Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has an Islamic background, but presents itself as a “conservative democratic” party, which can be interpreted as a strategy for legitimizing the party internationally and domestically, writes Sefa Şiımşek (Boğaziçi University, Istanbul) in Turkish Studies (September).
This identity as conservative democrat has been affirmed since the founding of the party in 2001 (in succession to former parties with an Islamic anchoring). Efforts to assert and elaborate the “conservative democrat” identity flourished after the AKP came to power at the 2002 general elections. There were conferences and even academic dissertations and theses on the topic. But the visible and the real identities do not always coincide with each other on the Turkish political scene.
The greatest motivation of the AKP for proclaiming itself conservative democracy was to dispel concerns from other sectors that it had an Islamist hidden agenda. Some AKP supporters would have preferred “Muslim democracy,” but this was turned down by the leadership in the belief that Islam and politics should be considered as belonging to different planes (not to mention legal rules forbidding Turkish parties to be based on religion). Moreover, the AKP recruited cadres from non-Islamic political corners, while its electorate represents a wide range of loyalties, among which Islamism is only one.
The conservative democrative identity avoided alienating voters, but it also helped to create a positive image in the eyes of global players, mostly the EU and the USA, according to Şimşek. Especially in the post-9/11 context, the AKP was keen to distance itself from political Islam and rather to advocate a dialogue of civilizations. Conservative democracy was assumed to be “both more universal and more neutral.” It was formulated in a way allowing it to harmonize local Islamic traditions with universal values and create a modernity without excluding tradition.
The AKP is not a conservative party in the strict meaning of the word; coming from oppositional background, it needs to reform before conserving. Since it needs to appeal to different segments of society, the AKP sometimes tends to adopt a multi-faceted identity, observes Şimşek. It has, however, been careful not to alienate its Islamist grass roots, but it initially did so rather through small and symbolical steps than decisions that would create huge tension: it tests the limits of the political system and the patience of secular forces, and attempts to find ways to reach its goals mostly through non confrontational ways. At the same time, this also allows it to send messages that Islam matters to suppliers of Muslim capital from the rich countries of the Gulf (huge amounts of green money have entered Turkey every year, helping the economy).
(Turkish Studies, Taylor & Francis, 4 Park Square, Milton park, Abingdon, Oxon,OX14 4RN, United Kingdom – http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ftur20)