POLITICS
06/11/2013 07:13 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

Can Turkey Still Thrive?

WASHINGTON -- I have a Turkish friend, who must remain nameless. He had lived here in the United States for years until he decided a decade ago to go home.

It seemed like a great idea. The Turkish economy had started to boom, and he wanted to become a part –- a profitable part –- of his homeland’s new revival.

For a time, everything worked out well. He tapped his deep contacts in Istanbul to get established in the restaurant business and later, in the resort and hotel scene in Bodrum.

He was happy, giddy almost, making money and being back where he grew up in the glittering new Istanbul.

But as the years went by and the administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan became entrenched, my friend began to worry: privately and fleetingly, then openly and constantly.

My friend was a secularist by nature and upbringing. His hospitality businesses involved selling alcohol. His girlfriend was blonde and wore short skirts. He liked to promenade with her in the Grand Bazaar, if only to annoy the shopkeepers. He and his boyhood friends would roll their eyes when they heard the muezzins’ calls to prayer in the city.

Slowly, but implacably as my friend saw it, Turkey under Erdogan was becoming inch-by-inch more Islamic –- something it had not been, even nominally, since Ataturk replaced the Ottoman Sultans with a secular state.

Under Erdogan, first you saw more women in the streets with headscarves or more complete coverings. You would see them in increasing numbers on the commuter ferries crossing the Bosporus. Then, the old, decrepit mosques in the city began to be restored, and no one rolled their eyes at the call to prayer.

Erdogan eased if not erased tension over this creeping piety with a furious flurry of state-augmented capitalism. He invited billions in foreign investments (especially, though not exclusively, from the Gulf). He financed vast public works projects, particularly in Istanbul. He loosened rules on business.

The resulting surge of economic growth kept people too busy to hate, to use the old slogan of Atlanta back in its post-segregation heyday. But that same growth also fueled the power and wealth of the prime minister’s political machine, the Justice and Development Party.

Moving carefully but systematically, Erdogan began rooting out secularist foes in the military, jailing journalists and taking other actions that indicated to people such as my friend that there was more Development than Justice in the Erdogan movement.

Then the visits began to my friends' businesses: the visits from the government men. Even in Bodrum, they wore plain pants and white shirts. They looked out of place, and they wanted to look out of place.

They wanted to know more about his businesses. Not that there was anything wrong with them, but were they being run properly? Did they shut down for the night at a decent hour? Were the books in order? Were they disturbing the neighbors in any way?

The last time I talked to my friend, he was no longer such a happy-sounding fellow. He was worried and not eager to talk. You could almost hear the sound of a window closing. So far as I know, my friend has not been in Taksim Square. He’s no fool, and he is too old for that kind of action anyway.

But his friends' kids are, I am guessing -– armed with fireworks and Twitter. They want a democratic Turkey, but a secular one. They want modernity and all of the personal freedoms that go with it. There are students and environmentalists and women’s rights advocates. There are people drinking beer, which has now become an act of defiance.

They don’t want what they fear Erdogan wants to give them, which is a boring and controlled semi-religious state, even though he was frank about his desire to build a Turkey that is both dynamic and devout.

And here is the complex thing: Whatever his flaws, the United States and its allies are counting on Erdogan. They need him to not fail. They don’t want a coup, either from the right (the army) or the Islamists. Above all, the allies want stability, which is what they have always wanted from the Turks, who sit astride history and geography and faith as no other people.

The United States and Europe have military alliances they want to keep. Israel has a neighbor it doesn’t (for now) have to fear in an existential way. Arabs want a place to invest and to vacation. They have purchased many of the grand old homes along the Bosporus. It is a lovely and historic Islamic riviera, where old wooden summer villas cost millions.

Nobody wants this to end, or end badly.

The symbol of Erdogan’s party is a shining light. It’s iconography that advertises technology -– not religion. And it was deliberately chosen for that reason.

Such cheap symbols hardly reassure my friend. The rest of the world may have no choice but to see it as a ray of hope.

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