Commentary Magazine

Turkey, from Ally to Enemy

Traveling abroad on his first trip as president, Barack Obama tacked a visit to Turkey onto the tail end of a trip to Europe. “Some people have asked me if I chose to continue my travels to Ankara and Istanbul to send a message,” he told the Turkish Parliament. “My answer is simple: Evet [yes]. Turkey is a critical ally.” On the same visit, however, the president showed that he considered Turkey more firmly part of the Islamic world than of Europe. “I want to make sure that we end before the call to prayer, so we have about half an hour,” Obama told a town hall in Istanbul. Obama was not simply demonstrating cultural sensitivity. The fact is that Turkey has changed. Gone, and gone permanently, is secular Turkey, a unique Muslim country that straddled East and West and that even maintained a cooperative relationship with Israel. Today Turkey is an Islamic republic whose government saw fit to facilitate the May 31 flotilla raid on Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey is now more aligned to Iran than to the democracies of Europe. Whereas Iran’s Islamic revolution shocked the world with its suddenness in 1979, Turkey’s Islamic revolution has been so slow and deliberate as to pass almost unnoticed. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic of Turkey is a reality—and a danger.

The story of Turkey’s Islamic revolution is illuminating. It is the story of a charismatic leader with a methodical plan to unravel a system, a politician cynically using democracy to pursue autocracy, Arab donors understanding the power of the purse, Western political correctness blinding officials to the Islamist agenda, and American diplomats seemingly more concerned with their post-retirement pocketbooks than with U.S. national security. For Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is a dream come true. For the next generation of American presidents, diplomats, and generals, it is a disaster.


The Middle East is littered with states formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. Most have been failures, but in Anatolia, one has flourished: in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey and, soon after, abolished the Ottoman Empire and its standing as a caliphate, a state run according to the dictates of Islamic law. In subsequent years, he imposed a number of reforms to transform Turkey into a Western country. His separation of mosque and state allowed Turkey to thrive, and he charged the army with defending the state from those who would use Islam to subvert democracy. While Middle Eastern states embraced demagogues and ideologies that led to war and incited their peoples to hate the West, Turkey became a frontline Cold War and NATO ally. Turks faced down terrorists, embraced democracy, and dreamed of full inclusion as a nation of Europe. No longer.

Turkey’s Islamic revolution began on November 3, 2002, when Erdogan’s Justice and Reconciliation Party (AKP) swept to power in Turkey’s elections. Through a lucky quirk of the Turkish election system, the AKP’s 34 percent total in the popular vote translated into 66 percent of the Parliament’s seats, giving the party absolute control.

Initially, Erdogan kept his ambition in check. He understood the lessons to be learned from the undoing of his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, the first Islamist to become prime minister. After taking the reins of power in 1996 with far less power in Parliament, Erdogan’s predecessor sought to shake up the system—to support religious schools at home and to reorient Turkey’s foreign policy away from Europe and toward Libya and Iran. This became too much for the military, which exercised its power as guardians of the constitution and demanded Erbakan’s resignation. Afterward, Turkey’s Constitutional Court banned the party to which Erdogan belonged because of its threats to secular rule.

Erdogan himself had been banned from politics because of a 1998 conviction for religious incitement. And so he initially managed the newly created AKP from the sidelines only, working through Abdullah Gul, the lieutenant who served as caretaker prime minister after the party’s 2002 victory. Gul pushed through a law to overturn the ban against Erdogan, and the latter became prime minister in March 2003. Learning the lessons of Islamist failures of the past, Erdogan sought to calm Turks who feared the AKP would dilute Turkey’s separation of mosque and state. As mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan described himself as a “servant of Sharia,” or Islamic canon law. But after his party’s 2002 victory, he declared that “secularism is the protector of all beliefs and religions. We are the guarantors of this secularism, and our management will clearly prove that.” He took pains to eschew the Islamist label and instead described his party as little more than the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Democrats in Europe—that is, all democracy and religious in name only.

