Does Turkey provide a model for political Islam in a democracy?

This is a modified essay which I wrote last year to look at Turkey’s supposed role in acting as a kind of model for political Islam in a democracy. Please do read – hope you all find it interesting!

Turkey’s unique position in the Middle East is highlighted by its highly distinct political system and geographical position of importance. As the only Muslim secular-democratic state, it provides an interesting example of the interaction between Islam and politics. Widely seen as a colossal success, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is at the head of this melding today, winning broad support across the country throughout recent years. This has led to a popular view of Turkey as a model for other Middle Eastern countries to follow in successfully operating a Muslim-secular democracy with political Islam movements. This essay will argue, however, that Turkey has much work to do before it can be called any kind of ‘model’ for other states, considering in particular some recent problems and also through taking into account a set of conditions laid out for an effective democracy (or polyarchy) by Dahl.

Political Islam is a hugely broad movement, with no single coherent aim. As such it is a difficult concept to pin down and define. The aims of the movement may be simply attaining recognition for Islamism on a quotidian basis or in the extreme of wanting a radical shift in society to a theocracy (Ayoob, 2009). A narrower definition, the one most commonly assumed, is the use of Islam to a political end (Knudsen, 2003) though this is extremely vague. The difficulty in creating a coherent definition of the movement leads many to either leave out a definition altogether, or to focus on “Islamism” as a concept in considering the broader goals of the movement (Knudsen, 2003). Even more interesting is Turkey’s current bid for membership to the European Union; this demonstrates the complex interplay of political Islam with more traditionally western norms in attempting to reach the EU’s criteria for membership.


This essay will explore the rise of political Islam in Turkey, examine the mass appeal of the AKP in particular in and explore how Turkey could be seen as a model for political Islam in a democracy. Yet, Turkey’s shortcomings will also be highlighted including criticisms regarding its recent authoritarian streak.  In particular, Dahl’s (2000) idea of the ideal democracy will be used to explore Turkey’s success and failure in fusing political Islam with democratic principles.

While in the West the mixing of the church and the state is typically shunned, the Middle East has a long history, and continued tradition of Islamic involvement in politics. Ayoob (2009) emphasises that the postcolonial nation states have had a relatively short amount of time to form their own boundaries of political and religious through war and diplomacy as was the case in Europe. The complexities of forming democracies has led to the view that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Further difficulties stem primarily from the fact that the arbitrary borders of the Middle East leave no common ground other than religion in the broadest sense (Ayoob, 2009). Ayoob states that track record of Muslim countries in relation to democracy is improving, citing Turkey as a key example. The history of political Islam in Turkey is a long, complicated one with a history of Kemalist military involvement in politics acting as a counter force for the rise of the political Islam parties. Though traditionally, any form of political Islam was a fringe movement (Larrabee & Stephen, 2008).

The focus here will remain on the AKP party, however as its success in gaining support is highly significant.  In the 2002 general election, the party won 34.2% of the vote, gaining almost two-thirds of the parliamentary seats (Cagaptay, 2002). In the next general election of 2007, the AKP managed to increase its share to 46.6% and again in 2011 increased its votes to 49.8% (Çarkoglu, 2011). The success of an Islam based party in a secular system is highly unique and not really found elsewhere. These results seem incredulous to some rival parties in Turkey, and accusations of fraud have begun to surface, with a request having been sent to the EU to monitor the next elections (Hogg & Solaker, 2014). Local elections taking place on March 30 were also marred with such accusations of corruption, electoral fraud and evidence of Erdogan gripping onto power (Tisdall, 2014). Stories of Erdogan himself and talk of corruption dominated almost all coverage afforded to the elections. Erodgan’s angry, intolerant and possibly even dictatorial leadership style came to the fore in the run-up to the elections (Tisdall, 2014) and rants against “the enemy within” featured heavily in his appearances. The Prime Minister even went so far as to promise punishment for his opponents. Many instances of scandal also surfaced through the election cycle (Tisdall, 2014). One problematic report was a leaked government meeting recording threating to spark a war with Syria. The existence of such accusations is problematic to say the least, and if proven to be accurate would dent Turkey’s image as a model for political Islam in a functioning democracy.

