Cihan Tuğal on The Fall of the Turkish Model & Erosion of Turkish Secular Republicanism

Cihan Tuğal on The Fall of the Turkish Model & Erosion of Turkish Secular Republicanism

Dr. Cihan Tuğal is an Associate Professor at the University of California in Berkeley.  His works have been focused on mobilization, socioeconomic change, and the role of religion in sociopolitical projects. Situating his ethnographic studies within the development of capitalism in Turkey, Dr. Tuğal has demonstrated how Islamic movements have mobilized the poor and marginal intellectuals to later integrate them to secular, market-oriented politics. According to Dr. Tuğal, this is a process of passive revolution, whereby previously oppositional networks are absorbed into existing power structures. Dr. Tuğal also studies similar processes of Islamization and liberalization in Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia.

He is the author, most recently, of “The Fall of the Turkish Model: How the Arab Uprisings Brought Down Islamic Liberalismwhich has just been published by Verso Books. Foreign Policy Concepts spoke with Dr. Tugal about his new book and the future of Turkish politics and democracy.


One of the key assertions you make in your book is that the Turkish model is the result of the marriage of neoliberalization and democratization through Islam. You also emphasize that this model was contextually specific and could not be exported to other countries in the region. Can you elaborate on this key assertion?

Over the past decade, most public attention focused on Turkey’s democratic credentials and how a party with Islamist roots refashioned itself to accommodate to the secular state. However, Turkish democracy always had major problems, and these were exacerbated with the neoliberalization process that started in 1980. After that point, the state did open up to some excluded groups, but at the cost of further excluding and repressing others. What Turkish Islamists adjusted to, therefore, was this semi-democratic structure. Moreover, the seeds of the destruction of that package were already within it and the new governing elite, the (Islamic) Justice and Development Party (JDP), also known by its Turkish acronym as AKP, simply chose to ignore the problems (a neglect encouraged by Western and Turkish liberals).

This fleeting combination of Islam, democracy, and neoliberalization required Western support. Turkey was perceived to be the only viable antidote to revolutionary Islam (as represented by Iran) and Salafi-jihadism. As the West pushed other countries to imitate Turkey (and therefore not fall prey to the Iranian and al-Qaeda “model”s), the leaders of these countries came to fear what was being imposed on them was not Islamic-liberal democracy, but client state status under a refashioned, postmodernized Ottoman Empire. Perhaps an exaggerated paranoia, this perception harbored an element of truth: without a secular-republican tradition, without Turkey’s (albeit partial) integration into Western diplomatic, military, and economic structures (NATO, EU, etc.), without complex political and civic structures, which Turkey enjoyed for decades, an Islamist takeover in these countries would entail nothing like the JDP’s liberal heaven. Ironically, Turkey’s shifting sands ultimately put into question Turkish Islam’s differentiation from revolutionary Islam and Salafi-jihadism. The hallmarks of these shifting sands were the erosion of Turkish secular republicanism, the slowing down of its integration with Western polities and markets, its over-involvement in the Arab Spring, and the degeneration of its political and civic structures.

Why do you think the Turkish government today is sectarian?

Turkey has always been a sectarian (Sunni) state, but has concealed this under a cloak of state secularism. After apparently dis-establishing many institutions of the self-professed Sunni Ottoman state, Turkey’s founders rebuilt religious institutions on a modernized version of Sunni-Hanafi Islam. They were less hostile to other beliefs when compared to the Ottomans, and did not lead rigorous religious lives themselves, but they perceived Sunni Islam to be a good channel through which society could be controlled. Today’s regime, by contrast, was built by people closer to the Ottoman rulers in their religious orientations. After testing the waters for several years, they (JDP-AKP) started a gradual process of Sunnification during their second term—executed mostly, but not only, through the Kemalist-built Directorate of Religious Affairs. In the 2010s, this culminated in Erdoğan’s public attacks against Alevi Islam (an Anatolian, heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam, members of which feel no affiliation with Syrian or Iranian Islam). The regime perceived the Arab Spring as an opportunity to further expand its Sunnism by building a new Pax Ottomana (mostly, if not exclusively, through soft power). However, its dealings in Syria and elsewhere pushed it to side more and more unquestioningly with the Saudis and the Persian Gulf monarchies against the alleged Shia threat in the region (the big fallout during the Sisi coup in Egypt notwithstanding). These internal and external processes have solidified an extreme version of identification with Sunni Islam and a hatred of the Shia to a level only seen in the Gulf regimes.

Your book puts on display how politically and economically disadvantaged strata were included in established institutions in Turkey. Based on your assertion, the newly empowered and disadvantaged came largely from rural areas; and this empowerment led to the gradual emergence of a new socio-political ruling class that is in the process of unseating the old, urbanized ruling elite, as it happened in Iran after the revolution. Is this a fair assessment of how this empowerment was conducted?

