From Ataturk to Erbakan

December 1, 1996 Topics: Society Regions: Central AsiaEurasia Tags: IslamismTorySecularism

From Ataturk to Erbakan

Mini Teaser: Jeremy Seal, A Fez of the Heart (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.

by Author(s): Andrew Mango

Jeremy Seal, A Fez of the Heart (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1996)
Tim Kelsey, Dervish: The Invention of Modern Turkey (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996)
Jonathan Rugman, Ataturk's Children: Turkey and the Kurds (London: Cassell, 1996)

Is the West "losing" Turkey? The question has been prompted by the accession to power in Ankara in June 1996 of a coalition government in which the Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi, or RP) is the senior partner, with its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, the prime minister. Concern in the West increased when in August Turkey agreed to buy $23 billion worth of natural gas from Iran, just as the U.S. administration was intensifying its efforts to ostracize the regime in Tehran.

The fact, too, that Erbakan chose Muslim countries-Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia-for his first foreign trip as prime minister suggested that Turkey might shift orientation from West to East. Furthermore, Erbakan's ambition to develop relations with Iran, Iraq, and Syria on the basis of Islamic solidarity appeared to dash hopes that a Turkish model of Western secularism would offset the Iranian fundamentalist one in the former Soviet Union as well as the Middle East. Erbakan's homely rhetoric has also strengthened the impression of a man bent on pushing away all that is Western. "If the West had to repay the debt it owes to the Muslim world for the gift of Arabic numerals", he told an audience in Malaysia, "it would have to mortgage its pants."

Turkish secularists shuddered at all this, seeing their worst fears confirmed: The religious men who had come to rule them were not only reactionaries but vulgarians. Millions of Turks, happy in their Western lifestyles, had long warned of the dangerous opening that Western-style democracy afforded to political Islam, and the pro-secularist media, which predominate in Turkey, were not slow to communicate their heightened fears to receptive Western democrats.

But while media passions have risen in Turkey and abroad, the scene inside the country has changed little. Topless tourists still crowd the beaches; Turkish drivers continue to threaten life and limb under the influence of alcohol; the Western world's favorite mixture of sex and violence is still provided in good measure on numerous Turkish television channels. Just as customary pleasures go on, so do the old pains, only more so: The budget deficit is growing faster than before, as are prices, and the Kurdish insurgency in the southeast is claiming more victims. The International Monetary Fund has warned again that the country must live within its means. And an old familiar face, that of Mrs. Tansu 'iller, U.S.-trained professor of macroeconomics who had presided over the rake's progress of the Turkish economy, has reappeared after a brief absence, this time not as a prime minister needing Western help to stem the Islamic tide, but as a deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the Islamist-led coalition.

To crown the matter, the U.S.-Iraqi confrontation of late August and early September, which resulted in a dramatic alteration of the status quo in northern Iraq and a series of intense U.S.-Turkish exchanges, was met by stark silence from Mr. Erbakan. So stark was it, indeed, that it sent ripples of disapproval through the party faithful, among whom were those still expecting Erbakan's actions in office to bear a family resemblance to his words before and during the campaign. Even with respect to major initiatives, such as the establishment of a Turkish security zone inside northern Iraq, the prime minister was silent. Gone too was talk of Islamic solidarity, an Islamic NATO, a southwest Asian Islamic common market. When he returned from an unsuccessful trip to Egypt, Libya, and Nigeria in October, Erbakan defended himself by claiming that his aim had been to promote Turkish exports. His secularist rivals had said much the same.

So, then, what is new in Turkey? That an avowed Islamist is prime minister certainly is new in the seventy-odd year history of the republic. The constituency he represents, the backwoodsmen of the Anatolian Plateau, Turkey's poorest region, have long felt despised by their richer, more European neighbors in the western coastlands. The migrants they have sent to the city slums have good grounds for distrusting the leadership of the secularist parties. "He's a good Muslim, so he is less likely to steal", they reasoned, as their swelling numbers elected Islamist mayors in 1994 and Islamist members of parliament the following year. Their political power is indeed new.

