In the mid-1990s, the mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was quoted as saying, “Democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” Erdogan, who is now president of Turkey, has decidedly stepped off the tram.
Most critics of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he has led to victory after victory at the polls since 2002, expected that he would trade democracy for an Islamic state. “We’ll become like Iran,” they lamented. Never would they have believed that in 2016 Turkey would begin to resemble the self-immolating crucibles of Syria and Iraq. Car bombs, suicide bombers, heavy artillery tearing apart major city centers; the wholesale dismantling of all state and government institutions, including the highest courts; continual arrests and purges of anyone even mildly critical of the president, even in his own circle; hostile government takeovers of private companies and media organizations at the point of a gun. Since January, there have been 14 major bombings, culminating in the massacre at Istanbul airport on June 28 that killed 43 people and wounded hundreds. Last October, a suicide bomber at a peace rally in Ankara killed more than a hundred people. Smaller acts of political violence occur almost daily, barely noticed amid the carnage. The prime culprits are the leftist Kurdish PKK and ISIS blowback. Islam, it turns out, has little to do with it. Worse, much of the deterioration is self-inflicted. It didn’t have to be this way.
When AKP came to power, the tram ran smoothly along the tracks, economic reforms were bearing impressive fruit; institutions were being aligned with those of the EU as part of the accession process; the meddling military was put under the control of the government, instead of the other way around. The AKP government reached out to non-Muslim minorities, returning some of their properties, confiscated under previous regimes. It also initiated a 2013 peace deal with the PKK that would have put an end to forty years of war between the Turkish state and the Kurdish minority that makes up a quarter of the population, a war that has cost more than 30,000 lives. In 2013, people in capitals around the world spoke of Erdogan as possibly the greatest leader since Ataturk.
In 2015, a Kurdish political party, HDP, was elected to parliament for the first time, leading to jubilation at the prospect that the Kurds finally could be truly integrated through nonviolent means. That Kurds were dancing in the streets of Diyarbakir is no exaggeration.
How could things get so bad so fast? Some of it is internal rot. Already by 2011, Erdogan had made it clear that he wanted to reduce the power of parliament in favor of a strong presidency, which he would occupy. He surrounded himself with yes-men, built a palace larger than Versailles, and developed a thin skin for criticism. Corruption rose to unprecedented levels, fed by massive public works projects, producing the biggest mosque, the biggest bridge, the biggest airport.
A feud developed between the AKP and its long-time economic and institutional partner, the Hizmet movement, followers of the preacher Fethullah Gulen. AKP and Hizmet had cooperated in bringing the military to heel by jailing its generals. They fell out over other things, most notably over the PKK deal, which Hizmet didn’t want.
Prosecutors and police believed to be linked to Hizmet tried to arrest people in Erdogan’s close circle for corruption. Erdogan responded by firing or moving hundreds of judges, prosecutors and police and, in effect, putting the courts under government control so that he could quash the corruption charges. He had the Hizmet Movement officially declared a terror group.
What else went wrong? Misguided and grandiose schemes to return political — or at least moral — leadership of the formerly Ottoman Middle East to Istanbul led to mistake after mistake, in which Turkey took sides in countries that were about to self-destruct in the Arab Uprisings. Ottomania, as some called it, was a newfound nostalgia for a romanticized Ottoman world. This seemed innocuous enough at the time, a colorful corrective to a harsher, blood and soil nationalism that had denied Turkey’s Ottoman past. The AKP added new national rituals, for instance, public reenactment of the 1453 conquest of Byzantium by the Turks, and more religious rituals, pushing out the military and synchronized sports spectacles of the Kemalists. But this Ottoman fantasy also led to meddling: the Mavi Marmara incident pitting Turkey against Israel; Erdogan’s terrier-like support for Egypt’s incompetent prime minister, Mohamed Morsi, because he thought the Muslim Brotherhood was “like” the AKP; Erdogan’s consuming hatred of Bashar al-Assad, a former friend who he believed had dishonored him by lying.
To “get” Assad became a mission and it didn’t matter that AKP was arming al-Qaeda-linked groups and letting them pass freely through the country, get stitched up in Turkish hospitals, take their R&R in border towns where they scared the locals, or that some of these groups joined ISIS and began recruiting inside Turkey. Islamist jihadis of all stripes were soon strolling around the airport, holding outdoor prayer meetings in Istanbul, calling for jihad. It is likely that ISIS was responsible for the Ankara, Sultanahmet, and airport bombings. The first killed young, leftist Kurds, the second foreign tourists. Only the airport bombing has galvanized the government to name ISIS as the perpetrator and to openly attack it. But in the meantime, at least a thousand Turks have joined ISIS in Syria and local cells have infected the country.
And the last wheel to come off the tram? The Kurds. In last year’s parliamentary elections, many pious Kurds who had previously voted AKP decided to give peace a chance and switched their vote to HDP, leaving AKP without a majority. Two weeks later all hell broke loose. A militant Kurdish youth group associated with the PKK, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, killed two policemen. The security forces responded with overwhelming force. The pictures coming out of large Kurdish-majority cities in Turkey’s East look like Syria, entire neighborhoods pounded to rubble by heavy artillery. Of Diyarbakir’s historic center, Surici, a UNESCO Heritage Site, nothing is left. In its place, the prime minister promised to make Surici a tourist site “like Toledo” in Spain. The ancient, rich human tapestry of the city, Christians and Muslims of various sects and ethnicity, has been erased. There are now more than half a million people displaced within Turkey by the destruction of these cities, which the army has attacked sequentially. Through its suffocating control of the media, however, the government spins all information. In the follow-up election six months later, AKP got its majority back as people voted for the strong man to save them from chaos.
Where is religion in this? It is one reason the AKP wins elections. The pious part of the population had long been disrespected by the state. It was illegal to wear a headscarf at college and other places of professional training and employment, disenfranchising many women. The economy of the early 2000s gave rise to a new pious middle class. Pious youth growing up in the AKP era dared to have aspirations for upward mobility, were globally connected, could travel and, the men at least, get an education. There is still a great deal of poverty in Turkey, but even the pious poor could feel that people “like them” had a chance. This is not Islamism, but pragmatism, voting for respectability and progress, something familiar to us all. Erdogan as well has shown himself to be motivated by pragmatism, rather than ideology.
He has demonstrated that he can turn on a dime. He made up with Israel, in return for which Turkey may get access to Israeli natural gas, even if it means abandoning his support for Gaza. He has made up with Russia, and there are conciliatory rumbles aimed at Egypt where he has been at odds with President Sisi over Morsi’s arrest. Can a rapprochement with Assad be far behind? Indeed, Turkish government voices have begun to call for rapprochement with Syria, though awkwardly denying any flirtation with Assad, Syria’s head. Assad is fighting PKK-affiliated Kurds in Syria and, as the old saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. With ISIS rising from its cells, Turkey can use all the friends it can get.