Revolt on the right: The Islamist ‘no’ campaign

By Bilge Yabancı

The undemocratic nature of the referendum process has exposed deep divisions in Turkey, even within the Islamist camp where there is growing resistance to the Justice and Development Party’s instrumentalization of Islamic appeals for political gains.

Hak ve Adalet Platformu Istiklal Street march or the 'no' campaign preceding the constitutional referendum on Sunday. Source: Hak ve Adalet Platformu’s Facebook page

Hak ve Adalet Platformu Istiklal Street march or the ‘no’ campaign preceding the constitutional referendum on Sunday. Source: Hak ve Adalet Platformu’s Facebook page

On Sunday, Turkey might commit ‘democratic suicide’ through democratic means. In many ways, the referendum campaign on the government side resembles its earlier electoral campaigns. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has used state resources and run a campaign focused on unfounded criticism of parliamentary systems as a source of domestic turmoil and instability, Erdoğan’s personality as a leader and even distorted facts about the content of the 18-point amendment package.

In breach of the constitution, President Erdoğan has taken an active role in the campaign, promising that the presidential system would make Turkey politically and economically ‘stronger’ as a nation.

Different from earlier electoral campaigns however, the AKP has used religion excessively as an instrument to garner ‘yes’ votes, with party apparatchiks and AKP mouthpieces in the media promoting a perception that the ‘no’ campaigners are ‘infidels’, ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘anti-Muslim’.

Most recently, Erdoğan declared that ‘no’ campaigners were little more than the same secular groups who has previously banned headscarved women from universities. What is more, some imams appointed by the state controlled Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) have mobilized behind the ‘yes’ campaign, labelling those who reject the proposed changes as traitors.

Resorting to tactics of stoking tension between pious and secular voters is nothing new for the AKP, but this time, the AKP’s instrumentalization of religion and has stirred already-existing dissent within certain Islamist circles. Some prominent Islamist’s have added their voice to a chorus of criticism from across civil society about the entire process of constitutional change.

The limits of the AKP’s ‘passive revolution’?

The AKP’s unprecedented success as the longest ruling political party has come from its ability to bring together liberals, leftists and diverse Islamist groups –tarikats, cemaats, Islamic foundations and charities, small grassroots Islamist networks etc – that suffered under the dominance of the secular authoritarian establishment in the past.

The party originally claimed to redefine secularism and give voice to  ‘the silent Muslim majority’ against the ‘the influential secular elite’. The AKP actually borrowed this claim from its predecessor, the Refah (Welfare) Party. The Islamist camp that was once divided between radical and moderate elements was gradually de-radicalized and brought together by Erbakan and the Welfare Party. What made the AKP exceptional as a political project is that it has successfully completed what Cihan Tugal calls the Islamists’ ‘passive revolution’ by further embracing and taming the radical Islamist elements within civil society, while combining Islamism with a market economy and democratization agenda.

However, this hegemonic bloc composed of liberals, leftists and Islamists has been under increasing pressure; especially since the 2013 Gezi revolts, after which the liberals and leftists largely abandoned the party in the face of Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian turn. The AKP has however largely retained the support of the majority within the Islamist camp.

But as the AKP has turned to evidently partisan and militant use of Islam during the referendum campaign ,serious concerns have arisen within the Islamist bloc. Several Islamist civil society organizations have formed campaigns with the aim of reaching out devout masses and organizing resistance against the imposed constitutional changes: putting themselves in direct conflict with the AKP.

Cracks within the Islamist Bloc

One of the most visible examples is the Hak ve Adalet Platformu (Rights and Justice Platform), which has brought together prominent Islamist intellectuals, politicians and civil society activists who are known for their previously close relations with the AKP.

Yeni Asya community, known for their long-standing enmity with the Gülen movement, has also openly declared their rejection of the constitutional referendum.

Significantly, the ‘no’ campaign has also won the support of the Saadet (Felicity) Party, which was established after the Welfare Party’s closure following the February 28 military intervention. It was within the Welfare and Saadet, and the associated Millî Görüş movement, that the leading cadres of the AKP received their political education before abandoning it to establish their new party as a modernizing ‘third-way’ hybrid of Islamism and neoliberalism.

There are likely to be more Islamist organizations and intellectuals who prefer to remain silent given the current political climate, in which any objection to the AKP and to the constitutional amendments are targeted by the pro-government media. The referendum process has irrevocably increased existing disunity within the Islamist bloc, which was once considered unified by the AKP’s ‘liberalized Islam’.

The ‘no’ campaigners within the Islamist camp are mobilized by a variety of factors. Growing dissent within the movement regarding the AKP’s militant and partisan monopolization of Islamic rhetoric and symbolism for political gain is one of the foremost. For instance, in response to Erdoğan’s claim that ‘no’ campaigners also supported the headscarf bans during 1990s, Nurten Ertuğrul, a former AKP mayor in Bingöl, argued that the AKP seeks to generate an artificial and unconvincing argument for the constitutional change by utilizing conservative women’s struggle against the repressive headscarf ban following the 1997 military intervention.

There is also a group within the Islamist camp that is genuinely concerned about the future of freedoms for Islamists in Turkey. They argue that the constitutional amendment does not rule out the possibility that a new president with such unchecked powers could be elected from the Kemalist/ secular camp and recent democratic gains granted under the AKP rule for devout groups would be eventually withdrawn.

