Turkey: slipping into the vortex?

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David Gardner in Istanbul

Tensely poised between east and west, Turkey is a nation on the edge — negotiating with the EU but with the Isis jihadi wave lapping at its southern border
Ιn the shadow of Fatih mosque, named for the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople in 1453 and the first great monument of his dynasty, I learnt last month when the world is going to end. Sipping sweet tea at a shoeshine stand in this Islamist pocket of Istanbul, a preacher and a mystic together foretold for me the coming of the Mahdi — the Muslim messiah — the global triumph of Islam and the end of days.

Dialling up Mahdi lore from a millennium or more ago on their mobile phones, they reckoned all this will kick off in 2021. Except that, they pointed out, in a sense it is already under way. Two of the traditional harbingers of the Muslim apocalypse, they said, are the destruction of Syria and the emergence of an army with black banners — in this case of the jihadi millenarians of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), who last year declared their cross-border caliphate in the Euphrates valley.

I had come to Fatih to sound out local sentiment on this new jihadist wave, which is lapping at Turkey’s southern borders with Syria and Iraq, after credible reports that Isis had been recruiting in the district to swell its already numerous brigade of Turkish volunteers. Fatih, on a peninsula bordered by the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, was at the heart of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires over nearly 16 centuries, and a hub therefore first of Christianity and then Islam. Bisected by a 4th-century Roman aqueduct, its majestic 15th-century mosque became a rallying point for those who would supplant republican Turkey’s secular order with sharia law.

My initial questions at the shoeshine stall elicited a robust if standard defence of the neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, elected president last year after more than a decade as prime minister, during which he won three general elections on a rising share of the vote. There is little doubt which way Fatih leans. Hassan Senay, 58, a small businessman typical of the ruling party’s rank and file, reels off the ways in which Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, has reinvigorated the marginalised municipality, with regular electricity and assured water supplies, new schools and clinics, as well as a costly restoration of Fatih mosque. “They counted us in whereas the others counted us out,” says Senay, referring to the previous, west-leaning establishment that owed allegiance to Mustafa Kemal — known as Ataturk or father of the Turks. Kemal forged modern Turkey from the debris of the Ottoman Empire defeated in the first world war and his followers presumed to rule it as of right.

While such temporal concerns translate into votes for Erdogan, it was when we started talking about Isis that the hour-long conversation suddenly lit up. Mehmet Barut, a 74-year-old with white hair and beard dressed in a three-piece suit, is a retired vaiz or mosque preacher, licensed — according to the credentials he showed me — by the Diyanet, Turkey’s religious affairs directorate, created by Ataturk after he abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. His friend Fatih Halit Alkan, 61, is of Ottoman-Bosnian origin, with azure-blue eyes fixed on the middle distance and a pronounced mystical bent: “I have beautiful dreams,” he told me.

They both argue that Isis is a barbarous Anglo-American confection designed to provoke Sunni Muslims into revolt and then destroy them. But its real instrumental purpose, they say, is as the precursor of the end — Armageddon. There will be dissolution and destruction, says Barut. An infidel will take power in Syria. There will be drought and infertility, and in the mosques, naked dancers and raki (an anise liquor, to which Ataturk was famously partial). “The infidel wants to turn off God’s light, but that will never be possible,” Barut says. The angels will assemble, disarm America’s atomic bombs and sink the US naval fleets and, Alkan adds quietly, the Mahdi will emerge from a razed village near Damascus. The black banners of Isis will rally to his standard and he will enter Istanbul at the head of an army of 1.5 million soldiers, and from there set out to conquer the world for Islam.

It will not be as bloody as one might imagine, Barut reassures me, because during this apocalyptic battle “a blonde nation, maybe Germany or England, will choose Islam”, hastening the road to the Rapture. Alkan beckons to Tuncay Ergun, the 32-year-old who does the actual shoe-shining and who says this “father of the weak” rescued him from a heroin habit. They disappear into the Fatih mosque for afternoon prayers, leaving me the phial of rosewater they used for their ablutions.

 . . . 

Turkey, geographically and culturally, is the east of the west and the west of the east. That is, historically and now, its irresistible selling point. But this straddle across Europe and Asia — joined by Istanbul’s bridges across the Bosporus — has started to feel tense. Millenarian musings aside, Erdogan’s Turkey sometimes has the feel of a country slipping from the ragged edges of Europe into the vortex of the Middle East.

