Watching Turkey’s Descent Into Islamist Dictatorship
“Deep trouble” in Turkey’s relationships with Europe and the United States was a recurring theme in the December address of Michael Meier — representative to America and Canada for Germany’s Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Foundation for Social Democracy. His introduction to the Middle East Institute (MEI) and FES’ eighth annual Turkey Conference at Washington, DC’s National Press Club was an appropriately gloomy preface to the discussion of Turkey’s troubled past and present.
During the event, San Diego State University political science professor Ahmet Kuru examined how Turkey had become increasingly undemocratic under 15 years of rule by the AK Party (AKP) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I don’t really think that elections matter in Turkey,” Kuru stated, given that President Erdogan can manipulate or cancel elections at will. Such authoritarianism in Turkey and elsewhere means that those who study elections in Central Asia and the Middle East “study something which does not matter at all.”
“Turkey is taking an Islamist, populist path” under Erdogan and his AKP, Kuru stated; the Turkish “understanding of Islam is more and more becoming a political Islam, rather than Sufism, mysticism.” As a result, he added, Turkey’s “educational system is already Islamicized,” while YouTube videos have shown police officers taking Islamic oaths. Furthermore, television shows on Turkey’s Ottoman Empire past are “creating a fantasy; Ottoman in wonderland.”
Kuru views Erdogan’s Islamist rule as more threatening than prior secular authoritarianism under the followers of the Turkish republic’s post-World War I founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. “This regime is more dangerous than Kemalism, because Kemalism did not have religious legitimacy; [it] never claimed that the opposition is infidel,” he noted. Meanwhile, he continued, “political morality is totally gone,” as corruption in the country presents an “unprecedented ethical crisis … with a constituency, which claims to be very moral” because of Islamic and nationalist convictions.
Fellow panelist, Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Aykan Erdemir, confirmed Kuru’s analysis from the perspective of a former Turkish parliamentarian. Erdogan has been able “to criminalize the opposition,” Erdemir declared, with judicial harassment techniques like the false charges aimed at discrediting the former lawmaker in Turkey. Yet, Erdemir added, Erdogan is deeply interested in “keeping the illusion going that Turkey is not a dictatorship,” so he “has to come up with some sort of opposition-like looking actors so that there can be a ballot box at the end.”
“The next important stage in Turkish political history is how to reconstitute polyarchy,” he concluded gravely.
Erdemir reflected upon the legacy of the one-time alliance between Erdogan’s AKP and the shadowy Turkish Islamist movement of Fethullah Gülen, which are now bitter rivals. The “lasting legacy of 11 years of Erdogan-Gülen alliance, from 2002 to December 2103, will be hollowed-out institutions,” which “will remain with Turkish citizens beyond the life-term of these two individuals.” Fellow panelist, University of Central Florida Chair of Kurdish Political Studies Güneş Murat Tezcür, concurred that the Gülen movement had contributed to Turkey’s “huge institutional decay.”
National Defense University Professor Ömer Taspinar examined the historically weak basis of Turkey’s market economy: “If you want to get government contracts, good luck being an independent newspaper in Turkey; there is this cronyism.” Currently the AKP-run government has seized billions in investments from the Gülen movement, but “that’s not a new story; the Turkish state has been doing that against enemies that it considers [sic] for a long time.”
Turkey has a “political culture where you really don’t have an independent business community,” Taspinar remarked. Meanwhile, he added, the lack of “secure property rights” has been” a “deeply-rooted problem.” Government confiscation of property from Turkey’s minorities, such as the 1942 wealth tax, has recurred throughout its history.
Taspinar summarized Turkey’s predatory economic development as follows: “From the get-go, Turkish industrialization, the emergence of the Turkish business community … required the appropriation of the wealth and real estate of non-Muslim minorities.”
“Turkey had a business community,” he added and “some level of capitalism in the 19th century, but it was primarily the non-Muslim community — Armenians, Jews, and Greeks.”
Thus, Taspinar concluded, “Turkish nation-building … tragically, is partly a product of the de-Hellenization of Turkey — there are no more Greek communities left,” and of “Armenian massacres, genocide; basically, there are no more Armenians, and the Jewish community has [sic] shrank.”
The final panel followed suit with a somber discussion of Turkey’s foreign policy. Al-Monitor columnist Amberin Zaman noted that “Turkey has gone from being a very stable, predictable, Western ally, [and a] critical member of the NATO alliance, to an increasingly unpredictable and unstable one.” Given this “astonishing sort of sea change” for “Turkish-American relations, people are writing obituaries about them.”
Nonetheless, Zaman’s fellow panelist — Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus Jonathan Cohen — invoked outdated platitudes about how America’s “alliance with Turkey is strategic and enduring.” Likewise, in his keynote address, Michelle Müntefering, a German parliamentarian from the FES-linked Social Democratic Party (SPD), reiterated the SPD policy of eventual European Union (EU) membership for Turkey. “With Turkey in the EU, you could have solved today’s problems. We should have made Turkey put its hope in the European Union. We have not done this, and now we have a problem.”
However, the speakers with soberly realistic assessments truly reflected the austere mood of the event. As Kuru concluded: the “best scenario possible is that each and every group in Turkey will take lesson … from the immoral things that they have done … and Turkey will become an electoral democracy again.”
One can only hope he’s right, but the diagnosis offered at the conference was not optimistic. Turkey remains the sick man.
Andrew E. Harrod is a Campus Watch fellow, freelance researcher, and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod.