The problem with Turkey

Turkey: Islamism’s Consequences for the West

by Steven Simpson, HUDSON NY

The “good times” between Turkey and the West seem to be over. As the Erdogan years in Turkey have attempted to turn Turkey from a once-secular country into a de facto Islamist country, the West and Turkey seem to be on a collision course, or at best, an impasse.

The questions now to ask include: What to do about an Erdogan-ruled Turkey that appears intent on reshaping the Middle East in its own Islamist and nationalist image and agenda; the response of America and the West (particularly NATO) if Turkey breaks diplomatic relations with Israel; and what how to adjust the US-Turkish relationship in light of Turkey’s friendly relationships with the dictatorships of Iran and Sudan.

Also of paramount concern is how Turkey might react toward an autonomous Kurdistan in the north of Iraq. Turkey has constantly rattled its scimitar against the PKK guerillas, and crossed the border into northern Iraq under the guise of pursuing Kurdish guerillas. It has also talked about protecting the Turkmens, relatives of the Turks, who just so happen to live in the oil rich city of Kirkuk, a city contested by Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens alike. Once America has withdrawn from Iraq, would America and NATO turn the other way to a possible Turkish occupation of Iraqi-controlled Kurdistan? Keeping silent about internal Turkish matters may be one thing, but a failing to respond to Turkey’s foreign policy moves – especially military moves – could bring about an even further destabilized situation in the Middle East, affecting an already fractured Muslim world.

It is also possible — especially in light of Europe’s reluctance to admit Turkey into the European Union — that Erdogan is just waiting for a West-NATO confrontation with Turkey: Erdogan might use such an incident to whip up Turkish passions — both nationalist and religious — and once again show himself as a Muslim leader willing and able to stand up to the West. Turkey would no doubt bring up Turkish “grievances” — claims that it is just trying to right the supposed wrongs of the past, and claims that will encompass not only Turkey’s national complaints, but those of the rest of the Muslim world (sans Kurdistan) towards the West.

The irony of Turkey and its relations with the West cannot be lost in light of the fact that Barack Obama started his “outreach” to the Muslim world last year while giving a speech in Turkey’s parliament. If Obama’s feckless response to Iran’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators last year over the “re-election” of Ahmadinejad is any indicator, one should certainly not expect Obama to react any differently vis-à-vis Turkey and its Islamist agenda. This not only applies to Israel, in that it seems unlikely that the current American administration will come to the aid of Israel in its deteriorating relations with Turkey, but also to Kurdistan and the rest of the Muslim world. The apparent obsession on the part of Obama with “repairing” relations with the Muslim world, even at the expense of Muslims trying – and even dying – to break the shackles of their totalitarian regimes, may signal that America no longer has the will or desire to confront Middle Eastern dictators. If such a scenario plays out, a major void will have been created in a region of monumental strategic importance to the West – a void which countries like Russia, China, and Iran could seek to exploit and replace.

Although the one institution that could prevent Turkey from becoming an Islamic republic is the Turkish army, it remains a question if the army could — or would — act. If it did, how would the Turkish people, as well as the West, react to such a situation? A new Turkish coup would be the fifth one in fifty years, and could open the military to charges of interfering in the democratic process. No doubt, Erdogan and the AKP appear to be “using democracy in order to destroy democracy.”

And as the referendum on reforms to Turkey’s constitution passed overwhelmingly on September 12th, with 58% of the vote, many critics say that this will only strengthen Erdogan and his AKP, further eroding the strength of the military and judiciary. Of course, Erdogan has said the opposite, and that the constitutional reforms will only strengthen Turkey’s “democracy.” However, Erdogan has already stated that a new constitution is needed, stoking further fears of an AKP Islamist takeover.

Erdogan’s only real opposition is the CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) otherwise known as the Republican People’s Party. Ironically, this party was founded by Ataturk in 1923. Recently, it has been mired in a sex scandal forcing its leader, Deniz Baykal, to resign. It is currently led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a left-of-center politician.

At the end of the day, it appears that Turkey’s last hope of staving off an Islamic Republic and a confrontation with the West is in the scheduled election of July 2011: voting Erdogan’s party out. However, with Erdogan riding high after his constitutional referendum victory, this likelihood does noit, at present, appear to be likely.