Consider the case of Turkish Airlines, the frenetically expanding national carrier and arguably the country’s leading brand, propelled by celebrity endorsements, from basketball titan Kobe Bryant to film star Kevin Costner, and lavish sponsorship deals with leading football clubs such as FC Barcelona and Manchester United. Turkish was voted the best airline in Europe in each of the past four years. Yet it tried to bar its female flight attendants from wearing red lipstick and nail polish. That decision was taken in May 2013, just before metropolitan and coastal Turkey erupted in rebellion.

The trigger for this protest was the decision to destroy Gezi Park, a little green oasis near Taksim Square in the chaos of central Istanbul, which the government had decided to bulldoze and redevelop. The Justice and Development party, assembled from the rubble of two Islamist parties banned by a Kemalist cabal of generals and judges, has delivered much of what its name promises, as Erdogan’s fans in Fatih say: lifting per capita income, spreading wealth and healthcare, education and roads, and raising up a new breed of “Anatolian tiger” entrepreneurs to take on Turkey’s incumbent business conglomerates.

But another way of looking at the AKP is as a party of building contractors — who have grown used to bulldozing anything in their path. In Istanbul alone, a third bridge across the Bosporus is nearly finished and there are plans for a ship canal alongside it, a new airport and a vast, hilltop mosque that would cast the city’s jewels of Islamic and Byzantine architecture into the shade. Turkish liberals habitually accuse Erdogan of aspiring to be a sultan, but pharaoh works just as well. Islamist rivals of the AKP, for their part, sneer that the mujahids or aspiring warriors of yesterday have become the muteahhits or construction tycoons of today.

Erdogan’s plan for Gezi Park was to build a replica of an Ottoman artillery barracks. The original, demolished in 1940, had been a stronghold for a proto-Islamist insurrection in 1909, in the twilight of the empire. Mustafa Kemal was one of the officers who crushed the rising, which gives Erdogan’s project a patina of revanchism against the republic that Ataturk would go on to establish in 1923. That sense was monumentally reinforced after Erdogan’s ascent to the presidency last summer, proclaiming a New Turkey and moving from the Cankaya Palace used by Ataturk into a vast new complex that despoiled a protected green area containing a forest named after Turkey’s founder. The new AK Saray, which means White Palace but is a play on the ruling party’s name, is a neo-Ottoman mega-Versailles whose dimensions would swallow the White House and the Kremlin together.

Yet if the initially small Gezi Park demonstrations had only been about the elimination of green space, they would not have coursed like flash floods beyond Istanbul into so many Turkish cities. The trigger-happiness of Turkish police was a provocation. But what turned a local protest into a nationwide rebellion was the AKP’s stifling encroachment on public and private, social and cultural space.

A reforming party that appeared first as a Muslim analogue of Europe’s Christian Democrats, conservative but committed to social justice, had grown in power into a tiresome, autocratic scold. Not content with trying to seize control of everything from sports to science, Erdogan had taken to legislating on alcohol consumption and trying to restrict abortion, admonishing all Turks to drink yoghurt and shun white bread, and women to have more babies. In this irony-free zone, one of his AKP co-founders, Bulent Arinc, even averred that women should not laugh in public.

It was therefore laughter, as well as anger, that radiated from Taksim Square in June 2013, a gathering in of the full diversity of Istanbul life, creating something between a commune and a riotous carnival. Secular Kemalists rubbed shoulders with their Kurdish nationalist foes. Leftists and Turkish nationalists, whose violent clashes throughout the 1970s precipitated the 1980 military coup, cohabited. Blue-collar trade unionists built barricades alongside doctors and academics. There were anarchists and gays alongside Sufi Muslims and yogis, metropolitan liberals along with Alevis, Turkey’s under-recognised Shia minority. Fans of the city’s three football clubs — Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce — buried their fierce rivalries and regrouped as “Istanbul United”.

Erdogan thundered that Taksim was being over-run by vandals and looters, extremists and alcoholics. The reality was far worse. The square had turned into an urban oasis of festive mockery, puncturing his intrusive paternalism and ridiculing his attempts to mould modern Turkey in his own pious image. Courtesy of social media, a good part of Turkey and a lot of the world watched. It put a big dent in the Erdogan story, which has become an uncomfortably big part of contemporary Turkey’s story.

