The 2015 parliamentary elections ended the period of single-party governments, but the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) remains the most formidable force in Turkey's political arena. The party's response to criticisms and attacks, therefore, has repercussions beyond its own organization. Since 2002, the party built on its vision, self-confidence and identity to implement democratic reforms, ensure economic stability and transform Turkey's foreign policy.
In the past, I argued that the AK Party and a number of its former allies, including liberals, Kurdish nationalists and the Gülen Movement, parted ways starting in 2013. On June 7, Kurdish conservatives, who supported the AK Party in previous elections, sided with the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which calls for a reevaluation of the AK Party's relationship with Turkey's Islamists.
Although the movement sought to distance itself from Islamist ideology for years, it has been a constant feature in the national conversation about Islamism. From 2002 onward, skeptics at home and abroad repeatedly brought up this issue to discredit the AK Party. At this point it is hardly a secret that charges of sectarianism directed at the Turkish government in the post-Arab Spring period effectively aimed to contain the country's challenge to the global order. Conveniently presenting Kemalist paranoia as cold hard facts, international observers accounted for Turkey's perceived axis shift with reference to the government's secret Islamist agenda, which Gülenists and Kurdish nationalists exploited to associate the AK Party with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
There is a good chance that the Islamism debate will continue for the foreseeable future, mainly because Muslim elites and organizations form the basis of the AK Party's political platform. The movement's critics, interestingly enough, accuse the AK Party of destroying rather than promoting the Islamist agenda to cause a rift between its leaders and their most crucial supporters.
Many experts would recall that not long ago Gülenist media outlets used to label the AK Party an "Islamo-Kemalist" movement. Having mistaken rogue operations for public service in the past, movements have recently started to accuse the AK Party of incorporating Islamists into the state to hurt their interests. To nobody's surprise, the Islamism debate coincided with the party's efforts to reflect on its practices and policies.
Provided that the debate goes beyond endless accusations, there is no reason why the public should not engage the question of how the AK Party affected Turkey's Islamist movement. After all, the party oversaw the integration of Islamist groups into parliamentary politics while making room for Islamic values in mainstream politics. The government's commitment to making religious instruction available to the children of conservative families, along with its take on Palestine, Egypt and Syria, attest to this fact. My point, however, is not to create a complete list of the AK Party's accomplishments, which the leadership made by tapping into the Islamist movement's self-confidence, authenticity and agency without engaging in some kind of Third-Worldism.
The most recent accusations against the AK Party leadership seek to undermine the movement's sense of agency. Needless to say, it would be pointless for the party to place greater emphasis on Islam. Nor would it be a good idea to engage Kurdish conservatives within an Islamic context. Instead, the AK Party must remain committed to its civilization discourse, which already appeals to Muslim voters, and build on its strong track record, which Islamist movements in the Middle East including the Muslim Brotherhood, lack. Carefully avoiding elite-level tensions, the party has to focus on engaging in healthy communication with Kurdish conservative and the rest of Turkey's Islamist groups. To overcome the rough patch that the country has been going through since 2013, the AK Party leadership has to nurture its ties with key components of the political elite.
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Social Sciences University of Ankara. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.