Trouble in Turkey

The dissociation of Turkey from the West is already upon us.

Erdogan wins 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Erdogan wins 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ominous changes are afoot in the old seat of the Ottoman Empire. In a stunning and unprecedented turn of events, Turkey’s entire military brass – including chief-of-staff General Isik Kosaner and the commanders of the army, air force, and navy – resigned en masse Friday.
The immediate cause was a crackdown waged by the judiciary on the army’s top ranks, which put one out of every 10 high-ranking officers in prison for an alleged (and probably trumped-up) coup plot.
But in a larger sense the resignations underscore the extent to which the Turkish military – the second largest in NATO – has lost its political clout. Once considered untouchable and regarded as the most trusted institution in the country, the army has long served as a bastion of secularism.
“The average general is better educated, more worldly and, in some ways, more liberal than the average politician,” Stephen Kinzer writes in his book Crescent and Star.
As of this week, however, the generals’ guardianship is over.
Indeed, the decades-long balance between modernization and Islam now threatens to wobble out of control, and the enormity of the implications – for Turkey as for the region – cannot be overstated.
The latest developments are part of a protracted erosion of the secular foundations of the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Ataturk, a former general in the Ottoman army and field marshal in the Turkish army, abolished the caliphate, outlawed the veil, and replaced Shariah with civil law. What we are witnessing now is a repudiation of the essential idea of the Ataturk revolution: that successful modernization could only be carried out if accompanied by secularization.
This repudiation did not occur overnight. The military has seen its prestige plummet since the religiously rooted, conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, took power in 2002. Harnessing the anti-Western sentiment unleashed by the 2003 Iraq war – cast by the party as a war on Muslims – the AKP exerted increasing influence over the financial sector, trade unions, manufacturing and the media.
Since taking power, AKP leader Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the 57-year-old devoutly Muslim former mayor of Istanbul and the most popular Turkish prime minister of the last half century, has stridently challenged the nation’s secular elite.
In the June elections, Erdogan’s party, rewarded by the electorate for presiding over one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, earned more votes than all other parties combined, winning its third election in a row. It has now held the reins of power longer than any party in Turkey’s democratic history.
As the AKP cements its grip on power, its leader has become ever more emboldened in his regional ambitions.
“We will become much more active in regional and global affairs,” Erdogan declared in his victory speech in Ankara. “Believe me,” the prime minister told the crowd, “Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul; Beirut won as much as Izmir; Damascus won as much as Ankara; Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.”
As the prospects for joining the European Union dim, Erdogan clearly aims to shift Turkey’s focus toward the Muslim east.
With secular opposition parties weakened, Erdogan has also become increasingly autocratic.
He has pledged to promulgate a new constitution and has silenced dissent in the media. He has pushed for wider acceptance of the Muslim headscarf. He has hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, an indicted genocidal war criminal.
In the wake of the deaths of nine Turkish civilians on the Mavi Marmara in last summer’s flotilla, he has accused Israel of “state terrorism” and has taken to calling his domestic critics “Tel Aviv’s lawyers.” He has professed the conspiracy theory that Israel is backing the Kurdish terrorist group PKK.
In this nation – torn between Westernization and traditional Islam – the unraveling of the Kemalist legacy and the resurgence of Islamist populism at the expense of the military will reverberate well beyond Turkey’s borders.
It is a clear and troubling signal – if we are only discerning enough to hear it – that the dissociation of Turkey from the West is already upon us.