The New Sultan of Turkey
Former Prime Minister—now President—Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Party are more powerful than ever. Is the nation’s democracy under siege?
By Yigal Schleifer
Adiminutive 63-year-old with dyed blond hair and a raspy smoker’s cough, Mücella Yapici hardly fits the profile of a criminal mastermind. But Turkish judicial authorities see it differently. Since last year, the architect and urban planner has been on trial for organizing and maintaining an “illegal criminal organization.” If convicted, Yapici could face 30 years in jail.
Despite the legal proceedings, I found Yapici in a buoyant mood during a visit to her office, located in Karaköy, a neighborhood on the European side of the Bosphorus that has served as one of Istanbul’s ports since Byzantine times. “I am Al Capone!” Yapici told me by way of introducing herself and her case. “It’s not a joke,” she admitted, though still laughing as she took another drag from what seemed like an endless stream of Davidoff cigarettes. “It’s shameful, really,” she then said, the laughter stopping. “There was no crime.”
What there was was Gezi Park, a small, somewhat shabby patch of green in the heart of downtown Istanbul’s hectic Taksim Square. It became the center of massive protests in 2013, when the Turkish government tried to turn the park into a shopping center modeled after Ottoman-era barracks that once stood there. The events started off innocently enough: On May 28, a small group of demonstrators gathered in the park when bulldozers were sent in to uproot its trees. Rather than allow the nonviolent gathering to take place, the police roughly broke it up, dousing the mostly young demonstrators with pepper spray. From there the protests quickly escalated, and for about two weeks a vast group of demonstrators—cutting across almost all segments of Turkish society and swelling to the hundreds of thousands—occupied Taksim Square and Gezi Park, leaving only after police violently drove them out in a choking cloud of tear gas.
Although the Gezi demonstrations initially had no clear leaders, a coalition called Taksim Solidarity—made up of veteran civil society activists and representatives of various trade and professional associations—emerged as an organizing force and interlocutor with the government in Ankara. Among its members was Yapici, who is one of the top officials in the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Turkish Architects and Engineers, which has some 400,000 members. For Yapici, an urban planner, getting involved in the Gezi protests made perfect sense. The shopping center, a pet project of then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was only one of several “megaprojects”—including a new airport, a bridge over the Bosphorus and a massive mosque complex in the forested hills overlooking Istanbul—that had recently been pushed through without regard to their environmental impact or to local opposition.
But for Yapici and others, Gezi was a reflection of something much larger: A once reform-minded and democratizing government that was becoming increasingly heavy-handed and intolerant of dissent, and a leader, Erdogan, who was growing dangerously imperious and authoritarian. What happened to Yapici after Gezi was cleared out only seemed to affirm this view. On July 8, 2013, she and her 27-year-old daughter were among several Taksim Solidarity leaders taken from their homes by the police and detained for four days in an Istanbul jail, where, among other indignities, Yapici was denied access to medicine she needed for a bleeding ulcer.
“The government got scared by what we did, so they picked some names and decided to make an example of us,” Yapici told me. “I’m 63, I’m known as an expert on urban transformation, so if they can make an example of me, it sends out to society a strong message. If people see someone like me being arrested and patted down by police, they realize this can also happen to them. Gezi helped liberate people’s minds. By going after us they are trying to put these minds back in prison.”
For Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Istanbul-based Turkey researcher, cases like Yapici’s are becoming distressingly common. Over the last few years, Sinclair-Webb’s work has shifted from praising democratic reforms taken by Erdogan’s socially conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) to tracking a deteriorating political situation. Sinclair-Webb points to the AKP’s recent success in pushing through parliament a series of laws that give the police and intelligence agencies increased powers to detain and monitor citizens. HRW has also documented a rising number of prosecutions of individuals for “insulting” Erdogan and other officials.
“The government has taken such an inward turn. Paranoid, inward-looking and, of course, authoritarian,” said Sinclair-Webb. “Basically, Erdogan and the AKP are willing to ram through measures…that increase their powers. It’s a kind of thuggery, using an iron fist approach from the top. They are abusing their parliamentary authority with these measures that go against human rights, that erode Turkey’s democratic institutions and its democratic credibility.”
