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Turkey’s Islamists: A Drama (Part 1)

Then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) announces that Abdullah Gul (left) would be the AKP party's candidate for president in Ankara in April 2007.
Then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) announces that Abdullah Gul (left) would be the AKP party's candidate for president in Ankara in April 2007.

Their drama began at the start of the 20th century, like in many other predominantly Muslim countries. But Islamists of the former Ottoman Empire, and especially in the Republic of Turkey since 1923, have traveled a very specific road to arrive at today’s Erdogan regime.

The gradual downfall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Western powers, followed by the loss of vast lands of this last Islamic empire where the sultan was also the caliph of the state, was a big blow. The new Turkey was reduced to a sixth or less of its pre-17th-century size.

But not only that. The new system, a republic after the Western model, put an end to both caliphate and sultanate and declared a republican regime with state and religion not only independent from each other but with religion strictly following the state.

The alphabet was changed from Arabic-Persian to Latin. Clothing was Europeanized. Saturday and Sunday became the weekend instead of Thursday and Friday. It was forbidden for religious schools and religious courses to be outside of state control. All sheikhs and mullahs who wanted to continue teaching became state employees reporting to the government. Women were strongly encouraged to put aside Islamic clothing and to actively take part in social activities. Most religious sects and groups, as well as many mosques, were closed or became dysfunctional.

The new regime created a new “secular” elite -- businesspeople, bureaucrats, the military, with a new education system and a new view of history -- and looked for a new place in the world community, one that was closer to the West and further from the Islamic world.

For nearly 80 years, those who were faithful Muslims -- traditional and provincial -- were looked down upon, pushed into isolation and poverty by the new elite in the major cities, especially Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir -- ironically called “the White Turks.”

The more they were ignored and pushed out, the more political they got.

They were mostly just the faithful in the early 20th century. They had widely become “Islamists” of different variations by 2000.

And they had dreams. Dreams to use the democracy to come to power, to put an end to the discrimination against the Muslim faithful; against women who just wanted to wear the hijab according to their beliefs without being thrown out of schools and universities; against men who wanted to wear beards and pray during work times without being laughed at.

They said they wanted peace and equal opportunities for all -- regardless of their faith.

They opened schools and foundations. They increasingly found their way into the military, education, and justice systems -- without making much noise about their beliefs and plans. They established television stations and newspapers. And they created political parties, which were closed and banned. Their newspapers and TV channels were also closed and banned.

But still, they kept going. They worked hard. Very hard.

People saw, enjoyed, and appreciated their work results -- from city administrations to which they were first elected to the schools that they built and ran.

The more the “secular” system prevented them from growing, the more they cried foul and grew stronger.

In fact, many people outside of the Islamic sector supported them, from left-wing social democrats and Ataturkists (“Ataturkcu”) to all those “White Turks,” to secular Alevis and Kurds, to liberal and pro-republican journalists and judges.

The Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was born. It was 2001.

Just a year later, in 2002, it came to power -- alone, in a fair-and-free election, and unlike past elections that produced impotent coalitions of the “unwilling.”

In its first years, things were going quite smoothly. Everybody was happy and thought the past was one-sided. Now, they thought, we will have a cohesive and inclusive Turkey, a more pluralistic system, looking more like Europe.

Even the secularists felt pleasantly proven wrong. “Why were we afraid of these people?” they thought.

And Western governments followed suit. The more good things, reforms, stability measures, and economic improvements the AKP governments demonstrated, the more eager were Western governments to embrace the new, pluralistic “Muslim conservative” Turkey.

And they kept being elected by big majorities.

But things started to change. Quite soon.

In the second part of this report: Islamic Or Not, Unchecked Power Makes You Corrupt​

About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.