Will Turkey Make It?


Nine centuries after Pope Urban II sent the first Crusaders off to fight “the Turk,” 321 years after the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, Turkey and Europe are approaching a historic encounter. In December, leaders of European Union countries will vote on whether to begin negotiations that would lead to Turkey’s joining the EU. Every day it seems more likely that they will say yes.

If they do, it will be for two rea-sons. The first is that under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced AIR-doe-an), Turkey has entered a period of astonishingly far-reaching change. Since taking office in March of last year, Erdogan has pulled Turkey further toward democracy than it had moved in the previous quarter-century. In fundamental ways, today’s Turkey is almost unrecognizably different from the country I lived in until just four years ago. European leaders are beginning to admit that Turkey has become democratic enough to join their club.

The second reason why these European leaders may give Turkey a “yes” vote when they assemble in the Netherlands at the end of this year is that saying no could be dangerous. Islamic fundamentalists preach that Muslims must turn inward because the rest of the world wishes them ill. This argument has been immeasurably strengthened by the American invasion of Iraq, and European leaders are eager to counter it. The EU is concerned above all with stabilizing a large region of the world, and it cannot risk setting off the destabilization that would follow from rejecting Turkey after all Turkey has done to qualify for membership.

In little more than a year as prime minister, Erdogan has proven himself more committed to democracy than any of the self-proclaimed “secular” leaders who misruled Turkey during the 1990s. He has secured passage of laws and constitutional amendments abolishing the death penalty and army-dominated security courts; he repealed curbs on free speech, and brought the military budget under civilian control for the first time in Turkish history. He authorized Kurdish-language broadcasting, swept aside thirty years of Turkish intransigence on the Cyprus issue, and eased Greek–Turkish tension so effectively that when he visited Athens in May, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis proclaimed that the two countries now enjoyed “a relation of cooperation based on mutual trust.”

This reform program is especially important because Prime Minister Erdogan, who is leading it with passion and vigor, has had a long career in Islamic politics. He prays every day, and his wife wears a head scarf. By clinging so firmly to Islam while pulling his country toward democracy, he undermines the view that the two are incompatible.

December’s vote will be as much about Europe as about Turkey. It is a chance for Europeans to confront their fear of outsiders, and to emerge from centuries of hostility and suspicion directed against the Muslim world. The prospect of EU membership is a principal reason why Turkey is now moving so resolutely toward full democracy, which means that Europe has already had a very positive effect on Turkish life. This is a welcome example of how democratic countries can use their influence to promote the cause of freedom abroad. “While the hard power of the United States is destroying Iraq,” Sahin Alpay, a professor of politics at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, told me, “the soft power of Europe is transforming Turkey.”

More than a few Europeans still have doubts about the prospect of having Turkey in their club. They point out that this is a large country with vast underdeveloped regions that could absorb considerable amounts of EU money for everything from farm subsidies to educational projects. It is a poor country, many of whose citizens may surge westward and disrupt European labor markets, as well as a Muslim country that did not live through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or other historical experiences that bind Europe together. Politicians in several European countries are responding to these fears by supporting a “No to Turkey” campaign or urging that the EU offer Turkey something less than full membership.


In March, after a year in power, Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party won a strong vote of confidence in local elections. I visited Gaziantep in eastern Anatolia, a booming industrial city rich in Hittite, Assyrian, Persian, and Roman history, to learn why it has become so popular. For the last fifteen years, the mayor of Gaziantep has been Celal Dogan, an old-style political boss from the fiercely secular Republican People’s Party. Nothing could happen without him; he built parks, laid water and sewer lines, and even ran the city’s soccer team. Even though he became increasingly isolated, and despite accusations of extravagant corruption, he so dominated Gaziantep that many considered him invincible. Yet in March he was overwhelmingly defeated by a little-known physician whose main qualification was that he was the candidate of Erdogan’s party.

