Erdogan, the Anti-Ataturk

September 3, 2013 Topic: PoliticsDomestic Politics Regions: EurasiaTurkeyMiddle East

Erdogan, the Anti-Ataturk

Mini Teaser: The legacy of the man who dragged Turkey into the twentieth century is at risk to the rival vision of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

by Author(s): Aram Bakshian Jr.

Even with the strongest of wills and best of intentions, Ataturk’s successors would have had a hard time continuing his work. He had died at the worst possible time. In 1938, the Western democracies were still reeling from the Great Depression. To many politicians and intellectuals, Communism and fascism—both with a heavy emphasis on police-state tyranny and centrally managed economies—seemed to be the wave of the future. Europe was also about to plunge into a disastrous Second World War, and Turkey’s leaders would have their hands full simply protecting the sovereignty and neutrality of their impoverished, militarily vulnerable nation.

Ataturk’s whole life had been spent broadening his understanding and seeking sensible new solutions. The Turkish future he envisioned was one of expanded education, opportunity and prosperity for the poor, uneducated Turkish masses with gradually evolving democratic institutions as progress was made. While his rhetoric remained in place, most of his vision died with him. Until free-market economic reforms were ushered in by Turgut Ozal, who served as a genuinely reformist prime minister and then president from 1983 to his suspicious death in 1993, Turkey did remain a secular state—but it also remained a 1930s-style corporate state based on crony capitalism, government corruption, and a senior military and moneyed class that defended its own special privileges at least as zealously as it protected the secular state. When politicians—Islamist or otherwise—got in the way, they were removed by force. One of them, Adnan Menderes, an economic reformer who courted religious voters by promising to remove restrictions on the traditional Arabic-language call to prayer and to allow new Muslim schools and the building of new mosques, was not only removed in a coup d’état but also hanged by the military after a hastily improvised trial.

The sad case of Menderes—a genuine reformer but also a rabble-rousing populist who jailed opposition journalists and politicians and openly appealed to voters on religious lines—starkly illustrates the fault line in modern Turkish politics. On the one hand, all too often the advocates of needed economic and social reform have also been political demagogues willing to play the religion card and trample on the rights of their political opponents. On the other hand, when the republic has been “rescued” from such men by the military, and the secular nature of the state has been preserved (along with the special privileges of the “rescuers”), desperately needed economic and social reforms have been either tabled or rescinded.

This pattern is far from unique to Turkey. The same scenario has played out repeatedly in Muslim countries as different as Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh. What makes it particularly tragic in the case of Turkey is that—unlike new postcolonial nations with artificial borders and no strong patriotic tradition to draw on—it possesses most of the raw materials for a healthy, modern civil society. Indeed, Turks have been trying to “modernize” since at least the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Admittedly, the results have been mixed at best. Sultan Selim III, who reigned from 1789 to 1807, attempted to revive the empire and modernize the obsolete Ottoman military system only to be overthrown by the traditional Janissary corps and murdered shortly afterward. Sultan Mahmud II, who reigned from 1808 to 1839, managed to establish a “new model” army of sorts, abolish the Janissaries and modernize the civil service. But the empire had already begun to disintegrate, with Greece gaining full independence and Egypt remaining nominally Ottoman but autonomously ruled by its own hereditary dynasty of Khedives. The Western-oriented technocrats of the “Tanzimat” reform era of the mid-nineteenth century and the later Young Turk movement that overthrew the reactionary Sultan Abdul Hamid II had both tried to inject new life into the Ottoman Empire to little or no avail; indeed, it was Young Turk leader Enver Pasha’s insistence on entering World War I on the side of the Central powers that sealed the empire’s fate.

Only with the death of the empire, which left a smaller but more cohesive core Turkish nation, was Ataturk able to succeed where the best and brightest of Ottoman soldiers, sultans and statesmen had failed. And yet a strong residue of sentiment remained in the country that resisted any impulse toward Westernization and longed for a return to that golden age of Islam that lit up the world before the West’s inexorable rise.