That story is also about a zigzag between west and east, between a decade of on-off negotiations to join the European Union — a powerful engine for domestic reform — and the gravitational pull of an east apparently reawakened by the Arab spring. The Taksim-Gezi eruption, more Paris 1968 than Tahrir Square 2011, in one sense posed acute questions about Turkey’s identity. Its protagonists could not have been more European. “Those who said that Turks were not European looked at this protest and found it to be typically European,” says Kadri Gursel, a prominent liberal commentator. “This was not a Middle Eastern revolt, it was a European revolt, and what had generated this revolt was EU-induced change. The AKP and the government drew the same conclusion, and in [the protesters’] defiance they detected a conspiracy.”

When Tayyip Erdogan was campaigning to be re-elected to a third term as prime minister in 2011, he plastered Turkey with posters highlighting the far later date of 2023. That is the centenary of the Turkish republic retrieved by Mustafa Kemal from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The prime minister’s critics had already started depicting him as a would-be sultan. It was clear then that he intended to rival Ataturk as the dominant figure in modern Turkish history. Now his circle has taken to describing the Kemalist republic as a “parenthesis” in the onward march of glory that must reconnect with Turkey’s Ottoman roots. He even wants to revive Ottoman Turkish in the country’s schools. But this was not how the story began.

Erdogan’s Turkey long seemed an extraordinary success, admired worldwide, and rightly so. The man himself, often wooden in set-piece speeches and pugnaciously defensive in interviews, is an innate if mercurial politician, a natural who ignites on the campaign trail, with a preternatural rapport with adoring masses across Anatolia, the conservative heartland of Turkey long disdained by the cosmopolitan Kemalist elites. These elites may sniffily dismiss him and his circle as pious backwoodsmen from rural Anatolia, “Black Turks” who talk about nothing except family and football. But it is from precisely that which he draws his strength. As the writer and academic Soli Ozel told me in 2011: “Erdogan is the common man; there are no filters.”

His electoral record speaks for itself, with 10 straight victories at the polls since 2002: one by-election; three general elections; three local elections; two referendums on constitutional changes; and last summer’s apotheosis from premier to president. For more than a decade, he has been lord of all he surveys.

Aside from providing services to his followers, he got to that position through shrewd pragmatism, a pro-EU orientation and a chaotic opposition (that often behaves like a collection of shrinking cults to the outsized egos of their leaders). It helped, too, that Turkey had started to emerge from its worst financial crisis since 1945 because of reforms implemented just before he took office. “Erdogan boarded a moving train,” says Hugh Pope, a veteran analyst of Turkey. “His job was not to derail it.”

After Turkey’s nearly half-century-long wait in Europe’s anteroom, Erdogan finally secured the opening of EU membership talks in 2005. His government was prodigal in packages of constitutional and regulatory reform. Even when the talks stuttered, notoriously over Cyprus, Turkey’s economic integration with Europe powered ahead. There are more than 13,000 companies with European capital in the country, which gets nearly all its foreign investment from and does most of its trade with the bloc.

But the EU’s role was also to provide a load-bearing bridge for Turkey’s transition, or a sort of glue of political cohesion. The Kemalist army saw eventual entry into the club as fulfilling the European vocation that Ataturk envisaged for Turkey. The AKP saw the democratic club rules of the EU as a shield against the generals, hitherto the final arbiters of Turkish politics — and the hammer of Islamism. Thus, Erdogan devoted his first term in office to long overdue political reform and strengthening civil and minority rights. He used his popularity to elbow aside the overmighty generals during his stormy second term. But though the military was an undemocratic counterweight, once it was neutered it became clear that Turkey’s institutions were often too weak to serve as checks and balances. By Erdogan’s third triumph in 2011 his tolerance of any challenge to his power had all but evaporated.

Turned inward, like many Turks, by the way European countries such as France and Germany kept raising barriers to EU entry — insisting that Turkey was too big, too poor and, above all, too Muslim to qualify — Erdogan and his increasingly closed circle behave, paradoxically, as though they were in opposition. Strident and solipsistic, Erdogan addresses himself not to Turkey but to what he calls “my nation”. His instinct is to polarise and, after 10 electoral victories, no one can prove to him that it does not work.

