Turkey loses democracy at home, reputation in Mideast

The actions of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, particularly concerning the Syrian conflict, have tarnished Ankara’s reputation in the Middle East.

al-monitor Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for an opening ceremony of a new metro line in Ankara, March 13, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

Topics covered

turkey, syria, recep tayyip erdogan, foreign policy, elections, corruption, border security

Mar 27, 2014

I had just landed in Beirut when I learned that Turkey had shot down a Syrian plane. Earlier, shortly before I boarded the flight, I had learned of the first armed confrontation between proponents and opponents of Syria in Beirut, clashing all night in a neighborhood on a road from the airport to the city.

As I wrote this article in Beirut yesterday morning [March 25], the media broke the news that Kassab, a predominantly Armenian town on the Syrian-Turkish border, had fallen in the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.

Yesterday’s front page of the As-Safir newspaper, meanwhile, reported that rebels had seized the only regime-held crossing at the Turkish border, between Kassab and the Turkish town of Yayladag, carrying pictures of bearded Salafist militants from Ansar al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham. The photos were credited to “Anatolia news agency” — this goes without comment.

A Turk visiting Lebanon amid such developments would inevitably face questions on the Syrian crisis and Turkey’s position. And that’s what happened to me at a panel at Balamand University, perched on a hill overlooking Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city.

I was there with two other writers for Al-Monitor, the news site that has become a major reference for Middle East affairs: Sami Nader, a prominent Lebanese intellectual and economist, and Ali Hashem, the Tehran bureau chief of al-Mayadeen, a television channel considered to be pro-Syrian. The topic of the panel was the role of the media, especially social media, in the Syrian conflict.

About 200 of the university’s students — and in fact the majority of our audience — were Syrians and, as we were cautioned in advance, “extremely politicized.”

Tripoli, unlike Beirut, is part of the Syrian war not indirectly but directly. The city has had loose bonds with Beirut historically, having its primary links with the Syrian city of Homs and serving as its seaport.

It feels awkward to be with an audience dominated by Syrian students, not far from Tripoli, when your country has just shot down a Syrian plane. It feels even more awkward to speak on Syria in the context of social media when your country has banned Twitter, in a “medieval” attempt to counter 21st-century technology.

But I was “saved” in a paradoxical way: Skepticism over Turkey’s Syria policy here has reached such an extent that it is no longer taken seriously and, compared to one year ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reputation has gone through the floor.

A year ago, a Turkish F-16 shooting down a Syrian MiG-23 would have instantly spurred a spirit of national solidarity among the overwhelming majority of Turks.

Today, however, anything Erdogan says or does or wants to do is met with suspicion, for a very large part of the public has lost trust in a prime minister who has demonstrated matchless skills in polarizing society.

No matter what they say, the downing of the Syrian plane is also met with suspicion. After all, Turkey is now headed by a leader who is attacking Twitter to cover up a corruption/theft probe and seems to consider even a wholesale ban on the Internet, making a laughingstock of himself.

Many Turks believe that a man waging a war on the cyberworld is capable of orchestrating an external crisis to save his rule, especially when the Crimea turmoil has made Turkey look so helpless. Turning south to compensate for the “helplessness” in the north might come in handy ahead of elections.

Needless to say, Bashar al-Assad’s regime is brutal. But Erdogan’s policy of supporting al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) and Salafist groups under the pretext of backing the Free Syrian Army holds no water. Not any longer.

The real trouble for Turkey is that the tensions and problems it has recently faced are unlikely to go away with the elections. On the contrary, they may even get worse.

Yesterday, I came across a tweet from Marc Pierini, the former EU ambassador to Turkey who continues to closely follow the country: “Last days of municipal campaign in Turkey: All sides will be striking hard. Western capitals are wondering how democracy will be restored.”

The word “restored” could be translated both as “repaired” and “re-established” in Turkish. Hence, in Western European eyes, Turkish democracy is so badly damaged that it needs a major overhaul or has to be rebuilt anew.

For the West, the threat embodied by Erdogan has jeopardized democracy, but for others it targets also Islam, as Islamic intellectual Ali Bulac argues in a striking interview with Aksiyon magazine.

Bulac says Erdogan’s credibility in religious quarters is on the decline: “Religious groups had given them credit. They said, ‘You can govern us, you are reliable, decent people.’ Their trust is now damaged. Those people care about who represents their faith and make judgments accordingly. If they have started to look at a Muslim and wonder, ‘How can a Muslim commit corruption? How can a Muslim lie, get that rich and look down on others?’ then there is a big problem.”

Bulac makes intriguing observations on the perception that “they steal, but they work hard,” which is said to be widespread in society: “This is a sign of moral degeneration in society. There is a saying that 'people follow the sultan’s religion.' It means that doing what the sultan does is considered fine. Moreover, the people in question are believers. So, it boils down to a thinking that religion permits graft, that a door is left open there. Meanwhile, retirees, farmers, artisans who don’t steal but bear the consequences of graft would come to think, 'If that’s what religion is, I don’t need it.' This is a big disaster.”

Bulac then expresses his concerns “in the name of Islam, Muslims and Turkey” as he utters his most hard-hitting words: “An Islamic heritage accumulated over a century — not 10 or 20 years — is being ruined. It really hurts. The wells that [Turkey’s] Muslims have dug up with needles since the Young Turks are now being turned into swamps. All those painstaking efforts are being wasted. Simultaneously, we are losing our reputation and opportunities in the Middle East. It would take at least 20, if not 50 years to make up.”

As someone who has spent almost 50 years of his life in the Middle East or closely following the Middle East and writing this article in Lebanon after traveling from Baghdad to Karbala in Iraq two weeks ago, I can confirm that Bulac’s words are right on the spot.

Let me conclude with another observation from the Middle East: The sooner Turkey’s reins are taken from Erdogan’s hands, the sooner Turkey will “restore” its democracy and redeem its reputation in the Middle East. 

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