At the height of the Gezi protests, a Washington, DC-based Turkey analyst named Omer Taspinar apreared on The Colbert Report to try to explain what was happening in Istanbul. As Taspinar was describing to Stephen Colbert how the prime minister of a country of 72 million was the one who decided where a mall would be built in Istanbul, the host interrupted. “That would be like Barack Obama saying, ‘We need a left-turn lane past the Arby’s on Maple Street. Why is he micromanaging like this?’” Colbert said, to the audience’s delight.
But Erdogan’s behavior was no laughing matter in Turkey. In the period leading up to the Gezi demonstrations, Erdogan—a devout Muslim—had on various occasions weighed in on how many children Turkish women should have (three) and what kind of bread the country’s citizens should eat (whole wheat), and declared that people should stay away from raki, the anise-flavored spirit that is considered by many to be Turkey’s national drink, and instead drink ayran, a non-alcoholic yogurt-based beverage especially popular among small children. “For a healthy generation, my grandfather suggested to me ayran as the national drink,” Erdogan said during an April 2013 talk he gave to MÜSEAD, an association of Islamic-minded businessmen.
Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014, has become the single most important force driving today’s Turkish foreign and domestic policy—the new sultan, as both his critics and admirers have dubbed him. As Steven Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent Politico article, Erdogan “has become the sun around which all Turkish politics revolve.” He has emasculated the nation’s once-powerful military as a domestic political force: Starting in 2007, his government launched a massive investigation into an alleged several-years-old coup plot, accusing top generals and officers, opposition leaders, journalists and academics of conspiracy and, by 2013, jailing nearly 300 of them. This helped cement his position as the most potent leader in modern Turkey’s history, with the exception of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, its founder.
In 1923, Ataturk built a new nation-state out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, whose centuries of rule came to an end after its disastrous alliance with the Germans in World War I. Ataturk suppressed the empire’s state religion, Islam, and in its place, forged a new secular identity for the country known as Kemalism. His Republican People’s Party (CHP) ruled single-handedly with the backing of the military until 1950, when the first free elections were held. Since then, Turkish politics have frequently lurched from crisis to crisis, with the military—whose generals saw themselves as the self-appointed guardians of Ataturk’s secularist vision—staging three coups and numerous smaller interventions over the decades.
A Muslim by birth, Ataturk was a military man who envisioned a country unencumbered by religion. Erdogan has a very different worldview. He was raised in Kasimpasa, a scruffy working-class, socially conservative neighborhood not far from Taksim Square. “He was just a typical guy, with two suits and a Tofas [a boxy and proletarian Turkish-made Fiat popular in the 1970s and 1980s],” was how Ruhi Konar, an owner of a small fish restaurant near the mosque in the center of Kasimpasa, described Erdogan to me when I first visited after the AKP came into office in 2002. But Erdogan was a more religious teenager than most of his peers, said Konar—who was active with Erdogan in the local youth branch of the now defunct Islamist National Salvation Party. In a neighborhood where many practice what they call a tolerant, “soft Islam,” Erdogan distinguished himself early on with his piety. “He was not like us, he was not drinking alcohol, he was not sitting in the coffeehouse. He wasn’t even drinking Coca-Cola,” Konar added.
Ataturk looked to the West rather than the East for inspiration: The Arabic-style Ottoman script was jettisoned in favor of a Latin alphabet, the distinctive fez was banned and even Ottoman words were expunged from the Turkish vocabulary. But the Kemalist project never managed to erase religion from the social or political landscape. For many Turks, particularly those living in the country’s Anatolian heartland, Islam continued to play a central role in dictating the rhythms of their private and communal lives. And although banned from playing a major role in Turkish politics, Islamist parties fought for the right to participate in elections once they were legalized, and sometimes did.
The eminence gris of Islamist politics was Necmettin Erbakan, and while at university, Erdogan came under his sway. Erbakan’s brand of politics—a mix of Turkish nationalism and anti-western Islamism known as “National View”—was a natural home for the pious young man from the mean streets of Kasimpasa. Erdogan became active in parties led by Erbakan. A military coup in 1980, which banned Erbakan’s party, put the charismatic young man’s political aspirations on hold, but in 1994 he was back, successfully running for mayor of Istanbul under the banner of the Islamist Welfare Party.
