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Turkey’s Hundred Years of Identity Crisis - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses members of parliament from his ruling Justice and Development Party during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara on February 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses members of parliament from his ruling Justice and Development Party during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara on February 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

As he lay dying on a cold September day in Szigetvar, southern Hungary, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, known to his subjects as Qanuni, or “Law-giver,” offered his entourage what was to become known as his “deathbed sermon.” He was leaving the world of mortals just as the Ottoman Empire, the largest empire ever created in the name of Islam, was at the apex of its power and glory. Even his Christian enemies acknowledged his grandeur by referring to him as “The Magnificent.” Despite numerous military victories and his great successes in creating an effective administration, Suleiman was all too aware that achieving greatness for an empire was one thing and maintaining it among great powers quite another.

The centuries that followed his death were to justify his concerns, as the Ottoman Empire was transformed into the “Sick Man of Europe.” The First World War brought this woeful tale to an end as the empire disintegrated under the pressure of foreign defeat and domestic rebellion. The Ottoman collapse led to the emergence of 30 new nation-states of various shapes and sizes on three continents. In a sense, the last century of Middle East history, if not that of the whole world, was shaped by the aftershocks of the Ottoman collapse. What was left was the Anatolian rump of the empire plus a toehold in Europe, in the shape of Istanbul and its environs.

By the 1920s, General Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had created a Turkish nation from the debris of the Ottoman Empire.

New Turkey was marketed as an old Euro–Asian nation marked out by blood, language and culture, rather than the Islamic faith as had been the case under the Ottomans. Atatürk’s new deal was predicated on the creation of a secular political system and the introduction of aspects of Western democracy such as a parliamentary form of government. Over the past 90 years, this project has not met with perfect success. Nevertheless, it has managed to create a strong sense of bonding among a majority of the citizens.

The Turkish model

Apart from a strict control of Islam by the state, the model had a number of other specific features. These included a special role for the armed forces as the ultimate guarantor of the system. Trying to emulate the Western democratic system, Atatürk created two political parties, one adopting a center-Right tone while the other tilted center-Left. However, he chose two generals, Ismet Inönü and Fevzi Çakmak, to head the parties, while retired army officers claimed the lion’s share of positions in the administration.

Another feature of the “Turkish model” was a penchant for centralization. Until Prime Minister Turgot Özal introduced a set of reforms in the late 1980s, even routine affairs of the remotest villages were controlled by the central government in Ankara. Kemalism also advocated a radical brand of nationalism that included state ownership and control of key natural resources. Again, it was not until the 1980s that private, including foreign, investment was allowed in developing and marketing such resources. As a result, economic underachievement became a key feature of the Turkish system. An exploding demography between the 1940s and 1970 forced millions of Turks to immigrate to Western Europe, especially to West Germany and the Middle East, in search of work.

The nationalistic theme of the Kemalist system had another consequence. It obliged the new republic to open its doors to millions of people who spoke a large variety of Turkish languages and who had been driven out of their homelands. Amplifying a tradition started by Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union expelled an estimated 4 million Turkic peoples from the territories it controlled. Most went to Turkey. Turkish groups were also expelled from Greece and what was then Yugoslavia. In the 1970s, Saddam Hussein expelled thousands of Turkmen from northern Iraq to Turkey. The last major expulsion of Turks happened in Bulgaria in 1989, when President Todor Zhivkov pushed more than half a million ethnic Turks across the border.

In the 1990s, Turkey opened its doors to an estimated 400,000 Azeri refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh who spoke a language close to Turkish. Turkey has also become home to an estimated 1.2 million ethnic Azeris from Iran. Playing politics with refugees has not been limited to Turkey’s neighbors. Successive Turkish governments have also used refugees to alter the demographic composition of various regions of the republic. For decades a large chunk of Turkish-speaking refugees from the Balkans and, to a lesser extent, Russia, were resettled in parts of Turkey where Kurdish or Arab-speaking communities formed a majority of the local population.

