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November 8, 2002
Poetic Injustice
U.S. war interests in Turkey hinder democracy.

Kerim Okten / AFP
Banned for a poem: Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party.
In its war against terrorism, the United States has trumpeted its intentions to spread democracy in a region where there is little. Many around the globe remain skeptical about whether toppling leaders is an effective method for cultivating a respect for the rule of law and a liberalization of the political process. However, there is one place where, with minimal diplomatic pressure, the United States could radically bolster prospects for democracy. To the scandal of its own people as well as the international community, longtime U.S. ally Turkey rigged its November elections. But the real scandal is that the United States had nothing to say about it.

Despite leading in the polls, former Istanbul mayor and candidate for prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not on the ballot when Turkish voters went to the polls on November 3. However, his Justice and Development Party still swept enough seats in assembly to form a government without coalition partners, an unusual event in Turkey. Unfortunately, the national Supreme Election Board had already banned Erdogan, the country’s most popular politician.

His stated crime: reading poetry. In 1997, Erdogan gave a political speech in which he quoted from a poem by one of the country’s nationalist patriarchs, Ziya Gökalp. The poem also happens to be among the education ministry’s recommended reading for middle-school students. However, because of the poem’s religious undertones, Erdogan was removed from office and sentenced to 10 months in prison (he served four).

His real crime: being a practicing Muslim. Turkey is an institutionally secular country, and the military nervously—some might say overzealously—polices against any encroachment of Islam into society and government. This military watchdogging has occasionally come at the direct expense of democracy. Three times in the past four decades, the Turkish military has seized power, often on the pretext of anti-Islamist pre-emption. In 1997, the military instigated a bloodless coup along these lines to remove the republic’s democratically elected and first Islamist-led government.

This is also not the first time the United States has turned a blind eye to its ally’s misbehavior. For years, the State Department has kept quiet concerning Turkey’s deplorable treatment of its Kurdish population. Since 1984, Turkey has been at war with the Kurds, both within and across its borders, leaving some 40,000 mostly Kurdish casualties. Fighting has displaced as many as 2 million civilians.

On an almost yearly basis, international human rights organizations cite Turkey for a laundry list of atrocities. Virtually all of the attack helicopters used by Turkey in this military effort are U.S.-sold. The prime motivation for Turkey’s fight is a near-pathological fear of the possibility of an autonomous or independent Kurdish state being established by the 20 million Kurds in the southern part of the country.

Why the closely guarded silence on the part of Washington? In a word: Inçirlik. America doggedly covets its access to this prime air base located in southwestern Turkey. The value of the base is particularly high these days as the United States aims to hit Saddam. The most militarily viable road to Baghdad runs from southern Turkey, and the air cover provided by the more than 50 U.S. fighter jets waiting at the base will be essential, much as it was during the Gulf War in 1991.

Furthermore, if the Pentagon wants to arm and train the Kurds in northern Iraq as a proxy force, it will need a green light from Ankara, which keeps the Kurdish population firmly under its thumb. Diplomatically, Turkey is also important as the only Muslim member of NATO. The sum of these factors creates a troubling divide between the rhetoric and reality of U.S. intentions to promote real democracy in Turkey.

Back home, the United States can explain away its double standards as realpolitik necessities: short-term compromises for long-term goals. But these duplicities may not be as easily swallowed among the majority of Turkish voters, who backed the JDP by a wide margin, even with its outlawed leader.

It’s anyone’s guess whether the ban on Erdogan’s holding office will be lifted, or whether another member of the party will take control. It’s equally unclear what path Turkey will follow now. Women wearing Islamic head coverings are presently banned from universities and government offices, a law that the Islamist JDP will likely seek to overturn. The JDP may also attempt to loosen restrictions on public prayer and tighten those on alcohol consumption. Though opposed to the war in Iraq, Erdogan will probably not block U.S. use of Inçirlik, and he will continue the push for Turkey’s membership in the European Union.

But the biggest issue is unemployment. As the Turkish economy has tanked, IMF-imposed austerity measures have hit working-class citizens the hardest. Only time will tell whether the Islamists can deal with those core concerns better than their secular predecessors.

Ian Urbina is based at the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington.


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