Erdogan’s tenure as mayor was by most accounts a major success. He improved the city’s infrastructure, installing water and sewage lines in poorly serviced neighborhoods and upgrading the city’s public transport system, although there was serious concern when he banned the serving of alcohol at city-owned establishments and made statements such as: “One cannot be a secularist and a Muslim at the same time.” In 1996, Erbakan became prime minister. He and the Welfare party managed to hold together a shaky coalition for 12 months, until the military banned the party and forced Erbakan from office. Erdogan ran into trouble soon afterward. In 1998, at a rally in the southeastern Turkish town of Siirt, he read a poem as part of a speech. “The minarets are our bayonets; the mosques are our barracks; our believers are our soldiers,” Erdogan told the crowd. The military, looking for a way to muzzle Erdogan, charged him with “religious incitement,” an accusation that got him banned from holding political office and earned him four months in jail.
After his release, Erdogan—along with other reform-minded members of the Welfare Party—started planning the formation of the AKP. Although socially conservative, the party appeared to reject the hardline Islamist politics of Erbakan. Turkey was in the midst of a severe economic crisis, resulting from political and financial mismanagement and ineffective coalition governments. The AKP decisively won the 2002 national election, making it the first single-party government to rule the country in almost two decades.
Erdogan was appointed prime minister, and he and the AKP quickly went to work on righting the country, both economically and politically, with impressive initial success. These included a series of democratic reforms which rejected some of the principles of Kemalism, such as the suppression of minority cultures. The new government eased restrictions on Kurdish language and culture and began to return properties that had been confiscated from religious minority communities. This helped open the way to membership talks with the European Union in 2005. And despite some worries, Erdogan and the AKP initially maintained the main contours of Turkey’s regional foreign policy, especially Ankara’s close ties with Israel. In 2007, he invited Israeli President Shimon Peres to Ankara to deliver a historic speech in parliament along with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas. It was the first time an Israeli leader had addressed the parliament of a majority Muslim country. The event seemed to offer a glimpse of Turkey as an emerging peace broker in the region.
The success of the AKP in those early years impressed many secularists and liberals, who, despite the party’s Islamist origins, began supporting Erdogan and his policies. That the AKP was led by a man who himself had been a victim of the Turkish state’s worst reflexes, jailed for simply reciting a poem, gave many Turks who might not have normally supported an openly devout Muslim politician hope that Erdogan could in fact move Turkey closer toward liberal European democratic standards.
One of these new believers was Suat Kiniklioglu, a former liberal AKP member of parliament who joined the party in 2007 and surprised many people by successfully running as one of the AKP’s candidates for parliament. “In 2002, many people, including myself, wouldn’t have dared to join the AKP. It seemed like too much of a step to take. I began politics in a center-left party. How could I explain to people that I was joining a religious party?” the 49-year-old Kiniklioglu told me recently over tea at a leafy garden café in the upscale Gaziosmanpasa neighborhood.
“Many centrist people joined the party in 2007 because it seemed that it had left its Islamist background behind and was moving toward the center, that it would turn into something like a European Christian Democrat Party in Germany,” he added. “At that time, the moral high ground in the country was really with the AKP.”
I had talked with Kiniklioglu in 2010 in his office in the parliament, where he was serving as spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Committee and, because of his fluent English, as a liaison to the foreign press. The relationship between him and the AKP had certainly changed dramatically since then. In the lead-up to the 2011 parliamentary elections, Kiniklioglu was among a number of liberal MPs who were left off the AKP’s slate in favor of—as he puts it—“apparatchiks” with more socially and religiously conservative profiles. A year later Kiniklioglu quit the party, frustrated by the AKP’s rightward shift and Erdogan’s increasingly polarizing language.
Now he has moved even further away. Like many others, he is concerned with the AKP’s increasing power, especially since Erdogan has managed to neutralize the Islamists’ constant foe, the military. The military toppled governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980 and pushed Erbakan out on grounds that he threatened secularism in 1997. Erdogan’s 2008-2013 prosecution of leading generals and officers, as well as journalists, politicians and other prominent secularists, under the guise that they had been involved in the so-called “Ergenekon” conspiracy to undermine the state, has severely weakened any Kemalist counterweight to his policies. (Many of the charges were based on documents widely suspected to be forgeries.)