While Atatürk mainly relied on propaganda and mass education to de-emphasize Islam’s importance in Turkish culture, when necessary he would not shy away from using force to crush dissent. In 1925, for example, he sent his army to quell a nascent rural revolt led by Sheikh Sa’id, who cast himself as a new Caliph sent by Allah to revive Islam’s hold on the land. In 1930, the decision to ban the veil for women and beards for men provoked a series of revolts in urban areas, including Istanbul and Ankara. Again, army intervention was needed to calm things down. Even then, Ataturk’s de-Islamization policy might have faced even greater hurdles had it not been for the support of some religious minorities, including Christians. However, the most important religious community to support Ataturk’s secular movement was that of the Alevis, followers of an esoteric Islamic sect heavily influenced by, but distinct from, Twelver Shi’a Islam. As early as 1923, the Alevis took a leading part in the Aydınlar (Enlightened Ones) movement and set up Laiklik Clubs (from the French word laïc, meaning “secular”) in major cities.

Return of Islam

Atatürk’s successor, Ismet Inönü, another general and hero of the war of independence, understood that the kind of secularism preached by the new republic held little appeal for the mass of Turkish peasants across Anatolia. In many places, mosques remained packed and women continued to wear the veil. Many Turks found circuitous paths to Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. In 1949, Inönü tried to wave an olive branch at religious Turks by appointing Mehmet Şemsettin Günaltay, a noted Islamist figure, as prime minister—a move that alarmed the military and later turned out to be the first of a series of crises caused by attempts at allowing a dose of Islamic sentiment back into Turkish politics.

A year later another prime minister, Adnan Menderes, leader of the Democrat Party, lifted Atatürk’s ban on public <emazan (the Muslim call for prayer) and ordered the police not to arrest people caught in mosques doing their salat (five daily prayers) in Arabic. Whether Menderes ever had a hidden agenda to undermine the secular system has been a subject of hot debates for decades. However, even if he did have such an agenda, it is likely that he was more motivated by electoral calculations than ideological attachment to Islam. In the 1950s, in the first freely contested general election in Turkish history, his party owed its victory to massive support from the deeply religious parts of the public across Anatolia, while the rival People’s Republican Party (CHP) drew support from the more Westernized urban centers. Menderes’ policies alarmed the military and radical secular circles, and in 1960 the army, led by the Chief of Staff, Gen. Cemal Gürsel, staged the first military coup in the republic’s history to successfully topple the government. Menderes himself was hanged while the ousted president, Mehmut Celâl Bayar, was held prisoner for years.

By the 1960s, the general assumption among experts was that Islam was all but a spent force in Turkish politics. In 1969, Prime Minister Süleyman Gündoğdu Demirel even refused to attend the first-ever Islamic Summit conference held in Rabat, Morocco. And, yet, less than two years later, Demirel injected Islamic themes into his discourse in order to win elections and remain prime minister until the 1971 coup led by General Memduh Tağmaç. While the military claimed that it had intervened to crush Leftist guerrilla terrorists, the top brass also aired its resentment of Demirel’s flirtations with Islamist groups including the National Order Party. (The party had initially appeared in 1969 under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan, but was dissolved on anti-secularist charges.) Demirel was destined to be overthrown a second time as prime minister in 1980 when the military, this time led by General Kenan Evren, castigated the veteran politician for having formed a coalition that included the National Salvation Party under Erbakan.

Sixty years after the advent of Kemalism, one thing had become clear: It was not possible to script Islam out of the Turkish political and cultural narrative. At the same time, many Turks—perhaps a majority—alarmed by Iran’s tragic experience under an Islamist regime, agreed that putting Islam in the political driving seat was a high-risk strategy for a still-fragile republic. The trick was to broaden the political spectrum beyond the traditional ideologies offered since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The parochial brand of Turkish nationalism, championed by far-right groups such as the Grey Wolves also held little appeal, chiefly because they could not respond to a growing desire for higher living standards.

