THE BLOG
01/15/2015 12:59 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Can Turkey Lead the Islamic World and Still Be a Western Ally?

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

ISTANBUL -- Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for 13 years, is currently gearing up for the June 2015 general elections. During his campaign tour of Anatolia, Prime Minister Davutoğlu attended a party congress last month in his hometown of Konya, a bastion of political Islam since the 1970s. Broadcast live on every television channel, this AKP rally featured a surprise guest: Hamas chairman Khaled Mashal. The Palestinian leader -- who was welcomed by a crowd of thousands chanting slogans like "We'd die for you, Hamas" and "Mujahid Mashal" -- described Turkey as "a source of strength for all Muslims," while also vowing to "retake Jerusalem and Palestine." To all appearances, Mashal's visit to Konya was a favorable omen for Davutoğlu and his fellow pan-Islamists, who wish to see Turkey become the leader of the Islamic world. In reality, however, Davutoğlu and his followers have little cause for optimism.

To understand why, let's rewind two years to the September 2012 AKP congress, attended by Mashal as well as numerous other prominent Middle Eastern statesmen: Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (who had been elected president of Egypt several months previously), Rashid al-Ghannushi (whose Ennahda party had won the elections in Tunisia), and Iraqi Sunni leader Tariq al-Hashimi. With political Islam making headway everywhere from Tunisia to Turkey, it seemed just a matter of months before the Syrian regime would be overthrown; Erdoğan had even pledged to say his prayers in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

One by one, the aforementioned statesmen came to the podium and showered Erdoğan with praise, while Mashal saluted the Turkish prime minister as "a leader for the Islamic world." Davutoğlu and Erdoğan believed that Turkey had finally climbed back onto the world stage, nearly a century after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, and was about to make its pan-Islamic dream a reality.

MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD HOPES DASHED

However, two years later, nearly all of the AKP's hopes have been dashed. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been overthrown, and Morsi is currently on trial. Ennahda has been defeated in the Tunisian elections. Al-Hashimi, Turkey's main ally in Iraq, is living in exile in Istanbul. In short, of the "Muslim Brotherhood belt" envisioned by Davutoğlu and Erdoğan, only two players are left standing: the AKP and Hamas. After Hamas's 2006 electoral victory in Gaza, Turkey made every effort to have Mashal's party -- considered a terrorist organization in the West -- recognized by the international community. (To give credit where it is due, Erdoğan was right to argue, despite Western criticism, that Hamas was the legitimate representative of the Gazan people).

At present, however, the AKP is not merely an intermediary for Hamas but is its close ally. Nor is this the only instance of the AKP's tendency to deal with Islamist political parties, rather than recognized state actors, in its Middle Eastern policy. One could also mention the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's parliament-in-exile in Istanbul, or Turkey's good relations with the rival Tripoli government in Libya, which includes members of the Brotherhood.

However, Davutoğlu's pan-Islamist foreign policy is currently at an impasse. Turkish Airlines has had to cancel flights to Libya after the government in Tobruk -- recognized by the entire world as the legitimate Libyan government -- threatened to down its planes. Turkey also has a very tense relationship with Egypt and Israel, while sharing a long border with the Islamic State in Syria -- a border which has become a transit point for thousands of jihadis from all over the world. Instead of praying at the Umayyad Mosque, the AKP is worrying about how to deal with the some 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

According to Davutoğlu, the chief culprits in all this are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the West. Iran's "sectarian" foreign policy, Davutoğlu believes, is one of the main causes of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf autocracies, for their part (Davutoğlu significantly omits Qatar from this group) are guilty of trying to undermine the popularly-elected Muslim Brotherhood, which they view as a threat to their own monarchical regimes. Finally, Davutoğlu accuses the West of hypocritically supporting the coup in Egypt while refraining from using military force to overthrow al-Assad in Syria. In Davutoğlu's view, of all the players in the Middle East, only Turkey, Qatar, and Hamas are acting out of principle.

The AKP likes to describe its 13 years in power as the time when Turkey became an "advanced democracy." Yet Turkey is currently ranked 154th out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index. The rule of law has been dispensed with, corruption allegations reaching to the highest levels of the government have been hushed up, and the country is turning into an authoritarian single-party regime which uses its intelligence services and police force to stifle opposition.

Basking in his aura of inviolability, Erdoğan is making headlines with ever more eccentric pronouncements (e.g., that Muslims discovered the New World before Columbus) and behaviors (such as receiving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with an entourage dressed in military costumes from different epochs of Turkish history). Disappointment at the current status quo in Turkey is all but universal. It is felt by the U.S., which supported the AKP in the hopes that its brand of moderate Islam would furnish a counter-model to radical "bin Ladenism." It is also felt by many countries in the European Union which once believed that Turkey would act in accordance with the EU's universal criteria of democracy and human rights. The AKP does not aspire to be a model for the Islamic world; it aspires to be its leader -- a duty which includes safeguarding the interests of the nearly 20 million Muslims living in Europe. In Erdoğan's view, it is the EU which must accommodate itself to Turkey, not vice versa.

Thus, both sides have suffered disappointment: Turkey, at the thwarting of its own pan-Islamist ambitions, and the West, at Turkey's failure to realize its democratic potential.

Yet the West and Turkey still need each other. As a NATO country situated amidst the turmoil of the Middle East, Turkey is invaluable to the Western world. And Turkey cannot do without the West in propping up its own economy.

However, as was the case with Salazar's Portugal (a member of NATO) or the Shah's Iran (the U.S.'s erstwhile Middle Eastern ally), Erdoğan wants an alliance based on strategic interests, not democratic ideals. In effect, Erdoğan is saying to the West: If you want my help in the Middle East, then we'll play by my rules. Will the U.S. and the EU turn a blind eye to Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian one-man regime? Or will they reprise the West's role in fostering democracy in Turkey after 1945? The path taken by Turkey will also depend on the decisions made by the West. We will know soon enough.

Behlül Özkan is an assistant professor at Marmara University and the author of the book "From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan: The Making of a National Homeland in Turkey" published by Yale University Press.

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