Erdogan and his comrades insist that they are not Islamists but rather “conservative democrats.” By this they mean that although they identify with traditional Anatolian values rather than those of the urban elite, they do not seek to extend religious influence over public life. A great debate is raging in Turkey over whether this is true. In search of an answer I called on Asim Guzelbey, the balding, bespectacled new mayor of Gaziantep.

I don’t consider myself especially religious, and my wife does not wear a scarf,” he told me. “If I have a political identity, it is simply as a democrat, which I take to mean that the law is above all and applies equally to all. I come from a conservative family, and this party is conservative. It is also a party dedicated to honesty and transparency. Turks are thirsty for that because we’re so fed up with corrupt politics.”

Mayor Guzelbey conceded that there were “some extremists” in the Justice and Development Party who might sympathize with Islamic political goals, but he insisted that Erdogan is not one of them. “Our prime minister has changed and improved,” he assured me. “What he said five or twenty years ago doesn’t mean he is incapable of adapting to the contemporary world. I’m convinced that he truly believes in democracy. Look at what he is doing—what more proof could you want? This man is leading us into Europe. There’s no danger of him taking us toward Islamic radicalism.”

This mayor seemed fully commit-ted to the secular principles of the Turkish Republic, and he is convinced that Prime Minister Erdogan shares his commitment. A few hours later, however, I arrived at a charming Gaziantep inn for dinner with Aykut Tuzcu, a visionary businessman who publishes the local newspaper and is active in many civic causes. When I asked him about what is happening in Turkey, he winced with almost physical pain. “I don’t know what to say,” he told me. “I see a contrast. These people are pushing hard for Turkey to join the EU, but they’re also pushing for a more religious society at home. I don’t understand what Erdogan is doing. I worry about it. I worry a lot, and I’m not the only one.”

Many secularists in Turkey share these vague but persistent fears. Is Erdogan, they wonder, trying to subvert the order that Kemal Ataturk imposed in the 1920s, in which schools, universities, and the government are strictly secular? Has he truly forsaken his old belief in Islamic politics? Does he want to bring Turkey into the European Union because that will force the military, secularism’s most fervent defender, onto the sidelines and allow him to reshape the country?

When I lived in Istanbul during the 1990s, Erdogan was that city’s popular mayor. He ran his office with a diligence and honesty that were rare in Turkish politics, and also managed to have the streets paved, garbage picked up, and water mains repaired, more effectively than any other recent mayor. Some didn’t like his ban on the sale of alcohol at city-owned cafés, but what bothered me was that in our interviews, he seemed out of his depth whenever we talked about world affairs. He had troubling, ill-defined notions about the power of Islamic politics and the shortcomings of democracy. Several times he suggested to me that Turkey might be wise to throw in its lot with its Middle Eastern neighbors rather than with faraway Europe. Once he famously compared democracy to a streetcar: you ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.

In 1999 a court found Erdogan guilty of attacking the secular system by reciting a provocative poem (“The mosques are our barracks, their domes are our helmets/Minarets are our spears, the faithful are our army”). Everyone understood that his real crime was building a religious-based political movement. He was removed from office as mayor of Istanbul, sent to prison for four months, and then banned from public office. This experience seems to have converted him to the view that Turkey needs more democracy. Probably he was also sobered by the fate of Necmettin Erbakan, who in 1995 became the country’s first Islamist prime minister. Erbakan openly pursued anti-Western policies, embraced the leaders of Iran and Libya, and urged that Turkey create and lead “an Islamic NATO.” Alarmed secularists, led by military commanders, forced him from office after just one year.

After that debacle, Erdogan led a group of insurgents who tried to wrest control of the Islamist party from its old guard. They failed, and then quit to organize their own new party. This sequence of events allowed them to leave behind many traditional Islamists while attracting reformers to their ranks. Afterward, they could claim to represent something new in Turkish politics, a party with roots in Islamic politics that had evolved to embrace what Ataturk called “universal values.”

