Friday, 30 October 2015 16:45

Turkey Transformed: The Origins and Evolution of Authoritarianism and Islamization under the AKP

1510BPC-picTurkey Transformed: The Origins and Evolution of Authoritarianism and Islamization Under the AKP

This study’s excavation of the ideological and political origins of the AKP sheds light both on Turkey’s current situation and its future trajectory. In the process, however, it also yields insights about some of the myopic or unwarranted assumptions underlying policy thinking about Turkey that have implications for policymakers going forward.

1510BPC-coverThursday, October 29, 2015

On June 7, 2015, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in parliament, which it had maintained for 12 years. But, as is increasingly clear, losing an election did not mean losing power. From the presidential palace, the AKP’s de facto leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has ensured that no other political force is given a chance to govern. Instead, Erdoğan has called early elections and relaunched the war against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in a rather transparent attempt to rally the Turkish nationalist vote.

Should Erdoğan and the AKP prove successful in this gambit, they will likely seek to transform Turkey. “Today is the day that Turkey rises from its ashes,” Erdoğan said upon ascending the presidency in August 2014. “It’s the day the process to build the new Turkey gains strength.” However, during the AKP’s tenure, Turkey has already been transformed, though perhaps not in the way that Western observers expected.

When the AKP was created in 2000, it cast itself as a “post-Islamist” party leaving behind the ideological baggage of previous, failed attempts at governance arising out of Turkey’s Islamist tradition and representing a democratic movement bent on weakening the hold of entrenched elites on the Turkish state. With this mission, it quickly captured the goodwill of the West as well as Turkish liberals.

Fifteen years later, the behavior of the AKP has forced a reconsideration of this assumption. Erdoğan’s “new Turkey” has come to mean something other than the consolidated democracy the AKP promised. Instead, in the domestic realm,Turkish government policies have grown strongly authoritarian and repressive, while increasingly tinged with Islamic rhetoric. In the area of foreign affairs, Turkish policies are less and less aligned with those of Turkey’s Western allies and increasingly anti-Western and sectarian in nature. The “new Turkey” espoused by the AKP appears to have more in common with the Milli Görüş movement it sprung from than with the reformist, democratizing party it claimed to be.

Determining which of these is the real AKP—the post-Islamist party of liberal hope or the autocrats of a New Turkey—is crucial to understanding both the Turkey of today and its plausible future trajectory. What went wrong? Did the AKP project get derailed by Western alienation or, as some would argue, the excesses of its increasingly narcissistic leader? Or is the problem, rather, that Western and Turkish observers alike misread the AKP from the start and saw only what they wanted to see? Was the AKP’s early liberal democratic platform a façade and a tactical ploy, its real objectives all along the autocratic and Islamist ones it espouses today?

These questions cannot be answered without knowing the AKP’s relationship and attitudes toward the ideological tradition from which it emerged and the reasons for its apparent split with its political forbearers. This calls for the investigation of two particular questions, which have so far received only limited scholarly attention. The first is the ideological origins of the Milli Görüş movement, the ideological forefather of Turkey’s modern Islamists. The second issue is the split that occurred in the Islamist movement between 1998 and 2000, when the AKP began to rise from the ashes after the Virtue Party had been closed down and Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan removed from power by the Turkish military. Knowing this will allow a more informed analysis of the AKP’s 12 years in power and its current political agenda, illuminating the ideological ambitions driving its pursuit of a “New Turkey.”

What emerges is a picture of remarkable continuity: The leading figures of Turkish political Islam have all been steeped in an anti-imperialist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Western worldview. And, while the AKP rose to power by declaring a break from that tradition, its leaders transformed the movement’s political tactics while preserving its ideological objectives and ambitions.

Turkey and the AKP appear to enjoy a certain uniformity of opinion among Washington observers. In 2003, the hope for a new, more democratic chapter in Turkish politics was shared widely, and not just in Washington. By early 2014, opinion began to shift and, by the time of the June 2015 parliamentary election, a new consensus had recognized the increasingly authoritarian direction the country had taken. But such unanimity hides a certain analytical superficiality; observers have rarely engaged in a deeper reflection of what the failure of the AKP to live up to the potential originally ascribed to it means for our understanding of Turkey and the AKP itself.

This study’s excavation of the ideological and political origins of the AKP sheds light both on Turkey’s current situation and its future trajectory. In the process, however, it also yields insights about some of the myopic or unwarranted assumptions underlying policy thinking about Turkey that have implications for policymakers going forward.

Read 17963 times Last modified on Friday, 30 October 2015 16:57





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.