Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello everyone and welcome to another Geopolitical Futures podcast. I am Jacob Shapiro, I am the director of analysis and I am joined by Kamran Bokhari, one of our senior analysts. Thanks for joining us today Kamran.
Kamran Bokhari: Thank you for having me again.
JLS: I think, Kamran, you’re in Missouri right now, right? You’re giving a lecture or are about to give a lecture if my memory serves me.
KB: Yes, I am going to be giving a lecture this evening in a couple hours.
JLS: What’s the topic of the lecture?
KB: The topic of the lecture is political Islam, sectarianism and the collapse of the Arab world. That’s sort of the broad topic. There’s a long formal topic, but that’s sort of in a nutshell the issues that I’ll be addressing. You know ISIS and what’s behind ISIS, the underlying geopolitical current and drivers that are shaping the current reality in the Middle East.
JLS: So that all dovetails nicely with what we want to talk about today on the podcast, which is last week’s referendum in Turkey. It has turned out that the polls that said that the “yes” votes were going to win the referendum were correct and now President Erdoğan seems to have more powers than he did before. I think there are a lot of questions that people are wondering about here and we’re going to tackle some of them in succession.
But the first one I think we should just start with is the simplest one, which is what does this mean? So maybe Kamran from your perspective, somebody who has been following the AKP in Turkey for a long time, what does this mean in the broad scheme of things?
KB: So I think at one level, this is the sort of formalization of a de facto reality, and that de facto reality is that Erdoğan is the most charismatic leader in the country. His party is stronger than anybody else. His prime ministers have been weak. Since he left the office of prime minister and assumed the presidency, he’s basically been ruling the country in the way that he envisions and what this referendum does is just basically formalizes it. It allows him to establish a legal system that basically justifies what he’s been doing anyway.
I don’t see the referendum as a monumental shift in and off itself. I think it’s the finalization or formalization of a dynamic that’s been in play ever since Erdoğan assumed the presidency.
JLS: I think one of the important things to point out there is also that it isn’t just about Erdoğan. Erdoğan happens to be one particular individual who happens to be a very skilled politician. But the broader thing that is happening here is that you can see this in the way the referendum vote broke down. There’s a big divide between the cities like Istanbul and like Izmir and the central Anatolian regions, which are the regions that really give AKP a lot of its electoral heft.
I think people at their own risk diminish the importance of those people in the interior because they’re prejudiced to think that the things in the cities matter the most. But we’ve seen this time and time again that there really is a divide between the cities and the interior and Erdoğan has been able to capture that, right?
KB: Yes and in many ways, this is just a continuation of the trend that we’re seeing worldwide. I mean Brexit was one, the election of President Donald Trump is the other major case in point. There is this divide between those who live in urban areas. In many ways, the people living in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir have more in common with their counterparts in other cities like that – other mega cities on the European continent, North America, Asia – than they do with their own fellow citizens who live in the rural areas, in many cases not too far out from the city limits of these major metropolises.
So I think that, that phenomenon is continuing. And the idea that somehow autocracy is gaining ground in Turkey – I think that is problematic because clearly there is a sizable amount of people in Turkey who do not see it that way, who think that it is their democratic vote that has allowed Erdoğan to become what he is and he represents them and they support him. So I think we have an issue – there is a variance in how people see democracy being played out in practice.
JLS: Yeah I think that’s a good point. One thing that I would pick up on what you were saying though is that you were talking about comparing what happened in Turkey this past weekend to Brexit and to Donald Trump but I wonder, do you really think that’s a good comparison? Because I think on the one hand you have some of that going on in Turkey. But the other deeper problem for Turkey is a problem that really has to do much more with the Muslim world than it has to do with the European world, which is: What is the relationship between politics and the Muslim world and between religion?
The AKP gets called an Islamist party and I know, Kamran, you can shed some more light on this, but one thing that I always come back to and I always say when I talk about this is that the most recent Pew survey on attitudes in Turkey showed that, while people are very proud of being Muslims, they don’t think that Shariah or Muslim law should be what governs Turkey. They certainly have a sense and especially AKP supporters would like to be able to wear the hijab in public. They don’t think of secularism in terms of the radical way in which the French think about it. But they do want to be free to at least practice their Islam in the public sphere and don’t want that to be prejudiced or criticized in any particular way.