Both Turks and Westerners can be forgiven for taking Erdogan at his word. He had cultivated an image of probity as a local official that stood in sharp contrast with the corruption of many incumbent Turkish politicians. Rather than upend the system or pursue a divisive social platform, as prime minister Erdogan first sought to repair the Turkish economy. This was an attractive prospect for Turks across the political spectrum, since in the five years prior, the Turkish lira had declined in value eight-fold, from 200,000 to 1.7 million to the dollar, leading to a ruinous banking crisis in 2001. A Coca-Cola cost millions. Erdogan stabilized the currency and implemented other popular reforms. He cut income taxes, slashed the value-added tax, and used state coffers to subsidize gasoline prices. The Turkish electorate rewarded his party for its efforts. The AKP won 42 percent of the vote in the March 2004 municipal elections and placed mayors in four of Turkey’s five largest cities. In July 2007, it increased its share of the popular vote to 47 percent.

But there was far less here than met the eye. Rather than base economic reform on sound, long-term policies, Erdogan instead relied on sleight of hand. He incurred crippling debt and, in effect, mortgaged long-term financial security of the republic for his own short-term political gain. Deniz Baykal, the former leader of the main opposition party, has said that the state debt accrued during Erdogan’s first three years in power surpassed Turkey’s total accumulated debt in the three decades prior.

And that was only official debt. Outside of public view, Erdogan and Gul, now his foreign minister, presided over an influx of so-called Green Money—capital from Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirates, much of which ended up in party coffers rather than in the public treasury.

And here begins the tale of the interweaving of Turkey’s destiny with the nations to its east and south, and to the Muslim world rather than with the West.

Between 2002 and 2003, the Turkish Central Bank’s summary balance of “payments for net error and omission”—which is to say, money that appeared in the nation’s financial system for which government reporting cannot account—increased from approximately $200 million to more than $4 billion. By 2006, Turkish economists estimated the Green Money infusion into the Turkish economy to be between $6 billion and $12 billion, and given the ability of the government to hide some of these revenues by assigning them to tourism, that is probably a wild underestimation. Some Turkish intelligence officials privately suggest that the nation of Qatar is today the source of most subsidies for the AKP and its projects.

Thus, if Iran’s Islamic revolution was spontaneous, Turkey’s was anything but: it was bought and paid for by wealthy Islamists.

AKP officials are well-placed to manage the Green Money influx. Throughout much of the 1980s, Erdogan’s sidekick, Gul, worked as a specialist at Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Development Bank. Before the 2002 victory, he criticized existing state scrutiny of Islamist enterprises. Senior AKP advisers made their fortunes in Islamic banking and investment. Korkut Ozal, for example, is the leading Turkish shareholder in al–Baraka Turk, Turkey’s leading Islamic bank, as well as in Faisal Finans, which also has its roots in Saudi Arabia.

Erdogan has systematically placed Islamist bankers in key economic positions. He appointed Kemal Unakitan, a former board member at both al–Baraka and Eski Finans, as finance minister and moved at least seven other al-Baraka officials—one of whom had served as an imam in an illegal commando camp—to key positions within Turkey’s banking regulatory agency.

Erdogan also reoriented Turkey’s official foreign trade. In 2002, bilateral trade between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates hovered at just over half a billion dollars. By 2005, it had grown to almost $2 billion. That same year, Kursad Tuzmen, the state minister for foreign trade, announced that United Arab Emirates ruler Sheik Khalifa bin Zayid al-Nuhayyan would invest $100 billion in Turkish companies. Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia’s finance minister announced earlier this year that Saudi Arabia would invest $400 billion in Turkey over the next four years. In contrast, in 2001, Turkish-Saudi trade amounted to just over $1 billion. When Turkish-Iranian trade surpassed $10 billion in 2009, Erdogan announced a goal to increase it to $30 billion. Whether or not Turkey and its Persian Gulf allies are exaggerating their figures, the trajectory of trade is clear.


For wealthy donors, the conversion of Turkey has been a good investment. For decades, Turkey stood out like a sore thumb for Islamists. Here was a majority Muslim country which, even lacking oil, was far more successful than any Arab state or Iran. No sooner had Erdogan stabilized the economy and solidified his political monopoly than he turned to changing Turkey’s social order and reversing its diplomatic orientation. Erdogan’s strategy was multi-tiered. He endorsed the dream of Turkey’s secular elite to enter the European Union but only to rally European diplomats to dilute the role of the Turkish military as guardians of the constitution.

While Turkish liberals, businessmen, and Western diplomats took solace in Erdogan’s outreach to Europe, his motivation was cynical. His ideological constituents had no interest in Europe, and Erdogan himself is intolerant of European liberalism and secularism. He criticized the European Court of Human Rights for failing to consult Islamic scholars when it upheld a ban on headscarves in public schools—a ban that dates back to Ataturk’s original reforms.

Erdogan’s ambitions to remake Turkey, however, reached far beyond superficial issues such as the veil. He sought to revolutionize education, dominate the judiciary, take over the police, and control the media. Erdogan worked to achieve not short-term gains on hot-button issues like the headscarf but rather a long-term cultural revolution that, when complete, would render past battles moot.

Erdogan attacked the secular education system at all levels. First, he loosened age restrictions on children who attend supplemental Koran schools—restrictions intended to prevent their indoctrination. He also undid content regulation meant to counter the ability of Saudi-funded extremists to teach in Turkish academies. Those schools that break the remaining regulations need not worry: Erdogan’s party eviscerated penalties to the point where unaccredited religious academies now advertise openly in newspapers.

Simultaneously, he equated degrees issued by Turkish madrassas—Islamic religious schools—with ordinary high school degrees. This bureaucratic sleight of hand in theory enabled madrassa students to enter the university and qualify for government jobs without ever mastering or, in some cases, even being exposed to Western fundamentals. When such students still fumbled university entrance exams, the AKP provided them with a comparative bonus on their scores, justifying the move as affirmative action. Erdogan made little secret of his goals: in May 2006, he ordered his negotiator at European Union accession talks to remove any reference to secularism in a Turkish position paper discussing Turkey’s educational system. Over the past year, the Ministry of Education has gutted the traditional high school philosophy curriculum and Islamized it.

Moreover, the judiciary is no longer independent. Erdogan’s initial attempts to lower the mandatory retirement age of judges (a move that would have seen him replace 4,000 out of 9,000 judges) foundered on constitutional challenges. More than a year later, the Supreme Court of Appeals chided the AKP for attempts to interfere in the judiciary. When Gul, Erdogan’s closest ally, assumed Turkey’s presidency in 2007, there was no longer any check on his party’s authority. The president selects the Higher Education Board, appoints a quarter of the justices on the Constitutional Court, nominates the chief public prosecutor, and officially confirms the commanding general of the Supreme Military Council. Now, on the rare occasion when the high court levies decisions not to the prime minister’s liking, the prime minister simply refuses to implement them. In any case, after almost eight years in power, the AKP has been able to remake the courts. The government can now assign sympathetic judges to hear highly politicized cases. And in March 2010, the AKP unveiled proposed constitutional reforms that would make it easier for political leaders to appoint judges.

In any other democracy, discussion and debate about government abuse of power and societal change would saturate the news. Not so in Turkey. No prime minister in Turkish history has been so hostile to the press as Erdogan. What had been a vibrant press when Erdogan took over is now flaccid. The prime minister has sued dozens of journalists and editors, sometimes for nothing more than a political cartoon poking fun at him. When a Turkish media group pursued a story about a Turkish-German charity transferring money illegally to Islamists in Turkey, tax authorities punished it with a spurious $600 million lien. When it continued to report critically, the group received an additional $2.5 billion tax penalty. And, in a strategy borrowed from Iran, Erdogan has confiscated newspapers—the high-circulation national daily Sabah most famously—that he deemed too critical or independent, and transferred their control to political allies.

With the independent press muzzled and almost all print and airtime dedicated to his agenda, Erdogan upped his campaign against both the political opposition and the military. Whereas the Interior Ministry would once root out Islamists and followers of the anti-Semitic Turkish cult leader Fethullah Gulen, the AKP filled police ranks with them. Even AKP supporters acknowledge that the Interior Ministry regularly eavesdrops without warrants and leaks embarrassing transcripts to the Islamist press without consequence. “For 40 years, they have kept files on us. Now, it is our turn to keep files on them,” AKP deputy Avni Dogan recently said.

The real coup against democracy, however, came on July 14, 2008, when a Turkish prosecutor indicted 86 Turkish figures—retired military officers, prominent journalists, professors, unionists, civil-society activists, and the man who dared run against Erdogan for mayor years earlier—on charges of plotting a coup to restore secular government. The only thing the defendants had in common was political opposition to the AKP. The alleged conspiracy grabbed international headlines. At its root, the 2,455-page indictment alleged that retired military officers, intellectuals, journalists, and civil-society leaders conspired to cause chaos in Turkey and to use the resulting crisis as justification for a military putsch against the AKP. In February 2010, the prosecutors revealed a 5,000-page memorandum detailing coup plans.

The documents are ridiculous. The indictment was paper-thin. Security forces rounded up most suspects before it was even written. And as for the smoking-gun memorandum, the charge is risible: coup plotters do not write plans down, let alone in such detail. The indictments had a chilling effect across society. Turks may not like where Erdogan is taking Turkey, but they now understand that even peaceful dissent will have a price. Turkish politics had always been rough and tumble, but except at the height of the Cold War, it had seldom been lethal.

Nor can liberal Turks rely on the Turkish military to save them. Bashed from the religious right and the progressive left, the Turkish military is a shadow of its former self. The current generation of generals is out of touch with Turkish society and, perhaps, their own junior officers. Like frogs who fail to jump from a pot slowly brought to a boil, the Turkish general staff lost its opportunity to exercise its constitutional duties. Simply put, the Turkish military failed in its job. Obsession with public relations and media imagery trumped responsibility.


A decade ago, Turks saw themselves in a camp with the United States, Western Europe, and Israel; today Turkish self-identity places the country firmly in a camp led by Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Hamas. Turkey may be a NATO member, but polls nevertheless show it to be the world’s most anti-American country (although, to be fair, the Pew Global Attitudes Project did not conduct surveys in Libya or North Korea). Nor do Turks differentiate between the U.S. government and the American people: they hate Americans almost as much as they hate Washington. This is no accident. From almost day one, Erdogan has encouraged, and his allies have financed, a steady stream of anti-American and anti-Semitic incitement. Certainly, many Turks opposed the liberation of Iraq in 2003, but this was largely because Erdogan bombarded them with anti-American incitement before Parliament’s vote, which withdrew the support promised to the operation. Much of Erdogan’s incitement, however, cannot be dismissed as a dispute over the Iraq war.

In 2004, Yeni Safak, a newspaper Erdogan endorsed, published an enemies list of prominent Jews. In 2006, not only did Turkish theaters headline Valley of the Wolves, a fiercely anti-American and anti-Semitic movie that featured a Jewish doctor harvesting the organs of dead Iraqis, but the prime minister’s wife also publicly endorsed the film and urged all Turks to see it. Turkish newspapers reported that prominent AKP supporters and Erdogan aides financed its production. While much of the Western world boycotted Hamas in the wake of the 2006 Palestinian elections in order to force it to renounce violence, Erdogan not only extended a hand to the group but also welcomed Khaled Mashaal, leader of its most extreme and recalcitrant faction, as his personal guest.

The question for policymakers, however, should not be whether Turkey is lost but rather how Erdogan could lead a slow-motion Islamic revolution below the West’s radar. This is both a testament to Erdogan’s skill and a reflection of Western delusion. Before taking power, Erdogan and his advisers cultivated Western opinion makers. He concentrated not on American pundits who found U.S. policy insufficiently leftist and sympathetic to the Islamic world but rather on natural critics, hawkish American supporters of Turkey and Israel who helped introduce Erdogan confidantes to Washington policymakers.

After consolidating power, however, the AKP did not cultivate Jewish and pro-Israel groups, but they did little to sever the relationships. Turks traditionally looked kindly on Israel and Jews; of all the peoples of the Ottoman Empire, the Jews in Palestine were one of the few who had not revolted against the Ottoman Sultan. In the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey and Israel had much in common: both were democracies amid a sea of autocracy. They enjoyed close diplomatic, economic, and military relations. So many Israeli tourists visited Turkey that Hebrew signs became ubiquitous in Turkish cities. It was not uncommon to hear Hebrew in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar or in restaurants along the Bosporus.

Against such a backdrop, many Jewish groups turned a blind eye to warning signs of Erdogan’s antipathy and rationalized Turkey’s outreach to Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria, Sudan, and Iran. It was not until Erdogan exploded at the 2009 Davos World Forum, telling Israeli President Shimon Peres “you know well how to kill,” storming off the stage, and subsequently accusing Israel of genocide, that Jewish groups awakened to the change that had come over Turkey.

