The Region: Perception and identity

Is Turkey's ruling party traditionalist, or is the AKP an Islamic party in modern clothing plotting the total transformation of Turkish society.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Let's talk about two key issues concerning Turkey. First, in what direction is that extremely important country going? Second, why are US-Turkish relations about to face a very serious crisis? In April, Turkey will choose a new president. In November, it will pick a new parliament. If Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to be president, it is hard to see who is going to stop him. The Justice and Development (AKP) party government is in a very strong position, with the opposition parties still very much divided, unable to offer a common program or a single inspiring or charismatic leader. So this raises once again the central question of Turkish politics: Is the AKP a conservative, traditionalist party which is moderate in pushing more Islam onto Turkish society, or is it an Islamist party in moderate clothing, plotting the total transformation of Turkish society? There are many people on both sides of this argument, an issue which is of the deepest and greatest importance for the country's future. In some ways, perhaps, they are both right. The AKP contains elements which understand that its success is based on being a moderate party that wants to join Europe through the European Union. It may be against the "Kemalist" elite which has long dominated the country but stands for democracy and a largely - if less completely - secular society. At the same time, there are hard-line elements that want to take Turkey, step by step, down a road that would undo the revolution of Kemal Ataturk, turning Turkey into a somewhat more moderate version of Iran. As the AKP conquers the key positions of Turkey - already the parliament and prime ministership; soon the presidency? - it wants to install teachers, judges, and laws which will make their social domination comprehensive and irreversible. The problem may be that the more power the AKP has, and the less effective opposition it faces, the more tempting it will be to raise its demands. If the AKP has to worry about being blocked or checked by courts, criticized in the media, and defeated in elections, the more cautious and hence moderate it might be. At any rate, Turkey may be about to find out how an AKP whose control is ever widening will act. MEANWHILE, trouble is also brewing on the international scene. The Democrats in the newly elected US Congress are promising to support a resolution asserting that Turkey committed genocide during World War I. If this passes, Turkey will be outraged - not just the politicians, but the population in general - and will take strong action. Anti-Americanism in Turkey, already at high levels, will climb even more upward. The outcome will be a strengthening of more extreme forces: the AKP (and more radical elements in that party) and the nationalist plus semi-Islamist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In the past, such an outcome was prevented by the White House, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, quietly telling Congress that passing such a bill was bad for US interests. Today, Congress has no interest in listening to what the current president might say on that matter. Proponents of Armenian genocide claim that there could have been anywhere from 600,000 to as many as one million Armenian casualties of Ottoman soldiers or irregular units. If Armenian communities and nationalist movements had focused attention in recent decades on those massacres, instead of genocide (which is a far more grave accusation), they would have won universal support. Turkey would probably be facing far more criticism, damage to its reputation, and pressure to apologize and pay compensation than it does today. I wouldn't be surprised if, in these circumstances, such actions would have become a condition for Turkey's membership in the European Union. BUT THE Armenian groups chose a different strategy, summed up by the word "genocide." They insisted that the Ottoman Empire had committed this most terrible of all crimes and had to be found guilty. Responsibility for this passed to Turkey, the successor state. It is also worth pointing out, however, that the present-day republic of Turkey arose by overthrowing the Ottoman Empire and those who had governed it in World War I. This strategy greatly raised the stakes while doing two things that led to its relative failure. First, the Armenians now had to prove that the Ottoman Empire had consciously, deliberately and systematically decided to wipe out the Armenians. And this they could not do because evidence was lacking. A very high standard of proof is required for genocide. As a result, an easy Armenian victory was turned into a far tougher struggle. Second, the Turks can point to extenuating circumstances: it was wartime, the first act of aggression was from the Armenians taking arms against their own government; Armenian units were being raised to fight against the Ottomans as part of the Russian army; Armenians also massacred Turks; and indeed, close to 2.5 million Anatolian Muslims died due to starvation, disease and fighting during this period of Ottoman history. EVEN IF one does not accept the plea of "self-defense," most of the world is thus ready to acquit the Ottomans of first-degree murder, while they might easily have convicted them on a charge of manslaughter, a serious but lesser crime. The United States and the West need Turkey today to deal with Iran, Iraq, Central Asia, and lots of other issues. It would be wrong to look the other way if Turkey was guilty of genocide. But why should critical relations be sacrificed on the basis of a wrongful accusation? At the same time, of course, Turkey's number-one foreign policy goal - full membership in the EU - is in jeopardy. The Europeans are reluctant to admit Turkey for a long list of reasons including religious, cultural, economic and political. Things have just reached the point where it is starting to become clear that Turkey cannot please enough Europeans to get in for a very long time. So there are two issues right now for Turkey: One is how it sees itself; the other is how others see it.