In November 2013, Iran's ambassador to Ankara, Alireza Bigdeli, said: "Just as Imam Khomeini did it in Iran, the Justice and Development Party [AKP] have paved the way for the advancement of Islam in Turkey."
Nearly a year later, the AKP's new leader (and Turkey's Prime Minister) Ahmet Davutoglu rephrased the Iranian diplomat's "praise" for Turkey's Islamists: "We have made the conservative, pious (Muslim) masses not a just a part, but the main actor, in the political system."
Either political diagnosis will explain Turkey's radical shift towards political Islam in the last decade or so. Davutoglu's boss, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has never hidden his ideology. On Jan. 8, 1995, he said, "marriage certificates should be issued by imams, not by municipal officials." In a Sept. 23, 1996 statement, he said, "the system we want to establish cannot contradict Allah's orders. Our reference is Islam." And in January 2012, after nearly a decade in power, he declared that his political ambition was "to raise devout generations."
Unsurprisingly, the rise of political Islam in Turkey, and the AKP's consolidation of power since 2002, has not only made the Crescent and Star a champion of antisemitism but also created a ruling ideology that borders on jihadism, from the bottom to the top echelons of the state. It is not exactly jihadism, but a lighter shade of it -- for the moment.
Last week, for instance, anti-riot police attacked Kurdish demonstrators in a town in eastern Turkey and chanted, "Long live ISIS!" -- overt support for the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS], which, ironically, Washington apparently hopes to fight in cooperation with Turkey.
A few days later, a prominent AKP member of parliament, Emrullah Isler, tweeted that he would prefer jihadists over the supporters of the PKK [Kurdish Workers' Party], which has been fighting for autonomy in Turkey's overwhelmingly Kurdish southeast since 1984. Isler is not a backbencher. Until a recent cabinet reshuffle, he was Turkey's deputy prime minister.
"ISIS kills but at least they don't torture," he wrote in defense of the group notorious for its members beheading anyone they deem an "infidel," including Muslims. Isler had to delete his tweet after an avalanche of criticism on social media.
Nevertheless, in another tweet, Isler echoed the best-selling conspiracy theory on the Islamist Street, which blames the West for radical Islamist terrorism: "Terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, the PKK, al-Nusra and ISIS were all invented to make Muslims kill Muslims."
The next day, Davutoglu took the stage himself and blamed the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France) for the mess in Syria and Iraq after ISIS took control of large swaths of land in Turkey's southern and southeastern neighbors.
Against this backdrop, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said over the weekend that Washington was making "considerable progress" in its negotiations with Turkey over a plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels in their fight against ISIS.
As of this writing, Turkish and U.S. officials were still working out the details of a plan to push "moderates" onto the battlefield. In the likely event of an accord, Islamists featuring lighter shades of jihad will be trained at a military base in Turkey to specialize in bombing, subversion and ambush, paid for by U.S. taxpayers, and expected to fight the Islamists featuring darker shades of jihad in Syria and Iraq.
There may be "considerable progress" and Turkey may eventually agree with the US to train and equip "moderate" Islamists in Syria, but Washington and Ankara have totally different intentions and visions.
The US and its western allies consider extremists a security threat that the "moderates" can fight on their behalf. The Turks, however, think that they need the "moderates" mainly in their proxy war against their regional nemesis, Syrian President Bashar Assad. The "moderates" are a potential threat to western security interests. They are potential allies of Turkey's Islamists.
The bigwigs in Ankara stubbornly think that "ISIS is the symptom while Assad is the disease."
Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu seems unsure which is worse, the radical Islamists of ISIS or Syria's President Bashar Assad. (Image source: Agencia Brasil)
"Those who were silent in the face of the death of 300,000 people in the past 3.5 years, ignoring the use of chemical weapons, SCUD missiles and barrel bombs [in Syria], are suddenly putting an effort to create an international perception as if Turkey must immediately solve the problem in Kobane itself," Davutoglu said, referring to ISIS's siege of the Kurdish town bordering Turkey. If the West had bombed and toppled Assad, in other words, none of that would have happened.
Davutoglu is wrong. If Turkey had not funded and armed ISIS in the hope that it would bring Assad's downfall, none of that would have happened.
Turkey's Islamists are proud Islamists. They only have confused minds over where exactly on the large spectrum between Islamism and jihadism they want their country to sit.
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.