Turkey in the throes of Islamic revolution?
Turkey is half pregnant with political Islam, if one believes Western foreign
ministries and the mainstream press. Its Islamist government last week arrested
82 alleged coup plotters from Turkey's military and intellectual elite, on the
strength of a secret indictment of 2,445 pages. Turkish media have offered
fanciful allegations linking the secular leaders of the alleged "Ergenekon"
plot to al-Qaeda as well as the violent Kurdish Workers' Party. Among those
detailed are pillars of the secular establishment, including the head of the
Ankara Chamber of Commerce and the Ankara editor of the country's leading daily
Before shouting "Reichstag Fire!" in a crowded theater, one should read the
indictment, when and if it is made public. A few Western analysts, such as
Michael Rubin at the American
Enterprise Institute, are warning  that an Islamic putsch is possible, after
the fashion of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
The question of the moment, though, is not whether mass arrests of civic
leaders on charges that challenge the imagination are compatible with Turkey's
image as a democratic nation, but rather why the world's media have printed
nary a harsh word about the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
A perfect storm of enmity has come down on the beleaguered Turkish secularists,
who find themselves without friends. That is a tragedy whose consequences will
spill over Turkey's borders, for the secular model established by Kemal Ataturk
after World War I was the Muslim world's best hope of adapting to modernity.
Many years of misbehavior by Turkey's army and security services, the core
institutions of secular power, have eroded their capacity to resist an Islamist
The United States State Department, meanwhile, has found a dubious use for what
it thinks is a moderate strain of political Islam. Washington apparently hopes
to steer Turkey into a regional bloc with the short-term aim of calming Iraq,
and a longer-term objective of fostering a Sunni alliance against Iran's
ambition to foment a Shi'ite revolution in the Middle East.
By rejecting Turkey's efforts to join the European Union, France and Germany
have destroyed the credibility of the secular parties who seek integration with
the West. Perhaps the Europeans already have consigned Turkey to the ward for
political incurables, and do not think it worthwhile to try to revive
Western-oriented secularism. Turkey's liberal intellectuals, who suffered
intermittent but brutal repression at the hands of the secular military, think
of the Islamist government as the enemy of their enemy, if not quite their
Sadly, the notion that moderate Islam will flourish in the Turkish nation
demands that we believe in two myths, namely, moderate Islam and the Turkish
nation. Too much effort is wasted parsing the political views of Erdogan, who
began his career in the 1990s as an avowed Islamist and anti-secularist, but
later espoused a muted form of Islam as leader of the Justice and Development
Party (AKP). Whether Erdogan is a born-again moderate or a disguised jihadi is
known only to the man himself. Islam in Turkey flourishes in full public view.
At the village level, the AKP draws on the same sort of Saudi Arabian patronage
that filled Pakistan with madrassas (seminaries) during the past two
decades, and incubated the Wahhabi forces that have now all but buried the
remnants of Pakistani secularism.
If political Islam prevails in Turkey, what will emerge is not the same country
in different coloration, but a changeling, an entirely different nation. In a
1997 speech that earned him a prison term, Erdogan warned of two fundamentally
different camps, the secularists who followed Kemal, and Muslims who followed
sharia. These are not simply different camps, however, but different
configurations of Turkish society at the molecular level. Like a hologram,
Turkey offers two radically different images when viewed from different angles.
Turkish Islam, the ordering of the Anatolian villages and the Istanbul slums,
represents a nation radically different than the secularism of the army, the
civil service, the universities and the Western-leaning elite of Istanbul. If
the Islamic side of Turkey rises, the result will be unrecognizable.
Modern Turkey is a construct, not a country in the sense that Westerners
understand the term; it is the rump of a multi-ethnic empire that perished in
World War I, and the project of a nation advanced by a visionary leader who
could not, however, pierce the sedimentary layers of ethnicity, language and
history that make modern Turkey less than the sum of its parts. Turkey's army
prevailed as the dominant institution of the secular state simply because no
other entity could array the poor farmers of the Anatolian highlands according
to the secular program.
The trouble is that there are not that enough Turks in Turkey. To replace the
imperial identity of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal proposed Turkum, or Turkishness,
an Anatolian national identity founded on the many civilizations that had ruled
the peninsula. Ethnic identity in the sense of European nationalism informed
neither the Ottoman Empire nor the Kemalist state. The Orghuz Turks who
conquered the hinterlands of the Byzantine Empire during the 12th century never
comprised more than a small minority of the population. At the height of their
conquests during the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire ruled over more
Christians than Muslims.
Kemal created modern Turkey by thwarting the attempts of Western powers to
partition his country after its defeat in World War I, but at terrible cost.
The 20 million population of the Ottoman Empire was reduced to perhaps 7
million (by a French government estimate) in 1924. Up to a million and a half
Armenian Christians were murdered in 1914-1918 at the instigation of the
Turkish government, to neutralize a population considered sympathetic to
wartime adversaries. Most of the killing was done by Kurdish tribesmen. Between
1.5 million and 3 million Greek Orthodox Christians, whose ancestors had
settled Asia Minor thousands of years before the Turks arrived, were expelled
in 1924 at the conclusion of the Greek-Turkish War.
