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Upon its foundation, AKP had renounced Erbakan’s National View policy. It had claimed to be in line with the rights and liberties that the EU recognized, and with a free market economy. Here we see President Tayyip Erdoğan leading AKP’s central executive committee. 

It is necessary to remind it, especially to young people. At the time of its foundation in 2001, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) didn’t embody the state. It wasn’t responsible for everything from unemployment to education like it is today. In the beginning, AKP was the fiercest opposition to the ruling government and establishment as a whole. AKP founders were, believe it or not, among the “Reformists” faction of the Virtue Party (FP), led by a symbol of Islamist politics in Turkey, Necmettin Erbakan. That was because they rejected two essential lines of thought of the Erbakan school; they had also replaced those.

One of these essential lines of thought was political and ideological, while the other concerned the economy. The first one concretized with the European Union (EU), while the other had to do with the free market economy. These issues have to do with some newer ones that we hear a lot of today. Namely the Islamic economy on one side, the regression in human rights and liberties on the other. How? Let’s debate.

In terms of politics, the issue stemmed from the notion of “national” in National View. The quality of being national hadn’t so much to do with national values, in this view. It highlighted, instead, the values of the ummah, so the Islamic values. This allowed the party to go around the freedom of expression limitations of the time. It also allowed them to approach the secular segments of society and not scare them away. Perhaps to give the example of the U.S. Muslims in line with the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, calling themselves the “Islamic Nation”, would make the use of the word “national” by Islamists more understandable. In both approaches, what they mean is ummah. Standing against “Western” values is also part of this. The notion of the “west”, here, does not refer to capitalist values; these movements have no issue with capitalism other than the notion of interest. The West, here, means Christian values. And the most concrete embodiment of the ideology was opposing the EU because they see it as a “Christian Club”.

The Christian Club: a system based on interest

The Qur’an bans interest. But capitalism runs on interest. Erbakan’s solution to this dilemma was the “Just System.” This was a fantastical system that Muammar Gaddafi had sugar-coated as “Islamic Socialism” in his Green Book. It was unclear how the leap to zero interest, zero debt, and zero budget deficit would go into action. But it was music to the ears of the poor and religious masses who were sick of being left out.

When Erbakan became Prime Minister in 1996 thanks to the partnership with True Path Party DYP leader Tansu Çiller, one of his first actions was to establish the D-8. “It the West has the G-7,” he said, referring to the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, the U.K., Italy, and Canada, “the D-8 economies (Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, and Nigeria) will be the response of the ‘Muslims’.”

Notwithstanding, he couldn’t take action against the interest-based system; Çiller was already part of it. Interest was needed to turn around the debts and maintain the economy. Writing off the expenditures made from public bank resources during this period as “duty loss” was among the notable causes of the 2000-2001 financial crisis.

Erdoğan-Gül-Arınç, and two examples of denial

By renouncing these two radical lines of thought, the “Reformists” who later founded AKP introduced themselves at the time, domestically and internationally, as “Muslim Democrats” instead of “Islamists.” So from now on;

1 — Economic policies would be in line with the international market order,

2 — Political policies would be in line with the EU’s Copenhagen political criteria.

This was no empty promise. Prime Minister, President Tayyip Erdoğan was the founding chairman of the party. His economy captain was Ali Babacan, a young and observant Muslim economist who was nevertheless open to the West. He started to apply the IMF program, which he took over from Kemal Derviş, to get out of the crisis. The economy was taking off.

Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç, the other two pillars of the party alongside Erdogan showed that their approach to politics wasn’t vengeful but pragmatist, by reaching an agreement with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) concerning EU reforms. With the consensus of the two major parties in Parliament, steps that couldn’t be taken in rights and freedoms in decades were taken in 2003-2004. Gül had said as near as 1995 that the EU was a “Christian Club” but at first as Prime Minister, then as Foreign Minister, has been at the forefront of the efforts to integrate with the EU. The libertarian approach showed itself in other areas as well. For example, Erdoğan had gone to Diyarbakır in 2005 to hold a rally with Osman Baydemir, the city’s mayor of the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP), the predecessor of the current Kurdish-problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). “The Kurdish issue,” Erdoğan said there, “is my issue.” Furthermore, AKP, at the time, didn’t see eye to eye with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); not only concerning the Kurdish issue but also regarding non-Muslim citizens.

What has become of it? 

President Erdoğan recently said the following at the “12th Conference on Islamic Economics and Finance” (the first of which had been held in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in 1976): “[TheAlternative] is an Islamic economy and finance model that brings people to the center, exalts labor, and does not allow unfair earnings. Islamic economy is the key to getting out of the crisis with its humane, moral, and environmentalist character and structure that rejects interest and exploitation. I believe that in the world of the future, the current economic system based on interest and exploitation will be replaced by participation where risk sharing is essential.”

Indeed, if we replace the word “Islamic” with “socialist,” the text’s meaning becomes clearer. Because interest is not the only source of exploitation; labor exploitation doesn’t vanish into thin air upon playing the “interest” card. Because no Muslim country, except for Turkey, has strong health and education infrastructure, or social justice mechanisms that Erdoğan praises so. It’s common knowledge that these aspects all have to do with the social state, not with the Islamic economy. These are what remains of the institutions established during the foundation of the Turkish Republic, a period that is now degraded at every opportunity as “Old Turkey.” The coronavirus has shown us the true face of a purely profit-oriented, wild capitalism, as in the U.S. But it has also shown us the success of social state practices in countries such as Germany or Sweden.

In the same speech, Erdoğan claimed that he believed Islamic financial institutions would close the financial resources deficit for investments. Since 2015, the state’s Ziraat and Vakıflar banks had also started to practice “interest-free” banking. But the fact remains that the main market in this regard is in the hands of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates banks. The first institution to take it upon itself to get involved was the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Director Ali Erbaş said that, initially, the salaries of 1750 personnel in the ministry’s central organization will be deposited into interest-free banking accounts. What mattered was that the approach changed; whether the money was deposited to the US and Saudi banks was irrelevant here, as long as it helps more investments, jobs and lesser cost of living.

Who sets the new “Ankara Criteria?”

Truthfully, we cannot ignore the role played by the EU’s hypocritical stance regarding Cyprus, doble-standart regarding membership neogotitions on the gradual decline in the steps Turkey took towards a better economy or democratization. It had a deterrent effect. Likewise, we cannot ignore the fact that the AKP government under the administration of Erdoğan is gradually turning into a movement that puts forth and enriches its elite. The rights and freedoms started to decline further, especially after the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The state of the court independence and the freedom of the press and freedom of expression are obvious. The party is gradually turned into a monolithic structure where nobody’s word matters except Erdogan. Those who could not adapt to the new order had to part ways with the party. The same could be said of the Presidential Government System, which was put into place with the backing of MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli. Erdogan gives the impression that he is making decisions with an increasingly more narrow staff.

Once there was a discourse of “ if the EU doesn’t take us, we will replace the Copenhagen Criteria with the Ankara Criteria.” Are the Ankara Criteria of today measured by the EU’s scale of rights and freedoms? Or has it more to do with maintaining the AKP-MHP partnership stronghold power, which is now shackled by the 50%+1 vote majority rule? Upon its foundation, AKP introduced itself to the public as “innovative.” Its policy then was set on two principles:

1 — Economic policies would be in line with the international market order,

2 — Political policies would be in line with the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria.

Today’s Erdoğan’s AKP is denying both of these principles upon which it built the party; this could also be considered a process of self-destruction.