Two weeks after delivering a blow to the U.S.-led efforts to strengthen sanctions against Iran by mediating a uranium exchange agreement involving the Islamic Republic and Brazil, Turkey once again has seized the international spotlight in the wake of the deadly clash between Israeli commandos and armed Turkish activists aboard the Gaza-bound flotilla. Turkey’s central role in both developments is no coincidence. It is a reflection of the current Turkish government’s determined efforts to shed the secular legacy of its predecessors, to consolidate power at home, and to align the country with the Islamic world – which means a collision course with America and, especially, with Israel.
The flotilla ship, the Mavi Marmara, originated from the Turkish port, Antalya and the majority of those killed and wounded in the confrontation with Israeli commandos were Turkish citizens. While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warns Israel “not to test its patience,” Turkey is leading the international chorus of denunciations against the Jewish state. While it may appear as if the latest controversy is one more bloody chapter in the long saga of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the deadly confrontation in the Mediterranean is in reality more about Turkey’s destiny and its upcoming and planned confrontation with Israel.
The ruling party in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), seems to be driven by two main factors. On the eve of the upcoming national elections, the AKP is desperate to stave off defeat at the hands of the surging opposition. Under such circumstances, the AKP seeks to exploit people’s sense of patriotism and religious solidarity with Muslim Palestinians by forcing a confrontation with Israel. However, it would be wrong to attribute the behavior of the AKP government to Machiavellian instincts alone. The religious and political forces behind the AKP, long suppressed and dormant in republican and secular Turkey, believe in the idea of a transcendent Islamic identity and reject the concept of a secular nation state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The objective of AKP Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to do away with Turkey’s republican system. The actions of his administration have eroded Turkey’s standing with the West and now, with the flotilla incident, a fundamental shift has transpired in Turkish foreign policy. This shift did not occur overnight. In retrospect, the AKP’s refusal to grant passage to U.S. troops on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003 was the opening act of the distancing between Ankara and Washington. The result of the Turkish denial of invasion routes from the north, and hence, the forced concentration of U.S. military operations in the Shia-populated south, no doubt contributed to the rise of the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle and increased casualties. In 2005, Turkey itself became the victim of the anarchy in Iraq as the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) expanded its base in Iraqi Kurdistan and launched deadly attacks on Turkish targets. Ankara threatened Washington with the invasion of northern Iraq. Loath to wreck its relations with the long-standing ally, the U.S. accommodated the Turkish demand by supplying it with satellite intelligence and leaning heavily on the Kurdish authorities in the region to crack down on PKK. US-Turkish relations now seemed cordial on the surface. But the goodwill between the two nations evaporated rather quickly. A public survey in 2007 showed, for instance, that only nine percent of the Turks had favorable views toward the United States.
There is a proverb in Turkish: When you cannot beat the donkey, punch the saddle. It would be tempting to surmise that since Erdogan lacks the resources and capacity to pick a fight with the United States, Israel became the next obvious target. But the situation is more complicated. Unlike Islamic Iran, where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini distinguished America and Israel as, respectively, the Great and Little Satan for decades, Turkey maintained a solid military alliance with Israel. Turning the “Little Satan” into an enemy in the Turkish public eye was no small feat. For years, the Israelis had been actively involved in the upgrading of Turkish fighter planes and weaponry. The two countries did not just share military technology; they had also shared common enemies. Just as Syria posed a threat to Israeli national security, the government of Hafez Assad laid claims to Turkish territories and harbored PKK leaders in its territories. Oriented toward the West, Turkey’s relations with other Arab countries were lukewarm at best. After all, most Turks never forgot what they regarded as the Arab betrayal of Ottoman Turkey during the First World War when many Arabs sided against the Turks and their German patrons and fought for the British in what they saw as a war of independence against Turkish domination.
The Erdogan government viewed repairing relations with the Arab world as essential to its domestic as well as global agenda. The key figure in the tectonic shift was the architect of the new Turkish foreign policy, Ahmet Davutoglu, who inaugurated a policy called “zero problems with neighbors.” On the surface, it looked as if Davutoglu was the faithful follower of Ataturk’s dictum – “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.” But having been brought up in a religious household and having been a product of the Islamic education system, Davutoglu’s intentions widely differed from those of the founder of the secular state. By establishing warm relations with their country’s autocratic neighbors to the East, the new Turkish government had, in fact, begun quietly steering Turkey away from the West. All along, the AKP leadership insisted on its strong desire to enter the European Union. But behind the scenes, both the European political elite and the Turkish leadership shared a similar objective: to keep Turkey away from Europe and, as the AKP hoped, to integrate Turkey with the rest of the Islamic community of nations. This way, the Europeans would be free, despite their public statements, from a secret fear – an EU with millions of Turks. In its turn, the AKP would get an eastward looking Turkey with autocratic tendencies and Islamist orientation. Bashing and isolating Israel was an integral part of the strategy that accompanied epic changes in Turkish politics.
To accomplish its objectives with regard to Israel, the Erdogan government took an unusual route. Abandoning the long-standing tradition of non-interference in the Mideast conflict, in 2006, Ankara took the initiative to mediate peace between Israel and Syria. As the negotiations went forward, the Israelis began to realize that the so-called mediation was in fact a cover by the Turkish Islamists to engage in deeper contact with Israeli enemies without provoking concern in the mass Turkish domestic public or in the West. How else could the leader of a secular republic and NATO ally justify shaking hands with the representative of Hamas? With the eruption of war in Gaza in 2008, the Erdogan government openly sided with Israel’s enemies by issuing severe criticism of Israel.
