Politics & Policy

America’s Neo-Turcophiles

Dangerous illusions about Turkey, Islam, and the EU.

Turkish columnist Burak Bekdil coined the term “Neo-Turcophile” in a searing, must-read article about the looming threat to secularism posed by the AKP’s continuing attempt to take over all major government power-centers in Turkey. The AKP is an Islamist party, and Neo-Turcophiles (hereafter, “Neos”) are all the foreigners who claim to believe that by supporting the AKP, they are supporting Turkish democracy.

Many American Neos are quite sincere in this mistaken belief; most other foreign AKP supporters are not. The list of AKP supporters includes all of the Arab League despots and their associated terrorist groups, the Kurdish terrorists of the PKK, the Armenian Diaspora Holocaust Lobby, the unelect-ed bureaucrats who rule the European Union, and their longtime partners in the AKP-headed Organization of Islamic Countries. Diversity of motives notwithstanding, all the Neos insist that the AKP poses no threat to Turkish democracy because, unlike the banned, radical Islamist parties that the AKP’s leaders formerly belonged to, their new party is a moderate Islamist party, committed to making Turkey more Muslim and more democratic by throwing it open to foreign investment and bringing it into the EU.

A False Analogy

Bekdil uses the Washington Post’s Turkish correspondent, Claire Berlinski, as his example of a dangerously deluded American Neo and refutes her arguments. But for real clarity about the essence of the Neos’ arguments — arguments echoed in a recent NRO editorial, “Warm Turkey” — an earlier piece by John O’Sullivan provides the best summary in the fewest words:

“[T]he AKP …is today the Muslim equivalent of a socially conservative Christian Democrat party in Western Europe….its long-term policy is to replace the Turkish army with the EU as the guardian of secularism in Turkey….an aim that makes perfect sense for a socially conservative Muslim party because Europe’s secularism is more tolerant toward religious expression than either the Turkish army or Kemalism.”

Sincere good intentions notwithstanding, there are two very dangerous and fundamental illusions at work here. The first is assuming that Islam is, ever was, or ever can be anything like Christianity, when it comes to a role in government. The second is assuming that the EU is capable or even desirous of protecting Turkey — or Britain, France, or Spain, for that matter — from the growing threat of Islamicization.

Turkish secularists — even, or perhaps especially, the many pious Muslims who march in their ranks — know in their bones that the first assumption is so far off-the-mark that, by and large, only non-Muslims really believe it. It was, after all, Christ, not Mohammed, who said, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” and “My kingdom is not of this world.” Those statements are, at the very least, ambiguous enough to allow Christianity to play a limited role in some secular governments without turning them into all-encompassing theocracies. Islam’s Prophet never said anything remotely similar, and there was no ambiguity about what he did say on this topic. Islam is both a religion and a complete, all-encompassing system of theocratic government, here on this earth. Arguing that it can play a limited role in government is like arguing that one can be a little bit pregnant.

Modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal — renamed Ataturk (“Father of the Turks”) by his grateful countrymen — had a profound grasp of these home truths, and acted on them in ways that changed Turkey and the world. Ataturk is the man who abolished the Caliphate, and with it, Turkey’s 500-year-old claim to a divine right to rule the Muslim world and a good chunk of Europe, too. Ataturk is also the man who made secularism — not democracy or liberty — the bedrock constitutional principle of the Turkish Republic he founded in 1923. He did that because he understood that liberty and democracy can only coexist with Islam in a passionately secular state — a state that maintains an all-but-complete separation of mosque and state, confining Islam to the religious sphere, denying it any role at all in government on principle, and remaining ever watchful against Islamist encroachments on government. That was Ataturk’s formula for success, and American Neos, especially, should “bethink” themselves before dismissing it as an “unworkable” extreme, because it did work. It kept liberty and democracy alive in Turkey for 84 continuous years, and that’s a record no other mainly Muslim nation has ever approached, and only a very few mainly Christian nations have ever equaled or surpassed.

Ataturk’s contemporary followers — the Kemalists O’Sullivan sees as less “tolerant of religious expression” than European secularists — are, in fact, the most persistently tolerant Muslims the world has ever known when it comes to respecting the right to worship in peace of both their Sunni Muslim majority and their Alevi (Shiite) minority, and of Turkish Christians, Jews, and Sufis, too. As Bekdil forcefully reminds us, it wasn’t secularists who carried out the disturbing series of violent attacks in Turkey over the past five years — murders of priests, judges, Christian converts, and Armenians, bombings of synagogues and Western consulates, and more. The AKP didn’t order these attacks, but it is a mistake to ignore the fact that all of the men who carried them out came from the ranks of Islamists who back the AKP. Turkey’s secularists aren’t “intolerant,” and they don’t reject Islam as a religion. They’re Muslims; it’s their religion, too. What they reject is any role at all for Islam in the governance of their Republic.