Most recebtly, Kiniklioglu served as the campaign manager for Mansur Yavas, the main opposition candidate in the Ankara mayor’s race, which was held in April. Yavas lost by less than one percentage point in an election that was marred by disturbing irregularities, from mysterious power outages during ballot counting to polling stations where turnout exceeded 100 percent. Yavas’s supporters maintain that the government stole the election, afraid of what kind of signal losing Ankara would send.
Kiniklioglu was in Gezi Park during the 2013 protests, and what he saw there deeply disappointed him. “Gezi was a breakout event. For many—to liberals, to democrats, to center-right folks who still have normal politics—it confirmed that Erdogan had become authoritarian and no longer was interested in embracing large segments of our society,” he said. “It really entrenched, in my mind, the divisions in this country. With Gezi, Erdogan killed any chance of a historic grand compromise in Turkey.” As Kiniklioglu sees it, the AKP has returned to the Erbakan-style ideological, religious and missionary type of politics of the 1990s.
During the Gezi protests in 2013, Erdogan and the AKP organized a series of mass counter-events they dubbed “Respect the National Will” rallies. At these events, the Turkish leader spoke to hundreds of thousands of flag-waving supporters, many of them bused in by the party, telling them that what was happening in Gezi was part of an international conspiracy designed to “trap” Turkey. In his speeches, Erdogan also frequently referred to what he called the “interest rate lobby,” an unspecified collective of shadowy foreign financial interests that he claimed were working to undermine Turkey’s economy by stoking the protests in Istanbul. To add to the Orwellian tone of these rallies, Erdogan would speak from a stage on which he was flanked on one side by a four-story tall Turkish flag and on the other side an equally tall portrait of himself.
In 2014, Erdogan again held a series of mass rallies, this time under the slogan “New Turkey,” a term the AKP and Erdogan’s supporters have since latched onto with ferocity. I asked Kiniklioglu what he thought of the “New Turkey” slogan. Like many other AKP opponents I interviewed, he seemed to have an almost visceral reaction to the term. “The ‘New Turkey’ is as authoritarian as the old Turkey. It’s just the guys doing these things who have changed,” he said. “We still do not have a stable democratic culture. One charismatic populist has been able to consolidate his power and dictate his views and values to the rest of society.”
The “New Turkey” slogan is not a complete misnomer. In fact, much is new. Since 2002, Erdogan and the AKP have presided over a construction boom that has paved thousands of miles of new roads and built highways and high-speed rail lines. Previously sleepy cities in the Turkish heartland have sprouted countless new housing developments, most of them built by the government’s housing agency. This construction boom has been accompanied by impressive economic growth. Inflation, which skyrocketed to 90 percent in the 1990s, is down to single digits. And while the rest of the world was fighting off the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, Turkey passed through that period relatively unscathed, recording growth rates of 9.2 percent in 2010 and 8.8 percent in 2011. The country’s per capita gross domestic product a decade ago stood at around $4,000. Today it has shot up to almost $11,000.
The physical changes are palpable. Ankara is a good example: A decade ago someone driving in from the airport would have passed shantytown-like neighborhoods clinging to the hillsides on the outskirts of town. Today, many of those neighborhoods have been torn down, with bland apartment blocks now standing in their place. An even more notable recent addition to the city, though, is the Ak Saray or “White Palace,” a $615 million, 1,100-room structure—“bigger than Versailles,” as several pundits noted —at the western edge of Ankara that serves as Erdogan’s new official residence. The previous residence, a comparatively modest pink villa located on a hilltop closer to the center of town that once served as Ataturk’s home, was deemed by Erdogan to be beneath the dignity of the leader of a rising power like Turkey. Likewise, the previous residence’s traditional honor guard made up of Turkish soldiers in their dress uniforms was insufficient. In the Ak Saray, the old honor guard has now been joined by a new one made up of 16 men in campy historic costume, some carrying spears, each one meant to represent a different empire that existed during the long course of Turkic history.
That Erdogan needs a bigger residence does not simply reflect his extravagant taste. Barred by AKP rules from seeking a fourth term as prime minister, Erdogan is shifting power from the position of prime minister to the position of president. Previously, Turkey’s president—although given some important powers, such as the ability to veto laws—was seen more as a ceremonial figure, expected to stay out of party politics and act as a kind of national conciliator. In 2007, the AKP successfully pushed forward a referendum on constitutional reform, which authorized the president to be elected by a direct vote of the people instead of by parliament. Last year Erdogan won the first election held under the new law and appointed a trusted ally as prime minister.
