How Turkey’s authoritarianism has roots in Hamas, Iran and Taliban era - Analysis

How Turkey, and other authoritarian regimes, appropriated the image of democracy.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar speaks during a meeting with military personnel at a command center in Ankara last month, as Turkey said its warplanes hit Kurdish targets in northern Iraq. (photo credit: TURKISH DEFENCE MINISTRY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar speaks during a meeting with military personnel at a command center in Ankara last month, as Turkey said its warplanes hit Kurdish targets in northern Iraq.

Turkey is holding elections in a few months. Once again the ruling AKP party will try to extend its seemingly endless rule.

The party came to power in 2003 but it has increasingly placed a stranglehold on the country, arresting opposition members and silencing critical media. It has also used a strategy borrowed from Putin’s Russia and Jinping’s China, extending the rule of the “leader” forever through changes to established norms. 

The Economist recently warned about Ankara’s drift towards authoritarianism in an article arguing that Turkey “could be on the brink of dictatorship.” A recent Tweet by the publication noted “when he first became prime minister in 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan held out much promise for Turkey. The longer he has been in power, however, the more autocratic he has grown.” 

Turkey’s changes matter to the region, to Europe, and to Israel. In 2018 and 2019 Erdogan slammed Israel and compared the country to Nazi-era Germany. Ankara’s drift towards authoritarianism has thus coincided not only with the downturn in relations with Israel which began in 2009 but has also been part of the rise in authoritarianism and religious extremism in other places.

Even though Ankara and Jerusalem appeared to be reconciled last year, it’s entirely possible relations could sour again.

 Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visits Land Forces Operation Center in Ankara (credit: REUTERS) Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visits Land Forces Operation Center in Ankara (credit: REUTERS)

Authoritarians are sometimes seen as reliable partners because, if you have good relations with them they tend not to leave office, but they can also be erratic. While some policymakers in Israel over the last decade have believed Israel could former closer relations with authoritarians from Russia to Hungary to China, overall that policy has proven problematic. 

As an authoritarian state, Turkey has also become closer to Russia and Iran and Ankara hosted Hamas for many years, even rolling out the red carpet for the group in 2020.

Western democracies are waking up to the threat of authoritarians and Israel is part of the Western alliance system, so it matters what Turkey does in this respect.

Ankara is currently blocking Finland and Sweden, two democracies, from joining NATO.

Ankara also threatens Greece and Israel. Israel and Greece have become closer friends. That means recent eastern Mediterranean naval drills and other issues are affected by Turkey’s shifts. In essence, Turkey was a more reliable partner when it was more democratic, secular and liberal in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  

Ankara's authoritarianism 

Having laid out the reasons Ankara’s increasing authoritarianism matters; it’s worth looking at whether the narrative about its authoritarianism is actually correct and how Ankara’s trend is rooted in trends of the region. Did the rise of the AKP actually hold out hope for Turkey in 2003?

The AKP has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood and it is one of many parties in the region that were part of this political Islamic tradition. In the 1990s and early 2000s, many commentators in the West believed that the Brotherhood and political Islam was a positive democratic alternative for the region. This narrative was pushed by Qatar and its Al-Jazeera network. 

This narrative sought to portray right-wing conservative religious Islamic parties as liberal and progressive. It was part of a process that also took place in the West where Islamist groups that are on the far-right sought to exploit left-leaning proclivities towards tolerance to ban “blasphemy” and other things. This weird partnership, of the far-right in places like Turkey, Pakistan, Qatar, and other places led to a decade of misleading articles in Western media. When Boko Haram appeared in Nigeria, massacring people and kidnapping women, the media portrayed them as an authentic or “tribal” rebellion and even argued they didn’t exist. Al-Shabab’s crimes in Somalia were also excused.

The context within which the AKP came to power in Turkey and within which it was portrayed as progressive and a “democracy” is a context that also brought Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip - and threatened to bring it to power in the West Bank. Hamas was able to win elections, but elections are not the only thing that underpins democracy. If you have elections, as were carried out in Turkey, and an authoritarian religious extremist chauvinist group comes to power, it is plausible that eventually democracy will be hollowed out.

