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Turkey: The New Model?

By Omer Taspinar

In the early twenty-first century, Turkey was arguably the most dynamic experiment with political Islam among the fifty-seven nations of the Muslim world. It also offered seminal lessons for the Arab world, despite the tense history (especially during the Ottoman Empire) and many differences.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) went through five incarnations before it found a balance that voters would embrace but the military would also accept, albeit reluctantly. Its evolution reflects how democratic traditions and institutions can both interact with and moderate political Islam, at least in one geostrategic country. In Turkey, a tradition of free and fair elections and capitalism has encouraged Islamic parties to play by the rules. Turkey’s radical secularism, enforced by the military, has also tamed the strident religious dogma that once landed Islamic politicians in trouble—and even in prison.

The AKP is a political party with clear Islamic roots. It pragmatically moved to the center-right over a decade, mainly to escape the fate of its defunct predecessors. The party’s success, however, has had little to do with ideological factors. Turkish voters have been primarily concerned with bread-and-butter issues. In June 2011, they voted for political stability and rewarded the AKP a third time for the country’s growing prosperity and better social services, particularly in health care and housing. In 2014, the party’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected to the presidency in the first popular election for this ceremonial yet symbolically important post. Opinion polls predict a fourth electoral victory for the AKP in June 2015 under the leadership of former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

These AKP victories were historic. The 2011 poll was only the second time since the beginning of Turkey’s multiparty democracy in 1946 that a political party had won three consecutive elections. And it was the first time that a party actually increased its percentage of the vote at each succeeding election. The AKP received 34.28 percent of the vote in 2002. It won 46.58 percent in 2007. And it scored 49.90 percent in 2011. In 2014,  Erdoğan was elected to the presidency with almost 52 percent of the votes.  

AKP’s sweep was a striking reversal. All previous Islamist parties in Turkey had been shut down by either military intervention or rulings by the constitutional court: The National Order Party, founded in 1970, was banned by the Constitutional Court in 1971. The National Salvation Party, founded in 1972, was outlawed after the 1980 military coup. The Welfare Party, founded in 1983, was banned by the Constitutional Court in 1998. The Virtue Party, founded in 1997, was banned in 2001.

Turkey is notable because its Islamist parties have reemerged more moderate and pragmatic after each closure. “Autocratic regimes in the Muslim world often ban religious parties, which then go underground and turn violent. Turkey’s Islamists have taken a different path. Despite being repeatedly outlawed and ejected from power, pious politicians have shunned violence, embraced democracy, and moved into the mainstream,” The Economist noted in 2008. “No Islamic party has been as moderate and pro-Western as the AKP, which catapulted into government in 2002 promising to lead Turkey into the European Union.”

Erdoğan, who founded the party, actually rejects defining the AKP in religious terms. “We are not an Islamic party, and we also refuse labels such as Muslim-democrat,” he said in 2005. The AKP leader instead calls the party’s agenda “conservative democracy.”

The AKP’s journey from political Islam to conservative democracy is not just the result of political expediency or respect for the red lines of Turkish secularism. The evolution of Turkey’s capitalism under the leadership of Turgut Özal in the 1980s created an entrepreneurial Muslim bourgeoisie in the conservative heartland of Anatolia. The new Muslim bourgeoisie had a greater stake in politics—and became more engaged.

These “Islamic Calvinists” have been more concerned about maximizing profits, creating access to international currency markets, and ensuring political stability than about introducing Islamic law or creating a theocracy. Turkey now has thousands of such small and medium-sized export-oriented businesses, often referred to as “Anatolian tigers.” Most support the AKP. Beginning in the 1990s, the party’s assumption of political power gradually moderated the radical elements within Turkish political Islam.

The AKP leadership clearly views the party as a model for other Muslim countries. On June 12, 2011, Erdoğan told thousands who had gathered to celebrate the AKP’s landslide victory, “Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul. Beirut won as much as Izmir. Damascus won as much as Ankara. Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, [and] Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.”

