Is Turkey Lost?
Until very recently, Turkey was everything an American would want a place in the Middle East or East Asia to be: an ally of the United States; a member of NATO; a quasi-democracy, enlivened by occasional military coups aimed not at disposing of but rather at reinforcing democratic rule; a country with a booming (if chaotic) economy and a vibrant civil society; and, last but not least, a country both Muslim and modern, enjoying a secular constitution and confident enough to maintain a friendly relationship with Israel.
These considerable achievements were compensated in kind. Throughout the cold war, the United States provided for the core of Turkey’s national security and welfare. More recently, both the U.S. government and influential Americans of every stripe lobbied for Turkey’s accession to the European Union, despite much European resistance.
Now, however, the romance looks over. If one were to name a single turning point, it would be the sweeping electoral victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) in late 2002. Overnight, the most marginal group in Turkish politics, people with very limited experience in international affairs, scant knowledge of English, and very little understanding of or sympathy for the West—people, moreover, displaying an alarming affinity for Islamist fundamentalism—had been placed in charge. Or so it seemed.
To any outside observer, it was clear that the turning point was soon translated into harsh facts. Turkey did not support the Iraq war in 2003. Nor did it support the American-French intiative to restore an independent Lebanon after 2004. Nor, at least at first, did it share Western concerns over a nuclearized Iran. Turkey’s relations with Israel also began to erode.
Finally, Turkey undertook a reassessment of its European ambitions. Having finally secured EU approval of their country’s candidacy for membership, Prime Minister Erdogan and his foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, proceeded to warn the Europeans that Turkey would not forever make adjustments and concessions to EU demands on matters like human rights or the status of Cyprus. Some foreign-policy intellectuals began to float alternatives to EU membership, including an alignment with the oil-rich Arab states, or with Russia, China, India, South Africa, and Latin America, or with the “emerging Islamic Far East,” that is, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Even more telling has been the rise of a rabid anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian mood within every level of Turkish society. The first sign of this was the official treatment of Eric Edelman, the U.S. ambassador to Ankara from 2003 to 2005. Both Erdogan and Gül kept him at bay throughout his tenure. The press, both Right and Left, both Islamic and secular, reveled in Edelman-baiting. A columnist for The New Dawn, a pro-AKP newspaper, accused him, absurdly, of behaving like a “colonial governor.” In Hürriyet, a leading secular paper, a columnist wrote that “If Turkey happens today to be one of the foremost America-hating countries, it is mostly because of him.”
After eighteen months, Edelman resigned. But anti-Americanism hardly abated. In 2005, a sensationalist novel, Metal Storm, featured characters drawn from real life—George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, etc.—and a plot set in the near future that was sheer paranoia: a surprise American invasion of Turkey complete with the bombing of Anit Kabir, the majestic mausoleum in Ankara of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey. The book sold heavily—450,000 copies in less than a year.
Hard on the heels of Metal Storm came a movie: Valley of the Wolves, Iraq. Taking off from a popular TV serial, it depicted the U.S. presence in Iraq as a nightmare of brutality. According to the movie, the U.S. was engaging in mass murder and then trafficking in the victims’ organs. Much of the action was devoted to a supposed joint American-Kurdish operation to “cleanse” northern Iraq of its Turkmen (i.e., Turkish) minority. If Metal Storm was a best-seller, Valley of the Wolves could be the Turkish film industry’s biggest commercial success ever.
Then there is anti-Semitism. Kavgam, a Turkish translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, was published at about the same time as Metal Storm. Almost two years ago, as I and other European and American visitors saw on a fact-finding trip sponsored by the Nixon Center, it was on prominent display in airports, shopping malls, academic bookstores, at the archeological museum in Ankara—everywhere. And Kavgam is hardly the only example of the new anti-Semitism in the Turkish media. The worst character in Valley of the Wolves is an American Jewish doctor who supervises organ traffic from Iraq to the United States and Israel. Another recent best-seller is a book called Hitler’s Leadership Qualities. Turkish newspapers are rife with anti-Jewish innuendo and worse.
No less salient is anti-Christian prejudice. Both Metal Storm and Valley of the Wolves “explain” alleged American designs on the Turkish people as part of a Christian crusade to convert Muslims or to restore Istanbul to its former status as Constantinople, the Byzantine metropolis. The Turkish government has sought to curtail the missionary activities of American Protestant organizations, and last year a Roman Catholic priest from Italy was shot in Trabzon in the wake of the controversy over the publication of the “Muhammad cartoons” in a Danish newspaper. When Pope Benedict XVI visited Istanbul in late November, the press indulged in an orgy of verbal abuse.
The American analyst Zeyno Baran, who led the Nixon Center tour in 2005, published her reflections on Turkey’s mounting xenophobia and enmity toward the West in the National Interest. In the Istanbul theater where she watched Valley of the Wolves, she writes,
I was wondering what the young men sitting in the row behind me must be thinking. There were seven of them, ranging in age from fifteen to eighteen. With their formative years shaped by the Iraq war, Metal Storm, and now this film, they and other members of their generation are beginning to believe that the portrayal of the Americans on screen is reflective of American society as a whole.
Baran asks whether the “paranoid fears” propagated by works like these will not “be reflected in government policy sooner than anyone might think.” There is another way to pose the question—namely, is the new mood a cause, or rather a consequence, of government policy? Or is the whole picture much more complex—and, possibly, more promising—than either of these propositions suggests? To grasp the main currents and cross-currents roiling contemporary Turkey, some history is in order.
The modern Turkish state was created by one of the most extraordinary men of the 20th century, Mustafa Kemal. Old Turkey, also known as the Ottoman empire, had been collapsing for decades. The final blow came in the wake of World War I, when the Sèvres treaty of 1919 reduced the empire to the environs of Constantinople and some parts of Anatolia to the East.
Kemal, who had been the most effective Ottoman general in the war—it was he who defeated the British at Gallipoli—rallied the Turkish population against both the treaty and the sultan who had signed it. In less than five years, he managed to set up a new army; crush the royal Greek forces who had ventured into Ionia and northwestern Anatolia; convince the British, French, and Italians to withdraw; and win a new peace treaty at Lausanne that restored a sizable Turkish state on both sides of the Sea of Marmara and eastward over all of Anatolia.
Even more importantly, Kemal transformed a hitherto multiethnic and multireligious country into an almost monoethnic, Islamic one. He accomplished this by “trading” 1.5 million Christian Greeks, the largest minority still to be found in Anatolia, for a parallel transfer of the few hundred thousand Turks still living in continental Greece. (The large Armenian population of Anatolia had been murdered or driven away earlier, in 1915, when the imperial Ottoman government was still in charge.)
Kemal then embarked on a drastic exercise in social engineering, recasting the country he had salvaged into a Western nation-state, the Turkish republic. He abolished the sultanate in 1923 and then the caliphate in 1924. Over the next five years, the new government was secularized; the Anatolian city of Ankara replaced Constantinople as the capital; traditional Arabic writing, clearly impractical for the Turkish tongue, was replaced by a Latin phonetic alphabet; European dress was made compulsory; women were emancipated; and “brotherhoods,” the backbone of Islam as a social force, were banned. In 1935, by a unanimous vote of parliament, he was anointed Atatürk, “father of the Turks.”
Most of the country had supported Kemal as a charismatic military leader or “holy raider”—a Gazi, in Turkish parlance, from the title bestowed upon the earliest Ottoman sultans in the Middle Ages—against the Western invaders. Very few resisted actively as he overhauled their way of life and enforced modernization from above. And yet, most Turks would have settled for a much less radical process of Westernization. Some secretly prepared to revert to a more traditional way of life at the first opportunity. Morevover, this passive resistance to Kemalism dovetailed with a longstanding geographic and social divide.
From the 14th to the early 20th century, Ottoman Turkey had been a polity with two separate centers of gravity. On the one hand, there was the Balkan peninsula, known as European Turkey or Rumelia (“the Land of the Romans”). On the other hand, there was Anatolia, or Asiatic Turkey. Rumelia, the cradle of the imperial elite, was rich, sophisticated, ethnically half-European; two-thirds of its population was neither Turkish nor Muslim. Anatolia, which provided the bulk of the imperial armies, was poor, backward, and Eastern, with a largely Turkish and Islamic population.
