Taking Turkey Seriously

STOCKHOLM – Istanbul, in western Turkey, is one of Europe’s great cities. As Constantinople, it was the capital of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and after its capture and renaming by Mehmed II in 1453, it served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire for nearly another 500 years.

Throughout its history, the city on the western side of the Bosphorus Strait separating Europe from Asia has been an epicenter of the relationship between the geopolitical West and East. And Istanbul will most likely continue to play that role, given the current importance of mostly Christian Europe’s relationship with the wider Muslim world.


Turkey itself emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, and Turkish political life has often been tumultuous, marked by competing visions and aspirations, successes and setbacks. Still, during the last two centuries, reformers seeking to modernize Turkey have looked to Europe for inspiration.

This was certainly true of Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who pushed through authoritarian reforms in the 1920s and 1930s to secularize the country; and it has been true for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, over the past 13 years, first as Turkey’s prime minister and now as its president, has emerged as a towering personality on the world stage.

Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) spent their first decade in power pushing through impressive economic and, yes, democratic reforms. Turkey, whose membership in the European Union Customs Union was already supporting its economic transformation, moved closer to eligibility for eventual EU membership – a process that reinforced the country’s motivation to make progress on democratic reforms. Hope that the country had finally overcome its checkered history of military dictatorships was gaining strength.

However, much changed in the last few years. Turkey’s accession talks with the EU have ground almost to a halt, owing partly to outright hostility against Turkey in some EU member states. The motives behind this animus vary, but the overall effect has been to alienate many Turks, who now feel rejected by a Europe that once inspired them. Not surprisingly, some Turks now look for inspiration and opportunities elsewhere.

Moreover, the situation inside Turkey has worsened in recent years, with Turkish society becoming dangerously polarized under the strain of the escalating conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Threats from militant Kurdish factions have resurfaced after a long ceasefire, and the Islamic State has launched a series of terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Ankara. It is a testament to Turkey’s resiliency that, under such conditions, it has still managed to host up to three million refugees.

Turkish politics since 2013 has also suffered from a ruthless and increasingly destructive silent civil war between the AKP and its former allies in the Gülenist movement, an Islamic community nominally led by the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, who now lives in the United States, outside Philadelphia.

The AKP and the Gülenists were once united in seeking to eradicate the Kemalist “deep state” – an alleged network of anti-democratic, nationalist agents embedded in the state’s security structures with a mission to uphold Atatürk’s secular vision. Part of this united effort involved, in 2007, show trials of senior Turkish generals that were based on fabricated evidence – an episode that many now agree led the country astray.

The years since then have been marked by warnings of Gülenist infiltration of the police force, the judiciary, and parts of the military. This silent civil war has significantly degraded the country’s democratic development, with the elected government resorting to more authoritarian measures to respond to the perceived threat of Gülenist subversion.

The silent civil war became audible with the failed coup in July, which most observers believe was orchestrated by Gülenist forces, though Gülen himself has denied any involvement. If the coup had succeeded, Turkey likely would have descended into open civil war with no end in sight, and with all hope for democracy extinguished.

One silver lining of the recent putsch is that, after years of division, it has united Turkey’s democratic political parties around the shared goal of defending democracy against future internal threats. The West’s lack of empathy for Turkey during this traumatic period has been astonishing; it can be in no Western country’s interest that Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first to meet with Erdoğan in the episode’s aftermath.

No one should be surprised that Turkey is now trying to purge Gülenists from positions of power. Any state faced with insurrection from within would do the same. To be sure, we should not ignore abuses in the immediate post-putsch crackdown; but we should put ourselves in the authorities’ shoes. It is hard to know at this stage if the government is casting the net too wide or not wide enough, but erring in either direction will only create new problems.

For what it’s worth, senior Turkish officials, in a meeting with Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland, have promised to uphold the rule of law in accordance with Council membership. In any case, there will be opportunities for the Council to address abuses after the immediate furor has subsided.

Turkey is at a historical crossroads, but it is still too early to tell where the country is headed. If the previous trends toward polarization and authoritarianism continue, the country could eventually reach a breaking point. But if national unity, based on shared commitment to democracy, ultimately prevails, Turkey’s political climate will improve, allowing for a resumption of the Kurdish peace process, further progressive political reforms, and new hope for future integration with Europe.


