Ten years later, Turkey’s Islamist political revolution bearing bitter fruit

Michael Rubin Resident Scholar, AEI
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On Nov. 3, 2002, a political revolution swept Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, better known by its Turkish acronym AKP, swept to power — winning just 34 percent of the vote but, because of a quirk of Turkish election law, two-third of the seats in parliament. Not only could the AKP rule without coalition partners but, Turkish critics feared, the Islamist party could also use its supermajority to undercut the secular foundations of the Turkish state.

Foggy Bottom assuaged such concern. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the AKP’s victory a sign of “the vibrancy of Turkey’s democracy.” Even though Erdoğan had, as Istanbul’s mayor, declared himself the “Imam of Istanbul,” described himself as a “servant of shari’a,” and served time for religious incitement, Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state, described the AKP as “a kind of Muslim version of a Christian Democratic Party.”

At first, anxiety about the AKP’s religious agenda appeared misplaced. Elected to repair the economy, the party took its task seriously. It stabilized Turkey’s currency, tackled inflation, and catalyzed growth.

Beneath the surface, however, Erdoğan was already working to replace Turkey’s stabilizing secularism with an Islamist social and foreign policy agenda. He replaced all members of Turkey’s powerful banking board with alumni of Islamic finance, most of whom, like current President Abdullah Gül, had cut their teeth in Saudi banks. Once under Islamist control, Erdoğan used the banking board to attack opponents’ assets, confiscating businesses and driving some into bankruptcy. AKP appointees, however, turned a blind eye to the influx of Saudi and Qatari money into AKP coffers and slush-funds.

Other bureaucratic manipulations had even greater reverberations. Tweaking admissions formulas opened universities to religious students long denied acceptance because they lacked a solid liberal arts foundation. In order to help these unqualified graduates then enter the civil service, Erdoğan imposed a new interview process, transforming a meritorious civil service into a mechanism for political patronage.

Not every reform worked. Judges vacated an AKP decision to impose a mandatory retirement age on civil servants. The scheme would have allowed Erdoğan to appoint 4,000 new judges, almost half of Turkey’s total judiciary. In response to judicial vetoes, Bülent Arınç, then speaker of the parliament and now Erdoğan’s chief deputy, threatened to dissolve the constitutional court if its justices continued to find AKP legislation unconstitutional. But the issue is now moot. After a decade in power, Erdoğan has attained through attrition what the courts initially denied him.

Rather than enhance democracy, Western demands that Turkey subordinate its military to civilian control doomed it. Disentangling the military from politics may have been a noble goal, but stripping the generals of their role as constitutional guarantor without constructing an alternate system of checks-and-balances enhanced Erdoğan’s power beyond his wildest dreams. One in five Turkish generals are now in prison on charges that, at best, are dubious. As Erdoğan expanded party control over the police and judiciary, he turned his guns on the press. Simply lampooning Erdoğan in a political cartoon sparks retaliation. Turkey now imprisons more journalists than Iran and China and, according to Reporters Without Frontiers, ranks below Russia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe in press freedom. Last year, police arrested investigative journalist Ahmet Şıkand and confiscated pre-publication drafts of a manuscript detailing Islamist infiltration of security forces. To rally supporters, Erdoğan embraces crude anti-American propaganda. Pew Global Attitudes Survey now finds Turkey consistently among the most anti-American countries.

With his control consolidated, Erdoğan has now dispensed with subtlety. Earlier this year, he told parliament, “We will raise a religious generation.” He forces Turkey’s minority Alevis to attend Sunni religious schools, and has flushed women from top levels of state bureaucracy. Last year, Turkey’s justice minister reported that, between 2002 and 2009, the murder rate of women increased 1,400 percent. While Erdoğan condemns Israel, the AKP gives Hamas leader Ismail Haniya a standing ovation in parliament. While former Secretary of State Colin Powell once described Turkey as a “Muslim democracy living in peace with its friends and neighbors,” in the past year Turkish officials have threatened military force against not only Syria, but also Israel, Cyprus, and Iraq.

Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regularly call Turkey a model for the Middle East. It’s time to put such politically correct platitudes to rest. Turkey may be a model, but not for Muslim democracy. Rather, the AKP has demonstrated how Islamists wearing Western suits and promising democracy achieve the opposite.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.