In Turkey, a transformation to populist autocracy

Guest Column by Michael Rubin. Rubin will give Monday’s Morning Lecture at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater.

Standing beside Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House on May 16, 2013, President Barack Obama hailed Turkey. 

“This visit reflects the importance that the United States places on our relationship with our ally, Turkey,” he said.

Obama has called Erdoğan one of the few foreign leaders with whom he has developed “friendships and the bonds of trust.” In his first trip abroad as president, Obama declared, “Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together — and work together — to overcome the challenges of our time.”

This American embrace of Turkey was not new. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey was a key ally. During the Korean War, Turkey suffered more casualties than any allied contingent, besides Korea and the United States. 

“We stand together on the major issues that divide the world,” former President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared. Even though Turkey refused to join the 2003 Iraq War, Turkish forces have deployed to Afghanistan in significant numbers.

Turkey in 2013, however, is not the Turkey which generations of American diplomats have viewed as a model, and which generals have come to rely upon as an ally in the fight against terrorism and defense against the region’s more radical regimes. In just a decade, Turkey has transformed from an aspiring democracy into a populist autocracy. Freedoms have evaporated, and Turkey is now a force for instability in the region.

The Turkey that tourists see is a mirage, no longer reflective of mainstream Turkey. While the U.S. Department of State rationalizes Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party — better known by the acronym AKP — as “a Muslim version of a Christian Democratic Party,” it is nothing of the sort.

Erdoğan’s religious agenda should have been clear. He regularly disparaged secularism. “Thank God Almighty, I am a servant of the Shariah,” he declared in 1994, later describing himself as “the imam of Istanbul.” When Erdoğan rose to the premiership, Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandar, who often serves as Erdoğan’s unofficial mouthpiece, hinted that a religious transformation was on the horizon. “We cannot stick to the old taboos,” he declared. 

Erdoğan was shrewd. He did not publicly abandon Turkey’s laicism or its drive toward Europe. Instead, he used liberals’ traditional dream of European Union accession to his advantage; Erdoğan was happy to oblige European demands that Turkey excise military influence from the political sphere. The military — and its secular ideology — was the bane of Erdoğan’s existence. European leaders never understood that Turkey’s military did not suffocate democracy, but actually enabled it. Beyond national defense, the military served as guarantor of Turkey’s constitution. Erdoğan imprisoned one of every five generals, and diplomats applauded his democratization. But he neither crafted — nor did Europeans demand — an alternate system of checks and balances; he had carte blanche to change Turkey in his image and did so blatantly. In 2005, top aide Bülent Arınç famously threatened to dissolve the Constitutional Court of Turkey if it continued to find AKP legislation unconstitutional.

Erdoğan quickly turned his back on Europe. He condemned the European Court of Human Rights for failing to consult Islamic scholars. He ordered any reference to secularism be removed from descriptions of Turkey’s educational system. He loosened age restrictions on children who attend supplemental Quran schools meant to avoid brainwashing, and he voided regulations which prevented foreign extremists from teaching.

The situation of Turkish women has become especially dire. Whereas Turkey was only the second Muslim country to elect a woman leader, today, women are all but purged from the cabinet. The trend permeates the bureaucracy: Women occupy less than 1 percent of most central government positions. Since the AKP took power, the murder rate of women has increased by 1,400 percent. No longer is Turkey a secular pillar, nor does Turkish society reflect European liberalism. If the AKP’s tenure continues, Turkish women may soon find themselves on parity not with Western Europe, but with Iran.

The media has also suffered. Turkey ranks below Russia and Zimbabwe in press freedom and imprisons more journalists than any other country. Erdoğan has sued dozens of journalists and editors, sometimes for nothing more than a political cartoon poking fun at the prime minister. When a Turkish newspaper pursued a story about illegal donations from a charity close to Erdoğan, tax authorities punished it with a $600 million tax lien. When the paper continued to pursue the story, they received an additional $2.5 billion tax penalty. And, in a strategy borrowed from Iran, Erdoğan has actually confiscated newspapers, transferring their ownership to political allies and, in some cases, family members. The latest confiscation came the same day that Erdoğan met Obama at the White House.

Realists might dismiss Turkey’s domestic woes as none of Washington’s business. But American officials can no longer trust that partnership with Turkey bolsters national security. To the contrary, in 2010, the Turkish Air Force held secret war games with their Chinese counterparts without first informing the U.S. Department of Defense. Turkey’s efforts to import Chinese anti-aircraft missiles and make them interoperable with NATO systems can expose programming secrets to Chinese engineers.

Erdoğan’s anti-Israel obsession propelled Turkey to a leadership role among Islamic nations, but it also undercut the Middle East peace process. Erdoğan stunned American officials in 2006 when, shortly after Hamas’ election win, he voided his promise to isolate Hamas until it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Egemen Bağış, Erdoğan’s confidant and minister for European Union affairs, has even threatened to use the Turkish Navy against companies drilling in Cypriot waters that Turkey claims. Turkey today is also among the biggest leaks in Iran sanctions.

It may be hard to stomach Turkey’s current state, but the real damage will occur if American policymakers refuse to recognize the new reality and understand how it occurred. Turkey is a model, but not for democratization; rather, Erdoğan shows how Middle Eastern ideologues can use the rhetoric of democracy for decidedly other aims.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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