This is not only about the accumulation of power, just as the new costumed honor guard in Erdogan’s palace is more than just kitsch, but part of a larger pattern of reclaiming what the Turkish leader sees as the country’s lost glory. The last decade has heralded the Ottoman sultans’ return to Turkey—in popular culture, national identity and, most importantly, in terms of domestic politics and foreign policy. One of the most popular television series in recent years has been The Magnificent Century, a prime time drama that gives the life of 16th-century Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent the soap opera treatment, complete with bodice ripping and palace intrigue. And the biggest blockbuster to hit Turkish cinema screens in the last few years was Conquest 1453, a special-effects-laden and blood-soaked big-screen telling of the Ottoman siege of Constantinople that seemed to be less a history lesson than an effort to stir Turkish national pride. In late May of 2013, meanwhile, when the government held the groundbreaking ceremony for a new bridge in Istanbul crossing the Bosphorus Strait, it named the structure after Selim I, a.k.a. Selim the Grim, a 16th-century sultan credited with launching the Ottoman Empire’s spectacular expansion by conquering wide swaths of land in the Middle East. Much of Erdogan’s desire to consolidate his power is grounded in the belief that a strong country needs a strong leader.
As of now, the position of president remains constrained by the existing parliamentary system, and Erdogan’s power stems mostly from his personality and his control over the AKP. He is currently campaigning to increase presidential powers, but he can do this only if Parliament passes a new constitution. For this to happen, the AKP would need a majority of 330 votes, rather than the 312 it currently has, which would allow it to bring a reform package to a referendum. A national election is coming up this summer, and although the AKP is expected to again become the ruling party, it’s not clear if it can win enough seats to be able to rewrite the constitution. “He wants a presidential system without checks and balances,” Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish political scientist who teaches at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, told me. “It would be the Putinization of Turkey.”
Meanwhile, Erdogan has created a de facto executive presidency, surrounding himself with a shadow cabinet of powerful advisors. With no strong opposition, be it from the military—which has been firmly put back into its barracks—or the weakened Republican People’s Party, he has a monopy of power not seen since 1950. “The central problem of Erdogan’s Turkey is not, in the final analysis, its embrace of Islam. It is its authoritarianism,” Howard Eissenstat, an expert on Turkish politics at St. Lawrence University, recently wrote in a paper for the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy. “This authoritarianism has deep roots in Turkish politics, which has fetishized national unity, treated diversity as suspect, and taken a hard line against popular dissent. In all of this, the AKP has merely continued the bad habits of its predecessors.”
A senior government official I met with in Ankara told me that the criticism of Erdogan and the AKP was unfair, fueled by what he called “activist journalism and analysis” and by the opposition’s inability to win at the polls. “With each election the government has increased its power. This has created a feeling among the opposition that they can’t beat the government through elections,” the official said. “We believe many many events of the last year and a half are a result of this,” he continued, referring to the Gezi protests and their aftermath. The official seemed genuinely puzzled by the negative press Erdogan has been getting since the Gezi events. “There has been a manufactured, fabricated feeling about Erdogan,” he said. “It’s not positive for anyone who wants to understand Turkey.” He added: “Erdogan has proven his leadership.”
That the AKP blames the media should come as no surprise. The press in Turkey, which has never been completely free, is under bombardment. Although Turkey recently released 40 imprisoned journalists, Reporters Without Borders has expressed concern that they “still face prosecution and could be detained again at any time.” The watchdog group also says that cyber-censorship, lawsuits, dismissals of critical journalists and gag orders have worsened, showing that “freedom of information continues to decline.”
The media in Turkey have become so averse to crossing the government that on the first night that the Gezi protests became too large to ignore, the country’s leading networks did just that. CNN Turk, the international news network’s Turkish franchisee, famously showed a documentary about penguins instead. Meanwhile, in a recording leaked online last year between Erdogan and the owner of Milliyet, one of Turkey’s main dailies, the Turkish leader is heard angrily chastising the media boss for his paper’s coverage of ongoing talks between the government and Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). By the end of the conversation, the newspaper owner is literally in tears, asking Erdogan “Why did I enter this business?”
