I’ve been following Turkey’s domestic politics from afar for quite some time, with particular attention paid to the hotly debated commitment to secular democracy of the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In some circles they are seen as moderate Islamists; a friendlier, more modern version of Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Partisi (Welfare Party), which was subsequently banned by Turkey’s constitutional court; the last preserve of the founding ideology of Kemalism. Others see them as a wolf in sheep’s clothing; political Islamists in tailored suits. According to Bassam Tibi:
AKP leaders pursue a double strategy: They verbally dissociate their party – and themselves – from political Islam while simultaneously embracing Islamic identity politics and, like many Islamist parties across the globe, also engaging in anti-Christian polemics. The AKP uses education as its major instrument to further Islamist identity politics, introduce reinvented Islamic values, and de-Westernize society. And while the AKP claims secular credit for pursuing Turkey’s EU membership, it defames Europe as an exclusionary “club of Christians.” Since its November 2002 accession, the AKP has engaged in a “creeping Islamization.” The AKP has sought to further this through politics of cultural Islamization, especially in education and media. Erdoğan has worked to expand Anatolian culture in the cities, helped by internal migration. The slums and shanty towns have become the AKP’s chief base of support.
Whatever your opinion of the AKP, there’s no doubt that Turkey has acquired a more prominent role on the international stage under the stewardship of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül. Yet, for all the talk of accession to the EU and a favourable relationship, as a key member of NATO it must be stated, with the US, its Turkey’s relationship with its fellow Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East that is starting to cause consternation. As Soner Cagaptay observes:
Some analysts have described the AKP’s foreign policy as a “zero problems with neighbours” approach. Under the AKP, Ankara has indeed eliminated problems and built good ties with some neighbours, such as Syria and Iran, and signalled a thaw with Armenia, with whom Turkey shares a closed border. On the other hand, Ankara’s traditionally good ties with other neighbours such as Georgia and Azerbaijan have deteriorated under the AKP, and Turkish-Israeli ties could unravel despite diplomats’ best efforts. The AKP’s foreign policy, far from producing “zero problems with neighbours,” has resulted in significant ups with some neighbours and significant downs with others—especially those that are pro-Western.
And it’s Turkey’s pursuit of close ties with the Iranian theocracy and the Syrian Ba’athist state apparatus that has analysts most worried. Turkey has supported Iran’s nuclear ambitions as well as forging ahead with joint Turco-Syrian military manœuvres.
At the same time, Turkey’s bilateral relations with Israel have suffered:
The party’s critical rhetoric regarding Israel, which has eroded all Turkish public support for ties with Israel, had been dismissed for a long time in the West and in Israel as domestic politicking. However, that evaluation changed earlier this month. On October 7, the AKP dis-invited Israel to “Anatolian Eagle,” a NATO air force exercise that has been held in central Turkey with U.S., Israeli and Western states’ participation since the mid-1990s. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan justified his party’s decision by saying that Israel is a “persecutor.” Yet, the next day, the AKP announced that it had requested that Syria, whose regime persecutes its own people, participate in joint military exercises. A proverbial mountain is moving in Turkish foreign policy: the AKP’s “us versus them” mindset, which does not see nations but rather religious blocks in the Middle East, is corroding the foundations of Turkey’s 60-year-old military and political cooperation with Israel.
Contemporaneous with the AKP’s wooing of its pro-Islamist Middle Eastern neighbours, has been the reorientation of public opinion at home. For instance, according to a recent survey by the International Republican Institute, of Turks asked whether they felt their country had become more religious since the AKP came to power in 2002, nearly 70% replied in the affirmative. Yet, in the same survey, over 70% agreed that restrictions should be placed on the activities of Islamic foundations. Overall, the findings presented a mixed bag, with a large majority (74.3%) indicating their ambivalence towards the wearing of the hijab, desiring more religious education (63.8%), but a plurality (73.4%) rejecting the Shari’ah as a model for government. Indeed the figures probably reflect Turkey’s unique cultural admixture of secularism, Islamic roots and pan-Turkism.
So where is Turkey heading? Some suggest that the AKP’s objective is to have the best of both worlds: membership of the EU, yet a staunch ally and bulwark against perceived US-led interference in the Near and Middle East; an overtly secular state with Western institutions coupled with a quietist, moderate form of Islam enculturated amongst the population at large.
Whichever direction Turkey chooses, it has important strategic implications for all of the key global players.