Halil, you have just published a great chapter on Turkey in the Routledge Handbook of Illiberalism. Oftentimes, we tend to use several concepts such as populism, illiberalism, and authoritarianism simultaneously, while they do not entirely overlap. Could you tell us more about the evolution of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) from challenging political liberalism to moving more toward authoritarianism, and how it has become critical of political liberalism while pursuing neoliberal policies?
Thank you so much, Marlene, for the kind words. I am humbled by the invitation to take part in your project. It is, indeed, a very important point to draw attention to the fact that populism, illiberalism, and authoritarianism are often used interchangeably, while they must be analytically kept apart by researchers and pundits alike. This is mostly because we often observe them simultaneously embodied by a certain regime, which manifests itself as an illiberal populist autocracy.
What has preoccupied scholars and pundits alike during the latter half of the 2010s, especially after Trumpism’s rise to power in the US, is the sweeping wave of populism, which had been a well-researched phenomenon before, with its left-wing versions, especially in Latin America. The unfamiliar and in some ways uncharted territory was its now predominant right-wing versions with the rise of Putinism, joined by similar regimes in several Central and Eastern European countries, Turkey, the US, Brazil, and even India.
In my piece, I draw on Antonino Castaldo’s (2018) argument about populism, as it serves as a catalyst for competitive authoritarianism, most prominently formulated by Steven Levitsky and James Loxton (2013). As for the Turkish case, there are some peculiarities. For a long time, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s hard slog toward uncontested power in Turkey was conceived by the liberal scholarship as a slow march to democratic consolidation, as it was preceded by a military tutelary regime that was institutionalized by several coups, the last of which was dubbed “the soft-coup of 1997.” Perhaps Turkey stands out from the other examples with Erdoğan’s earlier tenure, which seemed to be a democratizing or liberalizing force in Turkey in a post-coup era, similar to the earlier post-coup, liberal transitionary regimes of Turkey in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1980s.
In this latest context, “civilianization” was taken to be identical with democratization reforms, mostly emboldened and prompted by Turkey’s EU bid. That is why many scholars could only retrospectively tease out the continuities in Erdoğan’s populist discourses and policies from the early 2000s onwards. If you asked the liberal supporters of Erdoğan throughout the first decade of 21st century, they would be dismissive of some of his more worrisome populist statements by saying “he just says them to mobilize the base and only his actual policies should matter.” He was not even called out as being “populist” back then, except by a few scholars, especially in works by Yunus Sözen (2010). Lo and behold, now most of those liberals have come to realize that those worrisome statements designed to incite nationalist or conservative crowds have escalated over time, gradually, with more and more accompanying authoritarian policies and practices.
Accordingly, the Erdoğan regime can be divided into three eras, each of which roughly corresponds to an electoral term. From 2002 to 2007, the economy was at the forefront of the government’s agenda. Turkey was coming right out of the economic crisis of 2001, and the post-coup government of 1997–2001 had miserably failed the country. Nonetheless, its economic minister, former World Bank economist Kemal Derviş’s neoliberal reforms to pull the country out of the abyss were wholeheartedly embraced and implemented by the AKP government with its secure parliamentary majority. There was a wide coalition behind the government at the time, although there were skeptics, cynics, and worried secularists who did not want the AKP government to cross the boundaries of economic policies and trespass into social and cultural matters. Erdoğan and his associates had carefully shelved those subjects, especially the burning issue of hijab bans on campuses. Back then, for many liberals and democrats, democratization meant the translation of the wishlist of the conservative base of the AKP into more rights and liberties.
Once the country was on the economic reform path by 2007, the AKP moved on to the area of political rights and liberties, especially on the Kurdish issue. The EU’s strong push for civilianization, legal and political reforms, and especially the EU’s practices of conditionality (the use of conditions attached to the provision of benefits such as a financial assistance, loans, or debt relief) were cleverly appropriated by the AKP cadres to legislate more liberal rights for the wider public, which for them meant more religious rights for their base as well. Interestingly, the AKP waited until 2010 to lift the hijab ban on the campuses. The famous saying until that time was, “the AKP is in power but not powerful.”
For the liberal coalition, criticizing AKP back then amounted to supporting the military’s tutelary power over civilian politics, which is by definition regressive and anti-democratic. That is why most of those constituents were taken aback when they much later realized that the 2010 referendum, instead of creating a democratic post-Kemalist Turkey, had actually laid the groundwork for an uncontested and unchecked authoritarianism. It was a gamble for them: they could only hope that Erdoğan and his associates would use their unchecked power in favor of democracy, but as the age-old wisdom shows, the removal of checks and balances only meant that power would corrupt and tyranny would reign. This is what indeed happened. From 2011 to 2015, and even more so since then, we have witnessed the deepening of authoritarianism and ever more power grabs by Erdoğan to subdue whole sectors of society under his arbitrary rule.
