The AK Party and the Evolution of Turkish Political Islam’s Foreign Policy

Insight Turkey Volume 15 No 2

Almost two years ago, after the first wave of Arab uprisings, cheering throngs hailed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as he toured the Middle East. Questions about a supposed “Turkish Model” saturated the English and Arabic media, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu spoke about the uprisings as if they were the natural course of events in the region. As the Syrian uprising—which Turkey prominently supported—became increasingly bloody and intractable, domestic critics turned sharply, proclaiming the failure of the AK (Justice and Development) Party’s foreign policy and indicting Davutoğlu’s performance.
When the Syrian conflict spilled over into Turkey, and the AK Party government first threatened and then responded with artillery fire, some analysts wondered if Turkey would transition to a more muscular foreign policy. At best, these efforts to build narratives out of Turkish foreign policy were overzealous. Still, they represent only the most recent attempts to define the “new” Turkish foreign policy.

These constant, instantaneous redefinitions of Turkish foreign policy under the AK Party’s leadership reach flawed conclusions precisely because they eschew a longer historical view. The evolution of the AK Party’s foreign policy—and the recalibration instigated by the Syrian conflict—can be better understood by exploring the foreign policy visions and practices of the Islamist parties that preceded the AK Party. The rise and fall of Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah (Welfare) Party, and the internal contestations over the short-lived Fazilet (Virtue) Party, deeply affected the AK Party as it rose to power and defined its foreign policy approach.

The AK Party—and the Fazilet Party before it—emerged from the ashes of the Refah Party, and the current ruling party’s leadership spent its formative years within the ranks of Erbakan’s party. Because of the deep links among, and common political Islamist tradition of, the parties’ respective founders, their foreign policy visions may be better understood when situated within a historical narrative. Such a
narrative presents a history of neither total continuity nor complete change in the foreign policy views and practices of these parties; rather, it bears elements of both. However, this narrative does reveal how the evolution of the parties’ foreign policy visions across historical periods were motivated by different factors. The ways the AK Party understands Refah’s failure and seeks to transcend it help frame the evolution of AK Party’s foreign policy—particularly in its first term—and illuminate the reassessment necessitated by the Syrian uprising.

The Limits of Refah’s Binary Vision and the Transition to Fazilet

When the Refah Party rose to power in 1996, it espoused a foreign policy vision centered on a binary, identity-based worldview: the West and the Muslim world were in opposition.3 Of course, given Turkey’s steadfast Western alliance through the Cold War, to newly elected Prime Minister Erbakan Turkey’s foreign policy had been improperly oriented for 50 years. Erbakan adopted a familiar Third Worldist critique of the international system, viewing it as dominated by—and serving the interests of—the Western world. In response to the Western-dominated international system, Erbakan argued, the Islamic world should set up a parallel, and independent, structure. The Refah Party advocated Islamic analogs to the UN and UNESCO, an Islamic common market, and a unified Islamic currency—the dinar. Erbakan initiated a Developing-8—mirroring the then-Group of 8 developed economies—comprised of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Nigeria.4 Given Turkey’s historical leadership of the Islamic world, naturally Erbakan believed that Turkey should lead the establishment of this new transnational Islamic system.

Refah’s foreign policy was shaped in opposition to the West in two different ways. Erbakan attacked Western values and imperialism—in keeping with the party’s Third Worldist perspective. He accused the West of under-developing the Muslim countries. Beyond these familiar critiques, Erbakan used Turkey’s historic alignment with the US to set Refah apart. Other parties had done the US’s bidding for decades he argued. These “imitator” regimes had been eager to serve the US and Europe.6 Refah offered an alternative international alignment and, more resonantly, a remedy for the years of foreign policy constrained by Cold War alliances. Refah described its foreign policy as possessing an independent character—şahsiyetli dış politika—that gives priority to the interests of Turkey and reflects its values. Erbakan’s identity-driven vision of Turkey leading the Islamic world was in part an early effort to increase power and carve out maximum flexibility in foreign policy.

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