The Region: Beware of Turkey's Islamists

Istanbul and Washington are now on opposite sides of the most important struggle of our time.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
In Istanbul, Turks of every political position told me the same story to explain their situation: To cook a live frog you don't put it in a pot on a high flame. You put it in cool water and raise the temperature very slowly. This is what they fear is happening in Turkey following the victory of the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development (AK) party in the July 22 parliamentary election. International media coverage repeats endlessly that the AK party is really moderate now. Despite Islamist roots, they say, it is now a centrist party mainly concerned with Turkey becoming a European Union (EU) member and having a prosperous economy. Certainly, such is the image the party has projected over its five years in power, and there is some evidence to accept this conclusion. Half of Turkey's voters supported AK precisely because they became convinced that it had no Islamist intentions. The economy is doing well. Turkey might benefit from having a system more balanced regarding religion. At the same time, though, there is also evidence to doubt that AK is going to be so benign. And even if the party is relatively moderate, it is still nothing to rejoice about. The long-term prospects of AK rule are disturbing. No one knows what will happen, but to conclude that Turkey will prove the virtues of Islamists-gone-moderate is somewhere between premature and naïve. If the world is unaware of the danger, a bad-case scenario is far more likely. Let's not exaggerate the problem; but let's not ignore it, either. CONSIDER FOREIGN policy. Is it an exaggeration to say that the AK government feels more comfortable with Islamic Iran than with the United States? Not really. If the key issue in the Middle East, perhaps the world, is the spread of radical Islamism, does the AK government want to see this movement defeated in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt or among the Palestinians? No. Even if the AK government does not want to impose radical Islamism at home, it is certainly not the enemy of radical Islamism abroad. Once pro-Western, Turkey is now neutral, at best. The US-Turkish alliance, a mainstay since 1946, is dead. This does not mean the two countries are enemies. They still have good relations. The armed forces may still think the same way as they did in the past. But the two governments are not really allies any more. Turks tend to attribute the problems to the Iraq war and to what they see as American indulgence of the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group trying to seize southeastern Turkey. But this is only part of the problem. The real issue is that the two governments are on different sides regarding the most important struggle of our time. AN EQUALLY worrisome issue is the long-run trend. It might well be that AK falls due to a split, scandal, or economic downturn in a few years. At least part of the economy's good situation is due to government manipulation. Extremely high interest rates pour out money to foreign investors. How long can this continue? Experts think that a crash is inevitable. Yet what if AK stays in power for a long time? The combination of a large parliamentary majority and choosing Turkey's next president gives it tremendous powers. By naming the judges it can shape the country's laws; by choosing the armed forces' commander it can reverse the traditional bar on Islamic-oriented officers and neutralize the military's ability to intervene. Filling the bureaucracy with its supporters will move policies and their implementation closer to an Islamist agenda. In eastern and central Turkey, cities are moving toward the kind of Islamic forms of belief and behavior supported by political Islamists. A huge change - in Turkey as elsewhere among Muslims - is the introduction of what I call "competitive Islam." Historically, in the pre-Islamist era, it was impermissible to criticize any professing Muslim. Now, however, there is always someone to say that any given level of observance is insufficient and must be raised. This approach has now spread to Turkey, bringing an escalation of what constitutes the norm. THOSE WHO do not want to face the threat of radical Islam generally are eager to say that all is fine in Turkey, that the election was a victory for moderation and democracy, and that it is good to have a model of moderate Islamic-oriented politics governing that country. Again, one should not exaggerate what has happened there. But the victory of AK is not exactly something to be celebrated, even if it can be managed. The first step is to admit that there are real dangers and monitor very carefully what the AK government does. Now that it has moved from the low 30- to the high 40-percent level of voter support, the party is being tempted to conclude it can do anything it wants. This is bad for all concerned, even for AK itself, whose success is based on caution. To avoid the danger of AK going too far, to ensure it stays moderate whether or not it wishes to do so, the regime must continue to feel under pressure to stay in the center. This means continuation of the army's power as guarantor of Turkish democracy; that the media not be intimidated; that courts remain independent. An erosion of these control mechanisms could bring disaster. Few outsiders understand that one of AK's sources of appeal - and, ironically, also a cause of anti-Western feeling among domestic critics - is its claim to enjoy support from the US, Europe and Israel. Willingness to work with Turkey's government, even if it is an AK one, is not the same as wanting AK to be in power. Western institutions, media and even governments should indicate in appropriate ways that the AK is not their client and be ready to criticize its policies or behavior. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of Turkish Studies.