Turkey’s turn toward pugnacious autocracy over the past few years has caused consternation in Washington and European capitals. Some pundits blame it on the rise of Islam in a country that previously had been ruled by secular Kemalist governments. Since 2002, the Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been elected three times at the national level with an ever-greater percentage of the vote. In the 2014 local elections, too, it neared 50 percent. As the party has deepened its hold on Turkey, it has felt more secure in pressing what many assumed has been its agenda all along: authoritarian rule and the Islamicization of society.
This view ignores two important things: that Kemalist governments tended to be tutelary, illiberal democracies shepherded by an intrusive military; and that during the decade after its election, the AKP, led by former Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, transformed Turkey into a liberalizing, internationally engaged, economic powerhouse that had the respect and ear of the world’s leaders. If one simultaneously exaggerates the successes of Turkey’s Kemalist leaders and the recent failures of the AKP government, distortion is bound to result, and one is left unable to really account for the seeming knife-edge turns in Turkey’s political character.
But the error goes deeper than that. The Islam-secularism dichotomy, virtually the only framework most Western observers use in trying to grasp things Turkish, is no longer a useful diagnostic (if it ever was). We are seeing instead a recurrent cycle of conceptual patterns and associated roles—those of the “bigman”, selfless hero, and traitor—that have long characterized and destabilized Turkish political culture. These roles and their interactions are driven not simply by competing ideologies, but by on-the-ground rivalry between network hierarchies and a general fear of social chaos.
Turkey’s recent history helps us identify what has truly changed. When the country opened its economy to the world market in the 1980s, previously sidelined small entrepreneurs, many of them pious, regional actors, were able to build wealth and invest it in social and political networks. The EU accession process helped Muslim religious expression break free after decades in which the Kemalist state banned the headscarf in universities, government, and civil service. The EU process gave the AKP the impetus to place the military, which had carried out coups and otherwise meddled in politics, under firmer civilian control. Although a Muslim bourgeoisie had begun to develop earlier, the AKP took credit for moving pious Muslims from the margins to the center of power after decades of humiliation and injured pride at the hands of Kemalists. Their new public and private networks strengthened the AKP as well as the Hizmet movement of the preacher Fethullah Gülen. Often working in tandem, they developed national and international networks that pulsed with profit for their members and spilled over into society through programs in areas ranging from education to health care.
Along with the rise of a previously underrepresented part of the population, changes occurred in the popular conception of Turkish identity and the nature of national boundaries. The AKP promoted a concept of national identity for which the founding moment was not the 1923 creation of the Turkish nation-state, but the 1453 conquest of Christian Constantinople by the Ottomans. Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu, who is now Prime Minister, promoted policies aimed at reconnecting former Ottoman lands in a Muslim version of the European Union. Turkish visa requirements were dropped, and business ties surged with Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Israel, and other countries in the region and beyond.
Davutoğlu’s “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy failed spectacularly as the Arab Uprisings and their jihadi aftermath tore the region apart. Nevertheless, within Turkey new national rituals, such as those commemorating the Conquest, and even soap operas about Ottoman times, have set the Turkish population to dreaming Ottoman dreams and created a run on Ottoman costumery for weddings and other events. While Kemalist nationalism had been rooted in Turkish Muslim blood, suddenly it was possible to think of being Turkish as being of Muslim faith (a characteristic shared with non-Turks) and descended from Ottomans, who were not necessarily Turks. Neither definition refers to the notional national boundaries emphasized by Kemalists, which are becoming all but obsolete in both the popular imagination and the new elite’s Ottoman-inspired geostrategic calculations.
The post-Kemalist honeymoon lasted about ten years before Turkish democracy sprang back, like an overextended rubber band, to a familiar defensive posture in which the group in power focuses on defending its networks against rivals. In the Kemalist playbook, the cult of Atatürk was omnipresent in people’s lives, institutions were stocked with members of approved networks, benefits accrued to those thinking approved thoughts, and government and military blacklists ensured that critics and nonconformists were sidelined. Today it is the AKP that has doubled down on disciplining and defending its lucrative networks. Independent institutions, like the courts, are being pressed to the party’s breast; its leader has developed an extreme cult of personality in which he is presented as the heroic savior of his people; and critics are savaged and scapegoats cultivated and attacked as traitors.
