As protests continue in Turkey, from Azerbaijan Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, weighs in on the possibilities.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s going on in Turkey?
MICHAEL RUBIN: Turkey’s been a pressure cooker for quite some time. Turks have radically different visions about their future. While the spark for the current unrest was an environmental protest against building a shopping center over a small Istanbul park, the greater issue is unease about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s religious agenda and the rollback of rights inside Turkey. It is also a clash between visions. While Istanbul’s elites have traditionally looked toward Europe and the West for inspiration, the core of Erdogan’s constituency is Anatolian, and tends to look toward religion.
At the same time, it’s useful to think about a tripartite clash going in within the Turkish government. There are three main factional leaders: Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul, and Islamic thinker Fethullah Gulen who, depending on the analyst, is either a malicious cult leader or the leader of a movement promoting tolerance. All three are Islamist, but Erdogan seems most interested in personal power, and Gül is most tolerant. Gulen — who lives in a heavily guarded compound in Pennsylvania and whom Turks believe has long had American government support — dominates the security services. Whether people hold him accountable for the police abuse seen on the streets of abuse remains to be seen.
LOPEZ: Erdogan has said: “We already have a spring in Turkey . . . But there are those who want to turn this spring into winter. Does he have a point?
RUBIN: What Erdogan sees as a spring, many Turks find chilly. Turkey was never a perfect democracy before. In theory, it is a good thing to separate the military from politics. The problem is that the Turkish military had always been the guarantor of the constitution. With that military power now diminished and no independent civilian body to take their place, Erdogan effectively won unchecked power. He certainly had mastered democratic rhetoric, but when push came to shove, he proved he had no interest in democracy. Heck, as I had written here back in 2005, Bulent Arinç — at the time the speaker of the parliament and since promoted to be Erdogan’s chief deputy — even threatened to dissolve the constitutional court if they had the temerity to overturn his legislation as unconstitutional.
LOPEZ: Even if you think Turkey needs a springtime, these movements have been known to backfire . . .
RUBIN: The Arab Spring has been clearly hijacked by Islamists. More people — myself included — should have heeded Andy McCarthy’s warnings, although — to be perfectly blunt — cancer-stricken octogenarian dictators are not great pillars of U.S. national security either (hence I still agree with the early George W. Bush policy to promote reform in these countries in order to try to encourage a liberal middle ground).
That said, for those worried about the Arab Spring, it’s crucial they don’t learn the wrong lesson. The Turkish spring is the Arab Spring’s exact opposite. This is not a movement which Islamists will hijack: It is a rebellion against the fiction Islamists promote that they have any interest in democracy. It is a fight for liberal democracy against the forces who seek to impose their own intolerant view of Islam upon neighbors and fellow-citizens. The Turkish Spring is important because it is the first widespread rebellion against the forces of Islamist autocracy. Let us hope not only that it succeeds, but creates a precedent for Egyptians, Iranians, Libyans, Tunisians, and others.
LOPEZ: What do you think of the fact that war-torn Syria has a travel advisory against Turkey?
RUBIN: Propaganda, plain and simple. Assad’s winning in Syria is like dying of a heart attack, but the Islamists winning is like dying of cancer. That said, Turks will be paying the price for quite some time for their government’s support and sponsorship of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in Syria. The Turks support this group because they would rather have radical Islamists win in Syria than the secular Kurds. That Secretary of State John Kerry refuses to grant the secular Syrian Kurdish leader a visa is a scandal, since he controls territory and has restored normalcy to portions of eastern Syria that otherwise would be under al-Qaeda’s control.
At any rate, while the Turks originally blamed last month’s bombing in the town of Reyhanli on Assad’s forces, evidence increasingly points to Turkey’s own Nusra Front allies. How frustrating it is that so many states believe they can support jihadists against their own enemies without ever suffering blowback at home.
LOPEZ: You recently wrote, “Like Josef Stalin, who gutted the Soviet military in the years prior to the Nazi invasion, or Ayatollah Khomeini, who did likewise to the Iranian military in the months before the Iraqi invasion, Erdogan has done his best to destroy his country’s military.” Stalin. That’s a bit harsh a comparison, isn’t it?
RUBIN: I’m only comparing Stalin’s purge of the military to Erdogan’s, not speaking of Stalin’s broader purge. Sure, Erdogan hasn’t dragged generals before the firing squad, though I’m sure he would if he could get away with it. The fact of the matter is that one in five Turkish generals are in prison, and that the Turkish army is a shell of its former self.
LOPEZ: How do you see these protests ending?
RUBIN: As Bob Rook, my friend and roommate when teaching our men and women onboard deployed aircraft carriers, often quips, “Historians get paid to predict the past, and we get that right only half the time.” Now that people have died, the protests will continue for some time. Will Erdogan go? If he learns some humility, I doubt it. Remember, however: When protesters first poured into Tahrir Square in Cairo, their demands focused on removal of the interior minister, not President Hosni Mubarak himself. It was only because of Mubarak’s arrogance and tin ear that the crowds turned on him as well. The ball is in Erdogan’s court. One thing is sure, however: He’s probably praying as we speak.
LOPEZ: What would you realistically hope comes out of these events?
RUBIN: Erdogan has been pushing a constitution that would have instituted a strong presidential system in Turkey. In effect, he would have assured himself another decade in control with even fewer checks on his power. At the very least, let us hope that this uprising ends Erdogan’s ability to consolidate control. Turkey needs checks and balances, not a strong man.
LOPEZ: How can the U.S help? Hurt?
RUBIN:: It’s time the West learn that as soon as you put “Islamic” or, for that matter, any other adjective in front of democracy, you are essentially eroding the system. I wrote about that here years ago, when some in the Bush administration wanted to cut Turkey’s Islamists some slack. I hope the White House will recognize that Turkey has not been a model for Islamic democracy, but rather has become a case in point for how naïveté and political correctness among American diplomats can allow Islamists to use the rhetoric of democracy as they pursue quite a different aim.
Just as in Iran in 2009, I do not think the U.S. should cast its lot with specific people — but I do believe we have a bully pulpit to talk about basic freedoms — such as the importance of free speech and a free press. Alas, when Obama uses his bully pulpit, he not only remains silent, but he appears to endorse repression.