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Is Turkey in the Balance?

July 20, 2011

A friend recently asked for my thoughts on where Turkey is headed.  Our discussion was brief, but the question remained in my mind because it bears some investigation.  In short, I believe that the country of Turkey is showing signs of turning towards its Muslim brothers, and has been for a few years.  Turkey looks to be shifting from Ataturk’s vision of a Westernized Turkey still in touch with its Islamic roots.  Events in the recent past, and in current headlines, show a trend towards an Islamic Turkey slowly disengaging from the West.  In this article we will investigate this premise, and lay out the evidence to allow the reader to decide for themselves.

Turkey was established as a secular state in 1923, by Mustafa Kamal (aka, Ataturk).  Its hold on democracy has been both tenuous, at times, and tumultuous; the military has been in and out of the government on several occasions.  Islam is considered a vital part of the fabric; however, the secularists (“Kamalists”) keep it in check via regulation.  One Islamist group, the Welfare Party took power but was forced to step down after an inability to form a government.  In 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power, and is widely considered the new Islamist party.  

Internationally, Turkey has been very engaging of the West.  Turkey joined NATO in 1952.  An Associate Member since 1987, Turkey entered negotiations to become a full member of the European Union in 2005.  This is not without roadblocks, and concerns, as we will see.  Conversely, Turkey is also a founding member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).   In a way, Turkey appears balanced on a fence of sorts; the question is, where will she fall?

Ataturk shaped a secular, democractic state out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire.  He was wise enough, however, to realize that Turkey could not fully turn its back on its Muslim roots. In an effort to protect freedom to worship, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion.  The Turkish model went another direction; it encapsulated it. 

Carrying over the control and regulation mechanisms from the Ottomans, all things Islamic are under the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet İşleri Başkanliği.  The Directorate, according to its own people, administrates Turkey’s 77,000 mosques and produces religious knowledge(1).  Apparently, Turkey has chosen to control Islam, to make it harder for Islam to get out of control. 

While many look to Turkey as the go-to model blend of democracy and Islam, Owen Matthews points out that it hasn’t been all rainbows and unicorns in Ankara (2):

Indeed, when pundits talk of “the Turkish model” for a stable, democratic Muslim country, they really mean the AKP model. Just 10 years ago, Turkey was a prime example of how poorly democracy worked in the Muslim world, not how well: a revolving door of unstable and corrupt coalitions; a feeble banking sector; a military that removed four civilian governments in four decades, and which may have been involved in thousands of disappearances of Kurds and leftists.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) was formed from the banned Virtue Party, which had come out of the Welfare Party; thus, one can see the Islamist lineage of the current leadership party in Turkey.  AKP is led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a devout Muslim and a very outspoken individual.   Erdoğan was the prime mover behind the nomination of Abdullah Güll, a former member of both the Virtue and Welfare Parties, for the presidency. 

Erdoğan has fashioned Turkey as an outspoken player in both trade and politics in the region.  Both PM Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have been very active in establishing Turkey as the stabilizer and mediator of the region (3).  Turkey has taken central roles facilitating transitions in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as spearheading a working group to come alongside Afghanistan as it moves forward.  FM Davutoğlu has gone so far as to suggest that “external intervention in their region” is not welcome(4).

In the region, Turkey has taken active steps to strengthen its relationship with Iran.  Recently, FM Davutoğlu met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to discuss Israel.  More specifically, the two discussed the importance of containing Israel as a “fake” regime(5).  It’s a given that Ahmedinejad is always good for some lunacy, but it is telling that FM Davutoğlu met with, and entertained, such lunacy. 

PM Erdoğan has also been outspoken in his challenge of the United States’ handling of the Iran nuclear program as well as the Israeli-Palestian peace process (siding with the Palestinians).  Turkey has voiced support for Hamas and the Palestinians, as well as aiding attempts to push aid through the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.

As Turkey turns to embrace its Eastern brothers, membership in the EU is becoming more tenuous.  Turkey’s support for the Turkish Republic of North Cypress threatens to throw a wrench in the works.  Moreso, now that Cyprus is on deck to assume the EU Presidency at this time next year.  Erdoğan is on record as refusing to sit at the same table with “South Cyprus”(6).

Other Islamist ties in the geopolitical landscape are also worth noting.  Turkey has been a member of the OIC since 1969, whose current secretary-general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, is Turkish.  The OIC is decidedly anti-Israel, supported the Palestinian Intifada, and only recognizes individual rights and freedoms subject to Islamic Shari’ah.

As a member of the OIC, it is natural that Turkey have a relationship with the Islamic Development Bank (IDB).  Again, though, it is instructive to note some vital activities in which the IDB has been involved in.  The IDB has taken an active role in moving money to support the Palestinian Intifada, the families of suicide bombers, as well as Muslim Brotherhood activities in Sudan(7).  The IDB, along with the OIC, has recently backed Turkey in becoming the leading figure in the halal food industry(8). 

Closer to home, Barry Rubin points to a trend among the Turkish military in support of the Islamist AKP(9).  A recent survey in Turkey showed a marked increase in “the sense of muslim identity as  component of Turkishness.”  Though, it is fair to note that a large majority of respondents opposed Shari’ah law(10). 

Is all this evidence and information damning?  Has Turkey turned its back on the West and “secularism”?  Is it time to throw the Turks into the same pot as Ahmedinejad, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood?  At this time, I do not think so. 

Turkey is a country with a foot in both the West and the East.  As such, their success on the world stage relies on striking a balance between their Kamalist Western legacy and their Islamic roots of faith.  For the United States, as well as the EU, continued outreach may have the effect of keeping Turkey on a Westernized track.  However, as they continue to entangle themselves with their Islamic brothers, it will be harder and harder to toe a line of “all things to all people.”  When that happens, I am fearful that Turkey may be lost to the West.


1. Angel Rabasa & F. Stephen Larrabee, The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey, Rand Corporation, 2008

2. Owen Matthews, “An Islamist Makeover”, Newsweek, 2/27/111.

3. Susanne Gustan, “Mandate for a New Turkish Era”, New York Times, 6/16/11

4. “Turkish FM in Tehran: ‘Turkey Against Any External Intervention in its Region’”, Middle East Media Research Institute,

5. “Ahmedinejad: Israel is Greatest Threat in Mideast,” Jerusalem Post,

6.”Turkey Set to Freeze Relations with EU Over Cyprus Presidency,” RiaNovosti,

7. “Jihad Economics and Islamic Banking,”,

8. “OIC and IDB backs Turkey to lead in producing halal food,”

9. Barry Rubin, “Turkish Armed Forces: Growing Support for Islamism

10. Angel Rabasa & F. Stephen Larrabee, The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey, Rand Corporation, 2008

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