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Crescent and Star
Turkey Between Two Worlds
By Stephen Kinzer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2008 Stephen Kinzer
All rights reserved.
DREAMING IN TURKISH
My favorite word in Turkish is istiklal. The dictionary says it means "independence," and that alone is enough to win it a place of honor in any language. It has special resonance in Turkey because Turkey is struggling to become independent of so much. It wants to break away from its autocratic heritage, from its position outside the world's political mainstream and from the stereotype of the terrifying Turk and the ostracism which that stereotype encourages. Most of all, it is trying to free itself from its fears — fear of freedom, fear of the outside world, fear of itself.
But the real reason I love to hear the word istiklal is because it is the name of Turkey's most fascinating boulevard. Jammed with people all day and late into the night, lined with cafés, bookstores, cinemas and shops of every description, it is the pulsating heart not only of Istanbul but of the Turkish nation. I go there every time I feel myself being overwhelmed by doubts about Turkey. Losing myself in Istiklal's parade of faces and outfits for a few minutes, overhearing snippets of conversation and absorbing the energy that crackles along its mile and a half, is always enough to renew my confidence in Turkey's future. Because Istanbul has attracted millions of migrants from other parts of the country — several hundred new ones still arrive every day — this street is the ultimate melting pot. The country would certainly take a huge leap forward if people could be grabbed there at random and sent to Ankara to replace the members of Parliament. Istiklal is perfectly named because its human panorama reflects Turkey's drive to break away from claustrophobic provincialism and allow its people to express their magnificent diversity.
That drive has been only partly successful. Something about the concept of diversity frightens Turkey's ruling elite. It triggers the deep insecurity that has gripped Turkish rulers ever since the Republic was founded in 1923, an insecurity that today prevents Turkey from taking its proper place in the modern world.
No nation was ever founded with greater revolutionary zeal than the Turkish Republic, nor has any undergone more sweeping change in such a short time. In a very few years after 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk transformed a shattered and bewildered nation into one obsessed with progress. His was a one-man revolution, imposed and steered from above. Atatürk knew that Turks were not ready to break violently with their past, embrace modernity and turn decisively toward the West. He also knew, however, that doing so would be the only way for them to shape a new destiny for themselves and their nation. So he forced them, often over the howling protests of the old order.
The new nation that Atatürk built on the rubble of the Ottoman Empire never could have been built democratically. Probably not a single one of his sweeping reforms would have been approved in a plebiscite. The very idea of a plebiscite, of shaping a political system according to the people's will, would have struck most Turks of that era as not simply alien but ludicrous.
In the generations that have passed since then, Turkey has become an entirely different nation. It is as vigorous and as thirsty for democracy as any on earth. For years its leaders, acting to safeguard what they considered Atatürk's legacy, fiercely resisted change. They believed that Turks could not be trusted with the fate of their nation, and that an elite should make key decisions because the people were not wise or mature enough to do so. Only at the beginning of the twenty-first century did voters find a way to rebel against this stifling order.
Their rebellion is the defining episode of modern Turkish history. It marks the beginning of the end for the class that dominated Turkey for its first eighty years, and for the suffocating ideology it preaches. It is an epochal turning point not only for Turkey but for Islam. Nonetheless it fills many Turks with dread.
Atatürk's infant Turkish Republic was a very fragile creation. Sheiks and leaders of religious sects considered its commitment to secularism a direct assault on all they had held sacred for centuries. Tribal chieftains and local warlords realized that a strong centralized state would undermine their authority. Kurds who dominated eastern provinces sought to take advantage of the new state's weakness by staging military uprisings. European powers hoped it would collapse so that they could divide its territory among themselves. The new Soviet Union actively sought to subvert it and turn it into a vassal state.
In this hostile climate, Atatürk and his comrades came to think of themselves as righteous crusaders slashing their way through a world filled with enemies. They ruled by decree and with a rubber-stamp Parliament, equating criticism with treason. During their first years in power, arrest and execution were the fate of their real and imagined opponents.
Nearly a century has passed since then, and in that time Turkey has changed beyond recognition. The nation that faced Atatürk when he took power was not only in ruins but truly primitive. Nearly everyone was illiterate. Life expectancy was pitifully short, epidemics were accepted as immutable facts of life and medical care was all but nonexistent. The basic skills of trade, artisanry and engineering were unknown, having vanished with the departed Greeks and Armenians. Almost every citizen was a subsistence farmer. There were only a few short stretches of paved road in a territory that extended more than a thousand miles from Iran to Greece. Most important of all, the Turkish people knew nothing but obedience. They had been taught since time immemorial that authority is something distant and irresistible, and that the role of the individual in society is submission and nothing more.
