The Turkey card

The secular, majority-Muslim nation, whose special forces are now backing the U.S. in Afghanistan, is a crucial coalition partner, says author Stephen Kinzer.

Published November 8, 2001 11:03PM (EST)

Perhaps the best news for the U.S. in its war against Afghanistan last week was Turkey's decision to deploy a 90-member special forces unit to fight the Taliban. The Bush administration welcomed the only NATO member with a majority Muslim population into its anti-Taliban coalition, hoping Turkey's participation will help convince the Islamic world that America's beef is with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and not Islam.

The Taliban's "archaic regime poses a threat to ... Turkey and the whole world," Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit declared as he announced the troop deployment. That earned Turkey a rebuke from bin Laden, who clearly had Turkey in mind when he blasted Muslims who cooperate with the United Nations and the West in his last videotaped message.

In a Nov. 5 column, former Nixon speechwriter William Safire channeled his late boss from beyond the grave, and declared Turkey central to the U.S. war against terrorism. The only way to deal with the Muslim world, Safire-as-Nixon wrote, was to "split 'em, the way we split the Communist monolith by playing the China card against the Soviets. Your generation's card is Turkey, the secular Muslim nation with the strongest army ... I'd make a deal with Ankara right now to move across Turkey's border and annex the northern third of Iraq. Most of it is in Kurdish hands already, in our no-flight zone -- but the land to make part of Turkey is the oil field around Kirkuk that produces nearly half of Saddam Hussein's oil."

But Turkey is more than just a strategically important partner in the U.S. struggle against al-Qaida. Many in the West are looking to the republic as a model of how other Muslim nations can balance the demands of globalization and increased Islamic militance with a secular government. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, Turkey underwent forced secularization under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who imposed Western dress on the new Republic of Turkey, and outlawed the traditional Turkish fez for men and head scarves for women. Everything from Turkey's calendar to its alphabet was changed in an effort to westernize the new nation.

Today, while still politically flawed, modern Turkey is perhaps the closest thing to a democracy in an Islamic nation. The military still retains ultimate power -- and has intervened with bloodless coups in 1960 and 1980 -- but there is a powerful, popularly elected parliament. Unlike many other Muslim nations, there is a real division between church and state in Turkey, vigorously enforced by the military. The country has had its share of upheaval, of course: Turkey flirted with Islamic rule in the 1990s, when the Islamic Welfare Party received a plurality of votes in parliament, and held the prime minister's office in a coalition government. By 1997, the Islamic Welfare Party was banned by a military-backed Turkish court in what amounted to a sort of military coup, and the party's leader, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, was banned from politics for five years. Essentially, the military decided ensuring a secular government was more important than democracy. But a strong Muslim movement remains within the country's borders.

That political instability, along with human rights abuses, has been an obstacle to Turkey's receipt of a coveted invitation to join the European Union. When the E.U. offered an Accession Partnership for Turkey last year -- essentially presenting a list of steps Turkey must take to gain admission to the E.U. -- human rights groups were outraged that the E.U. did not demand more social reform within Turkey.

"The E.U. missed an unparalleled opportunity to apply leverage," said Jonathan Sugden, Human Rights Watch's researcher on Turkey. "This is a disappointment. The partnership agreement should have had unambiguous benchmarks for human rights progress."

But while it is far from perfect, many in the West -- since Sept. 11 particularly -- hope Turkey can provide an alternative to Islamic fundamentalism for the Muslim world. Author Stephen Kinzer, the former Istanbul bureau chief for the New York Times, believes the West can learn a great deal from studying Ataturk and Turkish history. The author of "Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds," Kinzer notes the region has changed enormously since 1923, and there are few figures today with Ataturk's charisma or control in the Muslim world.

But he thinks other Muslim nations can learn from Ataturk's example. Certainly Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was educated in Turkey and speaks Turkish, cites Ataturk as his role model and hopes to bring his country back into the international community, keeping radical Muslims in his own country at bay through a kind of benign dictatorship similar to Ataturk's. "Turkey is the one country that can play this role -- a sort of bridge between the Muslim world and the West," Kinzer says.

Salon spoke with Kinzer via telephone last week.

How important was Ataturk in changing Turkish society?

There's hardly a figure in this century who brought more change than Ataturk did in Turkey. He realized Turkey's greatest challenge was to modernize. He was a whirlwind. He went through a series of changes that revolutionized Turkish society, particularly in the area of religion. He created the idea of the secular state, that there was no place for religion in public policy. That has now become so ingrained in the Turkish way of looking at the world. This is a precept that is not widely embraced in the Islamic world. It's one that Turkey needs to preach more aggressively.

