June 10, 2016
Turks, being both friendly and political, usually ask visitors what they think of Turkey. Seldom nowadays do they like the answer. When criticisms are made by Europeans of Turkey’s apparent drift to Islamist autocracy and away from pluralist democracy, we are reminded that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has frequently (most recently last November) been popularly elected, and that ‘he loves his country’. We are told that Erdogan has built houses, roads, bridges, tunnels, trams, railways and airports – which indeed he has. He has also built many mosques, including one gargantuan example rising on the top of the hill on the Asian shore of the Bosphoros. And he has raised public sector wages. Erdogan has put the power of Turkey’s state on full display, to the evident electoral advantage of his party, the AKP.
Our conversation inevitably turns to terrorism, and to Europe’s alleged support for the Kurdish separatist movement the PKK (and related factions in exile within the EU) whose militant politics are peppered by deadly violence. After the failure of the peace talks, patience with the Kurds has run out and the civil war has started again: the bomb which killed eleven last week exploded at Vezneciler, at the entrance of Istanbul University, near the new metro station which is only a stone’s throw from the Grand Bazaar. In such circumstances, it is not easy to insist that the European norm is not only to be elected democratically but also to govern so thereafter, in full respect of human rights.
As if he had not got enemies enough, Erdogan has widened the definition of terrorism to embrace Hizmet, the Gulenist movement, which he accuses of having organised a parallel state through its extensive media, business and educational activities and its links with the security services. Fetullah Gulen is a powerful puritan Imam who preaches from exile, rather implausibly, in Pennsylvania. Once a collaborator of Erdogan, Gulen is now seen as a formidable competitor. He denies the charges made against him by Erdogan, charges which remain uncorroborated and which have never been put to the test even in Turkey’s politically compromised judicial system.
The European Union has long argued that Turkey should amend its law on parliamentary immunity to prevent corrupt MPs from shelter against criminal prosecution. After years of inaction, there has suddenly been an amendment made to the immunity law, but it is not a subtle amendment and falls way short of European norms. Its immediate effect is to expose 50 MPs from the mainly Kurdish HDP to trial on charges of fomenting terrorism on behalf of the outlawed PKK. Their removal from parliament would ease the passage of Erdogan’s constitutional reforms that are pitched mainly to aggrandise his own powers.
The EU is demanding that Turkey redefines its terror laws as part of the deal on refugees and irregular migrants. A narrower version of the concept of terrorism equivalent to European norms would exclude from punishment those who merely have fundamental disagreements with the government. In Europe dissidence is not terrorism: freedom to hold and express opposing views to that of the ruling party is rudimentary to what it is to be a European state, where state ideologies have died out. But Erdogan’s early success in diluting Turkey’s former Kemalist ideology is being supplanted with his own strict Sunni ideology. And while it may be a relief for European visitors to see fewer photos of Ataturk plastered around the country, their replacement by placards of Erdogan is disconcerting.
In Istanbul at the end of May there were three large demonstrations. It was the 563rd anniversary of the fall of Constantinople when Mehmet the Conqueror rode on his stallion into Aya Sofia and massacred the Byzantines. An Islamist youth organisation gathered thousands of zealots outside the basilica (since Ataturk’s day, a secular museum) for dawn prayers, led by an imam imported from Saudi Arabia. The long-standing links between the AKP and Wahhabi Islam should no longer be overlooked. Erdogan is suspected of wanting to reclaim Aya Sofia for Islam, as the Prophet himself foretold.
Later that day Istiklal Caddesi, the main thoroughfare between Taksim and Galata, was the scene of a large and noisy government organised demonstration that commemorated the 2010 Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara that carried aid to Gaza. Erdogan and his close followers adopt an increasingly anti-semitic tone, which was again in evidence the following day when Erdogan addressed a mass rally (again to mark the 563rd birthday) at Yenikapi. Here he made his remark about the duty of Muslim mothers to have more babies, and continued to rant against the EU.
So the anti-European, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish rhetoric rises in Turkey. Domestic opposition parties are divided and crushed, the situation of minorities, notably the Alevis, is increasingly precarious, and academia and the media speak out only at the risk of prosecution. Turkey is smouldering. Erdogan’s furious reaction to the decision of the Bundestag to recognise the Armenian genocide of 1915 has added fuel to the fire. As does the blatant contempt that is being poured on Turkey and Turks in the Brexit referendum campaign.
Europe’s Turkish dilemma
What can Europe do about Turkey? Trading in the EU’s policies on civil liberties and human rights in exchange for a quick deal on the refugees is no solution. Turkish liberals feel badly let down by the lowering of standards by the European Commission and by Angela Merkel’s rather frantic efforts to court Erdogan. The EU has lost the leverage it once had among Turkey’s elites. I do not believe that Erdogan really cares about visa liberalisation for its own sake, which would only affect a small minority of Turks, but he milks it as a cause with which to castigate the EU and to stir up Turkish nationalism.
Nor will Erdogan invest much more in continuing with the charade of the EU membership talks. Both sides know that there is no real accession process: Turkey will never agree to sacrifice its precious national sovereignty for the European cause; and there is negligible support in the EU for Turkey’s candidacy. Continuing with the pretence of Turkey’s EU membership is bad diplomacy and rotten politics. Likewise, since the collapse of the Soviet empire, even Turkey’s NATO membership has lost its strategic importance to the West. Turkey and the West are deeply divided over the future of the Middle East. And I can find no evidence that pressure from the US will beguile Erdogan into yielding up Cyprus to the Europeans: sadly, Turkish troops look set to stay on the island at least until there is new leadership in Ankara.
If Erdogan’s foreign policy has few friends, his weakest spot is the economy – about whose management he evinces breath-taking ignorance. Inflation and unemployment are on an upward trend, while the lira plunges and capital outflows threaten financial stability. Sanctions against Turkey imposed by Russia, the war in Syria and Iraq and the generally high levels of insecurity all discourage investment. The tourist hotels on the Mediterranean are half empty, and both Russian and Western tourists have largely abandoned Istanbul.
So we wait. Erdogan, in power since 2002, has practically achieved his overweening ambition for presidential rule. Ak Saray, his kitsch palace is built. By sacking Ahmet Davutoglu as prime minister he has removed the last person from his entourage who could deal in empirical argument. His successor, Binali Yildirim, shows no obvious qualities for the job of being prime minister other than that he is no intellectual. The new minister for Europe, I am told, should really be dubbed the minister for anti-European affairs.
Tayyip Erdogan, now 62, is clearly pitching still to be around to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the republic in 2023. Some day, however, he will reach his apogee, and pass it.Andrew Duff