The rise of Turkey’s ‘hypocritical’ Islamists

By Çağlar Ezikoğlu

The more that the Justice and Development Party and its supporters have embraced religious rhetoric, the more they have acted in ways that run counter to the most basic Islamic values.

A gathering of the strongly pro-Erdoğan “Ottoman Hearths” in Istanbul. Source:

A theatre academy founded by thespian Müjdat Gezen was set alight in Istanbul last month, adding to the atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the build up to the constitutional referendum. Gezen, an outspoken critic of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has long been a target for Islamists and conservative supporters of the government, with Yeni Akit, a conservative pro-government newspaper, reporting the attack as a “huge shock to pimp Gezen” on its Twitter account.

After being detained by the police, it emerged that the suspected arsonist was also a strong supporter of President Erdoğan; regularly posting content with religious and conservative themes on social media. But with little sense of irony, he claims to have little memory of the crime, which he says was carried out under the influence of alcohol.

This profile is typical of a certain brand of ‘hypocritical’ Islamism that has emerged in recent years under the AKP, under which, despite the explicit prohibition of both drinking and hate speech in Islam, opponents of the government can be drunkenly attacked and denounced as ‘pimps’ by those who are loudest in their so-called religious devotion.

The AKP and the roots of Islamism in Turkish politics

The political cadres that formed the AKP in 2001 had impeccable Islamist credentials. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his colleagues learned their trade under Turkish Islamism’s modern founder, Necmettin Erbakan, the political and theological driving force behind the Milli Görüş (“National Outlook”) movement.

Rooted in the humble beginnings of the “Turkish Union”, a small conservative association formed in 1967 by migrants in Berlin, over a short period of time Milli Görüş became one of the leading Turkish diaspora organizations in Europe and one of the largest Islamic organizations in the Western world.

With the organization’s extensive financial support, Erbakan founded the National Order Party in 1970, which became the first Islamist party in Turkish politics and the first in a series of political parties that would carry the Milli Görüş flame.

Despite the party being closed down (along with all other political parties) after the military coups in 1971 and 1980, Milli Görüş’s political breakthrough came in the 1995 general election, when the Welfare Party (which it had founded) became the country’s largest, taking 158 seats with 21% of the vote. Erbakan eventually became the prime minister at the head of a coalition government in 1996.

The Welfare Party was forced from power by the so-called “post-modern coup” on February 28, 1997, and was ultimately closed down after being found in violation of a strictly secular interpretation of the constitution.

The AKP learnt important lessons from Milli Görüş’s difficult history. Rejecting the Welfare Party’s anti-Western ideology, the party’s leaders instead emphasized individual rights and freedoms in the Western mould.

Such efforts to ‘modernize’ the movement were initially welcomed by many Islamists. However, this began to wane after the AKP’s victory in the 2011 elections. With the party’s political position secured in the face of little opposition, there began a move away from the emphasis on individual rights and democracy, and then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began to exert control over the party in a way that began to increasingly resemble Erbakan’s domineering leadership.

Interestingly, this did not mean that the AKP returned to the Islamism of its Milli Görüş roots. Rather, it birthed a seemingly new kind of Islamism that increasingly resembled crony capitalism, leading to serious criticism from within the Milli Görüş tradition.

The abuse of Islam by Erdogan’s Islamists

Despite the AKP’s remarkable record of gaining and holding political office – an achievement that most Turkish Islamists would have once considered impossible – there are those in the movement who have argued that such success is no longer advancing ‘real’ Islamism.

Much of the Welfare Party’s support was built in the rural areas of Anatolia and shanty towns of newly arrived immigrants in the big cities, where it benefited from popular discontent after a series of economic crises as well as the growth of Islamic revivalism against the authoritarian secularism of the preceding decades. It had a strong message of social and economic justice.

But one important Milli Görüş figure now asks:

“…if there is a 13-year Islamist government in Turkey, how can we explain the non-Islamic civilization and urbanization in the big cities? The AKP has built huge blocks and big malls in the cities rather than functional buildings.”*

According to this view, Erdoğan increasingly uses Islamism as a tool for his personal political interests, paying lip service to religious ideals only when it suits him. Another Milli Görüş politician, who was once a leading member of the AKP, expressed his disappointment in stronger terms:

“I prepared for the AKP party programme to make my dreams come true in Turkish politics, as I wanted to show the compatibility between Islam and democracy in Turkey from their viewpoint. However, Erdoğan has not been successful in this goal. There are many corruption scandals within the AKP government. So I ask, how can you explain these corruption scandals if you use Islam or Islamic values?”*

After the 2013 corruption scandal, some of Erdoğan’s supporters defended their leader using religious logic, appealing to the Islamic principle of free will. An AKP parliamentarian, Metin Külünk, argued on the pro-government television channel Habertürk TV that:

“individuals have [various] areas of freedom; Allah has given man the freedom to sin … Allah says, ‘I created human beings able to commit sins and repent’. You are interfering with the freedom of people to commit sins.”

With little space for opposition even within the Islamist movement itself, society is becoming increasingly dominated by government loyalists, whose lifestyles are often contrary to Islamic values, but who suppress the freedoms of others in the name of Islam.

In this context, the attack on the Müjdat Gezen Art Center is little more than the latest example of a hypocritical Islamist movement shaped around Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership.

*Quotes given to the author during field research for Aberystwyth University

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