Turkey is not thought of as the Muslim country par excellence, but it is perhaps
the most Muslim nation in the world. Due to its unique birth during the collapse
of the Ottoman Empire, as a state forged exclusively by and for Muslims through
blood and war, Turkey is a Muslim nation by origin – a feature shared perhaps
only with partitioncreated Pakistan.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s
secularization in the 1920s veneered the country’s core identity with a
Kemalist, nationalistic overlay. However, a recent perfect storm has undone
Ataturk’s legacy: Whereas the events of September 11 have, unfortunately,
oriented Muslim-Western relations toward perpetual conflict, the Islamist-rooted
Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara has helped reexpose the country’s
core identity. When the AKP came to power in 2002, many expected that the
party’s promise to de-Kemalize Turkey by blending Islam and politics would not
only create a stronger Turkey, but would prove Islam’s compatibility with the
West. The result, however, has been the reverse.
The AKP has eschewed
Ataturk’s vision of Turkey as part of the West, preferring a Manichean “us
[Muslims] vs them” worldview. Hence, in the post- September 11 world, stripped
of its Kemalist identity, Turkey’s self-appointed role is that of “leader of the
Muslim world.” The country is, in fact, well-suited for this position: It has
the largest economy and most powerful military of any Muslim nation. After years
of successful de-Kemalization, the only obstacle that remains is convincing its
Muslim brethren to anoint it as their sultan.
Turkey was created as an
exclusive Muslim homeland through war, blood and tears. Unbeknownst to many
outsiders, modern Turkey emerged not as a state of ethnic Turks, but of Ottoman
Muslims who faced expulsion and extermination in Russia and the Balkan states.
Almost half of Turkey’s 73 million citizens descend from such survivors of
religious persecution. During the Ottoman Empire’s long territorial decline,
millions of Turkish and non-Turkish Muslims living in Europe, Russia and the
Caucasus fled persecution and sought refuge in modern-day Turkey.
the empire’s collapse at the end of World War I, Ottoman Muslims joined ethnic
Turks to defend their home against Allied, Armenian and Greek occupations. They
succeeded, making Turkey a purely Muslim nation that had been born out of
conflict with Christians. Religion’s saliency as ethnicity lasted into the post-
Ottoman period: When modern Greece and Turkey exchanged their minority
populations in 1924, Turkish- speaking Orthodox Christians from Anatolia were
exchanged with Greek-speaking Muslims from Crete.
All Muslims became
Although Ataturk emphasized the unifying power of Turkish
nationalism over religious identity, Turkishness never replaced Islam; rather,
both identities overlapped. Ataturk managed to overlay the country’s deep Muslim
identity with secular nationalism, but Turkey retained its Muslim
Turning to the post-September 11 world, states created on
exclusively national-religious grounds are vulnerable to a Huntingtonian,
bifurcated “us [Muslims] versus them” worldview.
Until the AKP, Turkey
was successfully driven by large pro-Western and secular elites, and there was
not much to worry about in this regard.
However, the AKP has replaced
these elites with those sympathetic to the us versus them
AKP leader and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
along with his government, believe in Huntington’s clash of civilizations – only
they choose to oppose the West. The AKP’s vision is shaped by Turkey’s
philosopher- king, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who summarizes this
position in his opus Strategic Depth, in which he writes that “Turkey’s
traditionally good ties with the West... are a form of alienation” and that the
AKP will correct the course of history, which has disenfranchised Muslims since
the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Undoubtedly, the AKP’s us versus them
vision would not have had the same powerful resonance had the group come to
power before September 11. Because those attacks defined a politically-charged
“Muslim world,” the AKP’s worldview has found fertile ground and has changed not
only Turkey itself, but also the nation’s role in foreign policy.
end, the AKP took advantage of Turkish anger with the US war in Iraq, casting it
as an attack on all Muslims, Turks included. This reinforced its bipolar vision.
Recently, while visiting Pakistan (of all places), Erdogan claimed that “the
United States backs common enemies of Turkey and Pakistan, and that the time has
come to unmask them and act together.” He later denied making these comments,
which were reported in Pakistan’s prominent English-language dailies.
AKP’s foreign-policy vision is not simply dualistic, but rather premised on
Islam’s à la carte morals and selective outrage, and therein lies the real
danger. One case in point is to compare the AKP’s differing stances toward Emir
Kusturica and Omar al- Bashir. The former, a Bosnian film director who stood
with the Yugoslav National Army as it slaughtered Bosnians in the 1990s, was
recently driven out of Turkey by AKP-led protests, resulting in threats against
his life – a victory for the victims of genocide in Bosnia. The latter, the
Sudanese president indicted for genocide in the International Court of Justice,
was gracefully hosted by the AKP in Turkey. Erdogan has said, “I know Bashir; he
cannot commit genocide because Muslims do not commit genocide.”
the gist of the AKP’s à la carte foreign-policy vision: that Muslims are
superior to others, their crimes can be ignored and anyone who stands against
Muslim causes deserves to be punished.
The reason this vision will
transform Turkey is because the country changes in tandem with its elites. Ever
since the modernizing days of the Ottoman sultans, political makeover has been
induced from above, and today the AKP is poised to continue this trend, as it is
replete with pro-AKP and Islamist billionaires, media, think tanks,
universities, TV networks, pundits and scholars – a full-fledged Islamist elite.
Furthermore, individuals financially and ideologically associated with the AKP
now hold prominent posts in the high courts since the September 12 referendum,
which empowered the party to appoint a majority of the top judges without a
confirmation process. In other words, the AKP now not only governs, but also
Like their close neighbors, the Russians, Turks have
moved in lockstep with the powerful political, social and foreign-policy choices
that their dominant elites have ushered in. Beginning with the sultans’ efforts
to westernize the Ottoman Empire in the 1770s, and continuing with Ataturk’s
reforms and the multiparty democracy experiment that started in 1946, Turkish
elites have cast their lot with the West. Unsurprisingly, the Turks adopted a
pro-Western foreign policy, embraced secular democracy at home and marched
steadily toward European Union membership.
Now, with the AKP introducing
new currents throughout Turkish society, this is changing. In foreign policy,
the dominant wind is solidarity with Islamist and anti-Western countries and
movements. After eight years of AKP rule – an unusually long period in Turkish
terms: if the AKP wins the June 2011 elections, it will have become the
longest-ruling party in Turkey’s multiparty democratic history – the Turks are
acquiescing to the AKP and its us versus them mind-set.
According to a
recent poll by TESEV, an Istanbul-based NGO, the number of people identifying
themselves as Muslim increased by 10 percent between 2002 and 2007, and almost
half of them described themselves as Islamist. In effect, the AKP’s steady
mobilization of Turkish Muslim identity along with its close financial and
ideological affinity with the nation’s new Islamist elites is setting the stage
for a total recalibration of Turkey’s international compass.
is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and coauthor
(with Scott Carpenter) of
Nuanced Gestures: Regenerating the US-Turkey
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