Despite considerable success between 2003 and 2011, the AKP’s foreign policy and domestic record since 2011 has been less impressive. On the foreign policy front, Turkey has discovered the limits of its influence in the post-Arab Spring period, particularly in Syria and Egypt. Its unwavering support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its reluctance to stop the flow of jihadists to Syria between 2012 and 2014 created regional and international frustration. At home, the AKP turned increasingly hegemonic and authoritarian.  Erdoğan polarized the country by crushing youth protests in 2013. He also silenced most of the critical voices in the media. He engaged in a witch-hunt against the followers of Fetullah Gulen, a U.S.-based imam. 

The Beginning

The rise of Islamic politics in Turkey was in large part a reaction to the traumatic birth of a modern state after the Ottoman Empire collapsed following World War I. Since the 1920s, Turkey’s official ideology has been Kemalism, which grew out of the ultrasecular views of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. The Kemalists pursued a top-down project of radical modernization. In an ambitious drive to import European civilization, the republic disposed of the governing caliphate, the Arabic alphabet, Islamic education, and the Sufi brotherhoods that were an important part of both religion and culture.

Kemalist Turkey adopted Western legal codes from Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, together with the Latin alphabet and the Western calendar, Western holidays, and Western dress. The country’s official history and language were reworked. A new education system glorified pre-Islamic Turkic civilizations at the expense of the country’s more recent Ottoman past, and many Arabic and Persian words were purged to create an “authentically” Turkish vocabulary. Even the Arabic azan, the call to prayer, was no longer allowed in its original form and had to be chanted in modern Turkish, to the dismay of pious Muslims.

Yet despite massive reforms, secular Kemalism barely infiltrated Turkish society at large. The rural and pious masses of Anatolia remained largely unaffected by the cultural reengineering in Ankara, in contrast to the military, the bureaucracy, and the urban bourgeoisie, who embraced or adapted to Kemalism’s superficial Westernization. The cultural gap between the Kemalist center and the Anatolian periphery soon became insurmountable. A Kemalist slogan in the 1920s acknowledged that the Turkish government ruled “For the people, despite the people.”

Religious conservatives and ethnic Kurds actively opposed the Kemalist mission to create a Westernized, secular, and homogenous Turkish nation-state. Between 1923 and 1938, the new Kemalist government unleashed its military to suppress a series of Kurdish and Islamist rebellions.

Turkish politics entered a new era after 1946. When the Cold War divided up the world, Turkey’s decision to turn toward the West and join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) fostered a transition to multiparty democracy—and a realignment of political forces between left and right. Kurdish discontent found its place in the socialist left, while political Islam was part of the anticommunist right. Behind the scenes, the military remained a powerful force. It intervened in 1960, 1971, and 1980 to restore a sense of Kemalist order against both leftist and conservative parties.

But in 1991, after the Cold War ended and communism collapsed, Turkey’s identity problems rapidly resurfaced. The right and left were no longer able to absorb the passions of Kurdish and Islamic dissent. Turkey was polarized along two axes: Turkish versus Kurdish identity on the one hand, and Islamic versus secular identity on the other. The result was the “lost decade” of the 1990s—a decade of war with Kurdish separatists, polarization over the role of religious values, economic turmoil, and unstable coalition governments.

Islamist Victories

In 1994, the Welfare Party—the third incarnation of the pro-Islamist Party—shocked the Kemalist establishment by winning local elections nationwide and capturing control of Turkey’s two largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara. The party was headed by Necmettin Erbakan, who had close connections with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. After seven decades, Turkey’s secular tide was ebbing. A year later, the Welfare Party won the largest bloc in parliamentary elections, putting an Islamist-led coalition in charge of the entire country.