As long as the empire as a whole remained militarily formidable, the demographic imbalance in Rumelia could be largely ignored. But once the Ottomans lost their military edge, by the beginning of the 19th century, a very different situation emerged: large parts of Rumelia were progressively chopped away to become autonomous and then independent Christian states, with the Turks or other Muslims forced into what remained of Rumelia or into Anatolia and beyond. Finally, in 1912, a short, bitter war between the new Christian nations and the Ottoman empire wiped Rumelia off the map (except for Constantinople and Andrinople). Legendary Ottoman cities like Salonica, Üsküb, and Monastir (now Thessaloniki, Skopje, and Bitola) were overrun. The remaining Turkish gentry and upper class were forced to flee, while Turkish peasants were given four years to accept a debased minority status or sell their property and leave; most left.
The Jews, a sizable minority in Rumelia, were hit too. In the late Ottoman period, they had enjoyed support as the only loyal non-Muslim community in the Western part of the empire, and especially in Salonica. Now they were at the mercy of Christian Orthodox governments that (with the exception of Bulgaria) were largely anti-Semitic: many upper-class Jewish families fled to Constantinople, just like their Muslim peers. There was also a very active and influential community of Sabbateans or Dönme, who combined an outwardly Turkish-Muslim identity with crypto-Jewish traditions. It, too, had to go.
All in all, several hundred thousand refugees flooded Constantinople and the largest cities of Anatolia on the eve of World War I. They were an elite group. In the prevalent chaos, they were also the only ones with a clear political project. From their own tragic fate, they had learned that in order to survive, the Turkish people had to Europeanize in full and, for the first time in their history, become ethnically and even racially exclusive. And they believed this should be achieved at any cost, including revolution and coup d’état.
The first radical Rumelians to seize power were the “three pashas” (generals): Ismail Enver Pasha, who as minister of defense in the Ottoman empire had helped turn Turkey into a Germanic protectorate on the eve of World War I; Mehmet Talat Pasha, minister of the interior from 1913 to 1917 and then grand vizier; and Ahmet Cemal Pasha, a ruthless and quite effective warrior. All of them believed the Turkish race was essentially European—if not Aryan—and thus destined to effectuate a final synthesis between Islam and European civilization. They also believed that the Great War was a God-given opportunity to rebuild Turkey as a “Panturkic” empire: a homogeneous entity reuniting the western Turks of Anatolia with their more distant brethren of the Caucasus, the Volga, and Central Asia.
One wonders where these policies—which explain in part the tragedy that befell the Ottoman Armenians—would have led had the Central powers prevailed in 1918. What happened instead was a further decline in Turkey’s fortunes and the second Rumelian dictatorship—the one to last, the one led by Mustafa Kemal.
The Gazi was born in Salonica, the very capital of Rumelia. He was a pasha, but his background was different from that of the others. For one thing, it has been long thought that his family was linked either to the Dönme or to the Bogomils, a Manichean group who had nominally converted to Islam in the 15th century while retaining much of their old faith. (At his school in Salonica, almost all the pupils were Dönme or Jews.) For another thing, he preferred France over Germany, and French secular rationalism over German romantic vitalism. Once the master of Turkey, he showed no patience either for the Islamic heritage or for pan-Turkish daydreaming.
In Atatürk’s new nation, the Rumelians and those who wished to identify themselves with them were represented by the Republican People’s party (CHP), the one and only legal political group in the country. Any activists brazen enough to enter into real dissent or to express the cultural and religious aspirations of the Anatolian populace at large were dealt with by the national gendarmerie or the political police. As for the economy, the bulk of it was either seized by state trusts or put under direct state control. These new state assets were quickly allocated to managers who happened to be CHP members—and Rumelians. “For the people, in spite of the people,” Rumelians and quasi-Rumelians used to say half-smilingly. The real meaning of this motto was: for Anatolia (the new Turkish homeland), without and in spite of the Anatolians.
