Hard cases make bad law. In other words, an extreme case is often a poor basis for a general law. Arguably Turkey is a highly specific country whose distinctive evolution since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after 1918 means it is rash to generalise from its experience of state-building and handling internal conflict.
It just does not fit easily into conventional political categories. For liberal democrats it is a country where a coup-prone military has been the main guardian of democracy. For traditionalists it is a country where reactionary Islam as a tool of a megalomaniac leader threatens to be the driving force behind a totalitarian state with neo-Ottoman imperial ambitions. Finally, for internationalists Turkey is country where an overtly nationalist ideology based on minding one’s own business and getting behind Western institutions like NATO, has often kept the worst traits of nationalism at bay.
That is until the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, starting in 2002. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) was the latest of a string of confessional parties committed to undermining the secular basis of the Turkish Republic founded by Kemal Ataturk after he had liberated Turkey from occupying forces in 1923. The other quasi-religious challenges had been checked by the military which had staged coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980 to forestall major internal strife. No Pinochet-style general emerged to impose a personal dictatorship. Instead the military worked with Kemalists (as Atatürk’s ideological followers were known) to preserve a westernising orientation for Turkey (albeit with a strongly interventionist state). Secular elites in the bureaucracy and the education system opted for a guided democracy with the military as its chief guardian.
The last military coup, in 1980, led to a new constitution which forbade ‘even partially basing the fundamental, social, economic, political and legal order of the state on religious tenets.’ State controls were relaxed over the economy and Turkey by the 1990s was enjoying some of the fastest growth rates in the world. But the wealth was unevenly distributed which enabled a wily and implacable religious politician like Erdogan to build a movement which, in a freak election result, delivered victory for his AKP party. Turkey’s highly unusual electoral law requires a party to get 10 per cent of the vote to qualify for seats and the votes of those which fail to reach this threshold pass to the largest party, which ends up with a super majority.
Erdogan’s party was only slightly ahead of secular rivals but it cleaned up and has never looked back. For a short few hours on Friday night it appeared that the curtain might be coming down on the AKP era after its authoritarianism had profoundly divided the country and Erdogan’s performance in war-torn Syria had raised real concerns in Western capitals that in Turkey they now had an Islamist ally. But Western politicians, from US Secretary of State John Kerry to the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, quickly went onto Twitter to assert the need for Turkey’s democratic order to be defended.
A coup that had led to troops occupying the centres of Istanbul and Ankara was over surprisingly quickly. Soon doubts emerged that there really had been any move against Erdogan at all. Instead the thinking went, it was a move by a wily despot to sweep away any remaining obstacles in the way of establishing fully-fledged authoritarian rule with no checks and balances. The major institutions in Turkish life — the justice system, the military, the press, banks, universities and schools – would lose the autonomy that Ataturk and his successors had allowed them and a flagrant personal dictatorship based around the Erdogan family would be launched.
Civilians committed to protecting what’s left of Turkey’s secular and democratic order had protested against the coup but they may turn out to be its most spectacular victims. If major repression now follows, probably one of the chief early targets will be the Popular Democratic Party (HDP) a moderate Kurdish party seeking autonomy for Turkey’s main ethnic minority. This May, the pro-Erdogan majority in parliament stripped the HDP of its immunity from prosecution despite it being a moderating force opposed to the violence from Kurdish militants which has flared up periodically since the 1980s.
A few days later Germany’s Chancellor Merkel arrived for one of her frequent meetings with Erdogan without mentioning this ominous development. She needed him to stem the refugee flow to Germany, which she had stimulated with her remark in September 2015 that all were welcome to come. She had promoted him as an agent of stability in parliamentary elections that October, which had enabled him to regain his majority previously lost due to a backlash against his accumulation of wealth and privilege and his disastrous record in the Syria crisis. It was the culmination of a naive approach first rolled out by the EU during early years in office. Eurocrats bought the line that the AKP represented a pragmatic and moderate form of Islamic politics. This would lead to Obama even hailing Turkey in 2012 as a ‘great Muslim democracy’ and ‘a critically important model for other Muslim countries in the region’.
By now the military’s influence in politics had been curtailed thanks mainly to the intervention of the EU years earlier. Erdogan at the time showed keen interest in securing Turkish membership of the EU and Brussels insisted that the price of progress was a rapid civilianisation of governing structures. A British feminist working in the European Commission was sent to head the EU delegation in Ankara in 1998 and for the next 4 years she banged the table, equating the eclipse of military power with the rise of women’s liberation in Turkey. By 2016 Erdogan’s powerful first lady Ermine was offering her own somewhat restrictive view of women’s rights, in which she even praised ‘the harem’ as an educational establishment for preparing women for life.”
Women got the vote in Turkey in 1930, well ahead of France and Switzerland. But the roll back of rights gathering pace for all citizens has evoked mainly silence from Western feminists. Perhaps among Western secularists there is admiration for an outspoken Third World demagogue like Erdogan because ultimately how he treats his own people doesn’t matter very much: he has authenticity and appeal because he is prepared to act the hell-raiser, defying the West in ever bolder ways.
It is the tragic meltdown of Syria as a society which has turned Erdogan into a figure of international notoriety. Once Turkey’s southern neighbour descended into furious strife in 2011, he determined to oust its ruler Bashir al-Assad with whom he had previously been on close terms. This meant encouraging foreign fighters to flow across the border into Syria. Many were militant Islamists and they helped turn so-called Islamic State (Isis) into the power that it is today. This raised concerns among Turkey’s NATO allies but it was tepidly expressed. In May 2013 Obama pleaded with Erdogan to stop backing jihadi elements, who now have their own support infrastructure within Turkey itself.
With Germany and the USA directing NATO and EU policy towards the western Middle East, the strategy has been to humour and cajole Erdogan rather than demand that he stop providing covert support for enemies not just of the West but the whole civilised world. Turkey is seen as indispensable for containing the shockwaves flowing from Syria even though arguably Erdogan has been a top player in creating the inferno. There was silence in Western chancelleries when two prominent journalists, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, were imprisoned on the charges of espionage and terrorism because their newspaper, Cumhuriyet, had dared expose the Turkish government’s clandestine support for Isis.
The West has persisted in backing Erdogan even when he has unveiled bombastic plans for Turkey to return to Ottoman times and become the chief organising force of the Middle East. When Pope Francis visited Turkey in 2014, Erdogan made his hostility plain:
‘I speak clearly. Those who come from outside [the Muslim world] only like the oil, gold, diamonds, cheap workforce, conflicts and disputes of the lands of Islam. Believe me, they do not like us . . . They like seeing us, our children die. How long we will continue to tolerate this?’
Erdogan is not a ruler who values Muslim-Christian or inter-civilisational dialogue. In the face of supine Western leadership, he may well have grandiose plans to remake the entire western Middle East, which would involve confronting Israel for whom his hostility is undisguised.
The EU states cling to the hope that Erdogan can stop the flow of refugees from conflict zones by relying on his good will. So they overlook his bellicose anti-Western statements and the collapse of any semblance of democratic rule at home. What may well have been a pretend coup this week could be merely the opening of dangerous new provocations from Erdogan who, when looking at the calibre of senior Western leaders, may feel he has absolutely nothing to lose.