Zeyno Baran has been the director of the Hudson Institute Center for Eurasian Policy since April 2006. Prior to this, she directed the International Security and Energy Programs at the Nixon Center from January 2003, informing policy-makers on Eurasian political, economic, and social dynamics and U.S. interests in the region. On June 15, she addressed the Middle East Forum via conference call on the subject of Turkey's Islamization.
Ms. Baran began her talk by emphasizing that the AKP is an unusual Islamist party in that it frequently speaks of the importance of values such as democracy and freedom of speech. This has allowed it to win popular support at the expense of the secular opposition, which is perceived as undemocratic, thereby gradually eroding secularism in Turkey.
Ms. Baran also discussed the main factors behind the AKP's popularity and its primary policies. For example, it has the support of Fethullah Gülen's movement and has appealed to businesses by bringing about a period of economic stability. At the same time, the AKP has used wiretapping and other forms of intimidation against secularists and is trying to pass a constitutional amendment to increase government influence in the justice system. The party has also cracked down on the military, widely viewed as mired in "old ways," with the arrest of army officers amidst alleged coup plots.
According to Ms. Baran, a primary foreign policy focus of Erdogan's government has been Israel. The AKP is aiming to remove Netanyahu's government as Erdogan has made ending the blockade and legitimizing Hamas personal issues. Such objectives derive from Turkey's new sense of self-confidence on the international stage — through its standing in the UN Security Council, European bureaucratic wishes to avoid what they see as a potential "clash of civilizations," and President Obama's stress on improving ties with Turkey — such that the AKP believes that the West is too weak to confront it. Thus, Turkey has increasingly allied with countries such as Brazil and Iran in an attempt to create a new non-aligned movement while enjoying the benefits of being seen as part of the West.
Ms. Baran concluded her talk by pointing out the worrying effects of AKP propaganda on Turkish society (e.g., support for Hamas is now mainstream), but added that the best hope is for elections next year to challenge the AKP. Ms. Baran stressed that the U.S. administration should be more open in expressing its concerns about Turkey's behavior to try to align the country with the West again.
Asked whether Turkey sees itself as needing to assume the role of leader of the Islamic world, Ms. Baran replied that while the government and its supporters object to the description of their policies as "neo-Ottoman," deep down the Ottoman legacy strikes a chord with many Turks.
In response to a question about Saudi Arabia's view of Turkey, Ms. Baran noted that although Saudi Arabia generally supports the AKP government, it expresses much greater concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions, but in Turkey, the Muslim world is portrayed as being behind Iran on this issue.
Summary written by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi.