Politics & Policy

Losing Turkey to the Islamists

A look at Turkey's history shows how very un-Turkish is the mindset of its current Islamist rulers.

“Democracy is like a streetcar. When you reach your stop, you get off.”

– Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan


Turkey’s recent open embrace of terrorist regimes like Iran and Syria, its high-profile attempt to thwart our efforts to impose sanctions on Iran, and its dramatic push to take over the leadership of the Islamic world by supporting Hamas and Hezbollah and attacking Israel even more virulently than current Arab leaders do — all this came as a big surprise to the foreign-policy establishment in both the European Union and the United States. The Turkish government that did all this — the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, his Islamist Justice and Development party — took power in 2002. And from then until now, the EU has been the AKP’s biggest booster, with the U.S. running a close second.

To be sure, the supranationalist bureaucrats in Brussels didn’t love the AKP enough to say yes to Turkey’s bid to join the EU. But they loved it more than enough to weaken and immobilize the party’s most widely respected and effective secular opponent: the Turkish military. The military has been the sworn guardian of state secularism since the foundation of the unique Turkish Republic in 1923, and it had an unbroken record of success — until the EU became a major player in Turkey’s internal affairs. The Eurocrats insisted, loudly and often, that they could work with the AKP; it was no threat. The great threat to the Turkish Republic, they insisted, came from Turkey’s pro-Western military, not from its anti-Western Islamists. Unless Turkey’s constitution and laws were changed to eviscerate the military’s role as guardian of Turkish secularism, Brussels repeatedly warned, Turkey could never be an EU member. Our president, our State Department, and our media echoed the EU line. We embraced the AKP, refusing to recognize that it is an Islamist party.

Instead, we deluded ourselves with two clichés, an old one and a new one. The old cliché is that the AKP isn’t really an Islamist party; it’s a moderate Islamist party, sort of the Muslim equivalent of Europe’s Christian Democrats. The new cliché is that the AKP isn’t really an Islamist party; it’s a neo-Ottoman party.

The truth is that the AKP is, and always has been, an Islamist party, and there is nothing moderate or Ottoman-like about it. I’ve written before about why a “moderate Islamist party” is a Western fantasy, a contradiction in terms, concocted by people who are blind to the fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity. I’ve written, too, about how swiftly the AKP moved on the domestic front to infiltrate and subvert Turkey’s police, courts, and media, and to arrest and imprison the party’s most effective secular opponents in the press, the universities, and the business world, as well as in the military. Here, I want to concentrate on why the alleged similarities between the AKP’s foreign policies and those of the Ottoman empire are equally spurious and misleading.

If the rhetoric in Erdogan’s dramatic series of made-for-TV challenges to America and Israel sounds drearily familiar, it’s because it is. Erdogan and his highly overrated foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, aren’t bringing anything new to the foreign-policy table. They’re bidding for the leadership of the Muslim world by publicly swallowing and noisily regurgitating the standard anti-American, anti-Israeli positions that spew forth from the Organization of the Islamic Conference at its worst. The Arab-and-Iranian-dominated OIC has been repeating this blame-the-infidels collection of buck-passing accusations and slanders for decades. It’s the Islamist diplomats’ version of the message their terrorist friends reduce to its essence when they scream “Death to America” and “Kill the Jews.” The only new thing here is the fact that under Erdogan and the AKP, Turks are now shouting the same slogans as the Arabs and Iranians. Turks — our NATO allies, who were so different for so long — are now just part of the Middle Eastern mob. And nothing could be less Ottoman-like than that.

The Ottomans, who ruled all of modern Turkey and a good chunk of the rest of the world from the 14th century to the beginning of the 20th, were no choirboys, but they were nothing like the AKP. The Ottomans didn’t believe in any of the political ideals we cherish — ideals like freedom, democracy, and equality — and, unlike the AKP, they didn’t pretend to. But they were at the opposite end of the spectrum from the closed-minded, hate-spouting xenophobes and anti-Semites who govern Turkey, the Arab states, and Iran today. The Ottomans weren’t much like the Arabs and Persians of their own day, either, because, despite common assumptions about Turks in the West today, they aren’t really a Middle Eastern people at all. Arabs, Persians, Christians, and Jews are native to the Middle East. Turks are not, and, “bridge” clichés notwithstanding, they didn’t migrate into Turkey from the east or the west.

The precise origins of the Turkish people may be lost in the mists of time and scholarly debate, but the presence of these Eurasian people in Anatolia — the land mass we know today as Turkey — is no mystery. Beginning in about the tenth century, increasing numbers of nomadic Turkish warriors on horseback rode down into Anatolia from the north, from the Central Asian steppes. Often, they were fleeing Mongol, Tatar, and other conquerors from farther north — from China, Russia, and the Caucasus — and, always, they were looking for new lands to conquer. Latecomers to Islam, Turks initially worshipped a variety of tribal gods, or adopted Buddhism or Confucianism. Over time, almost all of them converted to Islam, perhaps because the idea of the gazi (warrior of the faith) was such a good fit for the formidable Eurasian horsemen who still use the horse tail as Europeans use the scepter — as a symbol for royalty.