So how do you think about the AKP and about Turkey in general in terms of this conflict, not just between urban and rural but between religious and secular?
KB: I mean yes, this is a topic – if I recall correctly you wrote a Reality Check not too long ago in terms of the blurry line between secularism and religion in the context of Turkey. Yes, the religious/secular divide is something George wrote about a couple of days ago as well.
The secularism of Turkey is actually undergoing change. The Kemalist version of secularism was based on French laicism. You know, a very hardline, very radical form of secularism where overt public displays of religious symbolism or religious practices were frowned upon. And that was the order of things for many decades until the rise of the AKP or actually some of its predecessors in the ’80s and the ’90s, and that movement has strengthened. But does that movement call for an Islamic state, a state where Shariah is the basis, is the core of the legal system? No, I think that’s not the case.
I would argue that the AKP as well as its rival the Gülen movement are struggling to basically take the lead in a post-Kemalist secularism – a secularism that’s more American for lack of a better comparison where religion is allowed and tolerated in public affairs, in civil society. As you said, you know, the wearing of the hijab by not just people on the street but in public service, so I mean recently the ban of wearing the head scarf in the military was lifted.
So those are the kinds of things I think that do not add up to Sharia and do not add up to sort of that Islamist vision that we see, for example, in Egypt in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood or far more austere representations under the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Saudi government and perhaps the most radical in the form of ISIS. So I think that we have to separate between the two.
I think that what the AKP party is trying to do is to strike a balance, as George pointed out in his recent Reality Check, that [Erdoğan] has a population that is secular and he has a population that is more religious. Somehow, he has to ride the tiger and make sure that these two streams do not clash and they go together and there is stability in the state.
So I think that that, at the end of the day, is what’s shaping the religious/secular debate in the country … Now, the popular perception is that democracy is dead in Turkey and, you know, we’re just waiting for Caliph Erdoğan to take his position. That is a view that many people have and I think that is not correct. I think there is more nuance that is being missed.
JLS: I agree with that, and we’ll get into that in a second Kamran. But I just want to stop and go back to something that you said. This is a question that we get from readers sometimes, and I think you being the expert that you are in the Muslim world, you are uniquely well suited to answer this question.
So how would you differentiate between the political ideology of say the Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP party? I mean, obviously, I know there’s a difference but how would you think of the difference between those parties? How would you think of the difference in Islam in the way it is practiced in a place like Turkey verses a place like Egypt or Saudi Arabia? What differences can you tell us from the religious perspective that might shed some light on this conversation?
KB: So the AKP is the successor to a number of Islamist groups and they came in succession going all the way back to the ’80s. That did have ideas very similar to the Muslim Brotherhood – that Islam should be imposed by the state. An Islamic state has to be top down, and the role of the state is to implement Islam. If you ask them, those who believe in this, they will say, “well we need to implement the Shariah, the Islamic laws.” And what are those? Well, that’s up for debate. How will that be done? That is a very long story, and many of these people do not know themselves how will they do it.
The AKP in sharp contrast with that is simply saying there should be more space for people who are religious to take part in public life. In other words, people should not have to be secular to get a career in the military or the bureaucracy, and we should not completely in a very radical way privatize religion in way that it should not leave the home. In other words, it should be allowed to flourish kind of like the churches in the American heartland. I am here at Springfield, Missouri. This is the home of the Assemblies of God denomination, and there are somewhat in the neighborhood of three hundred churches in this city. And so that is civil society. Does the state impose that? No. Does the state block that? No.
And I think that’s what the AKP wants. Because the AKP came into a context where overt public display of religiosity, the expansion of mosques and all other religious symbolisms and religious institutions and practices, that was frowned upon. That was seen as backward and people had to do that at home or in their locales where they were not fearful that the state could prevent them from doing that. So I think that that is the clear distinction between those who want an Islamic state and those who want a society in which Islam can flourish, for lack of a better term, or at least religious people can be able to practice their religion the way they want to.
JLS: I think that’s a really important point and I think in general – and you were mentioning this before – this is what is so important when thinking about not just Turkey but a lot of different countries, which is being critical of generalizations and trying to compare things to each other that don’t necessarily need to be compared. And you were talking earlier about the people who have made the “yes” vote in this referendum out to be the death of Turkish democracy. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen that headline actually in the last few weeks. And it’s not like we’re trying to say here that Turkey is not going to become, that the power is not going to become more centralized in the presidency. And we’re also not saying here that Erdoğan doesn’t have some authoritarian tendencies.
