While the Arab Spring has seen dramatic changes in countries from Tunisia to Syria, in many ways, no country’s changes are more interesting than the ones in neighboring Turkey. The rise of the AKP, the end of the “zero problems” policy and a newly assertive Middle East policy are only the most obvious developments. In a new piece at openDemocracy Dimitar Bechev examines the numerous changes in Turkey, and comes to a surprising finding: despite a high level of anti-Americanism among the Turks, in many important ways, Turkey is moving closer to America, both politically and culturally:
Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his followers, in seeking to bolster the case for Turkey’s accession to the EU, used to cite European-style Christian democracy as a source of inspiration for their moderate form of Islamic politics. In 2012, however, the AKP’s social-conservative line on “family values” or the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools if far more in harmony with attitudes in America’s “red” (Republican) states than in European metropoles.
Turkey has its own “culture wars” which are surely intelligible to the median US citizen. A controversy over proposed reforms that would introduce a middle-school level for 10-14 year-olds who can be enrolled in an imam hatip (religious institution) or be taught at home is a case in point. The AKP maintains that this would broaden girls’ access to schooling; critics see it as perpetuating social conservatism.
The influential religious thinker Fethullah Gülen may have a conflictual relationship with Erdoğan, but he remains an influential fellow-traveller of the AKP – and significantly, he resides in Pennsylvania. None other than the New York Times portrayed the “Gülenists” as “the Islamic equivalent of Christian movements appealing to business and the professions.”
The changes affect issues of culture and citizenship as well:
But if Turkey is embracing Americanisation rather than Europeanisation, could this process provide a (better) answer to Turkey’s burning questions of citizenship and national identity? Again, the European Union long thought that it had the competence and leverage to make a difference in Turkey. But it now appears that Brussels’s standards tended to reinforce Turkey’s post-1920s Kemalist order, which was already informed by the French republican ideal of a single and indivisible political community (and often cast, as also in Germany and much of central and eastern Europe, in exclusively ethno-cultural terms).
The retreat of EU influence in Turkey increasingly makes the alternative to Kemalism not one of EU-inspired minority rights, let alone ethnic power-sharing as demanded by Kurdish nationalists, but rather the AKP brand of identity politics which (unlike Kemalism) recognises the multiplicity of ethnic identities while embracing nationalism and the cult of the state. Here, (Sunni) Islam is the overarching, supra-ethnic glue that reconciles the commitment to a strong, sovereign and fiercely patriotic Turkey with cultural-linguistic particularisms. Again, this is a pattern recognisable in the US.
Moreover, the AKP’s nationalism – in contrast to the insular and xenophobic nationalisms of today’s Europe – resembles the US’s in being defined by a sort of mission civilisatrice in the Arab world, which draws inspiration from the glorious Ottoman era. Hence, Turkey’s aforementioned shift from “zero problems” to a “freedom agenda” in the middle east.
Turkey is currently caught between a collapsing Europe and a Middle East at the beginning of a long and dangerous transition, neither of which provides an appealing model for the future. Past Turkish leaders focused on emulating Europe as a model for Turkey, but European hesitancy to push forward on Turkish EU accession as well as its current economic and political crises have given this model little to recommend it, and Turkey is now looking elsewhere for inspiration.
In many ways, cultural and political similarities make America a more natural model for Turkey than Europe or the Arab world. As Turkey becomes a more important player both within its region and in the world at large, this relationship is one to watch.