Gökhan Bacık
Aug 01 2018

Turkey and the U.S.A - Is an Islamist rift possible?

Turkish diplomatic stand-off with United States, which threatened sanctions against its NATO ally last week over the ongoing detention of evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, is coloured by Turkish leaders’ Islamist outlook and reflects their belief that a Muslim nation can and should stand up to the West.

The book that Egyptian Sayyid Qutb wrote of his visit to the United States in the 1940s became a seminal work for Islamists. For Qutb, American society was in the state of ‘jahilliya’, i.e. ignorance, a term used to describe human society before Islam. Qutb often compared Americans to animals.

Following his footsteps, Islamists began to define the United States as the main actor responsible for what they saw as a globally corrupt order. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became leader of Iran after the 1979 revolution, called the United States the great satan.

Turkish Islamists similarly see Washington as a global threat, but their relations with the United States are more complicated.

For example, when Turkey became a NATO member in 1952, it was a move Said Nursi, an influential name in the Turkish Islamic movement, ardently supported. He even sent one of his disciples to the Korean War, which he imagined as a holy war between faith and communist atheism.

Indeed anti-communism was the keystone for Islamic groups during the Cold War and “communist” became the worst insult in many conservative Anatolian towns.

The 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine led the United States to lend military support to its allies and foster anti-communist ideas abroad, including in the Middle East.

Many anti-communist organisations quickly flourished in Turkey, among them the Association for Fighting Communism in Turkey became popular. Important figures from the various branches of Turkish conservative and right-wing groups were active members, for example, Bekir Berk, Said Nursi’s lawyer.

Another active member was Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamist preacher now based in the United States who was for years an ally of Turkey’s ruling party, but now stands accused of ordering the failed 2016 coup attempt through.

Turkey’s alliance with the West against the communist block affected domestic politics and Islamic groups enjoyed permissive conditions due to their anti-communist activities. The tough anti-communist stance of Islamic groups was also seen as advantageous to the United States in an age before radical Islamism became a threat.

There was a complicated dynamic at play between Turkey’s Islamists and the United States, but it was not the conspiracy that portrays Islamism as an American project.

Instead, Islamic groups enjoyed various political and economic opportunities that were stemmed from Turkey’s alliance with the United States during the Cold War.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) also became a beneficiary of Western investment after it came to power in 2002. Turkey under the AKP was seen as an important regional ally of the West capable of acting as a mediator between Syria and Israel, or between Iran and the United States.

What has changed is that the Islamists have now secured enough power to bring about regime change with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan taking on extensive executive powers and opposition cowed by a widespread judicial crackdown.

But with Western political support and finance-capital it is impossible to realise a regime change in line with the core Islamists precepts. To put it differently, Islamisation is only possible with severe political and economic costs reminiscent of those endured by Iran since 1979.

Probably aware of this, Erdoğan’s reaction to the threat of sanctions was to point out that Iran had not collapsed despite years of such measures. It is likely that like other Islamists, Erdoğan believes Turkey can survive in spite of Western objections to his new regime.