Democratization without Secularization? The Predicament of Alevis in Turkey under the First AKP Government (2002-2007)

By Gulay Turkmen
Submitted to Session P4766 (Precarious Visibility as a Mode of Governance: The Case of Alevis in Turkey, 2017 Annual Meeting
Turkish Studies;
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With the decline of the secularization thesis and the worldwide revival of religion, the number of works focusing on the relationship between democracy and secularization has increased immensely. While some of these works have claimed that religion, especially Islam, is incompatible with democracy, some have argued to the contrary and suggested that Islamists could implement democracy as successfully as their secular counterparts. Positioning itself in this ongoing debate, this paper will focus on the relationship between secularization and democratization under the AKP rule in Turkey (2002-2007). Once lauded as “a role model” for other Muslim majority countries, Turkish democracy has long taken an authoritarian turn. In this paper I argue that one of the main reasons for the failure of the “Turkish model” is the lack of attention the AKP has given to secularization. Making use of parliamentary proceedings, as well as newspaper articles, on the Alevis—the largest Muslim minority in Turkey—I display that even during its first term in office (2002-2007), when it introduced several ‘democratic reforms’, the AKP refrained from addressing Alevi demands for recognition and equal rights. A closer look at the parliamentary debates reveal that the AKP has, from the very beginning, conceptualized democracy as a majoritarian, illiberal one that favors certain groups (Sunni Muslims in this case) and puts an incessant emphasis on “the ballot” and the “will of the people” as empty signifiers. Drawing on the Turkish experience, I contend that although secularization does not always entail democratization, democratization without secularization is a futile attempt. While this is not to claim that religiously oriented parties cannot implement democracy successfully, it is an intervention to demonstrate that they can do so only to the extent that they embrace secularization.