The Welfare Party’s victory was short lived. Alarmed that the new government would adopt an overtly Islamic agenda, the military stepped in. Turkey’s generals feared that the government would suppress secular opposition, allow Islamic dress in universities, and abandon Turkey’s Western alliances. In fact, however, the Welfare Party actually adhered to most mainstream Turkish political practices. It did try to plant sympathizers in ministries it controlled, but so had many previous governments. Still, the secular press warned of an imminent Islamist revolution.

On February 28, 1997, the military—with wide backing from civil society and the secular media—forced Erbakan and his party out of power. The bloodless coup had major unintended consequences. It spurred serious soul-searching among Turkey’s Islamists, eventually sparking a generational and ideological rift within the movement.

The Welfare Party’s pragmatic young leaders—notably Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (not to be confused with Erbakan) and Abdullah Gül—recognized the red lines of Turkish secularism. (Erdoğan, then mayor of Istanbul, learned the hard way. In 1999, he spent four months in jail for reciting a poem with Islamic undertones.) After participating in democratic politics for more than three decades, Turkey’s Islamists had already tempered their views to win a wider following at elections. By the late 1990s, political Islam was ready to fully integrate into mainstream politics.

In 2001, Erdoğan created the Justice and Development Party, the fifth and final incarnation of the pro-Islamist party, from the ashes of the dissolved Welfare Party and the Virtue Party. He crafted the term conservative democracy—rather than an Islamic reference—to explain his political agenda. He understood that political liberalization would consolidate the AKP’s power base.

To achieve two crucial objectives, Erdoğan put democratic reforms at the top of his agenda, seeking to comply with European Union (EU) membership guidelines. The move earned him the support of Turkey’s business community, liberal intellectuals, and pragmatic middle class. It also won him political legitimacy in the eyes of the military. After all, European recognition had long been the ultimate prize in Atatürk’s vision of a Westernized Turkey. And by giving priority to social services, the AKP also appealed to the impoverished underclass. Erdoğan’s strategy paid off. In November 2002, the party won the largest bloc of seats in the parliamentary elections.


Between 2002 and 2006, the AKP government passed a series of reforms to harmonize Turkey’s judicial system, civil-military relations, and human rights practices with European norms. Through its formidable grassroots network and with governmental institutions now in its hands, the party made health care and housing credits more accessible, distributed food, increased grants for students, improved the infrastructure of poorer urban districts, and made minority rights for Kurds and non-Muslims a priority.

Reforms were not confined to politics. The party also managed to get the Turkish economy back on track after the economic crisis of 2001 by following International Monetary Fund guidelines.

Between 2002 and 2011, the Turkish economy grew by an average rate of 7.5 percent annually. Lower inflation and interest rates led to a major increase in domestic consumption. And the Turkish economy began to attract unprecedented foreign direct investment, thanks to a disciplined privatization program. The average per capita income rose from $2,800 U.S. in 2001 to around $10,000 U.S. in 2011, exceeding annual income in some of the new EU members.

Yet even as the AKP adopted a more liberal order, Kemalist segments of Turkish society grew increasingly suspicious that it had a hidden agenda. They feared that the AKP was exploiting the EU membership process to diminish the military’s political role and, eventually, the Kemalist legacy. They balked, for instance, at AKP measures to increase the ratio of civilians to military officers on the National Security Council, elect a civilian to head the National Security Council, remove military representatives from the boards of the Council of Higher Education and the Radio and Television High Council, and grant broadcasting and cultural rights to Kurds.

On foreign policy, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s willingness to compromise on the question of Cyprus also polarized Turkish politics. The AKP backed a United Nations plan to reunify the island; the military adamantly opposed the plan. The deadlock was an important obstacle to EU membership—and the pro-Islamist party actually appeared more willing to compromise than either the secularists or the military. A subsequent investigation revealed that a military coup over the Cyprus question was barely averted in 2004 because of divisions among the Turkish generals.


Turkey’s internal divisions deepened between 2006 and 2008. The AKP had long wanted to lift the ban on Islamic dress—or wearing of headscarves—in universities and end discrimination against graduates of Islamic high schools (such as special criteria for their university entry exams). The AKP had strong popular support for both steps. More than 50 percent of Turkish women covered their heads.

