Why You Should Care About the Protests in Turkey

NATO's only Muslim member — and a reliable U.S. ally — is in danger of losing its secular government.

With America’s eyes narrowly focused on the civil war in Syria, an equally pivotal battle is playing out  in the streets of Turkey, where protesters are now in their third week of bloody demonstrations against the government of Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Sparked at the end of May by a plan to level one of the last green spaces in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu neighborhood to make room for a shopping mall (likely backed by one of Erdogan’s industrialist cronies), what started as a small sit-in by environmentalists ignited into a multicity mass movement against Erdogan’s mounting authoritarianism after police used violence to scatter the protesters. The government’s use of strong-arm tactics to crush the movement has been met with resounding criticism from the international community. To date, four people have died amid the growing unrest and thousands have been detained — including foreign journalists, lawyers, doctors and students.

On June 8, a crowd-sourced, full-page ad detailing the movement’s demands appeared in the New York Times. It read, in part:

“Over the course of Prime Minister Erdogan’s ten-year term, we have witnessed a steady erosion of our rights and freedoms. Arrests of numerous journalists, artists, and elected officials; restriction on freedom of speech, women’s rights, and even alcohol sales have all demonstrated that the ruling party is not serious about democracy.”

In recent days Erdogan has become increasingly unhinged from reality. Echoing his neighbor in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, he has blamed the civil unrest on “traitors” backed by “circles abroad” and has accused his political opponents and the media — including CNN and Reuters — of “spreading lies on Twitter.” Despite the conspiratorial rhetoric, Erdogan has no one to blame for the backlash against his rule except himself. Since his election in 2003 as a member of the historically Islamist Justice and Development Party, Erdogan has done some good for the nation by significantly reducing inflation, increasing investments in education and turning Turkey into a global economic Cinderella story.

However, with his unabashed conservatism he has energized the nation’s divisive religious factions, marginalized the role of the Army (the historical defender of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state) and, over the past several years, threatened Turkey’s secular democracy with increasingly disconcerting policies. Among other things, he has moved to severely limit the sale and consumption of alcohol, counseled newlyweds to have at least three children, and tightened access to abortions. Last year he stated publicly that he intended to raise a “pious generation” of Turks, raising hackles among his critics, who accused him of seeking to turn Turkey into an Islamic caliphate.

Since its founding in 1923, the modern Republic of Turkey has resisted any and all attempts at Islamification. “My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science,” Atatürk famously stated. “Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow men.”

A dictator in his own right, Atatürk was certainly no saint, but he saved post-Ottoman Turkey from global obsolescence through his support of women’s rights, freedom of religion and politics based on reason rather than dogma. For the past several years Erdogan has been attempting to inch the nation away from that foundation, and in doing so risks turning a stable if not always complacent NATO partner into a potential trouble spot.

In an Islamified Turkey, the first to suffer will be Turkish citizens. Under Erdogan’s rule, press freedom has declined significantly and there has been an increase of attacks by extremists on members of Turkey’s small Christian minority. As evidence of where this slippery slope can lead, look no further than Egypt, where, since the 2011 toppling of Hosni Mubarak, the courts have been filling up with blasphemy cases (almost all of them against Christians) and violence against the minority Coptic community has been on the rise. In Tunisia, the Arab Spring created an opening for Islamists, who are waging violent attacks on secular institutions, setting fire to bars and assaulting citizens deemed to be engaging in immoral behavior. Since rebels ousted Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, that nation’s weak central government has been locked in a violent power struggle with Salafist militias who want to turn the country into a Taliban-esque Islamic state.

So what does all this have to do with U.S. interests?  If it’s not already obvious, let me explain:

For decades democratic Turkey has been a reliable majority Muslim ally in a sea of strongmen, dictators and religious extremists. A nation of 80 million, it holds the distinction of being the only majority Muslim country in Europe (and only Muslim member of NATO) and boasts the second fastest-growing economy on the continent. In 2007, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates described U.S.–Turkish relations as vital to American interests, noting that without access to Turkish airbases, the U.S. occupation of Iraq would have been “exceedingly more difficult and vastly more expensive” (imagine that).

But cables released by WikiLeaks three years later show that, behind the scenes, the relationship was beginning to fray under Erdogan’s rule, with U.S. diplomats secretly describing the Turkish leader as a “power-hungry Islamist” surrounded by “an iron ring of sycophantic … advisers.”  If Erdogan continues to undermine his country’s foundations as a secular democracy, the U.S. risks trading an important strategic and philosophical ally for a divided nation in danger of losing its national identity. The citizens of Turkey have made it abundantly clear they won’t stand for such a thing, which means either the unrest will continue until Erdogan capitulates or (more likely) he succeeds in crushing the protests and continues his march backward and away from Atatürk’s vision of a modern Turkey.

Since antiquity Turkey has served as a buffer zone between East and West, its borders touching Europe on the one end and Iraq, Iran and Syria on the other. All three of those states are areas of concern for U.S. foreign policy. It’s only a matter of time before President Assad follows the way of Mubarak and Qaddafi, and it’s not hard to imagine Syria descending into months if not years of factional fighting and civil war.  When and if that happens, the last thing the region needs is a weakened Turkey motivated by ideology rather than reason.