How Turkey Went from Secular to Islamic Authoritarianism

For years Turkey was deservedly hailed as a modern, secular, pro-Western society — at least, until the last decade.

Turkey lies at the edge of Europe and the Middle East, not only geographically but also, in a sense, politically. It’s a Muslim-majority country that for most of the twentieth century was a “secular republic,” assuring freedom of religion and having no official state-backed religion. Though straddling the Middle East, Turkey is a member of NATO and has sought to join the European Union. But a lot has changed in the last twenty years.

Since the early 2000s, Turkey’s political system has steadily moved toward one shaped by Islamist ideas. Turkey has funded and enabled jihadist groups, such as Hamas. And it is jockeying with Saudi Arabia and Iran to style itself as leader of the global community of Muslims.

How did this happen? What lessons can we draw from the rise of Islamism in Turkey?

To understand this transformation, I talked with Dr. Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Rubin specializes in Turkey, Iran and the broader Middle East, and he was among the few voices early on raising the alarm about the ominous trends in Turkey.

The driving force behind the reshaping of Turkey is the country’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — a man Rubin has characterized as a jihadist in a business suit. Rubin argues that what Saudi Arabia was to the rise of the Islamist movement in the twentieth century (a financial sponsor of that ideology, opening religious schools globally and backing jihadists), Turkey aims to be in the twenty-first century.

From my interview with Rubin — which you can catch below — a few takeaways stand out regarding Turkey’s transformation. First, Erdoğan embarked on a calculated plan to inject Islamist ideas into Turkish society. Second, Erdoğan’s campaign was incrementalist, reshaping institutions and the legal system from within, but also opportunistic, exploiting pretexts to silence dissent. Finally, it’s crucial to recognize that Erdoğan’s authoritarianism is now moving toward dictatorship, and that this seizure of ever more power is a means to the end of creating an Islamist society.

Put another way, Islamist regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and elsewhere aspire to, and sometimes attain, totalitarian power, but these recognizable variations of Islamist rule are not the only ones. It can also look like Turkey, and unless we recognize that, we overlook the influence of Islamist ideas.

Crossposted from New Ideal, the journal of the Ayn Rand Institute.

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9/11: Learning the Right Lessons

The attacks of 9/11 have faded into history — for some, a dimming memory; for ever more people, an event that happened before they were even born. Yet the impact of 9/11 is with us today in innumerable ways, notably the Afghanistan “forever” war. And, nineteen years on, the fundamental lessons of 9/11 have not been learned. What is the full significance of that tragic event? What moral-philosophic lessons should we draw from it?

Elan Journo, Onkar Ghate, and Ben Bayer. Recorded Sept. 09, 2020.

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It’s past time for a pandemic testing strategy

By Onkar Ghate and Elan Journo

Months of statewide lockdowns across the country were meant, in part, to buy time to ramp up testing and contact tracing with regard to the spread of COVID-19. Now, amid an upsurge of cases in Florida, Texas, Arizona and elsewhere, we still have nothing like a strategic approach to testing and tracing. 

“Test, isolate and track” should be the government’s mantra in a pandemic. To protect individual rights, its basic task is to detect carriers of severe infectious pathogens, to neutralize their ability to transmit the pathogen to others, and to identify people to whom the carrier might have exposed the virus. 

Continue reading at The Hill

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When Tribal Journalists Try to ‘Cancel’ Ayn Rand (Part 2)

The New Republic article about Rand, which we looked at in Part 1, stood out not primarily because of what it said about her, but in how it conveyed its message. The article put a tribal prejudice toward Rand above facts and logic. That same mindset is on display, even more starkly, in Amanda Marcotte’s Salon article, “Right-wingers finally got their Ayn Rand hero as president — and it’s this guy.”

Let me stress, again, that my goal is not to change your mind about Rand and her ideas, nor primarily to correct the many errors and misrepresentations in these articles (though I’ll point out some of them along the way). Instead, the point is to explain how the two articles are fundamentally uninterested in convincing any active-minded reader. Their aim, rather, is to affirm a preset narrative about Rand. These are worse than mere smears, because their tribal mindset represents the abandonment of rational persuasion as the goal of intellectual discussion.

Marcotte’s point is captured in the subtitle: “Conservatives finally have a leader who lives by Ayn Rand’s selfish philosophy, and he’s an embarrassing clown,” the clown being Donald Trump. But whatever you might think of Rand or of Trump, this is a claim that’s far from self-evident. It requires a real argument. Marcotte’s article offers no argument. It’s written for an audience that already partly or fully shares Marcotte’s preconceptions.

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When Tribal Journalists Try to “Cancel” Ayn Rand (Part 1)

Inaccurate, misrepresented, and even willfully distorted reporting on Ayn Rand’s ideas has been common in the media since she first gained public prominence. That fact came up in a conversation she had with the editor of The Ayn Rand Lexicon, a kind of mini encyclopedia of her philosophy, Objectivism. The editor, Harry Binswanger, relates that Rand became increasingly enthusiastic about the Lexicon project, in part because it could serve as a corrective and eliminate any excuse for the continual misrepresentation of her philosophy. Rand quipped to him, “People will be able to look up BREAKFAST and see that I did not advocate eating babies for breakfast.”

But articles that misrepresent, or outright distort, Rand’s ideas continually find their way into print. Rarely are they worth a response. Two recent articles about Rand — one in Salon, the other in the New Republic — are different. It’s not because of what these articles say about her, but in how they say it.

Both articles raise worthwhile questions — at least, nominally. One asks about the appeal of Rand’s ideas among young people; the other is on the relation between Rand’s moral ideal of selfishness and President Trump. Both articles, moreover, cite sources, name facts, and even include some actual reporting — all in support of their highly unfavorable conclusions. Which is putting it mildly.

What’s remarkable about these essays is not that they’re sloppy, error-filled, slanted, or smears. They are. (And I’ll indicate a few, though by no means all, of their errors and misrepresentations.) Rather: what marks these essays out is that they exemplify a pernicious mindset, a mindset that’s wreaking havoc on our cultural-political life. It’s a phenomenon wider than how people engage with Ayn Rand — but when she’s the subject, that mindset is often starkly apparent.

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