Party leaders preferred to promote reform by building a national consensus rather than by challenging the secularist establishment head-on. But secularists remained wary. They pointed to Erdoğan’s brief attempt to criminalize adultery in 2004, his appointment of religious conservatives to bureaucratic positions, and AKP attempts to discourage the sale of alcohol.

Tensions between the AKP and the military climaxed after Erdoğan announced he would nominate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül for the presidency. The presidency is a prestigious though ceremonial post—but also the last bastion of secularism in the eyes of the military and the opposition.

On April 27, 2007, the generals staged the country’s first “e-coup.” They posted a warning on the military’s website that “if necessary, the Turkish Armed Forces will not hesitate to make their position and stance abundantly clear as the absolute defenders of secularism.” Given Turkey’s history of military interventions, the note was a thinly veiled threat that a more conventional coup might be in the offing.

In a sign of the AKP’s growing self-confidence, Erdoğan did not back off. He instead decided to defy the generals by calling early elections. The AKP won a landslide victory in mid-2007 with almost 47 percent of the votes—compared with 34 percent in 2002 when it came to power. The election was a public rebuke to the generals.

The AKP crowned its victory when parliament elected Gül to the presidency. But the military shadow still loomed over Turkey. The top brass stayed away from the inauguration. And in 2008, Turkey’s chief prosecutor tried to have the AKP closed on grounds that it pursued an Islamist agenda to subvert the secular republic. The party survived this “constitutional coup” attempt by a whisker. The court voted against closure by just one vote.


Between 2008 and 2011, the AKP consolidated its gains. Despite the political turbulence, Turkey weathered the global financial crisis of 2008 with remarkable success. The economy continued double-digit growth rates in 2009, after a brief recession. By 2012, Turkey’s unemployment rate and budget deficit were at record lows.

In June 2011, the AKP won its third consecutive electoral victory with nearly 50 percent of the vote. The country’s global stature also reached new heights. As uprisings shook the Middle East, reformers in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia often cited Turkey and the AKP as models.

The AKP also consolidated its supremacy over the military—a first since the creation of the modern state. On July 29, 2011, the military’s chief of staff resigned after a disagreement with Erdoğan about staff promotions. The same day, the heads of the army, navy, and air force requested early retirement. It was a paradigm shift for a country that had experienced three military coups and constant military meddling for almost a century.

With the military sidelined, the AKP had the potential to build national consensus for a more democratic constitution that would consolidateTurkey’s historic conciliation between Islam, secularism and democracy. Yet developments after 2012 took the AKP and Turkey in a different direction. The absence of effective checks and balances combined with the AKP’s growing sense of confidence in power led to a more authoritarian style of leadership. Erdoğan turned increasingly conservative and hegemonic in his political discourse. In the summer of 2013, anti-AKP protests across erupted in Istanbul and spread across Turkey.

Turkey’s growing authoritarianism was reflected in the brutal suppression of protests, increased restrictions on freedom of expression, cronyism in the economy, and a major corruption scandal. Ankara also lost regional influence, particularly because of its position on the Syrian civil war  

Yet Erdoğan still managed to become the first popularly elected president of the republic with more than 50 percent of the votes in mid-2014.  The majority of voters still opted for the AKP due to the absence of a strong opposition party, economic stability despite corruption scandals, and a peace process with the Kurds . 

Key Positions


The AKP heralds democracy; its more seasoned politicians have participated in free elections for two decades. But Turkey remains polarized, with its opposition parties ever more concerned about creeping authoritarianism and Islamism. Opponents call the government a civilian dictatorship and deplore its use of the judicial system to neuter the military, the opposition media, and rival political parties.