A short background:

For close to ninety years now, the Republic of Turkey has been officially a secular state. The reforms implemented by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920’s, turned Turkey from an Islamic Sultanate/Caliphate into a modern Western-style secular state. When Ataturk overthrew the Sultanate under Mehmed (Mohammad) VI Vahideddin in 1922, he was signaling a global shift in Turkey’s thinking, attitude, and way of life. (The Caliphate was abolished in 1924 when Abdul Mecid II, was forced into exile. Thus, the reign of the Ottomans, who had ruled Turkey, much of the Middle East, and a portion of Europe since the foundation of the empire in 1517, officially ended.)

Ataturk’s reforms were so great – and stringent – that the term “Kemalism” is used to describe the tremendous transformation that Turkey went through from the age of the Ottomans to the age of the Kemalists. Ataturk was intent on reshaping Turkey; throwing off its Islamic past, and steering it toward the West. Among his major reforms were not only abolishing the Sultanate and Caliphate, and officially declaring the country a secular republic, but also, in 1928, banning of the fez and hijab, and replacing the Turko-Arabic script with that of the Latin alphabet. For a while, Ataturk was so intent on “de-Islamizing” Turkey, that he forbade the muezzin (prayer caller) from using Arabic when calling Muslims to prayer. As many know, Muslim prayers must be said in Arabic only; the banning of Arabic prayer was too much for the religious Muslims, and eventually even Ataturk had to relent and allow its reinstitution.

As the decades went by, Turkey weathered weak governments; army coups; right wing and left wing terrorism; and a host of other problems — and, most notably, a Kurdish insurrection that continues to this day and has from time to time spilled over into Iraqi-administered Kurdistan.

In 1996, Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Refah (Welfare Party), became Prime Minister; he was the first “post-Kemalist” prime minister who openly and unabashedly proclaimed his Islamist tendencies. After much controversy, the Turkish army — the guardians of the secular state – diplomatically pushed Erbakan aside; and it appeared that Turkey had weathered its short term dalliance with an Islamic renaissance.

The situation, however, changed in the elections of 2002 when a new Islamist party – the Justice and Development Party – (Adaltet Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) emerged with the largest number of seats in parliament. Its leader, the former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was a devoutly religious Muslim. Erdogan had been a follower of Erbakan; while still mayor of Istanbul in 1997, he was arrested for “religious incitement” due to a poem that he recited which hinted in part at a return to a militant brand of Islam:

“The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.”

Aside from the metaphors, it must have come as a shock to the secular authorities that the mayor of such a cosmopolitan city as Istanbul, would be as brash as to recite such a poem that no doubt was a strong hint of his views on religion and the state. Eventually, Erdogan was brought up on incitement charges in 1998, but served only 4 months of a ten month sentence.

After the debacle of Erbakan’s rule, and Erdogan’s own brush with the secular authorities, Erdogan became more subtle in his attempts to re-Islamize Turkey. After Refah was banned in 1998, he became instrumental in forming the AKP in 2001, which de-emphasized — at least publicly — its Islamist ambitions.

In the November 2002 national elections, the AKP won only about 34% of the vote, but emerged with the most elected representatives (363 out of 550) in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (the Turkish parliament). Because of Erdogan’s prison sentence, he was not allowed to assume the role of prime minister; it went to his right-hand man, Abdullah Gul. Through parliamentary maneuvers, however, Gul and his allies were able to change the law so that Erdogan could become prime minister in March 2003. Erdogan assured his country – and the West – that he was committed to a secular government – although his chimerical nature was revealed in a New York Times article, in May 2003, in which he was quoted as saying, “Before anything else, I am a Muslim.” In the same article, though, he stated that “A political party cannot have a religion. Only individuals can.” At the very least, this shows an apparently conflicted opinion on religion and secularism. The article also related a very chilling comment about Erdogan’s opinion of democracy when he was still Istanbul’s mayor: “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.”

That same month, while America was planning “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, Washington asked permission from Turkey to allow U.S. forces to open a northern front against Iraq from Turkish territory. While Erdogan and Gul did not openly say no to the request, the Turkish parliament rejected it. Washington was stunned.

As the years passed, Erdogan continued to cultivate a moderate image in the West, while quietly espousing Islamist causes in Turkey — most notably by appointing members of the judiciary and government ministers who were religious conservatives, and thereby changing the landscape of Turkey’s secular foundations. Paradoxically, he appointed a supposedly avowed secularist as his new military chief of staff, Mehmet Ilker Basbug, in 2008; but on August 30th, Basbug retired and was replaced by Land Forces Commander Isik Kosaner, who promised to uphold the secular character of Turkey.