Since the 1980s, parts of the political elite, especially those such as Prime Minister Halil Turgut Özal who had a strategic vision, had looked for an alternative vision to Islamism, pan-Turkism and little Turkey nationalism. Özal had no qualms about quoting from the Qur’an on the campaign trail. He also liked to remind his audiences that he was part Kurdish through his grandmother. With his deep knowledge of Turkish literature and history he also impressed the pan-Turkish constituency. Nevertheless, his chief contribution to the political debate was the whipping up of a national desire, not to say thirst, for economic development and higher living standards.

After Erbakan’s failure, the Özalist recipe found an echo among a new generation of Islamist politicians, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They adopted a strategy based on building a nationwide support base at the local level with a platform of fighting corruption, improving services and creating jobs. Erdoğan’s success in becoming Mayor of Istanbul, the megapolis that accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s population, was a major coup. His efficient management of city affairs, his cleaning of the municipal stables and his success in attracting new investment transformed Istanbul from a city in decline to a bustling modern metropolis. With such a record, Erdoğan had little difficulty launching a new Islamist movement, the Justice and Development Party, or AK Party. In Turkish the word ak means “white,” indicating Erdoğan’s intention to emphasize his anti-corruption agenda.

In the general election of 2002, the AKP won 34 percent of the votes but, thanks to a proportional system that favors the winner, it secured a majority in the Grand National Assembly. At the time many dismissed the AKP as a dinosaur emerging from the Jurassic park of Islamist ideologies. Under President Abdullah Gül, and then under Erdoğan himself as prime minister, the new government proved them wrong. The AKP de-emphasized ideology to focus on the reforms needed for EU membership. The 2002 election victory was to be repeated in 2007, when the AKP’s share of the votes rose to 41 percent, and then in 2012, when the AKP wona third election victory with almost 49 percent of the votes.

By all accounts, the AKP’s record in government has been impressive. In 10 years, Turkey’s gross domestic product (GDP) has nearly trebled. At the start of the new century, average income in Turkey was less than 20 percent of the average in the European Union. In 2014, that figure was closer to 70 percent. In the same period, direct foreign investment in the Turkish economy rose from 3.2 billion US dollars to more than 120 billion. Turkish Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, emerged as one of Europe’s largest networks, serving more than 200 destinations on four continents. By 2014, more than 15,000 Turkish firms were doing business in the global market. More urgently, Turkey succeeded in taming its chronic inflation, stabilizing its currency and sharply reducing the ratio of its public debt to its GDP.

The AKP’s success has not been limited to the economy. Adopting a “zero problems” approach to relations with neighboring nations, Turkey succeeded in reducing tensions that bedeviled its foreign policy for decade. It even managed to minimize the vexed issue of Cyprus, a drain on Turkish resources and a diversion since the 1970s, to manageable dimensions. The AKP also has a good record in introducing political and social reforms. It did not succeed in providing a long-term solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem.
In 2010, as the “Arab Spring” uprisings started, what many regarded as the “Turkish Model” appeared to provide the key to the future of Muslim nations striving after modernization and democracy. Speaking only half in jest, President Gül claimed that Turkey did not want to be “the last of the foxes” but wanted “to be the leader of the sheep.” Turkey had an historic duty to claim a leadership position in Islam, Gül asserted. He was echoing Şevket Kazan, one of the AKP’s original political mentors. In a speech in Istanbul in 1991, Kazan had said: “We led the Muslim world for 1,000 years. Have we not passed the test of leadership?”

By the end of 2013, it seemed as if Turkey was about to enter the club of world powers for the first time in four centuries, taking up where Suleiman the Magnificent had left off. Erdoğan was not the first Turkish politician to be tempted by neo-Ottoman dreams. In the 1980s, Cemil Çiçek, a key member of Özal’s Motherland Party, had spoken of Turkey’s “historic duty” to assume the leadership of Islam’s “entry into the modern world.” It was not solely with reference to the Ottoman Empire that Çiçek claimed that position for Turkey.

Redefining Turkey

To restore Islam’s position as the core of a new nexus, Erdoğan has to start by redefining Turkey itself. The Kemalist nexus would at best allow for a Turkish claim of leadership among nations that speak one of the 18 languages of the Turkic sub-branch of the Altaic family.

Erdoğan seemed determined to do that in two ways.

First, his package encouraged many Turks to redefine their identities as minorities. For example, he rediscovered the Lezgin minority and promised they would be allowed to school their children in “their own language.” Almost 20 percent of Turkey’s population may be of Lezgin and other Caucasian origin, among them the Charkess, Karachai, Udmurt and Dagestanis. Yet almost all of those have long forgotten their origins and melted into the larger pot of Turkish identity. What is the point of encouraging the re-emergence of minority identities?

Meanwhile, Erdoğan was offering little to minorities that have managed to retain their identity over the past nine decades. Chief among these are the Kurds, who make up 15 percent of the population. As noted above Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, partly owes its successive election victories to the Kurds. Without the Kurdish vote, the AKP could not have collected more than 40 percent of the votes. Yet his package offered Kurds very little. They would be allowed to use their language, but not to write it in their own alphabet. Nor could they use “w” and other letters that don’t exist in the Turkish–Latin alphabet but are frequent in Kurdish. Another real minority that gets little are Alevis, who have acted as a chief support for secularism in Turkey. While Erdoğan uses the resources of the state to support Sunni Islam, Alevis can’t even get building permits to construct their own places of worship.

Armenians, too, get nothing—not even a promise of an impartial inquest into allegations of genocide against them in 1915. In fact, numerous Armenian historic sites are scheduled for demolition in the name of “urban renewal,” especially in Istanbul, where Erdoğan has launched a 100 billion US dollar project to create “a global capital,” including the world’s largest airport and tallest commercial tower.

The second leg of Erdoğan’s strategy is to re-energize his Islamist base. Hundreds of associations controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood are to take over state-owned mosques, religious sites and endowment properties—thus offering the AKP a vast power base across Turkey. The planned privatization scheme could involve hundreds of billions of dollars as vast areas of farmland, factories, real estate in more than 200 towns and cities, banks, insurance companies, transport companies and other businesses bequeathed for religious purposes over the past 100 years are transferred from state to private ownership.

Erdoğan is using “Manzikert” as a slogan to sell his package. It refers to a battle between the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arsalan and the Byzantine Emperor Romanos in 1071, the first great victory of Muslim armies against Christians in Asia Minor. It happened centuries before the Ottoman Turks arrived in the region from far-away Central Asia.

Twelve months before he unveiled his “reform package” aimed at redefining Turkey, Erdoğan seemed to be on top of the world—or, at least, his world. As 2014 opens, though, Erdoğan looks to be fighting for his political life, his “neo-Ottoman dream” a will-o’-the-wisp. Why this sudden turn of fortune? The short answer: hubris. Intoxicated by Turkey’s success in his decade of stewardship, Erdoğan started acting out of character.

He had owed his electoral success to his ability to learn the key lessons of modern Turkish politics. When I first met him in Istanbul in the 1990s, he spent time arguing that the root cause of Turkey’s relative underdevelopment and almost permanent political crisis was a clash of ideologies. The Kemalists, the supporters of Atatürk, had turned his legacy of a secular state into a rigid ideology that ignored the inevitable diversity of a complex society such as modern Turkey. At the other end of the spectrum, pious Muslims regarded secularism—that is to say, the separation of the mosque and state—as a direct attack on their religion.

