP, on the one hand, claims to have adopted a new profile, to have changed. On the other hand, it feels the need to address its core community. Certain sensitivities felt by these grass-root supporters on Islamic matters appear to other groups in Turkey as confrontation. And a contradiction arises in the AKP’s style of conducting politics. Another point is that over time, as they interact and encounter objections, the social and political segments which the AKP represents will further modernise and come to examine their own situation more critically. This is because the Turkish brand of Islamism is changing; it is undergoing internal change as a result of relations it establishes with others. These people are abandoning their cloistered lives and are moving into community life. In other words, they are moving out of a clique and into society. The general and presidential elections are simply triggering the split which is currently felt in society.

What is it about Erdođan’s behaviour that still makes him appear to a large number of people, despite being a politician who has pulled of the historic coup of putting his signature to EU membership, as a Sharia supporter?

They see his wife’s and daughters’ headscarves, and his daughters’ and his own religious school background, as concrete symbols of his Islamic intentions. For religious schools, like headscarves, arouse strong passions. At the same time, when political appointments are made, the preference shown to persons coming from a certain tradition also causes concern. When all ministers’ wives wear headscarves, this gives rise to a certain feeling and creates the feeling that this force which has come to power does not particularly represent Turkey’s sociology. After all, not everyone in Turkey wears a headscarf. Furthermore, the AKP came to power not with the support of Islamists alone, but also with the support of non-Islamists. This heterogeneous structure exists within the party, but when it comes to making civil service appointments and filling the ranks of the upper echelons, the AKP has not preserved this heterogeneous structure. It has made appointments from within its own world. The AKP has not occupied the centre ground. Its way of filling posts isn’t representative of Turkey.

The AKP has for a long time slowed down its EU game. If it had shown more enthusiasm towards EU membership on 17 December, would society still have such fears about Sharia?

They would have diminished a little, but would not have been eliminated entirely. Since the EU is a kind of modernisation project, continuing on the EU road would have strengthened perceptions that Turkey is a place where secret calculations and scenarios cannot be realised through political means.

Does the mismatch between the party’s structure and Europe play a role in the AKP distancing itself from the EU?

The AKP has a dual character and structure. One face of the AKP is sensitive to Islamic values, nationalistic and anti-EU. Its other face, by contrast, is integrated into the modern world and is comfortable with the prevailing rules there, as far as the economy and markets go. But, of course, the real world cannot be divided so neatly. If you are pro-EU in economic terms, this has implications for social and cultural life. Look, if we make the following assessment of the AKP, we are guilty of an error: We cannot say that it was basically opposed to the EU, saw this as a mere tool for it to use for a limited time, and supported the EU for a period to shore up its own legitimacy and reduce the soldiers’ guardianship over politics, only later to move into opposition. There is an economic and class basis to the AKP’s relations with the EU. One face of the AKP is on exceptionally cordial terms with Europe. This is because those economic forces at its core which brought the AKP to power have taken their place in the EU world. They earn their bread from Europe and have their future there. Consequently, the AKP will continue on the EU road.

So, in your opinion, what conclusions should we draw from the Ankara meeting?

I think they have already been drawn. The AKP did not bring the mass of the electorate into its Çankaya election calculations. These focused on parliament and were premised on the position that Parliament would decide; these were the rules of the game. But the Ankara meeting showed that the presidential elections had a social base and were not purely a Parliamentary affair. The AKP has now taken this into account. It has seen that the presidential election will have an impact on the general elections. Tayyip Erdođan may not stand.

Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton