The public revolt in Turkey has exposed deep fractures in Turkish society between liberal secularists and statist Islamists. It has also heightened doubts about the country’s prospects for European Union (EU) membership and its long-term allegiance to the NATO alliance. Creeping authoritarianism and state-engineered Islamization can estrange Turkey from its Western neighbours and embroil it even more closely in the turmoil in the Middle East
Unlike the Arab Spring uprisings, the public revolt in Turkey is not a contest between secular authoritarianism and a largely Islamist opposition, but a struggle between an increasingly Islamist government and the proponents of secular democracy. The result of this battle can result in severe social conflict, slow down the impressive economic growth that has buttressed government popularity, and isolate Turkey from its NATO partners.
The administration of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has taken several notable steps toward transforming Turkey into an Islamic state in which politics and religion are increasingly intermeshed. During the past decade, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has expanded its control over key public institutions. In particular, it undercut the influence of the army in politics by arresting hundreds of high-ranking military officers accused of plotting coups.
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Although in most states limiting the military in domestic affairs would be viewed as strengthening democracy, in Turkey’s case the army has traditionally acted as the guardian of secularism. Constitutional amendments have removed the military's political role and President Abdullah Gul now directly intervenes in the appointment of generals to block non-Islamists from acquiring command positions. Erdogan has also increased his control over the judicial system by handpicking judges who invariably rule in favour of official policy.
The opposition movement charges that Erdogan is becoming increasingly authoritarian and imposing conservative religious values in a country governed by secular laws. Protestors in the streets of Istanbul proclaimed themselves as the true heirs of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder and secular reformer, and staunchly oppose Erdogan's alleged theocratic inclinations.
Erdogan decided to undermine the Ataturk reforms after winning a large majority in the June 2011 parliamentary elections, his third election victory. In indications of accelerating religiosity in politics, the government is beginning to impose bans on the sale of alcohol, arrests critical journalists and political opponents, and arbitrarily shuts down YouTube and the social media. Critics charge that the AKP is determined to undermine Ataturk's legacy. For instance, young people traditionally celebrated Ataturk Day on 19 May, by dancing and singing in stadiums around the country. In 2012, the authorities eliminated this annual ceremony claiming that the public objected to seeing young girls dance around in short skirts.
Erdogan's plans to redevelop the area around Istanbul’s Taksim square includes demolishing the Ataturk cultural centre and rebuilding the Ottoman military barracks, the site of a 1909 attempt by the Sultan to thwart Ataturk's liberal reforms that gave birth to the modern Turkish republic. Critics believe that plans for the square amount to an escalating assault on Ataturk and his historical legacy.
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A growing number of educated, urban, and middle-class Turks are now resisting government attacks on their personal liberties. As a result, what began as a small environmental protest against redevelopment in the middle of the capitalwas rapidly transformed into a nationwide revolt that spread to more than seventy Turkish cities, including Ankara and Izmir. Although the street protests have been disbanded for the time being, the deep fissures in Turkish society cannot be overcome by repressive measures and will sooner or later resurface.
The AKP's neo-Islamist project appears to be backfiring and has empowered Turkey's vibrant civil society. Instead of seeking genuine compromises, Erdogan condemned most of the protesters and blamed the unrest on foreign forces and domestic terrorists, including Kurdish insurgents. Erdogan remains convinced that the government benefits from the majority backing of conservative segments of Turkish society, which oppose the liberalism of the urban middle class. This is similar to the support President Vladimir Putin claims in rural and working class Russia and among traditional and older Christian Orthodox believers.
Subduing the recent street protests may be viewed as a victory by the government. But much depends on whether it will encourage Erdogan to accelerate the Islamization program regardless of widespread opposition. This would further polarize society and increasingly alienate Turkey from Europe and its NATO allies.The core question for Turkey is its future national identity: whether it will develop as a secular European nation-state that Ataturk originally envisaged or a more politically religious country that shifts its alliances from the West toward the Middle East.
