It should come as no surprise that a Turkish court has approved President Recep Erdogan’s plan to convert the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque. After all, Erdogan made it clear when he became mayor of Istanbul in 1994, “Thank God Almighty, I am a servant of the Sharia [Islamic law].”
Since his AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002, this frame of reference has determined not only Turkey’s domestic policy but also its foreign policy.
At first, the AKP masqueraded as a liberal party. However, by 2013 it became clear that Turkey was well on the road to becoming an illiberal democracy. As a former supporter, British Liberal Andrew Duff concluded, the AKP had replaced Kemalism as a state ideology with Islamism. Already in 2012, then-prime minister Erdogan declared it was the government’s intention to raise “a religious generation.” The following year, with the Gezi Park revolt that spread to most of Turkey, his plan backfired.
For example, what was recently intended as a live video chat on YouTube between the president and young people was met with comments of “oy moy yok” (no votes for you) and over 300,000 dislikes. The AKP’s support has sagged to 30%. The plan to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque is another desperate attempt by President Erdogan to drum up popular support.
The preamble to Turkey’s constitution states that sacred religious feelings shall not be involved in state affairs and politics, as required by the principle of secularism. More specifically, Article 24 prohibits basing the fundamental, social, economic, political and legal order of the state on religious tenets, which is precisely what Erdogan and his AK party have done.
This attempt to create a religious rather than secular state has even permeated the economy. Erdogan’s preference for sukuk (Islamic bonds) is well known. He aims to make Istanbul the hub of Islamic finance, and a month ago stated that the Islamic economic system is the key to solving the global financial crisis. Erdogan has called interest rates “the mother and father of all evil” and he blamed the Gezi Park uprising on “the interest rate lobby.”
In conformity with his views, the president believes that lower interest rates are the way to combat inflation. A year ago, the governor of Turkey’s central bank was replaced with a more pliant candidate, and since then the benchmark interest rate has been reduced from 24% to 8.25%. However, the official inflation rate has risen to 12.6%. As a result, foreign investors are abandoning ship.
IN ADDITION, Turkey has to refinance some $168 billion in foreign-denominated debt in the next year, and with the collapse of the lira and inadequate foreign currency reserves, it is facing the perfect storm.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s appeal to build a new relationship with the EU on common ground therefore comes as no surprise, as the EU is Turkey’s main source of foreign investment and a major trading partner. It is also not surprising that the EU’s foreign affairs head Josep Borrell states that it is the refugee issue where the EU’s and Turkey’s interests coincide.
Nevertheless, it would be constructive for both parties to consider the views expressed in the European Parliament’s recent debate on Turkey’s negative role in the Eastern Mediterranean.
There was marked criticism of Turkey’s belligerence: illegal drilling in Cyprus’ EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), violations of Greek airspace and territorial integrity, and repeated threats and blackmail to open up the gates to Europe. There was also condemnation of the arbitrary arrests of human-rights activists, lawyers, judges and journalists. Likewise, there was uniform rejection of Turkey’s EU membership bid.
Nor was Mr Borrell’s call for dialogue in EU-Turkish relations well received. As one parliamentarian pointed out, “It is not diplomatic language that must be used today with Turkey. What we expect from you is the language of firmness.”
Another added, “I hope that your name does not go down in history alongside those of Daladier and Chamberlain,” who signed the Munich Agreement in 1938.
A number of parliamentarians mentioned sanctions, and this view was held by Greece, Cyprus and France at the recent meeting of EU foreign ministers. However, Germany, which has 1.2 million Turkish voters and a lucrative arms export trade with Turkey, was more in favor of dialogue.
The Foreign Affairs Council has earlier called on Turkey to refrain from its drilling activities in Cyprus’s EEZ and “act in a spirit of good neighborliness,” but this is unlikely to deter Turkey. A fortnight ago Erdogan stated, “Turkey has become a powerful regional actor at a scale never seen in its recent history... we are now closer than ever to our goal of a great and strong Turkey. Once we safely carry our country to 2023, we will have made Turkey an unstoppable power.”
The writer is a member of the advisory board at Vocal Europe in Brussels.