Illusions about the Turkish Military

No matter, say the Neos: contemporary Kemalists are only a tiny, unrepresentative elite, working to thwart the will of the Turkish majority by allying themselves with the real threat to Turkish democracy: undemo-cratic Turkish military officers who cling to what EU Neos call “their illegitimate, self-appointed role” as guardians of the secular Republic. As Neos see it, these power-hungry military officers are just itching to mount a military coup, and are only barely restrained by the steady stream of warnings, threats, and condemnations issued against them by the EU in April and, sadly, echoed by our own feckless State Department in May.

These Neo warnings to Turkish generals may sound righteous to many Americans, but they offend and anger tens of millions of Turks because they ignore the actual Turkish facts about the Turkish military and its role in Turkish life. In place of these facts, Neos impose the conventional Western view of “the military,” refusing to recognize the unique character of Turkey’s military and the unique role it has always played in making Turkey the Muslim world’s only successful democracy. It is a mistaken view, on all counts.

First, with regard to the military’s constitutional role, American Neos may believe this “illegitimate, self-appointed” nonsense; EU Neos know better. That is why the EU’s unelected bureaucrats have worked so aggressively to force the Turks to abrogate Ataturk’s constitution and change their laws in order to deny the military — not the Islamists — any role in Turkey’s government. In fact, as I pointed out in in 2002, the Turkish constitution tasks the military with a sworn duty to act as a necessary check on democratic excesses that violate the constitution — a check our Founding Fathers also deemed necessary in order to preserve constitutional democracy. The big difference is that our Constitution assigns this role to the Supreme Court; Turkey’s constitution assigns it to the military. This is hardly surprising in light of the differing origins of America’s democracy and Turkey’s. Many of our founding fathers were lawyers; most of Turkey’s were professional military officers, like Ataturk.

The Turkish military’s duty to intervene militarily to defend the secular state if necessary is a fact — not a prediction. The Neos insistence that General Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of Turkey’s general staff today, is eager to mount a military coup in order to seize and hold power for himself — that’s a fantasy. The Turkish military did take power directly on two occasions in the past, and could, easily, have held onto it permanently, as military leaders in the Arab world routinely do, using it to enrich themselves and beggar their countrymen. But Turkey’s top commanders have always rejected this path. Both past military takeovers were brief, and unmarred by financial corruption. Both times, the generals restored civilian control voluntarily, without need of lectures from self-appointed foreign overseers. Two other times, Turkey’s military chiefs saw no need to go that far, relying, instead, on verbal warnings that encouraged civilian authorities — the president, the parliament, the constitutional court, secular political parties and private civic organizations — to act to preserve Turkish secularism without need for tanks in the squares.

That is what General Buyukanit hoped to achieve by responding to the AKP’s takeover attempt with his warnings on April 12 and April 27, and so far, it seems to be working. The leader of the only secular opposition party in parliament, the CHP, challenged the constitutionality of the AKP’s parliamentary maneuver, and the constitutional court swiftly ruled in his favor, nullifying the AKP’s April takeover attempt, and setting the scene for early elections for a new parliament, now scheduled for July 22.

Finally, we come to Neo claims that the Turkish military oppresses the Turkish people and threatens Turkish democracy by frustrating the will of an Islam-hungry majority, hostile to secularism. These claims should be weighed against poll data which consistently show that an overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens rate their uncompromisingly secular military as the most admired and trusted institution in the land. Contrast that with the very low approval ratings Turks give to both their religious leaders and their politicians in these same polls, and the hollowness of Neo claims about the “oppressive” Turkish military is easy to see. It’s easy to explain, too. Turks admire their military because it has a long record of putting the nation first, and doing it with honor, integrity, and competence. Most Turks are very proud of their army. They’re not eager for a military coup, anymore than the military itself is, but it offends them to hear foreigners lecture their generals. The history of Turkish political parties and their relation to the Turkish people is, alas, a different story entirely, and I’ll deal with that next.

First, though, I would be remiss, as an American, to end this discussion of the Turkish military without noting that it has long been the most consistently pro-American institution in Turkey, and a more loyal and dependable NATO ally than many other NATO countries. To get some fledgling appreciation of just how valuable Turkey’s military cooperation is, check out the role that Turkish troops are playing in Afghanistan today, and then, instead of lecturing the Turks, try apologizing to them for the fact that we have not reciprocated by doing all we could and should do to help them stop the flow of PKK terrorists from Iraq into Turkey.

The Turkish People vs. Turkish Politicians

What, then, of the Neos’ claim that, among Turkish civilians, only a tiny, unrepresentative elite really support Ataturk’s brand of secularism? Exactly how many committed secularists there are in Turkey today is the great unknown, but the amazing popular response of the Turkish people to the AKP takeover attempt clearly puts the lie to any notion that secularists are only a tiny minority, or that they exist only among the elite.

