An Open Letter to My Turkish Friends

By October 11, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 92

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: After a long run of arguing the benefits of AKP rule in Turkey, the author fears his critics might have been right. Worrying trends by the current leadership, such as invitations to radical leaders and defense of Hamas, show a possible “loss” of Turkey to Islamism. The author appeals to his Turkish friends and colleagues to stop Turkey’s slip towards the Middle East and maintain its alignment with “secure” Western powers.

For years I have been active in Israeli-Turkish relations, traveling often to that beautiful country, writing about it and establishing strong friendships there. The Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, which I direct, pioneered Israeli-Turkish academic dialogues and through symposia and lectures, educated Israelis about the nature and the strategic importance of Turkey. Over the years, BESA welcomed Turkish academics, journalists, and political and religious leaders. I believe that the Israeli-Turkish strategic partnership is of utmost importance and value to both countries, and to the West. As result of being a philo-Turk, some Israelis have even called me, “Mr. Turkey.”

As a true friend of that country, today I am greatly concerned. The Turkey I have learned to admire seems, unfortunately, to be sliding in the wrong direction.

In contrast to many in the West who were suspicious of the Islamic credentials of the ruling AKP party, I welcomed the ascendance of the AKP in Turkish politics. I argued that traditional Kemalist secularism needed a religious corrective to help Turkey find a delicate synthesis between rich religious tradition and modernity. I believed that an AKP-led Turkey had the potential to become a true model of moderate Islam for the Islamic world; a world that is grappling, mostly unsuccessfully, with the challenges of modernity.

Looking today at AKP foreign and domestic policies I am tentatively coming to the unpleasant conclusion that I was wrong.

Turkey under the AKP is increasingly succumbing to Islamic impulses; relegating its political and cultural links to the West to a secondary priority. For example, Turkey welcomed the despicable President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for a formal visit in August 2008. No Western country has issued such an invitation to the Iranian leader.

Moreover, in contrast to its Western allies, Ankara announced recently that it will not join any sanction efforts aimed at preventing Iran from going nuclear.

Similarly, Turkey has deviated from the Western consensus by inviting Sudan’s President, Omer Hassan al-Bashir, who was charged with war crimes and genocide in Darfur. Befriending such international pariahs, Ankara’s moral stature is deeply hurt.

Turkey’s defense of Hamas, a terrorist organization, also indicates that Turkey has sacrificed its moral compass for a very primitive Muslim brotherhood. Even pro-Western Arab states supported Israel’s struggle against Hamas. The Turkish premiere’s vehement and deeply insulting denunciation of Israel during Operation Cast Lead also grated heavily on my ears. We cannot simply chalk up his criticism to cynical domestic public opinion needs.

At home, traditional Ottoman and Turkish tolerance is gradually being replaced by pressure to conform to Muslim mores and by intimidation to comply with government policies. Several friends in the business community confessed that sipping a glass of raki (the Turkish equivalent of ouzo or arak) in public could hurt ones chances of receiving government contracts.

A sensational trial of former officers, government officials, journalists, businessman and academics, accused of plotting against the AKP government (known as the Ergenekon affair), continues to occupy Turkish attention since 2007, and seems to play a role in intimidation of political opponents too.

Similarly, the recent exorbitant fine of $2.5 billion imposed by the tax authorities on the Dogan Media Group, which dared to adopt a critical attitude toward some government-sponsored activities, smacks of an attack on the freedom of press. Colleagues in academic institutions speak openly about leaving the country if the situation gets worse.

The AKP-led government is still playing mostly by the democratic rules of the game. It garnered only 35 percent of the popular vote and it could be replaced if the fragmented Kemalist camp organizes and nominates a decent political leader. Such a scenario is unlikely, however, in the immediate future, despite decline in support for the AKP in the March 2009 municipal elections.

The current negative tendencies in Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy orientation push it away from the West. Does Turkey really want to become more similar to Middle East countries? It is the job of my Turkish friends of all political hues to put a stop to this.

Turkey is amidst the throes of an identity crisis, trying to find a successful accommodation between its Muslim roots and the challenges of the twenty-first century. It is at an historic crossroads. Hopefully it is not too late to choose the right path, despite the many signs that Turkey is slipping into Islamist retrogression.

I sympathize with my many Turkish friends – secular, traditional and religious – who are fully aware of the dangerous waters their government is navigating. Hopefully, Turkish democracy is strong enough to choose the progress and prosperity that only a Western anchor can grant. The “loss” of Turkey to Islamism would be a great strategic blow to Israel and the West. But first and foremost it would be a tragedy for the Turks.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.