A SUPERFICIAL glimpse at the medieval world would seem to bear out this wistful view of history. As the doyen of Near and Middle Eastern historians Bernard Lewis has pointed out, “In the course of the seventh century, Muslim armies advancing from Arabia conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa, all until then part of Christendom, and most of the new recruits to Islam, west of Iran and Arabia, were indeed converts from Christianity.” Further gains would be made in Spain, much of which was overrun by Muslim North African Arabs and more recently converted Berber tribesmen. Eventually other non-Arab converts to Islam, most notably primitive but tough Tartar and Turkic nomad warriors, would carve out Muslim empires in large parts of Eastern Europe, Russia, the Levant, India and the Balkans.

More important than this military success was the fact that, in the early years of the Muslim surge, cities like Baghdad, Damascus, Alexandria and, to a lesser extent, Cordoba were centers of a cultural flowering that preceded and—by preserving, recovering and building on classical knowledge lost in most of the surviving Christian West—helped make possible the brilliant achievements of the European Renaissance. This, in turn, led to the development of the modern Western civilization that would, in a few centuries, leave the Islamic world behind in the dust. Was the rise of the Christian West responsible for the decline of the Muslim East? Or was the relatively short period during which Muslim-conquered cities in the formerly Christian world of antiquity became centers of progress and learning a mere blip on the screen, a temporary, albeit benign, “hijacking” of more advanced, more populous societies by a primitive, desert-sprung society of warrior-conquerors that overran them?

Surely it is no coincidence that nearly all of the cultural blossoming under early Islamic rule occurred in places far from Mecca and Medina (the cradles of Islam), and with centuries of history rooted in the Greco-Roman and early Christian past. Other centers of high Islamic culture like Persia and Mughal India were also homes to ancient civilizations long predating Islam. Thus, the intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic roots of the short-lived golden age of Islamic culture were almost entirely pre-Islamic in their origins and nature. Even the system of “Arabic” numerals that revolutionized mathematics was not really Arabic at all; it was borrowed from India by Arab traders.

The decline of Islam’s golden age occurred as Islam tightened its grip on the cultures it had overrun and, in the case of Europe, as a rapidly progressing Christendom began to push back the Islamic advance. The more pervasive Islam became in the territories it had conquered, the more those territories fell behind, perhaps because of the Islamists’ belief that their religion contains a complete, hermetically—and prophetically—sealed formula for the running of every aspect of human society. Such a mind-set has a built-in hostility to the spirit of inquiry and the desire to subject prescribed notions of faith and fate to the tests of intellectual rigor. Ask no new questions and you will discover no new answers.

The decline of the once-mighty Ottoman Empire mirrored the earlier decline in the rest of the Islamic world, culturally, militarily, economically and intellectually. “The Ottoman experience,” writes Turkish historian M. Sükrü Hanioglu in his Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire, “provides a superb opportunity to examine the impact of modernity in a non-European setting.” Leaders like Ataturk who lived through the imperial collapse attempted to build a modern Turkish alternative. It was a daunting task, and even its partial success was a remarkable achievement, remaining so to this day.

AT THE height of the Cold War, it used to be said that Vienna, which had repulsed a Turkish attack at the height of Ottoman power, was two different cities. Approached from the Communist-dominated East, Vienna was a bustling, modern metropolis compared to anything Hungary, Poland or Czechoslovakia had to offer. But approached from the West, Vienna seemed more like a charming but antiquated relic than a living center of modern commerce and culture. Earlier this year, while reviewing Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s novel Silent House, it occurred to me that the same is true, though in a very different way, of contemporary Turkey:

Straddling the great divide between Europe and Asia, Christendom and Islam, Turkey wears two faces. Viewed from the East, it looks like a prosperous pillar of stability and civic order, especially when compared to any of its Muslim neighbors. Viewed from Western Europe, however, it presents a different picture, that of a country dangerously divided: on the one hand, a pampered and often corrupt pseudo-Western economic and social elite relying on the Turkish military to protect both its privileges and its secular values; on the other hand, a growingly militant and sometimes violent mass movement of Islamists—many of them poor urban immigrants from the backward, neglected countryside—determined to purge their country of alien “impurity” and turn it into a theocracy by whatever means necessary.

Image: Pullquote: Like Peter the Great in Russia two centuries before, Ataturk was determined to overcome centuries of backwardness and decline, by brute force if necessary—and it often was.Essay Types: Essay