Turkey Since 1989: Angry Nation

Turkey Since 1989: Angry Nation

by Kerem Oktem

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848132115
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 04/26/2011
Series: Global History of the Present Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kerem Öktem is Research Fellow at the European Studies Centre, St Antony's College, University of Oxford, UK and teaches the Politics of the Middle East at the Oriental Institute.

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Turkey since 1989

Angry Nation

By Kerem Öktem

Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Kerem Öktem
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-211-5


Empire and nation before 1980: the late Ottoman state and the Turkish Republic

Turkey is a country with a surplus of history, and hence even a contemporary history of the last three decades will need to take a step back and make sense of the key legacies that have shaped its present. As I seek to show in this chapter and the following, much of the violence and anger that have marked Turkey since the 1980s stem from a particular trajectory of top-down modernization by the state, often acting against its very own people, and by a political culture dominated by a 'guardian' or 'deep' state operating through manipulation and deceit. In order to understand the period 1980–2010, therefore, a brief appraisal of three foundational moments, which have prepared the conditions for the political, ideological and institutional infrastructure of modern Turkey, is in order. The first is the late Ottoman experience of military, legal and administrative reform in the context of territorial loss to European powers and episodes of war and ethnic cleansing. It was in this period between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries that the institutions of the modern state emerged together with the ideology and cadres that governed it. The second is the period of the Kemalist one-party state, with the Turkish Republic emerging from the conflicted Westernization efforts of the nineteenth century. These efforts were conflicted because Europe was both an enemy intent on destroying the empire as well as a civilizational benchmark to aspire to, if only to be accepted as an equal rather than as the 'sick man of Europe'. Lasting from 1923 until the shift to multiparty politics at the end of the 1940s, this was the period in which the idea of an ethnically and religiously homogeneous nation-state was put into practice through a highly ideological and authoritarian one-party state. The third period, which led up to the military coup of 1980 and hence to the immediate antecedents of Turkey's present history, was that of 'guardian state in action', characterized by incomplete democratic transition, political manipulation, weak party politics, and power struggles between elected governments and non-elected actors such as the military, the bureaucracy and the judiciary, as well as by growing political polarization and mass violence.

Many of the major themes that dominate the conflicts in Turkey's contemporary everyday life crystallized in these successive periods: the questions of who a Turk is, and related to that who Kurds, Alevis and non-Muslims are and what their social and political status is, i.e. the issue of citizenship; the wars and violent events leading up to the dissolution of the empire and the consolidation of the republic; the exclusive nature of nationalism and nation-building, but also Turkey's place in the international order of the twentieth century and its relationship with Europe, the United States and its immediate neighbourhood. Above all, however, there is one question that seems to weave all of the above together in a complex web: were the elected governments of the 1950s to the 1970s really in power, or were they merely responding to the conspiracies plotted by the non-elected guardians of the state, i.e. the military, the judiciary and the bureaucracy? How was it possible that the guardians, when stepping out of their constitutional roles, were immediately absolved by the judiciary and protected by the bureaucracy? Were the 'progressive' students of the 1950s aware that it was the 'Special War Office' which had galvanized them into taking to the streets? Were socialists and fascists, Islamists and the communists fighting their own battles when they attacked each other in the 1960s and 1970s, or had they become puppets in a cynical game staged to maintain control over a society that was spiralling out of control?

Reform and imperial dissolution

For almost five centuries before the demise of the empire in the 1920s, the Ottoman sultans ruled Asia Minor, the Balkans and much of the Arab world from their capital in Constantinople. At the height of Ottoman military, political and economic power in the sixteenth century, the empire stretched from Austria and Hungary to Romania and the Crimea in Europe, and to Algeria in the southern Mediterranean, incorporating all the lands and people in between. By the eighteenth century, however, this power was past its prime. Its waning military technology could not withstand the more advanced European armies, and its agrarian economic base failed to compete with the industriousness of early European capitalist expansion. With Sultan Selim III, and coterminous with the French Revolution, the age of reform and the vocabulary of modernity entered Ottoman lands. From now on, and well into the twentieth century, Ottoman and Turkish history would be dominated by three interlinked processes: the erosion of sovereignty, processes of administrative reform and centralization, and the search for a new ideology that could legitimize Ottoman and later Turkish rule. Military defeats and the ensuing loss of territory and sovereignty to European powers necessitated wide-ranging changes, which came in the form of top-down military and administrative reform aimed at 'saving the state'. They failed, however, in countering rising nationalism and inter-ethnic strife, both among Christian subject nationalities such as Greeks and Armenians and the Turkish-Muslim population majority.

