01/31/2014 04:59 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

How Does Turkey Look From the U.S.?

"Mr. Erdogan, a conservative Muslim, has often seemed more at home in Tehran or Baghdad than in Berlin or Paris, and in recent years he has sought to fashion the country as a power in the Middle East." --Dan Bilefsky, The New York Times.

"What does Turkey look like from abroad?" is the most common question I've been hearing recently when I contact someone in Turkey. What can I say? Since last May, Turkey's image in the U.S. has noticeably been going somewhere we don't want to know...

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been called an autocrat by Westerners since last May. His arrogance, autocratic impulses and the way he uses anti-Semitic clichés have made him a unique figure in Turkish political history. Since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has experienced great success in improving health care, raising incomes and improving infrastructure and has been able to push the army out of politics, Mr. Erdoğan has become triumphant and has started acting as a lecturer. He has been telling people how many children they should have (three); whether or not women need abortions; that cesarean sections are not necessary or where and when people can consume alcohol. As a result, a poll last June showed that 54.4 percent of Turks said the "government was interfering in their lifestyles."

Then the social tsunami started. Since June with the Gezi demonstrations, uncertainties have been ongoing, especially after Dec. 17, 2013, when news of alleged corruption in the current government spread. However, the government's autocratic moves are much clearer nowadays. The way the AK Party has proposed new laws to increase government control over judges and prosecutors and how many investigations have slowed down have raised suspicions that the government might be trying to hide corruption. The censorship of Turkish media and the recent attempts to change laws about the Internet to easily increase censorship are raising concern.

Strangely, emergency care has been criminalized, too! Under a new law, a doctor faces the risk of being sentenced to up to three years in jail if he attends to an injured person who requires urgent medical attention outside a hospital. It seems as though the law is against doctors' Hippocratic Oath, which embraces a principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that prioritizes saving lives before anything else.

"This new law is outrageous! It basically disregards medical doctors, humanity, the virtue of the Hippocratic Oath that is shared as a universal value, but puts forward a new kind of law that says 'do as we say,' 'we will tell you whom to take care of and whom to ignore.' Please tell us, where in the world would this be acceptable, except for the Erdogan's new Turkey? Turkey is up for a big challenge. Erdogan is dragging the whole country with him as he is destined for an awful political ending. Will the country follow him or raise again from the ashes?" Dr. Hande Ozdinler indicated to me in our interview. She is a professor at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine

The common view from the U.S. is that Turkey's democracy, which has admittedly been improved in the last 10 years, is now being destroyed by the Turkish prime minister. Every day the problems between Turkey and its Western allies get deeper. They are watching quietly in order not to damage short-term interests, but they are concerned for Turkey's longer-term stability.

While all of these problems are happening at home, Mr. Erdoğan is accusing the investigation of being a politically motivated plot against his government from within the state. He ordered Turkish Ambassadors to explain the recent graft and bribery scandal from a conspiracy-oriented and partisan perspective to the foreign diplomats. It seems that the main goal is to stave off scandal. However, it would only demonstrate how vulnerable and helpless Erdoğan is and how he is losing his credibility in the international arena. Actually, some experts even consider that the recent developments are not merely an effort to cover up corruption, but that Erdoğan is trying to gain complete control over Turkey.

"Democracy in Turkey has been damaged by the recent corruption allegations and probes. They demonstrate how fragile the democratic institutions of the state really are and how easily they can be manipulated by political masters." Joshua W. Walker, director of Global Programs at APCO Worldwide, told me in an interview. He added, "The checks-and-balances of independent institutions that guarantee democracy in Turkey are certainly under attack. A vibrant civil society and media that can express dissenting views and are free to be critical are equally important, therefore I worry that both of these are under attack from aggressive Turkish politics that wants to win at all costs."

Also, Fırat Demir had said in Foreign Policy:

Excuses notwithstanding, the corruption scandal and the government's response to it have already weakened democratic accountability in Turkey, and deepened dividing lines among an already polarized populace. Once lauded for its democratic strength, or at least its willingness to move up the democratic ladder, Turkey threatens to become just like many others in its neighborhood: a hybrid regime ruled by a strong man who does not even try to give his rule the pretense of a democracy.

Yes, the way Mr. Erdoğan has behaved shows us he still doesn't fully understand and has not internalized democracy. He is viewed more and more as an autocrat rather than a democrat. Nevertheless, his defining value should not be majority rule but individual liberty. He has to understand that when a leader implements official authority he depletes the trust he has earned, but when he exercises moral authority, leading by example and treating people with respect, he strengthens it. Can Erdoğan learn these lessons for the sake of Turkey's near-term stability or it is already too late?

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