Long a staunch free world friend and, since 1952, member of NATO, Turkey is today the world’s 17th largest economy and dominant in a region that includes Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, after generations of close relations with the United States, Europe and Israel, Turkey is undergoing complex and increasingly radical restructuring, both domestically and abroad. How it evolves should be of great interest and grave concern.
Internally, Islamist pressure is building, despite representing a minority of citizens. Poor government-military relations were exacerbated by the Feb. 22 arrest of 51 active and retired senior army officers accused of plotting a 2003 coup. Abroad, frustrated by its negligible chance to enter the European Union, the government is reverting to its deep Islamist leanings and significantly altering foreign policies.
There has been a steady increase in women wearing hijab headscarves, encouraged by the ruling party and government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The wives of Mr. Erdogan and Turkish President Abdullah Gul wear the hijab, as do most female activists in the ruling Justice and Development Party. Reflecting strong opposition, a government proposal to lift a long-established ban on wearing it at universities was ruled unconstitutional in 2008.
Moves to intimidate the once-free media have stunned longtime friends. Journalists and editors report regular wiretapping intimidation. Turkish media are under unrelenting pressure to show nothing but respect for the prime minister. Leading newspaper Sabah was closed two years ago on fabricated charges and sold under pressure to a company run by Serhat Albayrak, the prime minister’s son-in-law. Last September, major media conglomerate Dogan received a $2.5 billion tax fine many believe imposed because of its strongly secular editorial position; however, a January court ruling reduced it by 20 percent with more appeals pending.
In recent weeks, efforts to appoint clearly Islamist judges have been vigorously opposed by the opposition and Turkey’s esteemed military. Islamist hoodlums have attacked Jewish synagogues and businesses and Mr. Erdogan was received warmly on returning from last year’s Davos World Economic Forum, where he told Israeli President Shimon Peres, “You kill people,” among other incendiary statements, before abruptly leaving their shared podium.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised the prime minister’s performance, reciprocated when Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gul speedily phoned congratulations to the Iranian president following his corruption-ridden re-election last June. Mr. Erdogan repeatedly refers to Mr. Ahmadinejad as his “friend” in interviews and multiple exchanges of visits to Tehran and Ankara.
Indicative of a sharp return to his Islamist beliefs, the charismatic Turkish leader repeatedly lauds disgraced Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gul exchange frequent visits with Mr. Bashir and his vice president.
Despite the slaughter of some half-million Sudanese in Darfur since 2003, the ICC stopped short of indicting former army general Bashir of genocide, allowing Mr. Erdogan to announce during the Sudanese leader’s November visit, “No Muslim could perpetrate a genocide.” The ludicrous reference continues Turkey’s relentless denial of committing genocide from 1915 until the end of World War I, when more than a million Armenians were exterminated, moving Winston Churchill to term the events an “administrative holocaust.”
Such international forays, including warm relations with Hamas, have prompted several apologists – including very senior members of the Obama administration – to contend Ankara was simply opening long-neglected regional relationships. Not true: No similar warming of relations has developed between Turkey and such area regimes as Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. Attempts have been made to normalize relations with Turkey’s Kurdish minority and the Kurdish region of Iraq in a desperate effort to mollify long-strained relations, as the Kurdish birthrate threatens to lift them to 50 percent of the country’s population within a generation.
The prime minister periodically notes Turkey maintains close relations with Israel and fealty to NATO, claims having similar weight as his friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s insistence Iran’s nuclear program is solely for power-generating purposes.
Although campaigning as a moderate during the victorious 2002 election campaign, Mr. Erdogan’s radical roots were formed while attending Marmara University where he met Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, Nekmettin Erbakan. After a successful term as Istanbul mayor, he formed the Justice and Development Party with Islamist members of the banned Virtue Party and was jailed for inciting religious hatred, for publicly reciting a poem that said in part, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
The only significant force offsetting the Islamist surge is Turkey’s military, long the guardian of the 80-year Ataturk legend of firm adherence to secular democracy. During the Erdogan administration, relations with the army have deteriorated significantly, culminating in the recent arrest of several senior retired officers following stories of a possible coup. Besides the military, many businessmen and educators are pondering whether to await the Erdogan government’s leaving the political scene peacefully, or hope for military intervention.
Interestingly, all the internal and international turmoil has come when the country has been touted as a major potential force for peace and stability. Turkey was elected in 2008 to a seat on the U.N. Security Council; Istanbul was awarded the prestigious 2009 meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank; this year, Istanbul celebrates selection as a European Capital of Culture.
Nevertheless, despite the facts, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Barack Obama have all lionized the government, effectively encouraging it to redouble its radical maneuvering. U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey said in a January interview in Sabah that Turkey “is a peaceful country. It doesn’t invade neighbors.” Sadly, 36 years after invading Cyprus, 40,000 Turkish troops and 180,000 mainland emigres remain, despite much of the native Turkish population’s opposition. The ambassador also sidestepped addressing Turkey’s relations with Israel. However events unfold, there are two current realities:
c Turkey will continue to be a major economic and political player in a vast and critical region embracing much of Asia, Africa and the Muslim world.
c Increasingly friendly to radical and outlaw regimes, the Erdogan government is neutral if not unfriendly to the West, Israel and moderate Arab governments.
Patriotic Turks can re-establish the dynamic policies of national hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Doing so should make the first reality above far more welcome to Turkey’s western and Arab friends and neighbors.
John R. Thomson, a geopolitical analyst and former diplomat who has lived and worked in Muslim countries for more than three decades.