Modern Turkey thus began not only with the rump of an empire, but with the
turnover of nearly half its 1924 population. Because Kemal's concept of Turkum
requires suspension of disbelief in favor of a nonexistent national identity,
Turkey has avoided a census of its minorities since 1965. Perhaps 30% of its
population are Kurds, whose integration into the Turkish state is uncertain.
Kurds are concentrated in eastern Turkey in an area that before 1918 was known
as Western Armenia - because ethnic Kurds replaced the slaughtered Armenians.
In addition, there are 3 million Circassians, 2 million Bosniaks, a million and
a half Albanians, a million Georgians, and sundry smaller groups. But even
within the majority characterized as "ethnic Turks", the sedimentary layers
remain of millennia of contending tribes and civilizations.
The Kemalists had mixed results in their efforts to pack this ethnic and
cultural jumble into a newly-designed national identity. What sometimes is
called the "deep state" - the secretive Kemalist hold over military and
intelligence services - may turn out to be shallow as it is brittle. One
Turkish historian told me, "Like the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid, who fell 100
years ago this week because of an explosion of popular unrest, the Turkish
military are the victims of their own success in creating a diversified and
modern society which wants to live in a freer system. The hard hand they turned
against intellectual dissenters drove sections of the westernized
intelligentsia into the arms of the Islamists - and it is that alliance which
is now at work to demolish both the military's influence in politics and
(perhaps) the entire heritage of Kemal Ataturk."
Like its Ottoman predecessors, the Kemalist establishment recognized its danger
far too late. This year, the country's Constitutional Court attempted to ban
Erdogan's AKP for attempting to undermine the secular state. It seems probable
that the suppression of the supposed coup plot constitutes the AKP's response,
as well as a pre-emptive action against the last-resort tactic of the
secularists, namely military intervention to prevent Turkey from sliding into
Turkey presently is composed of 70 million people who do not quite know who
they are. If the hologram rotates towards Islam, that is, a return to sharia
and traditional life in opposition to modernity, Turkey will no more resemble
the "moderate Muslim" state of 2008 than Kemal's Turkey resembled the Ottoman
Empire of 1908. According to one Turkish analyst, "The Islamic movement in
Turkey is a vast and varied coalition of which the AKP is only the nose cone.
It was designed to look studiously moderate and allay the suspicions both of
the military and of world opinion. Some sections of the AKP are undoubtedly
moderates or pragmatists and deserve their moderate reputation. But alongside
the party, there is an enormous groundswell of Islamic movements, at work
transforming Turkish society and institutions. Successful revolutionaries tend
to be those who conceal their intentions until the hour of victory: if anyone
in the AKP intends to move towards sharia it is unlikely that they would be
shouting this from the rooftops."
It should be no surprise that the State Department looks favorably on Turkey's
Islamist drift: that is precisely how Foggy Bottom viewed Iran in 1979, when it
sped the overthrow of the shah. It appears that the United States and Saudi
Arabia, each for its own reasons, are doing their best to propel Turkey on the
way to Islamism. Saudi Arabia's support for Islamist organizations at the
grassroots level is an open secret in Turkey, and the influence of Erdogan's
AKP at the village level stems to a great extent from Saudi patronage.
Less subtle is the burgeoning importance of Gulf state contracts for the
Turkish economy. Turkey has two main sources of external business: consumer
goods exports to Europe, and contracting as well as exports in Dubai in the
United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Economic conditions are deteriorating in
Turkey, and the country's stock market is the worst performer this year among
emerging markets. With Europe in recession, and prospects fading for Turkish
entry into the European community, Saudi Arabia looms larger in the Turkish
economy, strengthening Erdogan's hand among the business elite.
Washington's immediate concern is the appearance of stability in Iraq, which
will influence the November presidential elections in the US. As a self-styled
moderate Sunni, Erdogan seems to be Central Casting's idea of an Iraqi ally.
Erdogan received an extraordinary welcome when he visited Iraq last week, with
the promise of an economic and political alliance with the country.
An Iraqi spokesmen, Ali al-Dabbagh, declared after Erdogan's visit that "Turkey
is Iraq's door to Europe", adding that Turkey "can be the best trade partner of
Iraq", according to the BBC on July 13. Even more, "The security and political
dimensions are also of paramount importance because the two countries are on
the road to democracy. Turkey is a democratic country and democracy has started
to take roots in Iraq ... I think this relationship will be a large nucleus
around which other countries will rally so that the region will develop into a
common market benefiting its peoples."
Less dramatic, but perhaps more important than the mass arrests, was another
development in Turkey. The country's Supreme Court dismissed all charges
against the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, the man Michael Rubin
believes will be Turkey's answer to Khomeini. State prosecutors had accused
Gulen of founding an illegal organization with the objective of undermining the
secular structure of the state. An elderly diabetic, Gulen has lived in exile
in the United States since 1998. "We expect Gulen here any day," a Turkish
analyst told me. Whether Rubin is correct to view Gulen as the Turkish Khomeini
is of secondary interest. Gulen's movement is one of a number of entities that
might form the kernel of an Islamic Republic in Turkey.
The Sorcerer's Apprentices of the State Department do not understand the sort
of objects that they are animating. Political Islam will not merely change
coloration of the country, but transform its character from the grassroots
upward. For all the crudeness of the Kemalists, American diplomats will regret
their failure as much as the fall of the shah.