Will the Syrian crisis and two million refugees have the same impact on Turkey as the Afghan jihad and the refugee exodus from Afghanistan had on Pakistan? This question has started doing the rounds among Turk intellectuals and political analysts.
But first let’s look at the context that has triggered this question. This relates to what the ruling Justice Party has ‘achieved’ since it took over in 2002. Based on discussions with local intellectuals, former diplomats and army officials, one can safely conclude that — as of now — Turkey is no longer the secular and democratic country that it was when the Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP swept into power, promising economic and political stability. It delivered on the promise, stabilized the economy, raising Turkey’s per capita income to above $14,000, helped boost foreign direct investment to over $13 billion in 2014, with six million new jobs created since 2009.
But what has been scary for most rivals and the civil society is the authoritarianism with religious trappings that has accompanied the economic development. Most Turk intellectuals think the AKP has emasculated the bureaucracy, judiciary and the media. It has also attempted to tinker with Turkey’s fundamental identity through administrative changes and a greater religio-centric policy. Today, Turkey has over 85,000 active mosques, one for every 350 citizens — compared to one hospital for every 60,000 citizens — the highest number per capita in the world. With 90,000 imams, there are more imams than doctors or teachers in the country. It has thousands of madrassa-like schools and around 4,000 more official state-run religious schools, not counting the unofficial religious schools, which may expand the total number tenfold. According to http://www.meforum.org/2045/fethullah-gulens-grand-ambition, spending by the governmental Directorate of Religious Affairs grew fivefold, from 553 trillion Turkish lira in 2002 to 2.7 quadrillion Turkish lira during the first four-and-a-half years of the AKP government. This ministry has a larger budget than eight other ministries combined. Erdogan and his party have increasingly projected a predominantly religious argument even when discussing issues such as the alleged Iranian role in Yemen and Syria.
On the foreign policy front, Erdogan has turned Turkey away from Europe and towards Russia and Iran, and reoriented the country’s policy in the Middle East more towards friendship with Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria. Anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-Semitic sentiments have increased. This also explains why the Turkish government leapt in support of all the anti-Bashar al-Assad forces a few years ago. This support included Turkish money and weapons for the artificially created rebels who eventually morphed from al Qaeda into the al Nusra Front and then into the Islamic State (IS) — the unwanted consequence of the desire to sweep away Assad from power.
Now , with the IS intimidating all and sundry and the Turkish government worried about the two million Syrian refugees, intellectuals and political opposition wonder and worry about the consequences of a policy that flowed more from a religious world view than from a pragmatic secular handling of the anti-Assad campaigners.
Quite ironically, many liberal Turk intellectuals have coined the phrase “Pakistanisation of Turkey” when discussing the fallout from the Syrian crisis. They are afraid that a protracted civil war in Syria could invariably result in the scourges of sectarianism, crime, terrorism and religious militancy — all ills that they think plague Pakistan because of its involvement with and proximity to Afghanistan, which continues to reel from two foreign interventions (anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, and the questionable war on terror starting in 2001) — become all too prevalent in Turkey. At the heart of all this was the deployment of religion as a foreign policy tool (by the US and General Ziaul Haq) and unqualified support for non-state actors.
How can a country that has seen increased religiosity since 2002 stay unaffected by the consequences of using religion as a political ideology? Using Pakistan’s troubles since the early 1980s as a metaphor for internal instability, the Turk intelligentsia is fearful that their country could also face similar socio-political upheaval if their government continues to handle issues with religious/sectarian tools. Even the ongoing fight against Kurdish separatists is coloured by religion. In addition, Erdogan declared 311 miners killed in the worst-ever coal mine accident in May 2014 in Soma, Manisa as martyrs to cover up administrative lapses. Instead of launching investigations, the government sent dozens of imams to the area to comfort the affected families.
It will be interesting to see if the Syrian crisis affects Turkey the way the Afghan crisis impacted Pakistan.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies
This article first appeared in The Express Tribune, a leading daily of Pakistan. Click here to go to the original.