The simplistic dichotomy of Islamism versus secularism cannot explain these transformations because these categories do not track with an autocratic/liberal dichotomy, and also because during this same period Islam, like secularism and national identity, has undergone an enormous transformation that does not permit simple formulations. On the one hand, pious mainstream Muslims who became wealthy and powerful under AKP rule have developed into a Muslim bourgeoisie that expresses its Islamic identity through commodities and lifestyle rather than an excess of prayer. Indeed, one group of young people calling themselves anti-capitalist Muslims has begun to appear at demonstrations, calling AKP followers to account for replacing piety with profit. This group is one manifestation of civic activism by pious (along with secular) young people interested in social justice. In addition to prayer circles, they are attending planning meetings and getting educations, made possible when the AKP overturned the Kemalist ban on headscarves in universities and the civil service. The Hizmet movement has been a clearinghouse for pious men and women’s civic activism and education.
At the same time, Islamic radicalism has arisen, of a kind unheard of in Turkey before foreign jihadis began transiting its porous borders as well as living in Turkey on their way to fight in Syria. Islamic State (ISIS) agitators reportedly have snaked their way into communities around Turkey, including its major cities, and are recruiting hundreds of Turks to move to the Islamic State, where they believe they will have a better life than anything the AKP can offer them. ISIS’s puritan Salafi creed has no natural roots in Turkey, where for centuries Islam has been shaped by a more tolerant Sufism. So while one could argue that Islam is a factor in Turkey’s transformation, religion pulls in many directions. It does not necessarily lead to the AKP’s autocratic turn.
A better answer is to see the present situation as another turn of familiar conceptual patterns and associated roles that have long characterized Turkish political culture, whether Kemalist or Islamist: the “bigman”, the hero, and the traitor.
The term “bigman” derives from the Melanesian pidgin words bikpela man (big fellow man). A bigman’s position of leadership is not inherited, but acquired and augmented as he achieves status by being particularly good at provisioning and protecting his increasing numbers of followers. He leads by virtue of skilled persuasion and a reputation for wisdom. The anthropologist Lawrence Rosen, in his book Varieties of Muslim Experience (2008), described the legitimacy of leadership in the Arab world as being contingent upon the development of networks of followers who owe the leader support and whom he must support through his much larger network of connections. The same can be said of Turkey, despite the trappings of elections and the appearance of a stable, Weberian-level modern state.
Indeed, getting elected in Turkey involves the nationwide distribution of favors and amassing of obligations. The ballot box lends itself to magical thinking, to the belief that networks legitimated through voting have heightened power. In August, for the first time, Turks voted for President (who previously had been selected by parliament). One of the candidates was Prime Minister Erdoğan. He stated that, although the presidency had been a figurehead position, the fact that this presidency would be elected would ipso facto make it more powerful and that he intended, when he won, to take full advantage.
Bigman politics attracts support through the expansion of a broad hierarchy of networks characterized by personalized relations of support and obligation. These are directed at the bigman, who is envisioned both as a father figure and a hero. Until the 1990s, Turks still referred to the state as Devlet Baba, “Father State”, and related to it as dependents with rights due to a member of the family. Poor women sometimes tried to give their children to the governor or to another political figure to care for. Members of parliament spend most of their days fielding constituents’ personal requests for help. During Kemalist national rituals, Atatürk masks were animated by their wearers, often schoolchildren; more recently, members of the AKP’s youth group wore Erdoğan masks. Erdoğan himself has appeared at rallies he cannot attend in person as an enormous hologram—that is, as an image that appears to interact with the audience and that represents the personality of the man. By Turkish reckoning, this is more personal than just viewing his iconic image on a television screen or poster.
