Politics & Policy

What’s Happening in Turkey?

Taksim Square in Istanbul, June 11.
And how will it end?

Barry Rubin is a commentator National Review Online often checks in with when there are eruptions around the world, particularly in and around the Middle East. He is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Israel, and author of, among others, The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement. He talks to NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Are the protests in Turkey more Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street? 

BARRY RUBIN: The idea that this is some far-Left thing is a slander by Islamists. Those involved include a wide front of social democrats, liberals, and conservatives — usually called center-right in Turkey — and all sorts of people who are tired of a ten-year-long march toward Islamism. This is the kind of thing we should be supporting. Instead, unfortunately, the Obama administration is on the side of the democratically elected dictator, so to speak. 

#ad#LOPEZ: What is this exposing about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan? 

RUBIN: His vicious, oppressive side. He’s the man who said that democracy was like a streetcar and you just decide where to get off. He has intimidated the once-free media, harassed the courts, and supported Iran and terrorist groups abroad. This week he was busy trying to destroy the Turkish republican tradition of beer drinking. He is trying to undo 70 years of social progress in Turkey.

LOPEZ: Do words like dictator and tyranny overdramatize the situation?

RUBIN: The Western mass media have not covered what’s been going on in Turkey during the last decade. Listen to what millions of Turks say. The media-economic power of the regime is incredible. There are many anecdotes: a television journalist practically trembling while talking to me about repression in his office; the billing of a newspaper for hundreds of millions of alleged tax debts unless it toed the regime line; the women who fear to walk through Istanbul neighborhoods unless dressed in Turkish-style “Islamic garb”; the anti-American propaganda; the knowledge of government officials that you will be promoted faster if your wife wears a headscarf; the thousands of political prisoners; the Jewish family firm told that, after almost a century of providing equipment to the government, they shouldn’t bother to put in bids any more; the anti-Semitic website that, behind the scenes, was sponsored by the ministry of education; a retired general sentenced to a year in prison for telling a villager that the government had betrayed the country. A lot of the truth was reported by the U.S. embassy, as we can see in the Wikileaks.

LOPEZ: Is there any chance of this ending well? 

RUBIN: I don’t think so. The army is finished; opposition politicians are fools at worst and incompetents at best. Maybe these demonstrations will mobilize a new opposition. Maybe it will make the ruling AKP go slower, or maybe it will become more openly oppressive. Moderates and pro-Western forces in Turkey know they cannot depend on accurate media reporting or Western assistance.

#page#LOPEZ: Fools? Could you be more pessimistic?

RUBIN: That is the way a lot of Turks speak. The current demonstrations are the first sign of hope. The main opposition is the historic Ataturk party. I was in Istanbul in the last election and heard on television the speech of that party’s leader after that party’s defeat. He said they lost because the voters were stupid. The current leader raised hopes but wasn’t able to deliver.

#ad#LOPEZ: How is this important in the context of the Middle East? 

RUBIN: Not at all, really, in terms of the larger picture. This is not changing international issues.

LOPEZ: But isn’t Turkey supposed to be a model secular state in the Islamic world?

RUBIN: It was in the republican, Ataturk era, but that is long gone. A lot of people have an outdated view of Turkey. 

LOPEZ: What might this mean for the future of Turkey? 

RUBIN: Probably nothing. Either slower or faster, Islamization is still Islamization. There is little or no chance of getting rid of Erdogan or of Obama changing policy. There has been much discussion of whether the Turkish economy will continue to do well or will crash. So far it has done acceptably and that helped to keep Erdogan popular.

LOPEZ: What if the White House were to reconsider? What would be a helpful policy?

RUBIN: There are people in the State Department who are very unhappy with what’s been happening in Turkey, as you can see in the embassy reporting. There were high-ranking officials who wanted Obama to take a tougher line toward Erdogan, breaking away from his pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy in Syria. Up to now, U.S. Syrian policy has been made in Turkey. But Obama kept to his pro-Erdogan line. The government renewed the exceptions to Iranian sanctions for Turkey. If Erdogan goes to Gaza, it will really throw a pie in Obama’s face — and show that he has no respect for U.S. interests. Note that Erdogan has disregarded the supposed détente with Israel and broke all his commitments despite the fact that these were made as direct promises to Obama! But he paid nothing for this behavior.

LOPEZ: Can the U.S. be of any help in Syria, as Obama–administration officials — and John McCain — meet with some leaders of the opposition to Assad? 

RUBIN: This is a big question. Remember that the Obama administration courted the Bashar Assad dictatorship until it had to change course because of the rebellion. Then it backed the Muslim Brotherhood — this is easy to document — and was soft on the Salafist radicals. Now they have awoken too late, trying to find non-Islamist moderates. Just as in Turkey, the Brotherhood types in Syria refuse to be flexible or to listen to the United States, but they still get the goodies. McCain understands nothing. He meets with the Free Syrian Army, which probably is less than 5 percent of the armed rebels. The civil war will go on for years, wreck Syria, kill tens of thousands of people, create two repressive regimes, and be a big strategic mess. I prefer the rebels to Assad, but the margin isn’t huge. This is a tragedy; it has become like the Iran–Iraq war. Neither side is good for U.S. interests, and when it does finally end, watch out for more instability. The whole problem has involved so much Western wishful thinking. Every time I’m interviewed by Western journalists, they claim that these radical Islamist regimes will inevitably become moderate, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

LOPEZ: What do the National Security Agency surveillance leaks — Edward Snowden on the run — look like to you, from afar? 

RUBIN: This is not the way to handle a counterterrorist policy. It really looks as if terrorism is an excuse for gathering information on U.S. citizens. This NSA approach is like the TSA approach to airport security: Pretend that everyone needs surveillance rather than using profiles to focus on the likely threats. 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at large of National Review Online.

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