While Kemal himself remained above explicit criticism (like most “good” dictators, he was shrewd enough to chastise his own followers from time to time), there was a lot of popular resentment, if not hatred, directed toward the CHP regime. Some Turks clearly regarded it as a kind of foreign occupation. Others saw it as an “oppressor regime” (zalim) that preyed on the oppressed and downtrodden.
Kemal passed away in Istanbul on November 10, 1938. He died of cirrhosis: heavy drinking and womanizing had been his private vices or safety valves. His successor was Ismet Inönü, a Smyrna-born pasha with a Rumelian background who had been, among other things, his very loyal and effective prime minister. The CHP nation-state was now quickly transformed into a near-fascist system. With Atatürk posthumously given the title of Eternal Leader and turned into a semi-god, Inönü was made party leader for life.
Plans were drawn up to redesign Ankara as a Mussolini-style capital, with Atatürk’s mausoleum at its center. The old racial and pan-Turkic element in Turkish nationalism, strong under the three pashas but downplayed by Kemal, was now revived with a vengeance. Discriminatory measures were passed against non-Muslim minorities, including a 1942 capital tax targeting Jews specifically. (Many, unable to pay, were sent to labor camps in the East.)
It went on like that for most of World War II. Then Inönü, who had hitherto kept his country strictly neutral, initiated an effort at rapprochement with the Western democracies. This culminated a few years later in Turkey’s entry into NATO and the Council of Europe and a turnabout in the country’s political and ideological profile. Blatantly fascist or racist aspects of the regime were dropped, an internal purge disposed of the most pro-fascist elements in the armed forces and the civil service, and steps were taken toward a multiparty democracy. In 1950, free elections were held in which the opposition Democratic party (DP) won 53 percent of the popular vote and 408 out of the 487 seats in the national assembly. Inönü resigned.
In practical terms, the Democrats were the party of Anatolia, and their agenda was to reclaim the country for the Muslim Anatolian majority, restore some aspects of the traditional way of life, and reallocate wealth from the statist elite to the ordinary bourgeoisie and even the peasants. In no small measure this succeeded, despite the fact that the Democrats’ tenure ended in 1960 in a pro-CHP military coup and the hanging of DP Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and some of his ministers.
Over the following half-century or so, from the mid-1960’s to the 2000’s, Turkish life has constituted a never-ending reenactment of both the trends and the tensions of the DP era. In the course of this drama, the DP’s heirs have constantly offset their CHP or post-CHP rivals, up to and including the crushing victory of Erdogan’s AKP in 2002.
Demographics has played a key role in these developments. The rural areas of central and eastern Anatolia had enjoyed strong growth under Atatürk and Inönü, and were primarily responsible for the rise in the Turkish population from 14 million in 1923 to 21 million by 1950. Since then, the overall population has more than tripled to 70 million, with most of the growth occurring in the rural areas or among first-generation rural migrants to the big cities. As a consequence, the political heirs of the Democrats—they include Süleyman Demirel’s Justice party in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, Turgut Özal’s conservative Motherland party in the 1980’s, and finally the Islamists—have enjoyed an ever-growing edge over the old CHP and its heirs.
Turkey’s big cities, once strongholds of Kemalism, have thoroughly “Anatolized” and gone Islamic. Istanbul, which once held a million inhabitants, is now a conurbation of some 15 to 17 million, stretching from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea area. Ankara has risen from fewer than 300,000 inhabitants in 1950 to 5 million today. Both cities have had Islamist mayors since the 1990’s, and their landscapes blossom with twin-minaret mosques. Even Ankara now has a huge Ottoman-style Great Mosque, just opposite Atatürk’s mausoleum.
The second factor that has shaped Turkish political life since the days of Menderes has been the country’s gradual involvement with the United States, an emerging united Europe, and even Israel. The thrust of Ankara’s foreign policy under Atatürk and Inönü had been to keep Turkey away, as much as possible, from foreign alliances and even foreign trade. They wished to maintain strict neutrality and to turn Turkey into an economically self-supporting, if not autarkic, nation.
Though Inönü had started the drive toward Western integration, it was Menderes and the Democrats who finalized Turkey’s alliance with the United States in the 1950’s. That alliance produced in turn Turkish participation in the Korean war and a local economic boom that lifted the fortunes of private entrepreneurs and small businessmen. As a result, the conservative Anatolian parties have been strongly anti-statist and often more pro-American than the rest of the political class. By the same token, they developed a keen interest in joining the European Common Market, to which Ankara applied in 1963, and then the European Union, to which it applied even more insistently in 1999.
No less stunning has been Turkey’s opening to Israel. In its relations with both the United States and Western Europe, Turkey was countered by the influential Greek and Armenian diasporas and had no diaspora of equal standing of its own to act on its behalf. On the other hand, Israel—whose independence Inönü recognized from the outset—was enormously interested in relations with a big Muslim neighbor like Turkey. An informal deal was reached. Many pro-Israel leaders and activists started to lobby for Turkey in the West. Turkey, in turn, quietly started cooperating with Israel. At a certain point, the relationship with Israel not only became one of the Kemalists’ dogmas but was also put forward as a priority by many Anatolian conservatives. These included Turgut Özal, the prime minister and then president in the 1980’s and early 90’s.
A third factor that goes back to the Menderes years is the steady rise of a very particular brand of Sunni Islam. Menderes outdid Inönü in enshrining the memory of Atatürk as a secular leader, and formally upheld the separation of state and mosque. At the same time, however, a religious comeback was allowed, or even encouraged. Religious instruction was made compulsory in school, and the “brotherhoods” were once again legalized, albeit as “cultural” or “educational” rather than as religious organizations.
The first groups to benefit from this were the traditionalist brotherhoods dating back to Ottoman times or rooted in other Islamic countries, especially the powerful Naksibendi order. Soon enough, though, new and fully Turkish brotherhoods emerged, among them Said Nursi’s “Enlightened,” or Nurcu, and the followers of Fettullah Haci Gülen, known as the Fettullahci. Using various loopholes, these new groups gradually set up an enormous private educational system, from preparatory schools to universities and business schools, which today parallels and at times overshadows the state system. They went on to found newspapers, television stations, and American-style foundations. Since the 1990’s, the new brotherhoods clearly have become Turkey’s leading cultural power, both at the academic and the popular level.
Hardline Kemalists see these new groups as the Trojan horse of a coming Islamic revolution—or regression—and have tried on various occasions to disband them or to close their facilities. But what strikes foreign observers is how different these brotherhoods are from standard revivalist groups in the rest of the Muslim world. They seem less interested in enforcing shari’a law in the public sphere than in fusing Islam and modern civilization. The foundations of the Fettulahci, for example, foster interfaith dialogue in earnest, and have sent scholars and students to the West and even to Israel. Their newspaper, Zaman, is arguably the best and most balanced in the country.
The Turkish establishment, and what has come to be known as the Derin Devlet or “deep state”—influential networks in the army, the senior civil service, and the security apparatus, as well as parts of the intellectual elite and even some mafia-like groups—have tried in many ways to counter the gradual disruption of the Kemalist model and the Anatolization of Turkey.
One strategy has been to resist the political effects of population growth by promoting “quality democracy” as against “big-numbers democracy.” This odd doctrine was the rationale for the military coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980. It led to the present constitution of Turkey, drafted in 1982, under which the National Council of Security (MGK), an unelected monitoring body drawn largely from the “deep state,” enjoys supremacy over the parliament and the government and almost exclusive control of the armed forces and the internal security apparatus.
A second strategy has been to coopt Anatolians into the establishment. After the 1980 coup, General Kenan Evren embarked upon a systematic redrawing of Turkish politics, banning all then-existing parties. He then encouraged the emergence of two new parties that were to be politically and economically moderate while eschewing the old Kemalist/Anatolian divide: the Social-Democrats on the Left and the Motherland party on the Right. Having arranged for himself to be elected president, Evren cast his lot with the Motherland leader Turgut Özal, who became prime minister.
