Hard times for the "champion" of political Islam

As everything points to a clear victory for the AKP in Turkey's local elections, Turkish political scientist Cengiz Aktar takes stock of 11 years of Erdogan's rule. He says that Turkey's political and economic problems are home made and are caused by the fact that the AKP has been in power for too long and Erdogan's growing inability to enter into political co-operation. Nevertheless, he cautions against celebrating the downfall of political Islam

By Cengiz Aktar

Recently Islam watchers have been busy pointing at yet another blow to political Islam but this time a heavy one. Turkey and its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are going through hard times for some time now and the woes are deepening every day. As the "champion" of political Islam among Muslim countries, Turkey was a "model" for some, a source of inspiration for others, thanks to its successful achievements in matching the requirements of modernity with religious belief. But model, Turkey is no more.

A triple discrepancy started slowly to emerge over the years in foreign activism, democratic credentials at home and shortcomings in the economic boom. Though Turkey is still in a much better shape than many fellow Muslim countries, its star doesn't shine as before.

Lack of experience in balancing grand values and real politics ended up in sheer confessionalism jeopardising relations with neighbouring countries. Moreover overconfidence in self has quickly shifted the focus from strategic bonds (European Union membership and NATO) to global delusions such as dreaming of becoming a Shanghai Cooperation Council member and purchasing NATO-incompatible Chinese missile systems.

At home, winning election after election, the ruling AKP and its uncontested leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan have enjoyed unlimited power which was ever strengthened through the steady erosion of remaining checks and balances at all levels of the administration.

Majoritarianism thus became both the cause and the consequence of political Islam's power. As a result, in terms of democracy and the rule of law, Turkey is now heading in the opposite direction to the one it has successfully taken since 2002 with the European Union accession process.

Demonstrators protesting against the Erdogan government in Istanbul (photo: Reuters)
"Enough is enough!": supporters of the opposition demonstrating against Erdogan's government policy. Turkey has been rocked by a corruption scandal since the middle of December: dozens of AKP politicians and businessmen close to the party have been arrested. Four ministers have resigned and numerous MPs from the AKP have left the party in protest

In terms of economic performance, Turkey's never properly addressed the structural problems that resurfaced and constituted obstacles to overcoming the middle-income trap in which the economy has now solidly fallen. Fuelled almost exclusively by a booming mass consumption and the construction industry, the Turkish economy has now reached its structural limits.

To go further, it needs an overhaul of the labour market, the tax system, the entire education institution as well as research and development undertakings. Short of natural resources and handicapped by a particularly low savings rate, the Turkish economy is now in narrow straits to finance its current account deficit arising from consumption-driven activity.

The negative effects of the ongoing political instability are worsening the situation by driving away the much-needed foreign direct investment (FDI).

Man-made woes

All these woes are man-made. They have chiefly resulted from three factors. First, AKP's much too long stay in power, and in particular of Erdogan who has fallen victim to the corruption of power as stated by Lord Acton. Second, the overconfidence which resulted from early successes in economy, democratic reforms and diplomatic activism. And third, a rising ineptness growing out of Erdogan's one-man-show and lack of team work. But they are interpreted differently inside and outside the country.

In Turkey, the former elite's staunch anti-religion stance has resurfaced vigorously as soon as the government's woes became apparent. The case has recently acquired international dimensions with a French paper pointing at the failures of the AKP. This is important, as it adds to the grim state of political Islam after the Arab awakening.

Let us recall the words of journalist Ariane Bonzon, who claimed that the intellectuals who gave credit to the ruling AKP were actually useful idiots for the ruling party. She argued that those who warned in 2002 that the AKP had ulterior motives have been justified today.

Cengiz Aktar (photo: private)
Cengiz Aktar is a journalist, political scientist and senior scholar at Istanbul Policy Center. As a former director at the United Nations where he spent 22 years of his professional life, he is one of the leading advocates of Turkey's integration into the EU

To sum it up roughly, her argument amounts to the following: "Islam cannot be reconciled with democracy. What else do you think?"

This essentialist and vulgar school of thought points to the Turkish ills as much as at the ongoing difficulties in Arab countries. The cliche about "Islam's discrepancy with the modern world", which has been around since the 16thcentury, is back in force.

Today, the obviously chaotic process of the Arab awakening and the current poor performance of Erdogan-led political Islam in Turkey are used in the West to revive this cliche. The judgment is conveniently pronounced on all Muslim countries, but its anachronism and irrationality is truly deplorable.

Alas, for those who celebrate the end of political Islam, Muslims will continue to search for ways to enjoy modernity without dispensing with their beliefs. They will be more secular and they will learn how to live together without killing each other by fits and starts. For a long time to come, political Islam will play a significant role in this search.

In the case of Turkey, can we just strike off political Islam for its ever-increasing errors based on how Erdogan and his cronies are performing? Can we just ignore what has been achieved since 2002 but focus on the country's failure to attain a full-fledged democracy? Can we turn a blind eye to how the AKP put a spike in the wheels of Ittihadist/Kemalist tutelage?

Those today who hail the collapse of political Islam and celebrate should rather lend support to Muslims' search for a better world, in the interest of all.

Cengiz Aktar

© Al Jazeera/ResetDoc 2014