If Atatürk could return to see what has become of his nation, he undoubtedly would be astonished at how far it has come. Muddy villages have become bustling cities and cow paths have become superhighways. There are universities and public hospitals in even the most remote regions. The economy is booming, and Turkish companies are making profits in every corner of the globe. Thousands of young men and women return home every year from periods of study abroad. People are educated, self-confident and eager to build a nation that embodies the ideals of democracy and human rights. This nation — the Turkey of Turks' dreams — is now, at long last, emerging from long shadows cast by geography and history.
During the last decades of the twentieth century, Turkish society was split by a steadily deepening chasm of culture and ideology — what Marxists might call a "profound contradiction." The entrenched elite, successor to Atatürk's clique of revolutionary officers and technocrats, was accustomed to holding ultimate power and refused to surrender it. But the society it sought to rule was hurtling toward modernity and impatient for democracy.
For years the elite seemed unaware that this brash new nation had come into existence. Military commanders, police chiefs, security officers, prosecutors, judges, university rectors, narrow-minded bureaucrats, lapdog newspaper editors, state governors, nationalist politicians and other soldiers in this superannuated army remained psychologically trapped in the 1920s. They saw threats looming from across every one of Turkey's eight borders and, most dangerously, from within the country itself. In their minds, Turkey was still a nation under siege. To protect it from mortal danger, they insisted on running it themselves. They saw the Turkish people, on whose behalf they claimed to rule, not as the embodiment of the nation but, perversely, as a profound threat to it. Caught in the grip of irrelevant experiences, they fiercely resisted pressure from Turks who wanted their country to break free of its shackles and complete its march toward the democracy that was Atatürk's dream.
As the new millennium dawned, demand for change had spread far beyond intellectual circles in Istanbul and pockets of restive ethnic nationalism. It gripped the psyche of the entire nation. Patriarchs of the old elite, true to form, refused to accommodate it. They had beaten back all other challenges to their permanent government, which Turks call "deep state," and there seemed no reason why they could not crush this one as well. But to the delight of many, the horror of some and the astonishment of almost all, they failed.
Their transcendent failure — or to put it another way, the long-delayed triumph of democracy — has produced nothing less than the re-invention of the Turkish Republic. It portends the doom of a ruling system that may have been appropriate when Turkey and Turks were backward and ignorant, but that became reactionary and repressive as "deep state" failed to change along with the people it sought to rule.
This self-appointed vanguard considers itself modernity's great and indispensable defender. It fears democracy not on principle but because it is convinced that democracy will unleash forces that will drag Turkey back toward ignorance and obscurantism. Allowing Turks to speak, debate and choose freely, it has long believed, would lead the nation to certain catastrophe. To prevent that catastrophe, it devised a ruling system that set the limits of debate and suppressed challenges wherever they appeared. For eighty years it exercised the right to limit freedom as it saw fit.
The most sacred principle of this secular faith — called Kemalism, because it claims to embrace Atatürk's principles — is the abstract idea of "nation." Second is secularism. Democracy comes third — but only as long as it is not seen to conflict with the first two. Since 1923 it has been axiomatic that anytime democracy threatens to erode the state's militantly secular identity, it must be crushed.
For much of Turkey's modern history, state power was directed relentlessly against the very forces in society that most fully represented Atatürk's modernizing vision. Writers, journalists and politicians who criticized the status quo were packed off to prison for what they said and wrote. Calls for religious freedom were considered subversive attacks on the secular state. Expressions of ethnic or cultural identity were banned for fear that they would trigger separatist movements and ultimately rip the country apart. When foreigners reminded Turkey that it could never become a full member of the world community as long as its leaders behaved this way, they were denounced for harboring secret agendas whose ultimate goal was to wipe Turks off the face of history.
Attitudes like these slowly turned Turkey's ruling elite into the enemy of the ideal that gave it life. Originally dedicated to freeing a nation from dogma, it came to defend dogma. Once committed to liberating the mind, it lashed out against those whose minds led them to forbidden places. It became the "sovereign" against whom its spiritual ancestors, the Young Turks, began rebelling in the nineteenth century.
