It’s easy to see why Westerners admire Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He abolished the Caliphate, led a quixotic campaign for female emancipation (a grizzled soldier at the head of a feminist campaign!), and, in my view correctly, identified the theocratic rule of the Caliphate as the primary cause of the Ottoman Empire’s decline.
Atatürk was also prone to making furious anti-clerical speeches—of a kind that used to thrill Western liberals—toward the end of modernising the new Turkish Republic. He once said that a decent government “worships reality” and is not one “willing to commit murder or drag the nation into the swamps in search of useless ideologies,” i.e. Islam, which he called a “backward desert religion”. On another occasion, having denounced the “generations of lazy and good-for-nothing priests,” who he said made a living by being parasitic on other men, Atatürk said:
“This theology of an immoral Arab is a dead thing. Possibly it might have suited tribes in the desert. It is no good for modern, progressive state. God’s revelation! There is no God! These are only the chains by which the priests and bad rulers bound the people down.”
Just imagine if a Westerner spoke like that now.
The harsh methods sometimes used by Mustafa Kemal—the authoritarian imposition of a changed script for writing, of dress code (notably banning the fez), of language for the adhan (call to prayer) from Arabic to Turkish, and the use of all legal instruments up to and including capital punishment for those who resisted—could be justified. History, after all, is a tragedy, not a morality play. Look at the heavy-handed (and extra-constitutional) methods needed by Abraham Lincoln to suppress the Confederate Insurrection—and indeed to pitilessly suppress an Indian revolt that broke out behind the lines. But who would not say that he was on the right side of history? That, as against Christian slavers prepared to rend the Union to maintain their filthy trade, all means necessary were permitted to destroy this evil? In Turkey, the situation was one where a majority would vote for its own enslavement and a clerical caste would once again reap the benefits: if a measure of force could push Turkey to secular, decent governance and prosperity, was it not worth a try?
Atatürk’s successors established good relations with the United States, leading to Turkey’s accession to NATO in 1952. Turkey extended recognition to Israel barely after the guns fell silent in 1949 and established a relationship that went deeper than government-to-government with large-scale tourist and cultural exchange. Bernard Lewis once outlined the state of public opinion in the Middle East as divided into three categories: anti-American regimes and pro-American populations, and vice versa; with only the two democracies, Turkey and Israel, having pro-American State policy and pro-American public opinion.
The coup d’états which set apart Turkey from ordinary democratic polities were justified as necessary checks on an illiberal populace. After Turkey’s first democratic election in 1950, the Atatürkists ceded power peacefully to Adnan Menderes. But Menderes made clear he was not going to allow himself to be removed by an election: he began violating the secular laws and organised a lethal pogrom against Istanbul’s Greek Christian minority. In 1960, the military stepped in with what they call a moodahale (intervention), which has clean, surgical connotation—a short-term operation to clean-up and restore normalcy. Menderes and his deputy, Fatin Zorlu, were sent to the gallows. Everyone called it a coup; nobody believed the army would leave power. But they did—the very next year. The Kemalist military would remove three more governments in 1971 and 1980—mostly due to the country being overtaken by violent lawlessness that the civilian government could not control—and then the 1997 “postmodern coup” when the Kemalists ousted an authoritarian Islamist government that was zealously undoing Turkey’s secularism by threatening a direct intervention if the Parliament didn’t take steps to rectify the anti-secular steps taken by the government. The Welfare Party’s coalition partners withdrew their support and Necmettin Erbakan was forced to resign as Prime Minister.
Until recently, I would have seen no reason to complain at this. Among other things, the “interventions” had actually forced evolutions: Erbakan’s Islamists were a very different breed to the murderous sectarians of Menderes.
This logic would have supported an “intervention” to get rid of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, too. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its “neo-fundamentalist” principles commit it to the same ends as al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist organisations—an Islamic State—but to using different means, namely a focus on dawa (missionary work), seizing the State one convert at a time. Erdogan had said in 1993 that democracy was “a vehicle which you ride as far as you want to go and then get off“. In office he had acted this way too: securing control of the economy, the universities, the police, the intelligence agencies, and he had then skilfully turned to military. With the conclusion of the “Sledgehammer” case in 2012 and the “Ergenekon” case in 2013—both long-rolling “inquiries” (show trials in reality) that had put a fifth of Turkey’s Generals behind bars—Erdogan had neutralised the army. In the summer of 2011, the Kemalist military gave its final role of the dice: a mass-resignation that at any other point in Turkey’s history would have triggered the downfall of the government. It did not; they were all replaced with Islamist loyalists.
Erdogan’s long-standing intention is to transform the presidency into an executive office and become the first occupant, and to that end he has, at least until recently, actually adopted a less harsh policy toward the Kurds than the Kemalists: they could give him the votes to make these constitutional changes. (Kurdish language and cultural rights are also less threatening to Erdogan’s Islamic identity than the Kemalists’ Turkish one.) So some of this score-settling with the military could be—even if one disliked it—seen as a rough form of justice. But when the strong-hold of secular democracy, the judiciary, had its independence attacked by Erdogan, it was clear what path his government was on.
