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Turkey - Long-Term Threat to the West and to Middle East Peace

By Zach Paikin

Radical Islamism - the formal union of mosque and state often cloaked in an anti-West garb - is on the rise in the Middle East. By the end of 2011, there is a distinct possibility that 250 million people will be living under Islamist rule in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

In Iran, the revolutionary Islamist regime has held power since 1979. It is the world's leader in state-sponsored terrorism, violently represses its own people, calls for the destruction of Israel and possesses and illegally pursues nuclear weapons.

Iran's terrorist proxies in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories - Hezbollah and Hamas - continue to grow stronger. New Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati recently unveiled his cabinet, dominated by Hezbollah and its allies. Hezbollah, in possession of more than 55,000 rockets, represents the largest and most powerful armed force within Lebanon's borders.

Meanwhile, as the Palestinian Authority calls for a UN General Assembly vote on recognition of a Palestinian state, Fatah continues negotiations with Hamas over the formation of a "national unity" government. Egypt's opening of Gaza's Rafah crossing has facilitated the movement of funds, weapons and terrorists into the Hamas-controlled territory.

In Egypt, parliamentary elections set for September are likely to deliver a plurality - possibly even a majority - to the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. The momentum from these elections may propel Brotherhood-backed Abdul Moneim Abul Futuh to the presidency shortly thereafter. Furthermore, Egypt's constitution might be rewritten to provide for the Qur'an becoming the primary source of law and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979 may be undone.

Recently re-elected Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoganRecently re-elected Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoganYet the largest long-term threat to Western interests in the Middle East is likely to be Turkey.

The Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won a third consecutive majority mandate on June 12. This will bring about the end of the secular republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

The AKP increased its share of the popular vote to nearly 50% - more than 21 million votes, an all-time high for the party - falling just short of the 330 seats needed to propose a referendum on constitutional amendments. The victory at the polls also falls short of the two-thirds of the 550 seats in Turkey's Grand National Assembly necessary to rewrite the constitution unilaterally.

Erdogan will likely be able to work out a deal to propose a national constitutional referendum during his third term - a referendum he has a good chance at winning. Indeed, his party won a constitutional referendum last year with nearly 58% of the vote. It is expected that Erdogan will try to impose an Islamist character on Turkey's constitution and build a state with a more presidential system.

With the courts and military subdued, much of the media owned by the state and dissent being repressed, many are wondering whether these free and fair elections will be Turkey's last. Turkish journalists, academics, military officers and others critical of the AKP have been jailed and some have been accused of terrorism or plotting coups. Under the AKP, Turkey increasingly is resembling an Islamist police state.

Many AKP supporters, however, do not view their party as wanting to impose an Islamist character on the state but rather as a nationalist, economically competent party working to assert Turkey's position in the world more strongly. This, in a sense, is the reason why the AKP's Islamist revolution has succeeded. Westerners cheer Turkey's "democratic successes" when in the reality, the AKP's reelection will likely set the Middle East back by half a century.

Turkish Islamists, unlike Iranian Islamists or members of terrorist organizations, have come to power not by the sword nor by massive popular uprisings, but through elections. As a result, their active presence in the public sphere is much more entrenched and legitimate.

The AKP has managed to play to the public sentiments of much of the Turkish population, both to those who are frustrated with the inability to join the European Union and would like to reorient Turkey toward Muslim states in the East and to those who want to keep the idea of "Turkey as a part of Europe" alive.

As a result, Islamists in Turkey represent a much longer-term threat to Western interests in the Middle East than the ruling mullahs in Iran. The Iranian threat, while serious, will be dealt with over the short term both because of the decline of Islamism in Iranian society - the result of considerable opposition to the theocratic regime - as well as the widely addressed nuclear issue.

Although Turkey appears to be aligned with Iran right now, these two nations - the former Sunni and the latter Shiite - may well find themselves at odds with one another in the future over the question of Middle East Muslim leadership. Historically, the Ottoman and Persian Empires more often than not opposed one another's power and religious standing.

Iran's theocratic regime seeks to overturn the regional status quo in order to regain the prestige of previous Persian empires. Yet Turkey's neo-Ottomans - Islamists as well - have more legitimacy in their search for Middle East leadership due both to their Sunni faith - which is dominant in the region - and to their long and relatively recent status as inheritors of the Islamic Caliphate from the 16th century until World War I.

Turkey's government is hostile toward Israel and, in many ways, is opposed to Western interests. Those who care about Arab-Israeli peace and liberal democracy in the Muslim world should cringe over the nearly inevitable long-term consolidation of power by anti-liberal, hegemonic forces in a previously pro-West, secular Middle-Eastern state.

Zach Paikin is a research associate for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

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