Political Islam has emerged primarily as a result of liberalisation providing the movement with ample room to develop and gain momentum largely free of military interference, as the military in Turkey has a history of imposition of the Kemalist regime in authoritarian ways, allowing an uneasy relationship of sorts between the secular state and political Islam (Ayoob, 2009). In the context of Turkey, the meaning of a secular state means simply the dominance of the secular or even antireligious state over religion (Ayoob, 2009). Previously, religion was banished from the public sphere, subordinate to the state (Larrabee & Stephen, 2008). An opportunity for different movements to emerge which were previously suppressed under authoritarian rule has been created. As a result, Islamic ideals have been considerably moderated in Turkey in an effort to gain broader support (Brumberg, 2005). This means that Islamists in Turkey have tended to, or at least made efforts to seem like they have put the more overtly religious agenda to one side including the imposition of Islamic law or attempts to create an Islamist state (Brumberg, 2005). The framing of political Islam as credible, popular threats to the authoritarian state has allowed the movement in Turkey to portray itself as the providers of democracy and human rights. This is important to consider when examining Turkey’s contested status as an effective democracy, political Islam at its centre, with Dahl’s methods of studying what makes a democracy.

Dahl outlines five primary criteria for a state to be considered an effective democracy (Dahl, 2000). These are: elected representatives, frequent and free elections, freedom of expression, alternative sources of information, associational autonomy, and inclusion of members (Dahl, 2000).  These criteria are used as a means of giving the members of the democracy equal and fair treatment thereby allowing members to determine the direction of policy (Dahl, 2000). The experience of Turkey in relation to these criteria is important to consider as they provide a link of testing political Islam’s performance in democracy. Equal opportunity is emphasised as if the views of some are given better opportunity to be expressed those views are more likely to be included in policy form. In addition, votes must be weighed equally in any democracy (Dahl, 2000).

Freedom of expression, or effective participation, is the first of the five requirements according to Dahl (2000). This is the need for members to have equal and effective opportunity for making their views clear to other members and their representatives as to the direction policy ought to take. They should also be able to place questions onto a public agenda. Effectively, this is the ability to challenge what is considered to be the prevailing ideology of a state (Dahl, 2000). This is in line with the EU demand of toleration of non-violent expression of opinion. Freedom of expression is a somewhat thorny issue for Turkey’s membership to the EU. As the European Parliament noted in 2006, Turkey’s progress on this front has slowed considerably (Morelli, 2013). There remains a question as to whether Turkey’s secularism or scant minority rights for many including Kurds be criticised under law. This is of particular concern in the European Commission (European Commission, 2005). An example of these concerns is the anti-terror law, currently being employed against those involved in anti-government protests (Jones, 2013). Additionally, Turkey has seen these issues rise once more, in the period of the March local elections. For example, blocking websites including Twitter and Youtube with signs that such censorship will only intensify (Tisdall, 2014). This suggests that Turkey is unable to meet this criterion necessary for an effective democracy, thereby ruling Turkey out as a viable model for political Islam in a democratic system.

Turkey-Islam-Nationalism (1)_0

Dahl’s second criterion is the concept of associational autonomy (Dahl, 2000). This entails allowing people to form organisations and to be members in political organisations to achieve their rights. To Dahl, this is vital as a means of developing a civil society and allowing education of the electorate on various matters. Turkey’s history in this regard is not positive, with civil societies forming only a marginal role in Turkey and even those permitted to only exists in in a manner controlled by the state (Kubicek, 2005). Here, therefore, Turkey falls short. For example, associations with any cultural or religious affinity may not be formed and are viewed as breaching the constitution (European Commission, 2005).  This again severely limits Turkey’s potential as any kind of model for other states.

With regards to frequent, free and fair elections, Turkey had been seen as performing positively on the whole. Recently, however, reports of electoral fraud have emerged. There have been reports of attempts to use fake ballot papers, attempts to pressure others to vote a particular way and of trying to smuggle mobile phones into voting booths (Today’s Zaman , 2011). This is highly problematic as it totally contradicts the criterion of free and fair elections.  Turkey’s troubling status in this regard is worsened by the numerous accounts of fraud and corruption in the elections of March 30 2014 (Revolution News, 2014). Some of the more damning allegations of fraud are the burning of opposition ballots, inequal distribution of ballot papers, for example, keeping deceased voters on the voting register and giving some households extra ballot papers and even cutting electricity to contested areas to interfere with counting the results (Revolution News, 2014). The  discord caused as a result of the unfairness of these elections resulted in eight deaths on the day of the vote which truly is the greatest indicator of persisting issues of elections in the country. (Revolution News, 2014). The concept of alternative sources of information is closely tied to the idea of free and fair elections, as it demands that the electorate is presented with all available information to make informed decisions. Freedom of the press is relevant here, which presents a significant stumbling block for Turkey. This is because Turkey is ranked 154th out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index (Hürriyet Daily News, 2014).  Journalists, particularly those who report on the Kurdish situation, are frequently detained and imprisoned in Turkey. (Hürriyet Daily News, 2014). In fact, Turkey is the world’s leading imprisoner of journalists, imprisoning twice the amount China does (Kirisci, 2012). This situation seems dire, as without freedom for the press, the ability of the electorate to inform themselves on various issues is severely restricted. This deals a heavy blow to Turkey’s ability to act as a model for political Islam operating in a democracy.

Turkey’s stance on the inclusive citizenship principle is complicated. Dahl’s inclusive citizenship means that no member of the citizenship is excluded or discriminated based on their ethnicity, religion or gender. In theory, Turkish society is inclusive, as outlined in the constitution. In reality however the situation is bleak. The continued persecution of an entire group of people presents a problem. Human Rights Watch (2013) highlight the Kurdish issue, emphasising the AKP condoning of mass incarceration of Kurdish activists in 2012 and the lack of any kind of resolution of the Kurdish issue. Also, the widespread problem of violence against women remains, although some progress is being made with a law recently passed to move towards legal protection for women against marital violence (Human Rights Watch, 2013). A third example of Turkey’s violation of Dahl’s inclusive citizenship principle is the use of torture and violence by security forces throughout the country. These issues include violence against public demonstrators  perpetrated by the police and the authorities masking the issue of any who report instances of abuse with additional charges brought against them (Human Rights Watch, 2013). Torture is an issue standing in the way of Turkey’s EU membership as torture is widely reported throughout the penal system (Yeginsu, 2012). It seems that these abuses of human rights pose a grave threat to Turkey’s reputation as a model for political Islam operating in a democracy.

In conclusion, it seems that while Turkey has made much progress towards becoming an effective democracy, by no means is the situation a perfect one. The AKP have certainly created more opportunity for citizen participation than was previously possible, but as of late, the AKP have commenced attacks on any potential opponents. Tensions with the military can be seen in cases brought against many officers in relation to forged documents or detentions where a lack of evidence existed (Koplow & Cook, 2012). Civilian control over the military must be established to alleviate the issues and form a full democratic system. A further problem is the AKP stance towards opposition parties, with attempts to draft a new constitution to this end (Koplow & Cook, 2012). The actions the AKP takes against citizens and ordinary Turks also constrain the ability of people to question AKP power, as seen in its hard stance towards journalists (Koplow & Cook, 2012). It seems unlikely that Turkey will revert to a fully authoritarian state but the recent autocratic moves are too significant to be ignored. The inability to meet any of the typical criteria for democracy formation according to Dahl is also a serious issue.  A wider debate on the role of political Islam is also needed to examine the problems of such a system operating in a democracy, exacerbating Turkey’s flaws in this sense.  The issues, coupled with the fact that Turkey was surrounded by exceptional circumstances in the formation of its own brand of political Islam, indicate that it would be premature to declare Turkey a model for political Islam in democracies.


