Turkey is a secular Muslim democracy and a crucial ally for the West. The eastern flank of NATO, straddling Europe and Asia, it played a critical role in containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the 1990s, it helped monitor Saddam Hussein and protect Iraqi Kurds by permitting U.S. warplanes to use its bases. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, it became a staging area for coalition forces in Afghanistan, where Turkish forces eventually assumed overall command of the International Stabilization Force. Turkey continues to be a pivotal partner in the fight against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, despite attacks by radical Islamists at home.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reaffirmed Turkey's ties to the West by embracing the country's commitment to joining the EU. In anticipation of a December summit at which EU governments will decide whether to open accession talks with Ankara, Erdogan has been pushing domestic reforms. In particular, he has undertaken the thorny task of subordinating Turkey's traditionally strong military to civilian control. This effort has helped him forge common cause with reformers in the military establishment, which has long been committed to the country's secularity. But it has also exacerbated tensions with army hard-liners and other ultranationalists who are reluctant to relinquish prestige, privilege, and power.

For the sake of both Turkey and its allies, Erdogan's overtures to the EU must succeed. EU membership would anchor Turkey in the West, fortify it as a firewall against terrorism, and help make it a model of democracy for the Muslim world. Rejection, on the other hand, would set back domestic reforms and radicalize religious extremists. Instead of a bulwark of stability and moderation, Turkey would become a hotbed of anti-Americanism and extremism. Rather than serving as a beachhead for Western interests in the Middle East, it would join the arc of unstable countries in the region that oppose the liberal values that form the foundation of the EU.


In 1923, Mustafa Kemal collected the remnants of the shattered Ottoman Empire to create the Republic of Turkey, hoping to build a truly modern state on a par with its European neighbors. Kemal, known as Atatürk ("the father of all Turks"), abolished the caliphate, secularized academic curricula, and replaced Turkey's Arabic script with a Latin one. He disbanded religious courts, Westernized the legal system, and gave women suffrage and equal rights. Turkey's founding constitution enshrined the country's commitment to secularism and republicanism.

Since then, Turkey's generals have been unflinching guardians of Kemalism. Both the Turkish Armed Forces Internal Service Law of 1961 and the 1982 constitution entrust the military with responsibility for promoting Atatürk's legacy. Officers see their task extending beyond the protection of the country's territory to include warding off threats to the public order, such as separatism, terrorism, and religious fundamentalism.

The military's role as the watchdog of civilian governments is embedded in Turkey's institutions. The constitution, for example, requires the cabinet to give "priority consideration to the decisions" of the National Security Council (NSC), an advisory body of top military and cabinet members, that the NSC deems "necessary for the preservation of the State." Although the NSC is chaired by the country's president and is nominally subordinate to the civilian government, the 1982 constitution requires that half of its members be army officers. In fact, it is the ultimate arbiter of power. Officers of the Turkish General Staff (TGS) have even more influence than political leaders when it comes to setting and advancing national goals.

On four occasions since Turkey's founding, the military has displaced politicians who challenged its power or deviated from Atatürk's ideology. It has overthrown three prime ministers since 1960, and in 1997 it engineered a soft coup to oust the Islamic Welfare Party (REFAH), after just one year at the helm of an improbable coalition. Nonetheless, the military sees itself as the country's guardian, not its ruler. After each intervention, it handed power back to civilian authorities once stability was restored.

In the past decade, Turkey's military leadership has grown increasingly concerned about Islamic fundamentalism, which it believes is an impediment to modernity. Every few years, the NSC drafts a National Security Policy Doctrine charting challenges to the country; its 1992 report identified "political Islam as a threat to the country's security." In 1999, a group of army officers was dismissed for demonstrating an unacceptable level of piety. Every year, the High Military Council purges the military ranks of officers involved in "reactionary" activities, which include religious extremism. And recently, the influential military academy in Ankara called for a "war of liberation" against Islamic fundamentalism.

The military's oversight of politics has played out most visibly in its opposition to radical parties such as REFAH, which came to power in 1996. At first weak and tentative, REFAH soon began to challenge the secular establishment. When, at a 1997 rally hosted by the REFAH mayor of Sincan, the Iranian ambassador criticized Turkey's secularism, the army diverted a column of tanks and arrested the mayor. A few weeks later, calling for the "highest possible awareness to protect the secular state," the NSC presented 18 anti-Islamist measures to Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. Restrictions were imposed on Islamic media and Islamic dress; Koranic schools were closed; compulsory secular education was extended from 5 to 8 years; funds were blocked for Turks studying abroad who were suspected of "Islamic agitation"; and an investigation was launched into overseas contributions to REFAH.