A devout Anatolian Muslim, Özal (who succeeded Evren as president in 1989) engineered Turkey’s final economic big bang, transforming it from a developing third-world nation into an emerging modern economy. A shrewd privatization program allowed many Kemalists to secure their positions in the statist economy while, at the same time, also giving the Anatolian newcomers a share of the pie, often with some help from Saudi or Gulf Arab investors. Both sets of interests supported Özal’s bid to have Turkey join the European Union. Both acquiesced in a vigorous pro-American, pro-NATO, and pro-Israel policy. A new concept of Turkish conservatism was in the making.
But there were problems. The banning of the old parties could not be sustained indefinitely. By 1990 they were permitted again, and the bipartisan system devised by Evren instantly collapsed. This, in turn, triggered the growth of more radical groups on both sides. Among the Kemalists, chauvinistic ultranationalism reemerged, marching under the parliamentary banner of the National Movement party (MHP). In the opposite corner of Turkish politics, an explicitly Islamist movement gained even more dramatic momentum, despite the deep state’s repeated efforts to suppress it. By 1996, the electoral tide could no longer be resisted, and the Islamist leader Necmetin Erbakan was appointed prime minister over a coalition cabinet. Erbakan’s behavior, however, was so gratuitously provocative—for instance, he called for mass demonstrations against the army’s ties with Israel—that within a year the Kemalists of the National Council of Security had evicted him from office and banned his party.
The Islamists’ failure in 1997 had a profound impact on their strategy, and by 2001 they had deserted Erbakan and founded a more moderate party, the AKP, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Whereas Erbakan had been linked to more traditional Islamic organizations, and even to radical Arab groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan and other leaders of the AKP were closer to the new, modernizing brotherhoods of Turkey, and appealed to a larger swath of the electorate. Many former supporters of the moderate Özal rallied to their cause. In 2002, the AKP won 44 percent of the national vote, which translated into an overwhelming parliamentary majority.
According to Zeyno Baran (who is now associated with the Hudson Institute), the AKP’s “key concern” is to stay in power as long as possible, and to that end the party has shown “a lot of pragmatism.” As an Istanbul businessman recently told me, Prime Minister Erdogan “certainly comes from the Islamist fold, but he has matured a lot. He understands by now that Özal was right, and that Turkey’s real challenge is to get the entire population, not just the elite, out of underdevelopment and poverty.”
Over the past four years, Erdogan and the AKP have indeed managed the economy remarkably well, with the help, until the beginning of 2006, of a talented central-bank director. During Erdogan’s tenure, Turkey’s GDP has grown at an average rate of 7.5 percent, reaching a remarkable 9 percent in 2005. A new currency, the New Turkish Lira, was introduced in 2005, and has helped to cut inflation to under 10 percent. Annual exports from Turkey now amount to $70 billion. What is most significant about the present Turkish boom is that it is not based on natural resources like oil or natural gas but rather on manufacturing and services. To use George Gilder’s famous distinction, it represents “wealth” rather than “riches.”
With respect to foreign policy, the government’s record has been more worrisome. Relations with Israel have been especially problematic. Erdogan and Foreign Minister Gül have extended full support to the Palestinian Arabs, even under the leadership of the terrorist organization Hamas, and have rolled out the red carpet in Ankara for Khaled Meshal, the group’s exiled hardline leader. During the recent war in Lebanon, the AKP government sided with Hizballah and routinely accused Israel of “state terror.” It also canceled a $500-million deal with Israel Aircraft Industries to upgrade the Turkish air force.
Still, Erdogan has also made noteworthy efforts to keep the relationship with Israel alive—no small feat when only 10 percent of Turks express sympathy for the Jewish state and Zionists are routinely described as ruthless oppressors by the country’s religious Muslims. Both Erdogan and Gül, the foreign minister, have visited Israel and insist that bilateral cooperation must go on. Erdogan also intervened on behalf of an Israeli businessman who had been barred from important contracts in Turkey. Even more telling was an incident at the annual convention of Müsiad, the Council of Muslim Business, this past fall. The organizers had displayed a large picture of the Palestinian father who lost nineteen members of his family in Israel’s counterterrorism attack at Beit Hanoun in Gaza. Erdogan, the guest speaker, was incensed. “You should come down from your high platform and help the victims on the ground,” he told the conference, “rather than engage in such rhetoric.”
