Turkey at the Crossroads

Stephen DeAngelis

July 02, 2010

Turkey, as everyone knows, straddles two continents. It has played an historic role in both Christian and Muslim religions. And, for much of the past hundred years, Turkey has been looking for its place in the world. Sometimes it has been too Middle Eastern for European tastes and sometimes it has been too European for Middle Eastern tastes. Only recently has the country come to appreciate the valuable position it occupies geographically, politically, and culturally. Because of its increasingly influential position, Turkey is making more global headlines. As it pursues a leadership position in the world, it has shown a willingness to take stands that make others nervous (like befriending Israel in the past and more recently siding with Iran against the West). In two fairly recent columns, Thomas Friedman provided his take on Turkey’s current status [“Letter from Turkey,” New York Times, 15 June 2010, and “Letter from Turkey, Part 2, New York Times, 18 June 2010]. In his first “letter,” he writes:

“Turkey is a country that had me at hello. I like the people, the culture, the food and, most of all, the idea of modern Turkey — the idea of a country at the hinge of Europe and the Middle East that manages to be at once modern, secular, Muslim, democratic, and has good relations with the Arabs, Israel and the West. After 9/11, I was among those hailing the Turkish model as the antidote to ‘Bin Ladenism.’ Indeed, the last time I visited Turkey in 2005, my discussions with officials were all about Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. That is why it is quite shocking to come back today and find Turkey’s Islamist government seemingly focused not on joining the European Union but the Arab League — no, scratch that, on joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel. Now how did that happen?”

There is little doubt that the more Turkey leans away from secularism and towards an Islamic state, the more nervous it will make Western countries. Friedman admits that his characterization of Turkey as a member of the “Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel” is a bit of an exaggeration, but he doesn’t think it is much of one. He continues:

“A series of vacuums that emerged in and around Turkey in the last few years have drawn Turkey’s Islamist government — led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party — away from its balance point between East and West. This could have enormous implications. Turkey’s balancing role has been one of the most important, quiet, stabilizers in world politics. You only notice it when it is gone. Being in Istanbul convinces me that we could be on our way to losing it if all these vacuums get filled in the wrong ways. The first vacuum comes courtesy of the European Union. After a decade of telling the Turks that if they wanted E.U. membership they had to reform their laws, economy, minority rights and civilian-military relations — which the Erdogan government systematically did — the E.U. leadership has now said to Turkey: ‘Oh, you mean nobody told you? We’re a Christian club. No Muslims allowed.’ The E.U.’s rejection of Turkey, a hugely bad move, has been a key factor prompting Turkey to move closer to Iran and the Arab world. But as Turkey started looking more South, it found another vacuum — no leadership in the Arab-Muslim world. Egypt is adrift. Saudi Arabia is asleep. Syria is too small. And Iraq is too fragile. Erdogan discovered that by taking a very hard line against Israel’s partial blockade of Hamas-led Gaza — and quietly supporting the Turkish-led flotilla to break that blockade, during which eight Turks were killed by Israel — Turkey could vastly increase its influence on the Arab street and in the Arab markets. Indeed, Erdogan today is the most popular leader in the Arab world. Unfortunately, it is not because he is promoting a synthesis of democracy, modernity and Islam, but because he is loudly bashing Israel over its occupation and praising Hamas instead of the more responsible Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which is actually building the foundations of a Palestinian state.”

I agree that the European Union’s persistent snub of Turkey has been one reason that Turkey decided to look eastward for a better future rather than to the west. With all of the economic turmoil currently found in the EU, especially the debt crisis facing its longtime adversary Greece, Turkey must surely be feeling a bit superior nowadays. But, as Friedman implies, there are dangers in the direction that Turkish leaders are moving. What the Middle East needs at the moment is real leadership and only a secular Turkey can provide the type of leadership that is needed. If Turkey’s politics foster a climate in which radical Islamist groups flourish, then the country’s future as well as the rest of the Middle East’s is in jeopardy. Friedman continues:

“It is very troubling when Erdogan decries Israelis as killers and, at the same time, warmly receives in Ankara Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the bloodshed in Darfur, and while politely hosting Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose government killed and jailed thousands of Iranians demanding that their votes be counted. Erdogan defended his reception of Bashir by saying: ‘It’s not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide.’ As one Turkish foreign policy analyst said to me: ‘We are not mediating between East and West anymore. We’ve become spokesmen for the most regressive elements in the East.'”

Erdogan’s statement about genocide is particularly troubling considering the growing violence between the Turks and Kurds — a subject to which I will return. Friedman discusses one final vacuum found inside Turkey.

