Turkey faces a choice: Past or future

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ISTANBUL — Coming from the airport into this city of about 15 million people and 5 million cars, as my driver describes it, I pass ancient Roman ruins and blocks of upscale shops; an old hotel where Agatha Christie penned “Murder on the Orient Express,” smoke shops and modest restaurants, and luxury car dealers. It is a metaphor for the choices Turks are being forced to make under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: forward to a better future and a recapture of their secular state, or back to a nostalgic past when Islam was the official religion of the Ottoman Empire.

Recent waves of terrorist attacks throughout the country have raised security levels. My car was stopped and given a cursory search before being allowed to proceed to the hotel entrance where I was then required to pass through a metal detector and have my hand luggage scanned before approaching the registration desk.

Here, where the Bosphorus Strait divides Europe from Asia, President Erdogan seems bent on imposing his brand of radical Islam on what has for decades been a nation ruled by secular leaders. It was the late president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who helped establish the Republic of Turkey, modeled on Western governments and their belief in church-state separation.

Erdogan, it appears, hears more than the Muslim call to prayer. It’s as though he hears a “call” to tear down the wall separating mosque and state and, writes the Christian Science Monitor, restore Turkey to “its historical Ottoman influence.”

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The controversial election last April resulted in just over 51 percent of voters approving constitutional reforms, which eliminates the office of prime minister and allows Erdogan to possibly hold onto power for years to come. There is still disagreement over whether Erdogan and his party cheated in order to win.

In addition to questions about Turkey’s future role in NATO, how would a Turkish Islamic state change the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism,” as President Trump called it until recently when that label seems to have disappeared from his rhetoric?

An American citizen who has lived and worked in Turkey for some time, but wishes to remain anonymous for fear that his comments might bring him harm, tells me that Turks who have the resources to leave the country are getting out. He says there has been an upsurge in property purchases in the U.S., particularly in Florida.

An August 2016 article in The Wall Street Journal reported: “luxury-condo developers are seeing about 5 percent of preconstruction inventory sold to buyers from Turkey.”

My American friend says there is “no convincing political opposition” in Turkey at the moment. “Clerics no longer define Islam, Erdogan does.”

In 2004, Erdogan participated in a panel at The Academy of Achievement in Chicago. Asked about Islamic terrorism, he responded: “Turkey is not a country where moderate Islam prevails. This expression is wrong. The word Islam is uninflected, it is only Islam.” Others would disagree, so who gets to decide? That is a question debated throughout the Islamic and non-Islamic world. Who SHOULD decide is the larger question. In Turkey, Erdogan has set himself up as the lone decider.

Further contributing to instability in Turkey is a referendum on independence scheduled for September 25 by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Daniel Pipes, who heads the Middle East Forum, says while he supports Kurdish independence and a “single, grand Kurdish state, I see the referendum as a danger to all concerned by further unsettling a highly unstable region, perhaps provoking any of Turkish, Iranian, or Iraqi central government invasions of the KRG, perhaps leading to a confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces.”

As if we don’t already have enough to worry about.

One of Turkey’s main exports in addition to Turkish towels, the Turkish bath and Turkish coffee is the delicious confection known as Rahadlakum, or Turkish Delight.

Unfortunately, with their prospects declining, many Turks today worry that their future may not be anything in which they can take delight.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist and author. Readers may email him at: tcaeditors@tribpub.com.

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