Watching Turkey’s transformation into an authoritarian Islamist nation over the last 16 years has been eerily like watching Iran’s rapid fall in 1979 — but in slow motion. Whereas Iran went from a secularist American ally to an implacable Islamist foe in a matter of months, Turkey has been on a similar path but led by a more cautious Islamist, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has moved at a much slower rate.
Rise to Power
The Pahlavi Shah of Iran exiled Ruhollah Khomeini (to Turkey, coincidentally) in 1964. When he returned to Iran on February 1, 1979, Khomeini seized absolute power almost immediately. With the Shah out of the country seeking treatment for his cancer, there was little to stop Khomeini and his clerical allies. He quickly created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which would soon surpass the Shah’s SAVAK secret police in putting down internal enemies. The SAVAK’s infamous Evin prison, which once held as many as 5,000 of the Shah’s political enemies, soon held over 15,000 of Khomeini’s. Within weeks, Khomeini presided over a reign of terror that Robespierre himself might admire.
Turkey’s fall into Islamism, on the other hand, has been much slower, guided deliberately and incrementally by Recep Tayyip Erdogan through a series of elections. Perhaps he learned to go slowly from his misstep in 1998 when, as Mayor of Istanbul, he rallied his supporters by pronouncing, “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” As a result, Erdogan was convicted of inciting hatred, given a 10-month jail sentence and banned from holding public office.