Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan just won't take no for an answer. In 2002 he and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power promising to get Turkey into the European Union. Under the banner of the EU's "Copenhagen criteria" for new members, the AKP made an impressive start: it abolished the death penalty, curbed the backroom political power of the military and eased restrictions on Kurdish language and culture. But instead of recognizing just how far Turkey had come, European leaders recoiled, rebuffing Erdogan and his country at virtually every turn. French President Nicolas Sarkozy says he opposes Turkish membership in the EU because it's "an Asian country," suggesting instead that maybe one day it could be part of a proposed Mediterranean Union. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warns that "Turkey's membership is going to constrain the EU." She offers "privileged partnership" instead of full membership.
Erdogan is undeterred. Instead of slowing down the pace of change, the AKP has announced its biggest and boldest reform package yet. Emboldened by a resounding victory in snap elections last summer, the party has embarked on a wholesale overhaul of the hard-wiring of the country's political system. Central to the new order is a redrawing of Turkey's 1981 Constitution designed to give more power to the people—including direct presidential elections—as well as introducing more freedom of speech and religion. In doing so, the AKP hopes to create a society that Europe simply cannot refuse—one that is moving ahead with a long-term strategy that looks calmly past the current crop of anti-Turkish European leaders. "Whatever they say, we will continue on our path," promises Foreign Minister Ali Babacan. "For us the important thing is that the negotiation process with Europe remains on track."
What is driving this? One top European diplomat who has worked closely with Erdogan during Turkey's negotiations with the EU says Turkey's prime minister "has a deep and personal commitment to bringing his country into Europe. He feels that that is his country's destiny." During his years in power Erdogan has developed a powerful narrative for Turkey as a "bridge between cultures," with both his country and himself playing key roles in "bringing religions and culture closer together to avoid a global clash of civilizations." It is a philosophy he expounded eloquently upon at a recent Madrid conference on the "Alliance of Civilizations," which he co-hosted with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and it is based on the assumption that Turkey cannot stand alone in glorious isolation.
There is also a more pragmatic rationale for looking to Europe. Turkey's growing harmonization with western business practices and regulations has brought a deluge of foreign investment—$20 billion last year—which has helped fuel GDP growth of close to 6 percent for the past five years and helped modernize Turkey's once creaky manufacturing and textile industries.
Still, if taken at face value, Erdogan's enthusiasm for Europe comes as a surprise: for most of their careers, Erdogan and his close ally Abdullah Gul, now president, shared with most Turkish Islamists a deep suspicion of Europe and Western values in general. Their political mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, frequently railed against the West for being ruled by "racist imperialism and Zionism." Erdogan himself, while mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, sparked controversy when he compared democracy to a streetcar: "When you come to your stop, you get off."
But then reality intervened. In 1999 he was convicted of sedition after reciting an allegedly subversive Islamic poem at a political rally. He spent four months in jail, and by his own account, his spell in prison helped convince him that political Islam needed modernizing just as much as the Turkish state. The two, he came to understand, were locked in a vicious cycle. On one side, an ultraconservative military was using police-state methods to enforce a rigid secularism, which was at odds with the reality of Turkish society; on the other side were old-guard Islamists like Erbakan, whose blend of nationalism, religion and anti-Westernism was out of step with a modern, globalized world.
Adding to this political awakening was an economic crisis in 2000 and 2001. The Turkish lira had lost two thirds of its value after the collapse of a series of corrupt banks and the flight of foreign capital. Erdogan, and the newly formed AKP, blamed the economic difficulties on rampant political cronyism, runaway populist spending and government incompetence.
The simplest way of fixing it was by integrating Turkey into Europe—a widely popular goal at the time, with 80 percent approval. It quickly became a catchall for bold reforms the AKP could never have dared attempt without the support of Brussels, such as reducing the power of the military-dominated National Security Council. "Europe is the instrument which can help us put our own house in order," Erdogan told NEWSWEEK before coming to power in November 2002. "Our central goal is to put Turkey on the road to Europe."
Ever since, Erdogan has tried to steer an extraordinarily narrow path between the EU, his party's own conservative, religious roots, and the small but powerful ultrasecularists in the military, judiciary and bureaucracy. For instance, Erdogan has tackled some of the most repressive aspects of Turkey's police state head-on, allowing Kurds some cultural rights, scrapping a few (but by no means all) of the laws restricting free speech, and cutting the powers of the military-dominated National Security Council. Through it all, Erdogan has been dogged by accusations that his Islamist-rooted AKP's real goal is to foist a more conservative Islamic rule over the secular state of Turkey. In his critics' view, the most important thing for Erdogan and his allies is not to join Europe but to use the prospect of joining as a convenient front to push a religious agenda. As evidence, they say, Erdogan's first move in the constitutional overhaul was not to scrap the anti-free-speech laws—such as the infamous Article 301, which punishes "insulting Turkishness"—as Brussels has repeatedly demanded, but to call for an end to the longstanding ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in universities.