Meanwhile, the TGS worked behind the scenes to galvanize media, business leaders, and academics troubled by the Sincan incident and by Erbakan's ties with Iran and Libya. Members of the governing coalition were pressured to step down. Eventually, in 1997, the constitutional court banned REFAH for promoting a "subversive agenda ... against the principles of our secular republic," and Erbakan resigned.


Governance subsequently floundered under incompetent and corrupt leadership. Nine different coalition governments ruled Turkey in the 1990s alone. According to several polls, by the end of the decade, only 15 percent of Turks "trusted" politicians, and 43 percent called politicians "liars." Amid the torpor, however, one offshoot of the dismantled REFAH was gaining ground. After the party was banned in 1997, it fractured into a group of traditionalists, including followers of Erbakan, and the more progressive Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP) led by Erdogan. By distancing itself from radical Islam, condemning corruption, and embracing moderate, democratic positions, the AKP successfully appealed to disaffected voters.

In November 2003, the AKP won an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections, returning Turkey to single-party rule for the first time in 15 years. Support for the incumbent leftist party tumbled to 1.2 percent of the vote. In what the Turkish newspaper Sabah called the "great purge," Turkey's political dinosaurs resigned.

Despite the AKP's continued popularity, some are skeptical of Erdogan's real intentions. Pointing to his more radical beginnings and recent AKP positions on women's rights and education, critics charge that the prime minister's commitment to secularism and liberalization is only superficial.

Raised in prayer schools, Erdogan is a devout Muslim. As a teenager, he quit his soccer team when his coach told him to shave his beard. He married a conservative woman who wears the traditional head scarf to signal her piety. Erdogan started in politics as a protégé of Erbakan, who appointed him chairman of REFAH's Istanbul branch and endorsed his run for mayor. When he won the election in 1994, Erdogan declared himself Istanbul's "imam," opening his first city council session by chanting from the Koran. As mayor, he condemned contraception, ordered the renovation of mosques, and banned alcohol in public places. His fervor soon got him into trouble. After reading a poem with Islamist overtones at a 1998 rally ("The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets/The minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers"), Erdogan was convicted of using religion to foment disorder. He spent four months in prison.

Erdogan's sentence apparently had a transformative effect. He now appears to embrace without qualification Atatürk's vision of Turkey as a secular democracy. He maintains that religion is a private matter divorced from state affairs and that, although Islam governs his personal conduct, Turkey's staunchly secular constitution is his political reference. His handling of the head scarf issue exemplifies his transformation. To rally support among traditional Turks during the campaign, Erdogan argued against the ban on wearing head scarves in government offices and schools. But since assuming office, he has not moved to lift the restrictions. Symbolically associating himself with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and the military leadership (who once refused to participate in a "national sovereignty" reception attended by a member of parliament and his covered wife), Erdogan visited the Atatürk mausoleum on Turkey's 80th anniversary in 2003 accompanied by women without head scarves.

Critics argue that Erdogan's recent disavowal of Islamic symbolism is only tactical. Erdogan's clique has quietly and consistently removed women from government positions, and few women candidates appear on AKP candidate lists. In May, the Republican People's Party (known as CHP), the AKP's main opposition, backed legislation calling for "positive discrimination" and quotas for women in elected bodies or employed in state institutions. Burhan Kuzu, the AKP president of parliament's Constitutional Committee, rebuffed them: "Parliamentarianism is a hard task. We often work after midnight. A woman returning that late from work will not be looked upon with decency." (In the end, the AKP gave its lukewarm support, and the national assembly affirmed that "woman and man have equal rights" and approved measures giving women "equality before the law.")

The AKP's educational reform package has also given some secularists pause. The party has argued for preferences on the university entrance examinations for vocational school graduates, eight percent of whom have received degrees from religious schools. But it has faced objections from the Central Committee for Higher Education, which was established by the military to set university standards and improve the quality of education in provincial institutions. The committee was concerned that over time the measure would swamp universities with ill-prepared students from religious schools. It also worried that the AKP would undermine its authority by filling Education Ministry positions with party loyalists.


Erdogan may indeed be torn between his Islamic beliefs and his politics. But he has worked consistently to strengthen Turkey's ties to the West, even when his foreign-policy initiatives-regarding the war in Iraq, peace in Cyprus, and Turkey's accession to the EU-have complicated his relations with both Islamists and ardent secularists in the military at home.

In early 2003, AKP leaders assured the Bush administration that it could use Turkey for the transit of U.S. troops on their way to northern Iraq. But in March 2003, the Turkish parliament unexpectedly rejected the measure. Washington's punitive decision to withdraw an offer of significant aid sent shock waves through the ailing economy and offered Erdogan's detractors a chance to undermine him. It is unclear if the NSC, which would usually take the lead on matters of such national importance, demurred in order to engineer the debacle and embarrass Erdogan or if it genuinely thought Turkey's decision not to participate could derail plans for war. Perhaps it calculated that a falling out within the AKP over the invasion of Iraq would bring down the government by driving a wedge between Erdogan and the party's more traditional wing. If this was the strategy, however, it backfired. The United States went to war without Turkey; Erdogan won praise at home for standing up to the Bush administration's bullying after the parliamentary vote; and when U.S. forces got bogged down by the insurgency, Erdogan was applauded for keeping Turkey out of the quagmire.