But one must not exaggerate it. Despite the glaring faults of the outgoing, mainly Social Democratic, town councils, only 19 percent of the electorate voted for the Islamists in local polls. Despite economic mismanagement, which brought a record drop of 6 percent in GNP and record inflation of over 100 percent in 1994, only 21 percent voted for the Islamists the following year in parliamentary polling. Clearly, Turkey has not undergone a mass religious conversion. Rather, social division, heightened by uneven development (and development is always uneven), has simply increased political divisions that the Islamists, as one network among many, have worked hard to exploit.

Erbakan is not strong enough to change the system, nor can anyone else change it with only a bare plurality, not a majority, of political power. Moreover, there is no indication that he really wishes to do so. Rather, having finally achieved power, he intends to use it to help himself and his supporters. Turkey's Islamist-led coalition is not a radical government, and even before the northern Iraq crisis its policies showed as much. For example, Erbakan took the advice of his military and extended the stay in Turkey of the Allied aircraft that overfly northern Iraq. He also broke his promise to denounce Turkey's defense cooperation agreement with Israel and signed a still wider agreement on defense industry cooperation with that country.

The military's advice on specific issues aside, Erbakan is certainly enough of a pragmatist to realize that he cannot change the habits of the majority of his fellow countrymen or the basic legal framework under which they lead their lives. The supposed risk he poses to the status quo in Turkey is also belied by the comic side of some of his nostrums for dealing with domestic economic ills. One needs an adjective other than pragmatic to describe a politician who claims that he can finance his largesse to the electorate by making public employees pay for the gas they burn when they use official cars on private trips, or who thinks that Turkey and Indonesia could together become world champions in aircraft production.

Erbakan's eccentricities apart, the central point is that the nexus of economic, political, and diplomatic relations that binds Turkey to the West remains in place, but that within it, Turkey has its own national interests, now as before. All Turkish governments have tried to develop profitable relations with their neighbors, including Muslim ones, while remaining faithful to the Atlantic Alliance. Erbakan's Islamic rhetoric is new, but the attempt to procure natural gas from Iran, Iraq, Qatar, and the Soviet Union goes back more than twenty years, and just as Turkish anti-communists raised no objections to the purchase of Soviet gas then, so Turkey's secularists support Erbakan's wish to buy Iranian gas now. The gas deal is not an anti-American gesture. It makes as much economic sense in Ankara as the U.S. policy of ostracizing Tehran may make political sense in Washington.

There is, nonetheless, reason for concern. The trouble is that the Islamic rhetoric that Erbakan has deployed may mislead not only the West, but, more dangerously, Middle Eastern dictators. Erbakan may endanger stability without meaning to, particularly if he starts talking again as he did last summer. Hence, his presence in the prime minister's office does invite a new look at the interests involved in the bilateral U.S.-Turkish relationship, and in the wider relationship between Turkey and the West.

The view, however, is often obscured by a variety of anti-Islamic and anti-Turkish hobby horses found in profusion in the attics of the West. Three books that have recently come from the pens of British writers, each broadly critical of the state of affairs in Turkey, make the point. A Fez of the Heart by Jeremy Seal is a travel book structured around the history of the fez, the red flowerpot-shaped hat introduced by the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and banned in 1925 by Mustafa Kemal AtatŸrk, the founder of the Turkish republic. Dervish: The Invention of Modern Turkey by Tim Kelsey is a collection of vignettes of life in Turkey as seen through the jaundiced eye of a journalist. Another journalist, Jonathan Rugman, gives his report of the Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey in AtatŸrk's Children: Turkey and the Kurds.

