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A very brief history of Turkey
August 4, 2011 - Harry Eagar
We had a meeting today to plan for 10th anniversary coverage of Sept. 11, 2001. After that attack, sales of the Koran in English shot up. I had been interested in the political history of the Middle East long before then, and one of the conclusions I had drawn was that Islamic societies are incapable of self-government in modern style, of any kind, let alone as a democracy.
This was a minority opinion, for sure. Turkey was usually presented as a functioning Islamic society with a secular, democratic government. I never bought that, and not only for the obvious reason that the army overthrew the civilian government every few years. Turkey's military dictatorship was disguised, with a Parliament, joke elections and other democratic-like trappings we have been familiar with in such democracies as Iran, Egypt, Algeria and Lebanon.
Later, when the Turkish elections became much less of a joke, and the electorate began returning antidemocratic Islamists, the “see, Turkey is a democracy” crowd changed their tune somewhat. Now, the view was that success at the polls had moderated the Islamists and that they were making their peace with secularism and democracy. I never bought that, either, and predicted years ago that the success of faux-democracy would weaken the Turkish army so that it would no longer be confident enough to subvert the elected government any more.
Furthermore, once the army was out of the way, the Islamists would shed their accommodation with secularism, and Turkey would become what it always wanted to be, a backward, antidemocratic, religious despotism. If you've been following the handwringers lately, you'll have noticed that they have suddenly become worried about democracy and secularism in Turkey. (At link, see Christopher Hitchens on the subject, one example of many. He begins well, then gets completely wrongheaded. Here's his start: "To read of the stunning news, of the almost-overnight liquidation of the Ataturkist or secularist military caste, and to try to do so from the standpoint of a seriously secular Turk, is to have a small share in the sense of acute national vertigo that must have accompanied the proclamation of a new system in the second two decades of the 20th century.")
Too late now.
We may begin with Ataturk, who supposedly modernized Turkey. Nothing of the sort, although he did bring the army out of the 18th century. Ataturk may have been an atheist (as Hitchens speculates) and he was certainly not about to allow Islam to interfere in government (he extinguished the caliphate), but that does not make him modern, democratic or – except in a very narrow sense – secular.
Ataturk is better explained as yet another in a long line of ruthless despots. He was capable of murdering people for wearing the wrong hat. Not only was he a Turkish despot, he was in effect a sultan of a multiethnic empire, just like the sultans he deposed.
It was a much smaller empire than the Ottomans had engrossed, but just as ethnically and religiously varied.
This created a serious problem (one also faced by Saddam Hussein and George Bush in Iraq) for someone trying to create an ethnic state. Turkey was not and is not a natural state.
Geographically, at least a quarter of its present extent is inhabited by people who have no interest in being Turks, or in being ruled by Turks. The shifting alliances are not simple to keep track of, but over the nine decades since Ataturk took power, secularists of various languages, ethnicities, historical experience and culture have from time to time made common cause with Turkish secularists; and at other times tried to secede, or have opposed the Turks politically or economically.
Religion has served both as fence and bridge, so that ethnic Turks have split between Islamists and seculars; and Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds have sometimes allied in favor of religion over language.
Ataturk never had a vision of a multiethnic unitary state. He wanted to Turkize the Bulgarians, Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Armenians, Circassians, Kurds etc. Had he read Xenophon, he might have doubted it could be done. Asia Minor has never been the home of a homogenous and settled population.
Turkizing the minorities helped to unify the Turks, papering over the differences between religious and seculars (and urban and rural).
But while Ataturk and his heirs, in and out of the army, wanted to unify the population as Turks – it is illegal for a Bulgarian in Turkey to give his children a Bulgarian name – he made no real effort to make all the Turks secular. He killed those who refused to quit wearing the brimless cap (western hats with brims were objectionable to them because they interfered with prayer), but he did not either recruit them aspirationally into secularism or do anything to ameliorate the antimodern elements in Turkish Islam. It is worth remembering that restoring the purity of Islamic belief was a main political element in the Turkish penetration of Asia Minor a thousand years ago. These kinds of deep social feelings can be suppressed but are not easy to change, particularly if you do not bother to try.
Turkey had a sophisticated, urban sector that had reason to welcome a modernist regime, and, in many cases, one without any Islamic baggage. The peasants were more numerous but, like peasants everywhere, usually without political clout. One thing about even a phony democracy – if you pretend to let people vote, they may eventually take you seriously.
It took a long while, but the unreconstructed but electorally potent masses finally realized their weight. This was a complete surprise to the diplomats, editorialists, think tankers and various other thumbsuckers. It should not have been. The similar outcome in Algeria should, if nothing else did, signal that the offspring of faux-parliamentarianism and Islam will never be democracy but religious despotism.
We saw the same in Iran and are seeing it again in Egypt. And in Pakistan. And we will see it in Indonesia, too.
While the secularists went to college and Europe and aspired to join NATO, the masses went to mosque and the voting booth. The outcome should not have been a surprise.
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