Erdogan's Cyprus policy also pitted him against ultranationalists and other powerful constituencies at home. Within weeks of assuming office, he helped advance the island's reunification by distancing his government from Rauf Denktash, the obstructionist Turkish Cypriot leader. Erdogan's move pleased EU governments, which had wanted to resolve the dispute among Cypriots before starting accession talks with Ankara. But it exacerbated tensions within Turkey's military.

The military is split between two camps over the extent to which Turkey should implement reforms sought by the EU. On one side, the Foreign Ministry and Hilmi Ozkok, the country's top general and a member of the NSC, support Erdogan's efforts. The NSC had previously undermined parties with an Islamic orientation, but Ozkok has preferred to work with the popular AKP. Reformers like him, as well as the national police and the military intelligence, support Turkey's bid to join the EU. They understand that civilian control of the military is critical to Turkey's EU candidacy.

On the other side, the land army, army intelligence units, and the corps of gendarmes oppose such reforms, which they find excessively constraining. Aytac Yalman, the head of the Land Forces Command and the staunchest Kemalist among Turkey's top military brass, has recently accused the United States of harboring a secret plan to establish an independent state of Iraqi Kurdistan and has applauded academics who call for cutting ties with "imperialist America and the EU." In January 2004, the Land Forces Command asked governors and military centers to spy on and collect information about individuals carrying out "divisive and destructive" activities, especially Turks advocating membership in the EU.

The reformists currently have the upper hand. Last year, Ozkok discreetly engineered a reduction of the military's power in politics. Using the regular rotation of senior military officers at a High Military Council meeting in August 2003, he forced hard-line generals into retirement, including Yalman, who will step down at the end of 2004.

Meanwhile, joining the EU has become an obsession for many Turks. Liberals and the business community want membership because it will promote their basic freedoms and accelerate economic reform. Minorities, including the Kurds, see it as the best way to secure greater human rights. Islamists think that such a move will reduce chances of a military takeover; military officers believe that it will ensure Turkey's territorial integrity.

Accession is an old but still-distant dream, however. To become an EU member, Turkey will have to overcome the reluctance of European states to accept in their midst a country whose majority population is Muslim. Turkey and the European Community signed an Association Agreement in 1963, but Turkey did not formally apply for membership in the union until 1987. A decade later, at the EU Luxembourg summit, Turkey watched several former communist countries jump the queue, while it was not even considered a candidate for accession. Adding insult to injury, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker stated at the time, "A country in which torture is still a common practice cannot have a seat at the table of the European Union." Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and other European leaders also actively opposed Turkey's membership.

Yet Turkey was eventually declared a candidate in December 1999. To institutionalize the reforms the EU asked of it, Turkey established a National Programme for the Adoption of the EU Acquis. At the Copenhagen summit in December 2002, the EU outlined the political and economic conditions that Ankara would have to satisfy before formal accession talks could begin. The so-called Copenhagen criteria require that Turkey have a functioning market economy and stable institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.


Encouraged by the EU, Turkey has pursued legislative and constitutional reforms liberalizing the political system and relaxing restrictions on freedom of the press, association, and expression. Turkey signed and ratified Protocols 6 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It abolished the death penalty and adopted measures to promote independence of the judiciary, end torture during police interrogations, and reform the prison system. In addition, Turkey has significantly reduced the scope of its antiterrorism statutes, which had been used to curtail political expression, and it amended the Penal Code and Codes of Criminal and Administrative Procedure. Police powers have been curbed and the administration of justice strengthened, due partly to the dismantling of state security courts.

The protection and promotion of the rights of the Kurds, which make up about a fifth of Turkey's population, have also progressed. In several southeastern provinces, the long-standing state of emergency, which led to abuses by the military, has been lifted. New regulations have been adopted to facilitate Kurdish-language education. The rights of the Kurdish media and other broadcasters have been extended. And a provisional amnesty has been adopted for individuals involved in the Kurdish separatist movement. In June, an appeals court ordered the release of Leyla Zana and three other Kurdish parliamentarians who were jailed ten years ago after the Kurdistan Workers' Party was banned.

The AKP has also advanced economic reforms. Overcoming populist opposition to fiscal discipline, it has reduced runaway inflation, an overvalued currency, sky-high interest rates, and past-due loans that amounted to 20 percent of all banking system credit. Thanks to a $39.5 billion rescue package and standby loan agreement from the International Monetary Fund, it shrank the pension system, downsized the bloated public sector, and reformed bankruptcy law. By mid-2004, inflation was reduced to 13 percent, its lowest level in almost 30 years. Turkey's growth for 2004 is projected at 5 percent.