In short, what was missing from the liberal analyses for the pre-2010 Turkey was Erdoğan’s threatening populist discourse: that he represented the real people, the real Turkey against the Ankara swamp (that is, the establishment, the deep state, or the bureaucratic tutelage or oligarchy), accompanied by his gradual and arduous buildup of a populist autocracy. Having been elected to power meant to him only that he represented the “national will,” which translated into the mandate to repress the opposition, and dissidents were by the same token equated with anti-democratic thugs. Eventually, the country together realized that his words indeed did matter, and he had meant what he said all along. Moreover, the removal of the old Turkey’s institutional guardrails amounted not only to the removal of the military’s vestigial authority within civilian institutions, but also to the gradual erosion of all checks and balances as well as of the separation of powers.
The most clearly ignored or missed facts were that Erdoğan was busy building the infrastructure of his autocracy, all while the liberal coalition was preoccupied with its intramural fight against the secularist Kemalists’ vestigial powers within the state bureaucracy. This final point is what I tried to elaborate in my article.
Turkey used to be seen as the poster child of “Muslim democracy.” Now it seems to be seen as an example of “Muslim authoritarianism.” Could you elaborate on the place for ideational construction in Erdoğan’s power? What is the role of cultural values (especially conservative mores) and ideological content (neo-Ottomanism, references to Islam, nationalism) in today’s Turkish political playing field?
What I have tried to resist while analyzing the Erdoğan regime is the essentially ideological readings of his statecraft or power conglomerate. I maintain the position that political, not ideological, analysis of the Turkish regime is necessary. That said, an important part of this package is of course the discursive construction of his power structure, not only in the Foucauldian sense of the term, but also through certain policies that carry purportedly ideological content—whether Islamist, Ottomanist, or Turkish-nationalist in character. In my argument, these ideological covers serve the overall populist policies that have catalyzed Erdoğan’s form of authoritarianism. By this, I join the analyses that dubbed this formation as “competitive authoritarianism,” as argued by my colleagues, first by Murat Somer (2014) and most prominently by Berk Esen and Şebnem Gümüşçü (2016).
I realize that I need to update some of the theoretical analysis by means of the valuable current line of research on comparative populisms, especially in terms of the interplays, or rather the social logics or social theory of populism vis-à-vis authoritarianism. But tentatively I put forward populism both as a discursive formation to whip up public support for the regime, and also in the form of very material and real policies. Conservative mores in the Turkish context also serve to repress dissent. Interestingly enough, as the regime got increasingly more authoritarian after the 2013 Gezi protests, purely political opposition was more and more channeled through environmentalist, LGBTQ, and feminist protests. We had one of the most colorful Pride Days during Gezi protests. Women’s Marches on March 8 have become even more spectacular under the post-coup emergency order.
Quite similar to its counterparts in Poland and Hungary, the regime took on these protests as a fundamental threat to Turkish mores and cultural values. You can see how culture has become a site of regime contestation and the Erdoğan regime rightly considers these challenges as a direct threat to its continuation in power. Many observers would dub these culture wars nothing more than the imposition of the Islamist policies, but as I have tried to clarify in my analysis, we are not dealing with a Taliban-type Islamist or religious fundamentalist regime, but something more like a religious populist one that caters to Islamist causes—as needed—to mobilize a certain segment of a society around the cause, as in the case of converting the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. This is just like how it caters to the nationalist base while invading the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, as Erdoğan boasted every day the number of “terrorists” Turkish drones had killed.
The other use of the religious repertoire for the regime’s survival is demographic. By increasing the number of imam-hatip (religious vocational) schools in and effectively forcing a huge percentage of children to enroll in these schools, Erdoğan does not seek to create an Islamist generation so much as he seeks to reproduce and expand his demographic base. He has not been successful in “bringing up new religious generations,” as he declared his goal to be in 2011 when faced with declining religiosity in Turkey. But to the extent he can accomplish this, religion has proven more “useful” to him than being the primary motivation for his power.
