Over the past eight years, Prime Minister Rejep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) have been successful in undermining Mustafa Kemal’s legacy and the character of the state founded upon that legacy. What remained, until last Sunday’s referendum, was an increasingly empty shell of constitutional secularism. That shell was nevertheless an obstacle to the formal grounding of the new legitimacy in Islam at home and neo-Ottomanism abroad. Erdoğan and his team were determined to remove it, and on September 12 they succeeded. Turkey’s voters approved, by a large margin, a 26-article package which will end the Army’s role as the guardian of secularism. On current form, there is but little doubt that Erdoğan will be reelected with a simple majority when he calls the general election next spring.
We are witnessing the end of a process that could be predicted with precision. Seven and a half years ago I wrote in Chronicles (The American Interest, April 2003) that the Bush Administration was mistaken to pretend that Turkey was “a truly indispensable nation” with an “indispensable partnership with the United States,” a nation “central to building peace from Southeastern Europe to the Middle East and eastward to the Caucasus and Central Asia . . . crucial to bridging the dangerous gap between the West and the Muslim world”:
In his pitch to the West Mr. Erdoğan is unsurprisingly eager to minimize his party’s Islamic connections by stressing his “secular” and “conservative” credentials. His assurances were keenly accepted in Washington . . . During a recent trip to Turkey by The Rockford Institute’s fact-finding team we were repeatedly warned that things were no longer as they used to be a decade ago . . . The escalating crisis of Turkey’s economic and political system over the past decade reflected a deeper malaise, the loss of confidence of the old Kemalist elite. The implicit assumption in Washington—that Turkey would remain “secular” and “pro-Western,” come what may—should have been reassessed after the Army intervened to remove the previous pro-Islamic government in 1997. Since then many voices . . . have warned that “democratization” would mean Islamization, and that America needed alternative scenarios and regional strategies.
Plus ça change . . . Erdoğan and his team now claim that the constitutional reform approved last Sunday heralds the country’s democratization. Practicing the Islamic art of the taqiyya in its purest form, foreign minister Davutoğlu claims that the referendum was all about advancing civil rights and Western-style liberties, that it reflects “the Turkish nation’s will to live in a freer and more democratic environment in compliance with European Union standards.” It is “an important turning point for democracy in Turkey,” he says, and “a result of the Turkish nation’s interest in the reform process carried out in light of universal and European norms.” With an eye to Brussels, he also noted that the amendments introduced “constitutional guarantees for positive discrimination for women, children, the elderly and the disabled.”
Equally true to form, Washington’s self-deception is continuing. On Sunday afternoon President Barack Obama praised the “vibrancy of Turkish democracy” by citing high turnout in the referendum during a telephone conversation with Erdoğan. On Monday State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the United States hopes the reforms endorsed on Sunday will “further enhance Turkey’s democratic process and human rights protection.” Asked if he disagrees with the claims of Turkish secularists that the changes will inhibit the judiciary’s ability to “oversee” the executive, Crowley replied that this was, in fact, a “decisive vote to move towards greater civilian oversight of these democratic institutions . . . We respect that statement by the Turkish people. And we hope that the government will, again, use this mandate to deepen democratic processes in Turkey as well as guarantee human rights protections.” Crowley ended by reiterating the US support for Turkey’s membership in the EU. Obama’s and Crowley’s statements are insane, confirming that those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
The terminal loss of confidence of the old Kemalist elite is somewhat more surprising. The lack of support in Washington is a factor, but more important is the manner in which Erdoğan and the AKP had succeeded in obtaining the compliance of the secularist elite in the crucial early years. Turkey’s activist foreign policy has seduced them with the vision of an autonomous sphere of Turkish influence in the old Ottoman domains in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. It has enabled the Islamists to co-opt into the project many senior civil servants, diplomats and generals who are not sympathetic to the ideological assumptions of the neo-Ottoman paradigm, but who were ready and willing to support its “quantitative” aspects. They subscribed to the ostensibly traditional, nationalist components of Davutoğlu’s neo-Ottoman concept of strategic depth, without realizing that it was a Faustian pact.
On the day of his appointment as Turkey’s foreign minister in May 2009, Davutoğlu asserted that Turkey had an “order-instituting role” in the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus, quite apart from its links with the West: “Turkey is no longer a country which only reacts to crises, but notices the crises before their emergence and intervenes in the crises effectively, and gives shape to the order of its surrounding region.” He further declared that Turkey had a “responsibility to help stability towards the countries and peoples of the regions which once had links with Turkey”—thus explicitly referring to the Ottoman era, in a manner unimaginable only a decade ago: “Beyond representing the 70 million people of Turkey, we have a historic debt to those lands where there are Turks or which was related to our land in the past. We have to repay this debt in the best possible manner.”
For the sake of Turkey’s status as a first-rate regional power—pleasing to their Kemalist-nationalist sensibilities—the secularist elite were prepared to close their eyes to the fact that Islam is the all-encompassing denominator of the project. Back in the fragile early days of 2002-2003 the AKP leadership wisely grasped the need for the secularist nationalists to be given a slot in the national consensus on Turkey’s multi-layered identity. Those days are now over.
Many inherited Weimar officials, Wilhelmstrasse diplomats and top officers of the Reichswehr were likewise not supportive of the Nazis when Hitler came to power. During the crucial early years of the Third Reich (January 1933-January 1938), they were likewise willing to offer their services to his de facto revolutionary project in the name of promoting traditional German national interests and objectives. In early 1938 they were inevitably swept away in a fresh wave of Gleichschaltung, heralded by the removal of General von Blomberg and foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath.
With last Sunday’s referendum, Turkey’s Islamists are finally able to do the same to the Kemalist civil service and army cadres. Their replacements, steeped in Islamism and neo-Ottomanism, are being groomed at the lower levels of the hierarchy as we speak. Their dilemma, for many decades before Erdogan, had been to resist the lure of irredentism abroad, and at home to turn Islam into a matter of personal choice separate from the state and distinct from the society. It could not be done.