Politics & Policy

Talking Turkey

She's a democracy--no qualifiers.

On June 27, President George W. Bush stood before a crowd of journalists in Ankara and praised Turkey. “I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom,” he said. Bush may have sought to praise his hosts, but his well-intentioned statement has had unintended consequences in Turkey.

Last month, I visited Turkey for a series of meetings with Turkish government and military officials, as well as prominent journalists and public intellectuals. “Why have you abandoned us?” one Turkish parliamentarian asked as we drank tea in his office. “You toss aside an 80-year tradition for an experiment in political Islam,” he explained. He cited not only the president’s statement, but also that of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Speaking in Ankara last April, Powell called Turkey a model for Iraq, “a Muslim democracy living in peace with its friends and neighbors.” National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has made similar comments.

Nice words, infused with well-meaning Washington-style political correctness, but they raised hackles in Turkey. “We are a democracy. Islam has nothing to do with it,” one professor said. “By calling us a Muslim democracy, Powell endorsed the [ruling] AKP [Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi]. If I called the United States a Christian democracy, what would that say to you?”

Belief that Washington supports the AKP is widespread across Turkey, from parliamentarians in the national assembly to storekeepers in provincial towns to university students relaxing in cafes. “Yes, we think they support us,” one prominent AKP member told me, “We are a Muslim party and Powell called us a Muslim democracy. We know he chooses his words carefully.” Turks interpret the friendship of other senior Bush administration officials with Cuneyd Zapsu, a key adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as another indication of American bias.

Part of the Turks’ sensitivity has to do with the position of the AKP. The AKP, led by Erdogan, erupted on the national scene in 2002, when it took 34 percent of the vote in Turkey’s elections. Because a ten-percent threshold was necessary to enter parliament, the AKP’s proportion in parliament jumped to 66 percent. The absolute AKP majority in parliament negated the necessity for a broad coalition for the first time in a generation. The AKP proportion of the vote rose even higher in November 2003, when it won 42 percent of seats in municipal elections. In December 2004, the European Council will decide whether to grant Turkey a date to begin accession negotiations. Should the European Union invite Turkey to begin negotiations, the AKP might expect an additional electoral boost; many Turkish politicians and pundits speculate that the Erdogan might call early elections and win majority enough to permanently alter Turkey’s political foundations.

While the last great leader, Turgat Ozal, brought unity after the chaos wrought by street battles between left and right, and terrorism by Kurdish separatists, Erdogan has instead sought to reorient Turkish society, opening wounds regarding the issue of mosque and state.

The Islamist agenda

The AKP has a thinly veiled Islamist agenda. In May 2004, Erdogan pushed an educational-reform bill that would have eased entry of religious-school graduates into Turkey’s university system. The Turkish general staff–which sees itself as defenders of secularism and the constitution–balked, forcing the AKP to shelve the bill for the year. But, both politicians and military officials believe Erdogan will try again next year.

The issue remains central to the AKP platform. Most graduates from Turkey’s religious high schools do not currently have the arts and sciences base taught in secular secondary schools to win admission to the university. Because university degrees are prerequisites for many government jobs, Erdogan needs the seminary students’ lack of qualification waved if he wishes to have his supporters increase their grip on the bureaucracy.

The military is right to be concerned about the issue, though. According to 1995 annual statistics released by Turkey’s general directorate of religious affairs, between 1983 and 1995, enrollment in Turkey’s religious schools increased 105 percent. In 2005, experts expect 1, 215, 000 students to graduate after receiving on a religious curriculum. Turkey’s religious schools have become hothouses for radicalism. Off-the-beaten track, in places like Cizre, Mardin, Kayseri, and even the Fatih, Bayrampasha, and Sultanbeyli districts of Istanbul, women increasingly not only wear headscarves but also the head-to-toe black hijab characteristic of Saudi Arabia. Bookstores around the Konya tomb of the prominent 13th century Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, a figure revered for preaching tolerance and love, now sell the teaching of the late 13th, early 14th century Islamic scholar Ahmad ibn Tamiya who laid the philosophical groundwork for the Islamic fundamentalism centuries later adopted by Saudi Arabia.

