Turkey: AKP’s Hidden Agenda or a Different Vision of Secularism?

By Lucie Drechselova | 7 April 2011

To quote this document: Lucie Drechselova, “Turkey: AKP’s Hidden Agenda or a Different Vision of Secularism? ”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 7 April 2011, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1091, displayed on 08 December 2022

amaelogo.jpgDoes the governing Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) have a Hidden Agenda? Is it currently involved in a phase of "dissimulation waiting for the right moment" to introduce the Sharia law in Turkey? There are some people, especially from the Kemalist establishment, that claim it is the case. Without the ambition to arbitrate the debate, this short overview provides several explanatory elements to the use of the Hidden Agenda thread in Turkey.

Two visions of secularism

According to Özbudun and Hale the Justice and Development Party “doesn’t seem to have the intention to use the state power to Islamize the society and politics.” (p.29). Then why is it constantly accused of putting in danger the secular character of the Turkish Republic?

One explanation is simply that its understanding of secularism is not built on the same basis as the conception of the other camp, the Kemalists. Therefore there are two visions of secularism competing in Turkey.

The first vision can be described as “assertive secularism.” It aims to privatize and individualize the religion and to ban its visibility from the public space. This form of secularism was introduced in Turkey in the beginning of the 1920s by Kemal Atatürk as a by-product of Western modernity. The state plays an active role in defining the frontiers between the public and the private spheres.

Traditionally, this vision resembles the French conception of laïcité. Among its supporters in Turkey are the Republican People’s Party (successor of the party once founded by Kemal Atatürk), as well as the military, large part of judiciary and some administrative bodies.

The second conception of secularism is the “passive secularism” which implies state neutrality towards various religious practices and allows public visibility of religious symbols. The basic difference is in the state’s neutral attitude towards the religion. This vision was traditionally endorsed by the centre-right parties in Turkey as it is now by the AKP.

AKP, not enough of Islam and too much Islam at the same time

The AKP politicians publicly refuse any use of Islam as a political tool. According to Chris Morris, Tayyıp Erdoğan, the AKP’s leader and Turkish Prime Minister, refuses the label of “Muslim Democrats” because his critics would “pick up on the Muslim and ignore the Democrat”. That is why he prefers the label of conservative democratic party. 

For such attitude he is often criticized by the Islamists for not being Islamic enough. On the other hand, the AKP is regularly accused of having a Hidden Agenda and involved in the policy of dissimulation. This alleged policy reflects the doubts of some members of the Turkish Kemalist establishment about the AKP’s objectives.

Policy of “avoidance” of sensitive issues

Several authors claim that these radical thoughts about AKP’s Hidden Agenda are discounted. However, as Marcie Patton points out, the AKP defines itself more as what it is not (neither Islamist, nor illiberal) than “what it is.” Therefore, to quote Miss Patton, the party “provides no clues as to how the party will balance a liberal reform agenda against conservative values when contradictions arise.” (p. 356)

The AKP’s policy of “avoidance” of sensitive issues can actually result from a political strategy. Also AKP’s defense of passive secularism can be a way to avoid a clash with the Kemalist secular establishment. As several political parties have already been closed down for threatening the secular character of the Republic, the AKP chose to openly embrace secularism.

In its programme it clearly refuses the religion as a political tool but it also regrets discrimination from which pious people suffer. However, this balance proves difficult to put into practice as AKP was almost dissolved by the Constitutional Court in 2008 on the basis of the article 86 of the Political Parties law for its alleged “attempts to change the secular nature of the state. 


To go further

To read

  • HALE, William and ÖZBUDUN, E., Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey, The case of the AKP, Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Politics, 2010
  • MORRIS, C., The New Turkey, The quiet revolution on the edge of Europe, London, 2005
  • PATTON, M. J., AKP Reform Fatigue in Turkey: What has happened to the EU Process?, Mediterranean Politics, 12: 3, 339 — 358, 2007


Source photo : Headscarves fashion, par ozgurmulazimoglu, sur flickr