The problem with thinking though that this is the end of Turkish democracy is that you are simply ignoring a couple facts. First of all, the Turks voted for this by a large majority. I know that the OSCE came out with a report afterwards talking about various discrepancies in voting. But if you actually read the OSCE report, the report basically says that from a technical level, there was no interference. It was just that people didn’t have access to the proper information, which to me sounds like a way of saying, “oh well their message didn’t get out.” And certainly Erdoğan has been cracking down on journalists, he’s been cracking down on academics. The political environment in Turkey I can’t imagine has been pleasant for a large part of the population since the coup. But it seems to me there is a very large distance between the dictatorship that people are making this out to be and Turkey as it currently stands.
But Kamran, I’d be curious how you think in terms of this question because on the one hand we do see Erdoğan has cracked down quite heavily on some parts of society that in most liberal democracies would be respected as the pillars of liberal democracy. And yet on the other hand, he continues to bow to the wishes of the people. He continues to put these moves to popular referendum, and I think that if he lost, I don’t think we would’ve seen him overruling them. I don’t think we would’ve seen him do extra legal things. So how do you tease all of that out?
KB: Well I mean when it comes to democracy, there are a number of things that tend to be missed in the popular parlance or the way people popularly conceive and discuss it. And the key thing, the number one thing missing in this debate over Turkey is that the democracy that existed before in Turkey was also problematic. It’s not as if the secularists before the AKP came to power were not autocratic, did not have authoritarian tendencies.
This is a country where secularists have imposed three direct coups and one indirect – I mean the military coming in and stepping in and really imposing a form of government on the country – and so AKP is not alone in this. And Turkish democracy, I mean we assume that Turkey – if we don’t see things the way we are familiar with, we say, “oh democracy is dying, democracy is receding,” and we think that is the end of the line. It’s kind of like the end of history argument from Francis Fukuyama back in ’89. I mean this is not the end of history, this is not the end of the line for Turkey. Turkey will continue to evolve and it’s not going to look like what it is in the West.
There are multiple fault lines. There is an ethnic problem that prevents Turkey from being a Western-style democracy. Kurdish separatism is key in that. We’ve already discussed the religious-minded people verses the more Western-oriented people. There is civil military relations…
JLS: Well Kamran, Kamran hold on Kamran. Let me stop you there because I think that is one of the biggest questions – the Kurdish question really is. What do you think the Kurdish question looks like in 10 or 20 years. Now that Erdoğan has solidified power and now that he has gotten what he wanted, can you imagine a situation in which Turkey is able to move forward on that issue and try and integrate Kurds more fully into Turkish society or to come to some kind of resolution to this conflict? I can’t imagine that it’s in Erdoğan’s interest for this conflict to just fester on into eternity, no?
KB: No, it’s not in his interest. If you have millions of people inside your borders who are of Kurdish ethnic background and you have a very large organization in the form of the PKK engaged in an arms struggle for independence – obviously, that’s something that’s on your mind. You can’t just fight your way through it, and if you look, the Erdoğan regime early on tried to deal with this through negotiations.
They tried to work with the Kurdish nominated HDP party several years back. And they tried to bring the Kurds into the political mainstream. Those negotiations did not work out and so it’s not as if this is something that the Turks feel that they can militarily impose a solution on, especially now that the issue is not just the PKK. It’s also the Syrian Kurds who the Turks view as cousins of the PKK. And so this is a complex problem that I think will have to be solved constitutionally through negotiations and I don’t think Erdoğan or anyone at the helm in Ankara thinks otherwise. I think that they know they have to do this but any negotiations cannot be done from a position of any weakness.
I don’t think that Erdoğan and the AKP think that they can solve this problem outside of the parameters of the constitutional process or through undemocratic means, so this issue will not be resolved any time soon because the government has other priorities at this point. And this problem has been magnified by what’s happening in Syria. Had the situation in Syria not taken the path that it did, perhaps AKP could have been far more successful in pushing along that peace process along the domestic front. But the domestic Kurdish problem is being complicated by the cross-border Kurdish problem, and so right now it’s an issue of which one do you deal with.