Until recently, the most frequently used words in high-school texts about Turkish literature and language were death, war, and hero (kahraman). Themes of suffering and self-sacrifice have struck powerful chords with generations of children who at the start of each school day chanted that they loved their country more than themselves: “I offer my existence to the Turkish nation as a gift.” The Redhouse Turkish dictionary defines kahraman as, in mythology, a very strong man accepted as a half god. The term as used in Turkey has the additional meaning of self-sacrifice or martyrdom, dying for one’s nation, for a cause.
Although the AKP dispensed with many Kemalist-era practices, the discourse of selfless hero has remained, for it is deeply rooted in Turkish culture. The AKP video for the 2014 local election showed a mysterious stranger in a foreign-looking trench coat cutting the rope that held up an enormous Turkish flag. As the falling flag’s ominous shadow floated across the land, citizens of every persuasion began to run toward the flagpole, masses of them diving into the Bosphorus to swim to the flag’s rescue. In a chilling special-effects ending, citizens swarm on top of each other to create an enormous cone-shaped hive, seen from the sky. One young man, his face aglow with fervor, climbs on the backs of the others to the top of the pile and grabs the broken end of the rope, flinging himself outward to certain death while pulling the flag back up.
In popular Turkish usage, martyr (şehit) does not connote a religious martyr, whose goal is to die in order to enter heaven. The Turkish martyr’s goal is to fight to win. His death is regrettable, but honorable. In death, the şehit is memorialized using both Muslim and nationalist imagery during televised funerals, and his body merges, quite literally in the video described above, with the Turkish nation. The effectiveness of the election video, which was very popular among AKP supporters, lay in its graphic portrayal of treason and threat, and the counter-mobilization of a vast network of selfless individuals who allow the martyr to complete his heroic act of saving the nation from traitors. It demonstrated the importance of hierarchy, discipline, obedience, and the submerging of self. The bigman is positioned at the top of this hierarchy of dependents, the ultimate kahraman or selfless hero. In the next election video, released just three months later, Erdoğan was shown as a cartoon superman figure, breaking down doors and overcoming all obstacles facing him and his grateful followers.
If the bigman’s authority rests upon the successful expansion of networks of followers, then he must fear anyone with a competing network who also has a legitimate shot at rule through persuasion, compensation, and, potentially, the ballot box. Starting in the 1980s, Islamist parties began to gain on secular parties at the polls, despite attempts by the military to decimate their networks by banning and arresting their leaders. One way to understand elections in a majoritarian democracy is to say that the vote count determines whose network is stronger. As Prime Minister, Erdoğan told protesters during the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations, in effect: “If you don’t agree with how I do things, then go win your own election.” AKP posters tout democracy as expressing the “national will”, which is conflated with Erdoğan’s will, whose picture appears beside the slogan.
In today’s Turkey, no opposition parties can compete with the AKP’s heavily serviced networks, arteries through which flow vast amounts of money and services. Only the Hizmet networks of Fethullah Gülen can match the AKP in credibility, productiveness, and, until recently, power. Gülen presides over a vast international web of foundations oriented toward his teachings and can call upon countless followers who defer to his wisdom. They also rake in and redistribute enormous amounts of money through the economic networks that surround Hizmet activities, from schools to businesses. Well-educated members have made their way into state institutions, reportedly staffing the police and courts in large numbers.
In its initial climb to power, the AKP cooperated with Hizmet. Their activities and networks complemented one another in a kind of division of labor, with Hizmet educational and business know-how shoring up AKP’s political outreach. As their networks expanded into state institutions, however, they became rivals and are now at war with one another, with each trying to decimate the financial base and reach of the other. For instance, the AKP tried to close down Gülen-controlled preparatory schools in Turkey, cutting off a major source of funding. Prosecutors ostensibly loyal to Gülen collected evidence of massive corruption in the highest circles of the AKP government and began to arrest people. Erdoğan responded by firing or moving thousands of policemen and hundreds of prosecutors from their posts, and giving the government the power to appoint certain judges, thus effectively quashing the corruption charges. The AKP also has undermined the Gülen-affiliated Bank Asya. Erdoğan has promised in the strongest possible language to continue hunting down the Gülenist “traitors.”