During this period, anti-Israel hysteria began to grip Turkish society. The Turks began boycotting Israeli goods en masse. In Ankara, the Israeli basketball team was run off the court by mobs shouting “Allah Akbar.” Israeli-Turkish hostility escalated further after the shocking confrontation between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Shimon Peres at Davos where the Turkish leader called the Nobel Peace Prize winner a “murderer.” In the ensuing months, a Turkish soap-opera TV series portrayed Israelis as bloodthirsty child-killers and lionized a fictional film secret agent who shoots and kills a treacherous-looking Israeli ambassador who is engaged in trading body-parts – classic anti-Semitic themes.
The recent incident in the Mediterranean has now greatly escalated tensions between Turkey and Israel. But the progression of events suggests something far more sinister and disturbing with regard to Turkey’s trajectory as a nation. In 1923, when Ataturk established the republic, he repudiated the expansionist ambitions of the Ottoman Empire in favor a peaceful, inward-looking nation state. Having seen his share of dreadful fighting, Ataturk did not wish his nation to become embroiled in territorial conflicts with its neighbors. To accomplish that task, he enacted reforms in politics and society that sought to make Turkey more like France rather than Egypt.
Ataturk’s philosophy of governance turned out to be a spectacular success. Since 1923, with the exception of the Cyprus invasion in 1974, Turkey has successfully managed to avoid being drawn into conflicts and thus saved the lives of millions of its citizens from the murderous currents of the 20th century. Turkey’s success in foreign policy did not just emanate from its peace-loving Kemalist philosophy, but was owed to the wise investment of its republican leadership in the alliance with the West, specifically with the United States. Without the support of Washington and its alliance with NATO, it is doubtful that Turkey would have succeeded in fending off pressures from the USSR to the north and Syria to the southeast. Moreover, its strong ties with the West also enabled Turkey to build a modern military that served as a potent deterrent against aggression. The Erdogan government clearly views this policy as the reduction of Turkey’s status as a global player and has decided to do away with it and replace it with a more aggressive, externally focused policy.
Even the Ottoman Empire, which the AKP government is clearly seeking to emulate, had turned westward after its defeats in the 18th century — long before Ataturk’s radical push for cultural reformation. It should be noted that much of the Tanzimat reforms that brought changes to the Ottoman socio-political infrastructure were inspired by the imperial envoys’ observations in the capitals of Europe. During the Crimean War of 1853-56, the Turks fought side by side with the British and French soldiers against the Russian armies. Moreover, the goodwill between the Turks and the Jews dates back to 1492 when Sultan Bayezid II welcomed the Jewish refugees fleeing the persecution of King Ferdinand of Spain. According to renowned historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, “the Jews were not just permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but were encouraged, assisted and sometimes even compelled.” The Ottoman leadership viewed the Jews as an industrious group whose economic success would bring generous revenues to the state treasury, and treated them with courtesy.
Erdogan’s brand of Islamism and anti-Semitism is not entirely new or original. It was always there within certain elements of the population. But coupled with an ideological zeal and thirst for power, it now threatens to undo most of the accomplishments of the Turkish republic. Erdogan and those around him do not wear turbans or mullah-style robes, but the illusion of a golden Islamic past under the first four caliphs in the 8th century has been drilled into them at the madrases they attended when they were young. Even more powerful than the ideological sympathy for Islamic solidarity is Erdogan’s desire to retain internal political power at all cost. He is an Islamist, but the most important feature distinguishing Erdogan from all previous heads of the Turkish republic is his drive to dismantle all checks and balances to his power. Erdogan’s increasing assault on the top leaders of the military that have long been viewed as the guardians of the Kemalist democracy, together with his “reforms” of the court system and of the constitution, has served the aim of keeping the AKP in power long enough to change the character of the Turkish state. In that sense, Erdogan’s struggle is mostly a domestic one – at this moment, at least.
In recent weeks, Erdogan has been especially alarmed by the rise of an opposition leader in the person of Kemal Kilicdaroglu. In the aftermath of the resignation of the disgraced leader of the Republican People’s Party, Deniz Baykal, who was videotaped having sex with one of his political aides, Kilicdaroglu has emerged as a promising leader and the new face of the Kemalist opposition. Affectionately called “The Turkish Gandhi” by the Turkish people, Kilicdaroglu inspires them with qualities rare for a Turkish politician. He is competent, humble and not corrupt. In the last congress of the party, just prior to the flotilla incident, Kilicdaroglu vowed to defeat the AKP in the upcoming national elections and form the next government. In the face of a serious internal political challenge, Erdogan believes he has found an easy formula of drumming up popularity at home by provoking Israel.
There is, however, a price to be paid for the sinister methods by which Erdogan has sought to manipulate pubic opinion. As the Islamist leader stokes the fires of hatred against the Jewish state, he is dragging Turkey further out of its safety zone and toward uncharted territory. Erdogan may reap personal dividends from throwing stones at Israel, but for a country with a substantial Kurdish minority that grows increasingly restless in its aspirations for independence, expressing outrage at the alleged oppression of the Palestinians may spell disaster. The segment of Turkish society that supports Erdogan’s policies vis-à-vis Israel might also start to recognize its own share of responsibility for the reckless actions of its government.
Perhaps some of the AKP’s ambitions emanate from the fact that for nearly a century, Turkey has not fought a major war. Not a single living Turk has a memory of the calamities that ripped the Turkish society apart in the beginning of the 20th century. Following the loss of millions of Turkish lives, leaders such as Ataturk developed a strong distaste for the type of adventurism that now characterizes the behavior of the Erdogan government on the international stage. Thanks to the wisdom of its traditional experience, the Turkish homeland has not come under an attack during its entire existence as a republic. The Turks will only keep the peace if they can keep the republic.
Askar Askarov received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Maryland in 2007. He is as an instructor at the Elliott School of International Affairs.