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Being Erdogan

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Turkey made headlines last week by undertaking a wholesale downgrading of its relations with Israel after the Israeli government refused to issue a formal apology for the death of nine Turkish citizens on board the Gaza blockade flotilla. Most of the media and policy narratives following the downgrade focused on Israel's new dynamic -- that the Jewish state is undergoing massive changes in the relationships with virtually every country in the neighborhood.

But for Israel change is the only political constant. What's more interesting, or at least more novel, is Turkey's own dynamism, which is not just relatively new but occurring at a rapidly increasing pace.

Turkey is a fascinating country. Its historical roots go directly back to one of the most powerful and complex empires in the history of the world. Meanwhile, today's Turkey is a growing economic powerhouse; a country with stunningly beautiful natural environments; an incredibly diverse ethnic array; and a kind of cultural sophistication that is rarely found in the region (or even the world).

Since the Cold War, Turkey lived a relatively static political existence. The dominant political movement was Kemalist, after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the great Turkish reformer who led the country's transition from a post-empire breakup to its national, secularist rise. The country's geopolitical orientation was unmistakably Western, a position that the country's more conservative elements viewed as submissive and unadvantageous to Turkey's own interests.

About ten years ago, things began to change. Turkey's current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came to power in 2003 after a long and very successful tenure as the mayor of Istanbul. By all accounts, Erdogan is a conservative hardliner. But he's also known as a brilliant economic reformer who has presided over a three-fold increase in Turkey's per capita GDP over the past ten years, and a repositioning of Turkey's geopolitical stance on the world stage.

Now, the question both in and out of Turkey revolves around Erdogan's identity. Erdogan is known to be a devout Muslim and deeply conservative man. But the question many in the West, as well as secular segments of Turkey, are asking is if he's a political conservative or a religious fundamentalist.

"There are those who think Erdogan came into power with a mission to make the country more conservative, bring it closer to its Ottoman roots, and make it more religious," Daniel Fink, a Tel Aviv-based energy analyst and former researcher at the Turkish Research Program of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tells me. "I think that's how he feels personally, but I don't necessarily think that when he came into power he had any larger objective in that regard."

In this view, Erdogan is simply looking for -- and finding -- the levers that can allow Turkey to build and wield the political and economic might commensurate to a strategically located country with a population of 73 million people and a history of near-global hegemony.

While many downplay Erdogan's own religiosity, his relationship to the Islamic world cannot be minimized. For more than 20 years, Turkey sought to accede to the European Union; but last year the country seemed to change directions (without dropping its EU bid) by joining the Arab Parliament as an observer.

The country's geopolitical orientation is clearly changing. "Whereas prime ministers before him didn't take the Western orientation for granted and understood that it needed to be worked at and cultivated," Fink says, "Erdogan almost takes the Western relationship for granted. For him, what needs to be cultivated are ties to other parts of the Muslim world."

And in this, he's also succeeding. Sahir Erozan, a Turkish-American businessman who has worked in Washington's political circles, tells me that five or ten years ago there was outright antipathy felt by Arabs towards Turkey. Today, Arabs from around the Middle East are flocking to Turkey to vacation, study, shop, and do business. This trend is part and parcel to overarching change in Turkey, as it's wrapped up with the country's reorientation, which is in turn tied to its improved economic situation.

"Over the past eight years, there has been a very visible better life in Turkey," Erozan says. "The prime minister's belonging to the conservative party doesn't change the blend of the nation. You can be for him or against him, but either way you can't dispute his success.'

But it's not just Arabs warming to Turkey -- or vice versa. Turkey, which is a member of NATO, last year undertook aerial military exercises with China, something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. And Erdogan also stepped in on behalf of his country's former archenemy, Iran, to move that country's nuclear program forward by suggesting Iran's uranium enrichment be outsourced to Turkey.

Like so many of Turkey's new foreign policy initiatives, the nuclear arrangement with Iran hinged on antagonism with Israel: "In fact, there is no nuclear weapon in Iran now but Israel, which is also located in our region, possesses nuclear arms," Erdogan said at the time. "Turkey is the same distance from both of them. What has the international community said against Israel so far? Is this the superiority of law or the law of superiors?" Tellingly, Erdogan did not mention the nuclear arsenal of neighboring Russia.

The turn toward the Muslim world can be seen in literally every aspect of public life in Turkey. Even the country's great economic success story is tied up with this reorientation. Michael Rubin reported last year that between 2002 and 2003 "the Turkish Central Bank's balance of 'payments for net error and omission'--which is to say, money that appeared in the nation's financial system for which government reporting cannot account--increased from approximately $200 million to more than $4 billion."

The money, Rubin says, came from unofficial contributions known as "Green Money" because they originate from wealthy Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. By 2006, "Turkish economists estimated the Green Money infusion into the Turkish economy to be between $6 billion and $12 billion, and given the ability of the government to hide some of these revenues by assigning them to tourism, that is probably a wild underestimation."

While the reorientation seems to have brought the country free money, it has also come at a serious a cost. According to Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), Turkey has more journalists in jail (57 to be exact) than any other country in the world. Another 700 to 1,000 are awaiting or currently on trial. Further, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party appoints a significant portion of the country's court benches, including the High Court, to which it appoints -- without a nomination process -- the majority of the court's judges. Added to this are a series of newspaper confiscations or closures and the mass arrest of the country's leading generals.

From Israel's perspective, the reorientation is involved with hard line anti-Israelism, at the least, and outright anti-Semitism, even on a semi-official level. In 2004, Michael Rubin writes, the Erdogan-endorsed newspaper Yeni Safak published an "enemies list of prominent Jews." In 2006, "not only did Turkish theaters headline Valley of the Wolves, a fiercely anti-American and anti-Semitic movie that featured a Jewish doctor harvesting the organs of dead Iraqis, but the prime minister's wife also publicly endorsed the film and urged all Turks to see it."

But for Turks, a different picture is painted. For Erozan, the current flap over Israel is a matter of a simple apology from one long-time friend (Israel) to another (Turkey) over a grievous incident that resulted in the deaths of nine Turks. Erozan also explains that, from the Turkish perspective, the issue is a political one that has little to do with sentiment on the ground.

"My hope is that people go back to the original feeling of trust and friendship. It might take some time but somebody has to take the first step. Good friendships are hard to break, and won't break at just one point," Erozan says, noting that Turkish-Israeli trade has tripled over the past years of heightened tensions. Today, Turkey is still Israel's third-largest export market.

What emerges from all this is a tale of two Turkeys. The Turkey of Istanbul's pulsing culture and the country's pristine coasts and uber-liberal elite society is a reality. But behind it, or next to it, is another Turkey that's just as real. If he emerges as a pragmatic master of realpolitik, Erdogan will maintain the dynamic that exists between them. If he turns out to be a fundamentalist, the one reality will gradually be subsumed under the other, and Turkey's reorientation will be better described as a revolution.