The mutation of the Turkish state: the long view

By Megan Wang|January 25, 2018|SOAS Centenary|0 comments

Deniz Kandiyoti situates the failed July coup in the context of a long-running struggle between different Islamic political actors to colonise the Turkish state apparatus

On the night of 15 July 2016, the citizens of Turkey were jolted by the realisation that a military coup was unfolding in real time. In the days following the failed coup, clarity was in short supply. Gaps and inconsistencies in the accounts provided by the main protagonists fed the rumour mill. Through a haze of disinformation and wild speculation, what could be discerned was the outline of a new stage in the struggles between Erdoğan’s AKP and their erstwhile Islamist allies, Fethullah Gülen’s so-called Hizmet (Service) movement, now officially dubbed the ‘FETO/PDY terror organisation’.

In the new official narrative, the penetration of Gülenist cadres into the nerve centres of the state was likened to a virus or a cancer that had metastasised and had to be extirpated from the body politic. Yet these disease metaphors did little to elucidate the central question of how and through what processes the Turkish state apparatus had come to be thus colonised. Could this be, at least partially, interpreted as the tail end of a long, protracted and quite deliberate process of mutation of the Turkish state, whereby religious communities (cemaats) came to occupy key positions in the state apparatus?

In fact, the penetration of Islamic actors into republican Turkish politics dates back to the Cold War period when Islam was deployed as an antidote to communism through organisations such as ‘Associations to Combat Communism’, established since the 1960s. Indeed, Fethullah Gülen was himself one of the founders of one such Association in Erzurum in 1963 before he rose to prominence as a charismatic preacher. During the span of Turkey’s history of multiparty democracy, religious actors were firmly embedded in the electoral politics of patronage, as a succession of centre-right parties collaborated with leaders of tarikat (Sufi orders), whose following they cultivated for political support.

Initially, these accommodations between the leaders of religious communities – such as the prominent Nakşibendi and Nurcu orders – and secular political parties tended to stop short of more radical demands for constitutional and legal de-secularisation. This changed when political Islam entered electoral politics during and after the 1970s, through a succession of political parties led by Necmettin Erbakan and his Milli Görüş (National Vision) ideology, similar to and partially inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, of which the ruling AKP is an offshoot.

Thus, the politicisation of cadres within the Turkish state apparatus is far from new. Bureaucracies have routinely experienced major overhauls at times of political transition, down to the most menial staff like janitors and cleaners. Yet the republican state had come to rely on elements of continuity in both institutional design and in the recruitment of cadres, which continued to sustain a relatively coherent and ‘strong’ state structure. Most notably, for many long decades, recruitment into the civil service, public administration, the judiciary, the diplomatic service, the military and the universities still went through competitive and largely meritocratic examination systems. For the first time in 2010 it transpired that examination questions for the civil service had been ‘stolen’ and leaked to members of the Gülen community, who achieved suspiciously high scores. Similar allegations followed in relation to military colleges. Later testimony has suggested the practice went much further back. Whereas in the past governments often lacked legitimacy, and the tutelage of the army and repeated coups were a constant strain on the workings of parliamentary democracy, the entire system had not yet been widely perceived as ‘rigged.’

How did these mechanisms of cadre training and recruitment break down? Under Turgut Özal’s leadership, the political economy of the 1980s led to a more thorough embedding of Islamic actors in the business world by providing access to alternative channels of finance, of the mobilisation of savings and markets and of the consolidation of the growth of Islamic capital. Processes of market reform involving deregulation and privatisation also affected the educational domain, providing fertile ground for the proliferation of new actors such as the Gülen community’s networks of schools, tutorial colleges and monitored student residences, both in Turkey and abroad.

When the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) first came to power in 2002 it lacked technical cadres. The process of eviscerating secular track education whilst supporting publicly funded religious schools (‘Imam Hatip’ schools) as a source of loyal cadres was slow. Meanwhile, the technically competent graduates of Gülen schools served as a ready-made reservoir of brainpower. Moreover, despite the different orientations of the Milli Görüş-imbued AKP and the tarikat-based Gülen community, there was a meeting of minds on the question of dismantling the secular institutions of the republican state and the education of new ‘pious generations’.

The high point of the AKP-Gülenist alliance surfaced during a wave of prosecutions starting in 2007 against the military and their perceived civilian associates (journalists, politicians and academics) for allegedly plotting a coup to overthrow the government. The ‘Ergenekon’, ‘Sledgehammer’ and related court cases which followed targeted senior military personnel and resulted in a comprehensive purge of largely Kemalist/secularist cadres from the armed forces. It was Gülenist officers who were promoted to fill the ranks of those culled during these trials and who turned up in front-line positions on 15 July 2016.

Thus, both the rule of law and the imperative of selecting new cadres by merit and competence have, for decades, been sacrificed at the altar of loyalty to the ‘cause’ (dava) of building a ‘New Turkey’ cleansed of secular republicanism. This now leads to the danger that key institutions may turn into fiefdoms of assorted cemaats vying for influence and positions, while the security apparatus morphs into a collection of opaque paramilitary entities.

Could the ‘cleansing’ of the body politic of ‘malignant influences’, as currently undertaken by the regime, restore clean governance or revive a thoroughly enfeebled parliamentary democracy? Not unlike Humpty Dumpty’s fall, the current descent of state institutions into incoherence appears to defy easy remedies, still less if these are pursued through hasty projects of top-down ‘redesign’, masterminded by a seemingly all-powerful leader.

Deniz Kandiyoti is Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at SOAS. A more detailed treatment of these themes may be found in ‘The travails of the secular: puzzle and paradox in Turkey’ Economy and Society Vol. 41, No.4, 2012, pp.513-531


This article appears in the SOAS Centenary Special Issue of The Middle East in London.

Kandiyoti, Deniz. ‘The mutation of the Turkish state: the long view’ The Middle East in London/The Middle East at SOAS 13, no. 1 (October–November 2016): 38-39.

In honour of SOAS’s centenary in 2016/2017, The Middle East in London published a special issue of the magazine dedicated to showcasing SOAS’s history with MENA, the evolution of Middle East studies, and the sheer variety and depth of scholarship that the university produces about the region. We called this issue The Middle East at SOAS.

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