Mass popular-protest demonstrations for secularism and against the AKP’s attempt to seize Turkey’s presidency began on April 14, when more than a million Turkish Muslim protesters turned mile after mile of Ankara into a sea of red flags — the flag of Ataturk’s secular Republic. Above them, like the sails of a mighty flotilla, there were hundreds of thousands of white picket signs with messages like: “Turkey is not Iran,” “Shoulder to shoulder against sharia,” “Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” and “We don’t want an imam as president.” More than a million protested again in Istanbul on April 29, with the same flags, and the same messages.

Protests weren’t limited to Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey’s equivalent to Washington and New York, either. On May 5, there were sizeable protests in smaller cities — Manisa, Canakkale, Marmaris — and on May 13 in Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, a third demonstration with more than a million protesters. The protesters included truck drivers, farmers, and waiters, as well as college professors, lawyers, and business people, and huge numbers of Turkish women, young and old, rich and poor. There were even some who chose to wear headscarves, but marched for the right of their daughters to make a different choice. They marched and sang and shouted out their slogans, cheered speakers who were passionate about the seriousness and immediacy of the AKP threat to Islamicize their secular Republic, and vowed to stand fast against it. But they never let their passion cross the line into violence. Despite the massive numbers of people involved, there were no violent incidents at any of the secularist demonstrations.

The obvious question, in light of this remarkable outpouring, is how did an Islamist party like the AKP ever succeed in getting a nearly two-thirds majority in parliament in the election of 2002 — the overwhelming parliamentary majority that put the AKP in position to try to capture Turkey’s presidency as well as its prime ministership? Neos would have you believe it happened because a majority of Turks voted for the AKP in a democratic election, and we must all support their choice, but that’s not true. The AKP won its overwhelming majority in parliament with only about a third of the vote, because Turkish law requires a party to get at least ten percent of the vote in order to be represented in parliament at all, and only one of Turkey’s multiplicity of small, endlessly squabbling secular parties met that threshold.

Two-thirds of all Turkish voters said no to the AKP in 2002, but they were so disgusted with Turkey’s secular parties that they said no to them, too. Their disgust had nothing to do with secularism and everything to do with the endemic corruption, incompetence, and petty, what’s-in-it for-me selfishness and divisiveness that made all of Turkey’s formerly ruling parties unworthy of the people they governed and incapable of managing the economy in a reasonable way. Moreover, it is a mistake to assume that even the one-third of Turkey’s citizens who actually voted for the AKP did so because they wanted a more Islamic government. An unknown but potentially sizeable number did so because the AKP used its embrace of the EU to disguise its hostility to secularism — it didn’t try to criminalize adultery or to ban alcohol until after the election. And many Turks liked the fact that the AKP was a new party, as yet unstained by the economic disgraces and disasters that previous ruling parties were responsible for.

Still, the AKP has had almost five years to infiltrate Turkish institutions, to propagandize the pious for their version of “moderate” Islamic government, and to bribe the poor with hand-outs financed by a vast inflow of Arab oil money. As a result, it is unclear, at this point, how many committed Turkish secularists remain.

The latest polls of Turkish voters are no help. According to the Sonar poll, the AKP would get 29 percent in a new election, but four secular parties would now meet the 10 percent threshold: the new DP party, a center-right merger of DYP and ANAP, would garner 21 percent of the vote; the CHP, a center-left party, would get 14 percent, and 22 percent if it succeeds in merg-ing with the DSP; the MHP, a nationalist party, would get 12 percent; and the new GP party would get almost 11 percent. These numbers give some reason for optimism.A and G Research poll numbers do not. They say the AKP will get 41 percent next time, and only two secular parties will meet the 10 percent threshold: CHP with 13.5 percent and DYP with 10.7 percent.

Frustrated and impatient with so much alphabet soup? Imagine how much more frustrated and impatient the Turkish people are: they’ve had to live with it for years. For them, the big question is whether Turkey’s fractious secular politicians will finally quit fighting over meaningless differences between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, and unite to save the secular Republic that gave Turkey the relative freedom and peace it has enjoyed for so long. If they fail, again, to give their countrymen secular parties worth voting for, Turkey could face an increasingly dangerous and violent future. Burak Bekdil ends his article with a chillingly realistic look at just how bad it could be: “Of course, Mr. Erdogan [the AKP prime minister] and his men disapprove of violence in the name of Islam. But there would be a very thin line between violent Islam and ‘Muslim democracy’ when the latter becomes the dominant ideology of an unstable, unpredictable and young populace.”

Fortunately, for Turkey and for the West, millions of deeply concerned and wide awake Turkish citizens are doing everything they can to prevent this disastrous development. Americans should be doing everything we can to support them. Instead, our State Department and too many other Americans are blindly backing the Islamists. When will we wake up?

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