CihanTugal’s The fall of the Turkish Model

When neoliberalisation and democratization work together harmoniously, religious forces remain subservient and supportive to them

CihanTugal’s The fall of the Turkish Model

Revered by the world was a politically democratic and economically egalitarian Turkish model, which acquiesced to political authoritarianism owing to certain changes introduced by the Arab Spring of 2011.This is the central idea of Cihan Tugal’s book, The fall of the Turkish model: How the Arab uprisings brought down Islamic liberalism, published by Verso in 2016. Tugal is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. This opinion piece intends to discuss Tugal’s certain ideas expressed in the book.

In the title of the book, Tugal has equated the words Turkish model with Islamic liberalism. About the Turkish model, Tugal writes on page 4: “[I]t was ‘Islamic liberalism’: marriage of formal democracy, free market capitalism and (a toned down) conservative Islam.” Further, Tugal writes on page 20: “[I]n the current era, liberalism, the apotheosis of individual property and freedom, frequently goes hand in hand with neoliberalisation (privatization of property, restructuring of welfare state to render individuals self-sufficient, and financialisation).”

Tracing the origin of the Turkish model, Tugal writes on page 25: “What is today known as the Turkish model was perhaps finalized by the AKP regime [Adaletve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP), the liberal-conservative Justice and Development Party which came to power in Turkey in 2002], but its foundations were laid by a coup and its civilian extension in the 1980s, which in turn had come as responses to the turbulence of the 1970s.”The reasons for AKP’s popularity were two. First, the Islamic threat, as Tugal writes on page 4: “The perception of the Islamic threat explains the warm reception of the AKP.” Second, economic problems, as Tugal writes on page 8: “[T]he AKP regime’s success was an outcome of bottom-up entrepreneurial activity [characterized by politics-free business of small and medium size].” The incumbent President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan founded the AKP in 2001. Erdogan’s political ideals embodied in Erdoganism (i.e. a religiously inspired centralized leadership based on electoral consent) substitute Kemalism, which was implemented by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Yet, Erdoganism stands somewhere between Kemalism’s secularism and Islamists’ fundamentalism. Though Moderate Islamism of Erdogan is the first deviation of Erdoganism from Kemalism, it may be because the rise of AKP took place against Turkey’s radical Islamists in the post-2001 era.

The book reveals Turks’ two obsessions, whether materialized or not. First, to lead the Arab world under the nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire. Tugal writes on page 12: “These descriptors referred to his [Erdogan’s] tenacity and strictness, especially regarding the Israel-Palestine issue: He was widely seen by Arabs as the world’s most resolute leader against Israel.” Then, Tugal writes on page 14: “There were those who spoke, with excitement, about the return of the Ottoman Empire.” Taken both statements together, one can find an effort on Erdogan’s part to have a say in the Arab affairs. This is the second deviation of Erdoganism from Kemalism which had divorced Turkey from its Ottoman predecessor. The second obsession is to join the European Union (EU). Tugal writes on page 88: “The [AKP] leaders were also vociferously pro-European and committed to the process of EU accession.” The reason for getting this obsession frustrated hitherto is implicit in the sentence written on page 9: “Turkey’s entry into the European union would serve the interests of the entire Middle East.” Unfortunately, this wish was made before asking the EU whether it was ready to welcome a Middle East’s representative, with or without the nostalgia for the
Ottoman Empire.

Tugal thinks that the challenge to the Turkish model has come from authoritarianism rooted in Islam and entered in the model through the practice of liberalization. For instance, Tugal writes on page 3: “[T]he successful liberalization in Turkey during the last three decades itself paved the way for Islam’s later authoritarian and conservative incarnations.” Tugal thinks that letting Islam or Islamic actors mixed with neoliberalisation and democratization was a faulty proposition, as he writes on page 21: “[N]eoliberalisation and democratization can proceed together only for a certain time (through the aid of religious forces). When they start to undermine each other, Islamic actors take up more and more non democratic and non-neoliberal practices (as in Turkey).” That is, when neoliberalisation and democratization work together harmoniously, religious forces remain subservient and supportive to them. However, when neoliberalisation and democratization start undermining each other, not only do they get weaker, religious forces also get compatibly stronger and eventually outweigh both of them.

Just to add insult to injury, the Arab Spring opened options for a domestic uprising to subvert the democratization aspect of the Turkish model, as Tugal writes on page 178: “[T]he Arab uprisings actually dynamited the political liberalism of the Turkish model itself, if not (as yet) its economic liberalism. As the uprisings and regime changes unfolded, Turkey shifted further and further to the political and religious right (and to plain sectarianism), even if in an inconsistent way.” The domestic uprising befell in the form of the Gezi Park uprising in Istanbul in 2013. On pages 249 and 250, Tugal writes: “The spark of the Gezi uprising was ignited by urban issues [such as greenbelt protection]... [However, the] police brutally cracked down on several dozen protesters who wanted to protect the last green area (Gezi Park) near Taksim, popular determination to save this park initiated the biggest spontaneous revolt in Turkish history.” The brutal suppression of the Gezi uprising symbolized the advent of authoritarianism (expressed through the then Prime Minister Erdogan’s posturing with the Rabia sign, a four-fingered salute, as mentioned on page 2) and with that the symbolic end of the Turkish model took place. Hence, Turkey has been trying to preserve and promote politics-free business of small and medium size but at the cost of surrendering the process of democratization to authoritarianism — even if it is justified under “authoritarian liberalism,” as mentioned on page 4 — the third deviance from Kemalism which envisioned political decentralization under Republicanism.

To utter dismay of Tugal, Turkey’s parliament has approved a constitutional reform package, called the power bill, on January 21 this year. Forwarded by AKP, the package is meant for turning Turkey’s parliamentary system into the presidential one in which all power will concentrate in the office of President Erdogan who may extend his term in office until at least 2029. Elected in 2014, President Erdogan is just a ceremonial head of Turkey. However, by mid-April, a referendum may be held — to test Populism, another tenet of Kemalism — and a yes vote will lead to snap elections to reify constitutional reforms.


The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at