Later this year, two elections will take place in Turkey in quick succession and may force Erdogan to make clear whether he is a shrewd Islamist revolutionary, biding his time, or an heir to the moderate Anatolian conservatism of Turgut Özal. In April, a new president will be elected, and Erdogan himself is the leading contender. The present head of state, the secular Ahmet Necdet Sezer, has so far checked the Islamist-dominated parliament. If Erdogan wins the job, the stage could be set for an Islamist sweep when parliamentary elections are held in November.
It is rumored that hardliners in both the AKP and the “deep state” are preparing for a dramatic confrontation. Such is the fear expressed by Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s leading writer and the 2006 Nobel Prize laureate. Indeed, in a scene foreshadowed in Pamuk’s novel Snow, a young Islamist entered a Turkish courtroom last May and shot a judge who had ruled against women who wished to wear Islamic veils in public places. Thousands of secularists took to the capital’s streets to protest the assassination, and the army, which had hitherto refrained from interfering with the Erdogan government, also made known its unhappiness.
Erdogan seems aware of such dangers and determined not to give in to provocations. Last year, he approved the appointment of General Yasar Büyükanit, a staunch secularist and the most pro-American and pro-Israeli officer in the Turkish armed forces, as military chief of staff. More recently, he has implied that he may not run for the presidency after all, and would rather concentrate on his current job as prime minister. Both moves have been calculated to defuse Kemalist anxieties over the prospect of a monolithic Islamist regime.
As for Turkish-American relations, there is no getting around the fact that the romance is indeed over. Special relationships do endure between nations, but once there is a feeling of betrayal or a breach of trust, they must be reconsidered and downgraded to less fervent connections. This is what has happened between America and France since de Gaulle, and the same estrangement is now occurring between Turkey and the United States.
Regrets can be found on both sides. Whatever the reasons for the crisis with the previous American ambassador, the new one, Ross Wilson, has been treated in a friendly, respectful manner. As for American policymakers, they may have been naïve to expect Turkey to serve in the war on terror as an unquestioning ally against other Muslim countries, especially in light of the Iraq war’s exacerbating effect on Turkey’s problems with the Kurds. All the same, Turkey remains a very important partner in a crucial region, and there is much to be learned of a useful nature both from the recent crisis and from Turkish history.
What Erdogan and the AKP stand for is not some passing phenomenon in Turkish politics. Whatever the achievements of Atatürk and the secular republic, they belong to a different period in the country’s development. Demographics and the inner workings of Turkish society have brought Islam back. What remains to be seen is the extent of this revival. In particular, the real faultline within Turkish politics may no longer lie between Kemalists and Islamic traditionalists but rather between contending varieties of an authentically Turkish conservatism, with the status or (as the Turks say) vision of Islam as the key point of division.
Is the AKP regime a danger to the West? Certainly there are disturbing elements to be found within it, as in every contemporary Islamist party. But there is also the possibility, if no more than the possibility, that Erdogan, the AKP, and their allies in Turkish civil society represent a check on radical Islamism. Nor, in considering the balance of internal forces, should one underestimate the contrary danger of Turkish fascism. If Turkey should indeed leave the Western fold, it might well be the work not of Islamists but of a hypernationalist, secular-minded military determined to align the country with the post-Communist regime of Russia or China. It is worth noting that in January, after the assassination of a Turkish-Armenian editor by a nationalist fanatic, the AKP took a more conciliatory stand toward the country’s aggrieved Armenian populace, and toward Armenia itself, than the Kemalists would ever contemplate.
For Turkey itself and for Turkey’s Western friends, the best outcome is evident: a fusing of the most dynamic elements in Turkey’s modern heritage—Rumelian openness with Anatolian traditionalism, cosmopolitan modernism with the mores of Turkey’s indigenous brand of Islam. The question to be decided is whether the country’s current leadership is equipped for this difficult but essential task.