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Five myths about Turkey

No, its president isn’t a dictator, and the country isn’t secular

Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of “False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.”

Turkey and the Netherlands warred this past week — expelling and barring diplomats — over whether Turkish officials could campaign among expatriate Turks for an illiberal new constitution. Turkey has long been an important ally of the West, but despite all the diplomatic, political and military links, Americans understand very little about it. What they do know seems to be based on gauzy notions that were either never accurate or have become false over time. Here are five of the most stubborn.

MYTH No.1
Turkey has been a democracy

It is commonplace to believe that under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has become authoritarian. In 2015, Turkish author Mustafa Akyol lamented his country’s “authoritarian drift ” in a New York Times op-ed. A few months later, social scientist Jason Brownlee wrote in these pages about “Turkey’s authoritarian descent.”

The truth, however, is that the country has never been a democracy, despite having continuous free and fair multi-party elections since 1946. Between 1960 and 1997, Turkey’s senior military command disposed of four governments it did not like. The General Staff oversaw anti-democratic constitutional changes, including a 1982 constitution geared more toward protecting the Turkish state from the people than guaranteeing political and civil rights. In 1997, the military ousted Turkey’s first Islamist-led government because the prime minister refused to implement rules that undermined freedom of expression, weakened the independence of the press and criminalized thought.

When Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in 2002, it reduced the role of the military in politics, promised Turks personal freedoms, and made it harder to close political parties and ban politicians. But Turkish leaders soon began to backslide on reforms, and over the past decade Erdogan has used the bureaucracy to undermine his political opponents and resurrect something akin to the state security courts, which his government previously abolished.

MYTH No.2
Turkey’s president is a dictator

Since a failed coup d’etat last July, Erdogan has overseen an unprecedented purge of about 200,000 people, from police officers to academics to bureaucrats. News outlets such as Der Spiegel, the Independent, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Newsweek, the Huffington Post and the New Yorker have all called Erdogan a dictator. He has even embraced the label: “If the West calls someone a dictator,” he said, “in my view that is a good thing.”

Still, Erdogan — who served as prime minister from 2003 until 2014, when he became head of state — has a more complicated relationship with Turkish citizens than tin-pot dictators like former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali or Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. The AK Party has prevailed in 10 consecutive elections because Erdogan has delivered. Turks are wealthier, healthier and more mobile than ever before. Erdogan has made it possible for Turks to explore their religious identities in ways they were never permitted under previous governments. For his supporters, his time in office represents a revolution in rights and personal liberties. Turkish women are now free to wear the hijab in places where it was previously banned; it is now safe for pious Turks to participate in politics. If election results are any indication, about half the Turkish electorate dislikes Erdogan for his corruption, arrogance and power grabs, while the other half reveres him for the freedoms he has given them.

MYTH No.3
Turkey is secular

Commentators often invoke “secular Turkey ” (the Wall Street Journal) or the country’s “staunchly secular” military (a Turkey-focused commentary site that should know better), conveying a set of ideas that are misleading.

Turkey never was secular in the way Americans think about secularism, embodied in the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits Congress from making laws establishing a state religion or abridging the free exercise of one’s faith. In Turkey, the government has long controlled the expression of religious beliefs in the public sphere. There is an entire government apparatus dedicated to the production of state-sanctioned religious interpretation. Turkish leaders even use faith to advance their political agendas. The governing AK Party is an Islamist party. When opposition groups tried to outflank it by recruiting the former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to run against Erdogan in 2014, they failed, partly because Erdogan is already seen as authentically pious.

Even the Turkish military, a supposed bastion of secularism, is deeply linked to Islam. After the 1980 coup, the junta that ruled the country went on a mosque-building binge and injected religion into the state education curriculum. The leader of that intervention, Gen. Kenan Evren, often boasted that he had memorized the Koran. This was done based on the belief that religion would depoliticize society after a decade of intense political polarization.

MYTH No.4
Turkey has a Kurdish problem

It is hard to read anything about Turkey without reference to its “Kurdish problem.” The Kurds are a minority that does not share the ethno-nationalist myths of the dominant Turkish ethnic group. The decades-long war between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) only reinforces the idea that there is a problem with the Kurds.

But while 20 percent of the country’s population is ethnically Kurdish, the overwhelming majority of them consider themselves Turks. Ankara’s problem is with the PKK and an offshoot of that group called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK). The PKK was originally a separatist Marxist group with affinities for the Soviet Union; it began waging war against Turkey in 1984. In those 33 years, somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people have been killed. The TAK, too, has recently been responsible for a variety of attacks in Ankara and Istanbul. In response, the Turkish government has used the full force of the military and police to crush the low-level insurgency in the country’s southeast. The horrifying violence has not yet drawn in Turkey’s broader Kurdish population.

No doubt, Kurds have suffered. For years, their ethnicity, language and culture were denied. Even so, many of Turkey’s 15 million Kurds are well integrated into the political, economic and cultural life of the country. Turgut Ozal, Turkey’s prime minister in the 1980s and president in the early 1990s, was of Kurdish origin, as is the current deputy prime minister, Mehmet Simsek. The country’s Kurdish voters have been a reliable constituency for the AK Party, and not just religious Kurds. The AK Party has invested in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, and the party’s emphasis on religious values and Muslim solidarity has helped drain support for the PKK. That group cannot be said, in an overly simplistic way, to represent the Kurds.

MYTH No.5
Turkey is an ancient power

When analysts write about the Middle East, they often include Turkey alongside Egypt and Iran as nations with a pre-colonial history. After all, these countries are inheritors of great civilizations, unlike some post-World War I contrivances such as Jordan, Syria or Iraq.

It’s true that Europeans did not conjure Turkey by drawing it on a map. But the country is a product of the imagination of one man: Mustafa Kemal, known more commonly as Atatürk, or Father Turk. He created an ethno-national state where one had never existed in a central part of what had been a multi-ethnic and multicultural Ottoman Empire. To be successful, Atatürk and his associates had to alter the values and allegiances of the inhabitants of Anatolia. In place of a predominantly Muslim community loyal to leaders who derived their political and religious legitimacy from Islam, Atatürk suffused his state-building project with myths about Turkish ethnicity, language, and the linkage between Turks and the land.

Henceforth, from the time of the republic’s founding in 1923, the people of Anatolia were to be Turks, devoted to a nation-state whose prestige and authority came from its Turkishness and its adherence to progressive ideals and science, which drove the reforms of the early republican era, including abolishing the Ottoman alphabet, dictating the way Turks should dress and undermining religion as a source of authority. Yet many of these measures failed to embed themselves in the minds of all Turks, so their success depended on the use of force and coercion.

Over the past nine decades, Turks have developed a sense of Turkishness. But this sense is vulnerable to destabilization and fragmentation in ways more commonly associated with countries in other parts of the Middle East. This is precisely why the idea of Kurdish cultural autonomy or recognition of the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in Anatolia in 1915 as genocide is so sensitive in Turkey’s political discourse.

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