“Secular opposition parties have been in disarray most of the decade, the army has been cowed by wiretaps and the press has been increasingly intimidated into self-censorship because of government pressures. In September, the Erdogan government levied a tax fine of $2.5 billion on the largest, most influential — and most critical — media conglomerate, Dogan Holdings, to bring it to heel. At the same time, Erdogan lately has spoken with increasing vitriol about Israel in his public speeches — describing Israelis as killers — to build up his domestic support. He regularly labels his critics as ‘Israel’s contractors’ and ‘Tel Aviv’s lawyers.’ Sad. Erdogan is smart, charismatic and can be very pragmatic. He’s no dictator. I’d love to see him be the most popular leader on the Arab street, but not by being more radical than the Arab radicals and by catering to Hamas, but by being more of a democracy advocate than the undemocratic Arab leaders and mediating in a balanced way between all Palestinians and Israel. That is not where Erdogan is at, though, and it’s troubling.”

I agree that Turkey’s current course is troubling. It is not, however, entirely inexplicable. The European Union is in economic turmoil and may be so for some time. Oil rich nations of the Middle East, however, still have a couple of decades at least of being able to cash in on their petroleum resources. Turkey would like to get in front of some of that money. Becoming more Islamic will help them do that. Unfortunately, the quickest way to build bridges in the Middle East is to demonstrate a distrust of (if not hatred for) Israel.

Another reason that Turkey is looking eastward is that overtures to Kurdish rebels have been rebuked and the Turkish Government looks more set than ever to wipe out the rebels regardless of the consequences [“Turks and Kurdish Rebels Clash After Raid on Post,” by Sebnem Arsu, New York Times, 19 June 2010]. Last September, I was hopeful that the Turks and the Kurds had turned the corner towards peace and that good things would follow (see my post entitled Update on Turkey and the Kurds). I wrote: “As the world begins to emerge from this latest recession, a season of hope is dawning in emerging market countries. For Turkey to enjoy fully the benefits of that future, it needs to honorably settle the conflict that has raged for far too long with the Kurds. Getting the PKK out of the hills of northern Iraq would certainly make life easier for both the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. It would be one step further down the path to prosperity for both Iraq and Turkey.” Unfortunately, things have gotten worse not better. Continued conflict in eastern Turkey is not good for either the Turks or the Kurds. Since Iraq, Iran, and Syria also have large Kurdish populations they want to control, it should surprise no one that Turkey is reaching out to build bridges with those countries. According to Friedman’s second column, there are a number of Turks who believe that Israel is behind Kurdish attacks on Turkish forces. He calls that “an insane notion” and I tend to agree. Hostilities between the Kurds and the Turks have nothing to do with Israel. In fact, I suspect that most Israelis are sympathetic to Turkish forces being attacked by insurgents. But as noted above, blaming Israel for everything is good politics in the Middle East.

Friedman goes on to discuss three other issues that affect Turkey’s future: first, Turkey’s place in the world; second, Turkey’s movement away from secular, democratic ideals; and, third, Turkey’s long-term relationship with the United States. On the first subject, he writes:

“The rise of Turkey … is actually a wonderful story. The Turks wanted to get into the European Union and were rebuffed, but I’m not sure Turkish businessmen even care today. The E.U. feels dead next to Turkey, which last year was right behind India and China among the fastest-growing economies in the world — just under 7 percent — and was the fastest-growing economy in Europe. Americans have tended to look at Turkey as a bridge or a base — either a cultural bridge that connects the West and the Muslim world, or as our base (Incirlik Air Base) that serves as the main U.S. supply hub for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Turks see themselves differently. ‘Turkey is not a bridge. It’s a center,’ explained Muzaffer Senel, an international relations researcher at Istanbul Sehir University. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey has become the center of its own economic space, stretching from southern Russia, all through the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and down through Iraq, Syria, Iran and the Middle East. All you have to do is stand in the Istanbul airport and look at the departures board for Turkish Airlines, which flies to cities half of which I cannot even pronounce, to appreciate what a pulsating economic center this has become for Central Asia. I met Turkish businessmen who were running hotel chains in Moscow, banks in Bosnia and Greece, road-building projects in Iraq and huge trading operations with Iran and Syria. In 1980, Turkey’s total exports were worth $3 billion. In 2008, they were $132 billion. There are now 250 industrial zones throughout Anatolia. Turkey’s cellphone users have gone from virtually none in the 1990s to 64 million in 2008. So Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees himself as the leader of a rising economic powerhouse of 70 million people who is entitled to play an independent geopolitical role — hence his U.N. vote against sanctioning Iran.”

In several past posts, I have noted that Turkey has a bright economic future. I hope that it is not squandering that future by making poor political choices. Friedman suspects that Erdogan’s political choices could derail Turkey’s future. He writes:

“How Turkey rises really matters — and Erdogan definitely has some troubling Hugo Chávez-Vladimir Putin tendencies. I’ve never visited a democracy where more people whom I interviewed asked me not to quote them by name for fear of retribution by Erdogan’s circle — in the form of lawsuits, tax investigations or being shut out of government contracts. The media here is rampantly self-censored.”

