By all accounts, Turkey has been on a path of tremendous economic development and a model of moderate Islam. On the other hand, the country’s economy is slowing down, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been flirting with neo-Ottoman policies, and its vision of a Muslim society is less than the moderate brand of Islam the West has hoping would serve as an example to the rest of the region.
Initially, Erdogan was seen as a man committed to democracy: he removed the army from intervening in politics and adjusted Turkey’s political system so that the country began to evolve into a progressive state.
Below the surface, however, the contradictions of Turkish society did not recede before the political and economic changes. Instead, prosperity seemed to supercharge the forces that divided the country.
Turkey’s failure to be admitted to the EU has played into Erdogan’s hands, and has enabled him to adopt neo-Ottoman policies that cast Turkey as a major and rising power in the Middle East. Ironically, both the Europeans and Erdogan seemed to have agreed that Turkey was not part of Europe, and have instead accepted the country as a future power broker in the Muslim world.
In effect, under Erdogan’s stewardship Turkey turned its back on the West. The Turkish prime minister severed Turkey’s historic ties with Israel, moved closer to Iran, and more recently has annoyed the US by purchasing Chinese missiles.
The Turkish leader has also exhibited a volatile temper, and was quick to take offense at any real or perceived insults to Turks. The latter, however, has been a familiar pattern of Turkish behavior – at least of its leadership. Turkish dictators, generals or prime ministers have always been thin-skinned – demanding respect rather than earning it.
Part of the reason for this sensitivity has to do with cultural insecurity – the pull of Europe and the tug of Islam, and Turkey’s attempt to deal with its Ottoman past. The Kemalists rejected all things Ottoman and embraced a secular, Turkish, identity.
What the Kemalists failed to understand, however, was that the Ottoman legacy, with its Byzantine customs and influence, had a greater claim to Europe than its Central Asian minority of actual Turks.
Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire was multicultural and Muslim light – closer to Sufism than the austere desert Islam of Saudi Arabia. The Ottoman Empire, even in its period of decline, had the cultural and religious confidence to tolerate the Ecumenical Patriarchate, something incomprehensible to the nationalist and secular Kemalists.
Unfortunately, Erdogan has embraced a version of Ottoman imperialism and ignored the rest. Even worse, Erdogan’s flirtation with neo-Ottomanism has infuriated Turkey’s western oriented and secular population, while encouraging the Islamists.
The convoluted result of Erdogan’s imperial ambitions can be seen in Syria. Turkey wisely avoided becoming embroiled in a war against the al-Assad regime, but by not doing so relinquished any hope of leading the Sunni Muslim world. However, Erdogan had increased the Islamic factor in Turkish society before his decision to not involve Turkey in Syria.
Thus when his foreign policy failed he was forced to turn to Europe and the EU. As a first step in mending relations after Erdogan’s failed bid for power in the Islamic world, Ankara agreed to a pact enabling EU nations to repatriate to Turkey the thousands of migrants who slip illegally across its border into Europe. Many of these have ended up in Greece, exasperating that country’s economic crisis.
Just as this act restarted Turkey’s EU’s ambition, Erdogan’s most recent actions have threatened to torpedo talks with the Europeans. The problem is Ankara’s move to tighten government control over its top judicial body – the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) – and its purge of police and others accused of plotting Erdogan’s overthrow.
The Europeans insist that in order for Turkey to aspire to EU membership, it must maintain an independent judiciary. Erdogan’s response: “It’s nobody’s job to make a statement about Turkey’s move over the HSYK,” he told his country’s ambassadors this week.
Once again, the thin-skinned Turkish leader is railing against the Europeans because he wants to be both an authoritarian Muslim figure and a western oriented European. His Kemalist predecessors altered the constitution to reduce the power of the Turkish military in politics in order to meet EU admission criteria, but in so doing, they were then powerless to prevent the accession of an Islamic party.
In the past the army would have left its barracks and toppled any Muslim-led government. Thus the Kemalists’ changes initially worked in Erdogan’s favor, since he was the leader of the Islamic party that won the elections. Today, however, the Turkish leader is flirting with the military to check the power of the Islamists. Due to Erdogan’s actions, the Islamists are now plotting to take power either by force or through the ballot box.
Should Turkey come under the control of a conservative Islamic regime, it will have at its command the most powerful military force in Europe and in the Middle East. The question confronting the EU leadership is whether they can trust Erdogan to adhere to democracy, or give up on Turkey evolving into a complete Western state and society? Either way, Islam has strong roots in Modern Turkey and it will be a Muslim Turkey that would become part of Europe.
(André Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver)