Skip to main content

Turkey’s Moral Majority Tests Its Power

With a series of moves such as the limitation of alcohol sales and a kissing ban, perceived as strong signs of social paternalism following the military tutelage, Turkey is being dragged into a refreshed Kulturkampf.
People shop in a shopping district in Hatay May 17, 2013. Turkey hailed its second investment grade rating on Friday, seeing it as a seal of approval from international markets for a decade of economic reform. Investors joined in, driving sovereign bond yields to record lows. Government enthusiasm was tempered, however, by some concern that the move, coinciding with a visit by Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to Washington, might trigger over-large capital inflows into the lira currency. REUTERS/Umit

Political drifting and the lack of strategic vision on democratization is forcing the stitches of Turkey’s social fabric. Those stitches are hardly as strong as they are thought to be, no stronger than the commitment of social actors to democratization. Given the tensions along the Iran-Iraq-Syria belt, they are in fact as thin as a hair.

A series of developments that occurred in quick succession has sharpened social polarization in an equally short time: the restrictive law on alcohol sales and consumption that the government rushed through parliament, the “ban on kissing in public” resurrected suddenly by municipal authorities, the 14-month jail sentence for “insulting religious values” ruled against Turkish-Armenian intellectual Sevan Nisanyan, following a similar ruling against pianist Fazil Say, and the demolition of the iconic Emek Cinema amid violent street protests.

What really aggravates the situation is the fact that, barring some liberals, moderate religious intellectuals and politicians who claim to be the driving force of change in Turkey have overwhelmingly rationalized those developments or lent them support.

Two years ago, the botched air raid at Uludere that killed 34 Kurdish villagers was followed by a largely inconclusive attempt to ban abortion. Some claim the alcohol restrictions are now a similar move to alleviate pressure on the government over the Re yhanli incident. But this time, the situation seems different and can hardly be played down.

The law was passed in a patronizing manner. Demonstrators protesting the kissing ban came under attack by a mob shouting religious slogans. This has aroused attention to the arguments of those who see an inevitable despotism of the “moral majority” over Turkey’s complex social fabric. Some of those arguments seem quite convincing because the social reactions that go together with the excessively moralist moves are prone to violence and are quite ostracizing of the “other.”

Those who still believe that Turkey could consolidate a pluralist, peaceful and tolerant society open to different lifestyles are faced with a disheartening situation.

Two critical articles deserve attention. The first is “The AK Party’s Jihad Against Alcohol in Turkey” by my colleague Kadri Gursel, published by Al-Monitor. The second, “Not Islamism But Postmodern Authoritarianism” by political scientist Ihsan Dagi, was published in the daily Today’s Zaman.

Gursel argues that with the alcohol law, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) not only aims to preserve its conservative electoral base, but is also pursuing a social engineering project to raise the profile of its own values and suppress the profile of others.

Dagi, meanwhile, highlights AKP efforts to install its values on top of a new “lifestyle hierarchy” in the social and cultural realm, but argues this cannot be necessarily called Islamism because of the use of democratic means. In his view, just like the Kemalists drew on a strong popular base and used legitimate means for social engineering along the lines of "Turkishness" and secularism, the AKP is copying the same method to build a new hierarchy; this can only be explained with the concept of post-modern authoritarianism.

The two writers share the observation of social engineering. Here lies the essence of the matter. While the Turkish opposition continues to suffer from “dwarfism” and the political asymmetry remains unchanged, the conservatives’ instinct to suppress “the other” is now surfacing more frequently.

The trap of populism has become more attractive for the AKP ahead of three critical elections and a possible constitutional referendum expected in 2014, and, notably, in the wake of the strategic regional “synchronization” with the White House, which effectively means also a blank check for arbitrary action in domestic politics.

In other words, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP will either steer the 12-year “Turkish Glasnost” era in the right direction, or Turkey will continue to be a semi-democracy under a hegemonic political power and in a tutelage system where the only change is the identity of the government that opts for the easy way of its own convenience and interests.

When the AKP came to power in 2002, it was a party with a distinct Islamic identity but blunted dogmatic roots which promised change. By 2006, it gained a post-Islamist identity thanks to courageous pragmatic, globalist and reformist policies. And in 2007, its defiance of the army’s e-memorandum raised the exciting question of whether the party would reach the “third phase,” that is, the phase of becoming “Muslim Democrats”?

In the five years since then, especially since the 2011 elections, the balance of economic growth and democratization has been upset. The deficit in freedoms and rights has grown. The lingering problems have not broken the popular demand for reform, but the “stranded” agenda has stoked populism. As much as the new constitution and thus the prospect of a strong national consensus was delayed, the goal of becoming Muslim Democrats fractured.

The question of reaching the third phase is crucial since this powerful party at the helm of a predominantly Muslim nation faces the test of “setting the reasonable democratic dose of religion in politics” via a constitution that guarantees respect for diverse identities.

The test is of global significance now that the world faces the challenge of the clash of civilizations.

Two existential problems in terms of democracy remain unresolved in Turkey: individual freedoms (free speech, lifestyle, etc.) and collective freedoms (ethnic, religious minorities, etc.). Neither of those areas has been stagnant but progress has always been slim and slack. The “others” — Alevis, Kurds, non-Muslims, homosexuals, pacifists, atheists and so on — are growing impatient in the "waiting room."

Other suffocating moves are likely to follow the alcohol bans, the kissing ban and the punishment of opinions deemed to offend religion and sacred values.

But one has to see all those controversies in the big picture to realize that the threats looming for Turkey are all essentially problems of democratization.

One thing is certain: No matter what you call it — be it Islamism, post-modern authoritarianism or high-handedness — this "Kulturkampf" will have no winner.

And that is the genuine source of concern.

Yavuz Baydar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1979, he has been a radio reporter, news presenter, producer, TV host, foreign correspondent, debater and, in recent years, a news ombudsmen for the daily Sabah. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language daily Today's Zaman. 

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Turkey Briefing Turkey Briefing

Turkey Briefing

Top Turkey stories in your inbox each week

Trend Reports

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

From roads to routers: The future of China-Middle East connectivity

A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29, 2018. - On March 27, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulations on Middle East renewable energy industry starting to take shape

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial