Has Erdogan Shattered The Myth of Turkish Exceptionalism?

Ba?bakan Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, AK Parti Geni?letilmi? ?l Ba?kanlar? Toplant?s?'na kat?ld?. Ba?bakan Erdo?an, partilileri ''Rabia'' i?areti yaparak selamlad?. (Evrim Ayd?n - Anadolu Ajans?)

by Shireen Hunter

Only a few short years ago, Turkey was still touted as an exception in the Muslim World. Turkey was the country that had successfully managed to blend and synthesize Islam, democracy, modernity, and Turkey’s own traditions. The so-called Turkish Islam was said to be different from the brand practiced in the rest of the Muslim world. It was neither revolutionary and messianic like Iran’s version of Islam nor unnecessarily strict and obscurantist like the religion practiced in many Arab countries. Because Turkish Islam was liberal, tolerant, and compatible with democracy, Turkey was also seen as a model to be emulated by other Muslim states. The idea of Turkey as a model was first promoted in the early years after the Soviet Union’s demise in Central Asia and the Caucasus. After the events leading to the Arab Spring in 2011, the Turkish model was promoted in the Arab Middle East.

Understandably, many of Turkey’s political leaders, especially the late Turgut Ozal and Tansu Ciller, were great promoters of the thesis of Turkey’s exceptionalism, including the particular characteristics of its Islam. After the Soviet collapse, Turkey became anxious about its continued value to its Western partners, so it systematically argued that it was the only antidote to Islamic extremism and the revolutionary Islam. In particular, Turkey contrasted its own so-called liberal Islam to Iran’s revolutionary Islam and argued that only Turkey could protect Europe against the Iranian threat. Tansu Ciller, arguing for Turkey’s admission into the EU, famously juxtaposed Turkey and Iran as stark choices for Europe.

The thesis of Turkish exceptionalism also implied that somehow Turkey had escaped the disruptive and divisive consequences of modernization and that Turkish society did not suffer from the fissures that afflicted other modernizing Muslim societies. Even Turkey’s long struggle with its Kurdish minority was seen more as a terrorism problem than a failure to develop a civic sense of nationalism transcending ethnic divisions.

But to what extent did this vision of Turkey correspond to the country’s realities? The long-denied truth is: not very much. Turkey’s trajectory of modernization and its consequences were not much different from those of other major Middle East countries such as Egypt and Iran. Turkey’s modernization was a brutal affair. At first religious Turks resisted the changes, but they lapsed into silence after the government suppressed their resistance. However, this did not mean that the religious masses accepted the Kemalist order. On the contrary, almost as soon as Ataturk was dead, they began to undo or at least soften Kemalism’s anti-religion order. In other words, the secular-religious split in many Muslim societies resulting from the process of modernization also existed in Turkey. As in other Muslim states, consecutive repressive military regimes kept this division in check, notwithstanding Turkish democratic pretensions. The only difference was that Turkey, largely because it was a NATO member, escaped criticism of its antidemocratic behavior so that it could continue to protect Europe’s southern front against the Soviet Union. That pass on criticism is still largely in place.

The Kemalist project also failed to fundamentally change Turkey’s culture. Despite efforts to deny Turkey’s Ottoman legacy, it remained strong and returned to the fore immediately after the Soviet collapse. With the Cold War over and membership in Europe still out of reach, Turkey struggled to find a new framework for its foreign policy. In the process, the theory of neo-Ottomanism with its inherent expansionist undertones was born. Ironically, the Western countries fed Turkey’s unreasonable ambitions by simultaneously refusing to integrate Turkey in their institutions and encouraging Ankara’s activist role even in areas such as Afghanistan, which had never been part of the Ottoman/Turkish zone of interest.

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which rose from the ashes of a series of previous Islamist parties, won the 2003 elections, all those skeptical of Turkish exceptionalism seemed to be proven wrong. The government appeared to be genuinely promoting democracy and human rights. It even tried to undo some of the remaining restrictions of the Kemalist era such as the ban on Islamic Hijab in universities and government offices. Economically, it certainly performed well.

However, it soon appeared that in many respects the AKP was using democratic principles to subvert democracy. Certainly, its treatment of journalists and opposition parties fell short of democratic ideals and, more specifically, EU standards. Its overtures to the Kurds produced only limited results. Meanwhile, the AKP tried to place its own supporters in government agencies. This was understandable, because for most of the period of secular ascendancy in Turkey, religious groups had not fared well and this was their time to gain from the AKP victory. In short, the rise of the AKP should be seen as the coming of age of Turkey’s religious counter-elite.

However, because success generally breeds dissension, the AKP has been torn by internal dissent over the last few years. One main reason is the outsized egos of both Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the Gullen movement and a kind of spiritual advisor to the AKP. However, since Gulen has split with the Turkish president, it has been Erdogan’s ego and his prejudices that have been at the center of many of Turkey’s recent problems, including the exacerbation of many of its internal ethnic, sectarian and ideological fissures. For example, Erdogan has unnecessarily antagonized Turkey’s Alevi community by calling them liars. Nor has he endeared himself to Turkey’s close to four million Twelver Shias. However, Erdogan’s behavior reflects more deep seated religious prejudices in Turkey dating from Ottoman times. The Western desire to promote Turkey as a role model has conveniently obscured many of the unsavory aspects of the Ottoman era. Erdogan’s vision of himself as a new sultan has also contributed to his foreign policy mistakes.

Many in Turkey and elsewhere will blame Erdogan for Turkey’s current problems. His personal characteristics have certainly played a big role in this respect. However, the real causes of Turkey’s current problems are structural and the consequence of its unfinished modernization. The West ignored these problems for a long time because of the Cold War and Turkey’s place in the Western alliance, and later because of the post-Soviet role assigned to Turkey. The main lesson of the recent developments is that after all Turkey is a Muslim Middle Eastern country that has undergone historical processes similar to countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran. Therefore, instead of seeing Turkey as an exception among Muslim states it would be in Turkey’s and everybody else’s interest to see it as it really is.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Profound truths often get turned into clichés and thus made trite. Too bad, because this one – Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely – fits Erdogan like a glove. I, along with probably millions of other people, silently said “Uh-oh” when he failed to turn his party over to new leadership after two successful terms and ran for a third. Foolish man.

    Now that American government of the people, by the people, for the people has perished from the Earth, it’s hard to see anything good about the dysfunctional system that has replaced it, but putting a two-term limit on presidents still stands out as an excellent idea (although paradoxically it was turned into law in response to a president who had a successful third and part of a fourth term).

    But Erdogan and Turkey need to be seen in the context of post Cold War geopolitics. No major power covered itself in glory after the collapse of the USSR. Washington’s desire and determination to hang on to its hegemonic power through neoliberal globalism and its refusal to dissolve NATO provides much of the context for the failures of leadership around the world.

  2. Shireen Hunter has once again made a significant contribution to analysis of the world’s current predicament. She could have added a comment about Turkey’s continuing refusal to admit, much less make amends for,

    the 1915-18 Armenian Genocide.

  3. So all Muslim countries are the same. We thought this one was different, but since its Muslim, its the same as all the rest. Not impressed by this analysis.

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