In all this time, Erdogan had maintained that the reforms to bring the military under civilian control and the reforms of the judiciary and constitution—of which Erdogan has re-written about a third—were intended to bring Turkey’s institutions into line with the democratic norms of the European Union, which he maintained he wanted to join. But at the end of 2011, a close ally of Erdogan gave voice to a suspicion many had harboured for a long time: “[T]he E.U. has absolutely no influence over Turkey“. In short, the domestication of the military and the alterations to the judiciary were being done for Erdogan’s benefit, with the E.U. as a pretext. With more recent developments—Turkey becoming the leading jailer of journalists and abetting Salafi-jihadists moving into Syria—it seemed to complete the case made by people like David Frum and David Brooks that those with anti-democratic intentions, whatever their methods, should be excluded from the democratic process, by force if necessary.
But then cracks began appearing in this neat worldview.
Even when solidly in the corner of the Kemalists, one was not blind to the inadequacies of the military: their chauvinism and authoritarianism, and their corruption—there was, for instance, a very strong impression that the decision to deny the United States a northern front in the campaign to finish with Saddam Hussein was unrelated to any principle but to an insufficiently-large bribe and a desire to deny Iraq’s long-oppressed Kurds a chance at autonomy.
It was also one thing to back the ruthlessness of Atatürk and Habib Bourguiba in trying to secularise Turkey and Tunisia, but was one really prepared to be on the hook for Joseph Stalin’s campaign—roughly concurrent with Atatürk’s—that massacred untold numbers of mullahs in Soviet Central Asia, even if it succeeded, as it did, above even Atatürk in driving Islam out of the population? Not really.
What about the Turkish military’s land-grab in Cyprus? How exactly did that help in the historical advance of Turkey toward liberal democracy—with its sponsorship of ultra-nationalist proxies? The refusal of the Kemalist establishment to give recognition to the genocidal massacres of the Armenians—or to the terrible atrocities against, and continued repression of, the Kurds—cast doubt on its ability to modernise a country. Self-criticism is the engine of progress and the favouring of articles banning “anti-Turkishness” suggested that the Kemalists had other ideas.
Michael Koplow has made a very powerful case that this “model” was illusory from the get-go; that all progress Turkey has made has been “in spite” of the military. The 1960 coup might well be considered a rescue operation against an Islamist tyranny—though Mendes government’s refusal to fund the military at the level they desired might have had something to do with it—but the 1980 coup not only imposed on the country an authoritarian constitution that preserved the privileges of the military but “brought the torture, imprisonment, and disappearance of thousands upon thousands of Turkish citizens.” Moreover, “No country can be democratic until there are no unelected bodies with power over elected officials. So long as the Turkish military had the ultimate veto, elected governments had to look over their shoulders, which in turn, damaged state and civil society institutions.” This was the fatal flaw in the “Turkish model”: trying to modernise the State over the heads of its citizens.
Reuel Marc Gerecht has argued persuasively that the Frum-Brooks view is exactly wrong: it is precisely through the theocrats—who command overwhelmingly majorities in nearly every State in the region—that democracy will come. As Gerecht puts it:
“With or without us, Muslims in the Middle East are moving in a democratic direction. … Majoritarian democracy, which is what we are likely to see at least in the early years of fundamentalist-dominated governments in the Arab world, can always crack … But surely devout Muslims should have the right to try. … [Y]ou can’t stop evolution. The events of 9/11 should have irrevocably taught us that we want more of it, not less. Middle Eastern autocrats offer only an illusion of progress and security. Since World War II, they have, with only a few exceptions, impoverished their societies.”
The dictators posed as secular modernists holding back an atavistic tide when the truth of it was that they radicalised their populations and stored up the furies that they then deflected our way. In Turkey this model had its greatest success but this truth holds: while democracy is “managed” it is a fraud and the dividends it pays in peace and prosperity will continue to elude.
Samuel Huntington referred to Turkey as a “torn country“: its elite was part of one world (the West) and its populace was of another (Islam). That stand-off would end eventually in favour of one or other. Fouad Ajami might be correct that in the short-term Turkey has “all but gone over to the dark side” with its virulent anti-Americanism and agitation against Israel, plus less concealed forms of antisemitism. But this is a necessary stage in Turkey’s evolution toward democracy.
The Atatürkist experiment was worth running, the attempt to stage-manage an evolution to a secular democracy in a Muslim country; to secularise the population and teach them the habits of liberalism before allowing them a free vote. But that experiment is now at an end. It turns out that the ulema and the faithful cannot be simply overridden; if Turkey is to be a democracy she is going to have to bring the faithful along, and that means they are going to have to be a part of the evolution. Amartya Sen was correct: “A nation must not be judged fit for democracy. It must become fit through democracy”.
To say Turkey is not now a liberal democracy is true enough but it never was and the Atatürkist model offered no path to that end; it had gone as far as it could. As the AKP government now falters there are those who yearn for a time when the Turkish army would have stepped in and removed what is clearly a corrupt and authoritarian, Islamist government. That however is not the way that Turkey will progress. Turkey will have to find a political way through this crisis and the population will have to accept its responsibility for having brought this about—and also for its ultimate solution.