Changing the distribution of power between civilian and military authorities has proved a trickier issue. A March report by the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee emphasized the need for considerably more progress, noting the still "inappropriately large power" of Turkey's military. The report called for stricter civilian control of the security sector as a prerequisite for Turkey's membership in the EU.

In response, a constitutional amendment that curbs the military's power was passed in May. It terminated special off-budget accounts, which had long been used to finance commanders' pet projects. The Court of Accounts can now audit all public funds at the request of parliament. Military courts may no longer prosecute civilians in peacetime or for offenses such as inciting soldiers to mutiny and disobedience or discouraging the public from military duty. Allegations of torture by the military are now expected to be investigated and prosecuted promptly. The NSC no longer has carte blanche to obtain any information or document it wishes.

Structural reforms have also been passed to curtail the NSC's powers. Although it will still comprise military officers and Turkey's four main commanders, the NSC has been enlarged to give civilian ministers a majority. The Law on the National Security Council has also been amended to prevent abuse of the NSC's advisory role, decrease the frequency of NSC meetings, and deprive the TGS of its authority to convene them. The prime minister is now authorized to appoint the NSC secretary-general, who sets the agenda and the tone of the council's work.

Still, some Turks believe that no matter how much the country reforms, the EU will ultimately reject a Muslim candidate. Christian Democrats in Europe, who are already uneasy about Muslim minorities in their home countries, argue that bringing Turkey into the union would mean importing problems from the Middle East. As a compromise, some EU states are exploring a third way of engaging with Ankara: something more than a partnership but less than accession. France has proposed granting Turkey "special status"; Germany's Christian Democrats have suggested a "privileged partnership," providing Turkey with free trade and closer integration in security and military affairs. But Turkey believes these would bring it few benefits that it does not already enjoy by participating in the EU Customs Union and NATO. Accusing recalcitrant EU states of applying double standards and shifting goalposts, Erdogan flatly rejects anything short of membership.

For Erdogan, the stakes of accession are very high. By bringing Turkey to the EU negotiation table, he would bind Turkey more closely to the West; he would also fulfill Atatürk's vision of Turkey as a modern European country while affirming the country's popular Islamic identity. Turkey's rejection by the EU could cause a domestic backlash against the West and embolden ultranationalists and religious extremists bent on derailing Turkey's liberalization, democratization, and demilitarization.

Erdogan's opponents within the AKP are waiting for him to falter. Although Erbakan's traditionalist Felicity Party currently enjoys little support, Turks could be tempted to turn to it if the AKP fails to reconcile their hopes for piety and progress. Yet Erdogan should not respond to these pressures by becoming more Islamist. If this were to happen, nationalists would then attack him for undermining Turkey's secular democracy. Turkey's armed forces have removed governments in the past; they could be tempted to engineer another coup.

Were the AKP to split, elections might be called, and Erdogan would then be under pressure from nationalists who favor the military's return to dominance in domestic affairs. In Turkish politics, power reverts to those who wait around long enough. In this case, the staunchly secular CHP would surely try to appeal to both nationalists and liberals, who are typically opposed to each other. In such early elections, the CHP's Deniz Baykal could emerge as the top vote-getter, form a coalition government excluding AKP factions, and allow the NSC to regain many of its powers.

Such a change of guard could seem superficially appealing to the Bush administration, which is deeply entrenched in its war against terrorism. Indeed, although the U.S. government officially supports Erdogan, some Pentagon officials are uneasy about his Islamic orientation. They believe that the Turkish armed forces are far more reliable than the AKP in fighting terrorism. But condoning a takeover by Turkish military hard-liners would backfire. If the United States appeared to waver in its support for democracy, widespread popular resentment would adversely affect the U.S.-Turkey strategic partnership.

Instead, Washington should use its influence to encourage EU members to set a date for starting accession negotiations with Ankara. As President George W. Bush affirmed at Galatasaray University on June 29, both U.S. and Turkish interests are served by continued reforms in Turkey. More than a political and economic union, the EU represents a community of values. If it agrees to start negotiations with Turkey, Turks will rally behind Erdogan and Ozkok, allowing them to consolidate democratic reforms. Turkey has already made great strides to meet the Copenhagen criteria, and its leadership must be encouraged to continue these efforts in preparation for the next EU summit. Turkey's accession to the EU is an unprecedented chance both for the country to fulfill its potential as a successful modern democracy in the Muslim world and for the West to strengthen a precious ally in the fight against terrorism, deepen its commitment to diversity, and foster liberalization in the Islamic world.

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  • David L. Phillips is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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