Until a few years ago, European Union diplomats in Ankara both publicly and privately admired Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for espousing “advanced democracy.” In those days, diplomats did not pay much attention to claims that Erdogan had a “secret Islamic agenda.”
These diplomats used to say that the AKP was doing things others did not dare to do. The AKP opened up to the Kurds and took steps to improve the rights of Armenian and Greek minorities. Properties that had belonged to Christian foundations were returned, minority schools operated more freely and Kurdish broadcasts began operations. These were signs that the AKP was on the right track, diplomats maintained.
But the winds are changing direction. EU diplomats that have followed developments over the last two years are now starting to believe that the AKP — which emerged from the 2011 elections strengthened — is now openly implementing its Islamic ideology without worrying about acting in an antidemocratic way.
There is increasing apprehension now about the legitimacy of what appears to be a witch hunt. Military officers, journalists, academics and independent thinkers are being arrested or detained on charges of conspiring against the government.
Pressure on the opposition media, so-called “reforms” that pave the way for Islamic teaching in primary education, the campaign against contemporary theaters and the lawsuit against the world-famous pianist Fazil Say on charges of “insulting Islam” are all adding to the misgivings about the “real intentions of the AKP.”
The unexpected initiation of the abortion debate by Erdogan, reports that opera houses and even kindergartens will be required to have prayer halls and the pending launch of a TRT (state TV/radio network) Islamic channel fuel additional concerns about the AKP.
Erdogan personally contributed to the disquiet by saying that the AKP wants to create a religious generation and that they aspire to a single religion in Turkey. Diplomats are now saying that media entrepreneurs are dismissing journalists who are not in the favor of the government to preserve their own businesses in this climate of intimidation.
Marc Pierini, the EU’s former ambassador to Ankara, had refrained from political statements during this term of duty and was therefore accused of being close to the AKP. However, he is among those who feel the need to speak out. He is now quoted as saying, “A series of recent moves show that the conservative tendency has the upper hand and faces no opposition.”
There is no doubt that Erdogan and his close associates who see themselves as the future of Turkey are interpreting these negative comments from the EU as the work of “inexperienced diplomats” and the “ill-intentioned media.” Their criticism means nothing to the AKP.
But we also see that that these negative images that are coming out of Turkey are causing severe disappointment to outsiders who wanted to see Turkey as “a model modern country.”
In sum, although much is being said about Turkey’s economic achievements, the image of Turkey to the developed world and to the people of the region is not as positive as some of us tend to think.