The three writers differ much in their literary approach. As his awful punning title warns, Jeremy Seal is jokey and, at times, fey. Tim Kelsey's is hard-hitting, but not necessarily on target, as he serves out dirt and mauls Turkey's history and geography. Jonathan Rugman provides a more straightforward eyewitness account of the Turkish military's anti-terrorist operations, an account illustrated by Roger Hutchings' telling photographs. All three concentrate on life in Turkey outside the tourist resorts and the diplomatic cocktail circuit in Ankara; all challenge the way in which Turkey's elite perceives the domestic scene; and are all critical of the legacy of AtatŸrk. Rugman sees that legacy as the brutal suppression of dissent, Kelsey as the denial of multiculturalism, Seal as the death of the cosmopolitanism, which, he believes, the fez symbolized. Of the three, Rugman is the most sympathetic to Turkey's circumstances, balancing the brutality of the security forces against that of the armed bands of the radical Kurdish nationalists of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers' Party).
Seal, Kelsey, and Rugman have much company in the West, but criticism of AtatŸrk is also heard inside Turkey, albeit in muted form. It is muted because a law passed in 1951 (thirteen years after his death) makes it a punishable offense to insult his memory. Some domestic critics regret the denial of Kurdish ethnicity in AtatŸrk's republic; others argue against the forcible secularization of the state. Both groups base their criticism of the status quo on what they take to be modern Turkey's democratic premises. But the stoutest champions of democracy in Turkey's liberal intelligentsia also happen to be the strongest defenders of AtatŸrk's legacy. Foreign observers-these three writers among them-may see this as a contradiction, for AtatŸrk was undoubtedly an autocrat, but their logic does violence to history. They seem to be unaware of several seminal truths about the founding of the Turkish Republic.

For the Turkish intelligentsia, AtatŸrk's greatest merit was that he opened the country to the world-as Peter the Great is said to have opened Russia's window to the West. AtatŸrk called it "catching up with contemporary civilization"-and the civilization in whose tenets he was schooled and into which he wanted to bring his country was best exemplified by the French Republic, the grande nation that emerged from the Revolution. Just as the French language and culture, and French citizenship built thereon, had made a French nation out of all the inhabitants of France, so too common Turkish citizenship, similarly based on a common language and culture, would create a Turkish nation out of the predominantly Muslim inhabitants of Turkey. It was a Turkish nationalist-not a cosmopolitan- vision, but AtatŸrk's nationalism was outward-looking, inspired by the conviction that there was only one universal civilization, defined in Enlightenment terms as the onward material and moral march of humanity. The Turkish nation would, thus and perforce, develop its identity within the world community of civilized nations. As AtatŸrk saw it, the ragged, convoluted cosmopolitanism that had been the accretion of empire had to go-and the fez along with it.

Like the French revolutionaries, AtatŸrk believed in the Goddess Reason. In his early years, he borrowed the argument of Islamic apologists that Islam was the reasonable religion par excellence; later, when the clergy posed an obstacle to many of his reforms, he sought to substitute Reason for Islam. "Catching up with contemporary civilization" meant adopting the best practices of the world, which is to say the highest agreed standards of conduct. These, of course, have varied over time. Between the two world wars, democracy was absent from much of the West; today it is universally seen as the best political model. In AtatŸrk's day, cultural divisions within the modern nation were seen as retrograde; today multiculturalism is the latest fashion. Turkey's appeal to democratic standards in the 1920s has thus not kept up with liberal Western intellectual fashion.

Nonetheless, the appeal to such standards in "developed countries" (the modern locution for "the civilized world") remains almost universal in Turkey. Just as AtatŸrk took his political ideas from French Jacobins, his civil law from Switzerland, his commercial code from Germany, and his penal law from Mussolini's Italy, so Turks today take their constitutional models from Western Europe, their business culture from the United States, their fashion from Italy, and their "high culture" from the Western canon, of which Turkey's best writers-Orhan Pamuk and Yaüsar Kemal today, Sait Faik before them-are more conscious than some of their Western contemporaries. Foreign films, television, books in translation (appearing with remarkable speed), Western press material, and Western advertising all feed both "high" and "low" culture in Turkey. For a writer like Pamuk the problem is not his acceptance of universal culture, but the difficulty of contributing to it from an off-center location.

Turkey is off-center economically as well as culturally. For most Turks, catching up with contemporary civilization means leading more prosperous lives. Although the sixty-five million citizens of Turkey today live longer and better than the twelve or thirteen million who lived in the country when AtatŸrk founded the republic, they are still much poorer than most Europeans. However much one may qualify GDP figures, the difference between Turkey's $2,928 per capita GDP and the $7,071 level achieved in Greece, let alone $23,537 in Germany, points to a huge disparity in material standards. Seal and particularly Kelsey describe in fascinated detail the ugliness and squalor of Turkey's provincial cities. Poverty is not pretty, and those laboriously acquiring material possessions are not often choosy about aesthetics. But pointing the finger of scorn at the bad taste and the cultural incongruity of the lives of migrants from the countryside-and most Turks fall into this category-is itself rather ugly. Kelsey in particular concentrates on the seamy side of things-stonewalling bureaucrats, prisons, transsexuals, the contrast between pretentious environmentalists and a degraded environment. In both books, the device of the literal translation of conversations makes for gratuitous funny talk.

