Turkey's 'Islamists' Remarkably Like Republicans

When the AKP, the party of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, swept into power in 2002, it was American Republicans, more than Democrats, who viewed this development with alarm. The rise of the AKP, which was sometimes called "Islamist," struck some on the American right as one more manifestation of the Islamic fundamentalism that, post-9/11, was viewed as the main threat to America's security.

But since arriving in Istanbul more than a week ago, I've been struck less by the parallels between AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood than by the parallels between AKP and the Republican Party. The analogy really hit home a few nights ago as I was having dinner (at a restaurant with a nice view of Istanbul, as my cell-phone photo attests) with a Turkish friend of mine whom I hadn't seen since college.

IstanbulView.jpgHe is the CEO of a Turkish construction and energy firm, and he is the demographic opposite of the Turks who, according to stereotype, constitute Erdogan's political base. They are lower income and very religious, whereas my friend is affluent and almost militantly secular.

But on balance, he's reasonably happy with the past 10 years of Erdogan's rule, because Erdogan is by and large a free marketer, favoring low barriers to trade and a smaller government role in the economy. My friend is no cheerleader for AKP, and he has his complaints, but while listening to his surprising tolerant view of Erdogan, it hit me: Turkey's current government, like the Republican party, rests on two seemingly paradoxical pillars: the affluent commercial class and lower-income, religiously conservative voters.

There are even parallels between the specific social issues that AKP champions and the issues Republicans champion. Erdogan wants to ban abortion, and he thinks the educational system should be more amenable to expressions of religiosity in the classroom. In his case, the big issue is head scarves, which had long been banned in Turkish universities but in the AKP years have started showing up there.

There are differences, to be sure, between AKP and the Republicans. Republicans align with many lower income religious voters on social issues, but they haven't delivered much in the way of economic goods to that part of their base. (Hence the famous question, "What's the Matter with Kansas?") The AKP, in contrast, has brought material benefits to lower income voters, including energy subsidies and, as a local lawyer explained to me over lunch on Thursday, improved access to health care. (Trivia for any of you who read an earlier Turkey dispatch: This lawyer is the woman who begged to differ with my estimate of Istanbul's head-scarf density, an intervention that led to our meeting for lunch.)

The above sketch may oversimplify things. For example, I'm using "lower income" in a relative sense; many of the AKP's devoutly religious supporters are viewed here as part of Turkey's growing middle class, and some are extremely affluent. That's a very important fact that I will expand on later this week. 

Meanwhile, my main point is one of reassurance--in particular for American conservatives who once feared Erdogan's rule. Over the course of Erdogan's tenure it seems like fewer and fewer American commentaters have referred to AKP as "Islamist," because Erdogan  hasn't come close to meeting the standard definition of that term. And it now seems to me that this moderation (relative to expectations, at least) is to some extent structurally imposed. The coalition that allows him to rule includes too many economically powerful, highly secular people for him to get carried away on the religious front.

Of course, that could in theory change if devout Muslims continue to exhibit social mobility, so that eventually the business class isn't secular at all. I'll address that possibility in my next post about Turkey.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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