ISTANBUL ― A year ago, on the evening of a failed coup attempt against the government of Turkey, I was celebrating a family wedding in a posh restaurant on the Bosporus in Istanbul. I was at a table with the grandfather of the young bride ― my uncle, who is a law professor and prominent representative of the secular Turkish elite. In 1999, when Turkey applied for full membership in the European Union, he was the minister of foreign affairs.
The two of us share a commitment to Europe. But we diverge on many other issues, especially in the ways we perceive democracy in Turkey. He supports the preservation of the pillars of the republic. I stand for a radical change, for the reformation of the republic. I believe it is necessary to tackle sensitive topics, including Islam, Kurdish rights, the Armenian Genocide and the military coups that have been endemic to Turkey’s political system. He believes that any concession on secularism and national unity would weaken the republic.
When the AKP, the Justice and Development Party, came to power in 2002, Turkey was in tune with global culture, integrated into the world economy and was the first Muslim-majority country to be a candidate for entry into the European Union. The AKP had its roots both in conservative religious tradition, Islamist youth movements and the liberal Muslim legacy of preceding leaders.
As Europhiles, we believed in the capacity of the European political project to have a democratizing effect.
It is a historical irony that Turkey began democratic reforms and negotiations with the EU under the AKP government. Hardliners were suspicious of these reforms — they believed that the ostracism of the military would threaten Turkey and that the Islam-oriented government was undertaking a perilous adventure. Meanwhile, Europeans were distrustful of Turkey’s desire for European acceptance — Turkey appeared as a Muslim and culturally alien country to European civilization. For most journalists and opinion makers, including intellectuals on the left, Turkey’s democratic reforms were superficial, undertaken on paper to impress European decision-makers.
One of the reforms the EU wanted Turkey to undertake was an abolition of the death penalty. Thinking back to that time, my disappointment is immense. For reformists like me, it would have been a radical step toward getting over Turkey’s historical traumas and avoiding new ones. At that time (and still today), Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish separatist armed organization PKK, was in prison. The abolition of the death penalty meant sparing him and fighting against the claims of Turkish nationalists, both from the secular and religious spectrum of politics.
The reforms the EU wanted were not possible without giving up assimilative nationalism, one of the pillars of Republican ideology. Secular and Muslim democrats, civil society organizations, Kurdish intellectuals and business people were all mobilized around the reforms. As Europhiles, we believed in the capacity of the European political project to have a democratizing effect. In spite of the awakening of Islamic movements, the headscarf debates on university campuses and the Kurdish separatist movement, Turkey was a potential model for the cohabitation of Islam, secularity and pluralism.
I realized during these controversial debates that Turkey could never have won the hearts of Europeans.
However, I realized during these controversial debates that Turkey could never have won the hearts of Europeans. Values have deep roots in culture and religion, and the claim to universalism has its limits. The long-seated history of Europeanization, the reformist legacy of the Young Ottomans, the positivist heritage of the Young Turks and the secularism of Atatürk did not seem sufficient to erase cultural divides and religious frontiers.
Would this signify the failure of civilizational conversion and a clash of cultures? In his book The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington describes Turkey as a “country torn between two civilizations,” doomed to fail. In order for a civilizational conversion to succeed, he lays out a number of conditions that need to be met — Turkey’s elites need to be determined and its people agreeable, and Europe must be receptive. The pact seems to be broken now. The ruling elites of Turkey have adopted a very hostile discourse against Europe. Populism is feeding Turkish resentment toward the West. And Europe continues to deny Turkey access into the EU.
The question can be rephrased from a more global perspective: Does Western liberal democracy still hold its power as a model for freedom and equality? Illiberal values and populist movements are gaining ground not only among emerging countries and in authoritarian regimes but also among Western democracies. Turkey, an interface country between Islam and the West, finds itself at the epicenter of this transmutation. Over the last three decades, a country of promise, an emerging star in the Middle East, a model Muslim country that combined religion and secularism, economic development, political pluralism and open society, now faces a total collapse of its democratic institutions and individual freedoms.
Values have deep roots in culture and religion, and the claim to universalism has its limits.
Two major Islamic configurations in Turkey were thought to represent an alternative to radical forms of Islam. The political Islam of the AKP and the pious Islam of the Gulenist movement stood for pluralistic and enlightened Islam. The Gulenist movement, which is well known for its schools all over the world, preaches tolerance, consensual politics and interfaith dialogue. But it is now feared to be a secret organization with a hidden agenda, accused of being the perpetrator of the failed coup attempt. The two versions of Islam, both mostly Sunni and ethnically Turkish, have entered into a fierce war for the state.
Since the coup attempt last year, the AKP has purged or arrested thousands of citizens viewed as opponents, especially within the media and academia. We are witnessing a reversal of AKP politics. The same power that abolished the death penalty in 2004 promises now to restore it. The peace process with the Kurds that started under the AKP government came to a halt. Acting through the electoral process, the AKP turned its popularity into a tyranny of the majority.
Turkish society is going through radical change, turning from an open society into one governed by Islamic populism. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey is converging with a global wave of populism, defined by a return to authoritarianism, a constitution that benefits the majority at the expense of minorities, and a celebration of religious and nativist values.
Acting through the electoral process, the AKP turned its popularity into a tyranny of the majority.
With the Turkish constitutional referendum in April, like with Brexit in the U.K. and Donald Trump’s election in the U.S., we can observe a social fracture appearing between urban social classes, cultured elites, minorities, and those who defend the frontiers of the national community. New opponents to the regime do not recognize themselves in the populist majority narrative. The Gezi Park youth movement in June 2013 and the 24-day march for justice from Ankara to Istanbul in July are among the examples of emerging opposition movements.
For the secular establishment, including my uncle, the abuse of state power by Islamists was predictable from the very beginning. For them, the reformists not only failed to assess the danger but also facilitated the dismantling of the pillars of Atatürk’s republic. They have supported the removal of the headscarf ban from universities and the peace process with the Kurdish separatist movement. The last time I saw my uncle, he knew that I was among the academician signatories calling for peace with the Kurds. During our dinner, without hiding the profound disappointment in his voice, he said, “Since you were a leftist in your university years in Ankara, I have personally tried to better your education, to influence your worldview. Now, after 40 years, I realize that I failed. It is over.”
For the secular establishment, the abuse of state power by Islamists was predictable from the very beginning.
He felt bitter that I have not succeeded to ensure the continuity of the Republican heritage. Nothing could have made me feel more miserable than these words. Not only because I valued my uncle’s opinion and looked for his recognition but also because I had the feeling that our lifelong conversation had come to a halt. I could find no words; no argument came to my help. The idea of Europe was no longer a shared ideal between us.
Those of us who had hope in the indigenous dynamics of democratization in Turkey were silenced, imprisoned or accused of being traitors. Coming from two different generations, in spite of the divide between us — he as a conservative, me as a radical reformist — we were both committed to the ideals of the republic, individual freedom, women’s rights and the rule of law. But now we are witnessing a profound feeling of loss — secular intellectuals no longer command the future of Turkey.