Those standing against the national will are demonized as anti-democratic traitors (hain), and the worst traitors are those who had been nearest the national bosom. During the Kemalist era, Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities were accused of being “inside enemies” undermining Turkey at the behest of foreign powers. Now the inside enemy is Hizmet, which Erdoğan has accused of creating a “parallel state.” Fundamentally, these are dueling networks. A majoritarian democracy is a winner-take-all system in which only the ideas and practices of the winner are authorized. Such a system is intrinsically hostile to civil liberties and press freedom, both of which introduce unauthorized ideas and lifestyles, and which the state demonizes as precursors to social chaos. In other words, AKP voters do not fear autocracy; they fear social chaos.
How is social chaos imagined? Turks live in a zone of vulnerability. The political scientist Soli Özel told me that it is too dangerous to be an individual in Turkey because no institutions exist to reliably protect your rights. Turkish society is characterized by exceptionally low levels of interpersonal trust and a pervasive, often antagonistic, “us versus them” ethos between groups. For protection and provision, often of the simplest goods and services, you need a family, a community, association, brotherhood, or other group that will absorb you into its networks. Such groups generally are modeled on the revered traditional family; that is, they are hierarchical, patriarchal, and brook no dissent. Polls show that Turkish society is intolerant of anyone who is different, whether in religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, or lifestyle. Interviews with young people who favor Turkey joining the EU show that many still worry that EU influence will undermine the authority of the father in the family and the proper relationship between men and women, thereby destroying the honor of their communities. In other words, local patriarchal and sexual hierarchies are conceived as bulwarks against social chaos and dishonor to the point that they feature in national and international considerations.
Erdoğan played on these fears during the 2013 Gezi Park protests against the destruction of the last park in central Istanbul, a city with less than 2 percent public green space. As protests spread in response to disproportionate police violence against largely peaceful demonstrators, Erdoğan accused them on little evidence of attacking “our covered sisters.” He also blamed them for causing economic loss to local businesses. They tore up the paving stones, he railed; who will pay for that? Both of these scenarios caught the imagination of his followers and were endlessly repeated as examples of what would happen if Erdoğan hadn’t stood up against those “outsider” troublemakers.
Bigman networks survive and expand on the basis of shared wealth, favors, and obligation. When corruption allegations against the AKP’s inner circle were made public, many AKP supporters shrugged it off as part of doing politics and pointed out that every party is corrupt, a tacit acceptance of the bigman system. If the citizen asks whether anything falls to him, the AKP’s answer until recently has been a resounding yes, as kickbacks are reinvested in further infrastructural projects. They point to new roads, subways, buses, malls, easier access to health care and social services, and myriad other benefits. But the collapse of foreign markets in the region, mismanagement, and political decisions about economic issues like interest rates and subsidized prices have weakened Turkey’s economy. There have been warnings of water and gas shortages. Unemployment and poverty remain high. Along with the threat of other bigman networks competing for power, the AKP must face the threat of losing the support of its own.
The tipping point in Turkey will not come through corruption or autocracy, since these fit snugly and acceptably within the bigman system. The shift will come when the sharing stops. Leadership may fail, no matter how cleverly personalized and fluent in projecting threats and heroes. Solidarity within even the deepest networks may fracture. The bigman’s downfall will come when a regime seen as providing for the common good, however defined, turns into one that satisfies the interests of a single ruler, what Rosen calls the selfish leader. A bigman must possess certain qualities to develop the powerful networks that propel his group to great heights. The danger is that, once successful, he seeks to assert dominance, thereby undercutting the solidarity of his supporters and leading to increasingly desperate attempts to blame fractures on enemies, usually by spinning elaborate conspiracy theories. In a society in which powerful cultural and social norms enable political leadership in the form of bigman personalities, these same norms can also disable leaders.