Disorder is indeed the first impression that strikes many a foreign visitor to Turkey. Seal rightly sees that its obverse is vitality-the vitality of a developing society thrashing around to achieve a productive articulation. Such an articulation may yield cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, attributes that Seal and Kelsey believe Turkey lacks to its misfortune. But they seem unaware that the loss of these attributes with which the Ottoman Empire had been endowed was not exclusively or even mainly the fault of ethnic Turks. The non-Turkish peoples of the empire were not thrust from Turkish rule, for the most part, but chose to leave it. The Greeks removed themselves finally and officially when their Patriarchate severed links with the Ottoman state in March 1919; the Armenians broke away under more complex and tragic circumstances during and just after the First World War.

Meanwhile, the Muslims who were left in possession of Asia Minor after the First World War had always been considered a single community under the empire's millet system of sectarian-communal autonomy. Though ethnic Turks were the majority, the Muslim community also included Kurds, Arabs, Circassians, and Albanian and Bosnian refugees from the Balkans. AtatŸrk thus built on an existing reality when he decided to make of them all a Turkish nation, without distinction of "race"-what we nowadays call ethnicity. He succeeded except for the Kurds, whose unrelenting insistence on a separate national identity gives urgency to Turkey's main political task today: the redefinition and reorganization of the state.

Rugman understands the difficulty of the task. He notes that the war with the PKK has driven a vast Kurdish underclass into Western Turkey. If the past is any guide, the descendants of these migrants will be assimilated into the surrounding Turkish society. The situation is different in the predominantly Kurdish provinces, where assimilation has made little progress. But, to quote Rugman, "if Turkey were to abrogate its responsibilities toward the southeast, the lack of political structures and alternatives in what is still a tribal society would probably result in a regional bloodbath." Given that withdrawal would be disastrous, multiculturalism, as part of democratic reforms throughout Turkey, may soften, even if it does not solve, the conflict. However, practical multiculturalism, which means in the Turkish case the recognition of a separate Kurdish culture, can only come with the consent of the Turkish majority as expressed in parliament. But overweening patronage networks control parliament and have virtually taken over the state in the name of democracy. They are abusing Turkish national sentiment in order to perpetuate their own rule, and under such conditions meaningful political majorities favoring change cannot congeal. A sensible accommodation between Turkish and Kurdish national sentiments will be possible only when Turkish democracy cures itself of these abuses.

Turkish domestic opposition to AtatŸrk's legacy comes from people who are suspicious of the outside world; the criticism that AtatŸrk was a barren imitator of the West, in particular, feeds on xenophobia inside Turkey. It is therefore both curious and revealing that the same line of criticism is implied by foreign observers, most of them liberals, whose sensibility is disturbed by the patchiness of Turkey's adoption of what used to be Western, but is now universal, culture.

Indeed, the subtext of both Seal and Kelsey is that the Turks are not, cannot be, and ought not try to be Europeans. Such liberal criticism of the Turks has a long pedigree. In the past, it concentrated on the maltreatment of non-Muslim minorities, while disregarding the sufferings of the Muslims elsewhere. (Gladstone's injunctions to throw the Turks bag and baggage out of Europe paid little heed to their human rights.) Religious bigotry has long poured from liberal English mouths in the guise of racial generalizations. As Michael Llewellyn Smith has remarked, Lord Curzon, who as foreign secretary seconded the efforts of Lloyd George to cut Turkey down to size, "like many of his epoch . . . invariably named [the Turks] in the singular as if they were a genus 'Turk' to which the epithets corrupt, oppressive, intriguing applied." Always ugly, such bias is now thoroughly atavistic. Continents are being drawn together, much of the world's culture is becoming truly global, and its Western guardians will not be able to keep the Turks indefinitely locked out of it. In Turkey's case, being European is more a matter of choice than of geography, and that choice is most sensibly left to the Turks themselves. No number of books about strange looking hats and ugly towns ought to be allowed to change that.

Essay Types: Book Review