Four days before he dropped out of the Republican race, Governor Rick Perry created an uproar by saying that Turkey is “being ruled by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists,” suggesting it was time to reevaluate Turkey’s place in NATO and to consider zeroing-out US aid to the country.
There was, of course, a huge media uproar in Turkey over these comments, but after the first shock wore off, something of a debate has erupted among Turkish and American commentators regarding the state of relations between the two countries.
Major Turkish newspapers described the incident as “scandalous,” with distinguished columnists like Mustafa Akyol opining “Rick Perry: What an Idiot.”
US based commentary was also harsh, though there was more sympathy for some of Perry’s concerns, if not the language in which he framed them. In the National Interest, Ted Galen Carpenter wrote “although Perry’s charges were preposterous, the spin from the Turkish government and media is not especially accurate either,” citing well-known shortcomings in Turkish democracy and a growing “policy estrangement between Washington and Ankara.” Many of Carpenter’s observations regarding press freedom and free speech in Turkey are right on the money, but his comments about secularism in the country miss some distinctions that Turks, whether for or against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), often think are important.
The AKP’s relationship to Islam can’t be understood without some background in Turkish history. Rising from the seat of the last Caliphate, the 20th century Republic embraced the ideal of “laicism,” a Jacobin secularism straight from the French Revolution in which the state views religion as a competitor for power, not merely as a cultural force that must remain separate from it. The AKP rejects this kind of secularism, but it is also very far from the clericalism of, for example, modern Iran.
Where Carpenter and some other American critics differ from some (though not all) Turkish analysts is that for many Americans the AKP’s increasingly alarming tendency to crack down on journalists and regime opponents is seen as a sign of a specifically Islamist rather than generically power-hungry agenda. Even for some of the AKP’s domestic critics, these abuses of power look like political moves rather than reflecting a specifically religious agenda.
Many western observers have started to call the AKP an “Islamist” political movement because of its stand on social issues, its excesses and arrests that seem to suggest a less than total commitment to principles of liberal political order, and because it professes a desire to alter—not to altogether eliminate—Turkey’s founding secular ideals.
The AKP says the third charge is unfair. In American terms, it claims to stand closer to the position of an Alabama judge who wants a statue of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn than to a raging theocrat who thinks we should repeal the Constitution and put the Bible in its place. It wants to bring the values and the moral atmosphere of religion into the public square, but it does not want to replace secular institutions with religious injunctions.
This is controversial; many of the AKP’s domestic opponents believe that its professions of liberalism and moderation are intended to deceive, and predict that as the party entrenches its power it will throw off the mask to reveal the Islamic fanaticism just under the surface. (I’ve sat through some long and passionate expositions of this point of view from some very intelligent and secular Turks.)
Others, including some Americans, argue more subtly that because Islam is so strong in Turkish society (about 99.8 percent of Turks today profess some form of Islam) and because Islam itself is such a political religion, the end result of AKP rule will be an Islamic state whatever the intentions of some party members. The moderates may be sincere, and the party itself may not now be committed to an extreme approach, but the political and theological dynamics will drive it down the Islamist road.
As is common in Turkish politics, the truth swims in murky waters and is often hard to spot. From where Via Meadia sits, it seems too soon to be sure either way. “Reply hazy, ask again later,” says the 8-ball we keep in our office; we will continue to follow Turkish news in hopes of a more definitive take.
Americans concerned about the AKP also point to Turkish foreign policy. Governor Perry’s remarks were prompted in part by a sense that Turkey is moving away from its historically pro-US foreign policy. There are some who believe Turkey is playing footsie with Iran in ways that threaten the US campaign on the nuclear issue. As Carpenter expresses the preception, “Ankara and Washington are on rather different pages about how to deal with Tehran’s nuclear program.”
True in some ways, but although Turkey and the US have differed on the role of sanctions, last September the Turkish government announced it would host part of NATO’s new X-Band AN/TPY-2 missile defense system. The radar installation will deter Iranian missile attacks and could discourage Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons by diminishing their military utility. Turkey, possibly for sectarian reasons and possibly out of broader considerations, is emerging as a strong regional rival to Iran in its own right. This, plus Turkey’s continuing concerns about Russia (aligning itself with both Syria and Iran) may keep Turkey closer to NATO and its American allies than some observers predict.
Israel is another sore point in the relationship, as the AKP era has seen a rapid and progressive deterioration in once-strong relations between the Jewish state and the Turkish republic. To many Americans, anti-Israel moves by Turkey greatly strengthen the case that the AKP is a full blown Islamist threat.
That Prime Minister Erdogan has capitalized on Israel’s unpopularity with the Turkish masses is clear; his proclaimed solidarity with Hamas and other deeply anti-Israel Islamic and Islamist movements throughout the region troubles many Americans who do not yet see the AKP as just another Middle Eastern party of sectarian throwbacks. Here too Via Meadia wants to keep an open mind; many of the region’s secular nationalists (like Turkey’s neighbors in Syria) have also been rabidly anti-Israel. In the Middle East, you can be anti-Israel and also be anything from communist to Khomeinist, and in any cases it is not yet clear how far the new Turks are ready to carry their anti-Israel line. One notes that the Turks have not worked aggressively to send new flotillas toward Gaza. Again, time will tell.
What Perry and a number of other America-based observers sometimes scant is the powerful effect on Turkey of both the internal disarray in Europe and the increasingly slim chances that the EU will offer Turkey membership. If Turkey’s long courtship of the West is going to end in rejection (and the French genocide law is one more indication that France will make sure the Turkish application dies), then for reasons of pride and interest, Turkey must turn east and south. To do that effectively under contemporary conditions it must distance itself from the US and Israel and stress the religious bonds between its own people and the neighbors. A lot of what is happening in Turkey these days has nothing to do with the United States or even with Islam per se, but about the fundamental changes of direction that must take place if Europe, foolishly, is determined to slam shut this door.
To discern the intentions and inner thoughts of Turkey’s new rulers is difficult, especially when in many cases they are, like most politicians, feeling their way forward through events rather than rigidly implementing a finely-honed plan. Turkey’s government is becoming more ostentatiously pious, less dogmatically secularist, and the elements of authoritarianism that defaced the Turkish Republic under Kemalist secularists have not fully disappeared in the new dispensation. Its foreign policy is less Eurocentric and more Middle Eastern than before, and its relations with Israel have dramatically cooled.
Post-Kemalist Turkey is going to be a more independent force and an even pricklier ally than before, but the time has not yet come to proclaim the end of the US-Turkish alliance. Via Meadia is going to step up its coverage of Turkey and the Turkish press to see what kinds of patterns emerge going forward. The relationship has been and could still be much too important to cast lightly aside, and Turco-American relations have overcome some severe shocks in the past.
Stay tuned. The end of the Cold War, upheavals in the Middle East, and profound changes in Turkey itself mean that little can be taken for granted.