“The audience of mainly Muslim scholars clapped hard as he railed against Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. Among them sat Bulent Yildirim, the chairman of the Turkish aid charity that had led the ill-fated Mavi Marmara flotilla. “In strawberry fields, in schools, in playgrounds in hospitals, be they children, women, the elderly, you [Israel] brutally kill people and we are meant not to see not to hear this. Really?” Erdoğan asked. “Everyone may approve by remaining silent. But we will not remain silent…of this you can be sure,” he cried to a fresh burst of applause.
Erdoğan capped the ceremony by donning an Arab gown and brandishing a silver dagger as he stood alongside women in black chadors. The affair offered fresh evidence of Erdoğan’s growing stature among millions of Muslims disaffected with their largely corrupt and authoritarian leaders. It also provided ammunition for those who claim that under Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party, Turkey is moving away from the west. At home, Erdoğan’s embrace of Muslim solidarity — he recently claimed that “We [Muslims] can be self sufficient”— has raised new questions about where he wants to lead Turkey.
I was among a clutch of journalists travelling with Erdoğan to Kuwait, and I asked him whether he was “the new leader of the Muslim world?” He smiled and replied, “I have no such pretensions.” Until recently, my question would have spurred an angry rebuttal. Today, with the once omnipotent Turkish army in retreat, Erdoğan appears to have struck a comfortable balance between his Muslim identity and Turkey’s strategic alliance with the west. He can, he believes, have the best of both worlds.
Thus, while agreeing to NATO plans to erect a nuclear defense missile shield over Europe that takes aim at Iran, he flits through the Middle East forging new friendships and lucrative business deals. “Anyone who ignores the religious sentiments of our society can never hope to win an election, not solidly,” opined a leading Turkish contractor who was among the 400 or so busi-nessman travelling with the prime minister.
Opinion polls confirm that view. This may help to explain why with less than six months left before nationwide parliamentary polls, Erdoğan has struck an overtly, indeed aggressively conservative stance. He has ordered the destruction of a giant monument dedicated to peace between Turks and Armenians that was built in Kars, a gritty northeastern city on the edge of Armenia. “It’s a freak,” he told us. His objections were not purely aesthetic. The prime minister’s ire stemmed primarily from the fact that it was within close proximity of the tomb of a 10th century Islamic scholar. Erdoğan also informed us that with divorce rates rising in Turkey, he was going to incorporate “guarantees for the integrity of the family” in the new constitution he has pledged to write following the elections. He did not elaborate, but it could mean that divorce laws will be toughened or that he may even be thinking about reviving his earlier calls for criminalizing adultery. Erdoğan also hinted that bans on the Islamic-style headscarf in state institutions might be eased, just as they have been in universities nationwide.
Meanwhile, a draconian bylaw issued last May by the Alcohol and Tobacco Market Regulatory Authority came into force on January 7. This severely restricts the use of alcoholic products in advertising and in the sponsorship of cultural and sports events. Additionally, it raises the age of consumption from 18 to 24 at public gatherings. The bylaw comes on top of staggering value added taxes that were slapped on alcoholic beverages when the AKP first came to power in 2002. Erdoğan has shrugged off charges that his true aim is to ban booze altogether. “They drink until they wheeze and sneeze and we say nothing,” he declared in the Turkish parliament. Bulent Arinc, the influential deputy prime minister, was equally dismissive: “Life isn’t just about sex and booze,” he said.
All of this goes down well with Erdoğan’s conservative base. The prime minister’s election strategy clearly targets the 58 percent of the electorate that said “yes” to the constitutional changes that were put to a referendum on September 12. The referendum had boiled down to a contest between those who support AKP and the 42 percent of the electorate who don’t. It is this 42 percent that feels unnerved by Erdoğan’s lurch not only towards religious conservatism but towards nationalism as well.
The Istanbul-based liberal intelligentsia, who until recently were counted among AKP’s most zealous advocates, is expressing qualms as well. Ahmet Altan, the editor-in-chief of the liberal daily Taraf newspaper, which has reserved much of its pages to deconstructing the Turkish army, is among them. In a blistering editorial, he attacked Erdoğan over his calls to destroy the Kars statue. Erdoğan responded by slapping a TL 50,000 libel case against Altan.
The trouble for Erdoğan’s detractors, as ever, is that the opposition remains weak and divided. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the newly anointed leader of the main opposition pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) has failed to capture the public’s imagination. Low on charisma and fresh ideas, he has yet to make a tangible dent in Erdoğan’s armor. He remains timid on the Kurdish problem. And his grasp of foreign policy is uncertain. A new team of advisors, including Turkey’s former ambassador to Washington, Faruk Logoglu, could alter this. Attacking Erdoğan over his rupture with Israel makes perfect sense. But then, it is no vote winner.
Opinion polls continue to show the AKP set to return to a third term. The question is, what will Erdoğan do with this mandate? Will his slide towards conservatism persist?
Or will his pragmatic side prevail? Is his lurch towards Islam mere politicking or does it convey a deeply ingrained ideology? The answer is, both. Whether framed as a threat (by the secularists) or as a victim (by the conservative right) religion has long been a staple of politicians in Turkey. But there are several factors that set Erdoğan apart. He came to power promising change. He delivered it. The Turkish economy is thriving as never before. The country’s international clout is greater than ever before. And for all of Erdoğan’s outbursts of authoritarianism, Turkey is, generally speaking, a more democratic kind of place.
Erdoğan has a healthy sense of just how crucial Turkey’s strategic ties with the west and, above all, with the United States are. U.S. diplomatic cables that were recently published on the Wikileaks website reveal that between 2002 and 2006, during AKP’s first four years in power, Turkey allowed the United States to use the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey to transport “terrorism suspects” as part of its “extraordinary renditions” program. In other words, just as Erdoğan was mourning “martyred” Sunni resistance fighters in Fallujah, U.S. intelligence officers were carting off Muslim detainees with Turkey’s blessings.
The question of just where Turkey is heading under Erdoğan will be best answered by the new constitution he has vowed to deliver in his third term. If, as he claims, it institutionalizes democracy on par with Europe then the best check on him will come from this new constitution. The danger, though, is that the debate on the new constitution may degenerate, as it did in the run up to the September 12 referendum, into a slanging match between the AKP and its detractors, and that once again the public fails to concentrate on the substance of the proposed changes. In the present climate, there is little doubt as to who would win this contest: AKP.