AKP And Stealth Islamism In Turkey

Protest, BeyolguThis story by John Feffer about Turkey is popping up just about everywhere on the internets. The author, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, has as his thesis that “Turkey is chasing China to be the next big thing.” This is rather fanciful and the China analogies litter the essay. I’ll give him this, many of his facts in the essay are correct: Turkey has largely become Europe’s silent manufacturer and his deconstruction of Turkey’s ‘Zero Problems With Neighbors’ is an excellent elucidation of Turkey’s foreign policy. Further, the Turks are on their way towards rectifying the Kurdish problem.

As for superpower? Look, this is silly. No doubt whoever controls Anatolia and the Straits will always be powerful in a regional sense. But a superpower? How will Turkey project power outside of the Mediterranean Basin? They don’t even have nukes, which is pretty much the contemporary definition of great power status. In spite of its problems, the essay is worth a read as a primer on Turkey’s history since the death of Mustafa Kemal. The biggest fault with the essay, however, is his terribly dismissiveness of Islamism’s rise in Turkey. He writes:

This is, however, a fundamental misunderstanding of the AKP and its intentions. Islamism has about as much influence in modern-day Turkey as communism does in China. In both cases, what matters most is not ideology, but the political power of the ruling parties. Economic growth, political stability, and soft-power diplomacy regularly trump ideological consistency. Turkey is becoming more nationalist and more assertive, and flexibility, not fundamentalism, has been the hallmark of its new foreign policy.

Feffer, sadly, misunderstands the role of how “Economic growth, political stability, and soft-power diplomacy regularly trump ideological consistency.” These are the AKP’s means to an end. I’ve seen it firsthand in Turkey. Islamism is real. Very, very real. The Secularists in Turkey are boxed in. So are the Generals. The Secularists don’t have an answer to Erdogan’s economic growth miracle, because the Secularist economic policies are and were bankrupt. Corruption of the worst kind was rampant. Hyper inflation and economic crises like clockwork were the norm under the last twenty years of secular and military rule. When I first visited Turkey in 2001 one US dollar was worth millions of Turkish lira. The notes were simply insane. Try counting none or ten zeros when you wanted to buy a coke. Dinner was a joke.

Today the lira is stable. Turkey’s economy churns along. Economic life in Turkey is better than it has been in a very, very long time. The AKP has gone a long way towards neutralizing the deep state in Turkey, as well as eradicating the worst signs of corruption, although not eliminating it completely. No, I am not idealizing life under the secularists; it had its problems. But the warning signs of a creeping Islamism under the AKP are real.

While I was there in 2001 or even 2003 seeing a woman in Istanbul with a veil was unlikely. Not any more, as this link makes clear. This link is also indicative of how hard it is to come to grips with the reality of Islamism in Turkey. At first, I too got caught up in the talking point of choice, a kind of post-modern spin on women’s rights, which is anything but. It goes like this: women in Turkey are free to wear the veil or not wear the veil. It is their choice. But, as I investigated closer what I found was the opposite: the social pressure, from fathers to neighbors and the increase in honor killings, to conform to the politics of the veil were very real. That isn’t choice, not as I define it. I don’t want to go into the whole debate again, suffice it to say that many young women in Turkey don’t have a choice.

Nor is Islamism’s creep limited to the rights of women. The theory of evolution is under attack in Turkey. And Turkey is one of the few places in the developed world, outside of America, where science itself is being challenged. As a matter of fact, if you took the Christianist project here in America and put an Islamist label on it in Turkey, it would be almost identical.

There are places where alcohol is banned in Istanbul, as well. Sure, tourists can drink to their hearts content. But locals? Nope. In parts of Anatolia, never a liberal bastion, a quasi-Shari’a is often enforced, if not lawfully, then by custom. And these customs are moving West, to Izmir, Bursa and Istanbul itself as rural immigrants pore into the cities.

These are just some of the reasons why the Gaza Flotilla is such a turning point in Turkish politics. The AKP is slowly chipping away at the foundations of secularism in Turkey. And they are winning. The Gaza Flotilla and Erdogan’s attack on Peres at Davos were exhibitions of soft-power par excellence. But, before we cheer Erdogan on in the face of Israel’s coarse and brutal siege mentality, its flouting of international norms and the continuing inhumane blockade of Gaza, let’s keep the domestic Turkish context in mind. Politics, as they say, make strange bedfellows.

The good news is that Turkey presents a serious challenge to the neo-con project in the Middle East (a project, I hasten to add, I do not in any way support). Turkey presents a much needed wake-up call to the American political class’s constant obeisance to Israel, as well. As Erdogan has proven, he is an adroit wielder of Turkey’s significant soft-power.

I’ve long been of the opinion that if there is to be an Islamic democracy it would have to rectify the values of Islam and the values of secularism and pluralism. It would have to be a democracy in an Islamic context, much as Japan is a democracy in an East-Asian context. And this is a project I’ve not given up on. But helping such a project along requires restraint and nuance (not to mention patience) on the part of American policy-makers. This might be a temporary swing of the pendulum in Turkey’s domestic politics, but then again, it might not.

Alas, the American foreign policy establishment has proven time and time again that it doesn’t do nuance. And restraint?

But in order to keep Turkey in our orbit they’ll need to learn both.

I’m not holding my breath.

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