Saturday, April 26, 2014

KEREM OKTEM - Leviathan in the lure of Mammon: limits of political Islam in Turkey

Erdoğan may still think of himself as a just sovereign in the Sunni-Islamic tradition. But his commonwealth is a Hobbesian fantasy-world, in which even the minimal requirements for consent are not met, the threat of tyranny is ever-present, and where Leviathan - whether Islamic or not - has become a growth-machine for the oligarchy..

the country now seems to be caught in a vicious cycle of polarised politics, Islamic conservatism and authoritarian governance.

The news from Europe's eastern borderlands has been worrying to say the least. Whether in the Ukraine, the western Balkans and even in the European Union member-state Hungary, hopes for liberal democracy are being countered by authoritarian power arrangements. Western-style liberal democracy is also losing its appeal elsewhere in the world, from India to China, while Putin-style despotism ("Putinismo", as Timothy Garton Ash calls it), is gaining traction.
Nowhere are these trends more apparent than in Turkey. A hopeful candidate for EU accession only a few years ago, the country now seems to be caught in a vicious cycle of polarised politics, Islamic conservatism and authoritarian governance. The conflict is between a political leader and his followers, who see the future of Turkey's social contract in Hobbesian terms, and everybody else, who feel they have no part in this project.
Yet is it conceivable that Turkey can be remade in the image of the 17th-century English political philosopher's most bracing work? How probable is the coming of an "Islamic Leviathan" in a country so diverse and strategically important for its overlapping neighbourhoods, ranging from Europe to the middle east, from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea? Can a Hobbesian-style social contract be imposed when Turkey's majority, in fact considerably more then 50%, seems to be disagreeing with many of its core requirements?
The Islamic Leviathan
Where answers are to be found, they must lie in consideration of the character of the political leadership that has ruled Turkey for almost twelve years. The leading cadres of the Justice & Development Party (AKP) and its chairman, Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have their roots in Turkey's mainstream Islamist current, the Milli Görüş movement. Since coming to power in November 2002, they have attempted to create a synthesis of traditional Islamist ideals rooted in Sunni-Islamic state tradition with elements of capitalist modernity: the dynamics of globalisation, neoliberal growth, and Turkey's continued membership in the western security alliance.
The Islamist part of the synthesis is applied through a range of political goals: the desire to realise Turkey's return to the Muslim world (thus annulling what are considered the destructive effects of the Kemalist revolution), a quest for leadership of Muslim countries inspired by the Ottoman heritage, as well as classical state-led developmentalism. Crucially, these goals also include a commitment to legitimate "just rule" and a form of social contract that (surprisingly) has much in common with some of the liberal and statist elements of Thomas Hobbes's political theory as manifested in his Leviathan.
This synthesis of a traditional Islamist agenda with a liberal perspective created conditions of growth and the inclusion of large segments of the electorate that would otherwise have been wary of an Islamist political course. The synthesis also incorporated a largely opportunistic flirtation with the European Union. During the first five years of the AKP government, the prospect of EU membership induced several relatively liberal reforms -  from a progressive civil code to a weakening of the racialist foundations of the Turkish republic. These, however, served to obfuscate the fundamental political vision behind the AKP's accumulation of ever greater power. Now that the government is suffering increasing pressure from critics within Turkey and from abroad, this vision has become much clearer. In response, the prime minister has outlined his understanding of the nature of power and of a covenant with those he rules in the starkest of terms.
Erdoğan's view of the world may not be deeply ideological. But it has been shaped both by these deeply held Islamist considerations and in the context of Turkey's Manichean political struggles, where influential forces (the military, bureaucracy, judiciary and mainstream media) have often colluded in cynical deals to maintain in power the republic's Kemalist guardians. Erdoğan's party and he himself have often been the target of such manipulative power-plays - for instance when the election of Erdoğan's ally Abdullah Gül to Turkey's presidency was threatened in 2007 because Gül's wife wears a headscarf, or when the AKP narrowly avoided being banned by the constitutional court in 2008.
The dark theatre of Turkey's politics has accelerated since the massive street-protests  of Istanbul's Gezi Park in June 2013, and Erdoğan has been interpreting the shift as a fight for survival under conditions approaching civil war. Under these conditions of near anarchy, the "sovereign" - to put it in Hobbesian terms - is required to prevent a "war of all against all". Erdoğan's public speeches prior to the local elections in March 2014 were saturated with references to the "willpower of the nation", thus adding a dash of Rousseau, while his supporters emphasised his legitimacy as a just and legitimate leader. The AKP's qualified election victory - it received 43%-48% of the national vote, depending on how votes are counted - allows him to claim, slightly disingenuously, that a majority has consented to his rule and the minority will need to abide by the outcome.
In this arrangement, the sovereign has commanding rights: to do whatever he thinks necessary to maintain peace and to prevent discord, to prescribe the law (including in matters of honour) and be the judge in all cases, and to make war and peace. .. read more: