Originally published on October 23, 2023 on news.fiu.edu.
Written by Patricia Cárdenas
Two-time alumna Gönül Tol has grown a reputation as an expert on Turkish and Middle East politics.
A native of Turkey, she earned master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs in 2003 and 2008, respectively.
Tol is the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s (MEI) Turkey Program and has written extensively on Turkey-U.S. relations, Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy, and is a frequent media commentator. She has also taught at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies and at the College of International Security Affairs at National Defense University on Turkish politics, Islamist movements in Western Europe, world politics and the Middle East.
Reflecting her expertise, earlier this year Tol’s book, “Erdogan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria,” was published to laudatory reviews. The Washington Post wrote that it “superbly narrates the tragic intersection of Syria’s civil war and Turkey’s ravenously ambitious president.”
Tol noted that her work as a political writer can be traced back to when she was an FIU student. She wrote her dissertation on the radicalization of immigrant communities in Western Europe, spending three years conducting field research in countries including Germany and the Netherlands.
“I lived in those countries on and off for three years distributing surveys,” she said. “That was very important in my studies and even when writing the book that I recently published on Turkey and Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war. All those things that I learned abroad became part of my academic background.”
One of her mentors at FIU was the late John Stack, founding dean of the Green School. Tol said Stack was one of her biggest supporters when it came to her research and writing.
“Over the years, he became more than my supervisor, he almost became a father figure to me,” she says. “He supported my field work in Europe. His leadership was very important for a person like me who had never been abroad before.
“It would not have been possible for me to conduct such field research without financial and academic support, and intellectual support from Dr. John Stack and others in the Green School… It was a very difficult time in Europe. There was this rise in terrorist attacks, so it was a particularly tough time. The support that I received helped me complete my studies.”
After graduating from FIU, Tol relocated to Washington, D.C., where she joined the Middle East Institute in 2008 as a research fellow. A year later, she founded its Turkey program, and increased her focus on Turkish politics, which informed her book that details the autocratic rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Tol said her book aims to tackle two misconceptions about Turkey from a Western perspective.
“Many people that I met from foreign embassies, from think tanks and others in D.C., they thought that President Erdogan’s Islamist ideology was to blame for Turkey’s autocratic turn. So that was the first assumption I wanted to challenge,” she says.
“The second assumption was this notion that the Western world should not concern itself with Turkish democracy and Turkish institutions, as long as Turkey is an important partner for it on the foreign policy front.”
Tol sought to tell the story of Erdoğan’s rise and how he used foreign policy to establish his autocratic rule.
“I wanted to show the close link between autocrats’ foreign policy and their efforts to consolidate power at home. And that was mostly meant as a message to the Western world that the things that happen in Turkey don’t stay in Turkey. And similarly, in other autocracies, domestic politics are closely linked to foreign policy, so you cannot turn a blind eye to a country’s degeneration into autocracy and expect it to be a constructive, strong, Western ally.”
Looking back on her days as an FIU student, Tol remembers it as an open and welcoming environment for international students like herself and encourages like-minded students to also pursue international studies.
“I received such a good education at FIU that it really helped me in my studies in Washington…If you wanted to do things, if you wanted to explore the world and conduct studies abroad, or do field research, people were always there to support you. So, I’m very grateful for that.”