Many of the fears of modern political discourse in Turkey go back to this period: a concern over territorial integrity and the fear that the country might one day be divided by foreign powers, the suspicion towards non-Muslim residents as potential fifth columns of European states, the contested relationship with modernity and modernization as a state-led, top-down effort with a strong military overtone, the uneasy interaction between Islam and the state, and finally the machinations of clandestine power centres that act on behalf of the state. All these are built into the country's political DNA, and even an occasional follower of Turkish politics will recognize them instantly as key themes in today's political debate.

Loss of sovereignty Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, military defeat and territorial loss shaped the Ottoman world. The Islamic yet multicultural empire was out of tune with the great political and economic leap experienced in some European countries and helpless with regard to the aggressive expansionism of emerging colonial powers. The empire was experiencing a loss of sovereignty on multiple levels: France and the British Empire extracted favourable trading terms within the Ottoman lands, which not only resulted in a breakdown of local economic structures and in the influx of cheap, industrially produced goods in what was a backward agrarian economy, but also led to an asymmetric relation of economic dependency. A vicious cycle of borrowing and debt ensued: in order to finance administrative reform and modern infrastructure from roads to railways and ports, and to fund ongoing military campaigns, Ottoman governments took to borrowing increasingly fantastic sums from European lenders. What began as an ostensibly straightforward way to pay for the army's equipment for the Crimean War with Russia (1853–56) ended with the empire's default on its debt only two decades later in 1875. As a result, the country came to be governed effectively by a body of European creditors (Düyun-i umumiye).

The loss of sovereignty, however, was not limited to the growing influence of European interests in Ottoman government and economy. Simultaneously, provinces with Christian majority populations saw the ascent of nationalist cultural elites, who would soon galvanize peasants into the fight for independent nation-states. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ottoman statesmen were compelled to organize the gradual retreat from the Balkans, or 'Turkey in Europe' as it was called, and hence from provinces that had been under Ottoman sovereignty for centuries. These provinces would eventually become the nation-states of Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. With every new state or interim principality, another wave of Muslim refugees – unwelcome in the emerging, Christian majority states – would be pushed towards the Ottoman capital. The worst such instance of territorial contraction and refugee movements arguably came with the First Balkan War in 1912/13, when a coalition of the newly independent Balkan countries attacked the remaining Ottoman enclave in the Balkans, the region of Rumelia (Rumeli), stretching from today's Albania, Macedonia and northern Greece to eastern Bulgaria. This war and the Treaty of London signed on 30 May 1913 ended Ottoman rule in all but a small remnant of Turkey in Europe, only a few kilometres west of the municipal boundaries of Istanbul. No fewer than 400,000 Muslims of different ethnic and linguistic origins fled their homes and joined the retreating Ottoman army on their way to the remaining territories under the Sultan's control. Mosques and barracks in Istanbul became their first dwellings.

Every such wave of Muslim refugees in the capital suggested that the futures of Muslim and Christian nations, intertwined throughout centuries of albeit unequal coexistence in the empire, would eventually part ways. Muslim political thinkers of the day came to hold the view that the Christian subjects of the Sultan would ultimately side with the Christian European powers, and hence constitute a threat to the political aspirations of the empire's Muslims. The Ottoman retreat from the Balkans and the waves of Muslim refugees also prepared the ground for new episodes of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the empire's final days: the destruction of Ottoman Armenians in 1915, as well as the Greek–Turkish population exchange stipulated in the Lausanne Treaty in 1923, was but an amplified sequel to the destruction of Muslim communities in the Balkans.

Ottoman statesmen were appalled to see their power waning even in the majority Muslim territories of the Arab world, where the Sultan's sovereignty became at best nominal: Egypt was invaded by France in 1798, and then elevated to a monarchy with the Albanian Ottoman statesman Mehmet Ali Pasa of Kavala (Muhammed Ali) crowned viceroy in 1805. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Egypt was largely independent, if under effective British control. In a similar fashion, the North African provinces of Tunis and Algeria came under French protection in the first half of the nineteenth century, and only the Arab territories in the Levant and Mesopotamia remained under control of the 'Porte', the seat of the Ottoman government.

If the sovereignty of the Ottoman sultan was receding throughout the nineteenth century, it was seriously undermined and then effectively ended by the beginning of the twentieth: the Sultan and his government's decision to enter the First World War on the side of Germany resulted in a complete Ottoman defeat and ignited the final destruction of the empire. Amid the carnage of war, the Armenian genocide and Franco-British partition plans, which marked most of the remaining territories for imperial domination by European powers, the Ottoman Empire turned into an empty shell under European control. In the summer of 1920, there was no Ottoman sovereignty left to speak of, but a European plan to divide what was left of the empire. The Sèvres Peace Treaty proposed an Ottoman rump state in central Anatolia, internationalized Istanbul and the Straits, and apportioned Smyrna and parts of western Anatolia to Greece. The plan also had provisions for a future Armenian and possibly also a Kurdish state in the east and opened the Mediterranean shores and Arab provinces to Italian, French and British colonial domination. The Sèvres Treaty was never implemented, yet it became a powerful symbol of the near-annihilation of the empire's Muslims and Turks. It took on a new role in Turkish political discourse in the 1990s as an argument against granting rights to Kurds and other minority groups. The certitude in Turkish political discourse that Europe is, first and foremost, a Christian entity, as well as the deep suspicion directed not only towards Christians, even if they are citizens of Turkey, but also towards Arabs, can be traced back to this historical experience.