For a long time, these Turkish tribes fought each other as fiercely as they had fought their Asian neighbors to the north — except for the hundred-year reign of the Seljuk Turks, from 1055 to 1157. Finally, in the 14th century, a Turk named Osman and his descendants — the Ottomans — gradually established a lasting dominance over Anatolia. They then turned west, not east, conquering most of the Balkans — starting with today’s Bulgaria and ending with Greece — in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was only in the 16th century that the Ottomans finally turned east, adding most of the Middle East, and a good chunk of North Africa, to their already large empire.

And, while they conquered all these lands in the name of Islam, the brand of Islam the Ottomans imposed on the diverse peoples they ruled over was a unique Turkish brand, less onerous than those that had ruled the Middle East before. It was generally less onerous than medieval Christianity too, because it was born of a lofty and very practical Ottoman indifference to the religious beliefs and social customs of their subjects. At its heart was the millet system, under which all subject communities — Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and other — were governed by one of their own. This Ottoman-appointed leader was required to maintain order and stability in his community, and see to it that his people worked diligently, using whatever skills they possessed, to produce useful goods and services, which allowed them in turn to pay goodly sums in tribute to their Ottoman overlords. That done, they were generally free to worship and to govern themselves as they pleased.

The society this system produced was an intensely, elaborately hierarchical one, complete with distinctive dress codes and colors for different religious, tribal, and occupational groups. However, because it was to a very large extent a meritocratic system rather than one based on inherited privilege, it offered many chances for upward mobility within groups, and even among them. In theory, Muslim subjects were always superior to Christian and Jewish ones, but in practice, Christian and Jewish subjects could and sometimes did attain positions as high and powerful as those of their Muslim counterparts. In the eyes of the Ottoman emperors, the key question in making decisions of this sort was not “Who are you?” but “What can you do for us?”

In this and much else, Ottoman emperors were the opposite of the narrow, hate-filled ideologues who govern the Arab and Persian states and, alas, Turkey today. Blind hatred of any sort — anti-western, anti-Christian, or anti-Jewish — struck the Ottomans as dumb and self-defeating. Bayezid II, the emperor who opened Turkey’s doors to the Jews whom King Ferdinand expelled from Spain in 1492, summed it up this way: “He has impoverished his kingdom and enriched mine.” This finely discriminating openness to what was valuable anywhere in the world, and the concomitant willingness to embrace and Turkify it, played no small part in making the Ottoman empire the wonder of the world in its glory days, before growing insularity and other unhealthy developments led to its slow decline over the last three centuries of its six-century reign.

Judge the Ottomans as you will, it is simply false to claim that the AKP is like them. Illiterate nomads in the 13th century, the Ottomans learned fast, and chose wisely. By the 15th century, Sultan Suleyman was reading Aristotle in a Persian translation. Impossible to imagine him parroting the basest slogans of a collection of failed Middle Eastern states the way Turkey’s current prime minister does.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the soldier and statesman who founded the Turkish republic, which replaced the empire in 1923, restored Turkish openness with a vengeance, transforming Turkey in the process. He began with an honest, non-defensive appraisal of just how far ahead of Turkey and the East the Western world had advanced, and then he moved with remarkable speed, imagination, and effectiveness to embrace and Turkify the best the West had to offer. In this, Atatürk was very much like his early Ottoman forebears. But when it came to political ideals, he was very different.

Unlike the Ottomans, Atatürk valued individual freedom and understood the vital role it played in the progress of the West, and he also had a profound appreciation of a fundamental fact that Turkey’s would-be tutors in the EU and the U.S. have yet to grasp. He knew that true freedom can never exist in an Islamic state, and so he laid the essential foundation for freedom to develop and grow by making Turkey a strictly and uncompromisingly secular republic. And, because he understood the inevitability of backsliding attempts to restore stultifying Sharia law after he was gone, he did something that horrifies effete European and American bureaucrats today.

He created a modern, elective republic based on universal suffrage — Turkish women got the vote in 1930, only a few years after American women did. But when it came to safeguarding the secular foundation of his republic, Atatürk bypassed the politicians and lawyers, and made his brothers in the professional Turkish military its permanent guardians. In all the years since Atatürk’s death in 1938, Turkey’s military officers have embraced that duty as a sacred trust, functioning like secular gazis, issuing warnings to governments that violated the strictures against any role for Islam in the state. Most Turkish governments heeded those warnings. The few that did not were unseated, and replaced with newly elected civilian governments.

