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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passage of laws and constitutional amendments abolishing the death penalty and army-dominated security courts; he repealed curbs on free speech, and brought the military budget under civilian control for the first time in Turkish history.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.

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