Turkey Could Be the Middle East’s Powder Keg

Turkey Could Be the Middle East’s Powder Keg

REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Maybe it had to come to this, given that Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s bullheaded, probably corrupt prime minister, heads an Islamist government in a nation far down the road to secularism.

Erdoğan has lately limited the sale of alcohol and put limits on the use of abortion. Now a peaceful protest over a patch of park in central Istanbul has now mutated into a crisis involving Islam in politics, authoritarian rule, voracious over-development, westernization, and the status of Turkey’s secular minority. In effect, Erdoğan has hauled his nation back at least a decade, and maybe two, in a couple of quick weeks.

The biggest casualty (of many) is the progress of Turkey’s application to become a full member of the European Union. Talks on this question have been under way since 2005, and of late it has appeared that accession might be a couple of years away. The EU needs an unstable autocracy on its eastern flank the way it needs hungry children in Athens. Erdoğan, with his autocratic demeanor and his nostalgia for Ottoman grandeur, would not do well at a mahogany table in Brussels.

The protests that erupted in late May do not announce the next chapter in the “Arab Spring” story—not yet, anyway. Conditions in Egypt are vastly different than in, say, Egypt or Tunisia or Libya. Erdoğan is not a dictator (not yet, anyway) and will not be forced from power; Turkey’s economy is more advanced than those of its neighbors; secularists are a minority but a prominent, influential one.

But Turkey today faces questions that everyone in the Middle East will eventually face. How does Islam co-exist with democracy? How do you modernize without westernizing? The two are different, as every non-westerner knows. Turkey is unlikely to explode, but these same questions could light dangerous fires elsewhere.

The crisis in Turkey is especially unfortunate when you look at Erdoğan’s record. He brought the Islamist Justice and Development Party to power in 2002 promising to make Turkey a model for other Middle Eastern nations struggling to reconcile representative government with the dominant religion. He imposed civilian control over the military, more than doubled per capita incomes, spread social services, began peace talks with the Kurdish minority, and won three consecutive elections. Forecasts for the “Anatolian Tiger” have put growth this year at above 4 percent.

But Erdoğan radically overshot his mark. Turks have complained for years of creeping authoritarianism, and Erdoğan’s grandiloquent mega-projects, all launched without public consultation, came to symbolize it. Shopping malls and gated communities are changing the face of Istanbul. There is a new bridge planned to span the Bosporus (the third), the world’s largest airport, and Turkey’s largest mosque.

This is how “a couple of trees,” as Erdoğan put it, sparked national protests. The plan is to build a shopping mall, along with a Disneyesque replica of an Ottoman army barracks, on the site of the last park in central Istanbul. Peaceful protests prompted teargas, and small demonstrations became large ones. As of Sunday, the prime minister vows to press on with his redevelopment plans.

Other factors come into play. Erdoğan’s ambitions have created a subclass of construction tycoons with close ties to the governing party. The suggestions of corruption are strong and not difficult to accept. From Japan in the 1950s to Afghanistan in this decade, construction and politics produce corruption more often than not, and this is to put the point mildly.

There is also Erdoğan’s plan to award the presidency more executive powers prior to assuming the office himself next year. It feeds his critics, notably the secularists whom he has so deeply offended, in their suspicion that what the prime minister wants most is to make himself a modern-day sultan.

Identity politics plays a big part in the Turkish crisis, and they are complicated. Everything appears backward, at least at first sight. The secularists and liberals oppose Erdoğan and the governing party for all their hyper-nationalist plans. It is the Islamists and conservatives who support a redevelopment strategy that is changing skylines across the nation.

The confusion has to do with what people mean by modernization. Erdoğan and his supporters may be mildly Islamist, but to them being modern means being western. It is with glass and concrete that one becomes modern. It is the same in many other places. The Iranian clerics are vigorously anti-western, but it is western technology that will prove them modern.

Erdoğan’s opponents have left such thinking behind. They understand that modernization and westernization are not the same—and, indeed, are opposed. The task is precisely to become modern and remain Turkish, which is why Istanbul’s public spaces are the symbolic core of Turkey’s conflicts.

The suggestion abroad this weekend has been that Erdoğan may have been chastened. This may be more wishful thinking than anything else. Just as he has not stepped back from his shopping mall plans, there is no suggestion he will repudiate his ideas for an enhanced presidency. Both of these moves low-cost ways of mending the national fabric.

Many people and many nations express support for Turkey’s EU membership. Erdoğan has just shown us that the matter deserves more thought. Turkey’s problems—autocracy, Islamic democracy, modernization, westernization—are the Middle East’s problems. Its lessons are for the Middle East to learn. The distance from Europe has grown.