- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

Last Monday, President Bush met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House. Mr. Erdogan’s earlier statements had raised hopes among Turks that the president is going to make an exclusive announcement on the fight against the Kurdish separatists, PKK. In the meantime, Turkey’s top military officer, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, accused Mr. Erdogan’s party of encouraging Islamist reactionary movements in Turkey.

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer put it more bluntly, saying that the core principals of the regime are being threatened. Before these intersecting interests can make sense, it’s important to examine some notions currently popular in Turkey.

First, Turks believe the United States wants to create an independent Kurdistan with sovereign Turkish land. But Turkey’s leaders must also understand that only Turks, not external factors, will decide whether Turkey’s borders remain intact.

Both politicians and the Turkish population in general are allowing anti-Americanism and the fight against the PKK to be used to win votes. It is even more disappointing for a country that prides itself on its sovereignty and independence that its prime minister stakes his re-election on White House support. The Turkish media had many theories about how this visit will play in both the presidential and the national elections in 2007.

Both the ruling and opposition politicians in Turkey fail to note that it would be unfair to assume that the majority of the Kurds in Turkey would want to join Iraqi Kurds if they breakaway from Iraq. What’s more, an independent Kurdish republic existed from 1946 to 1947, created with Iranian land. When Ayatollah Khomeini ousted Shah Reza Pahlavi, one Iranian Kurdish leader said, “If we cut ourselves off we would have only the mountains and the goats. We would die from hunger.” Kurdish leaders in Iraq fear the same thing today.

Second, the debate continues within Turkey over how much the Islamists threaten the secular state. “Aren’t there people in Turkey saying that secularism should be redefined?” Gen. Buyukanit asked. “Aren’t those people occupying the highest seats of the state? Isn’t the ideology of Ataturk, founder of the republic, under attack?” If the answer to those questions was “yes,” he argued, Islamist reactionaries do pose a threat.

Mr. Erdogan says that “the claims that Turkey will turn to be like Iran are nonsense” — and he has a point. The pillars of the Kemalist revolution, which abolished the senior religious authority and disassembled the disparate religious groups, does lessen the threat of a religious revolution. Turkey has no Ayatollah Khomeini figure to lead such a revolution. There is one wrinkle however: Most local administrators are Islamists, having ousted secular, “Western-style,” mostly corrupt politicians — just like in Iran in the years immediately prior to the revolution.

Turkey’s biggest challenge comes from inside: Those so-called secular, “liberal” politicians who claim to follow Ataturk wrongly attributed the corruption and bad leadership to Western values — which makes them more responsible for the Islamist threat than the Islamists themselves. Those politicians should not forget why the Turks voted them out of parliament four years ago.

Today, Turkey is not changing, but mixing. The number of people moving to cities from rural areas is bringing forward these Islamists. And the threat, as Gen. Buyukanit noted, has existed since the Turkish Republic was founded 83 years ago.

What is the secular camp doing to counter that threat? Are secularists calling for another military coup? It would be incredibly unfortunate to put democracy on hold again. Secularists are objecting to the Islamists without making any real effort to reach out to them. They merely complain about the threats.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush said he talked at length with Mr. Erdogan about Iran. “Our desire is to help people who care about a peaceful future to reject radicalism and extremism,” Mr. Bush said, adding, “I made it very clear to the prime minister I think it’s in the United States’ interests that Turkey join the European Union.”

Turkey is at a “strategic crossroads” — it’s unclear which direction it will take. Turks are even not confident about whether they will continue trying to fulfill Ataturk’s vision. But think about this: What would happen to the region if the Islamist government that rose from Iran’s revolution remained, but the secular government born of Turkey’s 1923 Kemalist revolution democratically comes to an end?

U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Ross Wilson says, “[T]here’s nothing that I see imminently on the horizon that makes me particularly worried about Turkey’s status as a strong, secure, stable, secular democracy.” The fact of the matter is that if Turkey can escape its predilection for short-sighted, emotional, reactionary responses to the Western policies, hope remains that the secular government will persevere.

Therefore, it is important to take notice of the impact of the White House meeting on Turkish politics. Aggressive, highly tempered Mr. Erdogan indicated that he is willing to talk about the threat of Islamic reactionaries in Turkey on the way back to Ankara — which suggests that he has accepted sharing power with the secularists.

Once Turks choose their next president, things will eventually become more clear — and hopefully, can only get better.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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