Like any emerging market country, Turkey needs foreign direct investment. No Turk in his or her right mind should want the Turkish government to fritter away Turkey’s future the way that Chávez has frittered away Venezuela’s future. What about future US/Turk relations? Friedman concludes:

“Is there anything the U.S. can do? My advice: Avoid a public confrontation that Erdogan can exploit to build more support, draw U.S. redlines in private and let Turkish democrats take the lead. Turkey is full of energy and hormones, and is trying to figure out its new identity. There is an inner struggle over that identity, between those who would like to see Turkey more aligned with the Islamic world and values and those who want it to remain more secular, Western and pluralistic. Who defines Turkey will determine a lot about whether we end up in a war of civilizations. We need to be involved but proceed delicately. This struggle is for Turks, and they are on it. Only two weeks before the Gaza flotilla incident, a leading poll showed Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., trailing his main opposition — the secularist Republican People’s Party — for the first time since the A.K.P. came to office in 2002. That is surely one reason Erdogan openly took sides with one of the most radical forces in the region, Hamas — to re-energize his political base. But did he overplay his hand? Up to now, Erdogan has been very cunning, treating his opponents like frogs in a pail, always just gradually turning up the heat so they never quite knew they were boiling. But now they know. The secular and moderate Muslim forces in Turkey are alarmed; the moderate Arab regimes are alarmed; the Americans are alarmed. The fight for Turkey’s soul is about to be joined in a much more vigorous way.”

One promising sign that moderates may yet win the day in Turkey comes from the entertainment rather than political sector. Turkish television is influencing the rest of the Islamic world in subtle ways [“Turks Put Twist in Racy Soaps,” by Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, 17 June 2010]. Kimmelman reports:

“A wave of Turkish melodramas, police procedurals and conspiracy thrillers … are making their way onto Arab televisions, wielding a kind of soft power. Through the small screen, Turkey has begun to exercise a big influence at Arab dinner tables, in boardrooms and bedrooms from Morocco to Iraq of a sort that the United States can only dream about. Turkey’s cultural exports, not coincidentally, have also advanced its political ambitions as it asserts itself on that front, too, sending a flotilla to Gaza, defying the United States over sanctions on Iran, talking tough to its onetime ally, Israel, and giving Kemal Ataturk’s constitutionally secular state an Islamic tinge. Politics and culture go hand in hand, here as elsewhere. If most Arabs watch Turkish shows to ogle beautiful people in exotic locales, Arab women have also made clear their particular admiration for the rags-to-riches story of the title character in ‘Noor,’ a strong, business-savvy woman with a doting husband named Muhannad. Dr. Shafira Alghamdi, a Saudi pediatrician, was on vacation here the other day, shopping with two Saudi friends, and volunteered how Arab husbands often ignore their wives, while on ‘Noor,’ within what remains to Arabs a familiar context of arranged marriages, respect for elders and big families living together, Noor and Muhannad openly love and admire each other.”

Increasing women’s rights and economic development go hand-in-hand. Increasing women’s rights also make it more difficult for religious extremists to control political agendas. Religious extremists know this and have issued fatwas, i.e., religious edicts, “calling for the murder of the soap’s distributors.” My colleague Tom Barnett asserts that the purpose of such fatwas are to “keep women down and men stupid, with religion filling the gaps.” You don’t have to be a fan of soap operas to appreciate the crucial social change they may be bringing about. Kimmelman notes that the rise of soaps isn’t “a triumph of Western values by proxy”; rather, it is the triumph of regionalisation. He concludes:

“As Sina Kologlu, the television critic for Milliyet, a Turkish daily, phrased it the other day: ‘U.S. cultural imperialism is finished. Years ago we took reruns of “Dallas” and “The Young and the Restless.” Now Turkish screenwriters have learned to adapt these shows to local themes with Muslim storylines, Turkish production values have improved, and Asians and Eastern Europeans are buying Turkish series, not American or Brazilian or Mexican ones. They get the same cheating and the children out of wedlock and the incestuous affairs but with a Turkish sauce on top.’ … Ali Demirhan, a Turkish construction executive, [asserts] … ‘In the same way American culture changed our society, we’re changing Arab society.'”

Turkey will only secure its leadership role in the region if its follows a path of secular moderation. It’s not clear that Turkey is currently on that path to leadership. Hopefully, it will make whatever course corrections are necessary to reach its economic, political, and cultural potential. That course will likely continue to make friends (both east and west) uncomfortable on occasion; but, that is what leadership is all about.