Turkey is currently undergoing changes in its outlook and character not seen since the days of Ataturk and the founding of the Republic. Under the strong-handed leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has shifted its mindset from the nation on the flank of the Western world to a leader in the Middle East. Through his Justice Development Party (AKP), Erdogan has challenged many Turkish institutional strongholds like the military, and has redefined Turkey’s role in the Middle East.
The Turkish Republic shaped by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a secular, Westernized nation and a close ally of the United States during the Cold War. With his iron will, Ataturk westernized the dress, alphabet, and Turkish government amid the instability following the First World War. He paved the way for Turkey’s democracy, and more significantly, for its secular society. The military was the primary guarantor of this secular society, even when the task required undermining democracy. Throughout the twentieth century, there were three military coups and one government was pressured to step down.
The street of ascendance for the moderately Islamist AKP was paved by the failure of their predecessors. Various Islamist parties rose throughout recent Turkish history, only to be squelched by the secular army and courts. Learning from their predecessors, the AKP tacked out a more moderate path and emphasized their deference to a secular state. They won power in 2002 and set about implementing a remarkably successful economic program that reduced inflation and spurred growth. These widely successful policies gave Erdogan and the AKP the political capital to start enacting greater change.
Erdogan enacted changes in both the domestic and international arenas. Domestically, he took a piecemeal approach. It began with local bans on the sale of alcohol which is forbidden in Islam. Next, he tackled the ban on headscarves in public, one of Ataturk’s various tools used to secularize Turkey. This raised alarm bells among the secular elite, the army, and the courts. There were large protests of secular Turks against the AKP. In 2008 there was a court case claiming that the AKP was too Islamist and defied Turkey’s secular constitution. The Constitutional Court threw out the headscarf ban as an affront to the Constitution, but the AKP survived the threat of suffering the same fate of the previous Islamist parties.
Shortly after the court battle, a newspaper exposed an attempted coup conspiracy amongst an ultranationalist group known as Ergenekon. Although the group was radical and independent, there was some uncomfortable membership overlap that included retired generals of the army. The army’s push for the trial to disband the AKP and the exposure of Ergenekon discredited the army. Erdogan took the initiative and passed laws that placed army officers under the jurisdiction of civil courts. The army has been subordinated to civilian rule, and has a much more activist role than it did ten years ago. This was celebrated in much of the West as democratic progress for Turkey and the rule of civilians.
In international affairs, Turkey has charted a new course of cooperation with its neighbors, at the expense of old alliances. Long frustrated by European stalling tactics for entrance into the EU, the AKP has looked east. Turkey has forged strong relations with Iran, Syria, and even made deals with its old nemeses like Russia and Armenia. Careful not to be seen as the US lapdog, Turkey refused American use of their country to invade Iraq in 2003. In recent years, Turkey has grown into an economic powerhouse and a crucial hub for oil pipelines. It has embraced the role and sought a greater part in its own back yard.
Old alliances are the major casualties of this new policy. America and Turkey remain allies, but relations are long past their peak. Israel and Turkey, once bound by tight military, cultural, and economic links, are now strained in their relations. As two non-Arab nations in the Middle East who were aligned with NATO during the Cold War, the close ties were a natural outcome. Recently however, Turkey has distanced itself from Israel. In the wake of the 2008 Gaza War, Turkey has cooled its rhetoric towards Israel and most recently pulled out of joint NATO-Israel war games. At the same time, it announced military cooperation with Syria, a country it once threatened to invade because Syria was harboring Kurdish rebel leaders. This concerns many in Israel and America alike as Turkey lurches slowly towards greater alignment with the Syrian-Iranian axis.
Recent events in Turkey raise interesting questions for American foreign policy thinkers. Both the Bush and Obama administrations applauded the triumph of civil rule over a meddling political military. However, the military was the bulwark of pro-Western thinking in Turkey and ensured its close relations with the United States and Europe. The shift we see now may be the liberation of the civilian government from military interference. It’s the classic clash of principles vs political benefit. Perhaps as proponents of democracy, we should take pride in the strides that Turkey has taken and look for hope in its democratic institutions, even if they are detrimental to our relations. Hopefully, the opposition party in Turkey is capable of waging a successful campaign in favor of secular western values; and who knows, it may even win an election or two.