Most Americans probably know little about Turkey, yet it is one of the most important members of NATO. It was a key ally throughout the Cold War, bordering the Soviet Union. Turkey was important enough that as a condition for removing missiles from Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union got the US to restrict what planes and weapons it based in Turkey.
And Turkey may be even more important now. Turkey is the only Muslim-majority member of NATO and it borders Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The modern Republic of Turkey was founded in the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, which was defeated in World War I. Mustafa Kemel Ataturk served as its first president and set it on a course of secular, national and democratic government. He moved to do away with religious instruction in public schools and introduced such reforms as granting women civil and political rights and removing many of the government’s religious foundations during the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk was viewed much as our Founding Fathers are viewed: he was respected, his ideas had a certain reverence and his statues appeared routinely around the country.
In recent years, this has begun to change. Recep Tayyip Erdogan became President of Turkey in 2014 and was Prime Minister prior to that. Especially early in his political career, he advocated openly Islamist policies. Erdogan has pushed back on the separation between Islam and the government. And increasingly, he has used his Presidency to increase and consolidate his own power.
After nationwide protests over Erdogan’s authoritarian steps in May 2013, a police crackdown led to 22 deaths. This was followed by Erdogan-backed judicial reforms which struck at the independence of the judiciary. And during his Presidency, reports suggest that more journalists have been imprisoned in Turkey than any other country.
Last year, an attempted coup was put down. Erodgan has responded with a vigorous hunt for all of those involved, some say too vigorous and that he has used that as an excuse to hunt down his opponents whether they were involved in the coup attempt or not. He has arrested tens of thousands, fired roughly ten thousand members of the armed forces and over 2700 members of the judiciary. His government has also seized almost $10 billion of most privately owned assets.
Earlier this year, Erdogan scheduled a referendum that would significantly increase his power. The referendum would eliminate the parliamentary system and replace it with a presidential system of government. It would also eliminate the office of Prime Minister, consolidate power in the President and make broad changes to the judiciary and government prosecutors. With large numbers of Turkish citizens eligible to vote living abroad, protests sprung up not only at home but in countries across Europe. These often became violent as agents of the Turkish government reportedly attacked the protestors across the continent leading to strained relations with several countries, most notably Germany. Even in the United States, violence broke out across from the White House as protestors and backers of Erdogan clashed. In April, the referendum passed and Erdogan’s consolidation of power in the Presidency grew.
More recently, the Turkish President fired the country’s leading cleric, Mehmet Gomez. Gomez had been head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, a governmental agency which supervised the nation’s mosques. Gomez had been influential in opposing the Islamic State on theological grounds, but rumors say that he was fired because he was not conservative enough.
Turkey under Erdogan has taken a turn away from its secular and democratic roots of the last century. Some argue that much of the attacks on opponents of Erdogan have come in response to protests and a recent failed coup attempt. Yet Erdogan’s actions can’t help but be a cause for worry.
And there can be no doubt that Turkey’s relations with her allies has changed in significant ways already.
But Turkey, although a long-standing member of NATO, is not an economic power and usually not considered a key ally, though only in the mind of the general public. So what is the big deal?
Turkey may be one of the keys to the fight against Islamic extremism in the Middle East, as it was during the Cold War against Russia. Not only is its geographic location key, sitting literally as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, but as a Muslim-majority member of NATO it serves as an important example for what can be. A vibrant and democratic Turkey can be an example that Islam and the West can not only live together but cooperate to help each other. When that doesn’t happen, it can be the opposite example. And that is the danger. Already there are strains from Erdogan’s rule. Just one example can serve to illustrate the point: when the US set up training facilities in Turkey to train anti-Syrian rebels, they went into Syria from Turkey at the completion of their training only to be mostly wiped out literally within hours of crossing the border. Intelligence officials suspect that the Syrian army was tipped off, possibly by the Turks.
Other disagreements over the rise of Islamic terrorism and the Syrian civil war have also highlighted tensions. A Turkey that is moving away from democratic secular government, and toward a conservative Islamist brand of Islam is a reason to be concerned. When, often more immediate and pressing foreign news is in the headlines it is easy to forget about Turkey and the strategic importance it holds in the fight against radical Muslim terrorism rooted in the Middle East. But if we do so, it will be to our own peril.