"Our sovereign and our government do not want the light to enter our country," the Young Turk theorist Abdullah Cevdet wrote in 1897. "They want all people to remain in ignorance, on the dunghill of misery and wretchedness; no touch of awakening may blaze in the hearts of our compatriots. What the government wants is for the people to remain like beasts, submissive as sheep, fawning and servile as dogs. Let them hear no word of any honest lofty idea. Instead, let them languish under the whips of ignorant gendarmes, under the aggression of shameless, boorish, oppressive officials."
The Young Turks were members of insurgent groups that defied the absolutism of Ottoman rule during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These groups built a rich tradition of dissent that shaped the intellectual and political life of the late Ottoman period and laid the foundation for Atatürk's revolution. Their principles were admirable, but most of their leaders believed instinctively that the state, not popular will, was the instrument by which social and political change would be achieved. They bequeathed to Atatürk the conviction that Turkish reformers should seize state power and then use it ruthlessly for their own ends, not try to democratize society in ways that would weaken the centralized state.
Turkey's effort to rid itself of this authoritarian mind-set has been difficult and scarred by trauma. Not until 1950 did military commanders, the vanguard of Atatürk's new class, allow free elections. They continued to watch politicians closely, however. Four times — in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1997 — they deposed elected governments. Turks were groping toward democracy, but whenever they tried to establish the primacy of popular will, the military swatted them down.
The 1980 coup, which led to three years of direct military rule, set in motion forces that would define Turkish society for the next two decades. Ruling generals decreed fierce crackdowns, ranging from torture campaigns to the mass firing of university professors. In 1982, before the generals returned to their barracks, they imposed a new constitution designed to assure their permanent power. It guaranteed Turks all civil rights, but then stipulated that the government could suspendany or all rights "with the aim of safeguarding the invisible integrity of the state with its territory and nation, national sovereignty, the Republic, national security, public order, general peace, the public interest, public morals and public health." It allowed judges to ban any political party whose program conflicted with "the democratic and secular order." Most perniciously, it established a new body, the National Security Council, composed of five elected officials (the president, prime minister and ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs) and five generals (the chief of staff and commanders of the army, navy, air force and gendarmerie), that was to function as the nation's supreme decision-making body, above Parliament and insulated from the people's will. Governments were required to give "priority consideration" to its decisions.
For the next twenty years the National Security Council met once a month. Its deliberations were private, but television reporters were admitted for a few moments to film members as they took their seats. The footage perfectly conveyed the balance of power in Turkey. Government leaders sat on one side of a long table, shifting uncomfortably like guilty schoolboys. Military commanders, ribbon-bedecked and unsmiling, sat opposite, glowering at their charges as they pulled folders from their briefcases and prepared to deliver their decrees. Always they spoke with a single voice, and always it was understood that their will must be done.
"It is a fundamental principle that there is one state," former president and prime minister Süleyman Demirel wryly observed after he retired, "but in our country there are two."
The 1982 constitution and the laws passed to bolster it proved chillingly effective in preventing the flowering of Turkish democracy. It was folly, however, to believe that an essentially anti-democratic system could survive forever in a changing world. In the 1980s and 1990s Turks rebelled against it with steadily growing fervor. By the time the century ended, this conflict had come to dominate Turkish life. On one side was an inbred elite, weaker than it had once been but still accustomed to treating elected leaders like errand boys. Arrayed against it was a large and steadily growing majority of Turks.
Turkey's conundrum during this period was that although most people fervently wished for a new order that would represent their democratic aspirations, no political party or civic movement translated their aspirations into reality. Civilian politicians who claimed to represent the ideologies of left, center and right were in fact all part of the oppressive old consensus. All accepted the bedrock principle that had shaped the Turkish Republic since its birth in 1923: that military commanders and their allies should hold ultimate power because the voting public could not be trusted. The closed political system designed by framers of the 1982 constitution allowed autocratic bosses to dominate political parties, and for years this system effectively prevented the flowering of true democracy.
The 1980 military coup, though, had another, unexpected result. From its wreckage emerged the most dynamic political leader Turkey had seen since Atatürk. Only today, years after his death, is it clear how profoundly he reshaped Turkey.
The towns where Turgut Özal lived while he was growing up — Malatya, Mersin, Mardin and Kayseri — comprise a veritable map of the deep Anatolian heartland. In 1983 he became prime minister despite efforts by departing generals to prevent his election. Shattering taboos wherever he found them, Özal set out to re-revolutionize the Turkish state. "He threw open all the doors and windows in this place," one American ambassador to Turkey told me with evident admiration.
Excerpted from Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer. Copyright © 2008 Stephen Kinzer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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