For long-term observers of Turkey, one of the country’s enduring fascinations is its turbulent mix of contrasts, paradoxes, and contradictions, Nowhere is this more true than in its attitudes toward the Christian West in general and Europe in particular.
Europe is frequently regarded as being simultaneously a benchmark to which Turkey should aspire and the unremitting “other,” constantly plotting to undermine and divide the country in order to prevent it from assuming its rightful place as a regional superpower. For Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the issue has been further complicated by the issue of religion.
Since it was founded in August 2001, the AKP has repeatedly insisted that it is a “conservative democratic” or even “Muslim democratic” rather than an “Islamist” party; claims dismissed by its secularist opponents inside Turkey as dissimulation in order to hide its secret long-term goal of establishing a state based on Islamic Shari’a law.
During the early 1990s, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan famously declared “Praise be to God, we support Shari’a law” and described democracy as “a vehicle that you ride as far as you want to go and then get off.” However, following his 1998 conviction and imprisonment for allegedly inciting religious hatred by reciting a poem that mixed Islamic and military imagery, Erdogan claimed that he had changed and learned from experience; although his reluctance to be more specific has inevitably fuelled hard-line secularists’ suspicions that the main lesson the AKP have learned is how to dissimulate and bide their time until they are strong enough to abolish the principle of secularism enshrined in the Turkish constitution and replace it with the precepts of Shari’a law.
Such fears are exaggerated. However, it would also be naïve to imagine that religion plays no part in AKP decision making, whether in domestic or foreign policy. But the AKP’s Islamism is one of values and identity rather than Islamic law. Privately, AKP members make no secret of the fact that personal piety is regarded as a prerequisite for inclusion in being what they describe as bizden biri or “one of us.” The list of government appointments to the bureaucracy since the AKP came to power in November 2002 includes a disproportionately high percentage of people from a very religious background.
Yet the secularists’ accusations of dissimulation are probably unfair. It is likely that neither the AKP as a whole nor Erdogan himself realize how Islamist they are. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine the prohibition in the Quran of the drinking of alcohol is completed unrelated to the AKP’s decision to more than double the tax on alcoholic beverages. Since it came to power, the AKP has worked hard to improve ties with other Muslim countries and organizations. In February 2006 it even hosted exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Ankara, even though Hamas is included on both the U.S. State Department’s and EU’s lists of terrorist organizations and the visit came less than six months after Turkey had officially opened accession negotiations with the EU. Although it went largely unnoticed by the Turkish secular press, in September 2005, the state-owned Turkish Post Office organized a fund-raising campaign for victims of an earthquake in Pakistan, distributing posters and leaflets describing Pakistan as “our brother Muslim country.” No such claims to family ties have ever been extended to a non-Muslim country.
Earlier this week Erdogan cancelled a planned visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he was due to address foreign investors. The visit was regarded as vital by the Turkish business community, who are well aware that, as the pace of Turkish economic growth begins to slow, continued foreign investment is critical to preventing a hard landing. Instead, Erdogan chose to stay in Ankara to try to hammer out a deal with the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to amend the constitution to allow women wearing headscarves to attend university (EDM, January 18 and 21).
Opponents of the headscarf ban have a point when they argue that it is an infringement of the women’s basic rights. But it is hard to imagine Erdogan canceling such an important trip to amend the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a crime to denigrate “Turkishness” (EDM, January 8), much less to address the continuing discrimination against Turkey’s sizeable heterodox Alevi community, even though both have been listed as prerequisites for Turkey’s eventual membership of the EU (EDM, October 12, 2007).
Although the AKP remains officially committed to EU membership, a recent speech by Erdogan has once again called into question his real attitudes toward not only the EU but the West in general. On January 24, at a ceremony attended by students who were preparing to study abroad, Erdogan encouraged them to take the opportunity to benefit from the experience.
“We haven’t been able to take the West’s science and arts,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have [just] taken the immorality that is incompatible with our values” (Vakit, Milliyet, Radikal, Vatan, January 24).
Erdogan did not elaborate on what he meant by “immorality” or “our values”, although no one doubts that, for Erdogan, the benchmark for both are the precepts of the Quran. Interestingly, his speech came at a time when the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), which oversees all broadcasting in Turkey and whose higher echelons are now filled with AKP appointees, is drawing up regulations that could make it illegal to broadcast anything, whether foreign or locally made, that is regarded as encouraging the consumption of alcohol.
Perhaps more worryingly, Erdogan’s outspoken condemnation of European “immorality” is in marked contrast to his silence on what has been happening in Darfur during the January 21 official visit to Ankara of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who not only heads the most repressive Islamic regime on the continent but whose country AKP officials are fond of describing as their “window on Africa” (EDM, January 22).