Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Foreign Affairs

The Ottoman Republic

When General Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged the Republic of Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire ninety years ago, it was a disgraced and decrepit nation known as the Sick Man of Europe, the old ruins of the ancient Byzantine Empire and the once-powerful Ottoman Empire surrounding its beleaguered people. Ataturk, as dear to the Turks as Washington and Lincoln are to we Americans, sought to change this. Through the great force of his character and vision he reached out to create from this sick man a new nation that embraced modernity, Westernization, and secularism. He pulled together East and West, forging a republic in a Muslim-majority nation.

His legacy, though, was not always so protected by his vision. Parties with Islamist tendencies, scornful of the secular Turkish nationalism that Ataturk returned to his people, have throughout the last century gained power and started to enforce harsh laws on the Turkish people. The military has long been a check on this, overthrowing democratically-elected governments with Islamist tendencies over and over again, enforcing secularism and Westernized stability at the expense of political freedoms. In 2001, though, these hardliners came together to dominate a new political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turk). In this time, the Prime Minister and leader of the party, Recep Tayyipd Erdogan, has advocated for the long-sought Turkish acceptance into the European Union and repeatedly stated that his party has no religious axis. Nonetheless over the past five years, a strong core of Islamists led by Turkish President Abdullah Gul has been gaining more power within the party. Gul's nomination to the presidency was blocked initially by the secular Supreme Court for fear of his Islamist tendencies. Popular support, though, forced them to allow him in, and he became the first devout Muslim to hold the seat in Turkey's young history.

The AKP is able to maintain such widespread popularity because it feeds on the poor and uneducated masses of the countrysides; they blend a social welfare state with a religiously conservative message and win over the poor vote. Importantly, though, the AKP has begun to figure out how to merge the nationalism instilled in the nation by Ataturk with their message of Islamic conservatism, and now even within certain educated sectors they are beginning to grow in popularity. This caused the military to grow suspicious, but now the AKP had the upper-hand over the once all-powerful secularist military. Over the past year and a half, dozens of high-ranking military officers have been arrested and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government in a coup d'etat. While 90% of the Turkish citizenry said they trusted the military in 2002, now only 60% do. Last week, the military finally surrendered with the simultaneous resignations of its leader, General Isik Kosaner, and the leaders of the air force, navy, and army. In this day and age, in a nation like Turkey, a coup against the democratically-elected government was just not possible.

For years many have held up the Republic of Turkey as a shining example of an Islamic nation embracing democracy without foreign intervention forcing it upon them. This dream, though, may be dying. A newspaper columnist in Istanbul wrote, "This is a symbolic moment where the first Turkish republic ends and the second republic begins." More likely than not, this second republic will resemble something far more Ottoman than the Westernization envisioned by Ataturk. With the old guard now out, the military may slowly be transformed into a tool of the state as it is in Iran. Prime Minister Erdogan's Islamist coup over the past decade was brilliantly performed; by acting and looking like a European, he delegitimized the military and held the old guard up as dangers to democracy. While claiming to be working towards meeting the stringent entry requirements to join the European Union, Erdogan has clamped down on civil rights. Most importantly of all, though, is that with the government now secure from the pro-Western secularists that have been keeping an eye on its over the past century, its Ottoman ambition can now be satiated.

Geopolitically, few nations are as strategically positioned as Turkey, the gateway between West and East. While it has been a willing friend to its NATO allies, international alliances are not permanent things. Turkey will soon grow tired of the double-talk it gets from the European Union, which has long dabbled membership in front of the nation all-the-while pundits and politicians throughout Europe have criticized them and declared that Turkey can never be European. This will not bother Turkey for long, and I feel they will soon abandon their bid to be European when they can instead embrace the glory of their Ottoman history. They can exercise tremendous influence within their geographic sphere; indeed, it seems that Turkey is already courting their Arab neighbors and standing up as the power in the Middle East opposite of Iran. Turkish resurgence in the region can pose several great problems for the West-- particularly in regards to the Cyprus question, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the persecution of Kurds both in Turkish Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan.

But why should Turkey fear bulking up its foreign influence? The European Union is imploding. NATO has proven to be disorganized and incapable of even containing the puny Gaddafi. Greece, now essentially owned by grumpy German banks, will hardly be able to lift a finger over Cyprus. The United States, suffering from its own financial woes and seeking to withdraw from its entanglements in that side of the world, would at worst just issue low-key complaints as we do about crises in Syria, Sudan, Burma, and elsewhere. No, Turkey will seek to restore itself as the dominant regional power in the Middle East, in control of its sphere of influence, without care of what the politicians in Brussels and Washington whine about. At least they may provide another balance to Iran in the same way the Saudis do and Iraq did. People would do well to pay close attention the AKP and its relations abroad.
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Discussions - 1 Comment

I read your post with great interest, Robinson. I've written on Turkey and have long been an observer of their evolutions. I still maintain friends from the country.

I think you have a firm grasp on the situation, but I'd quibble with a few minuscule points. I think your admiration of Ataturk is a bit unblemished. The rise of Islamic resistance is in part the result of his secular overreach and heavy-handed tactics. I recognize that he was attempting the sort of social reformation which is nearly impossible to successfully sustain and presents itself only once in a generation. But history does not always forgive our errors simply because they were inevitable in the face of incredible difficulties.

You also reference "the secular Turkish nationalism that Ataturk returned to his people." Returned? i don't believe they really had anything resembling secularism during the Ottoman Empire - though they most certainly had the empiric version of nationalism.

Finally, I think the ironically positive outcome of the Islamic counter-revolution in Turkey will be that Islamic governance will prevent the economic, military and, thus, geo-political rise you envision with such just reservation. That isn't to say that I do not wish Turkey to be powerful - there are some scenarios in which that would prove desirable. But under hard-line Islamic rulership, I'd just as well that they remain solidly in the third-world category.

We should chat about it over beer sometime....

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