Today’s Turkey is a cautionary tale for the West. But Western leaders are loath to consider its lessons.
Ever since Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development AKP party under Recip Tayip Erdogan won the November 2002 elections, Western officials have upheld the AKP, Erdogan and his colleagues as proof that political Islam is consonant with democratic values. During Erdogan’s June 2005 visit to the White House, for instance, then-president George W. Bush praised Turkish democracy as “an important example for the people in the broader Middle East.”
Unfortunately, nine years into the AKP’s “democratic” regime it is clear that Erdogan and his colleagues’ embrace of the language and tools of democracy was a mile wide and an inch thick. They used democracy to gain power. Now that they have power, they are systematically destroying freedom in their country.
Turkey ranks 138th in the international media freedom group Reporters Sans Frontieres country index on press freedom. Sixty-eight journalists are languishing in Turkish jails for the crime of doing their job. The most recent round-up of reporters occurred in early March. And it is demonstrative of Turkey’s Islamist leaders’ exploitation of democratic freedoms in the service of their tyrannical ends.
As Der Spiegel reported last week, veteran journalists Ahmet Sik from the far-left Radikal newspaper and Nedim Sener from the highbrow Milliyet journal were among those rounded up. As radical leftists, both men oppose the AKP’s Islamist politics. But they shared its interest in weakening the Turkish military.
The Left opposed the military’s constitutional role as the overseer of Turkish democracy because the military used that role to persecute leftists. The AKP party opposed the military’s power because it blocked the party’s path to Islamizing Turkish society and politics. When the AKP turned its guns on the military it used leftist journalists to support its actions.
This collusion came to a head in 2007. In a bid to destroy the legitimacy of the military, the AKP regime has engaged in unprecedented levels of wiretapping of the communications of senior serving and retired generals.
This wiretapping operation preceded the exposure in 2007 of the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy in which senior military commanders, journalists, television personalities, entertainers and businesspeople have been implicated in an alleged attempt to topple the AKP government. As part of the Ergenekon investigation, over the past four years, hundreds of non-Islamist leaders from generals to journalists have been arrested and held without trial.
Ironically, Sik, who is now accused of membership in the Ergenekon plot, was an editor at the leftist weekly magazine Notka that “broke” the conspiracy story.
As Der Spiegel notes, the arrest of Sik and Sener shows that the AKP’s early embrace of investigative reporters and championing of a free press was purely opportunistic. Once Sik, Sener and the other 66 jailed reporters had finished discrediting the military, the regime had no need for them. Indeed, they became a threat.
Both Sik and Sener have recently written books documenting how Turkey’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Fetulah Gulen network, has taken over the country’s security services.
In an interview this month with the opposition Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review, former Turkish president Suleyman Demirel warned that the AKP has established “an empire of fear” in Turkey.
Turkey's descent into Islamist tyranny has not simply destroyed freedom in Turkey. It has transformed Turkey’s strategic posture in a manner that is disastrous for the West. And yet, in this arena as well, the West refuses to notice what is happening.
Earlier this week the US Ambassador to Ankara Francis Ricciardone gave an interview to the Turkish media in which he romantically upheld the US-Turkish partnership. As he put it, “Our interests are similar. Even if we have different methods and targets, our strategic vision is the same.”
Sadly, there is no way to square this declaration with Turkish policy.
This week it was reported that NATO member Turkey is opening something akin to a Taliban diplomatic mission in Ankara. Turkey supports Hamas and Hizbullah. It has begun training the Syrian military. It supports Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It has become the Iranian regime’s economic lifeline by allowing the mullahs to use Turkish markets to bypass the UN sanctions regime.
In less than 10 years, the AKP regime has dismantled Turkey’s strategic alliance with Israel. It has inculcated the formerly tolerant if not pro- Israel Turkish public with virulent anti-Semitism. It is this systematic indoctrination to Jew-hatred that has emboldened Turkish leaders to announce publicly that they support going to war against Israel.The Turkish government stands behind the al- Qaida- and Hamas- linked IHH group. IHH organized last year’s pro-Hamas flotilla to Gaza in which IHH members brutally attacked IDF naval commandoes engaged in a lawful mission to maintain Israel’s lawful maritime blockade of Gaza’s coast. With the support of the Turkish government, IHH is now planning an even larger flotilla to assault Israel’s blockade of Gaza next month.
Actually, in a sign of the intimacy of its ties to the AKP regime, this week IHH announced it is considering postponing the next pro-Hamas flotilla in order to ensure that its illegal pro-terror campaign will not harm the AKP’s electoral prospects in Turkey’s national elections scheduled for June.
