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Turkish President's Aggressive Behavior In 2014 Gets More Notice

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Turkey has always played a pivotal role in NATO as the alliance's only majority Muslim country. And with crises brewing in its neighborhood this year, Turkey's role has never been more important. But 2014 saw growing alarm at the curious behavior and aggressive moves by the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on Erdogan's year and where Turks think their country might be headed.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In August, Erdogan ended a 12-year run as prime minister and became the country's first popularly-elected president. He made it clear that the role of a ceremonial president was not for him and began exercising powers his predecessors never used. Not everyone cheered.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

KENYON: Street protests against Erdogan's policies continued, but harsh crackdowns by riot police ensured they never gained momentum. This rally, posted online, took place on International Women's Day. At a women's justice conference later in the year, Erdogan told a startled audience that women may deserve justice but they can never be equal to men.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through translator) You cannot bring man and woman down to equal levels. It's against the creation. Their nature and bodies are clearly different. In a workplace, you cannot hold a pregnant woman and a man to the same standards and conditions.

KENYON: Some of his pronouncements reflected the ruling party's agenda of promoting Islam and celebrating the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan seemed intent on rewriting history when he told a gathering of Latin American Muslim leaders that Muslims discovered the Americas well before Christopher Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ERDOGAN: (Through translator) 314 years before Columbus, in 1178, Muslim sailors reached the American continent. Moreover, in his memoirs Christopher Columbus mentioned seeing a mosque on the hills of Cuba. It would be nice to have a mosque there today, as well.

KENYON: Historians disagree over whether Columbus discovered America, but they do agree there was no mosque on the hills of Cuba when he showed up. These and other remarks began to raise troubling questions - is Turkey still a reliable NATO ally? Is a model Muslim democracy becoming just another repressive state in a region that has too many of those already? On the streets of Istanbul, Turks were also asking another question - what's going on with our president?

BORCU ALTINTAS: I think there is nothing to comment on. It's nonsense. I'm so sorry to say this about one of the presidents of Turkey's Republic, but I don't know what he's doing really.

KENYON: 35-year-old Borcu Altintas grew up believing Turkey would remain on the modern path set out by the Republic's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. She never imagined having to explain to her daughters why the new president says women can never be equal to men.

ALTINTAS: And now he's trying to form a male-dominant society. And as Turkish women, I believe we will not let him to do this. We'll not obey, better to say.

KENYON: Altintas still calls Ataturk her eternal leader, which brings us to an interesting aspect of this story. Western commentators like to compare Erdogan to another strongman - Russia's Vladimir Putin. But Turks know the man he most resembles is Ataturk, the charismatic autocrat who westernized the new Turkish Republic by force. Turks old enough to remember that Ataturk forced history students to be taught that Turkey is the cradle of human civilization recognized echoes of that past in Erdogan's claims about Muslims in America. By year's end, Erdogan's government had rounded up dozens of opposition journalists, and an arrest warrant was issued for Erdogan's former ally-turned-rival, the U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan also described birth control as treason, advising one couple at their wedding that having only one child would be strange. Barely noticed in the blizzard of controversy, says author and columnist Mustafa Akyol, was Erdogan's move to expand his presidential advisers to the point that they constitute a de facto shadow government.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: Indeed, I think Erdogan is creating facts on the ground, establishing his role as a dominant person who really defines a narrative in a country.

KENYON: If Turkey is indeed heading away from Ataturk's enforced secular Turkish nationalism toward what Akyol calls Erdogan's enforced Muslim nationalism, 2015's parliamentary elections may give a clue as to what Turks think about all that. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.