Question: A great deal of commentary has focused on the condition of Turkey’s democracy before the attempted coup and what will happen to it moving forward. What is your assessment of this commentary?
Answer: We should not be surprised by this emphasis – this is typical of the west. The West projects its so-called values on the rest of the world. Its values are always “one-size fits all.” This of course is nonsense. Turkey’s democracy is evolving and it reflects – if you like it or not – the will and interests of the majority of Turks. Turkey’s traditional secular approach to politics and society is in steep decline. What is ascending is a Turkish variant of political Islam. The perception among many Turks is the reality Europe is facing multiple crises and regression. Turkey sees itself as proud and on the advance. As far as many Turks are concerned, the west offers little in what a good society should be.
Q.: Can democracy and political Islam co-exist?
A.: First of all, Turkey now is no longer a liberal democracy. I say this objectively and without prejudice. There is no reason why a country should have a liberal democracy when its voters are not liberal. Some state institutions (the military) and elements of civil society (primarily the political opposition and its supporters) back the country’s traditional separation from Islam. However, they are clearly in the minority. How they remain to play a role within the Turkish political landscape remains to be seen. Second, Turkey’s move to political Islam tests any meaningful definition of democratic representation. The majority should rule, but that rule should insist on respect and tolerance.
Q.: There are those who say political Islam is intolerant and that Erdogan will take advantage of this as he exacts his revenge against the coup plotters. What are your thoughts on this?
A.: Like it or not Erdogan is in a position to shape Turkey according to his will. His initial purges of the military, the judicial system, and civil society in general are reported to be deep and systematic. Indeed, he can thoroughly reshape and recast state institutions, but will that unify the country and society? This remains a very important question. If Erdogan wants to succeed then he will have to refrain from alienating a significant minority of Turks, not to speak of the large Kurdish minority. Is he capable of doing that? This is another important question. His leadership style to date tells us he is challenged when subtlety and diplomacy is very much needed.
Q.: When the coup was faced-down by people taking to the streets, there were reports of extreme reprisals taken against soldiers and pro-coup supporters. These people are identified as Erdogan’s street muscle. Also, in Syria, Erdogan has been shown to support outright terrorist groups and organizations attempting to defeat the Kurds and overthrow the Assad government. Erdogan’s critics claim he is too comfortable with these elements. Is this a fair criticism?
A.: One of my primary concerns is Erdogan’s reliance and/or acceptance of intolerant and extreme elements. His various levels of support of ISIS and other extreme forces in Syria have been a disaster for Turkey’s security. And use of street thugs, as a form of political enforcement, is never a good idea. These are not reliable political allies. The fact is when radical elements are allowed to pursue goals beyond the law they are very difficult to control later. To my mind this is Erdogan’s most pressing challenge. If he does not, Turkey as a viable state will be in question and the Middle East as a whole threatened with even more instability.
Q.: More on foreign policy – who are Erdogan’s friends? Who does he want to make friends with and whom will he step away from?
A.: I am still not convinced Washington played a role in the coup attempt. However, I would not be surprised if it had before hand knowledge it would happen and hoped it would succeed. What does seem clear to me is Erdogan’s disillusionment with Washington and the west in general. He knows Turkey will never be a member of the EU. And let’s face it; the European project is not as attractive as it used to be. Erdogan is also aware of Washington’s calamitous Middle East policies – Washington is simply not a reliable partner. NATO’s perceptions of security interest also conflict with Turkey’s self-defined role in its neighborhood. On the other hand, Erdogan has every reason to look east now. A fresh look at relations with Russia, Iran and even Syria offer some intriguing opportunities. We are told Erdogan is a pragmatist, a man of the people, and a political survivor. He has most of the high cards – let’s see how he plays them.
Peter Lavelle is host of RT’s political debate program CrossTalk. His views are his own and may or may not reflect those of his employer.