Much of the blame for failing to recognize Erdogan’s agenda also lies in the West’s intellectual approach to radical Islam. For too many, the headscarf was the only metric by which to judge Islamist encroachment. For Erdogan, however, the scarf was a symbol; the state was the goal.

Even after Erdogan began to eviscerate the checks and balances of Turkish society, European officials and American diplomats remained in denial. Certainly moral equivalency played a role: as Erdogan asked last October, why should Turkey accept the Western definition of secularism? For too many Western officials, however, to acknowledge Turkey’s turn would be to admit the failure of moderate Islamism. To criticize Erdogan’s motivations would be racist.

Many diplomats and journalists inserted into this situation their own disdain for any military, let alone Turkey’s, and embraced a facile dichotomy in which Islamism and democracy represented one pole, while the military, secularism, and fascism represented the other. Hence, they saw the AKP as democratic reformers, while the military became defenders of an anti-democratic order. Certainly, the healthiest democracies have no room for the military in domestic politics, but by cheering the AKP as it unraveled the military’s role in upholding the constitution without simultaneously constructing another check on unconstitutional behavior, the European Union and Western diplomats paved the way for Erdogan’s soft dictatorship.

Alas, when intellectual smoke and mirrors were not enough to deceive the West, Erdogan and the AKP used more-devious tactics. Just as many American diplomats retired from Saudi Arabia to serve commercially their former charges, since the AKP’s accession every retired U.S. ambassador to Turkey—Eric Edelman being the exception—has entered into lucrative business relationships with AKP companies. Mark Parris, who led the U.S. Embassy from 1997 to 2000, just prior to the AKP’s rise, and has served in various positions at several think tanks, cultivated a business relationship with the AKP and helped with stories in Turkey’s anti-Semitic press about neoconservatives and coup plots. Throughout the first four years of AKP rule, Yeni Safak columnist Fehmi Koru, an outspoken Erdogan supporter, published more than a dozen columns accusing American Jewish policymakers, led by Richard Perle—who was not then a government official—of both manipulating the press and plotting a coup in Turkey. Both charges were not only false but also consistent with anti-Semitic refrains about Jewish control of the press and Protocols of the Elders of Zion–like plots. And, indeed, they served their purpose: the AKP used the columns to rally both nationalist and anti-Semitic feelings. Koru would often refer to a well-placed Washington diplomatic source. In a November 2006 column, he revealed Parris to be his source, a charge Parris has neither explained nor denied.

Turkish Islamists also cultivated academics. After Georgetown University’s John Esposito received donations from the Gulen movement, he sponsored a conference in the Islamist cult leader’s honor, whitewashing both Fethullah Gulen’s Islamism and his anti-Semitism. The University of North Texas similarly received Gulen’s largesse, as does Washington, D.C.’s Brookings Institution, which has long peddled a soft line toward Erdogan and his agenda.

Turkey today is an Islamic republic in all but name. Washington, its European allies, and Jerusalem must now come to terms with Turkey as a potential enemy. Alas, even if the AKP were to exit the Turkish stage tomorrow, the changes Erdogan’s party have made appear irreversible. While Turkey was for more than half a century a buffer between Middle Eastern extremism and European liberalism, today it has become an enabler of extremism and an enemy of liberalism. Rather than fight terrorists, Turkey embraces them. Today’s rhetorical support may become tomorrow’s material support. On the world stage, too, Turkey is a problem. Rather than help diffuse Iran’s nuclear program, Erdogan encourages it.

Turkey’s anti-Americanism, its dictatorship, and the inability of Western officials to acknowledge reality endanger security. Hard choices lay ahead: as a NATO member, Turkey is privy to U.S. weaponry, tactics, and intelligence. Any provision of assistance to Turkey today, however, could be akin to transferring it to Hamas, Sudan, or Iran. Does President Obama really want to deliver the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to a hostile Turkey, Iran’s chief regional defender, as promised in 2014? Should Turkey even remain in NATO? After all, half a century ago, NATO learned to live without France.

Losing Turkey is tragic, but failing to recognize its loss can only compound the tragedy. The worst outcome, however, would be to let strategic denial block assessment of lessons learned. As mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan quipped, “‘Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.” Perhaps, in hindsight, the West’s mistake was to ignore the danger of Erdogan’s ascendance into the driver’s seat.

About the Author

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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