On November 3, Islam triumphed politically in Turkey, rendering the entire U.S. strategy in the Middle East tenuous and causing dismay in Europe. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, barred from public office for Islamic agitation, led his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to a landslide victory over his secularist opponents in NATO’s only Muslim nation. Muslims will control over two thirds of the seats in Turkey’s parliament, but Erdogan will not be able to lead the government for now, as he is still banned from holding office. He proudly proclaimed—before reinventing himself as a “post-Islamist” democrat—that “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
The forces supported by Turkey’s Westernized elites have been routed. All three parties in the ruling coalition failed to gain parliamentary representation. But in his pitch to the West, Mr. Erdogan minimized his party’s Islamic connections by stressing his “reformist” and “democratic” credentials. As Lebanon’s Daily Star commented, Erdogan and his followers decided to pursue a strategy designed to fight the regime from within:
Erdogan . . . decided to avoid referring to Islam at all. In fact, the AKP leader has stated publicly that the issue of women’s veils does not even figure on his list of priorities . . . Erdogan has been playing the game to perfection. He has given the impression of being a realistic, moderate and accessible politician. He has also been careful not to be associated with any statements that could land him in trouble.
This game is now being played by the Turkish press, which expressed confidence that an enfeebled Europe and an irreversibly Turkophile America will accept Erdogan’s pretenses. Thus Hadi Uluengin commented, in Hurriyet (November 7), that “the AKP has an enormous chance because its government is going to take charge with significant support from the Western, Christian if you will, world”:
The Copenhagen EU summit is likely to set a date for Turkey to join the Union unless AKP makes a crucial mistake. The EU, contrary to common opinion, will not pursue a completely negative attitude against the AKP. On the contrary, Turkey will be treated with more care because it might serve as an alternative model to the conflict of civilizations. Therefore, the results . . . provide a historic chance to the AKP which could benefit both Turkey and all of humanity.
A day earlier, Fatih Altayli complained in the same paper that, because of the party’s Islamic origins, some people still cling to “certain preconceived ideas or judgments about the AKP and its leader”:
Turkey should get rid of this spirit particularly now as the country is going toward a new era. Otherwise, the members of the AKP will feel themselves “different” and “alienated” while they are about to start ruling the country. What matters is that Turkey deserves to have good rulers, not necessarily the people whose lifestyles are the same as mine.
Semih Idiz predicted in Aksam, on the day of Erdogan’s triumph, that the West simply cannot let Turkey sink economically like Argentina:
Turkey’s importance has dramatically increased following the events of September 11. For the West, the Turkish example is a welcome contrast to the Huntington-model, i.e. a clash of civilizations . . .
Writing in Milliyet, a popular daily, Yasemin Congar asserted that “US officials working on the Turkey desk do not see the AKP’s Islamic leaning as a negative factor” since “they believe that close cooperation between the US administration and a Muslim-democratic Turkish government might give a reassuring message to the rest of the world.”
Some Europeans are not so sure. One writer in London’s Guardian expressed fear that the AKP may move to “unpick Ataturk’s legacy” and thus provoke a familiar and losing confrontation with the armed forces. The Financial Times cautioned that much is riding on whether “the AKP is what it says it is: a conservative but modern party of Muslim Democrats.” In France, Bruno Frappat wrote in La Croix,
If the new government can prove that Islam and modernity are compatible and guarantee Turkey’s civil liberties, if its claims of ‘moderation’ are sincere, we could be facing a truly historic moment. This would mean that a political Islam separate from totalitarianism can exist on this earth. If this dream scenario became reality it would greatly serve democracy, Europe and Islam.
France Inter Radio admitted that Europe is worried, “and the reason . . . is because Turkey is a Moslem nation.” Patrick Sabatier opined in Libération that the election results will not make the decision on whether to grant Turkey E.U. membership any easier:
It is legitimate to have some reservations about the liberal, democratic and pro-European beliefs espoused by Turkey’s Islamic ‘moderates’ . . . Their success is not so much due to their religious platform or their position on Turkey and Europe, but rather to the population’s sanction vote against a political class which has been unable to resolve Turkey’s economic crisis . . . In the months to come Turkey will become a chessboard where a high-risk game will be played out between the Islamists, who have never been stronger, and the army, which is the last rampart of protection for a democratic and secular nation.
In Germany, Rainer Hermann, writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, opined that “there is not much room for Islamist experiments”:
Many in the EU will want to wait and observe the AKP for a while, and yet Erdogan will not be content with the argument that Turkey simply does not belong to Europe geographically and culturally . . . Over the next few years, it must answer the question whether and under what circumstances Islam and democracy can be reconciled.