Following his 2011 win, the slide towards authoritarianism became visible, even measurable. Erdogan’s Turkey that year had more cases (159) taken to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg than Vladimir Putin’s Russia (121). At the time it had 104 journalists in jail, 69 of them from the Kurdish minority, but more than Iran (42) and China (27) combined. The old joke about committing journalism does not get many laughs in Turkey, and since Gezi, hundreds of journalists have been forced out of their jobs. An actress and writer who, like many people in Turkey today prefers to withhold her name, describes the atmosphere as stifling and Orwellian. “How is life in Erdogan’s ‘New Turkey’? As a woman, you are expected to have three or more children. This is what Erdogan obsessively counsels because ‘birth control is a form of treason.’”

Hopes that third-period Erdogan would build consensus behind a new democratic constitution — a social contract for a plural and diverse country, under the rule of law and at peace with its Muslim identity — were dashed. The outlook now he is president is not promising.

The commune of Gezi-Taksim — broken up by force — was a turning point. A lot more has turned since. An explosive corruption investigation just over a year ago led to the fall of four ministers and reached deep into Erdogan’s inner circle. Leaked tapes, including one of conversations between Erdogan and his son Bilal, purportedly about hiding huge stashes of cash, electrified the nation. Simmering tensions inside the neo-Islamist camp turned into open warfare as Erdogan sensed an existential threat.

The AKP, though by far the dominant current in Turkish Islamism, had swept into power with hardly a bridgehead in the state. It instead relied on a shadowy Islamic network led by Fethullah Gulen, a US-based preacher who runs an admired and visible franchise of schools around the world, along with clusters of invisible power in Turkey. The Gulenists, who publicly defend a modernising Islam, had spent decades building up influence in the police, judiciary and secret services. The AKP used this power to defang the army, by fair means or foul. But now the former allies turned on each other with a ferocity that buckled Turkey’s institutions.

Erdogan halted the corruption probe, firing or transferring thousands of police, hundreds of prosecutors, and clamping down on social media including Twitter and YouTube. Just before Christmas, authorities swooped on Gulenist media, arresting the editor of the bestselling Zaman newspaper.

The government says it is acting against a “parallel state” plotting to topple it. There is truth in this. “This is about national security, not about Tayyip Erdogan or the AKP,” Yalcin Akdogan, one of Erdogan’s closest aides, told the FT last March. “Future governments will not be free if we surrender to blackmail.” But Erdogan was hoist with his own petard. The Gulenists are the same people the AKP was happy to use as a battering ram against the Kemalist establishment and dissidents.

Erdogan now waves the shroud of victimhood to justify a witch-hunt, riding roughshod over the rule of law. “We need to acknowledge that pacifying a covert group entrenched in the judiciary and the police would be a very difficult task for any government,” says Hakan Altinay, former head of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey and now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “But Erdogan should have sought a wider coalition in this legitimate cause, and while the manner he has chosen to go about this task cannot be condoned, that should not lead us to overlook the inherent difficulties.”

Instead of seeking consensus, the government is stitching all its opponents into one seamless conspiracy. There are undertones of anti-Semitism in official railing against a disembodied ­“interest rate lobby”, and dog-whistle xenophobia and sectarianism in sinister references to “the foreigners within” the old elites. “It’s like the hunt for Trotskyists under Stalin,” says Mustafa Akyol, a Muslim liberal writer and erstwhile AKP supporter. Akyol used to say the problem with the AKP was not that it was too Islamist but too Turkish, wedded to a winner-takes-all political culture. Now he says it is both.

The perception has meanwhile taken hold that Turkey, a Nato ally, is no longer a team player. This is not just about Erdogan’s evident admiration for Vladimir Putin, dalliance with China or exports of gold to an Iran under western sanctions. The EU and US once regarded Erdogan’s Turkey as a confident regional power that could be relied on in dealing with a convulsed Middle East. Now, since Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu — former foreign minister and the president’s handpicked successor as premier — embraced the idea of Turkey as the neo-Ottoman vanguard of an Islamic civilisation that Kemalism betrayed, they almost regard it as colluding with the jihadis of Isis.