Contrary to many predictions, the Turkish democratic model did not start coming to an end because of a clash between Islam and secularism. Instead, the real conflict was between “electoral” democracy and liberalism. Erdoğan had a tendency to reduce democracy to elections. His populist understanding of politics came at the expense of individual rights and liberties, freedom of expression and association, an independent media, and separation between the legislative, executive and judiciary powers. By 2015, these crucial attributes of liberal democracy were either missing or in their infancy in Turkey.


The improved state of minorities, especially for the Kurdish minority, presented an interesting paradox in Turkey’s otherwise gloomy state of affairs . The AKP was willing to resolve the Kurdish conflict by talking to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The reason may have been AKP's shared narrative of victimhood.  Like the Kurds, the AKP tendedto see itself as a fellow victim of the Kemalist state. For decades, both suffered under the system of military tutelage in Turkey. But Erdoğan also may simply have adoped a Machiavellian strategy to get Kurdish votes, particularly for a change in the political system from  a parliamentary form to a presidential system. 

Women’s Rights

The AKP has done nothing formal to alter women’s rights. To the contrary, by pushing for EU membership and harmonizing Turkish laws with European standards, the AKP has eliminated some of the legal obstacles that discriminate against women in the labor market and civil code. But the AKP is also clearly a conservative and patriarchal political party. Erdoğan’s understandings of family values and gender equality are not progressive.

Until recently, the restraints of Turkey’s strong secular constitution impeded observant Muslim women more than secular females. Women who wear hejab, or head covering, were banned from official events and public university classes, for example. Erdoğan sent his two daughters, who cover their hair, to American universities abroad because they could not attend Turkish colleges. In 2011, the AKP changed the legislation dealing with dress codes in public universities and legalized hejab. The restrictive dress code for civil servants, however, remains in place.

The West

AKP leaders claim that membership in the European Union is their strategic priority. Yet the AKP has demonstrated growing self-confidence by expanding Turkey’s reach and diplomatic relations beyond the West. The EU’s reluctance to embrace Turkey formally and the European economic crisis have also led the AKP to look to the Middle East, Africa, Russia, and Central Asia as areas where Turkey can exert soft power—what former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called Turkey’s “strategic depth.” Analysts dubbed the activist Turkish foreign policy “neo-Ottomanism.” The AKP tried hard to avoid major problems with the United States, but the Syrian civil war and tensions with Israel led to a significant souring in relations between the White House and Erdoğan.   


For decades, Turkey had the closest relations of any Muslim state to Israel. Under the AKP, Erdoğan even mediated briefly between Israel and Syria during 2007 and 2008. But as the AKP deepened Turkey’s ties to Iran and the Hamas government in Gaza—including AKP efforts to facilitate humanitarian aid to Gaza—tensions deepened with Israel. Relations went from bad to worse in 2010 after the Mavi Marmama incident, when Israeli soldiers boarded a Turkish flotilla and killed nine civilians. By early 2015, diplomatic relations were at an all-time low despite improved trade and business ties between the two countries.

The Future

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was once hailed as a democratic model for Islamist contenders in Arab world.  But by 2015, the so-called “Turkish model” was unraveling.  The country was increasingly authoritarian and unstable. The brutal suppression of protests during the summer of 2013 and corruption scandals of 2014 exposed a different face of Erdoğan. As of early 2015, there were no signs of easing restrictive policies on freedoms of speech, the press or dissent.. Erdoğan appeared to be an agent of change who ultimately failed to either liberalize or democratize Turkey.  The rise and fall of the Turkish model under his rule was the tale of “illiberal” democracies with weak democratic institutions and political traditions.  The old type of Turkish authoritarianism, where military and bureaucratic elites called the shots, was simply replaced by a civilian and democratically elected authoritarianism.

Omer Taspinar is professor at the National War College and senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the coauthor of Winning Turkey: How America, Europe, and Turkey Can Revive a Fading Partnership (2008). His website is

Photo credits: Erdogan via Flickr (Creative Commons license 3.0); AKP logo by AK Parti via Flickr (CC01.0)

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