The tipping point often is signaled by the construction of elaborate palaces with amenities like golden toilet fixtures and private zoos, spectacles we have witnessed from Iraq to Ukraine. As President, Erdoğan has chosen to live not in the modest Çankaya Villa, for more than ninety years home to Turkey’s Presidents. Instead, he has built a Versailles-like palace with more than a thousand rooms in the middle of Ankara’s heretofore best-preserved green space, sacrificing hundreds of trees and ignoring a court order to halt construction.
The presidential construction is a microcosm of AKP rapaciousness as public land and both environmental and archaeological treasure are expropriated throughout the country, often after changing or ignoring existing protections and laws. A few institutions, like the Constitutional Court, remain independent of the bigman networks and stand in the way of untrammeled profit-making and graft, but Erdoğan has indicated that he has little respect for the courts and will attempt to muzzle them. The most immediate threat to political solidarity is when the bigman fails to redistribute and makes decisions that his followers consider unjust.
The AKP has inextricably linked piety and profit in the minds of its followers. Its inner circle, however, has moved from bigman leadership on the basis of networks of obligation and mutual assistance to become a middle class with a habit of conspicuous consumption and an enduring status handed down to their children. By contrast, a 2013 Gallup poll revealed that half of Turkish families with children struggle to afford food. Unemployment still hovers near 10 percent, higher for young people who have increasingly found their careers blocked if they do not belong to the right networks.
The government elite appeared particularly heartless this year when it violently put down peaceful protests against deadly mining and construction accidents, which happen with numbing regularity. In May, after a particularly deadly incident in Soma in which 301 miners were killed, distraught relatives were bludgeoned by security services. In striking images that went viral, Erdoğan’s close associate is seen viciously kicking a Soma mourner, and Erdoğan himself slaps another. These images, and the government’s unwillingness to blame the mining company (which had government ties) for its lack of safety equipment—it rather blamed “outside enemies”—caused outrage in Turkey even among that part of the population considered the AKP’s staunchest supporters. The associate was not punished, causing even greater consternation. In one videotaped incident in Soma, Erdoğan and his team were forced to take refuge in a supermarket from an irate crowd after he said that mine deaths were “normal.”
Turks have a finely honed sense of justice, which for many is fundamentally more important than unlimited freedom, for instance, to use the internet. Since people rely on their own networks to provision and protect themselves and those close to them, when their ability to build those networks and meet their obligations is blocked, they lose not only standing and honor but also the ability to feed their families. Real corruption, the kind that matters, is when the bigman not only fails to meet his obligations to his followers, but also blocks them from meeting their own. It is well and good to have new subway, bus, and train lines, but these are useless if you have nowhere to go. Malls are fine if you have money to shop. It is perhaps of little personal interest when public land is handed over to private interests, but when private property is seized by eminent domain without full compensation, as was done in preparation for building a third Bosphorus bridge, that is injustice—and it has roused the ire of many who until now had supported the AKP. A few months ago at a university in Eskişehir, a young, covered student told me in tears that she had devoted her life to supporting the AKP, but after hearing of the corruption and other allegations, she was devastated. “I feel like a woman whose husband has betrayed her.” The worst of it is, she said, “I don’t know who else to give my vote to.”
Once the AKP’s inner circle becomes its own bounded and self-interested entity, it will encounter the tendency for those outside the group’s protective membrane to distrust and resent it. In such circumstances, the hero image blurs. Erdoğan’s rhetoric has become ever more divisive as he assigns a scapegoat—the traitor—to every wayward incident. The traitor is the insider who questions the approved narrative, breaks with the hierarchy, and upends social order, bringing chaos. The scapegoat is sacrificed to recreate order. The AKP’s invective against all manner of foreign and domestic enemies, greatest among them now Fetullah Gülen and his Hizmet movement, has reached a fever pitch. It has had the effect of creating burgeoning fissures in Turkish society and polity. There are dissonant voices even within the AKP as Erdoğan’s loyal core narrows. Term limits are up for many of his MPs, and he has made it clear that he plans to replace them with a new crop of followers who have risen solely through his networks and whose loyalty is, thus, unquestioned.
