Turkey is in a crisis, but few in European capitals or Washington appreciate its severity. What little attention Western journalists and officials pay to Ankara usually focuses on Turkey's drive to join the European Union, attempts to disentangle the military from politics, or reconciliation between Turks and Kurds.
U.S. and European officials largely applauded the July 22, 2007 parliamentary elections which saw the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) win 47 percent of the vote. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso hailed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's "impressive" victory. Then, during the Turkish prime minister's November 5, 2007 visit to the White House, President George W. Bush endorsed both Erdoğan's "leadership" and "the strong example" Turkey had set.
Erdoğan's leadership and example are both under scrutiny, though. On March 21, 2008, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, chief prosecutor of Turkey's Court of Appeals, filed a lawsuit in the constitutional court accusing the AKP of violating constitutional separation of mosque and state and demanding the AKP's closure. The case is not standard politics. Such prosecutions are seldom launched spuriously, and almost always result in conviction. Nor was the AKP response standard: The security services it controlled arresting a number of journalists and opposition critics on charges that appear spurious.
That night Turkish security forces arrested 83-year-old İlhan Selçuk, the chief editor of Cumhuriyet, Turkey's main center-left newspaper and a frequent critic of Erdoğan's government. Authorities charged Selçuk, in poor health after several heart surgeries, with plotting a violent coup against the elected government. They provided no evidence, but can hold Selçuk for weeks until a hearing, denying him medical care while he is in solitary confinement, thereby intimidating any other journalist who may speak up.
Selçuk's arrest was not the Prime Minister's first, but marked a milestone: Erdoğan now gains the dubious distinction of arresting or suing more journalists than any predecessor. He has perhaps been encouraged in his crusade against the independent press by the silence of the West. Few if any European or U.S. diplomats commented at his seizure of the Sabah daily and ATV television shortly before the parliamentary elections; in both cases, he transferred ownership of the independent outlets to political allies, again without any Western outcry.
Erdoğan's retaliatory arrests—a dozen in all—also netted Kemal Alemdaroğlu, the long-time president of Istanbul University, and a major proponent of liberal secularism. Alemdaroğlu was not the first academic targeted by Erdoğan: On October 14, 2005, police in the eastern city of Van arrested Yücel Aşkın, president of the local university, on spurious charges involving antiquities smuggling after he declared his opposition to restructuring the religious curriculum in the universities. Local outcry led to Aşkın's release, but not before the university's general secretary committed suicide after being held in prison for several months without charge.
While it is hard to reconcile disbandment of a ruling party with democracy, there is ample evidence that Erdoğan has acted to promote religion in an unconstitutional manner. When Turkey's higher education council—composed of the presidents of Turkish universities—opposed Erdoğan's dictates, the prime minister responded by proposing formation of 15 new universities, the heads of which he would appoint and so stack the council. Then, at Erdoğan's insistence and over the objections of many Turkish liberals, the AKP passed legislation to lower the mandatory retirement age of technocrats and judges, enabling the AKP to replace approximately 4,000 out of 9,000 judges. The AKP instituted a rule to force perspective judges and technocrats to interview first with AKP-appointed panels to ensure that, beyond their scores on civil service examinations, they are ‘right' for the job.
Turkey's banking and financial board is now staffed exclusively by AKP appointees whose background lies exclusively in Islamic financial institutions rather than European-style banks.
In recent months, the AKP has also banned alcohol in certain municipalities. Girls not veiled according to Islamist precepts have had acid thrown upon them, but have had little recourse with AKP appointees on the bench.
To equate Islamism with democracy, and secularism with fascism in Turkey is a false dichotomy. U.S. and European officials have it upside down. Turkey should not be an experiment. While disentangling the military from politics is a noble goal, encouraging it without creation of alternate checks-and-balances is irresponsible.