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Before the failed military coup on July 15, Turkey was struggling to recover from a bombing and shoot-out that killed 45 people at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on June 28. Although the attempted takeover complicates the country’s crackdown on terrorism, its security problems began long before this summer’s turmoil. The three jihadists who planned the attack had been in Turkey for quite some time, having traveled over 750 miles from Syria, rented an apartment in Istanbul, and then assembled bombs for a month. They did so without raising alarm for a simple reason: Turkey itself is radicalizing and the jihadists blended in.
Much of Turkey’s religious turn has to do with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the most powerful democratically elected leader in Turkey’s history. He has run the country since 2003, first as prime minister and then as president since 2014. Over the years, he methodically eliminated Kemalism, the revolutionary–secularist Turkish ideology named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country's founder. Whereas Ataturk established a strict firewall to prevent religion from seeping into state affairs, and also firmly defined Turkey as a Western country, Erdogan put conservative Islam back into the country’s foreign policy, politics, and education system.
Kemalism required Turkish citizens to treat religion as a private matter and his government actively discriminated against overtly religious people. The tables have now turned. Erdogan considers citizens who are not outwardly conservative to be second class. Displays of religious piety guarantee government contracts, jobs, promotions, and access to power. A headscarf-wearing wife, which is a sign of conservatism, is the surest way to get a job in the Erdogan administration or receive a lucrative government contract. Consider this in light of the fact that only about half of Turkish women cover their heads.
In Erdogan’s Turkey, the politics of religion has seeped into all walks of life, and education has been one the most tragic examples of this trend. Secular education, one of Ataturk’s key policies, is all but gone. In December 2014, Turkey’s Higher Education Council, a government-regulated body, issued a policy recommendation suggesting that mandatory courses on Sunni Islam be taught in publicly-funded schools to all students, even ones as young as six. This policy was eventually implemented and as a result, Turkey’s public education system can no longer be considered secular. Kindergarten-age students from other faiths, no-faith, or non-practicing families are forced to take courses on Sunni Islam in publicly-funded schools.
In addition, following curriculum- and exam-based changes to the country’s secular education system, a growing number of pupils have been forced to study in Islamic high schools. No one is spared—not even the grandson of Turkey’s chief rabbi, who was placed, along with many Christians, in an Islamic high school.
Erdogan’s policies are all the harder to swallow, give the public support he receives from extremist elements and emboldened vigilantes. During the month of Ramadan, these groups violently attacked citizens who chose not to fast and targeted establishments that served alcohol. These are both unusual and disturbing developments in Turkey, which hitherto, has been known for its liberal interpretation of Islam. Making things worse, the government has neither arrested nor prosecuted these vigilantes.
Erdogan’s proclivity for seeing the world through an anti-Kemalist and anti-Western lens has affected his foreign policy as well. He has pivoted Ankara toward the Middle East, where it has taken up a key role in the ruinous Syrian civil war, which began in 2011. Hard as it is to believe, Ankara now supports radical Islamist groups in Syria such as Ahrar al-Sham, which has ties to al Qaeda, in its effort to bring down the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Accordingly, Ankara turned a blind eye to radical foreign fighters crossing into Syria to fight the Assad regime. Ankara saw no risk in this strategy since, as the thinking in Ankara among the elites in the ruling Justice and Development Party (or AKP), was that, “Assad would fall, good guys would take over, and they would get rid of the bad guys.”
This dangerous cocktail of events—Islamization at home, the jihadis’ use of Turkey as a staging ground for Syria, and the rise of ISIS next door—has encouraged violent radicalization among the Turks.
This policy has been a complete failure. Not only has Assad clung to power, but some of the very radicals who crossed openly into Syria, with no complaint from Ankara, turned into what we now know as ISIS, the very group that is threatening Turkey and the rest of the world.
This dangerous cocktail of events—Islamization at home, the jihadis’ use of Turkey as a staging ground for Syria, and the rise of ISIS next door—has encouraged violent radicalization among the Turks. For instance, some of the recent ISIS attacks, including the Ankara and Istanbul bombings in October and March that killed 108 people, were carried out by Turkish citizens radicalized by ISIS in Syria.
Jihadi propaganda is proliferating on the Turkish Web, and ISIS is accepted in certain circles, including various Istanbul neighborhoods where people can buy ISIS paraphernalia on the streets. Even more alarmingly, according to a report by the Soufan Group, more than 2,100 Turkish citizens have crossed into Syria to fight for ISIS. Turkey is now the fourth-largest contributor of fighters to ISIS, after Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
An equally troublesome development—the recently failed coup plot—will only weaken the Turkish military, with grave implications for the country’s security. For one, the attempted takeover only involved a small part of the military. This indicated that there were serious rifts in an organization that had managed to maintain solidarity through earlier coups, bitter counterinsurgency, and the controversial trials against the “Ergenekon gang,” a supposedly clandestine organization in the military accused of staging a coup in 2004. In yet another blow to the cohesion of state and society in the face of the growing ISIS threat, the failed coup will erode governmental and public support for what was once Turkey’s most trusted and united security institution.
If Erdogan does not crack down on jihadi radicalization, curb Islamization at home, and cut his ties with radicals inside Syria, Turkey will suffer severely—and the West too. It is possible that radicalization will spread to the five-million-strong Turkish diaspora in Europe, as it turns a blind eye to Erdogan’s troubling domestic policies in return for his cooperation on the refugee crisis. The United States also needs Ankara as an ally in its fight against ISIS. Washington should warn Erdogan, before it is too late, of how his religious policies have contributed to the problem of radicalization. This is especially important following the failed coup in Turkey since Erdogan succeeded, in part, by mobilizing his religious conservative base. Since then, Islamists and even some jihadists have come out to rally behind him. Although Erdogan may appear victorious today, in the long run, his policies will do little to strengthen his hold on power if his country grows ever less secure.