Reform to save the state Continuing loss of sovereignty and growing European interventionism necessitated reform. Muslim Ottoman intellectuals were aware of a shift of fortunes as early as in the eighteenth century. As military defeats multiplied, and ever since the premature introduction of a modern army by Sultan Selim III in the late eighteenth century, statesmen internalized the imperative for reform as the precondition for the survival of the Ottoman state. Not surprisingly, this reform began in the military domain: territorial loss was seen above all as a failure of military planning, discipline and apparel. Throughout the nineteenth century, the state established modern military schools for the education of a military and administrative elite that would be able to build and run a strong modern state and stave off efforts at European domination. Ironically, though, the schools were manned mostly by European instructors in the first place and did not always live up to the mission that the sultans devised for them. The young military cadres and administrators who graduated from the imperial schools gained access to political treatises of French and English provenance and soon became eager recipients of revolutionary ideas, such as constitutionalism and the equality of all subjects. Founded as bastions against European encroachment, the new schools hence became hotbeds for clandestine groups with radical ideas: the 'Young Ottomans', and later the 'Young Turks', initially emerged as secret societies, which developed their own visions of a future Ottoman state.

State-led and largely domestically driven reform efforts were complemented by another trajectory of reform, which was partly externally devised: European countries gradually took on the role as protecting powers of the empire's Christian peoples and pressured Ottoman governments into ensuring their safety and legal equality. Especially Armenian communities in the Kurdish-dominated eastern provinces were at risk, and Russia soon became an active participant in the politics of the region. France supported the Maronites of Lebanon and Syria and used them as a pretext to meddle in the affairs of Mount Lebanon. Measures ostensibly introduced for the protection of Christian people against the despotism of Ottoman local governors resulted in a gradual colonization of parts of the empire's territory and undermined the reformist efforts of the Porte.

Even though the idea of equality of Muslim and non-Muslim ran contrary to the founding ideology of what was ultimately a Muslim empire where non-Muslims were only 'protected', the successive reform edicts of the nineteenth century, beginning with the 'Noble Edict of Gulhane' and inaugurating the era of 'Reorganization' (Tanzimat) in 1839, did recognize the idea of full legal equality of all subjects of the Sultan, irrespective of their faith. With the edicts, Ottoman governments sought to pave the way for a more effective and more centralized administration that would be able to establish control over local strongmen and hence stand up to European interference. While 'rational' government ushered in an era of more effective local administration and helped the emergence of new urban trading elites, however, centralization and modernization also had unintended side effects.

In the cities, a growing Christian and Jewish middle class benefited from the rising European economic presence and appeared to surpass the established Muslim merchant families and administrators in wealth and sophistication. In peripheral areas, delicate power balances between Muslim and non-Muslim communities were upset too. Largely autonomous throughout imperial history, Kurdish feudal leaders were now forced to accept the sovereignty of the Ottoman central state and abandon their military and administrative rights. The first Kurdish uprising in 1830 came as a response to increased government control in the fiefdom of Bedirxan Bey of Botan and triggered a series of revolts that would continue well into the 1990s. The unsettled power structure in Kurdistan would also leave the Armenians of the east in a vulnerable position and increase competition over scarce resources. This Kurdish-Armenian conflict created the local conditions for massive Kurdish involvement in the Armenian genocide, further strengthened by the foundation of Kurdish irregular troops in the second half of the nineteenth century by Sultan Abdülhamit II.


Excerpted from Turkey since 1989 by Kerem Öktem. Copyright © 2011 Kerem Öktem. Excerpted by permission of Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgements, vi,
Overview of political parties in Turkey, viii,
Key moments in Turkey's history, x,
Note on orthography and pronunciation, xix,
Explanatory note, xx,
Preface, xxiii,
Map, xxvi,
Introduction, 1,
1 Empire and nation before 1980: the late Ottoman state and the Turkish Republic, 14,
2 The Özal years: rupture, promise and missed chances (1980–91), 56,
3 The 'lost decade': wars, crises and weak coalitions (1991–2002), 84,
4 Justice and development: 'Islamic Calvinists' versus the guardian state (2002–07), 122,
5 Another nation: moving towards the present (2007–10), 157,
Postscript, 190,
Sources, 192,
Index, 201,

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