The younger generation, it is true, has no personal memory of the humiliations, imagined communities, and divisions of the past. Its members’ focus is on upward mobility and, for many, on social justice. An entire generation—half of Turkey’s population is under thirty—has grown up with one hand on the internet, the other on a credit card. Together they provide access to a vast array of consumer and leisure goods through which they can express themselves as Muslims, hipsters, nerds, or nationalists, anarchists, feminists, and environmentalists, in any form or combination. You can have Atatürk’s signature tattooed on your arm or wear designer headscarves and read Islamic romance novels.
What is most interesting about this generation is that, despite the deep polarization in Turkish society between supporters and opponents of the AKP, the young cross identity boundaries once considered sacrosanct. Last year, the South Korean pop star PSY gave a concert in Istanbul. During the performance, the singer and an ensemble of scantily clad young women did provocative “Gangnam Style” dance moves on stage, including PSY’s signature horsey dance. What struck me were the photos of the audience that appeared in the newspapers the following day. They showed a mixed audience of secular and pious young men and women, some with children perched on their shoulders, all with oversize blue frames perched on their noses in imitation of the singer.
These are today’s “young Turks”, and they are bound to walk a reformist path whether they intend to or not. Just like their tastes, young people’s voting behavior cannot be predicted by their religiosity or other beliefs. While some self-proclaimed Kemalists supported the AKP in the 2011 elections, during the 2013 Gezi protests some young veiled women went up against the police along with secular protesters. The protests were reviled by the AKP as an attempted coup against the government by “looters” and “drunks”, a charge that many believed. But the actual make-up of the protests was quite diverse; supporters, many of them young and female, represented a cross-section of Turkish social, political, and ethnic identities. Since youth and women are far from the center of power in Turkish politics, they tend to be active in street protests and other forms of civic engagement; but their time will come within the next twenty years as the older generation reluctantly loosens its grip on the levers of power and their networks give way to new constellations.
Still, even the younger generation can be swayed by fear of chaos and the appeal of order and security as promised by a heroic, personalized bigman figure. In the pantheon of rhetoric about threats to the nation, attacks on sexual honor and paternal authority, made tantamount to attacks on national honor, have the most emotional impact. Erdoğan projects an image of the virile hero, protecting women’s honor and his own authority, thus allowing Turks to stand tall in the eyes of the world. (He recently played soccer in an orange uniform, not quite up to Vladimir Putin’s cavorting with tigers, but the idea is similar.) Some Turks respond to this with nationalist pride, others because it resonates with Islamic expectations of family hierarchy and gender. But a major factor in the effectiveness of the bigman/hero/traitor formula is that the population is blinkered by the apparatus of authoritarian rule as the media replays an imagined fiction, much as it did in Kemalist times, of a proudly Turkish nation under siege by enemy insiders and outsiders. They see the enemy their government has constructed for them far more readily than they see the one at or already within the gates.
Turks are increasingly dreaming Ottoman dreams. They do not see the reality behind the Karagöz puppet play projected onto the media screen, that in fact the boundaries of nations have eroded and that the Turkish nation itself is in danger of losing the characteristics that, since 1923, have made it Turkish. Ever since Turkey, in a fit of overweening optimism and a dream of economic and social solidarity with formerly Ottoman lands, let fall visa barriers to Middle Eastern states, Turkey has filled with radical foreign Muslims, some in transit to Syria, some to stay. In the past, Turkey, particularly Istanbul, was a hub for Arab families on vacation, those not wishing exposure to the fleshpots of Paris or perhaps not able to afford them. The new Muslims are a different breed, not all Arabs, foreign fighters hardened in the battles of Afghanistan, Chechnya, and elsewhere. They now include Western youth, some children of Muslim immigrants as well as some converts, on their way to or returning from the Islamic State, as it now styles itself, throwing covetous glances across all the borders surrounding Syria.