1 reply

  1. Turmoil in Turkey
    It was a greatest shock and sadness when I received the heart wrenching news about the coup at tempt July 16th 2016 in Turkey. Some have called it as a staged coup given that the benefits of it are being accrued by president Erdogan himself who was already inching towards a political dead-end for himself with the fading of the Turkish model after his first 10 years of very successful premiership both politically and economically .By then he gradually had commenced getting trapped in the middle of worsening political turmoil in the region , his own internal and autocratic suppressions of Gezi-Park demonstrations and his ongoing hard-handed suppression of human rights, freedoms of media and press. All this was followed by the leakages of Erdogan’s own corruption scandals in December, 2013 and that made him paranoid about the survival of his own leadership and his political future .He had subsequently side-lined Abdulah Gul , Bülent Arınç and several other AKP co-founders and democratically oriented members of the AK Party who could have replaced him . To me, Turkey will still remain one of the key geopolitical entities and a bridge with its potential to influence both the East and the West in terms of international relations and diplomatic partnerships in a globalizing world.After what has happened in mid July ,the Islamic World and the West may have to wait for Erdogan’s departure in the near future hopefully without him inflicting any further and serious damages to Turkey, the region and the global civil society.

    Being a Pakistani-American,my contact with Turkey has most importantly been through the historic brotherhood between the people of Turkey and Pakistan, and most importantly through the global network of the ( medani like) Hizmet Civic Society Movement that has evolved since its inception in 1960s . Hizmet is now unfortunately and very wrongly being incriminated in this abortive or as I too suspect a staged coup as being considered as a current architect of Turkey in Erdogan’s mind.

    Erdogan administration very quickly accused Fethullah Gulen for master minding the coup, a politically sellable argument and totally an irresponsible manner to scapegoat a current and messy politics of Erdogan own making that his declining and current tenure created over the past about 4 years. Gulen in his very decent response to the accusations, requested the international community to investigate if there was such an attempt on his part .

    The civic movement Gulen helped evolve has today indeed become unequivocally and positively the most influential in constructive opinion making on Islam , genuinely transformative and forward looking for the Islamic world in the 21st century. The movement brings the world of Islam on to a middle ground of dialogue and peace making between cultures and civilizations. An alternative to conflicts of religious cultures, aggression and violence both internal and external to the Islamic world.

    Hizmet Movement addresses that differences are part of being human and that authentic Islam, embraces them as part of the formation of human communities. Gulen has, for decades, pioneered Islamic insightful interpretations with a socio-spiritual-rational intelligence applicable to modernity, science and the sacred. Islam truly cannot ever be in opposition to science, modernity and universal humanistic values . Both Islam and modernity are open to other worldviews, engaging with each other, stand side by side to face more critical challenges of modernity and even the ongoing deviant and distorted radical practices in the name of Islam.

    My own connection with the Hizmet movement as a Muslim and a respecting student of all other beliefs,science and modernity has tremendously helped me over the years to view each and every realm in its own perspective. Like any other religious traditions Islam too has taught me to deal with differences as it had been done and taught during the time of our own prophet(PBUH). Medina constitution clearly elaborated that there were all out and open possibilities of coexistence and acceptance between Muslims and non-Muslims as shown in the compact of Medina and even the most recently translated works from Arabic to English and published covenant’s of the prophet himself in 2013.

    Hizmet movement accepts and promotes the very unique premise that best of education, dialogue and partnership could help us modern humans to cope with differences, while religious beliefs importantly provide us the true meanings and purpose of human life.

    Sincerely,in my own view Gulen and the Hizmet Movement have been providing, the Turkish Diaspora all over the world, all those in the central Asia and caucuses , of course the Republic of Turkey itself and certainly the entire Islamic world, a grip of the most genuine Islam palatable to face up to the modern challenges and for us to give our best back to Islam as a humanistic view of life and a morally authentic way of life.

    It is proven beyond any shadow of doubt that neither a singular philosophy, a specific science, an economic system, a political ideology nor for that matter a singular religion could ever be able to fully provide solutions to the problems and issues of our modern times.

    As a staunch admirer and supporter of Gulen’s thought and a keen observer of the Hizmet movement’s humanistic projects and practices globally, I am convinced that all of us are now well aware of the availability of multiple approaches to resolve our global crises as well as the locally troubling issues. This to me and to begin with was the reason as to why I started to study the Hizmet Movement about 20 years ago and wrote , observed and witnessed sufficiently about Hizmet’s ability always to relate ethically to the ‘others’ who are different . So to accuse and incriminate an altruistic movement that is truly based on the Islamic notion of hizmet ( as a true service to humanity) of a militaristic coup with killings of innocents and to topple a civilian rule is totally absurd, unfair, unjust and only politically motivated. For all or any of these reasons, incriminating Hizmet is certainly a crime against humanity answerable to the Creator and to the entire human family. Time will Insha-Allah show and set the record straight.

    Muzaffar K Awan, M.D.

    Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.

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