This new platform, combined with more intensive local campaigning than any Turkish party had ever undertaken, carried the Justice and Development Party to a sweeping victory in the 2002 national election. In March 2003 a court reinstated Erdogan’s political rights, and he took over as prime minister just days before Parliament voted against allowing American troops to use Turkish bases or cross Turkish soil for their invasion of Iraq. Erdogan went from a jail cell to leadership of his country in less than four years. Since then his popularity has grown steadily, and today he completely dominates Turkish politics.

To convince Europeans that Turkey is changing profoundly and irreversibly, Erdogan has set out to address their most widely held concerns. Human rights ranks high among them, and here Erdogan has made considerable progress. At every opportunity he proclaims his “zero tolerance for torture.” His efforts have had a clear but not yet conclusive effect. According to a report issued in May by the Turkish Human Rights Association, traditional forms of torture are no longer practiced in Turkish police stations, but some officers have turned to other techniques that leave no visible marks; a group of Turkish lawyers said these techniques include sleep deprivation, keeping prisoners hungry, and forcing them to remain in uncomfortable positions. And although speech is now more free in Turkey than it has ever been, some prosecutors and judges cling to old habits. In May a journalist was sentenced to prison for insulting Ataturk’s memory, and a newspaper was fined for asserting that all army generals are incompetent.

Another aspect of Turkish life that disturbs some Europeans is the longstanding impulse, strongly encouraged by some members of Erdogan’s party, to keep women in traditional roles. Ayse Bugra, a professor of economics at Bosphorus University, told me she disapproves of Erdogan because his policies toward women “are all family-oriented, all aimed at encouraging women to stay home, never trying to open up new horizons for them.” In June, Amnesty International issued a report concluding that violence against women is “widely tolerated and even endorsed by community leaders and at the highest levels of the government and judiciary.”

The authorities rarely carry out thorough investigations into women’s complaints about violent attacks or murders or apparent suicides of women. Courts still reduce the sentences of rapists if they promise to marry their victim, despite recent moves to end the practice.

Europeans are also concerned about the Turkish state’s treatment of Kurds in the southeastern provinces. There, as in the rest of the country, a new sense of optimism is taking hold. No longer is it considered a crime to assert one’s Kurdish identity. Kurdish language courses have begun in three cities, and more are to open soon. On June 9 a court ordered the release of Leyla Zana, a fiery advocate of Kurdish rights, and three other former members of Parliament who had been imprisoned since 1994 on charges of supporting Kurdish terror. “I believe that a new period has started in this country,” Zana said as she emerged from prison in Ankara, “and a new page is opened.”

On June 9, too, apparently by coincidence, the state-owned TRT television network broadcast its first Kurdish-language program, a thirty-minute mix of news and features called “Our Cultural Riches.” After watching it, Mayor Osman Baydemir of Diyarbakir, the main Kurdish city, said it was “very important that an eighty-year taboo, a phobia, has been overcome.” Like most Turkish Kurds, Mr. Baydemir strongly favors his government’s campaign to join the EU, and he is planning to tour European capitals later this year to lobby for it. He will argue that by admitting Turkey, the EU would be bringing Kurds into Europe, a step that would secure their rights in Turkey and help stabilize volatile Kurdish politics throughout the Middle East.


Secularists who doubted Erdogan’s commitment to democracy could not help but be impressed by the enormous progress he made during his first year in office. Then, this spring, their mood soured when he introduced a bill to expand the rights of students from religious high schools. Under the present system, most of these graduates are limited to studying theology in college. Prime Minister Erdogan sought a change that would allow them to study law, engineering, or any other profession. He described this as simple fairness, but many secular Turks were outraged. They saw the proposal as evidence that Erdogan is working on a long-term project to infiltrate Islamists into society and the government. Pundits like Haluk Sahin, a columnist for the respected Istanbul daily Radikal, declared the prime minister’s political honeymoon over.