Earlier this year, however, the Erdogan government had forty military officers arrested, claiming that they were planning to “destabilize” the government. Many critics saw this as another step in Erdogan’s attempt to do away with the Kemalist republic and neutralize the once staunchly secularist military.

Erdogan’s apparent “good cop/bad cop” approach extends also to his relations with Washington. While professing friendship for America and the West, in 2006, Erdogan was quite vocal in his approval of the notoriously and viciously anti-American and anti-Israeli movie “Valley of the Wolves.” The movie portrayed American soldiers in Iraq as murderers, and included a Jewish doctor harvesting Iraqi organs for sale in Tel Aviv. Even Erdogan’s wife, Emine (a conservative Muslim who is always seen wearing a traditional Turkish hijab) also chimed in about the movie, praising the actors, and stating that she was “so proud” of them. More recently a thirteen part – and virulently anti-Semitic — series was aired on Turkish TV, entitled “Separation: Palestine in Love and War,” which aired to rave reviews in parts of the Arab world as well as in Turkey. This series, despite Israeli protestations, led to a further poisoning of Turko-Israeli relations. Ironically, some Arabs decried the series as well, but not out of defense of Israel. Apparently, the reason was that the Turkish series showed the Palestinians as killing their daughters after having been raped by Israeli soldiers, something the Palestinians object to as defaming them.

Contrary to the myth among many Jews and others who see a good portion of Turks as at best indifferent to Israel and Jews, “Mein Kampf” reached the best sellers list in Turkey in 2005. The book was subsequently banned — in part through German efforts — but it probably should give the reader pause for concern if average Turks make “Mein Kampf” a best seller.

Meanwhile, internal recriminations continued to simmer in Turkey between the Kemalists and the Islamists, with new Turkish elections held in 2007. This time, the AKP received over 46% of the vote – almost 12% more than in 2002 — and 341 seats. Ironically, while garnering an overall higher percentage of the vote than in the previous election, the AKP lost twelve seats, which went to other parties. A short time later, Abdullah Gul became president after three rounds of voting in the Turkish parliament, again causing controversy, with many Turks seeing Gul’s election as another victory for the Islamists. Like Prime Minister Erdogan’s wife, Gul’s wife, Hayrunissa, also wears a headscarf — which has now become a symbol of the clash between secularists and Islamists.

After the AKP’s second victory, and Gul’s ascension to the presidency shortly thereafter, Erdogan began to become more outspoken in his criticism of the West, and especially Israel, as was seen by his eruption against Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, at a January 2009 meeting at Davos, Switzerland, when Erdogan launched into a vitriolic verbal assault against Israel, stating to the shocked Peres that “when it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” and then stormed off the stage. Unfortunately, like a true “dhimmi” [second-class citizen according to Sharia Law], Peres phoned Erdogan, apologizing to the prime minister if there might have been any misunderstanding regarding the verbal dispute between the two leaders in light of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in 2008.

Turkish anti-Americanism began to increase as well. Even as President Obama was beginning his “apology tour” by visiting Turkey in April 2009, anti-American demonstrations were well underway, with demonstrators chanting slogans against both Obama and America. Much of the anti-American feeling had to do with the American invasion of Iraq and perceived American “atrocities;” and no doubt, the constant anti-American and anti-Israeli media barrage in the Turkish government-controlled press played a large role in the average Turk’s opinion of both America and Israel.

After the uproar in June 2010 over the “activist flotilla,” Turkey announced cancellation of military exercises with Israel, as well as the cancellation of military contracts between them. Turkey also recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and strongly hinted at breaking diplomatic relations with Israel. Turkish officials have spoken of “Turkish honor” and “Turkish pride” regarding events vis-à-vis Israel, yet it appears that the terms “Israeli honor” and “Israeli pride” — let alone “Israeli self-defense” — are words that do not exist in the Turkish lexicon. Even a “moderate” Islamist as Fethullah Gullen, also no friend of Israel, criticized the Turkish led “flotilla” fiasco. Yet where is “Turkish pride” and “Turkish honor” when the tyrant from Tehran, Ahmadinejad, refused to visit Kemal Ataturk’s mausoleum? At one time in Turkey, such a display of diplomatic arrogance and contempt for Ataturk would have been met with outrage by a secular Turkish government and military. Apparently, in today’s Turkey, that is a thing of the past.

There is another telling sign in Turkish-Israeli relations of how far Turkey has veered from its one time alliance with Israel: Turkey’s recent appointment of Hakan Fidan, as head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization. It has been rumored that Fidan might have played a role in the flotilla incident, and might also have relations with the Islamist dominated IHH (Insan Hak ve Hurriyetleri ve Insani Yardim Vakfi (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief), which orchestrated the Marmara flotilla.