As for the popular debate on Neo-Ottomanism, a few observations can be made with respect to Turkish foreign policy. The AKP’s former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, as a more ideological personality, was widely associated with a neo-Ottomanist kind of irredentism and he was indeed frequently making statements to this effect about an Ottoman-Turkish comeback. That ideological policy has failed along with Turkey’s Syrian adventurism, which sought to topple the Assad regime through jihadi proxies and Saudi-Qatari money. As Erdoğan ousted his own PM Davutoğlu in May 2016 through the “Pelican Coup,” an ideological foreign policy was also replaced by a religious-nationalist populism, which has been less ideological and more pragmatic and realist. This is more like paying lip service to the Turkish version of Trump’s MAGA: Making Turkey Great Again, like in the Ottoman days, with a revived assertiveness on the world scene against the EU and the US. What is more interesting is the fact that it galvanizes not just the Turkish religious and nationalist base, but also world Muslims as well by showing off Turkish-Muslim gallantry against the Christian Western hegemons of the world. Even further to this effect, Erdoğan’s promises have delivered concrete policy outcomes in places such as Libya and Azerbaijan, and in Syria with definitive conquests and victories against the Kurds—unlike Davutoğlu’s failed adventures in places like Syria, where he tried unsuccessfully to topple President Bashar al-Assad, and elsewhere during the Arab Spring.
You have also worked on the notion of civilization. How is the idea of a civilizational identity used to project Turkish soft power? Is it to articulate a narrative of “decolonizing” from Western norms and models, as is often the case in many illiberal narratives coming from the Global South or the former socialist realm?
Misappropriation and abuse of post-colonial discourse has been an important pillar of the recent Erdoğanist and also global Islamist project, as I tried to argue in my piece. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, diasporic brands of political Islam were busy with dismantling the notion of the Islamic state and offering a democratic alternative. This was most famously named “post-Islamism” by Asef Bayat (1997). Turkey was promoted by many diasporic Muslims as the best case of Muslim democracy of the post-Islamist brand, as we see in the works of Nader Hashemi, Kamran Bokhari, and Farid Senzai. Interestingly enough, in the 2010s, this “liberal Islam” discourse, as I covered in my dissertation, was increasingly challenged and supplanted by a counter-hegemonic “Islamic liberation theology” discourse, as it aligned much better with the academic Left.
Quite remarkably, during the heyday of liberal Islam during the 2000s, when Turkey was the poster child of liberal post-Islamism, it was busy volunteering for the role of “alliance of civilizations” against the “clash of civilizations” circles. Civilization has always been a favorite concept in reformist and revivalist Muslim political thought, as Muslim intellectuals defined their mission as reviving “Islamic civilization.” Accordingly, this essentialist construct of Islamic civilization served a liberal purpose at that time, as we saw the Erdoğan government co-sponsoring the Alliance of Civilizations Initiative at the UN along with Spain.
However, as Turkey drifted away from both democracy and the alliance narrative, a more confrontational and counter-hegemonic notion of “liberation” from the West accompanied Turkey’s assertive role on the world scene. This also coincided with the post-Morsi [as president of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood] trajectory of worldwide Islamist intelligentsia under the auspices of the Erdoğan regime, as Istanbul and Doha became the new twin global Islamist hubs. As a case in point, Islamophobia has been instrumentalized and weaponized by the Turkish regime through its government or proxy think tanks, research centers, and global research projects it funds.
Thus, Turkey hits back at the Euro-American countries with their human rights records by patronizing the “victims” of Islamophobia in the Muslim diaspora as well as elevating Erdoğan to the role of patron and protector. A quite interesting example is a work by this group from the pro-Erdoğan Islamist intelligentsia, Islamophobia in Muslim Majority Societies (2019). This notion in the title not only stigmatizes the often repressed secular minorities in the Muslim-majority world as “Islamophobes,” but also takes Islamophobia in Muslim-majority countries to the epistemic level: “Islamophobia in the form of epistemic racism is as much existent within Islamic discourses that are based on a Eurocentric outlook of the world” (ibid., 1).
Thus, by the notion of self-Orientalism, they can argue that “the promotion of the Western way of life in Muslim societies by Westernized elites goes in parallel with hate attacks on Islam,” effectively associating secular lifestyles with possible criticisms against the religious repression of the secular minorities, even when they are repressed by conservative governments as in Turkey, with Islamophobic racism (p. 13–15). An oft-cited volume of that genre, Salman Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate, is another great example. In its acknowledgements, he hails a car ride with AKP intelligence officers and bureaucrats on Ankara streets, in a white Renault, the notorious and penultimate symbol of enforced disappearances in Turkey by the Turkish intelligence, as a “site of decolonization.”
In these examples we can see how the Third Worldist and even socialist liberation theology and the wider critique of Western hegemony have been appropriated by the new generation of Islamist discourse under the patronage of Erdoğan. Thus, to borrow their language, they can launch “epistemic attacks” against the “internal enemies” of those Islamist-friendly authoritarian regimes, who are ironically targeted and imprisoned by the very War on Terrorism discourse in the domestic sphere, while subjected to the self-Orientalism and epistemic racism charges by the propagators of this Muslim liberation discourse internationally.
