Everyone Needs To Calm Down About ‘Islamist’ Turkey

One of the main neoconservative obsessions these days is the increasing expression of religion in Turkish politics and public life, which neoconservatives see as evidence of troubling shift away from the West and toward America’s (and, of course, Israel’s) Islamic extremist enemies. Typical of the genre is this report from Harold Rhode, one of Doug Feith’s former flunkies in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, who writes “there is an internal battle among Turkish Muslims between forces that want to be part of the Western world and those that want to return Turkey’s political identity to be based primarily on Islamic solidarity. But it isn’t Ottoman Islam that these Islamist Turks seek to revive. Their Islam is more in tune with the fanatically anti-Western principles of Saudi Wahhabi Islam.”

Rhode’s report is shot through with a deep admiration for the strictly secular republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, which is unsurprising, as Rhode is a protege of historian Bernard Lewis, one of the West’s preeminent experts on Turkey, and a major intellectual force behind the invasion of Iraq. While Lewis produced some important work early in his career, he has unfortunately spent his later years saying and writing painfully reductionist, simplistic, and occasionally just plain silly things about the Middle East and political Islam.

As a scholar of modern Turkey, Lewis is a huge fan of Ataturk, and it was Lewis’s view — one uncritically adopted by his neoconservative acolytes — that what Iraq needed was its own Ataturk. Unfortunately, Lewis’s overly romantic view of what Ataturk had achieved, and the deeply undemocratic and violent means by which he achieved it, blinded him to the fact that, in many ways, Iraq had already had its Ataturk: Saddam Hussein, a secular authoritarian dictator who sought to remake the state in his own image. While Saddam’s reign was far bloodier than Ataturk’s, and much less interested in responsible state-building, it speaks to the neoconservatives’ generally dim view of Arabs and Muslims that they believed what was needed for Iraq was simply another strongman — though one who would guide Iraq’s evolution in a manner friendlier to the U.S. and Israel.

Even more unfortunately, the neocons identified Ahmad Chalabi as Iraq’s new Ataturk (according to George Packer, at one point Rhode even compared Chalabi to the Prophet Muhammad, saying “At first people doubted him, but they came to realize the wisdom of his ways.”) We know how that worked out. An article in today’s NY Times surveys the damage caused by Chalabi’s de-Baathification shenanigans, quoting analyst Reidar Visser blaming Chalabi for bringing about “a sectarian repolarization of Iraqi politics.”


But, of course, the neocons haven’t let their disastrous misreading of modern Iraqi society and culture deter them from a similar misreading of Turkish society, equating strict pro-Western secularism with modernity and democracy, and conflating political expressions of Islam with anti-Western extremism.

The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens offers a slightly more nuanced take than Rhode, but still unfortunately takes cues from Lewis — who “speculated that in a decade the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk might more closely resemble the Islamic Republic of Iran,” which is interesting, given that the Islamic Republic is arguably more democratic than Turkey was under Ataturk — leading Stephens to identify a paradox where there is no paradox. Noting the recent rise of “an Islamic bourgeoisie that was long shut out of the old statist arrangements between the country’s secular political and business elites,” Stephens marvels that “Members of this new class want to send their daughters to universities — and insist they be allowed to do so wearing headscarves.”

They also insist that they be ruled by the government they elected, not by the “deep state” of unelected and often self-dealing officers, judges and bureaucrats who defended the country’s secularism at the expense of its democracy and prosperity.

The paradoxical result is that, as the country has become wealthier and (in some respects) more democratic, it has also shed some of its Western trappings. Mr. Erdogan’s infatuations with his unsavory neighbors undoubtedly stem from his own instincts, ideology and ego. But it also reflects a public sentiment that no longer wants Turkey to be a stranger in its own region, particularly when it so easily can be its leader. Some Turks call this “neo-Ottomanism,” others “Turkish-Gaullism.” Whichever way, it is bound to discomfit the West.

Why is any of this strange? Much like the United States, Turkey is a fairly religious society. It makes perfect sense, then, that as Turkey has become more democratic, and political participation has expanded beyond an elite, Euro-centric core, that religious conservatives have become more visible, and issues relating to Turkey’s Islamic identity have come to the fore. There’s nothing necessarily to be feared about this — a similar debate is a central feature of American politics, too (or didn’t you notice our presidential candidates meeting with one of our most prominent clerics on television?) I’d argue that Turkey is currently engaged in the most interesting, dynamic and potentially consequential democratic experiment in the world, seeking to define a pluralist politics in a strongly Islamic society. The only people who will likely be “discomfited” by this process are those who equate “democracy” and “modernity” with “agreeing with the U.S. on everything.”


For a deeper analysis of the changes Turkey is undergoing, both domestically and in its regional policy, and why we shouldn’t freak out about it, please see my colleague Michael Werz’s recent report The New Levant.