Politics & Policy

Turkish Turn Back?

Tolerance, slipping.

Back in June, Turks did a double-take when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his monthly television address. Rather than speak before the traditional backdrop of the Turkish flag and a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the republic, Erdogan spoke before photos of Ataturk’s mausoleum and a mosque. The message, Turks said, was clear. Ataturk was dead, but Islam lives on.

In November 2002, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] swept to power with just over a third of votes cast but took two thirds of the seats in parliament because only one other party surpassed the mandatory ten-percent threshold to enter the national assembly.

While Erdogan describes the AKP as a mainstream, inclusive party, a bridge between East and West, his actions suggest otherwise. While Alevis–a Sufi-influenced Islamic sect–number about 15 million in Turkey, the mainstream daily Milliyet surveyed more than 300 AKP parliamentarians and found not a single Alevi deputy. Traditionally, acceptance of diverse interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence is a prime reflection of tolerance. Despite the AKP’s rhetoric, the Alevi barometer suggests a gathering storm.

Worrying signs abound in Istanbul, where East and West have long blended in harmony. While the Saudi-style (as opposed to Turkish-style) veil was once limited to outlining districts like Sultanbeyli, it is becoming increasingly common in the center of Istanbul. While secular society accepts the veil in the name of diversity, such tolerance is one-way. Turkish women say residents of more conservative districts make them feel unwelcome if they do not likewise adopt conservative Arab styles of dress.

In the past year, the AKP has begun to translate its near monopoly over most major municipalities and national government into action. Rule-of-law has been a casualty. On January 7, 2005, bulldozers and dozens of policemen showed up outside Chocolate, a trendy café adjacent to the Besiktas soccer stadium. After a Besiktas match, men and women, sons and daughters, would cross the street and relax, have a coffee or beer, and watch the boats go by on the Bosphorous. On that rainy day, the police arrived with bulldozers and told the shocked staff the municipality–run by AKP–had ordered the restaurant destroyed. Television cameras and the property owners videotaped the subsequent confrontation. The landlord’s lawyer demanded to know on what grounds the municipality would demolish the restaurant. He produced the requisite permits and demanded to see a court order. “I don’t know anything about a court order. And I don’t want to see your permits,” the AKP official said. “I have a job to do.” Minutes later, bulldozers drove through the glass atriums of the restaurant in front of shocked onlookers. The AKP did not even switch off the restaurant’s gas before the demolition. Vendetta trumped safety. Three other restaurants fell victim to the AKP’s bulldozers on the same day. The video shows waiters and cooks weeping. No restaurants meant no jobs in Turkey’s already tight job market. Had they worked at a more Islamic establishment, they need not have worried.

The January demolitions were not alone. On October 14, 2005, AKP officials demolished part of Reina, a restaurant and nightclub complex on the Bosphorous popular among affluent and Western-oriented elites. Again, the government operated without court order. The AKP-led municipality has especially targeted Istanbul districts led by other political parties. Demolitions have occurred in SiSli, Bak?rkoy, and Kadikoy.

Large firms deemed un-Islamic or pro-Western by the ruling party’s advisors have also been subject to arbitrary taxation and penalty unsupported by any financial regulation or audit. The government has targeted beer manufacturer Efes and the local Coca-Cola bottler, while promoting products manufactured by companies deemed Islamist. Turkish Airlines once served Coca-Cola on its flights. According to flight attendants, at the request of the government, it increasingly substitutes Cola Turka, a brand owned by Ulker, a confectionary company long associated with Islamist causes.

While businessmen and U.S.-Turkish trade associations describe Turkey as a prime investment opportunity, behind the scenes, long-time friends of Turkey question where Erdogan is leading Turkey. Ideology has trumped rule of law. Political arrogance is extreme. The party uses its office to shut down dissent. When Show TV broadcast this month a political advertisement for an opposition party, government officials demanded the firing of the advertising manager. The AKP’s mouthpiece, the daily Yeni Safak repeatedly brands as “enemies of Islam” or “coup-advocates” anyone who questions abuse of power. While both U.S. and Turkish diplomats say relations are back on track after disputes over Operation Iraqi Freedom, in truth there has seldom been so little confidence in Washington about a Turkish government.

Turkey has always been not only an important U.S. ally, but also a regional model of tolerance. The combination of rule of law and diversity of belief have been the bedrock of the Turkish state. Anyone enjoys full rights as a Turkish citizen so long as they uphold the law. Discrimination has been rare. The Jewish and Alevi communities have thrived. The second president of the Turkish republic was Kurdish. Istanbul is home to peoples who trace their roots across Europe, Asia, and North Africa. It is ironic, then, that even as Turkey rests on the threshold of European Union membership, the AKP government is undercutting the tolerance and commitment to the rule of law that has so long made Turkey a regional model.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute is 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.


The Latest