Turkey: A Country Torn Between Going East or West

By Yuri van Hoef

With corruption scandals coming to light in December 2013, Istanbul’s Taksim square once again became the site of major anti-government protests. Earlier, in May 2013, what started as a small environmental protest against the demolition of parts of the park, quickly escalated into full-blown protests against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Supported by Turkey’s main opposition party, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the protests were particularly aimed at Erdoğan’s aim for a constitutional reformation, in which he aims to add executive powers to the currently mostly ceremonial Turkish presidency (an office Erdoğan himself hopes to attain in the future). Further dissatisfaction focuses on his earlier reforms, such as the prohibition of selling alcohol in the evening and Turkey’s more involved foreign policy, which takes the country farther away from the secular principles of founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The continued rejection of membership of the European Union might even have helped push Turkey into this direction.

The protests illustrate a divide within Turkey that is reminiscent of how Samuel Huntington defined Turkey as a torn country in his seminal work The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (The Free Press, London 2002). Huntington’s 1996 work, based on his famous 1993 article, is best interpreted in light of the ending of the Cold War, as to make sense of the new balance of power in the world.

In short, Huntington distinguishes nine separate civilizations, each centered on their respective core states. The core states function as cultural examples to the other states of their respective civilization, while they also wield the most influence within their civilization. The other countries have accepted the leadership role of their core states.  Huntington further defines cleft states, countries in which major groups of inhabitants claim to belong to different civilizations, and torn states, which have a single dominant culture where the leaders wish to join another civilization (Huntington, p.139). The latter happened to Turkey during its secularization and westernization under Atatürk in the early twentieth century (pp.144-149).

One of the major problems of Huntington’s Islamic civilization is its lack of a core state. In its quest towards the west, Turkey has moved too far away from the other Islamic states to be accepted as such. Even so, Huntington acknowledges that Turkey has the potential to become a core state, if it abandons its focus on the west, with the warning that  “to do so it would have to reject Ataturk’s legacy more thoroughly than Russia has rejected Lenin’s.” (p.179)

Erdoğan’s reforms are the main cause of the riots. They are reforms that go against the ideals on which Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey. Following Huntington’s reasoning, Erdoğan is proceeding by the book if his long term aim is to make Turkey a core state of an Islamic civilization. This is further substantiated by Turkey’s more assertive foreign policy and involvement in the Middle East, demonstrated by its stance towards southern neighbor Syria and Erdoğan’s more vocal criticism of Israel.

The continued rejection of membership of the European Union might even have helped push Turkey into this direction. Turkey’s unrest must then not only be seen as general opposition to its government, but as illustrating the country’s struggle between going east or west.

Yuri van Hoef is lecturer of International Relations and World Politics at the University of Groningen.

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