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January 9, 2023 10:15 am

The Devolution of Turkey

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avatar by Morgan P. Muchnick


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured), following a meeting in Moscow, Russia, March 5, 2020. Photo: Pavel Golovkin / Pool via Reuters.

A decade ago, I published a piece entitled The Devolution of Pakistan, in which I expressed my sincere disappointment in the dramatic negative turn the nation of Pakistan took over the past generation. A once proudly secular and Western-leaning government and military establishment has been completely overrun by radical Islam.

Similarly, over the past decade, I have watched the devolution of Turkey with great dismay and profound sadness. My affinity toward Turkey began as an undergraduate at UCLA, where I worked with Professor Stanford Shaw to craft a research document about Turkey’s positive role toward Jews during the Holocaust. During this era (1990s), we constantly were taught that democracy is possible in the Muslim world. One only need look to Turkey to see a Muslim nation that embraces secular, democratic principles in its political and military institutions. In fact, I fondly remember traveling from Israel to Turkey in the mid 1990’s and being greeted by ‘dock-hawks’ in a Turkish port city clamoring to tell me how much they liked Israel and loved selling to Israelis when they came to visit Turkey. Moreover, the Turkish, US and Israeli militaries formerly conducted routine drills and openly cooperated in intelligence and logistics sharing efforts. This was considered a rock-solid Western-leaning block.

However, some within the academic and think-tank community began to criticize Turkey for not giving enough of a voice to its religious Muslim citizens. In a surprise to no one, and true to the horribly misguided moral compass of these academics, as well as the laughable inability to understand the actual realities on the ground, Turkey eventually elected and empowered a dictator named Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the beginning, many of these “thought leaders” were excited to see him rise to power. They saw a “purer” reflection of the Turkish population. In fact, former Turkish NBA star Hedo Türkoğlu even joined his administration in 2016.

However, instead of a move toward a more wholistic democracy that, admittedly, sometimes undervalued its observant Muslim population, it quickly pivoted toward a pseudo-democracy led by a hardline leader. During the many, many years since his ascendancy, Turkey has, instead of being the ‘Muslim nation on a Hill’, followed the disconcerting trend of too many Muslim nations in the past; that of a repressive, one-party pho-democracy. Ironically, as nations such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Morocco, Egypt, and others are moving quickly toward a more modern approach to geopolitics and rights for its citizenry, Turkey has devolved. Other Muslim nations have also been devolving recently, including Afghanistan, which, after the United States and our NATO allies courageously sacrificed blood and treasure, girls and women saw a glimpse of a world that offered them hope to live as ‘humans’ and not just the property of men.

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Moreover, Erdogan has deep roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and has often met with the leaders of Hamas, which is excessively repressive towards the rights of women, homosexuals, and religious minorities, and which strains the relationship between Turkey, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. While Turkey is certainly not as repressive as Afghanistan, it is most definitely on the similar path of moving backward.

For example, Turkey is ranked as the world’s worst nation for press freedoms, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), worse than both China and Iran. Since 2010, Turkey has become less free every year, and has steadily increased that trend following the attempted coup d’é·tat in 2016. According to many in the human rights sector, Turkey accounts for nearly 1/3 of all arrested journalists in the world. In short, over the past decade, Turkey has become the world’s capital for censorship, political pressure on journalists, and journalist imprisonments.

Moreover, since Erdoğan and his political party (Justice and Development Party, or AKP) became the dominant political force in Turkey, we have seen a steady move toward its building political bridges with Russia and China. Once a stalwart ally of the United States and NATO, Turkey has become a wildcard in the global geopolitical dance. We have seen, time and time again, Erdoğan working closely with both Russian and Chinese leaders. This has manifested itself recently with the unprovoked and illegal Russian incursion into Ukraine. According to the Wilson Center, “Moscow sees Turkey as a key transactional partner that can help boost Russia’s prospects in its confrontation with the West, the broader context for its war with Ukraine. Ankara, in turn, appears to be eager to provide Russia with some much-needed assistance, while expecting significant concessions in return.” This is particularly troubling because Turkey has been trying to become a European Union member for many years. While a pre-Erdoğan Turkey would have made sense for this ascendancy, it is hard to envision a modern-Turkey sharing the values of the EU.

Interestingly, during the Trump presidency, the United States was dealing with some very touchy and complex international security issues involving the Syrian implosion. During this time, the US was conducting aggressive anti-ISIS campaigns in the Syrian region, close to where separate and unrelated Kurdish populations lived for generations. President Trump met with PM Erdoğan in Washington, DC during this time, and Trump famously wrote a letter to Erdoğan, asking him to not be a ‘tough guy’ and allow the US to have space to operate. Erdoğan took his letter and calmly and dispassionately threw it in the trash can.

Moreover, during this infamous visit, Erdoğan noticed pro-Kurdish peaceful protestors outside the Turkish embassy. Erdoğan ordered his trained security staff to brazenly attack the peaceful protestors in the political capital of the United States. According to the Washington, DC police at the time, “The actions seen outside the Turkish Embassy yesterday in Washington, D.C. stand in contrast to the First Amendment rights and principles we work tirelessly to protect each and every day.”

It is hard to imagine an ally of the United States behaving in this manner, especially on American soil. Many US citizens were understandably appalled by this behavior. Also, in November of 2022, Turkey has begun an excessive bombardment campaign over the Kurdish region of northeastern Syria, extracting a huge humanitarian crisis.   Whether it is roughing up US citizens on US soil, becoming ‘BFFs’ with Putin and Xi Jinping, or becoming one large prison camp for journalists, it is hard to count these behaviors as that of an “ally.”

Turkey, hungry for a resumption of the lucrative Israeli tourism industry, is beginning to thaw its relations with Israel. In October of this year, Turkey appointed a new ambassador to Israel, Sakir Ozkan Torunlar, and in December, Israel sent a well-known emissary back to Turkey.

The Turkish demography is quite large and multifaceted, and there are still wonderful examples of Muslim secular democrats within that vast and diverse nation. We hope that this side of the population will re-emerge so that Turkey will once again be a shining example of a secular Muslim state.

Morgan P. Muchnick is a graduate of Harvard’s University’s Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Professional Staff to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.  In addition, Mr. Muchnick served as Chief Speechwriter for Daniel Ayalon, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, and currently as Director of Operations at EMET.

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