ISIS is now openly recruiting inside Turkey, threatening Shi‘a, burning mosques, and holding prayer meetings that call for jihad. Some have speculated that eastern Turkey might become the functional equivalent of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, a lawless home base for the Taliban, tolerated willingly or unwillingly by the state. According to interviews with ISIS recruits and relatives, Turks, some of them taking their children and wives, are lured to Syria by the promise of a regular income and amenities unattainable in Turkey, like a house and swimming pool for their families. Anecdotal evidence points to jihad’s allure to young men with drug and alcohol problems and those living in squalor in neighborhoods left behind by gentrification or disemboweled by unplanned construction.
There is also the romance of jihad, with its promise of heavenly virgins after death and what some might see as paradise on earth: unrestrained religiously sanctioned violence, rape camps of captured minority girls, and identification as the latest, coolest gangbanger. ISIS lures recruits with a Grand Theft Auto-style jihadi video game. It is developing its own powerful alternative bigman system that reaches into Turkish territory, where an insistence on hierarchy, obedience, discipline, and the submergence of self faithfully echoes familiar Turkish concepts and roles.
After years of turning a blind eye to Islamist fighters crossing its territory, protecting them on Turkish soil, and even supporting them in a variety of ways as they became more and more virulent, the Turkish government only recently and half-heartedly agreed to interdict them. Why? An obvious answer is that ISIS was holding 49 Turkish hostages captured from its consulate in Mosul (they were released on September 20, 2014, after a controversial prisoner swap), but Turkey has also been allowing ISIS to profit by selling diesel fuel on the Turkish black market. It dragged its feet in stopping foreign jihadis from crossing into Syria, arguing lamely that the police couldn’t just arrest anyone with a beard. The AKP government seemed late to grasp the difference between the Muslim Brotherhood, with which the party had felt some Ottoman Sunni kinship, and the religiously puritan Salafi ISIS members rampaging through the region.
Meanwhile, Kurdish nationalism has entered a new, more mature phase in reaction to the disruptions of the Iraq War and the Syrian civil war. Kurds in Turkey, too, are producing good politics, with a presidential candidate who won a surprising 10 percent of the national vote, and innovative male-female co-mayorships in districts where the Kurdish party won local elections. Although nominally the Turkish government is negotiating peace with the PKK to end four decades of fighting, it has fallen behind the curve of events. As support for Kurdish nationalism rises in the West, Turkey’s relationship with it erodes. The AKP’s refusal to help defend the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane against ISIS—because the government didn’t wish to strengthen the PKK-linked Kobane Kurds—led to violent protests and dozens of deaths across Turkey. Turkey has refused to allow the U.S. military permission to use Incirlik Air Base to attack ISIS across the border. If the U.S. government decides to fly some sorties from Kurdish territory instead, it will weaken another of Turkey’s reciprocal links to the international community while strengthening the networks of the Kurds.
So while President Erdoğan still acts the heroic figure holding tight the reins of his hierarchy, the boundaries of the state are crumbling, along with them the distinctive outlines of Turkish national identity. And at the leader’s feet, a new generation is rising that expects Turkish society to move in the opposite direction from the puritan Islamic state the jihadis have in mind. Whether they are pious or secular, conservative or liberal, male or female, a booming Turkish economy and globalization have allowed them to dream of a middle-class lifestyle, education, professional advancement, and the right to dance Gangnam horsey-style if they want to. But by the time they reach the venerable age at which they can enter the heavily networked hierarchies of power, the structure of local and international favors and obligations that has fueled Turkey’s recent economic and political successes will be mightily attenuated in favor of competing bigman networks. Like a dream, the Turkey that they thought they were living in may well have disappeared.