Democratic, Secular Turkey In Best Interest Of U.S. And West

By R.L. Schreadley

Charleston Post Courier, SC
Aug 6 2007

The recent electoral victory of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (the AKP) received cheerful
endorsements from both the liberal New York Times and the more
conservative Wall Street Journal. This sentiment was expressed in
many other learned journals as well.

"The impressive re-election victory scored by Turkey’s conservative
Muslim ruling party is a tribute to the growing maturity of that
country’s politics and an inspiration for the cause of democracy
in the broader Muslim world," the Times said in an editorial. The
Journal was only slightly less effusive in its editorial, as well as
in a news item datelined Istanbul that opined: "The election victory
here of the ruling center-right party with Islamic roots paves the
way for more pro-Western and business-friendly policies, even as the
party faces growing pressure from resurgent nationalists and from
Turkey’s secular elite."

Let’s hope all this works out well, that it is not so much whistling
in the dark. One of the very worst things that could happen to
Western interests in the Middle East would be to have Turkey embrace
Islamic radicalism of the sort that triumphed in Iran (with help from
democracies in the West), is resurgent in Afghanistan, and threatens
U.S. nominal allies in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Ever since the Western powers, at the end of World War I, carved up
what remained of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has been an outpost of
sanity in what seems a peculiarly insane part of the world. It is
a full-fledged member of NATO, even though its strategic interests
would seem to have little to do with the North Atlantic basin. Its
borders are with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia,
Bulgaria and Greece. Not exactly a quiet neighborhood.

Turkish troops fought bravely alongside our troops in the Korean War.

It is host to a large U.S. military base (Incirlik). By some estimates,
three-fourths of air cargo destined for U.S. forces in Iraq and
Afghanistan utilizes Turkish airspace.

True, Prime Minister Erdogan’s government refused to allow the
United States use of Turkish territory as a staging area for a planned
northern front in the war to unseat Saddam Hussein. That left an entire
U.S. Army division stewing on ships in the eastern Mediterranean at
a crucial moment in the war.

But this most likely had less to do with displeasure over our clumsy
failure to secure Turkey’s assent in advance of our troops arriving
off its coast than it did with Erdogan’s, and the Turkish army’s,
concern that a potential breakup of post-war Iraq might well lead to
an independent Kurdistan. This remains a sore point today. Turkey has
a large Kurdish minority, and the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party
(the PKK) uses Iraqi territory to launch terrorist attacks that have
taken, and are taking, many hundreds of Turkish lives.

The Kurds are our only reasonably reliable Iraqi partners and thus
far the United States has done little more than jawboning to curb
the PKK’s cross-border raids.

Earlier this year, a Pew Center poll produced some startling numbers.

Five years ago, before Prime Minister Erdogan assumed power, the
Turkish people were strongly pro-American, more so than any other
Muslim country in the world. Now, according to Pew, it is the most
anti-American. Only 9 percent of Turks say they have a favorable
opinion of the United States, and the percentage of Turks who "hate"
the United States is said to be higher than the percentage among
Palestinians. (Palestinians?!)

Much of this shift in sentiment, of course, is due to the
overwhelming unpopularity of the war in Iraq. Much is due to the
Kurdish situation. Still more is a growing awareness within Turkey
that a much-coveted membership in the European Union is not in the
books, at least anytime soon, and that the United States has done
nothing to persuade the EU otherwise.

Since the days of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish army has been
the guardian of last resort for the secular state he created.

Military intervention to overthrow an elected government is anathema
in much of the civilized world, and rightly so.

It is not, however, beyond the realm of possibility in Turkey today,
should the Islamists press their agenda too far. Indeed, the army
there has acted more than once in the post-World War II period to
preserve what we in America take for granted – separation of church
and state. (And yes, I know you won’t find those words in the U.S.
Constitution.) A key moment for Erdogan’s AKP will be when it announces
its nomination for president. The Turkish presidency, which holds
the power to veto legislation, traditionally has been held by a
secularist. The AKP’s prior nomination of an Islamist, vigorously
opposed by secularists and, menacingly, by the army, was tossed out
on a technicality by the Turkish high court. It led Erdogan to call
the election that now has confirmed him in office with 47 percent of
the vote cast.

It is very much in the West’s interest that Turkey remain both
democratic and secular. Democracy and Islam, however, have proven at
best to be uneasy bedfellows, and at worst totally incompatible. What
must Ataturk, in his secular paradise (if indeed there is one) be
thinking as he views his handiwork from afar?

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor. He
has traveled extensively in Turkey over a period of many years.