Neo-Ottomanism or Neo-Islamism?
Turkish foreign policy in recent years has revolved around Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s notion of “strategic depth,” which views Turkey as an ascending regional power. Dubbed as “neo-Ottomanism,” this program envisions a more activist policy in all neighbouring zones, which Turkey once controlled. It involves a more pronounced diplomatic, political, and economic role in neighbouring states and even involvement in regional conflict mediation.
One major area of interest for Ankara is the Western Balkans, inhabited by several million Muslims and a number of countries thus far excluded from the EU. The Erdogan government has systematically tried to strengthen relations with all states in the region, including predominantly Christian Orthodox Serbia and Macedonia. Relations between Turkey and all the Western Balkan capitals have become more intensive, particularly in the diplomatic, cultural, and economic arenas with trade and investment accelerating.
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However, Istanbul’s foreign policy confronts some significant problems. Attempting to convince the Balkans populations that, as the Foreign Minister once claimed, “the Ottoman centuries were a success story” will not be easy. Several national and state identities in the region were formed on the basis of prolonged resistance to Ottoman rule. Resentments persist that Turkish policy during four hundred years of occupation blocked the Balkans from the European mainstream and stifled economic development especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Even more seriously, some leaders in the Western Balkans are concerned that Turkey is pursuing “neo-Ottomanism” as a result of the AKP’s ideological assertiveness and may be intent on pulling the region away from Washington and Brussels into amore exclusively Turkish zone of influence. Todispel such fears, Ankara has asserted that its upports membership of NATO and the EU for all states on the peninsula and not a separate alliance system under Turkish overlordship.
If Ankara’s domestic policies more closely resemble that of a Middle Eastern Muslim state and Islamization trumps secularism, then the Balkan populations will feel increasingly alienated from Ankara. To be influential anywhere in Europe Turkey must consistently demonstrate that it is a modern country, which is not back tracking in its political development. This entails a commitment to secularism, openness, religious tolerance, and pro-Westernism.
Turkey also borders an increasingly volatile Middle East. It cannot simply stand on the sidelines when Syria is racked by civil war that could spread to Lebanon, where Iran is developing nuclear weapons, and where the struggle between Tehran and Saudi Arabia is intensifying. The civil war in Syria is not a simple battle between dictatorship and democracy but a struggle for power between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam that is fast enveloping the Middle East. The conflict has been given impetus by the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq and by the influx of Islamist radicals who participated in various armed conflicts and in the “Arab Spring” rebellions.
The Sunni-Shia conflict is most evident in Syria. Bashar-al-Assad's regime is rooted in the Alawite minority with close ties to the Iranian Shia clerical administration and the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah movement. With direct support from Tehran, Hezbollah fighters are now engaged in combating Syria’s majority Sunni insurgents. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to defeat the Syrian rebellion and to defend Lebanon from “Sunni jihadist extremists.” In response to this Shia-based internationalism, influential Sunni clerics have called on Muslims from around the Middle East to fight their Shia nemesis in Syria.
This protracted conflict can reshape the map of the Middle East.Sunni-led governments from Turkey to Yemen aim to curtail Iran's rising regional power. Saudi Arabia is deeply worried about Tehran developing nuclear weapons, while the Sunni sheiks in the Gulf States are paranoid about Iran stirring unrest among their sizeable Shia populations. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein contributed to this sense of vulnerability among many Sunni leaders. Additionally, Iraq’s current coalition government, led by Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is under strong Iranian influence, and the country is condemned by Sunni activists as the first modern Arab state to be ruled by the Shia.
If a militant Islamist group were to come to power in Syria, neighbouring Iraq would become an even more unstable battleground between Shia and Sunni. If Iran loses its Syrian ally, it will also exploit the Iraqi conflict to combat Sunni influence in the region. The Turkish government is seeking to shield itself from this spreading conflict while pursuing the role of a regional leader. However, it remains unclear whether Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism and Islamism will make it less or more vulnerable to radical Muslim influences.
