This was not how Recep Tayyip Erdogan intended to spend the first anniversary of his party’s historic electoral victory. Earlier this year, at a meeting with a group of journalists in Switzerland, the Turkish prime minister spoke of his hopes for “a year of positive change” in a country thirsting for reform.
The idea, he explained, was to speed up the process of restoring the armed forces to their proper role, and to take “the last big steps” towards Turkey’s membership in the EU while the economy, in the doldrums for a decade, would start showing signs of a turnaround.
What Erdogan had not anticipated was a wave of terrorist attacks that could expose the basic weaknesses of his political strategy.
This month’s violence in Istanbul has already cast doubt on whether Erdogan can reshape the Turkish republic by excluding the military leadership from politics. Many Turks, including some in Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP), believe that as terrorism threatens the nation, this is no time to pick a fight with the armed forces. The attacks have already increased popular support for secularist parties wishing to keep the army at the center of Turkish political life.
The terrorist attacks also undermine Erdogan’s hopes of a real economic recovery. To be sure, the Turkish economy has been showing some positive signs in the past few months, partly thanks to an enlarged budget deficit. But there are already signs that the terrorist attacks are dampening the Turkish mood. Tourism–the nation’s third largest source of foreign currency–has taken a big hit, while the effects on medium and long-term investments remain to be gauged.
The third plank of Erdogan’s strategy, Turkey’s fast track into the EU, is also threatened. If Turkey turns into a new battlefield for Islamist terrorism, it will hardly help her European aspirations.
Not surprisingly, the Istanbul attacks have been attributed to al Qaeda–conveniently for Erdogan. The very mention of al Qaeda is guaranteed to attract the attention, and hopefully the support, of Washington. Also, by pretending that the terrorists were “foreign elements,” the prime minister can foster the illusion that the Turks are victims of an external enemy.
But in truth, the terrorist attacks that have hit Istanbul result, at least in part, from almost a quarter century of attempts to “Islamicize” Turkish politics–attempts in which Erdogan’s party, and its four predecessors, played a leading role. Turkey today is experiencing what Iran and several Arab states have experienced since the 1960s: an Islamist monster, created by the establishment, that ends up turning against it.
The first person to think of creating an Islamist force was Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, who was overthrown in a military coup and hanged in 1960. The Islamist groups that he had encouraged, and partly financed through public funds, did not lift a finger to help him in his hour of need. This was because, in the words of the Bektashi chiefs who had enjoyed his patronage, Menderes was not “Islamic enough.”
Fast forward to the 1970s and Suleyman Demirel, a political heir to Menderes, playing the Islamic card. Demirel benefited tactically and managed to become prime minister on two occasions. In time, however, he toowas ditched by his allies for being insufficiently Islamic.
More recently, in 1996, Necemttin Erbakan brought to prominence the small, right-wing, Islamist Rifah (welfare) party. But although the Erbakan government lasted just over a year, it still strengthened the Islamist groups in myriad ways, especially through government subsidies. But Erbakan, too, experienced the fate of his predecessors: By 1998, with his party disbanded, his career was at an end.
Turkey’s various Islamist parties have a 25-year history of exercising power at the municipal level, where they have done the most damage to Turkey’s political traditions.
From the mid-1980s, the Turkish Islamists forged a strange alliance with the security forces against what they regarded as “common enemies.” At the time, the army saw the Communist, secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK)–and its other Marxist allies–as the nation’s principal foes. Sharing that enmity, the Islamic parties joined forces with the worst elements of the army to set up death squads against the PKK and other leftist groups. The most notorious of these squads was Hezbollah, an outfit originally created by the mullahs of Tehran but later infiltrated by Turkey’s secret service (MIT).
In July, 1993, Hezbollah authored one of the most tragic chapters in the history of modern Turkish terrorism. Militants attacked a hotel in Sivas, in eastern Anatolia, where the Alevis, a moderate sect that has always supported secularism, were holding a public meeting. The attackers blocked all exits in the hotel and then set it on fire. Some 40 people were burned alive while the local police, under the control of the Rifah-party municipality, beat those who tried to escape.
Between 1985 and 2000, more than 800 people died in various acts of Islamist violence, not including victims of clashes between the security forces and various ethnic and religious terror groups. Those assassinated by Islamist terrorists include judges, journalists, academics, politicians, doctors, and even housewives.
A pattern has been established over the past quarter of a century. Each time Turkish politics takes an Islamist turn, the broader Islamist movement has become more radical and violent. Erdogan has made the same mistake that Menderes, Demirel, and Erbakan made before him: He assumed Islamist ideology could be phased out in moderation.
The terrorist attacks in Turkey have little to do with Iraq, or even rising hatred for the United States. Both Iraq and U.S.-hatred are but a pretext for Islamist groups wishing to destroy Erdogan’s government because it is not “Islamic enough.” The only way to deal with the threat is to form a broad popular front dedicated to the values and traditions of Turkish democracy. Erdogan can take the lead in that direction, but before he does, he must realize that anyone mixing politics and religion risks having them explode in his face.