Islamism and Authoritarianism in Turkey


Two weeks ago, after visiting Turkey, I posted a piece suggesting that the country offers cause for hope--specifically, cause for hope that, as Islamists get more power within their societies, they may often wind up growing more moderate, even to the point of no longer being Islamists. That, at least, is what seems to have happened in Turkey.

I got an email from a friend who had read my piece and said he was "less sanguine" about Turkey than I was. He steered me to a long Dexter Filkins piece in the New Yorker that focused on authoritarian tendencies within the current Turkish government--a government led by a former Islamist who seems to have given up his Islamist aspirations. The piece is troubling and well worth reading. But, since some people, like my friend, may see these authoritarian tendencies as somehow contradicting the picture of Turkey I presented, I want to explain why I don't think they do. Maybe the best way--and certainly the most labor-saving way!--is to just quote from the email I sent my friend:

My piece is about how, so far, the empowerment of conservative Muslims in Turkey hasn't translated into Islamism--and about an argument (not my argument, but one I attribute to [Kerim Balci]) about why the empowerment of conservative Muslims may in general--even in other countries--tend to drain energy from Islamism.

Filkins doesn't argue that the regime is Islamist, but, rather, argues that it's authoritarian. On that point we agree--I mentioned the authoritarianism in my piece. But I also quoted a secular liberal critic of the government saying he doesn't see the authoritarianism as linked to Islam. (Which makes sense, since there's a long history of Turkish governments, including secular ones, being authoritarian.)

Now, if you believe that the authoritarianism is in fact the manifestation of an Islamist tendency that will eventually manifest itself more directly, then there is indeed tension between the Filkins piece and mine. But Filkins doesn't say that.

It's true, of course, that my piece has a more upbeat feel than Filkins's. But that's because I'm asking a different question--about the prospects for secular government, not about the prospects for non-authoritarian government. Of course, you can *imagine* the authoritarianism going so far that it winds up leading to the end of secular governance, but at the moment I'd call that quite an extrapolation.

By the way, commenters should feel free to let me know if it seems offputtingly self-indulgent (or offputtingly anything) to quote from your own emails. Saving time wasn't my only motivation in doing it. I actually thought the variation in texture--between blog post and email--might somehow make the whole thing more digestible. But maybe I'm wrong.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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