A failed coup attempt and a flood of refugees have challenged the leadership of Turkey’s President Erdogan. A strong U.S. ally during the Cold War, Turkey is now one of the world's largest Muslim democracies. Join Active Minds as we explore Turkey's past and current challenges, including its struggles with its Kurdish minority, its role in the rise of ISIS, and what appears to be its warming relations with Russia.

Key Lecture Points

  • Becoming an independent state in 1924, the nation of Turkey was, ostensibly, the remains of the defeated Ottoman Empire after its defeat in WWI.  Immediately, the country set out on a secular, democratic path with war veteran Mustafa Kemal Pasha, or Ataturk, its leader.  The military, gaining strength and political influence during WWII as a result of a strong alliance with the US, saw itself as the protector of Turkish democracy and secularism.
  • Turkey’s Islamic identity dates back to the Muslim conquests in the 9th century and the establishment of the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 13th Century.  Notwithstanding the secular government of Ataturk and his followers, over the past decade, the Turkish people have seen a variety of Islamist leaders rise on the political stage.  The first Islamist prime minister was elected in 1996, only to be ousted by the military.  In 2007, Abdullah Gul became Turkey’s first-ever Islamist head of state with Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister.
  • Erdogan has dominated the Turkish political scene for nearly 20 years, serving as prime minister and since 2014 as the country’s first directly elected president.  He brought economic and political stability but critics accuse him of turning Turkey into a religious society.  Under his tenure, Turkey’s strictly secularist establishment has been losing ground to a more overtly Muslim expression.
  • Turkey remains directly involved in the complex situation in its neighbor Syria.  An early supporter of the opposition to Assad in the Syrian civil war that started in 2011 and also, after it emerged as a force from Syrian soil, ISIS, Turkey launched a land offensive into Syria in 2016.  Turkey also undertook the invasion in an effort to curb the same Kurdish forces that the US has supported in the fight against ISIS.  As of 2022, Turkey’s presence in Northern Syria remains a sore spot in US-Turkish relations.  US-Turkish relations cooled even more in 2016 after a failed coup. Erdogan accused the US of harboring Fethullah Gulen, whom he held responsible for the coup.
  • Since 2016, Turkey has warmed its relations with its Black Sea neighbor, Russia.  Turkey’s purchase of a Russian anti-missile system in 2017 strained relations further with the US and NATO.  Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Turkey has found itself in the awkward position of being a NATO ally that is less confrontational of the invasion.  At the same time, Erdogan has attempted to demonstrate Turkish regional power by playing a role in negotiating peace in the war.
  • Turkey has in recent years suffered financial uncertainty due to Erdogan’s aggressive economic growth policies.  It became a crisis in 2022 as Turks saw inflation hit 60% and plummeting value of their currency, leading to consumer shortages and inability to pay for goods and services.

Exploration Questions

  • Why is Turkey a critical piece in the current crisis in Iraq and Syria?
  • Why has the Kurdish question been so complicated for Turkey and for the US?
  • What role do the Kurds play in the current crisis in Iraq and Syria?

Reflective Question

  • The Ottomans occupied significant portions of southeast Europe for centuries.  Do you think of them as a European power?
  • What elements of Turkish culture influence the United States?
  • Have you ever traveled to Turkey?  If so, what were your impressions of the country and its people?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Stone, Norman.  Turkey: A Short History. Thames & Hudson, 2014. 192 pages.  This book tells the history of Turkey from the arrival of the Seljuks in Anatolia in the 11th century to the modern republic.
    Click here to order
  • Howe, Marvine. Turkey: A Nation Divided over Islam’s Revival. Westview Press, 2004. 310 pages. The author, an American journalist who opened the Ankara bureau of the New York Times in 1979, addresses the issue of whether Turkish democracy and Islam can coexist.
    Click here to order
  • Vatandas, Aydogan. Hungry for Power: Erdogan’s Witch Hunt and Abuse of State Power.  Blue Dome Press, 2015. 188 pages.  This Turkish journalist tells the story of Erdogan’s transition from Muslim democrat to authoritarian leader along with discussions of Turkey’s unique position in the Middle East, its relationship with the US and Erdogan’s escalating authoritarianism.
    Click here to order