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The Islamization of Turkey would seriously undermine Ankara’s Western aspirations as well as its traditional international alliances. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey was a reliable bastion against Soviet encroachments in the Eastern Mediterranean. Under the Erdogan administration, relations between Ankara and Moscow have significantly improved. This was most visible in Turkey’s avoidance in criticizing Russia for its invasion and partition of Georgia in August 2008. Indeed, many of the other littoral states complain that the Black Sea has become a Russian-Turkish condominium that undermines their sovereignty.
Moscow has sought to widen Turkey’s alienation from the U.S. and the EU to help restrict Western intrusions in the Black Sea-Caspian region. For instance, Moscow and Ankara have opposed the extension of NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour, a counterterrorist naval mission, from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Closer political and military ties between Ankara and Moscow are also backed by some sectors of the Turkey’s security structure, which is unenthusiastic about adopting democratic reforms demanded by the EU.
Moscow offers Ankara lucrative energy deals and other enticements to seal an anti-American bond and Russia has become one of Turkey’s most important economic and energy partners. For instance, Erdogan has consented to the construction of the South Stream pipeline through Turkey’s territorial waters that will raise Moscow’s influence among European consumers. The Kremlin also plays on Turkey’s aspirations to become an energy hub by promising supplies and pipelines.
Although Erdogan evidently does not want to pull Turkey out of NATO, especially as the Alliance provides military modernization and a role in decision-making, his policies may increasingly conflict with Washington and the Europeans. The downgrading of the secular armed forces is straining traditionally close military to military ties and raising suspicion about Islamic influences in Turkey’s army. Internationally, Ankara’s ambition to achieve a prominent role in the Middle East as the leader of a pan-Islamic alliance in the wake of the Arab Spring indicates a shift of focus from West to East that is alarming its Western partners.
Regarding the European project, despite fifty years of effort, Turkey has made only limited progress toward EU accession. It signed an Association Agreement with the European Economic Community fifty years ago, in 1963. In April 1987, Ankara submitted its application for formal membership in the European Community, the EU’s previous designation. The European Commission confirmed Turkeys’ eventual membership but also postponed the decision, citing the country’s inadequate economic conditions and limited political reforms, together with its poor relations with Greece and its festering conflict with Greek Cyprus.
The EU entry process has dragged out during the past two decades. In 1999, the EU recognized Turkey as a candidate on an equal footing with other aspirants, but only in 2004 did EU leaders decide to launch accession talks. These discussions have stalled for various reasons. EU officials have criticized the slowdown in Turkish reforms and the process was effectively frozen in December 2006.European Commission President José Manuel Barroso claimed that the accession timetable would take at least until 2021. However, with vehement opposition to Turkey’s membership visible among member states such as France, this date looks increasingly unrealistic.
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Ankara’s frustration with the EU entry process and its conviction that many West European capitals are deliberately excluding Muslim countries, is contributing to Turkey’s Middle Eastern and Islamist orientation. During a visit to Germany in October 2012, Prime Minister Erdoğan asserted that Turkey was expecting EU membership to be completed by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. His underlying message was loud and clear: if there was no positive outcome within the next ten years then the entire membership process could be terminated.
Ironically, Ankara and the EU planned to relaunch accession talks at the end of June, but the timetable was postponed given EU criticisms of police actions against the street protests. The message of protestors also underscores that Turkey’s democratic credentials are in serious doubt and Erdogan will find it difficult to project an image of a successful and moderate Islamic state that can serve as a model for other potential democracies. In the absence of high-level talks with EU representatives and with Turkey’s domestic crisis likely to continue, the rift with Europe is likely to widen and accelerate Ankara’s Middle Eastern orientation. While Brussels is losing any leverage it had with the Turkish authorities, EU membership itself may no longer be attractive to a significant number of Turks.
Janusz Bugajski is a foreign policy analyst, author, lecturer, columnist, and television host based in the United States. He has published 18 books on Europe, Russia, and trans-Atlantic relations.