That is an exaggeration. The west was happy to see Istanbul become an organising hub for Syrian rebels and until recently had no quarrel with Erdogan’s determination to bring down his erstwhile friend Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president. The problem was that Turkey served as a promiscuous pipeline for jihadi volunteers into Syria’s civil war. Erdogan and Davutoglu have ended up by linking their country to the Syrian battlefield. This Isis dystopia to Turkey’s south has tentacles reaching all the way to Fatih. Jihadi pipelines can blow back, and the Isis narrative that the Arab world is a collection of failed and rotting states resonates with some Ottoman revivalist Turks. Fear of reprisals inside Turkey ahead of this summer’s general election makes it unlikely Erdogan will commit more to the fight against Isis.

Opinion polls suggest that Isis — and its barbaric methods — have little appeal in Turkey. But the pan-Islamic vision of Erdogan and Davutoglu is playing to the same sort of audience as the jihadis. Behlul Ozkan, a young scholar at Marmara University, pointed out in a recent essay deconstructing Davutoglu’s neo-Ottoman Islamism that “he uses the Turkish words ‘hayat alani’, which is a direct translation of the German Lebensraum, or ‘living space’”. The appeal is not to some Turkish volk but to the ummah or Muslim commonwealth, drawing legitimacy from Islam for Turkey’s supposed vocation to lead the old Ottoman hinterland of the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus. Erdogan’s rhetoric, moreover, also plays on the idea that somehow one billion Sunni Muslims are victims of the west.

Cocooned by courtiers in his new palace and with an insulated constituency that, unlike the Twitterati of Istanbul and Ankara, gets its news from supine TV stations, Erdogan looks untroubled by contradiction or fear of ridicule. Turkey currently heads the G20 group of leading economies but the star guest at the AKP’s recent annual congress was Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader. In recent weeks Erdogan has said that Muslim explorers discovered America three centuries before Columbus, that women are no equal to men, and told an Islamic conference that the west may “look like friends but they want us dead”.

“We have no concern about what the EU might say, whether the EU accepts us as members or not,” he responded to criticism from Brussels over the Zaman arrests. “Please keep your wisdom to yourself.” Some polls show a revival of Turks’ interest in Europe but commentators such as Mustafa Akyol believe EU leverage in Turkey is “weak to nonexistent”.

Sinan Ulgen, head of the liberal Edam think-tank, suggests a “deep relationship short of [EU] membership that has still to be devised, a new model of association for those states with more to contribute than, say, Norway” could eventually catch on in Turkey, especially if a country such as Britain were to exit the EU and recalibrate its relations. Others, including a leading industrialist, feel that Erdogan has already “squandered the chance to be the statesman that anchored Turkey to the west and Europe”.

“Domestically speaking, Turkey is becoming a classic illiberal democracy but with a soft Islamist ideology,” says Akyol. “In a way that mirrors the Kemalists, who produced not necessarily pro-western but westernised citizens, a new national identity is being defined with Islam at its core.”

 . . . 

But Turkey is full of competing narratives, even in Fatih. West of the mosque lies Chora church, a Byzantine gem containing a fabulous fresco of another vision of the Last Judgment, and whose late Byzantine mosaics are held by some critics to prefigure the Renaissance. At the nearby Telve café I run into Gohkan Yucel who momentarily alarms me by saying: “We know each other.” We did indeed, at St Antony’s College, Oxford, some six years ago, before he returned to advise Turkey’s education minister, and then set up a consultancy specialising in what he describes as digital diplomacy.

An AKP supporter, he says “my discourse about Turkey is all about change and more democracy, what Turkey can be, not what it must be.” Rushing to a meeting, he leaves me with his friend Ahmet, a typical young AKP professional. “Everyone in Turkey is disturbed by Isis, even the radical religious,” he says. But “our memory begins with the first world war and its aftermath, when the west broke up our empire. We are living all this because of what happened 100 years ago.”

The Gezi-Taksim protest 18 months ago, says Ahmet, “in the beginning [reflected] the real need people felt to express their feelings — but then something went wrong”. Yes, it was a conspiracy, he says, adding that, “I sometimes feel people don’t want a strong Turkey.”

As Erdogan prosecutes his war against the “parallel state”, he and his entourage often give the impression of living in a parallel universe. At a presidential awards ceremony last month, the novelist Alev Alatli, upon receiving the literary prize, told Erdogan that “if George Orwell were alive today, he would have stood up and applauded you.” The president smiled and his wife Ermine was moved to tears. Orwellian indeed.

David Gardner is the FT’s international affairs editor

Photographs: Rex; Getty; Reuters; AP

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