By Robert Ellis Contributor February 25, 2013

Turkey has signalled a shift from European to Islamic values.

U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone incurred the wrath of the Turkish government when he drew attention to the shortcomings of the country’s legal system. Military leaders are locked up as if they were terrorists, parliamentary deputies and university professors are detained on unclear charges, and non-violent student protesters are imprisoned for protesting tuition hikes as evidence. Despite this, the United States remains a staunch supporter of Turkey’s European Union membership.

When accession talks started in 2005, the reform process which began under Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit’s coalition government and continued under the AK (Justice and Reform) Party’s rule in 2002 started to grind to a halt. Soon after talks started, Olli Rehn, the European Union’s Enlargement Commissioner, noted that the pace of change had slowed and the implementation of reforms remained uneven. Rehn also warned that pluralism and free speech were basic values which could not be compromised.

Nevertheless, the AKP government was met with a chorus of praise. In 2007, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice stated that the AKP was “a government dedicated to pulling Turkey west towards Europe.” A year later, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt declared “the AKP government is made up of profound European reformers.”

Although it was apparent that the reform process had stalled, Rehn’s successor, Stefan Füle, claimed at a conference in Istanbul in June 2010 that Turkey had been making “remarkable advances” in reforms. Füle was not the only victim of wishful thinking. Last June, 16 EU foreign ministers proclaimed Turkey to be “an inspirational example of a secular and democratic country.”

In response, Deputy Chairman of Turkey’s opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party), Faruk Loğoğlu, called on the EU to “acknowledge the realities of Turkey with objectivity.” According to Loğoğlu, the EU ministers’ perception of the state of affairs in Turkey was “sadly out of focus” and ignored the fact that the AKP government pursued an authoritarian policy of gradual Islamization in all walks of life, including education, science, politics, the economy, the armed forces and civil society, leading to the erosion of Turkish democracy and secularism.

In 1997, Fareed Zakaria wrote in Foreign Affairs about the rise of illiberal democracy, where he made a distinction between democracy as an electoral form and a liberal democracy, where citizens’ rights are protected by the constitution, a separation of powers, and the rule of law.

Zakaria concluded that democratization in the Islamic world had led to an increasing role for theocratic politics, eroding long-standing traditions of secularism and tolerance. Furthermore, he held that if elections were to be held, the resulting regimes would be more illiberal than the ones currently in place.

Nuray Mert, a Turkish professor and commentator, recently asked whether Turkey is going to be another illiberal democracy. She compared the present government’s political values with the absolutism of Putin’s Russia and its model of economic growth, which comes at the expense of democratic rights and freedoms, with that of China. According to Mert, because Islamic conservatism represses the liberal democratic culture of rights and freedoms, Turkey has become a Muslim country with a failed attempt at democratization.

Moreover, the EU Commission has expressed concern for Turkey’s reform process. Its 2012 Progress Report on Turkey criticized the catch-all indictments which have led to the mass arrests of military personnel and critics of the AKP government, as well as lengthy periods of pre-trial detention. The Commission also expressed serious concern about the increase in violations of the freedom of expression, which has caused Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to call Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.”

Regardless of EU interests, under the AKP government there has been a shift in consciousness. In his key 2001 work “Strategic Depth,” the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the architect of Turkey’s new foreign policy, stated that the EU’s demands for political reform are interpreted as the return of foreign hegemony. Therefore, EU membership has become less of a goal in itself as an instrument to facilitate the country’s economic development.

In a keynote speech held at the Istanbul Forum in October, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s chief advisor Ibrahim Kalın rejected the European model of secular democracy and pluralism, which he believes has little traction in the Arab and larger Muslim world. Furthermore, he posits that there is “a mental gap” between Islamic and Western notions of what constitutes sacred religious rights and freedom of expression.

Turkey’s president Abdullah Gül has said that the EU must decide whether it represents a community of values or a narrowly defined geographic entity. But Turkey belongs to neither. There has been much debate about Turkey’s ‘axis shift,’ which is justified. In Sarajevo in 2009, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu spoke of an Ottoman renaissance and last April in Konya he went further and spoke of “the mission for a new world order” under Islam.

In a recent interview, Prime Minister Erdoğan also stated his preference, when he remarked, “The Shanghai Five is better and more powerful and we have common values with them.”

Therefore, to talk of Turkey’s EU membership is illusory, as the best that can be hoped for is a modus vivendi based on mutual interest.

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and European press.

Photo courtesy of the United Nations via Flickr.