Yes, the new regime in Turkey is based on a broad class coalition of new dominant actors and some disadvantaged strata. Some of the new dominant actors themselves have provincial origins, but they do not simply represent the periphery against the center, as mainstream social science has claimed in the preceding decade. Rather, the differentiating characteristic of Turkey’s new dominant groups is an aggressive (and religiously inspired) integration with world markets. This aggression, however, was directed against certain groups of society, rather than all subordinates classes. The Islamic neoliberals especially attacked organized labor, secular state personnel, and some select social movement activists (especially LGBT, feminists, and environmentalists). Yet at the same time, they sought to integrate, to the extent possible under neoliberalism, the informal working class. This integration took place not through unions, but through cultural and political empowerment and some targeted welfare programs. There are many similarities with revolutionary Iran in this regard, but the starkest difference is that the Iranian Revolution’s declared class enemy, at least in its first decade, was big business rather than organized labor. The Iranian revolution boosted the bureaucratic class and the small-scale merchants in its first decade not big business, as Turkish JDP-AKP did.

How did Kemalist legacies of egalitarianism and republican elite provide the groundwork for buildup of a more pluralistic republic by Islamists?

The Turkish Islamic project never became truly revolutionary. They inherited Kemalism–just like the Republic had inherited the Ottoman Empire–with its many strengths and weaknesses. Just to focus on one example, Kemalism had introduced aspects of gender egalitarianism. Unlike many other Islamist movements, full exclusion and subordination of women was never a major cornerstone of Turkish Islamism. To the contrary, the relatively relaxed gender codes in Turkey enabled Islamist women to become an active, organized, and quite mobilized base for the movement. Islamist women in Turkey did not reach positions of command in a sustained fashion, just as their predecessors under the Ottoman and Republicans did not. Unfortunately, this continuity obscured how the new regime transformed society in a neo-patriarchal direction through molecular, under the radar techniques. Today, the staunchly patriarchal regime under Erdogan with the help of its media and courts allows, and according to some, even encourages violence against women to an extent that was not possible under the old (Kemalist) regime.

Turkish Model

Are the ideological underpinnings of the Muslim Brotherhood the only factors that have helped develop a strong bond between Turkey and Qatar as well as other Gulf monarchies? Are there other dynamics at play?

There was perfect alignment between Qatar and Turkey during the first two years of the Arab Spring. The strength of the ideological bond should not be underestimated, but this was not the only factor. While the Muslim Brotherhood inspired both regimes, the Turks have their own rich Islamist tradition, which has been both formally and informally separate from the global Muslim Brotherhood. Certainly, the two regimes converged around 2011-2013 in their perception of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as the actor best suited to help them realize their regional aims, both in ideological and economic realms. Even then, Erdoğan pointed to the whole world, and to the Egyptians, that his government was much more secular than the Brotherhood. The reverse can be said about the Qataris.

For both regimes, money and power are much more important than ideology as they seemed to be quite tactful in manipulating ideology and religion for their less-than-religious aims during the first two years of the Arab Spring. Today, the trade and financial networks, the shared support for certain paramilitaries throughout the region, and common diplomatic and military interests against Iran are much more important in uniting these regimes than any affiliation with a particular brand of Islamism. That said, Sunni Islam remains a strong idiom that reinforces Turkey’s alliance with the Gulf monarchies.

When it comes to the manifestation and execution of state ideology, how different is Iran’s Islamic Republic from Turkey today?

Turkey is still a secular state on paper. This rules out a lot of possibilities for the execution of Islamist ideology, which is the ideology of its new leaders. As an ally of the West, Turkish leaders are not willing to get rid of that formalism just yet, or even in foreseeable future. Aside from that central difference, the Iranian regime’s version of Islam is much more revolutionary, anti-Western, and totalitarian, although conservatism, liberalism, and pragmatism have certainly eaten away at all of these aspects since the beginning of the revolution. Meanwhile, even if still tentatively, the Turkish regime increasingly plays around (but not sincerely adapts) revolutionary and anti-Western cadres and discourses. On top of all that, it is certainly moving in a totalitarian direction, with contents of this totalitarianism different than Iran’s. Ironically, as Turkey moves in a pseudo-Iranian direction, Iran starts to display signs of liberalization, which is encouraged by the Obama administration, liberal Anglophone media, and other similar forces. In all these senses, there is a subterranean convergence between the two regimes.

In your book you also talk about how Fetullah Gulen’s wing in Turkey’s power structure participated in making the state more authoritarian and contributed to the marginalization of its opponents. Where did Erdogan and Gulen clash ideologically?

There were many disagreements and struggles, but these could be kept under control until Erdoğan and other Islamist actors directly clashed with Israel. Before that, the Kurdish issue also seemed to constitute a major disagreement between the regime’s two factions. Nevertheless, in the last couple of years, they both changed their positions and roles regarding the Kurdish issue as easily and professionally as a Hollywood actor adjusts to a new personality. Whether they pass as Islamists, liberal democrats or nationalists, on the question of ethnicity Erdoğanists and Gülenists seem to be doing just that: playing roles.

Given the developments in the region, do you think President Erdogan’s political survival largely depends on realizing his foreign policy goals?

Given that those goals are unrealizable, it would be too hasty to conclude that the end of his days is near. More importantly, the goals can change. Erdoğan was one of the closest allies of Syria until 2011. Now, together with Qatar, Turkey is the state most obsessed with Assad’s ouster. Turkey paid high prices for the regime’s insistence on this position, most notably the United States’ cooperation with Iran and Syrian Kurds. It will be difficult for Erdoğan to undo this damage. On the other hand, the Syrian crisis has unexpectedly empowered him vis-à-vis Europe, some leaders of which are now mere Erdoğan hostages. No Turkish leader before Erdoğan could ever dream of putting a German chancellor in such a despicable situation.

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