“Before the AKP government, it was normal for the army’s chief of staff to arrange meetings with journalists and editors and issue orders on how things should be reported,” Nadire Mater, a long-time Turkish journalist who now runs Bianet, a long-running independent media center, told me. “Now Erdogan is acting in a similar way as the generals. Here we refer to him as ‘editor-in-chief of the entire media.’ Power is power—armed or unarmed. He wants a media that only adores him, without criticism.”
Another veteran journalist who is currently working as an editor at one of Turkey’s top papers also lamented the conditions he’s working under. “I started working in 1981 under a military dictatorship. It was open censorship. I find the situation now humiliating,” he said.
The cloud of censorship has descended upon individual expression. Last year the government banned Twitter and YouTube for two weeks after leaked recordings that implicated AKP officials in corrupt dealings were released on those social media platforms. Even more ominously, this past January Merve Buyuksarac, a model and former Miss Turkey, was called in for questioning by the police after she shared on her Instagram account a satirical poem deemed to be critical of Erdogan. In late February, an Istanbul prosecutor issued an indictment against her for “insulting” the president, asking for a sentence of one or two years in jail.
Over the past year, the political environment in Turkey has been further poisoned by what has become an all-out war between Erdogan and the until recently powerful movement of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. With wide-ranging international educational and commercial efforts and a focus on interfaith outreach, the Gulen movement—which at times has been compared to the Mormons or Jesuits because of its adherents’ strong sense of mission and service—has set itself up as a global ambassador of traditional Turkish culture and of a particular brand of Anatolian moderate Islam. Until 2010, the movement was a strong backer of Erdogan and the AKP, throwing the weight of its network of civil society organizations and media outlets behind the government. As Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies became more pronounced, cracks started appearing in the alliance between the Gulen movement and the AKP. At the end of 2013, a large graft investigation was launched against several high-ranking AKP officials, including the sons of three ministers. The prosecutors behind the case were believed to be close to the Gulen movement, and the AKP decided to cripple what it said had become a “parallel state” intent on undermining the government. What followed were wholesale purges and reshuffling of judges, prosecutors and police officials suspected of being Gulenists and, more recently, the arrest of journalists working for Gulen-affiliated media. Recently, the government has accused policemen it says are connected to Gulen of wiretapping Erdogan’s calls on behalf of the movement.
A European diplomat I met in Ankara said the AKP’s response to the corruption probe and its efforts to protect Erdogan and his circle at all costs raised new questions about Turkey’s readiness to become an EU member, dealing another blow to the moribund accession process. “Even if the government is fighting a ‘parallel state,’ you still need to have rule of law, separation of powers and the maintenance of democratic standards,” the diplomat said. “Right now, people in Europe are concerned. Very.”
Ataturk’s vision of modern Turkey had little room for its many minorities, from Kurds and Armenians to Jews and Christians, who under the Ottoman Empire had flourished in semi-autonomous communities. Under Kemalism, the Turkish national and cultural identity was to supersede all others: Kurds, for instance, were banned from speaking their language in public. The AKP’s victory in 2002 and the party’s initial overtures towards EU membership made many believe that Turkey might be moving towards a more expansive notion of citizenship. “Erdogan broke taboos and instituted reforms,” Aktar, the political scientist, told me. In addition to getting rid of laws that previously allowed the state to easily confiscate religious minorities’ property, the government created space for discussion of the Armenian issue. Although official state policy still denies that what happened to the Ottoman Empire’s Armenians during World War I was genocide, the dialogue on the subject is now more open.
For Turkey’s small but historic Jewish community, which today numbers around 20,000, the early AKP years were promising. The government’s maintaining of close ties with Israel eased fears that Erdogan, because of his Islamist background, would rupture relations. And after two Istanbul synagogues were bombed by Muslim extremists in November 2003, the Erdogan government strongly condemned the acts and worked closely with the Jewish community to increase security.
Things started to change in 2009, after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. During the 22-day war between Israel and Hamas, Erdogan’s criticism of the Jewish state was blistering. His regional popularity—at street level, at least—skyrocketed after his now legendary 2009 performance at Davos, where he stormed off the stage he was sharing with Israeli President Shimon Peres after angrily berating him for his country’s actions in Gaza. “You people know very well how to kill,” the Turkish Prime Minister told the shocked Peres. Erdogan returned home a hero, crowned the “Conqueror of Davos” by a crowd of cheering supporters who were waiting for him at the airport.
