Should Turkey's Erdogan Worry the West?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Aug. 1. Umit Bektas / Reuters-Landov

Gambling may be forbidden in Islam, but that hasn't kept Turkey's prime minister from being both a devout Muslim and a top-stakes player. Since the 2002 landslide vote that brought him to power, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rolled the dice repeatedly against Turkey's establishment—the committedly secular military and judiciary who have tried to ban him and his party for being too Islamic. And he keeps winning: in each general election and referendum, popular support for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has never slipped. Last weekend, Erdogan placed another big bet: a referendum on redrawing Turkey's Constitution to lessen the military's influence. The question, as it has always been, is whether Erdogan has a mandate to remake Turkey in his own image.

The thought gives Washington the jitters. It goes far beyond the worries of secular Turks that Erdogan might allow the Islamic clergy to tame the country's night life. The fear is that the prime minister could turn away from Turkey's traditional Western alliances and join forces instead with anti-U.S. hardliners in the Middle East. Recently, the nervousness has become more palpable than ever. First, Erdogan teamed up with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil in an effort to block U.N. sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. And then Erdogan accused Israel of "state-sponsored terrorism" and broke off military ties after an Israeli commando raid on a Turkish flotilla that was carrying aid to Gaza. Turkey has long been America's closest Muslim ally, and its formula for separating mosque and state in a thriving democracy seemed a model for the rest of the region. Could Wall Street Journal editorialist Robert L. Pollock be right in warning that Erdogan is leading the country on "a national decline into madness"?

The only way to know is to put aside the overheated rhetoric and look at the enigmatic prime minister himself. He has been alarming people ever since the 1990s, when as mayor of Istanbul he denounced Western-style New Year's celebrations and swimwear, proposed a ban on alcohol, and called himself "a servant of the Sharia." He finally went too far in 1999, publicly reciting a poem that declared: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes are our helmets, and the minarets are our bayonets." Prosecutors decided he had crossed the line into sedition, and Erdogan spent four months in jail.

Mention those days and people around Erdogan get defensive. "Sure, he said a lot of foolish things early in his career," says one of Erdogan's oldest backers, unwilling to be named speaking critically of his friend. "But look at [former German foreign minister] Joschka Fischer—he was a radical leftist in his student days. No one holds that against him today." Friends insist Erdogan is not the same man who went to jail. "If you look at his policies in power, you won't find a lot of Islam in there," says London-based analyst Grenville Byford. Instead, the prime minister has devoted himself to fixing a long list of other problems: restoring the rights of the Kurdish minority; ending the military's impunity; and mending relations with Armenia and Greece, among other things.

The AKP has pushed for legislation with a religious bent only twice: once in 2004, when Erdogan sought to criminalize adultery (public outcry quickly scuppered that idea), and again in 2008, when Erdogan amended the Constitution to let girls attend university while wearing Islamic head-scarves, which had been forbidden since 1980. Secularists decried the lifting of the ban as a threat to separation of state and religion, and the courts tried but failed to bar the AKP and its leaders from politics. But Erdogan saw it as a human-rights issue. "It was very personal for him," says one former AKP M.P. who worked with Erdogan in the early 2000s, asking not to be named talking of the prime minister's family. "He was rich enough to send his daughters abroad. But he found it unjust that poor families had to make a choice between their religion and their children's future."

Politics tends to be personal for Erdogan. "He has not forgotten that he grew up poor in the slums of Istanbul," says an AKP strategist, declining to be named analyzing his boss's psyche. "That's more central to his philosophy than anything." But sometimes it gets too personal. Like Russia's Vladimir Putin, Erdogan has a street fighter's instincts. Last year, in a ruling widely viewed as payback for years of negative coverage, Turkey's largest media conglomerate, the Dogan Group, was slapped with a $2.5 billion tax bill. "He doesn't listen to anyone anymore," complains CNN Türk anchor Mehmet Ali Birand, the dean of Turkish media commentators. "He used to be a prime minister who liked the media, joked around with opponents, argued, and at times asked for their opinion. Today, he wants to destroy a huge media group with thousands of employees, silence the opposition, and create his own media."

Politics watchers say Erdogan is becoming aloof and arrogant. Journalist Burak Bekdil has catalogued a half-dozen cases of ordinary citizens who have been arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for daring to heckle the prime minister or shout slogans in his presence. "Before the [AKP's] creeping counterrevolution, the judiciary was somewhat slow, corrupt, partisan in all possible ways," Bekdil complains. "Now it will feature slowness, corruption, favoritism, and partisanism in absolute favor of the ruling party."

What worries Turkey's Western allies most, though, is Erdogan's chumminess with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Scenes of Erdogan embracing the Iranian president this May and calling him "my good friend" drove the White House wild. What does he think he's doing? For one thing, he hates being treated as a junior partner, and that's how Western powers tend to view Turkey. On a gut level, Erdogan feels "more comfortable in Tehran or Moscow than Brussels or Washington," says Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "There is a strain in Turkish foreign policy that matches other emerging nations like Indonesia and Brazil—a feeling that not all diplomatic initiatives have to be made in the West."

That stance, combined with Erdogan's fiery remarks about Turkey's former ally Israel—calling Gaza a "prison camp" and denying that Hamas is a terrorist organization—have made him a hero to many Arabs. In fact, however, Turkey's foreign--policy agenda is driven more by the country's business interests than by Islamic identity. "Turkey's growth is coming not from Europe but from Russia, Central Asia, the Gulf," says Lesser. "There is no strategic decision to turn east." Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Nicolas Sarkozy have made clear their antipathy toward Turkey's full membership of the European Union. The rejection has hit Erdogan hard, say people close to him. Having invested so much political capital to implement EU--dictated reforms, Erdogan now "feels a deep sense of personal betrayal," says the longtime backer. The prime minister himself recently told diplomats: "If the motivation of the Turkish people for full membership in the EU decreases, it's because of EU policies toward Turkey."

Erdogan, says Byford, "seeks a fundamental change in [Turkey's] relationship" with the West, to "an ally but not a subordinate." He takes pride in the fact that Turkey has emerged stronger than ever from the economic crisis, says the former AKP M.P. Now his No. 1 goal is to make the people rather than generals the real arbiters of Turkey's future. Those people will doubtless in time vote him down for arrogance and for his clumsy attempts to silence opposition. But if by that time Turkey is more at peace with itself and with its neighbors, then Erdogan's gamble will have paid off handsomely.