Erdoğan’s “de-ideologization” method succeeded in giving Turkey political stability (especially immunity against coups), paving the way for economic development. As noted, over the last 10 years, Turkey has revived its moribund currency, created more than 8 million new jobs and, with average economic growth rates of 6 percent to 7 percent, joined the ranks of emerging industrial powers. More important, in the eyes of many Turks, Erdoğan managed to drastically reduce corruption, the endemic bane of Turkish politics.

However, starting in 2011, Erdoğan began behaving in a different way. In a clearly ideological drive, he started purging the military and the national police of officers indifferent, if not hostile, to religion, replacing them with those with AKP connections. He then launched a purge of the judiciary by promoting Islamist judges in place of secularist ones. His next target was the big business elite, which had formed with support from the army over the decades. He started granting juicy government contracts to people with AKP links—and, as recent revelations show, to members of his family and party and Cabinet entourage.

Erdoğan’s next target was the Alevi community, some 12 percent of the population and followers of an esoteric sect of Islam who has always supported the secular republic. And then he also ruined the relatively good relations he’d established with the Kurdish community, another seventh of the population, by treating them as second-class citizens.

Starting in September 2013, opinion polls indicated a slow-but-steady decline in popular support for Erdoğan and AKP. In January 2014, Erdoğan and the AKP enjoyed approval from only 39 percent of potential voters, down from 48 percent in December 2013. More importantly, perhaps, an overwhelming majority—61 percent in January 2014—approve the launching of judicial suits against hundreds of businessmen, government officials and middle-men charged with various cases of corruption with alleged involvement by at least four members of Erdoğan’s Cabinet and some members of his family. Erdoğan’s response has been to charge unnamed opponents of conspiring against his government, even to the point of plotting a military coup. In January 2014, he launched a massive purge of the police.

One side effect of the corruption scandal was the souring of relations between Erdoğan and one of his chief Islamist supporters, Fethullah Gülen. A mixture of guru, Mafia-style “family” head and businessman, Gülen spent vast sums financing the AKP through business connections. The break with Gülen entails both religious and business risks for Erdoğan.

The new Erdoğan, or, as his critics claim, the “real Erdoğan,” had decided to come out. Having marketed himself as a leader who rejected ideological dogma, he has become the most ideologically dogmatic leader modern Turkey has seen.

Today, his dream of ruling Turkey for another 20 years now strikes most Turkish people as a nightmare. Yet the manner in which he is eased off stage could determine the trajectory of Turkish politics for a generation.

High-risk elections

Today, as Turkey prepares for municipal elections and a constitutional referendum and possibly even its first direct presidential election, most of the gains of the past decade appear to be at risk. At home, the split within the AKP camp is widening, while serial corruption scandals have deprived the government of the most important feather in its cap. Erdoğan appears to be increasingly reliant on the State Security Service, with its shadowy chief Hakan Fidan consolidating his position as éminence grise.

Turkey is also showing signs of economic slowdown. In January, the government was forced to double the interest rate to stop a run on the national currency, the lira. At the same time, the forecast for economic growth was cut down from the average 10 percent of the last decade to just over six percent for 2014. Unofficial estimates indicated a net increase in capital outflow for the first time since 2004. Much of Turkey’s remarkable economic growth has been due to foreign investment and prompted by the nation’s political stability. Concern that Turkey might be heading for rough waters in its political life could dry up that vital source.

The root causes of Turkey’s current problems are political. The attempt at developing a new national identity that includes Islam while also transcending it has been put on hold partly because of Erdoğan’s decision to return to his narrow Islamist constituency. Whether Erdoğan likes it or not, Turkey is now a largely Westernized nation with little desire, if any, to reorganize key aspects of its life with reference to Islam. At the same time, however, attempts at scripting Islam out of Turkish life completely are doomed to fail.

Turkey’s allies and neighbors would do well to keep their options open while maintaining a dialogue with all key forces engaged in its current political debate, indeed of the struggle in power. Prudence dictates us to not write off Erdoğan, and even less the AKP.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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