And while this is happening, you have a coup in the country. And you have to deal with the coup … which means that the Kurdish issue becomes more of on the backburner if you will – we’ll get to it when we get to it because there’s a more immediate crisis that has to be dealt with.
So there’s so many balls that are in the air that have to constantly be juggled by the current government. And I think that what doesn’t happen in conventional conversations is empathetic analysis. There is an expectation, there is something that people want to see happen – which is democracy – at all costs and under all circumstances in a certain way. And when they don’t see that, then it’s Turkey is going into a dark tunnel. Then you’ve got those kind of cries and slogans being dished out.
JLS: Kamran, that was all very brilliant, but you didn’t actually answer my question, did you? I mean I was asking whether you think that there is any kind of solution to the Kurdish issue. Do you think that what’s happening with Erdoğan is a way of him being able to move forward? Do you think that it’s even possible for Turkey to integrate the Kurds in their southeast? Or do you think this will just continue to be a major problem?
If we look at other powers in the world, I mean there are different ways of dealing with these kinds of internal problems. The Chinese obviously just subjugate the people in Xinjiang in Tibet. In the West, you either come to some kind of understanding or integrate them politically with full rights. How do you see the integration of the Kurdish issue and the solving of it? I mean, because when a lot of people look at Turkey one of the things that sticks out to them is that there’s this continued insurgency that the government can’t seem to move past it.
KB: I mean a solution anytime soon is unlikely. I think that given the vulnerabilities of the Turks and given the fact that the Kurds think that the odds are in their favor because of what’s happening in Syria, the Syrian Kurds get their Kurdistan and that somehow helps Turkish Kurds. As long as this sort of view exists, I don’t see any resolution to that.
There’s also the element of how long before exhaustion of war sets in, and both sides say ok we can negotiation. Is there a formula in which the Kurds are willing to accept some form of status, special status? I don’t know if we can even call it that. I want to avoid using the word autonomy because that could mean anything. But is there a formula that both sides could agree on? And I think that that question cannot be resolved until it becomes clear as to what is the fate of Syrian Kurds because if the Syrian Kurds – as long as they are seen as making progress with their Kurdistan project – then the PKK is in no mood to negotiate seriously.
And as long as this Turkish regime feels vulnerable not just from the Kurds but from a host of other issues, I don’t think that it is in the mood to negotiate seriously. So eventually, at some point in the future, I can see that happening. But for the foreseeable future, I just don’t think that is something that is going to materialize.
JLS: I disagree with you a little in the sense of how optimistic you are about the prospect of the Syrian Kurds. It seems to me that they have very, very disadvantageous geography, that they have enemies against them who are much stronger than them and while they are ascendant right now, they’re really on an indefensible plain and there’s really not a lot they can do. They’re surrounded by Sunni Arabs on the one side, as you say they have their PKK cousins across the border on the other.
Iraq is another interesting thing, and what’s going on in the KRG is perhaps something else to think about for another time. But I think the second thing to think about, and this is really my major concern with Turkey – I am wondering now that the political drama is over, that the Erdoğan government can turn to this, which is that Turkey’s economy has just not been doing that well. And I don’t think that that’s super specific to Turkey, we’re seeing a lot of economies not doing well and some of the reasons for Turkey’s struggles are not Turkey’s fault.
After 2007 and 2008, you saw a decline in foreign investment in Turkey. At the same time, I think Turkey was also focusing on boosting exports as a growth strategy. Obviously, a lot of different countries that have been pursuing exports as a strategy have been hurt because there’s reduced markets for those exports. And Turkey isn’t exactly in a place where it can compete with exports from a country like Germany or even somebody like China, who is probably pushing them out of the market. So there’s been a lot of criticism about Erdoğan moving the economy to a more stable plan or system, even about, you know, crony capitalism – although I always feel like crony capitalism is a funny phrase because I don’t know any form of capitalism that isn’t a bit full of cronyism.
But obviously, Erdoğan has been centering not just political control but economic control into people that are close to him, and I think a lot of outsiders, especially Westerners who were maybe bullish on Turkey five to 10 years ago, are much more suspicious now because of the political situation, because of the Kurdish question, because of what is the relationship between Turkey and ISIS and is Turkey going to have to intervene in Syria. And then what is it like for a businessman to be working in Turkey when so much is going consolidated in the center.