In Belgium, Luc Van der Kelen warned in Het Laatste Nieuws that Turkey is now in the hands of a man who says that he has abandoned fundamentalism but who praised Iran and Qaddafi as recently as five years ago: “The recipe is always the same: the old religious and nationalist values with promises of a better life. It is a lethal cocktail.” In Spain, La Razon noted that Turkey is in a position comparable to that of Algeria when the military power annulled the electoral triumph of the fundamentalists. Conservative ABC added that
the shock has been brutal, perhaps unacceptable for the powerful military and political strata; Parliament has been emptied of parties and Muslims alone monopolize all the strings of power for the first time in eighty years.
Il Giornale’s Washington correspondent, Alberto Pasolini Zanelli, warned the Italian public that, “so far, nobody has ever seen a party with Islamic and democratic roots.” La Repubblica expressed hope that Erdogan will not “throw off his mask and impose an Islamic state, confident of the fact that he controls two-thirds of Parliament, allowing him to modify the Constitution.” The paper’s Ankara correspondent, Marco Ansaldo, did not provide a reassuring appraisal:
Turkey is falling into the hands of the Muslims . . . casting serious doubts over Ankara’s future dependability not only within the Atlantic Alliance, but also in the United States, in Europe and at the International Monetary Fund, which is helping the country emerge from financial disaster.
In the same paper, Guido Rampoldi noted that
[the Turkish election] result ridicules the Bush Administration’s theory that the war on Saddam would set off a domino-effect in the Middle East: once the Iraqi dictator has been eliminated, neighboring countries would instantly transform themselves into enthusiastic imitators of Western democracies. Even the most European of Muslim nations, Turkey, has now told us that Islamism is better equipped than its political rivals to exploit the crisis of the old world order.
In Moscow, assessments were even more gloomy. When the election result became known, Maksim Yusin commented on page one of Izvestiya:
the radicals in Islamic countries have gained considerably since 9/11, with the secularists and moderates yielding ground . . . The U.S. Administration faces a hard choice. It must find a way to deal with the weird, unpredictable and potentially dangerous people who are now in control and try to persuade them to go by the rules and not to challenge the only surviving superpower, or it may attempt to destabilize Erdogan, hoping that the military . . . might help . . .
A similar theme was developed by Ser-gey Strokan in the reformist, business-oriented magazine Kommersant:
For all their breast-beating, the Islamic politicians will not succeed in assuaging the West’s fears by swearing that they have no plans to install the power of mullahs and Sharia in secular democratic Turkey. Today it is hard to believe that Islamists, as they don sheepskins and pose as respectable Western democrats, do not have a “secret agenda” or a fallback plan.
In Israel, Hatzofe predicted that Turkey’s new Islamic government will “introduce certain changes, meaningless at first, in order to prepare a gradual Islamization of Turkey.”
There is little doubt that this is indeed Erdogan’s long-term plan. Those who are acquainted with Islamic teaching will understand that he is practicing “takkiye”—the ruse that allows a believer to lie about his religion if he is weak or threatened. The ruse is working, mainly because Turkey’s political elite is as deracinated as it was in Ataturk’s times. Eight decades after the proclamation of the republic, Tur-key remains primarily defined by the fact that it is a Muslim country. The tension between modernization dictated from above and Muslim resistance from below remains unresolved. It is structurally similar to the strain that proved fatal to the shah of Iran in 1979. The dream of secularism has never penetrated beyond the military, a narrow stratum of urban elite centered in Istanbul, and the bureaucrats in Ankara.
The Bush administration needs to reassess its policy. The “democratization” of Turkey means Islamicization, and America needs alternative scenarios and regional strategies. This approach calls for a long-term rapprochement with Russia, which could provide an alternative access route to the Caspian oil fields if and when Turkey formally becomes an Islamic republic. The administration should also make it clear that Erdogan cannot have it both ways: an Islamic regime is incompatible with Europe, NATO, and American values. Reasserting evenhandedness in Greco-Turkish disputes is the next step, centered on the demand for the evacuation of Turkish troops from northern Cyprus, leading to a permanent political solution that may entail the island’s partition on the basis
of its pre-1974 ethnic map. Washington should also encourage a comprehensive settlement of the Kurdish problem by political means, coupled with a clear determination that Turkey will no longer be supplied with U.S. armaments for use against Kurdish civilians.
These are tough choices, and there will be resistance to some or all of those policies from Turkey’s friends on Capitol Hill and in the Bush administration; without informed debate on the implications of Turkey’s election outcome, however, America will be doomed to repeat her Iranian experience.