Ayoob, M., 2009. Many Faces of Political Islam : Religion and Politics in the Muslim World. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Brumberg, D., 2005. Islam Is Not the Solution (or the Problem). The Washington Quarterly, 29(1), pp. 97-116.

Cagaptay, S., 2002. The November 2002 Elections and Turkey’s New Political Era. [Online]
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[Accessed 22/02/2014].

Çarkoglu, A., 2011. Turkey’s 2011 General Elections: Towardsa a Dominant Party System?. Insight Turkey, 13(3), pp. 43-62.

Dahl, R. A., 2000. On Democracy. London: Yale University Press.

European Commission, 2005. Turkey 2005 Progress Report. [Online]
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[Accessed 18/03/2014].

Hogg, J. & Solaker, G., 2014. Rival parties warn of fraud in Turkey’s key local elections. [Online]
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[Accessed 15 feburay 2014].

Human Rights Watch, 2013 Turkey. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 13/03/2014]

Hürriyet Daily News, 2014. Turkey fails to improve press freedom record: Reporters Without Borders. [Online]
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[Accessed 22/02/2014].

Jones, D., 2013. Turkey’s ‘Anti-Terror’ Law Casts Increasingly Wide Net. [Online]
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[Accessed 20/02/2014].

Kirisci, K. (2012). Is the Turkish Model Relevant for the Middle East?. In: Henry, C & Ji-Hyang, J (eds.) The Arab Spring Will It Lead to Democratic Transitions?. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p.p 159-185.

Koplow, J, M,. & Cook, S, A., 2012 The Turkish Paradox How the AKP Simultaneously Embraces and Abuses Democracy [online] Available at: [Accessed: 20/03/2014]

Knudsen, A., 2003. Political Islam in the Middle East. [Online]
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[Accessed 13/03/2014].

Kubicek, P., 2005. The European Union and Grassroots Democratization in Turkey. Turkish studies, 6(3), pp. 361-377.

Larrabee, R. A. & Stephen, F., 2008. Rise of Political Islam in Turkey. Santa Monica: RAND .

Morelli, V. L., 2013. European Union Enlargement: A Status Report on Turkey’s Accession Negotiations. [Online]
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[Accessed 18/03/2014].

Revolution News. (2014). Turkey’s Elections: 8 Deaths, Widespread Voter Fraud, and Erdogan Declares War on Syria. [online] Available: [accessed 03/06/2014].

Tisdall, S. (2014). Turkey’s election may ironically have dealt a blow to democracy. [online] Available: [accessed 03/06/2014]

Today’s Zaman , 2011. Dozens detained across Turkey for attempted election fraud. [Online]
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2 thoughts on “Does Turkey provide a model for political Islam in a democracy?

  1. Thanks for this. I learned a lot. Back about a month ago when all of the serious Islamaphobia was circulating i was watching this YouTube video by an academic called Reza Aslan who was tearing apart all of the anti-Muslim arguements. One of them was people don’t like how Islam treats women. He countered with ‘Well, Turkey and Indonesia are predominantly Islamic countries but they have separated their religion and their political system. They’ve also both had more women heads of state than the USA has (that wouldn’t be hard!)’. I was surprised tbh. I always thought Turkey was as fundamentalist was Saudi Arabia and Iran. The key really is, like you say, to separate religion from political decision-making. Ireland is still trying to get away from this and it is a much better country since we stopped implementing Church-dictated laws and policies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot – I’m really glad you found this interesting! I liked writing it more than I thought I would to be honest.
      I definitely agree that the whole Islam and democracy issue should be explored more, I think Turkey is far off being perfect and I really don’t believe a functioning democracy can have any religion at its core. It definitely bears thinking about to actually be able to see how wrong that it can go to fuse the two too tightly. It’s really interesting how religion can hold such different levels of power around the world too. In Russia for example the Orthodox Church has a colossal amount of power, to a really worrying extent.
      I’m glad you highlighted Ireland moving away from Church determined policy, I don’t know all that much about Ireland but I’m glad to hear that’s still the direction that it’s politics is moving in.


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