Mention the word Turkey to almost any pundit in Washington and you are likely to unleash an avalanche of vituperations. You will be told that Turkey’s current government is an Islamist conspiracy presenting itself as a force for democracy. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan will be described as a larger, and blue-eyed, version of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or, as stolen diplomatic cables published by WikiLeak suggest “a vain man with little depth.”
What are the reasons for this sudden transformation of an old ally of the United States into an adversary if not a vicious foe?
The immediate reasons for this negative image of Turkey in Washington are of only passing importance. Turkey had a row with Israel over the attempt at breaking the sanctions imposed on Gaza, an attempt that ended in tragedy. A rotating member of the United Nations’ Security Council, Turkey refused to vote for further sanctions against Iran.
Overlooked, however, are deeper undercurrents that dictate Turkey’s current behaviour and, in time, might alter its persona as a nation.
Turkey today is the remnant of the Ottoman Empire that, its many faults notwithstanding, was a successful state for the best part of its long existence. In the 1920s, the remnants of the military elites, left with around 15 per cent of the empire’s population, needed a framework within which to create a mini-state. They could not play the Islamic theme because the failed caliphate had been discarded. They were left with nationalism, the fashionable ideology of the time.
Nationalism pre-supposes the existence of a nation. At that time, however, the new Turkish republic was not yet a nation. It was home to Asian Greeks, Armenians, and Kurds as well as a variety of ethnic groups speaking a range of Turkic languages. With the extension of the Soviet empire into the Crimean Peninsula and the Caucasus, large numbers of Muslims moved to Turkey to escape the “godless Communists”, thus making its ethnic composition even more complex.
To function, every country needs a unifying myth and the republic created by Mustapha Kemal found it in that of a “great Turkish nation spreading from Hungary to China”. French scholars were hired to “prove” that such a nation existed. One of them even “proved” that Finland was part of it.
As in other countries with a similar experience, the nationalist discourse in Turkey attracted the army, the bureaucracy, and segments of the intelligentsia. And, again, as always, it adopted a measure of hostility to religion, in this case Islam, in the name of secularism.
As far as the wider Turkish masses were concerned, however, religion remained a potent unifying factor if only because Islam is not always hostile to ethnic diversity.
For almost five decades the nation myth and the secular republican system held Turkey together and achieved some success in economic development and political modernisation.
By the 1980s it had become clear that the Ataturk formula of nation-republic-secularism was losing its efficiency. I remember a conversation in Istanbul in 1984 with Turgut Ozal, the man who engineered the end of military rule and was to become Turkey’s president.
“I feel that we need something different from all the old talk,” he said.
He found that “something different” in a more sympathetic view of the Ottoman past, a broader definition of nationalism to give a larger space to religion, and an ambitious plan to end the domination of the economy by the public sector.
Ozal’s formula proved successful enough for more than a decade. However, it, too, had its limits, not least due to its failure to take its own analysis to its logical conclusions and go for a full-fledged capitalist and democratic model.
The failure of secularist parties to develop a new discourse created a vacuum that successive Islamist parties tried to fill with little success. Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) has had the merit of partially filling it, at least for the time being, by promising a secular state within a religious society.
However, AKP has not managed to win more than a plurality of votes so far. This means that two-thirds of voters are either hostile to or have reservations about AKP. This does not mean that AKP is about to lose power anytime soon. Well-entrenched, and backed by segments of the business community, which benefit from the state’s largesse, it has more resources than any party in Turkish history.
Nevertheless, I think that AKP’s discourse has reached the limits of its efficacy and may be peaking out. The fact that AKP is harping on Islamist themes as never before, implying that Turkey should lead the Muslim world, is a sign not of increasing self confidence but of growing doubt. In politics, a restrictive discourse is always a sign that a party, having lost hope of winning a larger audience, wants to mobilise its base.
A majority of Turks are not interested in seeing their country lead the Muslim world, itself an abstraction. Nor does Turkey have the historic, theological and intellectual resources needed to sustain such a pretension.
On at least four crucial issues, the AKP is trying to shrink responsibility.
The first is Turkey’s abiding desire to become a member of the European Union. That desire is no longer as ardent as a decade ago but cannot be consigned to oblivion either. President Abdullah Gul speaks of decades of negotiations followed by referendums in Turkey and the EU, which is one way of dodging the issue.
The second issue is the war in eastern Anatolia, now entering its fourth decade with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose death Mr. Erdogan has announced on more than one occasion, is still alive and kicking. Having danced around the issue for a decade, the AKP has reverted to the old policy of treating the Kurdish issue as a problem of security to be tackled by a growing use of force.
The third issue concerns economic policy.
Having extended its tentacles throughout the public sector, the AKP is losing its appetite for the market economy. This could impact Turkey’s economic growth, which averages at six per cent per annum for the past decade. The Chinese model of capitalism, in which the state controls the economy under a single ruling party, is unsuited to Turkey.
The fourth issue, that of corruption, is related to the above.
AKP ministers and officials are personally less tainted by corruption than many of their predecessors. I find the leaked American diplomatic cables claiming that Erdogan maintains eight Swiss bank accounts hard to believe.
Nevertheless, AKP has created a new form of corruption by using the power of the state in favour of businessmen and companies friendly to the party. At the same time, slowly but surely, the AKP has been placing its people in key positions within the civil service, the judiciary and the military. These measures have already provoked a backlash and are likely to further weaken AKP in future elections.
For the first time in a decade, the Turkish opposition has a chance of returning to power. However, it cannot do so with a discourse fixated on the past. Elections are won thanks to hope for the future not nostalgia about the past.