“The Jury is Out”: WikiLeaks shows U.S. trying to understand Islam in Turkey

November 29, 2010

turkey 3

(Photo: A commuter ferry sails past the Blue Mosque in Istanbul September 4, 2010/Osman Orsal)

The WikiLeaks documents from the U.S. embassy in Ankara show several attempts by American diplomats to understand the role of Islam and the Islamic world in the political stand of the governing AK Party of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Their efforts can be summarised in a subtitle of a cable in 2007 purporting to show “the truth behind the AKP’s “secret Islamic agenda.” It said simply: The Jury is Out.”

Following are some interesting excerpts, with links to the full documents:


1. (C) There is much talk in chanceries and in the international media these days about Turkey’s new, highly activist foreign policy …  The ruling AKP foreign policy is driven by both a desire to be more independently activist, and by a more Islamic orientation…

turkey 52. (C) Does all this mean that the country is becoming more focused on the Islamist world and its Muslim tradition in its foreign policy? Absolutely. Does it mean that it is “abandoning” or wants to abandon its traditional Western orientation and willingness to cooperate with us? Absolutely not. At the end of the day we will have to live with a Turkey whose population is propelling much of what we see …  Turkey will remain a complicated blend of world class “Western” institutions, competencies, and orientation, and Middle Eastern culture and religion.

(Photo: Coffin wrapped in Turkish and Islamic banners at Istanbul funeral on June 3, 2010 for activist killed when Israeli commandos stormed Turkish ship trying to take aid to Gaza/Osman Orsal)

9. (C) Various factors explain the shifts we see in Turkish foreign policy beyond the personal views of the AKP leadership:

— Islamisation: As reported REF B, religiosity has been increasing in Turkey in past years, just as has been seen in many other Muslim societies. The AKP is both a beneficiary of, and a stimulus for, this phenomenon. However, bitter opposition within Turkey against domestic “pro-Islamic” reforms (e.g., head scarves) has frustrated the AKP, and a more “Islamic” or “Middle Eastern” foreign policy offers an alternative sop for the AKP’s devout base…
11. (C) Nevertheless, many in Turkey’s large Westernised elite see the Islamic Outreach as a complement to the alleged AKP plan to Islamise Turkish society, and complain bitterly about their country’s losing its Western moorings. The nationalist segment in Turkey, mobilised most by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), sees the AKP’s compromises on Armenia, the KRG in northern Iraq, Cyprus, etc, as a betrayal of diaspora “Turks” (the Iraqi Turkomen, Azeris, Turkish Cypriots, etc) and charges that the AKP is trying to replace
the Republic’s organising principle of “Turkism” with the broader Islamic “Umma” …

Conclusion: The Jury Is Out
12. (C) Comment. To date, AKP critics can only muster circumstantial evidence of an AKP Islamist agenda. Opposition leaders, some media outlets, the military and extreme nationalists have used this to play up fears that an AKP triumvirate will allow Erdogan to make significant, perhaps irreversible, changes that would undermine Turkey’s secular system. Using dramatic ad campaigns and threatening rhetoric, they warn that Turkey may soon have an Islamist president with a head scarf wearing wife ready to take the country back to the pre-republic “dark ages”…  The secular establishment’s concern that AKP poses a genuine threat to Turkey’s secular system is undoubtedly heightened by the realisation that AKP’s reform agenda threatens the established elite’s traditional, top-down control.

turkey 4(Photo: Protester at secularist rally against AK Party, in Ankara April 12, 2008/Umit Bektas)

13. (C) Those not convinced of a nefarious AKP plan contend that more than four years in power have matured the party. Erdogan has had to moderate his message to balance factions within AKP and lessen tensions with secularists threatened by AKP reforms. Much of the party’s success stems from its image as being less corrupt (“AK” in Turkish means “clean”, a dubious claim for any party here) and more effective than the opposition. Its record to date describes a centre-right, conservative party with Islamic roots that has modestly advanced Kemal Ataturk’s core principles of Westernisation and modernisation. Some of the changes tied to that process will inevitably transform the traditional power balance and strengthen civilian leaders. To keep the public’s trust and minimise tension as Turkish society evolves, AKP, and Erdogan in particular, will need to continue to employ broad-reaching, moderate, balanced rhetoric.


3. (C) AKP’s parliamentary group is composed of politicians with widely differing viewpoints. There are three main ideological currents: pious, nationalist and pragmatic. Most AKP MPs do not fall neatly into any one category, and personal loyalties crosscut ideology, mostly among pious MPs.