We tend to analyze populism through a leader-centric lens, as mostly a top-down dynamic. Could you reverse that lens and tell us about the demand side for populism and illiberalism? Who are the social groups and constituencies in Turkish society that support such a political project and how could they be co-opted by the authorities?
One can gather from my piece in the Routledge volume that I am favoring some agency variables, especially Erdoğan’s agency, over some structural variables. I am, however, only resisting the arguments that pose Erdoğan as a passive recipient of the existential challenges to his government and to his party ever since he rose to power in late 2002. The other emphasis I am making is to demonstrate how from the very beginning of his tenure, Erdoğan has embarked on building the infrastructural basis of his regime by creating a loyal crony capitalist class, a dependent poor class of welfare checks distributed through his party machine, a crony or proxy-owned media propagating only the party line, knowledge-production centers in the media and academia that would make sure the official narratives are not subverted, and finally a co-opted civil society space that would pit “real” Turkish society against the “Western-funded, elitist, and traitorous elements” in civil society.
I am trying to narrate how, one by one, Erdoğan conquered all these societal and cultural spaces to create his hegemony. There was of course the demand side of this statecraft and Erdoğan neither acted in a vacuum, nor created his own choice set. The country was already largely divided between secularist and religious-conservative publics when he came to power. Ironically, during the first 10 years of liberal governance, those old cleavages had largely been dissipated. As old fault lines were gradually eroded through the AKP’s own reconciliatory policies, Erdoğan chose to create new fault lines around his own personality. That is why, as he turned into a much more polarizing figure, especially with the 2013 Gezi protests, the most he could do to polarize the country was to galvanize his base along religious-nationalist populist lines amidst a much more variegated opposition. The most telling example of this was how anti-capitalist Muslims were able to foil his attempts to portray Gezi as an anti-Islamic protest and thus how they became the utterly hated objects of pro-Erdoğan religious crowds. Likewise, amidst a highly polarized climate in the wake of the Gezi protests, Erdoğan signed legislation to allow hijabs in all public offices, hoping to incite a secularist backlash, though this did not happen. Gezi, or as we call it “the Gezi spirit,” remained a multi-colored social protest till the very end, as secular crowds flocked to the Earth Tables during Ramadan in the immediate aftermath of the Gezi protests.
Nonetheless, to the adamant supporters of the Erdoğan regime, his political survival amounted to a safeguard for their religious lifestyles, which used to be under a heavy onslaught by the preceding Kemalist secularism. Justified or not, Erdoğan lived on perpetuating these constant fears of a Kemalist comeback and through scarecrows of a certain backlash against religious freedoms, should he lose power. Recent transformations of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its obvious sidelining of the religious vs. secularist cleavage ameliorated this fear to a certain extent, but it is known that Erdoğan’s base continues to justify its support for such a repressive regime by magnifying fears of a Kemalist comeback.
Finally, in terms of the political economy of Erdoğan’s power structure, I have focused largely on the supply side, but the demand side is no less important. Erdoğan has been able to cater to a large clientele that would demand his perpetual power for the support of their livelihoods. The crony capitalist classes, the welfare dependents, the beneficiaries of his nepotistic bureaucratic or public corporation appointments, and lastly the members of the co-opted civil society, especially Islamist civil society, have together formed the pillars of Erdoğan’s support base. That is why Erdoğan was so fervent in his decision to cancel the Istanbul Municipal Elections in 2019 when the RPP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu won against all odds in an uphill battle. By then, it had become clear to the public how Istanbul’s vast economic base was such an important source of funneling public funds to the loyalist civil society with its government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), publishing houses and serials—in short: a pro-government public sphere. Currently, we see a gradual deterioration, even disintegration, of this support base as the currency crisis has made it much more challenging for Erdoğan to pump cash into it.
Halil Yenigun is from Istanbul, Turkey. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia’s (UVA) political theory program, with his dissertation titled, “The Political Ontology of Islamic Democracy: An Ontological Narrative of Contemporary Muslim Political Thought.” While living in Turkey after his Ph.D., he was dismissed from his assistant professor position at Istanbul Commerce University during the mass academic purges that started in January 2016 following the Peace Petition by the Academics for Peace. Thereafter, he worked as a post-doctoral scholar at Transregional Studies Forum, Berlin as well as Stanford University’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies. Since then, he’s taught at Stanford, UC Berkeley and San Jose State Universities as a lecturer. Yenigün has published and given lectures at several universities in Turkey, US, and Germany as well as occasional interviews to several media sources on Muslim political thought, Islamism, peace activism, American and Middle East politics, and Turkish democracy. He currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.