Most objective observers of Turkey concede these days that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for more than a decade, has changed considerably in the past few years. In its first two terms, from 2002 to 2011, the party was largely seen as one of the most liberal and reformist political forces in Turkish history. That most AKP members, including its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were pious Muslims had not prevented them from aspiring to the norms of the European Union. However, since the elections of 2011, the AKP leadership has proven less interested in liberal reform and has used an increasingly authoritarian tone, which has peaked since the Gezi Park protests of last June.
In other words, most objective observers of Turkey agree that something bad happened to the AKP. They just wonder why.
Some over-skeptical commentators, especially hard-core secularists who have always despised the AKP’s “Islamism,” find the answer in a “hidden agenda.” Accordingly, the whole liberal, pro-EU agenda of the AKP was in fact a well-calculated trick to deceive Turkey’s liberals and the West until the governing party could feel powerful enough to show its true colors. These commentators, in other words, find the answer in a conspiracy theory — a very typical reflex in Turkey in the face of unpleasant political phenomena.
I argue, however, that we need a less conspiratorial and more sociological explanation to account for the AKP’s transformation. And I find it in the works of none other than Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Muslim polymath who is also widely considered a forefather to modern sociology.
Ibn Khaldun had many interesting insights, from the effectiveness of the market economy to the role of geography in shaping cultures, but for our current purposes his cyclical theory of history is the key. Throughout his life in coastal North Africa, he observed a repeated pattern of change between the elites of urban cities and the desert tribes, which aimed at conquering the former. In Ibn Khaldun’s view, the desert tribes had a stronger asabiyyah (cohesion) and were more willing to take risks compared to the polished yet lazy urban elites. But once the desert tribes conquered the city, they gradually adopted the ways of the old masters that they defeated, and thus made themselves prone to future conquerors. History went on repeating the same pattern, because the political elites which replaced old ones kept on imitating their predecessors.
What can connect this medieval theory to Turkey’s modern reality is that the AKP, rather than a planned scheme to change course at the right time, only seems to be gradually adopting some of the habits of the old political elite — the Kemalists — that it has successfully defeated. The Kemalists were overweening, in the sense that they claimed to know the right way of life for Turkish society. They were paranoid, in the sense that they saw all political opposition as the manifestations of an organized plot against their brilliant rule. They were authoritarian, in the sense that they wanted to impose their views on society by using state power and even the media. And, alas, the AKP is showing all these traits in an increasingly overt manner.
Turkish liberal academic Ihsan Dagi, who used to support the “old AKP,” is increasingly critical of this new AKP, and precisely for the reason explained above. In a recent piece, he underlined how the recent following words by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the face of a possible re-emergence of the Gezi Park protests, sounded like the words of Turkey’s once-dominant generals:
“Every unlawful activism will be faced with the unbendable wrist of the state. I want them to know this. We don’t care what anybody says, what the West says.”
This rhetoric is indeed quite different from the early years of the AKP, when the party often referred to Western (EU) standards to argue against “the unbendable wrist of the state,” which was then represented by the Kemalist military and judiciary. But the AKP today is simply on the other side of the fence, and sees the might of the state not as a threat but an asset.
It would be unfair to conclude from this observation that no positive change has taken place in Turkey. Quite the contrary, the past decade under the AKP has been an enormously helpful one. Not only did the economy boom, but democratic standards and civil liberties have dramatically improved. The AKP’s clash with the old establishment resulted in a creative tension that unleashed a great leap forward for Turkish democracy. Moreover, the AKP is still correcting some of the sins of the old establishment, such as the oppression of Kurds and non-Muslim minorities. (Yes, it was Turkey’s “secular republic” which oppressed its ethnic and religious minorities, simply out of nationalist zeal and paranoia.)
However, this bright story is becoming less bright every day, for Turkey is being not hailed for its liberal democracy, but rather criticized for an ever more illiberal democracy, where freedom of the media is curbed, the freedom of peaceful assembly is limited and an overly centralized state puts its nose more and more into public life. There seem to be two options ahead:
The first option is that the AKP can refuse to succumb to the Ibn Khaldunian cycle of power, and try to reform and reinvent itself. In fact, the founding of the party bears a wisdom which probably was invented to resist this temptation that comes form long-term power: The three-term rule, or the bylaw which states that no one can stay in government seats for more than three consecutive terms. If applied seriously, this rule can give us an “AKP version 2.0” by the year 2015. However, it is also possible that most AKP seniors will find a way to bypass the rule, the first of them being Erdogan, who only has his eye on a higher post — the presidency — toward the end of his third term.
The second option is that the corruptive influence of power can overcome all idealist efforts for reform, and thus the sociological cycle of Ibn Khaldun can fully prevail: The AKP can completely evolve into a new version of the old elites it overthrew: authoritarian, paranoid, nepotistic and shortsighted. Then, again according to the Ibn Khaldunian vision, the only way forward for Turkey will be the emergence of new “desert tribes” — those who have the passion for positive political change and who can initiate yet another great leap forward to match a rapidly evolving society.
Mustafa Akyol is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a columnist for Turkish newspapers Hurriyet Daily News and Star. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. On Twitter: @AkyolinEnglish