There has been a lot of talk since Sept. 11 about whether modernity and democracy are inherently in conflict with Islam. Do you think they are? Is Islam part of what is holding Turkey back?

Absolutely not. I think there is anti-modernism in some forms of Islam, but I think Ataturk understood that ever since there have been human societies, people have sought answers to great questions. There has never been a society where this urge is not there. He simply wanted to ensure that religion was separate from the affairs of state.

What about the unintended consequences? Didn't a similar kind of forced modernization backfire in Iran?

There's a big difference between the Shah and Ataturk. The Shah was really much more divorced from the masses than the Ataturk group and their successors. The military has a remarkably strong hold on the popular psyche in Turkey. You don't have this gulf between the army and the people -- which was the case between the Shah and the Iranian people. In part, you could say it's psychological. But it was the army that founded the Turkish Republic. To most Turks, the army has been responsible for saving the entire nation by defending the Turkish nation against the Kurds in the last decade.

It does seem as if Turkey and Iran are perhaps the best chances for democracy to thrive in Islamic states.

That may be true, but I don't think there's any comparison in terms of where they are along that road. Iran is still in the ultimate grip of reactionary theocrats whose brand of Islam is profoundly anti-modern. Turkey tried Islamic rule, and they didn't like it. The disastrous experience of the one year of Islamic rule in Turkey in the mid-'90s had a big psychological effect on people who supported that movement. It was a failed experiment, and it shocked many people who flirted with that movement -- who realized the values of the Turkish Republic were not strict Islamic values. It had the same effect on the leaders of the movement. There has been a split, but not one that bases religion as a guide for state policy in any way. The effect of having restrictive religious rule gave people a new view of the human rights movement, for example.

But I think it's very important that a democratic nation embrace its devoutly religious citizens and not ask them to make a choice between their devotion and their allegiance to the state.

Was that something that Ataturk understood?

Absolutely. Ataturk privately had little use for religion. If he could have just imposed his will without limits, he may well have wanted to abolish all religion. He wanted to suppress some forms of religious devotion, and clearly defied many traditions of the ruling Islamic ideology. But [since Ataturk] Turkey has gone, I think, too far. In Turkey, even modest aspects of religious devotion are thought of as scary. A woman who wears a head scarf cannot have a government job. Some religious believers feel they need to choose between their religious belief and their fidelity to the state. Any state which has turned itself into an enemy of religion has never emerged successful.

Do the people of Turkey generally support the government's decision to send troops into Afghanistan?

The reaction has been somewhat mixed. First of all, there's public discontent because people in Turkey see themselves as protectors of Muslims throughout the world. When they see pictures of bombs falling on Muslims, they don't like it. But they're willing to defer to the wisdom of the military, by and large, on this and most all other matters.

How are Turkey's leaders and people reacting to the international spotlight on the nation now?

I think there's a positive and a negative side. Turkey is the one country that can play this role -- a sort of bridge between the Muslim world and the West. They're Muslim and a member of NATO and trusted by the West. The Muslim world is waiting for some alternative to the message from the cave. Turkey can play a big role in affecting the Islamic consciousness. But in addition to that, I think you're going to see Turkey playing a role where it seeks to set itself up as some kind of an alternative to the ideology we're getting out of that cave. But in order to do that, Turkey has to change itself. It's not ready yet to be held up as a model.

Is Turkey setting itself up as a political alternative, or a religious alternative, to the message of bin Laden?

Well, that's a very interesting question. In many countries that are predominantly Muslim, the question of political reform touches on changes in religion. The Turkish example could be a very powerful counterbalance to what we're now getting from the cave. But Turkey needs to improve itself first. Their human rights record is lousy, and it has repeatedly failed to meet the economic criteria for membership to the European Union. And it's run by a pretty recalcitrant gerontocracy. They still need to jump over a few big hurdles. That's now become a more important thing for the West to help Turkey over those hurdles.

So you think the events of Sept. 11 may increase outside pressure for Turkey to get its house in order?

I think it's a possibility. We have to see how this plays out. The question I keep asking myself is whether Turkey is ready. Turkey is going to face an opportunity that doesn't come often in a nation's history. On one hand, they don't have the political and economic foundation to sustain a strong capitalist democracy. But they're the best we have [in the Muslim world]. There will be conflicting impulses, of course. Some will want to use this as an excuse to postpone reform. But this could also be a catalyst for accelerated political reform within Turkey -- absolutely.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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