At a café near Taksim Square, the bustling hub of Istanbul, I asked Sahin why he was so upset. He began with an analogy:

If you see a normal person in a bar having a beer, you think, “So what?” But if that person is a recovering alcoholic and has sworn never to take another drink, you think, “There he goes again. I told you he wasn’t cured. Maybe this will be his only beer, but maybe he’ll have a second and a third, and not stop until he winds up in the hospital.” Because people have not been able to get over our fears about Erdogan, we reacted very strongly against what he proposed. This republic is based on a particular vision, which more than anything else means a secular state. You cannot use the instruments of the secular system to come to power, and then take steps that will produce the opposite vision.

During the first week in June, facing intense reactions like this one, Erdogan decided to withdraw his proposal. Evidently he wishes to avoid any domestic controversy that could distract Turkey from its grand reform project. It was an act of statesmanship, but doubters remained unhappy because Erdogan made it clear that he intends to introduce the proposal again later.

European leaders are increasingly impressed with what Erdogan has achieved. After meeting him in February, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany said he saw “good chances” for a positive vote later this year. Tony Blair asserted in April that by bringing Turkey into the EU, Europe would demonstrate that it is “committed not just in words but in deeds to a Europe of diverse races, cultures and religions, all bound together by common rules and a sense of human solidarity and mutual respect.”

In a speech at Oxford on May 24, Chris Patten, the EU’s commissioner for external affairs, reflected at length on the challenges and opportunities that the EU and Turkey offer each other. He praised Erdogan for launching “a program of constitutional reform designed to entrench democracy, promote the protection of minorities, and limit the role of the military in government,” and said the December vote “for many observers will be the main test of the European Union’s commitment to a pluralist and inclusive approach to Islam.” He continued:

The case that this is a pivotal moment in the EU’s relationship with the Islamic world can be, and is, overstated. But our approach to Turkey does matter. It says a great deal about how we see ourselves, and want to be seen, in terms both of culture and of geopolitics…. Is Turkey European? If aspiration is any guide, the answer would have to be a resounding yes. Turkey has resolutely steered a European course ever since Ataturk decreed the end of the Sultanate in 1922. The feeling runs deep, and is promoted with unrelenting vigor by successive Turkish governments….

How much interest should we take in the fate of our southern neighbor and ally, bordered by Iraq, Iran, Syria and the southern Caucasus? How welcoming should we be to a neighbor that has demonstrated the falsity of the case that Islam and democracy do not mix? When we do take an interest, should we recognize Turkey as a respected partner, or as a difficult pupil? These questions should preoccupy us all as the December European Council approaches…. At one time, particularly when Western Europe was a more savage place, Turkey and the Turks were the very incarnation of the threatening outsider. But that was when “Europe” and “Christendom” were synonyms. We’ve moved on from that…. We cannot help but be conscious of the symbolism, at this time, of reaching out a hand to a country whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim.

What Patten left unsaid is that a “no” vote on Turkey’s application in December would probably have a radicalizing effect not only in the broad Muslim world, but within Turkey itself. It would strengthen the ruling party’s militant faction and lead many Turks to question Prime Minister Erdogan’s leadership. It might also drive a resentful Turkey closer to the United States. This is the result that Islamic militants hope for, because it would allow them to portray Turkey as an American lackey that cannot become a model for any self-respecting Muslim country.

In the past, Turkey’s economic troubles weakened its case for EU membership. Today those troubles are fading, thanks largely to a recovery program devised by Kemal Dervis, a former World Bank vice-president who returned to his homeland as minister of finance in the previous government. Erdogan has wisely stuck to the program, pressing ahead with privatization and holding down government spending (in May he cancelled an $11 billion military procurement program under which the army was to buy 1,000 tanks, 145 attack helicopters, and a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles). Growth rates are high, and inflation has fallen from nearly 70 percent in 2001 to a projected 12 percent this year. But 700,000 young people are entering Turkey’s labor market each year, and they need new jobs. I asked Dervis, who is now an opposition member of Parliament, who would provide them.