Turkish-Israeli relations sank even further the next year, when a Turkish Islamic aid organization organized a flotilla aimed at breaking Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza. Led by a decommissioned cruise ship, the Mavi Marmara, that had previously been owned by the Istanbul municipality, the flotilla seemed to be as much about breaking Turkey’s ties with Israel as it was about busting through the naval blockade. The organizers certainly achieved what they had hoped for: After a tragically botched raid by Israeli commandos that led to the death of nine Turkish citizens, Ankara recalled its ambassador to Israel, and relations between the two countries—despite an official apology by Jerusalem in 2013—have been essentially frozen since then.
Since 2010, Erdogan and other AKP leaders’ anti-Israel rhetoric has become increasingly hostile. “Those who condemn Hitler day and night have surpassed Hitler in barbarism,” Erdogan said at a campaign rally last summer, responding to the new round of fighting that had just broken out between Israel and Hamas. But things have gone beyond just criticizing Israel. During the Gezi protests, AKP officials frequently used language that ranged from thinly veiled anti-Semitism to openly blaming Jews for demonstrations such as Gezi. For example, in July of 2013, Besir Atalay, a Turkish deputy prime minister, said: “World powers and the Jewish Diaspora prompted the unrest and have actively encouraged it.”
Turkey’s Jewish community now finds itself in a dismayingly precarious position contingent on events beyond its control and the goodwill of the state and its leadership. During last summer’s war in Gaza, for example, Erdogan said Turkish Jews are citizens and, as such, Turkey is responsible for their safety and security. Still, he added: “I talked with our Jewish citizens’ leaders on Thursday and I stated that they should adopt a firm stance and release a statement against the Israeli government.” This past November, during a period of mounting tensions in Jerusalem, the governor responsible for the city of Edirne, in Turkey’s northwest, warned that Israel’s actions could affect the future use of a local synagogue that was being renovated by the Turkish state.
Where the Erdogan government has made perhaps the most progress in dealing with minorities is with the Kurds, who make up some 20 percent of the population. For decades, Turkey’s official state policy was to deny the existence of Kurds, referring to them instead as “Mountain Turks.” The headway Turkey has made in resolving this particular issue has been dramatic: Twenty years ago, Ankara and the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were fighting an all-out war that led to the death of tens of thousands and the destruction of countless villages in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast region. Today the southeast is a region transformed, with the Kurdish language being used in places where it was previously banned and the PKK and Ankara engaged in a resolution process aimed at disarming remaining fighters, currently mostly located in northern Iraq. Turkey today even has a state-run television network that broadcasts in Kurdish.
This “peace process” is intimately connected to Turkey’s international aspirations. Erdogan knows that a continuing conflict with a large (Muslim) ethnic group will undermine his efforts to promote Turkey as a regional leader. His overtures to the Kurds are also deeply connected to his desire to strengthen the power of the presidency: He needs the Kurdish vote to get the kind of parliamentary majority needed to remake the constitution.
But with Turkey’s authoritarian turn, even the reconciliation process with the Kurds is in question. A new bill just passed by the AKP-controlled parliament, for example, once again gives Turkish security forces the kind of unchecked power that led to human rights abuses against Kurds in the 1990s. “How can you have a real peace process with the Kurds, when the government is also rolling back human rights?” Human Rights Watch’s Sinclair-Webb said.
Turkey’s next national election will be held in June, and it is likely that the AKP will win hands down given its economic success and appeal to conservative voters. The only real question is whether the AKP’s margin will be large enough to push through Erdogan’s desired constitutional changes and hand him an even more powerful political platform.
Meanwhile, Mucella Yapici continues to prepare environmental impact reports and mentor young professionals at the Chamber of Architects, but the legal proceedings she’s facing hang over her. “I don’t want to accept as normal the treatment I’m getting. I’m angry. I haven’t done a single unlawful thing,” Yapici said, the exuberance she displayed through most of our interview vanishing.
“We are going through very bad times,” she added. Then, just as suddenly, her laugh returned. “Come visit me if I’m in jail,” she said, smacking her desk with her hand and laughing so hard she started to cough.
Yigal Schleifer is a journalist based in Washington, DC. Between 2002 and 2010 he worked as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Istanbul, Turkey.
Funding for this article was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.