4. (C) Almost all AKP MPs are religiously observant to some degree; for example, the vast majority fast during Ramadan. However, there is a large and distinctively more pious group of MPs, comprising former members of the banned Islamist Virtue (Fazilet) Party, former members of the National View Islamist youth group, and members of a wide range of (officially banned) Muslim brotherhoods. Most of AKP’s top leaders fall into this group: PM Erdogan, DPM/FM Abdullah Gul, parliament Speaker Arinc, Vice Speaker Alptekin (former PM and Islamic Saadet Party head Erbakan’s right-hand man) and all five of AKP’s parliamentary whips. Pious MPs generally represent the central Anatolian heartland, speak no English, and have traveled little.

turkey 6(Photo: AKP supporters at a party congress in Ankara October 3, 2009/Umit Bektas)

5. (C) While most Turkish Islamists oppose the EU, AKP’s Islamist MPs toe the AKP line and support it, albeit less enthusiastically since October 3. Typical of Turkish Islamists, they dislike Turkey’s military and have no ties to it other than their required military service. Attitudes about the U.S. vary widely, from friendly to suspicious, but most favor better ties with the Muslim world. Although the GOT, under Erdogan’s leadership, has taken a politically courageous public stand favoring privatisation and foreign investment, many pious MPs oppose both.

6. (C) AKP’s pious MPs are widely rumored to be deeply unhappy about PM Erdogan’s inability to ease restrictions on the wearing of headscarves and on religious schools. However, since AKP came to power in November 2002, no AKP MP has resigned and gone over to the Happiness (Saadet) Party, on AKP’s Islamist flank.

10. (C) AKP’s lack of cohesion as a party and lack of openness as a government is reflected in the range of murky, muddled motives for wanting to join the EU we have encountered among those AKPers who say they favor pursuing  membership … or at least the process. Some see the process as the way to marginalise the Turkish military and what remains of the arid “secularism” of Kemalism. We have also run into the rarely openly spoken, but widespread belief among adherents of the Turk-Islam synthesis that Turkey’s role is to spread Islam in Europe, “to take back Andalusia and avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683″ as one participant in a recent meeting at AKP’s main think tank put it. This thinking parallels the logic behind the approach of FonMin Gul ally and chief foreign policy adviser in the Prime Ministry Ahmet Davutoglu, whose muddy opinion piece in the Dec. 13 International Herald Tribune is in essence a call for one-way multi-cultural tolerance, i.e., on the part of the EU.

turkey 1(Photo: Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses MPs from his AK Party  in Ankara October 5, 2010/Umit Bektas)

24. (C) Turkey’s EU bid has brought forth reams of pronouncements and articles — Mustafa Akyol’s Gulenist-tinged “Thanksgiving for Turkey” in Dec. 27 Weekly Standard is one of the latest — attempting to portray Islam in Turkey as distinctively moderate and tolerant with a strong mystical (Sufi) underpinning. Certainly, one can see in Turkey’s theology faculties some attempts to wrestle with the problems of critical thinking, free will, and precedent (ictihad), attempts which, compared to what goes on in theology faculties in the Arab world, may appear relatively progressive.

25. (C) However, the broad, rubber-meets-the-road reality is that Islam in Turkey is caught in a vise of (1) 100 years of “secular” pressure to hide itself from public view, (2) pressure and competition from brotherhoods and lodges to follow their narrow, occult “true way”, and (3) the faction-and positivism-ridden aridity of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet). As a result, Islam as it is lived in Turkey is stultified, riddled with hypocrisy, ignorant and intolerant of other religions’ presence in Turkey, and unable to eject those who would politicise it in a radical, anti-Western way. Imams are for the most part poorly educated and all too ready to insinuate anti-Western, anti-Christian or anti-Jewish sentiments into their sermons. Exceptionally few Muslims in Turkey have the courage to challenge conventional Sunni thinking about jihad or, e.g., verses in the Repentance shura of the Koran which have for so long been used to justify violence against “infidels”.

26. (C) The problem is compounded by the willingness of politicians such as Gul to play elusively with politicised Islam. Until Turkey ensures that the humanist strain in Islam prevails here, Islam in Turkey will remain a troubled, defensive force, hypocritical to an extreme degree and unwilling to adapt to the challenges of open society.

turkey 227. (C) A second question is the relation of Turkey and its citizens to history — the history of this land and citizens’ individual history. Subject to rigid taboos, denial, fears, and mandatory gross distortions, the study of history and practice of historiography in the Republic of Turkey remind one of an old Soviet academic joke: the faculty party chief assembles his party cadres and, warning against various ideological threats, proclaims, “The future is certain. It’s only that damned past that keeps changing.”

(Photo: Ottoman military band of Mehter and Janissaries at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul April 16, 2007/Fatih Saribas)

28. (C) Until Turkey can reconcile itself to its past, including the troubling aspects of its Ottoman past, in free and open debate, how will Turkey reconcile itself to the concept and practice of reconciliation in the EU? How will it have the self confidence to take decisions and formulate policies responsive to U.S. interests? Some in AKP are joining what is still only a handful of others to take tentative, but  nonetheless inspiring, steps in this regard. However, the road ahead will require a massive overhaul of education, the introduction and acceptance of rule of law, and a fundamental redefinition of the relation between citizen and state. In the words of the great (Alevi) Anatolian bard Asik Veysel, this is a “long and delicate road.”

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In a small way, this reminds me of both Voltaire’s Letters on The English, and Tocqueville’s America. This should have never been classified information.

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