Studies 18 May, 2015

Conservative Democracy and the Future of Turkish Secularism

Emad Y. Kaddorah

Head of the Editing Department at the ACRPS. He holds a PhD in International Relations and Middle East Studies and an MA in Defense and Strategic Studies. He has published several books and peer-reviewed articles, including Turkish Foreign Policy: Orientations, Flexible Alliances, Power Politics (Doha/Beirut: ACRPS, 2021); The Rise of the GCC States and Turkey: Convergent and Divergent Regional Agendas (New Castle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021). His research interests focus on Geopolitics, International Relations, the Gulf and Turkish Studies.


Over the last few decades, a socio-political current concerned with the preservation of traditional values and shared Turkish heritage has evolved in Turkey, in tandem with the pursuit of development and modernization of state and society. Known as the “conservative” trend, it developed to overcome the dichotomy of secularism versus Islam, which frequently meant that the presence of one implied the exclusion of the other, particularly in the public sphere. This trend has evolved on the back of various experiences, until it moved from the margins of political life to its center. A loose alignment that spoke for general traditional forces, embodied by many social and political personalities such as Necmettin Erbakan, Said Nursi, Adnan Menderes, Turgut Ozal, and Fethullah Gulen, it grew until it became the most prominent and widest movement in Turkey on both the official and popular levels, enshrining itself once the “Conservative Democratic” Justice and Development Party (AKP) took on a political identity.

By means of identity and a new political vision, the AKP concentrated on fostering the traditional values shared by Turks, sidelined the role of religion in political life, adhered to secularism as the identity of the state, and aimed to expand freedoms and make political and economic reforms. This enabled it to be open to other trends in society, thus benefiting from their abilities and experiences, and form a broad coalition which included conservative, Islamist, and liberal figures and forces with economic and social weight.

Its success in mobilizing the conservative forces and placing them at the center of power, in addition to its magnifying political, economic, and media influence, led to increasing debate over the status of Turkish secularism and the future of the secular system in view of the dominance of a party with Islamic roots, especially as it considers the establishment of a “new republic” as a priority for coming years. In this context, the most important question, perhaps, concerns the nature of the secularism that conforms to the vision of the AKP and the conservative democratic identity, and not the future “existence” of secularism in Turkey or otherwise.

This paper will discuss the concept of conservatism in Turkey, the evolution of the conservative trend, and the factors influencing its ascent. It examines the concept of Conservative Democracy and how by using it the AKP restructured a system of relations and brought together a broad coalition on the basis of shared Turkish values. It also asks what role religion plays for a party with Islamic roots, and to what extent liberals are in accord with conservatives, despite their differences. Finally, the paper deals with the effect of the growing influence of the AKP and the conservative trend on the future and nature of Turkish secularism.

The Conservative Trend and its Evolution in Turkey  

The word conservatism suggests a tendency to conserve traditions and the status quo and resistance to change. However, in the modern political context, it means something else: in many countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan, the conservative trend tries to develop and build the state, encourage private ownership and the free market, and be open to the outside world. This it does in parallel with conserving the traditional values and heritage that characterize local society.

For Turkey, the concept of conservatism no longer means a political movement associated with returning and clinging to the past as much as it means modernization and progress while conserving traditional values and the historical and institutional legacy.[1] Hence, the AKP defines conservatism as change, but this change should be achieved by protecting core values and the gains of traditional structures.[2] Yalcin Akdogan—advisor to the former AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and one of the theorists of conservative democracy—views the family as the most important institution in society because it passes on traditions and social values. At the same time, as traditions are thought necessary to build the state and maintain social peace in a pluralist political environment, the modern conservative doctrine is seen as part of liberalism in terms of its opposition to socialism and its defense of free market economics[3] as well as their having common interests in Turkey in terms of fostering reforms, expanding freedoms, and shrinking the Kemalist military inheritance. There might be many definitions and interpretations of conservatism and the conservative trend, but former Turkish president Abdullah Gul sees the Turkish conservative current, and its components, as an intellectual “legacy” rather than a theory.[4] Therefore, conservatism is founded on elements derived from shared Turkish culture and values like religion, national identity, traditions, customs, the Ottoman heritage, as well as the heritage and identity of the republic.

Turkey’s conservative trend began as a direct response to the challenge posed by the declaration of a new philosophy for the state with the founding of the republic: secularism founded on westernization, the restriction of the religious authorities, and a break with what was termed “backward traditions.” This challenge was confronted by the opposition of traditional forces in Turkish society. At the time however, these forces had little presence in politics, economics, and government administration. Their voice in society and beliefs were ignored by the dominant new discourse. For this reason, Serif Mardin has described these traditional forces as peripheral. The members of the periphery generally had a rural background and an under-average education. Their lifestyle was largely determined by religious and traditional values.[5] With regards to the elite, the first figure to confront these severe changes imposed on state and society was Said Nursi who was interested in Quranic exegesis and in demonstrating that the truths of faith conformed to the nature of the universe and modern scientific developments, and that there was no contradiction between them and in countering the accusation that Islam was the reason for Turkish underdevelopment. He laid out these ideas in his writings known as Risale-i Nur whose 6,000 pages were written intermittently from 1923 to 1946.


To continue reading this paper as a PDF, please click here. This Policy Analysis was translated by the ACRPS Translaiton and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on December 19, 2014, please click here.


[1] Taha Akyol, interviewed by Selma Tatli, “AKP is secularizing religious people,” Today’s Zaman, June 9, 2014, http://goo.gl/h1adsS.

[2] “Political Vision of AK Parti for 2023,” September 30, 2012, p. 6, http://www.akparti.org.tr/upload/documents/akparti2023siyasivizyonuingilizce.pdf.

[3] Mehmet Sinan Birdal, “Queering Conservative Democracy,” Turkish Policy, Volume 11 Number 4 (Winter 2013), p. 120, cited in Yalçın Akdoğan, AK Parti ve Muhafazakar Demokrasi (Istanbul: Alfa Yayınları, 2004), 38-58.

[4] http://www.middle-east-online.com/?id=172962.

[5] Charlotte Joppien, “A Reinterpretation of Tradition? The Turkish AKP and its Local Politics,” May 2011, p. 5, http://goo.gl/j7YY0D; see also Şerif Mardin, “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?” Daedalus, vol. 102, no. 1 (Winter 1973), pp. 169-190.