For most of the 20th century Turkey was the great hope for yanking the Muslim world out of Sharia law. Mustafa Kemal, Turkey’s 1920s-1930s autocrat, took as a new last name Ataturk, which means “father of Turkey”—and he truly was the progenitor of a country that kept Islamists at bay. His secularist vision, with the assistance of Turkey’s army, stayed dominant until 2002.
Just before April Fools’ Day, though, two developments—one political, one military—dashed the slight hope that remains. The political story began 12 years ago when Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power not on an overt Islamist program but an anti-corruption one. Prime Minister Erdogan since then has used salami tactics—one slice at a time—to cut out the Ataturk legacy and edge back toward traditional Islam’s union of mosque and state.
Erdogan’s administration has also displayed the cronyism that he deplored when in opposition, and some secularists predicted that elections on March 30 would curtail the prime minister’s power. Exactly the opposite happened: The AKP won big, and Erdogan is now likely to become Turkey’s first directly elected president this summer, a triumph that would allow him to rule for another decade and stomp on the little bit of religious liberty that remains.
The military development also reflects Turkey’s growing Islamism, and it has international implications. Syrians in the northwestern part of their country reported at the end of March that jihadist rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are receiving help from Turkish tanks and anti-aircraft fire. The jihadists attacked villages inhabited by Alawites, the Muslim sect of the Assad family, and others that are home to Armenian Christians.
Thousands of Christians had to flee, seeking refuge in nearby hills or the coastal city of Latakia. One pastor told World Watch Monitor about desecrated churches and pillaged houses. Churches were sheltering 600 families, with local charity groups providing food, mattresses, blankets, and clothing. “Turkey is hosting jihadis,” said a Syrian Muslim humanitarian worker (name withheld to protect his life). Those fighters reportedly include Chechens, Tunisians, Turks, and Arabs.
Turkey is a member of NATO, and the United States has a massive air base at Incirlik, just 130 miles away from the area of border fighting. Armed military conflict between Turkey and Syria could severely escalate the Syrian war, forcing a NATO intervention. But Erdogan seems intent not only on re-Islamizing his own country but supporting neighboring jihadis.
Time magazine put Mustafa Kemal on its March 24, 1923, cover: He was the great Muslim hope. In 1924 Kemal said, “The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past.” In 1925 he declared, “The Turkish republic cannot be a country of sheiks, dervishes, and disciples.” The following year he closed Islamic courts and created a European-style penal code.
At the rate Turkey is marching back to its future, the 100th anniversary of Kemal’s directives may bring their complete unwinding. What’s happening in Turkey is part of a long-term trend that might better be termed an ooze. A decade ago many Americans hoped that a democratic Iraq would join Turkey in providing liberty and justice for all. The “Arab Spring” brought similar hopes regarding Egypt. But ancient traditions backed up by dictatorial religion are hard to topple, and those forecasting the growth of freedom in Muslim countries may have to follow those words by saying “April Fools.”