Symbolism is important in Turkey. On July 11, Erdogan’s daughter married the son of the head of al-Bayrak holding. Al-Bayrak, one of Turkey’s leading religious companies, owns Yeni Safak, a national Islamist daily close to the AKP. The bride–and the bride’s mother–wore not the lose scarf characteristic of Anatolia for centuries, but a tight-fitting scarf with a rubber seal around the face that is symbolic of the Islamist movement in Turkey. The wedding pictures were the talk of Turkish pundits for more than a week following.

Turkish newspapers–80 percent of which (by circulation) are held by the pro-government Dogan Holding group–have provided a platform for the AKP’s augmentation of anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rhetoric. “Our constituents demand it,” several AKP officials told me. Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul have sought to downgrade their relations with Israel. Turkey briefly withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and also forced a reinterpretation in security regulations that, in June, forced a halt in El Al flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul. On June 25, 2004, the usually reliable Turkish daily Cumhurriyet identified Gul as the source for Seymour Hersh’s story that dozens of Israeli Mossad agents were operating in northern Iraq; Hersh’s allegations turned out to be false, but have taken hold in Arab media and among Iraqi insurgents. The result is a significant boost in anti-Americanism, not only in Turkey, but across the region.

American errors

Turkey has been a close American ally for more than a half century. The Turkish army fought alongside the United States in Korea. Turkey cooperated with the United States in the Balkans. Turkish troops are an active member of the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. But, the carelessness of senior State Department officials is undermining the U.S. position in Turkey. Washington political correctness does not translate well into Turkish. Turkey is a democracy. Islam has nothing to do with it. Adjectives modifying terms such as democracy imply constraint. The AKP is a product of Turkey’s tradition of secularism, and should be treated as such. At the same time, Washington should approach the AKP warily, for it may still be a Trojan horse. The Western face of Erdogan and the strict, bearded Islamists found in the provinces are two sides of the same party. The Turks are carefully dealing with the balance, but platitudes from officials like Powell threaten to upset it. It is one thing for opposition parties to whine that Washington supports the AKP. It is quite another thing when the ruling party agrees.

Turkey’s secularists and nationalists are increasingly bitter with Washington. In the outlying residential districts of Istanbul, far from where tourists venture, posters dot storefronts and apartment blocks. They depict an octopus wearing an Uncle Sam hat, with tentacles labeled AKP. The octopus is strangling Turkey. Washington’s close association with the AKP encourages Turkey’s secular parties to conflate distrust of the Islamists with the renewed anti-Americanism unleashed by AKP press and publications. At the same time, Washington will win no true friends among the AKP, which seeks to build its relations with Paris, Berlin, Damascus, and Tehran, not on their own merits, but rather on the ruins of Ankara’s “special relationship” with Washington. Bush’s advance team did not help during his visit. In Istanbul and Ankara, the State Department invited vocal critics of U.S. policy to meet the president, but neglected to invite some prominent Turks who not only have long supported Washington, but also advocated for Iraq’s liberation. The Bush doctrine–at least in implementation–and the Clinton doctrine appear little different when it comes to coddling adversaries and slighting friends.

The U.S.-Turkish relationship is too important to be undermined by the political correctness of our diplomatic corps. Our ambassador to Ankara, Eric Edelman, is excellent, but he is one man among many, and is still focused on repairing the damage wrought by the disastrous tenure of his predecessor. Sometimes tough love is necessary. Perhaps it is time for Bush, Powell, and Rice to say that we respect Turkey, for the same reasons we respect Israel, South Korea, India, and Taiwan–because it is a democracy. We will oppose any government or politician that seeks to undermine that democracy. We will support the AKP, not because we like it, but only because the Turkish people elected it. But, there is no reason why the State Department should not invite politicians from secular parties to Washington. There is no reason why the White House should not fete our friends, and only politely receive those who bash us in their local media. If Erdogan is really a democrat, then he will understand the need for Washington to hear a plethora of voices.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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