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Feb 11 2019

Turkey's new Sunni Islamism matches history of totalitarianism - academic

The rise to supremacy of the political Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) is widely seen as coinciding with the regression of democracy and rise of totalitarianism. Yet it would be a mistake, political scientist and Ahval contributor Cengiz Aktar said in an academic article, to deduce from this that Islam is incompatible with democracy and a pluralistic society.

“I’m tending to consider that Turkish failure has more to do with historical features of the polity than Islam’s alleged innate inadequacies,” Aktar said in his article, published in the January 2019 edition of Philosophy and Social Criticism journal.

The Turkish attitude to Islam until the AKP period had, Aktar said, a “schizophrenic” quality, which emerged from a founding principle that placed the religion as “the single common denominator among the participants” of the new, secular nation envisioned by the republic’s founders.

“The modus operandi obviously excluded the non-Muslim groups from the composition of the nation right from the beginning. Paradoxically it also excluded Muslim masses from the composition of the new nation by virtue of the principle of secularism or rather laicism, in a perfectly schizophrenic modus,” Aktar wrote.

“In other words, Turkey today is precisely at a point where Islam is becoming finally its main identity: ‘nation’ and ‘Muslim’, merging finally as one and the same,” said the scholar. “Such completion of Islam’s nationalization both literally and figuratively opened up, on the same time the opportunity of its total instrumentalization.”

This, he argues, has entailed Sunni homogenisation and corresponding demographic engineering to rid Turkey of ethnic or religious minorities “who don’t correspond to the redefined Sunni Turk,” mirroring the “dreadful precedent” set during the late Ottoman period, when minorities were massacred or expelled from Turkish territory.

So, Aktar said, as in that period, today’s situation sees the country’s minorities being marginalised or forced out entirely. With as many as 3.5 million “obedient Sunni Syrian refugees” currently in Turkey, and many of these willing to stay on, the AKP regime has a large reserve of potential citizens to replace them with, the scholar added. “The Sunni homogenization is in full swing.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, has pushed “undemocratic political culture to its conceptual limits” through a “A representative system of government exclusively defined by holding elections – moreover, non-free and unfair – in an environment where participation, power sharing, governance, accountability, and transparency are inexistent.”

The political group that gains the majority – in this case Erdoğan’s own “tribe” of Sunni Muslim voters, is allowed to rule at its own discretion, and Erdoğan has seized the Turkish judiciary and tied it to his political will to ensure it can do so.

Yet this, Aktar said, is not a new situation but a development of the system in place in the “Old Turkey” that preceded the AKP’s rule.

“‘Political law’ finds its essence in westernized Old Turkey’s political customs that excludes the majority, whereas its present-day nemesis excludes all kind of minorities and cultural diversities,” he said.

Consequently, Erdoğan has mustered an “overwhelming mass of followers” that shows “totalitarian features,” with which the president is able to communicate “in plain Turkish packed with quick fixes, in line with (their) level of education.”

“It looks as though the New Turkey project, as defined and conveyed by the regime through a sense of Sunni Islamist belonging, matches, and legitimizes the expectations of a totalitarian behavior nurturing at the social level,” Aktar said.

All these features of the AKP’s rule, however, have their roots in prior periods of Turkish history, from the absolutist Ottoman sultan Abdulhamit II and the Jacobinist Young Turks who preceded the switch to a republic, to the totalitarian aspects of the Armenian and Syriac genocides of 1915-1916.

The “failure of Turkish political Islam and the simultaneous rise of totalitarianism seem to have to do with an abortive social contract unqualified for accepting the peaceful antagonisms of various ethnic, religious, and social groups,” Aktar said.

 “Regardless the ideology underneath, Turkish homo politicus is against power sharing, devolution, and pluralism. He is keen of justice only if that justice is for the followers of his asabiyya. He is keen to preserve the ‘master-obedient servant’ relation, worships a radical nationalism, and be predisposed to violence ... Overall, he is not prone to democracy and pluralism,” he said.