Erdogan presented it as a liberal move, a step on the path to the EU and a victory for human rights. "Why," he asked, "should wearing the headscarf be a crime?" But by focusing on the issue, he touched one of the rawest nerves in Turkey's ongoing culture wars. For many of Turkey's elite, keepers of the ultra-secular traditions of the nation's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, allowing headscarves at university is the thin edge of a dangerous wedge. Akdeniz University rector Mustafa Akaydin fears that the AKP's ultimate goal is to "destroy Ataturk's reforms" and that soon "Turkey will resemble an Arab country or Iran." He warns there could be "confrontation and chaos" on university campuses as a result. Indeed while the repeal of the ban is enormously popular—the latest polls show voters favor scrapping it by 64 percent to 27 percent—more than 120,000 people marched last week in Ankara to protest the decision and demonstrate their commitment to secularism.
Erdogan's critics note that the EU considers the headscarf to be an internal issue—and certainly not part of the Copenhagen criteria. Moreover, several European countries—including France—restrict the wearing of religious symbols in public schools. "Erdogan and his government are more interested in Islamicizing Turkey than democratizing it," says Cengiz Aktar, a specialist on EU affairs at Bahcesehir University. A true liberal, critics say, would have used his vast political capital on more-pressing human-rights concerns, which could turn out to be far more damaging to Turkey's EU bid than repealing a ban on headscarves. There is, for instance, no civilian alternative to compulsory military service, as there is in other countries. Conscientious objectors are regularly jailed. At the same time, speech remains far from free. Last month a newspaper editor was given a three-year suspended sentence for the crime of "insulting Ataturk." Moreover, a report by Human Rights Watch last year cites a rise in reports of police brutality and an increase in the number of people prosecuted and convicted for violations of speech laws. They say the state's intolerance of dissent "has created an environment in which there have been instances of violence against minority groups." In January 2007, Hrant Dink, the editor of a Turkish-Armenian newspaper was assassinated by a teenage gunman.
Clearly, in the face of a hostile secular military and its overheated rhetoric, and an EU that is ambivalent about Turkey at best, Erdogan will have to continue to prove his Western bona fides. There are a number of benchmarks that could determine whether Erdogan is still serious about the EU. Most important, Brussels urgently wants the AKP to scrap Article 301. Second, Europe will want Erdogan to show that he cares about the religious freedoms of non-Muslims, too—for instance by liberalizing the laws on non-Muslim charitable foundations and by reopening the world-renowned Orthodox seminary on the island of Helybeliada, near Istanbul. It has been closed since 1971.
Whether Erdogan will follow through with his plans is still an open question. Almost no ruler in modern Turkish history has been better placed to push reform as he is, here and now. Last year, using a canny mix of brinkmanship and diplomacy, he got the United States to back limited Turkish airstrikes and commando raids against PKK bases inside northern Iraq. That won him huge support not just from voters—including ultranationalist voters—but also from Turkey's politically powerful generals. "The government stands side by side with our soldiers," Erdogan told parliamentarians when asking them to authorize the use of force outside Turkey's borders last year. That message went some way toward defusing the military's longstanding enmity toward Erdogan and the AKP.
But the danger is that further reforms will be swamped in the fallout from the headscarf ban. Deniz Baykal, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party or CHP, warned that Turkey faces "a counterrevolution," and vowed to fight to reinstate the headscarf ban through the avowedly secularist Constitutional Court. That will mean months of political messiness and upheaval. On the AKP side, the pressure is on from the grass roots to go further still. Once headscarves are allowed in universities, some AKP members will wonder why it is still banned in hospitals, courts and municipal buildings. "The lifting of such bans in other public services will come to the agenda gradually, inshallah," says Husnu Tuna, an AKP member of Parliament's Constitutional Committee.
That, too, could be considered a liberal move—more akin to much of the West's freedom of religion than Ataturk's ideal of laïcité, or freedom from religion. Now Erdogan faces an enormous balancing act. The test of his commitment to European ideals will come as he chooses in the months ahead which reforms to pursue next—EU reforms, or those advocated by his grass-roots supporters. Poll numbers suggest waning support among Turks for entry to the EU, largely because of European rebuffs and the perception that Europe has failed to keep its promises on Turkish-dominated Northern Cyprus. Yet it seems increasingly unlikely that Erdogan and the AKP would ever hop off that old European streetcar. Since his firebrand days, Erdogan has realized that straight political Islam has a limited appeal to all but a tiny minority of Turkish voters. The same goes for isolationist nationalism. So he is likely to take a more pragmatic path, if for no other reason than that Turkey's continued economic growth is tightly linked to its embrace of Western business standards. Indeed Turkey is going to keep driving that streetcar west—no matter what the EU or Erdogan's opponents have to say about it.