So I think that one thing to note is that the idea that the Turkish economy is not doing well is certainly true but it’s not like there are many economies in the Middle East that are going to challenge Turkey. The Saudi Arabians are a basket case, the Egyptians are a basket case. Iran is maybe the most promising of them, but Iran has its own issues and is also pretty dependent on hydrocarbons for their economy.
So on one hand, I see the serious struggles in the Turkish economy, and they concern me in the short to medium term in terms of Turkey’s ability to project power. But overall, it still seems to me that they are the main heavyweight in a lot of different ways in the region. What do you think of that Kamran?
KB: I agree with you, and I just want to clarify that I don’t think the Syrian Kurds are looking at a favorable outcome. At least, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I did. But I think that as far as the economy is concerned, one of the plans or the strategy that this government was trying to push forward was to create an energy transit state in Turkey. Taking gas and oil from Russia and from Azerbaijan and even Iraq and there was also talk of Iran channeling its hydrocarbons to Europe, to the European market.
Now that was all great when the price of oil was well over $100 a barrel, but those times are long gone and the price of oil is stagnating somewhere in the mid-50s at this point and there’s no reason to believe that we’re going to see a spike anytime soon. So those plans have really undermined the strategy or one of the strategies of the Erdoğan government to improve the economy.
So I think that that’s another problem that is holding Turkey back. It’s also very dependent on energy from Russia. And then there’s been an attempt to try and use Iraq as a way to somehow reduce the dependency on Russia – that hasn’t been successful given the politics that’s going on inside Iraq and the Kurdish autonomous government struggles with the Shiite-dominated government over control and production and export of hydrocarbons.
So I think that should also be kept in mind. As I said, there isn’t going to be a turnaround on the energy front anytime soon. So yes, I mean, I share your outlook on the economic front for Turkey. But nonetheless, if we are to compare Turkey with everybody else, it’s still far more powerful and it may not be a booming economy, it may not be rising as a heavyweight in the Caucasus or in the Middle East or vis-à-via Europe. But Turkey still is a player, and Turkey is still a large country with an economy that may not been doing well but the fundamentals are still there. And I think that once the global conditions change, then I think Turkey’s fortunes will change with it.
Other than that, I don’t see any structural changes that Turkey itself can do to turn the economy around and all of the sudden, it starts to boom.
JLS: Well I will get you out of here on this Kamran. So now that we’ve finally gotten through with the referendum, and now that Turkey can think forward not just with the referendum, what do you think is the next big thing that’s facing Turkey? So much of the media attention on Turkey has been around this referendum. I feel like it’s been that way almost since the coup, so in terms of what we’re looking for here at GPF for Turkey over the course of the next year – what do you see as the most important development to keep an eye on?
KB: I still think that the referendum issue while most of it is behind the Erdoğan regime, there’s still some loose ends to tie, so they’ll still be focusing until the new constitution is in place. We’ll have to see how the new presidential system works, but I think that the next major issue that Ankara will have to deal with is Syria because that is a threat. There are Kurds, there is ISIS. Great powers are intervening in Syria, and Turkey can’t just sit back and say, “oh well, we’ll let them handle it.” I mean, we have Russia in there, we have the United States – not that either Russia or the United States is making any major moves to really alter the balance of power in Syria.
But nonetheless, the intervention itself creates threats, creates opportunities as well and that situation is something that Turkey cannot ignore. So I think that that will be the first order of business in terms of trying to work out a relationship with the United States as to how the Kurds will be managed in Syria and how Turkish reservations about Syrian Kurds can be addressed, while the two sides – while Washington and Ankara – can work towards degrading ISIS. And then there’s the question of the future of the Assad regime, which then pulls them towards the Russians. I mean, the Turks have to deal with the Russians and the Iranians. I think this is something that we’re going to be seeing Turkey heavily involved in as we move, you know, further into 2017 and beyond.
JLS: Well I agree with you, and I know that here at GPF, we’ll be watching closely as Turkey is one of the most important countries not just in the Middle East but in the world from our perspective. So Kamran thanks for joining us. Once again this is Jacob Shapiro, and I am director of analysis for Geopolitical Futures. We love comments and feedback so please send that to firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you want to read our stuff please visit us on the web at www.geopoliticalfutures.com.