A plaque at the entrance to Istanbul’s Jewish Museum bears a series of statements in which five successive leaders of the Turkish Republic—from its aggressively secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 up through 1997—declare appreciation and support for the country’s Jews. The Jewish presence in Turkey is old and stable; the museum opened in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of the community’s founding, which was set in motion, so the story goes, when the Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent heard the Jews were being kicked out of Spain, thought they would be an asset to his empire and sent a fleet of ships to pick them up.
Official communal leaders profess confidence that the current prime minister, moderate Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is as good for the Jews as his predecessors. But some vigilance would be understandable. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP) is the first avowedly Islamic party to hold power for long in Turkey’s secular system. Since 2003, it has been gradually modifying—or, depending on how you look at it, subtly undermining—the secular principles on which Turkey’s unique status as a moderate Muslim democracy rests.
The Turkish military removed previous governments deemed threatening to secularism. But Erdogan, it’s agreed, has undercut the generals’ power to do this, using an unsettling combination of convenient prosecutions, religious feeder schools and specially constituted courts. That’s of interest not just to Jews, and others who rely on the secular order, but to the forces pushing change in nearby Arab nations. Ironically, as the West holds up the moderate, secular Turkish system as the model for Islamic democracies, the Turkish order may be morphing into something far more ambiguous.
“At first, there were rumors that Turkey would become another Iran,” says Sami Kohen, longtime columnist for the national newspaper Milliyet and one of the most prominent Jewish figures on the national scene. “You don’t hear Jews discussing that fear anymore.” Domestically, Erdogan has been solicitous of the Jewish community, sending Rosh Hashana greetings, ending some long-standing discriminatory government practices, even characterizing anti-Semitism as akin to the European “Islamophobia” that he loathes. But he has also presided over a sharp turn in foreign policy toward Israel, from perhaps its closest Muslim ally—with extensive military and diplomatic ties—to a fierce public critic. After the infamous Gaza flotilla incident of 2010 in which nine Turks died, he downgraded diplomatic relations and suspended all military agreements.
Most observers see Erdogan’s shift not as a vendetta against Jews but as an attempt to assert Mideast leadership, turning Turkey away from its long and unsuccessful courtship of the European Union toward its more traditional central role in once-Ottoman realms. Erdogan walks the line carefully between reference to Jews and to Israel, but elements of his base make no such distinction. Ersin Kalaycioglu, a non-Jewish political scientist at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, says Erdogan can be “exuberantly anti-Semitic” on the stump. Kohen disputes this, but says AKP’s rhetoric toward Israel—“very nasty, strong, harsh, wild”—creates “a new kind of anti-Semitism” on the streets. After the flotilla deaths, “there were demonstrations, and a fear they might get out of hand. So far it hasn’t, but the fear is there.”
The change in Israel rhetoric brings Turkey more in line culturally with the Islamic world, to the discomfort of Turkish secular intellectuals, who worry about the AKP’s long-term intentions for social policy and their way of life. Erdogan’s style here has been to go slowly, retreating when challenged. A 2004 bill to ban adultery, sharia-style, was shelved after fierce criticism from the European Union. This year, a proposed near-total ban on abortion was dropped in the face of public uproar. On the other hand, the right of women to wear headscarves at public universities—a raging political issue for decades—is now accepted. More informal measures, such as pressure on small towns to stop serving alcohol in public, have made quiet progress.
“If you look at the whole picture, the fear of the Islamization of the country makes sense,” Kohen says. “Yesterday headscarves, today abortion, what will it be tomorrow—the weekend?” (Turkey uses the Western weekend, while most Arab countries take off Friday.)
Kalaycioglu worries that creeping Islamization could cause the long-standing secular/religious, “West and the rest” divide in Turkey to become angry and polarized, “like Israel.” This doesn’t seem like the social phenomenon by which the Middle East’s two most advanced democracies want to be known. But Erdogan’s model of gradual cultural change, accompanied by constriction of the space for democratic dissent, may be a plausible blueprint for the emerging Islamic societies Erdogan so plainly wants to lead.
“The Arab countries aren’t interested in Turkish-style secularism—they want something stronger,” says Nedal Siyam, a producer for Al Jazeera in Istanbul. “Turkey is still searching for its model. It can’t be a model to the region until it solves its own problems.”
Siyam had an unusual front-row seat for Turkey’s early efforts to influence the direction of Egypt’s revolution: He was Erdogan’s simultaneous translator on the latter’s trip to Cairo in 2011. Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen had eagerly awaited Erdogan, heralding him as a model Islamic leader. Interviewed on TV, Erdogan declared that though he personally was a pious Muslim, the Turkish system was secular. The next day, Brotherhood newspapers denounced him as an infidel.
Erdogan’s initial reaction was to retreat, blaming a translation error for the confusion. (Fortunately, Siyam says, he had tapes.) Kalaycioglu, for one, still scratches his head over the incident: “I can’t imagine why he said that.” It’s greatly to Erdogan’s advantage to remain an enigma. But for the future of Muslim-flavored moderation and secularism, there is no one more important to watch.