Foreign Policy Blogs

Turkey’s Test of Wills


In recent months, Turkey—more specifically, Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (AKP)—has been the center of controversy and the subject of passionate debates. The other side of this political controversy is the spiritual leader of the Hizmet or Gulen Movement, Fethullah Gulen. However, as with all matters political; things are seldom the way they seem.

Although it is packaged as that all too familiar power politics that often brings allies of convenience at odds with one another, beneath that façade is a relentless effort to adjudicate or perhaps railroad the Islamists’ capacity to govern. As in Egypt, at the heart of the issue is the profound question: Can the so-called political Islam exist within constitutional framework, embrace modernity and share space with a pluralistic society?

A Hybrid Model of Governance

While in office, Prime Minister Erdogan has earned a remarkable record in transforming his country. For over a decade, Turkey has been a successful model for democratic pluralism, political stability, economic success, international collaboration while asserting its Islamic identity. These accomplishments have placed Turkey on a viable course to meet its objective to become one of the world’s top ten economies by 2023; thus ensuring it a considerable political clout in a highly volatile world.

For many Islamic thinkers and a number of Islamic movements around the world who, in one way or another, embrace their religious values as a frame of reference that informs their capacity to govern, the success of the “Turkish model” in the past decade or so highlighted a sustainable alternative to extremism and violence. Likewise, for a number of other analysts and many governments, including that of the U.S., that consider Turkey a strategic partner. In the past decade, it has been proven viable brand and a sustainable model of governance with a capacity to bridge relationship between the Muslim world and the West. Turkey has become a shining example of how Islam does not reject modernity.

Domestic Dynamic

It is no secret that there has been a ferocious political rift between Prime Minister Erdogan and Imam Gulen, whose movement of broad transnational social network may have been the engine or the political base that helped AKP ascend to power and reform the military apparatus that for decades quarantined not only any form of Islamic-based ideologies, but practically all expressions of Islamic identity. Today, AKP and Hizmet are in a fierce political tug-of-war that could have serious consequence for both sides, and, at the end of the day, squander their cooperatively earned political clout as militaristic Kemalists wait in the wings for the spoils.

Still it is worth noting that while the political climate in Turkey seems to intensify in terms of partisan hostilities and polarization, it is important to underscore that political crisis is not a synonym of a political turmoil. However, it is very difficult to get such an impression from the negative media frenzy and the forecasts of political fatalists both in Turkey and abroad.

Conscience-driven Foreign Policy

Turkey’s (zero problems with neighbors) foreign policy has made good strides till Israel launched a “barbaric” attack on Gaza in 2008–09. Erdogan’s frustration with Israel would eventually spillover while sharing stage with Israeli President, Shimon Perez, at the 2009 Davos World Economic Forum. Erdogan publicly rebuked Peres when the latter tried to lecture the former on human rights with certain self-righteous tone. Erdogan retorted angrily by saying “When it comes to killing, you (Israel) know very well how to kill. I know well how you hit and kill children on beaches” and subsequently walked off the stage. This raw exchange on a very public forum earned Erdogan admiration and antipathy; subsequently setting of a series of retaliatory actions or events and counter-events that ultimately derailed a half-century old Turkish-Israeli relationship.

In 2010, Israeli commandoes have killed 9 Turkish nationals aboard a Flotilla for Peace ship carrying humanitarian assistance to Gaza in violation of an inhumane and illegal economic strangulation (naval blockade) on Gaza. This was clearly interpreted by Erdogan as a hostile payback. Erdogan demands an apology and an investigation. Israel responded by saying “it is inconceivable that we should apologise to the Turkish government” as it also rejected UN proposed multi-national investigation. What followed was a diplomatic and geopolitical hostility between these two that lead to Israel’s new strategic partnership with countries such as Greece, Cyprus, and Armenia; and Turkey’s newly established strategic partnership with Iran.

Meanwhile, the United States has found itself in the awkward position to mediate between two close allies on a matter of great diplomatic sensitivity. Congruently, pro-Israel special interest groups and some members of the Congress had been pressuring the Obama administration to press on Turkey to drop its demands. Despite being uncomfortable with Erdogan and AKP’s religious banners, State Department had taken a balanced position. Considering the current political uncertainties in the Middle East and the stagnation (if not declining) U.S. economic condition, U.S needs Turkey more than the other way around.

“The rise of the religiously oriented AKP party is not inconsistent with democracy, modernization, or economic liberalism. The United States must not view the sum of U.S.-Turkey relations through the narrow prism of particular issues, whether they be Armenia, Israel, or ties to NATO.” concluded a recent comprehensive report by an independent taskforce co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley.

Turning to Africa

Against this backdrop, Erdogan turned to Africa. Turkey not only expanded its diplomatic ties with dozens of nations across Africa, it donated and invested billions of dollars in the continent. Nowhere in Africa is that policy more visible than in Somalia.

Turkey’s policy toward Somalia is irrefutably the single most crucial one in the resuscitation of the Somali state and pulling it out of the grave of failure(hood). In its by-passing of the extremely costly failed model of the international community, Turkey employed a strategy of direct engagement in humanitarian, security, reconciliation, and development fronts. It opened its embassy at a time when Mogadishu was considered ‘the most dangerous city in the world’ and restoring hope and vitality was considered impossible. On August 19, 2011, the world has witnessed a genuine Erdogan moment when the Prime Minister who brought along his wife, Foreign Minister and high level delegation landed in Mogadishu and challenged the international community to come. “This tragedy here is a test of humanity, human values, modernity and modern values. We’re here to tell the world this test should be passed successfully to prove that Western values are more than empty rhetoric,” said Erdogan.

Sensationalized Conflict

In light of what has recently happened in Egypt, and how a coalition of covert domestic and foreign elements have pulled the rug under its first democratically elected president and aborted a coalition of two Islamist parties, It’s naïve to look at the Erdogan/Gulen issue only through internal lenses or from the domestic power play. Within that context, Erdogan’s accusations of conspiracy to sabotage Turkey’s national interest cannot be dismissed as a red herring. “Who might be these elements?” is a matter of great controversy.

Erdogan is concerned about who is controlling the strings of influence. Diplomatic saboteurs with abundant resources at their disposal are primary suspects. “Ambassadors are engaging in provocative actions…We don’t have to keep you in our country,” said Erdogan in televized remarks.

Meanwhile, Gulen and his movement – whom have been serving as invaluable ambassadors of goodwill and the de facto positive image-builders of Turkey through public diplomacy, education, and interfaith dialogue – have found Erdogan’s style discomforting. Political confrontation clearly defies Gulen’s teachings of dialogue. Furthermore, it invites an undue burden and politically motivated negative campaigns against goodwill schools around the world, especially in the United States where the movement has been under great deal of pressure.

In addition to pressures from various special interest groups, certain neoconic elements in the media, congress and other branches of the U.S. government have been pressuring Gulen and his movement to lean hard on Erdogan and the AKP. With Recent headlinesthat read: “FBI operation targets Gulen” “FBI raids Gulen school.”

Be as it may, since 2011, the two leaders and their political party and social movement have been drifting apart. And that, needless to say, is not good for Turkey, Middle East, U.S. or Europe.

The recent corruption scandal in which several of Erdogan’s ministers were implicated and his apparent retaliation that resulted in firing dozens of political chiefs suspected being Gulen-loyalists does give Prime Minister Erdogan a black eye.

Though he, as a hardnosed political warrior, has proven his resilience and capacity to win and has the scars to show. But simply going in hard for the win in his current match may come at a profound political and strategic cost. In that context, continuing on the current zero-sum trajectory may be bidding on a self-inflicted defeat.

Unlike Egypt’s (now broadly exposed) cardboard institutions, Turkey can bounce back as it has robust institutions befitting of a modern democratic state; albeit all hinges on the willingness of AKP and Hizmet to mend fences.Both leaders, Erdogan and Gulen, are well aware that Turkey is more important than any individual, organization or party interest.



Abukar Arman

Abukar Arman is a former diplomat, serving as Somalia's Special Envoy to the US. As a widely published analyst, he focuses on foreign policy, Islam, the Horn of Africa, extremism, and other topics.
Twitter: @Abukar_Arman
or reach him via e-mail: [email protected]