Whether it is Putin in Russia, or the Chavez and then Maduro regime in Venezuela, there are many examples where democracy enables authoritarianism. However, when Hamas first was rising it appeared to be a decent contrast to the Fatah party, which was seen as authoritarian and corrupt. Sometimes the electorate has only bad choices. In this case, some people believed that political Islam was some kind of answer to the nationalist-militarist Arab monarchies of the Middle East. However, what history has shown is that the Islamic politics of the AKP, Iran’s regime, Hamas, Qatar, the Taliban, or others, have not brought “reform” or democracy and it is no different than the other authoritarians.  

It’s important to remember the era of 2004-2014 when these Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups were rising. These groups had got their start decades before but this was their pinnacle of success. Hamas won elections and was then isolated in Gaza; it has never held elections since. The Brotherhood in Egypt unleashed extremism and was overthrown. In Syria, the “revolution” that began with the Arab spring was hijacked by extremists, many of them backed by Turkey and Qatar. Those groups also created a vacuum that was filled by Al Qaeda and then HTS and ISIS.

Ankara turned the Syrian rebellion into a proxy and then used it to fight Kurds, eroding any chance of freedom for Syrians, and destroying any notions that women or minorities would have freedom.   

At the same time as we saw the tragic trajectory of the Hamas election and the changes in Egypt and the failure of the Arab Spring, it was also possible to see what happened with the Taliban. Hosted by Qatar (just like the hosted Hamas), the Taliban were groomed to return to power. Eventually, they were negotiating with the US and living a jet set lifestyle. Doha midwived them back to power in Kabul in 2021. Initially, we were told they had changed but now women can no longer go to school and their gender apartheid state is complete; even worse and more powerful than in 2001 when they were overthrown.  

The last context for Ankara’s authoritarianism is the issue of Iran’s regime. Back in the early 2000s, there was a major effort to whitewash the Iranian regime. This coincided with attempts to portray as Putin as a friend of the West, a regime the US could do a “reset” with. The reset helped empower Putin and soon he was invading Georgia and sending troops to Syria. Meanwhile, Iran’s regime even got an invitation to Columbia University. Even though it was a Holocaust-denying, anti-gay regime suppressing women, it got invited. This was a strange time when the extremist regime in Tehran was portrayed as moderate. Now we can see the face of the regime for what it is, a regime that massacres women. But when it was massacring people in 2009 it was portrayed as a regime that could be “engaged.”  

Hezbollah got the same whitewashing. One leading western academic even described Hamas and Hezbollah as part of the “global left.” These are far-right authoritarian religious extremist groups that are filled with patriarchy and chauvinism, and yet they got whitewashed for a few years as “progressive.”

There was an agenda behind the ideology that wanted to portray the Hamas-Iran-China-Russia-Turkey-Hezbollah trend as being more democratic than it was. Part of this agenda was to whitewash them so the West would agree to various deals like the Iran deal. Another aspect of this media PR blitz was to use these regimes to make Israel seem like the “anti-democratic” country in the region.

For instance, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank would often be contrasted with these regimes, as if somehow Hamas offered a “democratic” alternative to Israel’s rule. This tendency was revealed during the Abraham Accords when various articles appeared claiming Israel was working with “authoritarians.” Under this reading of the region, it is Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt that are “authoritarian” in contrast apparently to Turkey, Hamas their fellow travelers. Then, the word “authoritarian” became its own political football in the region.  

The current ruling party in Ankara rose to power in this context. It marched along with Putin’s rise, China, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran’s regime, and other authoritarians. It was helped by Al-Jazeera, TRT, RT, and other authoritarian media that exploit the West by having English language versions of the channel that portray authoritarians are “progressive.” Today much of the pretense is gone. Ankara openly jails opposition figures, slams gay rights and environmental protesters, and threatens war with Greece and others. It doesn’t need the pretense of being into reform. Iran’s regime has also abandoned the idea that it is “moderate.”

For the ruling AKP party, the idea of using democracy was always clear. It used to describe democracy as like a train that one rides until one arrives at the stop. Hamas, Hezbollah, and others also see democracy this way. They ride it until they get a stranglehold on power. For a decade in the Middle East, much of the region was deceived by this trajectory.