In April of 2007, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the general staff, issued such warnings, but, for the first time in the history of modern Turkey — and thanks largely to the aggressive intervention of the EU — they failed to have the desired effect. Instead, the AKP counterattacked in June of that year, launching a legal offensive against the alleged Ergenekon — a supposed vast conspiracy made up of its secular opponents. This offensive grows more destructive and less credible with each passing year.

Western wishful thinking and Eastern taqqiya (lying for Islam) aside, there is no legitimate room for doubt that Turkey today is an Islamist state, hostile to America, Israel, and the free world in general. The only question is whether this terrible loss, for us and for the people of Turkey, will be a permanent one, or whether the Turkish people will somehow rise up to restore some of the powerful, purely Turkish traditions that made their country unique for so long.

There are some grounds for hope. The Turkish people did not elect the AKP in 2002 because they had a sudden overwhelming urge for an Islamist government. That election was a throw-the-bums-out election; the Turkish people were reacting to a succession of corrupt and incompetent civilian governments that had left the country in poor financial shape. The AKP was the new kid on the block, and Erdogan and his men denied charges that they were an anti-Western party by loudly proclaiming their commitment to joining the EU. Still, the AKP got only 34.2 percent of the popular vote in 2002. With an improving economy — thanks in part to large infusions of Arab oil money — it managed to up that to 46.6 percent in 2007. In the March 2009 municipal elections, however, it fell back to 39 percent.

In our press, all these elections are routinely described as AKP “landslides,” and in terms of the political power they gave the AKP, they were. But it remains a fact that the AKP has never yet won the votes of a majority of Turks in any election. The next elections are expected in July 2011. The main opposition party, the CHP (Republican People’s Party), has a new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who seems to be doing a better job of appealing to his fellow Turks than his predecessor. Knowledgeable observers like Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, think he has a chance.

I sincerely hope that Cagaptay is right, but I fear that without a dramatic change in Turkish attitudes to the EU, and in America’s approach to Turkey, the odds are not good. I worry, first, because the Turkish military seems to have been rendered impotent to fulfill its secular duty by its fear of killing Turkey’s slim-to-none chance of joining the EU. I worry, second, because the AKP has had almost eight years to consolidate its power by infiltrating all of Turkey’s secular institutions — including even the military itself — with its Islamist followers. I worry, third, because AKP-allied media and Turkey’s state-owned Radio and Television Corporation have deluged the Turkish public — its large youth population especially — with venomous anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda. The widely watched TV series and movie Valley of the Wolves — which portrays cowardly American soldiers gleefully massacring civilians, and ghoulish Israeli doctors stealing and selling their organs — is only the best known of many extreme examples. And, fourth, I worry because a confused, deluded, and self-enervated Western world has done nothing but appease the AKP, failing to make Turkey’s Islamists pay any price for their repeated acts of extreme hostility to our legitimate and vital security interests.

In 2007, I argued that Turkey would be better off if its pro-Western secularists, in civilian life and in the military, rejected the EU and its bad ideas as strongly as they have always rejected those of the Islamists. Rejecting the goal of EU membership need not mean rejecting Europe, let alone the West.

Turkey’s venerable tradition of appraising European ideas, and adopting and Turkifying those it judges best, should never change. The problem with EU membership is that it takes away all choice, discrimination, and selectivity; it’s a great big take-it-or-leave-it, one-size-fits-all basket of ideas, some good, many tedious, and some truly destructive. Rejecting that kind of wholesale cultural and political imposition isn’t anti-Western; it’s quintessentially Turkish.

I believe that growing numbers of Turks want to express that quintessential Turkishness by saying no to both the EU and the AKP, and going back to choosing the best and discarding the rest. The AKP finds it easy to turn out thousands of jeering demonstrators for its anti-Western manufactured-grievance rallies, but, so far as I’ve been able to determine, it has yet to rally anything like the millions who marched in huge, peaceful demonstrations against the AKP and for a secular Turkey in April and May of 2007.

If, tomorrow, Turkish secularists were to mount new demonstrations that big or bigger, this time saying no to the EU as well as the AKP, and adding a big new no to the intimidating power of the Ergenekon hammer, the odds in favor of positive change in Turkey would begin to look up. If the Turkish military made it clear that it could and would fully protect secular demonstrators, the odds would be better still. And if America made it clear that an Islamist Turkey cannot hope to retain its membership in NATO, then, I think, the odds for a rebirth of Atatürk’s Turkey would rise dramatically. But until those events, or something like them, come together, I can only watch in profound sorrow as a once great friend and ally — a friend and ally that most Americans never really knew — deteriorates into just another despotic Muslim state.

— Barbara Lerner is a frequent contributor to NRO.


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