American and other Western officials have argued that it would be wrong to distance their governments from Turkey or in any way censure the NATO member because doing so will only strengthen the anti-Western forces in the anti- Western government. Instead, Western leaders have done everything they can to appease Erdogan.
The US even allowed him to invade Iraqi Kurdistan.
Unfortunately, this appeasement policy has only harmed the West and NATO. Take the behavior of NATO’s Secretary-General and former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. As Denmark’s prime minister, Rasmussen stood up boldly to the Islamists when they demanded that he apologize for the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten’s publication of caricatures of Muhammad in 2005. Yet when Turkey threatened to veto his appointment as NATO secretary-general in 2009 over the Islamists’ rejection of free speech, Rasmussen abandoned his strong defense of Western liberal values to placate the Turks.
In a humiliating speech Rasmussen said, “I was deeply distressed that the cartoons were seen by many Muslims as an attempt by Denmark to mark or insult or behave disrespectfully towards Islam or the Prophet Muhammad... I respect Islam as one of the world’s major religions as well as its religious symbols.”
Rasmussen then proceeded to appoint Turks to key positions in the alliance.
Far from reining in Turkey’s anti-Western policies, by maintaining Turkey in NATO Western powers have been forced to curtail their own defense of their interests.
NATO’s incoherent mission in Libya is case in point. It can be argued that Germany’s large and increasingly radicalized Turkish minority played a role in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to risk her country’s good ties with Britain and France and refuse to support the Libyan mission. So, too, it was reportedly due to President Barack Obama’s deference to Turkey that the US failed to support the anti-regime forces until Gaddafi organized a counteroffensive against them. So if as appears increasingly likely, Gaddafi is able to survive the NATO-backed insurgents’ bid to overthrow him, he will owe his survival in no small measure to Erdogan.
Turkey is a cautionary tale for the West, which is now faced with the prospect of AKP-like regimes from Egypt to Tunisia to Jordan to the Persian Gulf. And the real issue that Western leaders must address is how things in Turkey were permitted to deteriorate to the point they have without any US or European official lifting a finger to stem the Islamist tide? The answer, it would seem, is a combination of professional laziness and cultural weakness. This mix of factors is also on display in the US’s behavior toward the revolutionary forces active throughout much of the Arab world.
The West chose not to pay attention because its senior officials knew if they did, they would have to do something. They would have had to distance themselves from Turkey, remove Turkey from NATO and seek to contain the power of the Erdogan regime. And this would have been hard and unpleasant.
So, too, they knew that if they noticed the nature of the AKP they would have to throw themselves deep into Turkish society and defend the superiority of Western values over Islamist values. They would have had to locate and support Turkish leaders who are willing to adopt Western values and then cultivate, fund and empower them. This also would have been hard and unpleasant.
Likewise, in post-Mubarak Egypt, it is easier to believe fairy tales about Facebook revolutions and Westernized student leaders than face the harsh truth that from Amr Moussa to Mohamed ElBaradei to Yousef Qaradawi there are no leaders in post-Mubarak Egypt who support the peace with Israel or believe that Egypt has common interests with Israel and the US. There are no potential leaders in Egypt who share Western values of individual liberty and human rights.
And as in Turkey, the price for recognizing these inconvenient facts is taking effective action to counter them. As in Turkey, the West will be forced to do hard things like develop a policy of containing rather than engaging Egypt, and of identifying and cultivating forces in Egyptian society that are willing to embrace John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith over Hassan al-Banna and Qaradawi.
Rather than do any of these hard things, Western leaders have lied to themselves about the nature of these forces and regimes. They have told themselves that there is no problem with the likes of Erdogan and his Egyptian cohorts, and opted to limit their meddling in the internal affairs of others to endless attempts to undermine and overthrow successive pro- Western, democratic, non-leftist governments in Israel. These governments, they have argued, must be replaced by leftist parties in order to feed the West’s fantasy that all the problems of the region, all its Qaradawis and Erdogans, will magically become Thomas Jeffersons and John Adamses if Israel would just cut a deal with the PLO.
This fantasy is convenient for lazy Western cultural cowards. They know that there will be no pushback for their policies. Israel won’t attack them. And by pretending the Islamists share their values and strategic interests they are free to take no action to defend their values and strategic interests from Islamist assault.
But while this strategy has been convenient for policymakers, it has done great damage to their countries. The growing menace that is Islamist Turkey teaches us that professional laziness and cultural squeamishness are recipes for strategic disasters.