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How Nativism in Turkey is Stifling Democracy

How Nativism in Turkey is Stifling Democracy

The failed coup of 2016 has boosted nativism in Turkey, endangering the future of democracy in the country.

The coup has remolded Turkey in an irreversible fashion. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hitherto loved by his followers and having barely survived an attempt on his life, emerged from the abortive putsch as the embodiment of “people’s will” in the eyes of his base.

As I explain in The New Sultan, Turkey’s brand of political Islam in Turkey, championed by Erdogan, is first and foremost a nativist movement, which sees only its supporters as the true people of the land. Erdogan, who came to power through his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, is a proto-type of nativist leaders globally. Erdogan’s political antecedents are rooted in National Outlook, an essentialist Turkish political movement that he joined in the 1970s as a young adult.

The conflicts that unfolded in Turkey during Erdogan’s in the 1970s were not between secularism and Islam. Rather, during this time period, the Cold War contest between the left and the right provided the symbols and labels for political unrest, resulting in violent civil war-like fighting on the streets.

Erdogan and his conservative friends watched as the Marxist left and the nationalist right battled one another over their conflicting ideological visions. Little excited him in this contest. The Marxist jargon of the leftist students was foreign and obscure. The ultra-nationalists claimed to stand for patriotic values and traditional morality, though they also subscribed to Turkish racial superiority. The latter stance alienated the National Outlook movement, which regarded all Muslims as equal brothers, from the nationalists.

In the 1970s, among Erdogan’s social circle and across Muslim-majority countries, a unique political message was gaining traction. Erdogan’s sensibilities closely aligned with this new ideology: political Islam. Theorists like Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Ali Shariati in Iran argued that the “Muslim world” had taken a disastrous turn when it turned to secular ideologies, whether nationalism, or Marxism, as the answers to society’s problems.

The political Islamists believed that such ideologies had nothing to offer Muslim nations except more of the same: poverty, and repression, coupled with cultural and political humiliation by the West. Returning to Islam, or rather, the version of Islam that this new movement’s leaders propounded, was the only way to lift the masses out of their misery.

Therefore, Turkey’s transformation would not be premised on a foreign ideology. The country’s salvation had to derive from the stock of traditions and ideas that had made the Turks great in past centuries—the conservatives’ understanding of the necessity of Islamic guidance to politics. This native political movement would embody the essence of the Turkish nation against its opponents; only such a movement could succeed to make Turkey great again.

Dubbed the National Outlook, this brand of political Islamism that matured in the 1970s never grew tired of defining the world in terms of religious enmities. Unfortunately, despite the AKP’s pro-business approach, these same timeworn themes have worked their way into Erdogan’s rhetoric. This prejudice has resurfaced in recent years; a case in point was Erdogan’s dark suggestion in 2012 of the existence of an “interest-rate lobby”—a poorly veiled code for the Jewish community—that is conspiring to keep Turkey financially unstable for the “lobby’s own benefit.”  Comprehending Erdogan requires understanding the pervasive intellectual influence imprinted on him by his antecedents in the National Outlook movement.

Erdogan and other AKP cadres view only those that embrace political Islam as representing the people’s will, as well as being the true inheritors of Turkey. According to this weltanschauung, the AKP’s detractors, nearly half of the country constituting of around 40 million people, stand for alien and imported foreign interests. For them, the opposition groups are “proxies” for outside actors conspiring to undermine Erdogan’s agenda of making Turkey great again.

Erdogan’s ideological antecedents from the 1970s continue to shape him decades later, even as Turkey’s most powerful leader. The 2013 Gezi Park rallies and 2016 coup attempt, though two starkly different events (the first was a liberal civil-society movement and the second a nefarious plot by a would-be junta), were, at least for Erdogan, instances of the same phenomenon: foreign-backed conspiracies to topple the people’s will.

It is not certain yet whether the Turkish opposition will muster enough votes to oust Erdogan and the AKP in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24. However, if this were to happen, it is inconceivable that Erdogan’s base may not accept defeat. In a recent AKP meeting, party vice-chairman Mustafa Atas claimed that the opposition, “Tried to invade the country over and over again in the previous elections but failed, and that they will fail again on June 24.”

The nativist motto is simple: democracy empowers us, the people, and we shall not be voted out. The problem with nativists in democracies is that they see elections not as a process through which government changes hand, but rather as a step that brings the “people” to power –finally and forever.

Soner Cagaptay, the Beyer Family Fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, is the author of The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey 

About The Author

Soner Cagaptay

Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. He has written extensively on U.S.-Turkish relations, Turkish domestic politics, and Turkish nationalism, publishing in scholarly journals and major international print media, including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, Jane's Defense Weekly, Foreign Affairs, Atlantic, New Republic, and Newsweek Türkiye. He has been a regular columnist for Hürriyet Daily News, Turkey's oldest and most influential English-language paper, and a contributor to CNN's Global Public Square blog. He appears regularly on Fox News, CNN, NPR, Voice of America, BBC, and CNN-Turk. A historian by training, Dr. Cagaptay wrote his doctoral dissertation at Yale University (2003) on Turkish nationalism. Dr. Cagaptay has taught courses at Yale, Princeton University, Georgetown University, and Smith College on the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe. His spring 2003 course on modern Turkish history was the first offered by Yale in three decades. From 2006-2007, he was Ertegun Professor at Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies. Dr. Cagaptay is the recipient of numerous honors, grants, and chairs, among them the Smith-Richardson, Mellon, Rice, and Leylan fellowships, as well as the Ertegun chair at Princeton. He has also served on contract as chair of the Turkey Advanced Area Studies Program at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute. In 2012 he was named an American Turkish Society Young Society Leader.

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