Additionally, there remains a great deal of resentment within the Islamist camp towards the AKP after the party’s alliance with the Gülen movement. It is no secret that this alliance worked to the detriment of other Islamist movements especially Islamist associations active in the charity sector as well as other cemaats and tarikat networks. Several Islamist intellectuals and organisations (especially Yeni Asya group but also MAZLUMDER) find it difficult to buy in the AKP’s new apologetic attitude about its previously close ties with Gülen, while thousands of people have been arrested and lost their jobs due to alleged links to the Gülen movement.

Moreover, there is genuine concern within some quarters of the Islamist camp about the unjust and unlawful mass purge of thousands of people from public jobs through executive orders following the July 15 coup attempt.

Finally, some groups within the Islamist camp simply reject co-option by the AKP. Although Islamist civil society has allied with different political parties in the past, they were in a position of negotiation with successive right-wing governments to retain their autonomy in exchange for electoral support. The unconditional loyalty demanded today from Islamist civil society by Erdoğan contradicts their traditional autonomy from the state and ruling parties.

Reaching out to devout masses

Can dissenters within the Islamist bloc finally challenge the AKP’s political hegemony and affect the referendum results? The polls remain neck and neck, with a significant number of right-wing voters remaining undecided. Clearly, the AKP won’t have an easy victory. In this context, the impact of the ‘no’ campaign from within the Islamist bloc could be decisive.

Compared to the left-leaning People’s Republican Party (CHP) and Democratic People’s Party (HDP), ‘no’ campaigners within the Islamist bloc are familiar with the concerns and expectations of the devout and conservative electorate, and know how to communicate with them by using familiar language and symbols. And they have been actively organizing in the marketplaces and busy shopping streets of mixed or conservative districts of Istanbul, distributing leaflets and banners to an otherwise inaccessible population.

Their use of targeted language is also vital. For instance, Hak ve Adalet Platformu has consciously alluded to the Welfare Party and Millî Görüş tradition in calling for ‘no for rights and justice’, ‘no to voice the wronged and mistreated’, and ‘no for the morals’. They also blend secular and democratic objections to AKP’s corruption and the foreseen virtual one-man rule with references to the life of Mohammed and passages from the Quran that narrate the perilous consequences of rulers’ abuse of power. They challenge the AKP’s use of previous military coups for self-victimization by drawing parallels between the violation of the rule of law under AKP rule and following the 1980 and 1997 military coups.

In short, such groups are able to speak to, as well as mobilize, significant parts of the electorate that would never attend public meetings and campaigns organized by the secular CHP or pro-Kurdish and leftist HDP. This kind of voluntary mobilization, with meagre resources and against state intimidation, reminds conservative voters of the fledgling Islamist movement of 1990s under the leadership of the Welfare Party. However this time, it is the AKP that represents the political establishment .

What hope for a challenge from within the Islamist camp?

It is yet to be seen whether the cracks within the Islamist bloc will open a space on the right for a challenge to the AKP’s long political monopoly. The AKP has established such widespread support and an image of invincibility through strong leadership backed by a unified party elite, although intra-party dispute is not new for the AKP. Previously influential figures like Ertuğrul Günay, Abdullah Gül, İdris Naim Şahin, Bülent Arınç left the party over disputes with Erdoğan over his heavy-handed party leadership or over criticisms of the AKP’s authoritarian turn.

So far, Erdoğan’s leadership and tight party discipline has allowed the AKP to sail through these intra-party elite disputes. Yet, this time the challenge originates from Islamist civil society, which for so long supported the party ideologically and helped maintain popular support. Just like the AKP’s liberal and leftists supporters before them, it seems that some Islamist intellectuals and politicians who invested in the party’s early ideological optimism are beginning to openly reject the now authoritarian and Erdoğan-centric AKP.

Given that historically speaking, there tends to be little interbloc electoral swing within the Turkish party system (i.e. electoral transfers generally only take between ideologically close parties rather than between left and right blocs), a viable alternative to the AKP could eventually emerge from the right. Therefore, what makes the widening rifts within the Islamist camp crucial is that anti-AKP Islamists have the potential to challenge the party at its very foundations with grassroots campaigns that can attract conservative voters.

However, some caveats are in order. First, the dissenters within the Islamist bloc are still a minority. Several Islamist associations and platforms, business associations like MUSIAD as well as tarikats and cemaats declared their support for the constitutional amendment. The second reason to be cautious is that some no voters within the Islamist bloc see the ‘no’ vote in the referendum as an exception to their long-standing support for the AKP, showing no signs of breaking up with the AKP at national and local elections in the long-term.

Still, the emergence of a well organised Islamist opposition has the potential to expose the limits of polarizing society along secular-religious lines and monopolizing religious appeal for political gains. If such a challenge eventually emerges within the Islamist camp, Erdoğan’s charismatic leadership (that increasingly turned into Erdoğanism) will not be sufficient to maintain the popularity for the AKP among the conservative voters.

Yet, to truly reverse the AKP’s authoritarian populism and to restart a democratization process that could finally achieve societal reconciliation, Turkey will require creative activism from both right-wing/ Islamist and left-wing political movements and their social constituencies. Such a political and social mobilization looks a long way off however, regardless of the result of 16 April referendum.



  1. […] dissent. In Turkey, despite severe pressure under the ongoing state of emergency, there remains a strong current of dissent amongst all sections of society. […]


Leave a Reply