Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Turkish Delight Has Turned Sour for Some Washington Insiders

Turkey has been lately undergoing major transformations, domestically and internationally. The Turkish economy has been growing steadily, save the expected ramifications of the global recession. The political influence of the military is dramatically reduced. Turkey is now debating a comprehensive reform package aimed to integrate a free and fair representation of the Kurdish identity in the political system. Turkey has also made a significant progress toward normalizing relations with long-time foes such as, Armenia and Syria. Turkey is now an active and dynamic regional player, engaging diplomatic wrangling in an area ranging from the Balkans to the Caucasus, to the Levant, and to the Caspian Sea. Albeit these developments, which delight most Turkish citizens, for some among the foreign policy circles in Washington, Turkish delight has certainly turned sour.

For these analysts, Turkey’s recent ambitious domestic and international overtures are bound to doom for one overarching reason: Turkey is ruled by an “Islamist” party—Justice and Development Party (known as AKP)—and, because of its ideological identity, whatever initiative the government would advance will only help further Islamize the Turkish nation, undermine the secular political structure, and distance Turkey from the West. I believe that this outlook is not only reckless in assessing Turkey’s position, but also a reminiscent of Cold War mentality of bipolar world. Accordingly, the world is divided into West and the “Rest” (and the “other”, i.e. the Muslim World) and Turkey needs to make a decision about which side it truly belongs.

One recent and—one of the most representative—example of this view was illustrated by David Schenker (The Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2009). The title of his essay says a lot: “A NATO Without Turkey?” According to Schenker, the Turkish government “is increasingly pursuing illiberal policies at home…while aligning itself with militant, anti-western Middle East regimes abroad”. Accordingly, this wrong choice of policy by Turkey certainly warrants reconsideration of Turkey’s membership to NATO. Another example is a recent essay published by Morton Abramowitz and Henri J. Barkey (“Turkey’s Transformers”, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2009). In this piece, the authors, although they could not resist praising some recent initiative by the AKP government as radical and transformative in a positive sense, felt the need to close their essay with a dire warning for Turkey’s ambitious policy makers: “Turkey’s leaders, for their part, must not think that they can expand the country’s influence without first having a firm footing in the West”.

Both these views are part of a misguided approach based on the erroneous—or imprudent—reading of Turkey and its government. Calling AKP as “Islamist” and seeing it as a catalyst of Islamization in Turkey is just plain wrong. AKP is not an Islamist party in both sociological and practical senses. The fact that the leadership of the party had a history of political Islam does not conceal the fact that only after a democratic epiphany the party leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan (currently the prime minister) and Abdullah Gul (currently the president) were able to appeal to mainstream majority, which lies at the center-right of the political spectrum. Second, it is outlandish to argue that AKP Islamizes the Turkish society when 90 percent of the population identifies themselves as Muslim, 70 percent would like to see elimination of headscarf ban in public institutions, 50 percent claims to practice their religion on a daily basis. These statistics were not affected by AKP; rather, AKP’s popularity is greatly enhanced by its skilful incorporation of the values dearly held by an overwhelming majority of the Turkish people and its integration of the demands of the new conservative middle class emerged as result of liberalization policies launched in mid-1980s. AKP, at best, is a Muslim Democrat party. In this respect, and contrary to some observations, religiosity in Turkey is not increasing; rather, the restrictions imposed on religiosity are decreasing as part of the further democratization of the system and normalization of civil-military relations.

Some assessments of the recent assertiveness of the Turkish foreign policy also suffer from similar one-sided and misguided reading of the events. Seeing AKP as an Islamist party with an arguably hidden Islamic agenda can provide emotional satisfaction for some. But this view is seriously missing the point. Turkey neighbors not only EU member countries such as Bulgaria and Greece, but also Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. A policy that seeks “zero problems with neighbors” as advocated by Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s highly esteemed minister of foreign affairs, would certainly seek zero problems with the last three of those neighbors which happen to be Muslim-majority countries. Turkey engages with Russia, and Bulgaria, as much as it does with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Turkey’s “strategic depth” entails engaging beyond the immediate neighbors. In this respect, Pristina, Grozny, Jerusalem, and Baghdad are all located at about the same distance to Turkey’s borders and would require similar level of attention. Consequently, the West-and-the-Rest dichotomy just does not work from Turkey’s vantage point.

To conclude, reading Turkey’s domestic and international policies and achievements through Islamism is either inaccurate representation or manipulation of the facts on the ground. Turkey’s attempts to achieve peace and harmony at home and abroad is a win-win situation both for Turkey and the region and ought not to be considered as part of a civilizational clash that does not really exist. And for all those who seek similar goals, Turkey appears to be the best partner in the region.