On Sep. 7, a panel of experts on Turkey gathered at the Museum of Tolerance to answer a baffling question: Is Turkey Lost? Over 90 minutes, three journalists and the Turkish Consul General in Los Angeles discussed whether the largely Muslim, strongly democratic, and traditionally secular country of nearly 80 million was lost to the West, lost to Israel and lost to democracy. The non-Turkish observers—one a freelance journalist based in Istanbul—came out hoping that Turkey would remain an ally of the United States, would soon reestablish its strong alliance with Israel, and would retain its secular and democratic character. But none could be sure.
“Turkey today stands as something of an enigma,” said Avi Davis, Executive Director and Senior Fellow at the American Freedom Alliance, the education and activist group that organized the event. And Turkey seems even more enigmatic in light of the Sep. 12 referendum in which Turkish voters approved 26 amendments to the Turkish Constitution that appear to strengthen the hand of the legislature over the military and the judiciary, the two branches of Turkey’s governing powers that are often said to be the defenders of the country’s secular tradition.
Critics of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) say that the devoutly Muslim leader has helped to undermine Turkey’s secular system, and that these amendments will only further that trend. Erdogan, who will stand for reelection next year, said that the amendments would strengthen Turkey’s democracy and help bring it into line with the requirements of the European Union. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor:
“We have passed a historic threshold on the way to advanced democracy and the supremacy of law,” said Erdogan to applause from supporters gathered to celebrate the victory. “Supporters of military intervention and coups are the losers tonight.”
The argument convinced a majority of the Turkish population, with 58% of the country voting for the package of amendments, but what they will mean for Turkey remains to be seen.
Which may be why at least a few people in the audience last Tuesday evening felt a little confused. Near the end of the question-and-answer period, someone asked in all seriousness, “Who cares? Why does this matter? So what if Turkey is lost?”
The journalists on the panel provided a range of responses: “Turkey could turn off Europe’s lights,” said one. “The loss of Turkey would deal a body blow to NATO,” said another.
When it comes to Turkey’s future, it turns out, we may be the ones who are lost.