If European leaders give us a positive vote in December, I think we will begin to get what could even be called massive amounts of foreign investment,” he replied. “That’s what happened in places like Spain and Hungary. The major impediment to large-scale European investment here has been the fear of instability. If European negotiations start, that fear will die down and Turkey will feel like a safe harbor. That will make a huge difference. So much depends on it.”

If Turkey wins a favorable vote in December, it will need about a decade to complete the complex process of preparing for actual EU membership. During that decade, the EU will probably be pressed to extend its reach even further. The countries of the western Balkans—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia—will all have legitimate claims for membership if they can reach Turkey’s level of political and economic democracy. Later Belarus and Moldova might undertake the reforms that would enable them to apply. Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and possibly Russia could eventually become candidates. In the distant future, so might Israel, a Palestinian state, or even Morocco.

Admitting Turkey would set the EU on an ambitious new path. It could greatly strengthen Europe’s strategic position, giving it added weight in competition with the United States and other powers that might emerge later in the century. With Turkey and the combat-ready Turkish army in its ranks, the EU would be able to speak with a combination of moral authority and military credibility that it has never before been able to claim.


Prime Minister Erdogan has formed a “Reform Watch Group” made up of his foreign, interior, and justice ministers. Its job is to assure that Turkey takes every step the EU requires—improving human rights conditions, guaranteeing free speech, curbing the military, recognizing the rights of minority groups—so that in December European leaders will have no choice but to approve its application for membership. While his three top aides direct the reform process at home, Erdogan concentrates his efforts on European leaders, meeting with one after another to present his case. I visited him in Ankara an hour before he received the Bulgarian foreign minister and a day before he flew off for a series of meetings in London.

Erdogan is fifty, tall and fair-skinned with a light brown moustache. He was once a soccer player, and still looks athletic. Turks love to tell stories about the fights he won and lost while growing up on the mean streets of Kasimpasa, a hardscrabble Istanbul neighborhood. Most of those stories are no doubt apocryphal, but they reflect the special respect Erdogan has earned for his working-class background. I asked him if growing up in Kasimpasa had affected him.

Of course it did,” he replied quickly. “How can you help being shaped by the place where you grow up? Kasimpasa is where I first learned the concept of realpolitik.”

Erdogan attended a religious high school and then went on to study management at Marmara University in Istanbul—a sequence that would be difficult to duplicate today, since the educational system now channels most graduates of religious schools into theological careers. After finishing college he worked as a distributor for one of Turkey’s largest snack food companies. He became intensely involved in politics and at the age of thirty-one was named as the Istanbul chairman of what was then the country’s main Islamic party. Less than a decade later he was mayor.

What struck me most about Erdogan during our forty-minute conversation was his burning sense of his own authority. He sees himself personally, not his party or his government, as the force driving Turkey today. When we talked about what has happened in the city of Bingol since it was shaken by an earthquake last year, for example, he told me, “I built a new town for four thousand people who lost their homes,” and “I built new schools right away, much better than the old ones.” Regarding conditions in the former Kurdish war zone, he said, “I am cleaning up all the mines that were planted along the Syrian border.” This is not a self-effacing man, not one who is unsure of his mission.

Most of our conversation was about Erdogan’s reforms and the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union. “I would be pushing these reforms anyway, but the December deadline has given the process a new momentum,” he told me. “Just about all the necessary laws are in place. Now we’re at the stage of implementation, which is not as easy because it requires a change of mentality. There are certain traditions and customs we need to get over. Some established cultures will have to change.”

I saved the most important question for last: How does Erdogan respond to the widespread fear that he is not the reformer he seems to be, but rather an Islamist in secular disguise? As I spoke, I could see his jaw stiffen.

This is the unfortunate mentality of marginal groups in Turkey,” he told me sternly. “I was mayor of Istanbul for four and a half years, and if I had a hidden agenda, it would have been clear there. What I have done and am doing is clear to anyone. No one has a reason to doubt what I think or believe. I laugh at those so-called fears. I’m proud of my achievements. This country is at a great moment in history, and I am determined to seize it.”

June 16, 2004