Turkey’s vitriolic statements and actions on behalf of the Palestinian Arabs by Prime Minister Erdogan has come as a shock. But while Erdogan still vehemently condemns Israelis as “murderers,” and calls Israel a “festering boil in the Middle East,” he hypocritically refuses to address the Armenian genocide, even though it was perpetrated under Ottoman rule close to a century ago. Further, while Erdogan supports his Muslim “brothers” in “Palestine,” he continues in implacable hostility toward his own Kurdish Muslim minority, and especially towards a quasi-independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Apparently, “Islamic solidarity” is fine with Turkey, as long as the Kurds play no role in Turkish affairs other than to be subservient to Ankara’s desires. One final aspect to ponder is: if Turkish officials call Israelis “murderers” and Israel a “festering boil in the Middle East” while still having relations with Israel, what will their rhetoric and actions be if and when they break relations completely with Israel? Perhaps, unlike the Islamic Republic of Iran which openly calls for Israel’s destruction, Turkey may wish to foster a more “moderate Islamist” façade, and call for the repeal of United Nations Resolution 181 of November 22, 1947 which ultimately led to the establishment of modern day Israel. At present, this may seem unfathomable, if not absurd, but a short time ago, the notion of Turkey rejecting Kemalism and establishing itself on an Islamist path was also thought unfathomable.

As Turkey escalated its Israel-bashing barrage, it also courted the Arab world and Iran. This appears to be not only for political reasons, but for economic reasons as well. The Turkish budget deficit has swollen tremendously over the last few years, doubling in just the last year alone. Oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran will gladly aid Turkey economically, which will only increase their political and possibly religious influence as well. Meanwhile, Turkey also tried to patch up differences with Greece and Armenia, long time Eastern Christian foes. The Cyprus issue, however, will no doubt remain a continuing thorn in Greco-Turkish relations, not to mention Turkey’s support of the Azeris over the Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Further, there is the intractable dispute over Kurdistan. If ever an ethnic minority in the Middle East — other than the Jews — has been mistreated and betrayed, it is the Kurdish nation. From the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, to the first Gulf War and beyond, the Kurds have been victimized by Arabs, Persians, and Turks alike. All the while, the West has turned a blind eye. It is not unthinkable that after America’s withdrawal from Iraq, Turkey will seek a pretense to occupy Iraqi Kurdistan under the guise of protecting their Turkmen “brothers” from Kurdish “aggression.” Additionally, the northern city of Kirkuk is oil rich; control of it by Turkey would strengthen Turkey economically.

For now, Turkey, still a powerful member of NATO, and still presumably a friend of America, teeters between East and West. A “neo-Ottoman” Empire — like a “neo-Czarist” Russia that appears in the making — is something that America, the West, and Israel, should take seriously.

In the Middle East, the past is never forgotten and never forgiven. The future in the Middle East often consists of the merging of the present with the past. The West might therefore be well advised to prepare for the day that a once pro-Western secular Turkey no longer exists. The once “sick man of Europe” of the 18th and 19th centuries has now become the 21st century “strongman of the Middle East.” While the secularist Kemalist ship is sinking in the Straits of the Bosporus, the neo-Ottoman Islamist ship of Erdogan is docking at the port of Istanbul.

September 17, 2010 | 2 Comments »

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  1. Laura:

    What turkish pride and honor? It’s a shitty country of losers. It produces nothing and contributes nothing of value, just like the rest of the muslim world. turkey needs to be kicked out of NATO ASAP. I do not want American soldiers defending turkey

    That shitty country has a population of 73 million, with a booming economy and a very large modern military. Turkey is one of the most important nations in NATO- It spans both Europe and Asia. By virtue of its location it has vital geostrategic value. Here is a nation that borders with Iraq, Iran, Greece, Armenia, Azerbaijan,Syria, Cyprus,Bulgaria and close to Russia. Nato is not likely to kick Turkey out since it is irreplaceable. International politics is very much like real estate. It is all a matter of location, location, location.

    Laura, now that you are starting your high school studies, do select geography as your major.

  2. Turkish officials have spoken of “Turkish honor” and “Turkish pride” regarding events vis-à-vis Israel,

    What turkish pride and honor? It’s a shitty country of losers. It produces nothing and contributes nothing of value, just like the rest of the muslim world. turkey needs to be kicked out of NATO ASAP. I do not want American soldiers defending turkey.