Change through Intellectual Investments

June 29th, 2012   Education | News | Turkey

How do you reform the Turkish state by keeping away from day to day politics? Prof. Atilla Yayla, founder of the Turkish think tank Association for Liberal Thinking (ALT), aims to change his country’s climate of opinion by intellectual investments for the future.

In a country, historically dominated by a coerced secularism, statism, lack of freedom of expression and a military eager to intervene in the political life, the case for liberal reforms cannot be stronger.

With the establishment of the center-right Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 and its victory in the 2002 election, Prof. Yayla’s think tank was able to influence this new movement on both economic reform and ideological stance. In its founding days, the party was keen on listening to and including Turkish liberal intellectuals in order to attract their support. One strategic advice from the ALT was that the AKP should identify themselves in ideological terms as conservatives, rather than Muslim-democrats, due to the strict secular thinking that characterizes Turkey’s state and military. Today though, Prof. Yayla argues that Muslim-democrats would be a more proper definition of the party, relating it to European Christian Democrats.

With the astonishing economic growth Turkey has witnessed in the last decade and with the AKP in office, the map of power has also changed, not least with the military’s withdrawal from politics. But the strength of the AKP has also resulted in a lack of ideological discussions and a decreased interest in listening to classical liberals, which coincides with an increased critique vis à vis what some people see as authoritarian tendencies from the AKP. Occupied with ruling the country, Prof. Yayla describes the AKP today as too busy to have time to deal with ideas, even though he supposes that the Prime Minister reads the association’s reports and articles.

Prof. Atilla Yayla and Thomas Gür at a conference organiced by ALT and JHS outside Istanbul in June 2012

Prof. Yayla’s association tries to reach out to all political groups in Turkey, meanwhile he describes how the AKP in some sense has “normalized” Turkey, and points out that this achievement was made without any revolution. The focus today is for Turkey to adopt a democratic constitution as well as to reform the laws regulating political parties. Apart from the Kurdish question, one of the most prominent ones in today’s Turkey is the level of freedom of speech, which has always been a problem, especially for the Kurds, but also for liberals and Muslims, whereas the statist Kemalists and Nationalists never have faced any problems in this area.

The ALT has proposed for the AKP to establish an institute for conservative politics, which in some sense has been done by the party. Meanwhile, the ALT holds on to its practices of arranging conferences and publishing reports with the aim to change Turkey in a longer run. Together with the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation, four such conferences for young academics are arranged each year, the last held in June 2012 in Polonezköy outside Istanbul, based on Nigel Ashford’s study guide Principles for a Free Society.

Even though important reforms have been achieved in Turkey during the last decade, there are still challenges facing the country’s democratization, and the ALT continues its efforts to invest in the future.

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