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Erdogan: 'I Am a Servant of Sharia'

Demography Versus the Deep State

The illusion of “Islamic democracy” substitutes a value-neutral procedural shell, the popular election, for the rich substance of democratic culture. Thus demography, so crucial to the recent electoral success of Turkey’s Islamists, merits scrutiny.

As Tel-Aviv University’s Ehud Toledano explains, the last 15 years have witnessed a transformative population shift. Whereas three-quarters of Turks used to live in small towns and villages, with the remaining 25 percent in the urban centers, that ratio has reversed. Not only has this urbanization process increased the access of formerly rural Turks to higher education and the global economy; it has meant these more devout Muslims have dramatically impacted the cities with what Toledano calls “their traditional culture and sensitivities.”

I more bluntly outlined the phenomenon in The Grand Jihad. When Islamists relocate, they change their new surroundings much more than their new surroundings change them. In accordance with Brotherhood jurist Yusuf Qaradawi’s “voluntary apartheid” approach, Islamists purposely resettle in enclaves where Muslim self-awareness and sharia hold sway. In light of this strategy’s effectiveness in Islamizing swaths of the non-Muslim West, it is no surprise to find it working quite well in Turkey, especially given the Islamist parties’ gradual erosion of Kemalist obstacles to Islamization. It is not a coincidence that the electoral success of Islamist parties – beginning with Necmettin Erbakan’s election as modern Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister in 1996 – exactly tracks Turkey’s demographic sea-change.

Erdogan’s victory formula coupled this enhanced Islamist political consolidation and participation with the peculiarities of Turkey’s electoral system. The latter, ironically, were designed to keep Islamsts out of power.

When Turkey began permitting multi-party politics after World War II, it rigged the electoral system: declining parliamentary representation to political parties that fail to draw a threshold percentage of the popular vote (today, ten percent). Through the latter half of the Twentieth Century, this generally meant that the hardcore minority of Islamists could never form a parliamentary majority: A majority of Turks, theoretically reprogrammed by decades of Kemalist secularism, would reliably unite, at least enough to keep the Islamists at bay. But in 2002, the several non-Islamist parties did the unthinkable: they splintered.

This Kemalist implosion seemed inconceivable. Not only were secular factions, right and left, fully cognizant that failure on their part to coalesce was the minority Islamists’ only path to power. A splintering had, in fact, very recently happened, with sharp consequences. In December 1995, the Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party, founded on the Muslim Brotherhood model by Erbakan in 1983, had managed to win the parliamentary election with only 21 percent of the vote.

So dismayed was Turkey’s ruling class, the “deep state,” that Erbakan’s elevation to the office of prime minister was short-lived. The “deep state” is an elite inner sanctum of top army, government and judicial officials that has historically served as the decisive bulwark against ever-thrumming Islamic supremacism. Its traditionally steely spine, the Turkish military, is the official guardian of the secular order under the Kemalist constitution. The military staged coups d’etat in 1960, 1971 and 1980 when civilian leaders seemed poised to move the nation away from Ataturk’s secular vision. In 1997, Erbakan’s Islamist surge stirred the deep state yet again.

The generals toppled the new prime minister’s governing coalition. The episode is known as the “Postmodern Coup” because the army took pains to resist dissolving Parliament and assuming power directly. Still, the junta did round up a number of notorious Islamist rabble-rousers, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kemal al-Helbawy, a United Kingdom-based Muslim Brotherhood official, has recounted that the Brotherhood “always had ties with the Islamic movement … in Turkey, since its inception” – dating back to Islamist groups Erbakan formed even before he started the National Salvation Party in the Seventies.[1] Erdogan was elected chairman of the NSP’s youth corps (the Istanbul Youth Organization) in 1976, not long after his Mas-Kom-Ya star turn. Helbawy, a contemporary, was one of the original leaders of WAMY – the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, the font of Sunni supremacist ideology and terror facilitation that we discussed (in Chapter 3) in connection with another of its alumni, sharia scholar Taha al-Alwani. According to Helbawy, it was at WAMY, which was active in Turkey as it is in dozens of countries, that he first met Erdogan and several other up-and-coming young Islamists.

When the NSP was closed down by the 1980 military coup, Erdogan followed Erbakan to the new Refah Party, described by Soner Cagaptay, a stellar scholar of Turkey, as “an explicitly Islamist party, which featured strong anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and anti-secular elements.” Erdogan was in his mid-30s and a leading Refah figure by the time of the Postmodern Coup, during which the deep state, through the instrument of Turkey’s constitutional court, banned Refah and other Islamist parties. Erdogan himself was arrested for religious incitement, convicted in 1998, and imprisoned for six months.