Turkey's mighty Erdogan

Abroad, he’s drawn comparisons to the legendary Sultan Saladin. But back home, many Turks are uneasy.

The mighty Erdogan

AFP/Getty Images

It was one coup among many. On Sept. 25, after passionately arguing in favour of the Palestinians’ right to a unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN General Assembly in New York, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan left with a hero in his back pocket. On board his government jet was a 1,900-year-old statue of Hercules, procured from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it had sat, an object of ownership controversy, for nearly 30 years. Reclaiming the relic for Turkey was a symbolic act, but the 57-year-old prime minister had done what so many of his predecessors had failed to do. He brought Hercules—his head and torso at least—home to be reunited with the Greek hero’s less attractive but arguably more manly lower half, sitting forlorn and incomplete at the archaeological museum in Antalya, a city steeped in history situated on Turkey’s stunning Mediterranean coast.

In Turkey, Erdogan’s government was hailed for the statue’s return. It was not the only praise the PM had recently received. Only days earlier, during a trip to Egypt, he’d been compared to another, less mythic but equally meaningful hero, this time from Islamic history. In Cairo, frenzied crowds showered the Turkish leader with praise, calling him the “new Saladin”—a reference to the 12th-century Kurdish conqueror who wrested Jerusalem away from Christian Crusaders in 1187. Heady times—and not without reason.

By all accounts, Turkey stands at a crossroads—and Erdogan is the one finding a new direction. After pursuing a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbours, Turkey has been forced to deal with hard geopolitical realities, breaking ties with a tyrannical Syrian regime, abandoning former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at the height of the Egyptian uprising, and freezing its historically warm relations with Israel in the aftermath of a 2010 attempt by an international aid flotilla to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, during which Israeli commandos killed nine activists, eight of them Turkish nationals.

For Erdogan, always the wily politician, the upheavals in neighbouring countries have offered an unprecedented opportunity to attain legendary status. The Saladin comparison is no accident. It is the result of the careful construction of an image designed specifically for the Arab street, where one leader—with impeccable Islamic credentials—stands up to all the usual suspects threatening the future of Islam.

Turkey’s new stance on Israel is a case in point. A UN report made public on Sept. 1 concluded that the Israeli military’s actions against the convoy trying to break through the Gaza blockade were legal under international law. It faulted the Israelis for using excessive force, but also criticized the Turkish government for not doing enough to prevent the flotilla from leaving Turkish ports, knowing full well that the consequences could be violent. The Turkish response has been, by the mildest measure, hawkish. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador on Sept. 2, saying that it was “time Israel pays a price for its illegal actions.” It suspended military co-operation, and Erdogan himself vowed to increase Turkey’s presence in the eastern Mediterranean. “Israel cannot do whatever it wants in the eastern Mediterranean,” he said at a news conference in Tunisia on Sept. 15. “They will see what our decisions will be on this subject. Our navy attack ships can be there at any moment.”

Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 27, Turkey’s first domestically manufactured warship was delivered to the country’s navy. “Nobody wants war,” Turkish President Abdullah Gül said at the ship’s launch ceremony in Istanbul. “War is the worst-case scenario, but if you want to maintain peace and stability you also have to be ready for war.”

Flexing Turkey’s muscle on the international stage has played well with an international Muslim audience. But it’s been less inspiring in Turkey itself, where other concerns are paramount. Even as Turkey’s economy soars, not all are convinced that the pace of growth is good. Fears remain over the country’s ballooning current account deficit, which more than doubled over the past year and is forecast to hit 10 per cent of GDP. That has raised the specter of unsustainability. Economists warn that Turks have become drunk on consumption, without the necessary productivity levels that help keep the economy balanced. Household debt has skyrocketed, and if current trends persist, Turkey could face a rude awakening if its economy slows. Indeed, on Oct. 13, the government unveiled an economic restructuring package, including tax increases designed to curb consumer demand.

Still, nearly half of Turkey’s voters support Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, according to the results of the June general election. But if 50 per cent voted for the AKP, then 50 per cent didn’t—and it’s this half of society that has the AKP, and Erdogan in particular, worried. Much of that demographic resides along Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines, a traditionally secular part of Turkey where the AKP’s main rival, the Republican People’s Party, has a strong following. People here remain wary of Erdogan’s Islamist roots and the vision he has for Turkey.

Stricter laws on alcohol sales and consumption, and tougher rules governing bars and clubs, have infuriated locals in cities like Antalya and Kemer, where the local economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism. “We need tourists,” says one bar owner near Kemer, a boom town riding the wave of resort construction on Turkey’s equivalent of the Côte d’Azur. Her bar, a small family-run establishment catering mostly to Turkish tourists, was recently slapped with a $10,000 fine for loud music. “We’re a bar,” she tells Maclean’s, requesting anonymity because she is appealing the fine. “We’re a live music venue; tourists come to drink and dance. We can’t survive without loud music.”

Others complain that the rules only apply to smaller establishments frequented by Turks, while larger resorts, catering to rich, secular Turks and foreigners, are left alone. The message, they say, is clear: an average Turk can’t party. But if you’re a foreigner pumping foreign exchange into the economy, go nuts.

Turkey’s alcohol laws are not, by any stretch of the imagination, restrictive—they are, by comparison, more liberal than Canada’s. Nonetheless, secular Turks worry that the AKP is making secularism unaffordable. Massive fines meted out not only to bars and clubs but to other sources of secularism point to a subtle encroachment of conservative values into Turkish society, critics say.

A recent court case against a cartoonist at Penguen magazine, a satirical publication based in Istanbul, is one example of a growing list of charges levelled against people who express anti-religious views. In the offending cartoon, a man is depicted at prayers in a mosque, talking on his cellphone with God, asking permission to be excused to run some errands. Disguised in the background are the words, roughly translated: “There is no God, religion is a lie,” an obviously atheist sentiment. The cartoonist has been charged with “insulting the religious values adopted by a part of the population.”

“Before 2000, there would never have been a charge because of this subject,” says Erdil Yasaroglu, Penguen’s owner. “But the climate has changed after the AKP.” Yasaroglu adds that the cartoonist will likely not face jail time, but the magazine could be fined. In a similar case in June, one of Penguen’s competitors, Harakiri magazine, was fined so heavily for its drawings that it was forced to close.

Cases like these have secularists both in Turkey and in Europe wringing their hands. In its annual report on EU candidate countries, released on Oct. 12, the European Commission criticized Turkey for not meeting its reform obligations, citing, in particular, the clampdown on freedom of expression as an obstacle to joining the EU. Erdogan did recently tell Egyptians—while angering Islamist groups—that they should strive for a secular state. “Do not be wary of secularism,” he advised his audience. “I hope there will be a secular state in Egypt.” The speech made waves in the Arab world—and may very well have been an attempt to placate worried secularists at home and abroad.

Other problems remain—among them renewed attacks by resurgent Kurdish separatists. “Erdogan goes off travelling in Libya and Egypt,” says Ahmet Karatas, a farmer in Kumluca, 100 km south of Antalya, “talking about secularism and how he can lead the Muslims, and he ignores the terrorist problem here.” But at the archaeological museum in Antalya, Hercules sits on display, complete with his upper half. Banners announce triumphantly: Hercules Comes Home. But the question remains: can Erdogan make Turkey whole?

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