Armenian News Network / Groong  25 March 2002

Dreaming in Turkish.

Author: Kinzer, Stephen.

Source: World Policy Journal v. 18 no3 (Fall 2001)  p. 69-80

 My favorite word in Turkish is istiklal. The dictionary says it means  "independence," and it has special resonance in Turkey because Turkey is  struggling to become independent of so much. It wants to break away from  its autocratic heritage, from its position outside the world's political  mainstream, and from the stereotype of the terrifying Turk and the  ostracism which that stereotype encourages. Most of all, it is trying to  free itself from its fears--fear of freedom, fear of the outside world,  fear of itself.

 But the real reason I love to hear the word istiklal is because it is the  name of Turkey's most fascinating boulevard. Jammed with people all day and  late into the night, lined with cafés, bookstores, cinemas and shops of  every description, it is the pulsating heart not only of Istanbul but of  the Turkish nation. I go there whenever I feel myself being overwhelmed by  doubts about Turkey. Losing myself in Istiklal's parade of faces for a few  minutes, overhearing snippets of conversation and absorbing the energy that  crackles along its mile and a half, is always enough to renew my confidence  in Turkey's future. Because Istanbul has attracted millions of migrants  from other parts of the country--several hundred new ones still arrive  every day--this street is the ultimate melting pot. Istiklal is perfectly  named because its human panorama reflects Turkey's drive to break away from  claustrophobic provincialism and allow its people to express their  magnificent diversity.

 That drive has been only partly successful. Something about the concept of  diversity frightens Turkey's ruling elite. It triggers the deep insecurity  that has gripped Turkish rulers ever since the Republic was founded in  1923, an insecurity that today prevents Turkey from taking its proper place  in the modern world.

 No nation was ever founded with greater revolutionary zeal than the Turkish  Republic, nor has any undergone more sweeping change in such a short time.  In a very few years after 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk transformed a  shattered and bewildered nation into one obsessed with progress. His was a  one-man revolution, imposed and steered from above. Atatürk knew that Turks  were not ready to break violently with their past, embrace modernity and  turn decisively toward the West. He also knew, however, that doing so would  be the only way for them to shape a new destiny for themselves and their  nation. So he forced them, often over the howling protests of the old  order.

 The new nation that Atatürk built on the rubble of the Ottoman Empire never  could have been built democratically. Probably not one of his sweeping  reforms would have been approved in a plebiscite. The very idea of a  plebiscite, of shaping a political system according to the people's will,  would have struck most Turks of that era as not simply alien but ludicrous.

 In the generations that have passed since then, Turkey has become an  entirely different nation. It is as vigorous and as thirsty for democracy  as any on earth. But its leaders, who fancy themselves Atatürk's heirs,  fiercely resist change. They believe that Turks cannot yet be trusted with  the fate of their nation, that an elite must continue to make all important  decisions because the people are not mature enough to do so.

 Atatürk's infant Turkish Republic in the 1920s was a very fragile creation.  Sheiks and leaders of religious sects considered its commitment to  secularism a direct assault on all they had held sacred. Tribal chieftans  and local warlords realized that a strong centralized state would undermine  their authority. Kurds who dominated eastern provinces sought to take  advantage of the new state's weakness by staging military uprisings.  European powers hoped it would collapse so that they could divide its  territory among themselves. The new Soviet Union actively sought to subvert  it and turn it into a vassal state.

 In this hostile climate, Atatürk and his comrades came to think of  themselves as righteous crusaders slashing their way through a world filled  with enemies. They ruled by decree and with a rubber-stamp Parliament,  equating criticism with treason. During their first years in power, arrest  and execution were the fate of their real and imagined opponents.

 Three-quarters of a century has passed since then, and in that time Turkey  has changed beyond recognition. The nation that faced Atatürk when he took  power was not only in ruins but truly primitive. Nearly everyone was  illiterate. Life expectancy was pitifully short, epidemics were accepted as  immutable facts of life and medical care was all but nonexistent. The basic  skills of trade, artisanry and engineering were unknown, having vanished  with the departed Greeks and Armenians. Almost every citizen was a  subsistence farmer. There were only a few short stretches of paved road in  a territory that extended more than a thousand miles from Iran to Greece.  Most important of all, the Turkish people knew nothing but obedience. They  had been taught since time immemorial that authority is something distant  and irresistible, and that the role of the individual in society is  submission and nothing more.

 If Atatürk could return to see what has become of his nation, he  undoubtedly would be astonished at how far it has come. Muddy villages have  become bustling cities and cow paths have become superhighways.  Universities and public hospitals are to be found in even the most remote  regions. The economy is unsteady but shows bursts of vitality. Turkish  corporations and business conglomerates are making huge amounts of money  and competing successfully in every corner of the globe. Hundreds of young  men and women return home every year from periods of study abroad. People  are educated, self-confident and eager to build a nation that embodies the  ideals of democracy and human rights.

 The ruling elite, however, refuses to embrace this new nation or even admit  that it exists. Military commanders, prosecutors, security officers,  narrow-minded bureaucrats, lapdog newspaper editors, rigidly conservative  politicians and other members of this sclerotic cadre remain  psychologically trapped in the 1920s. They see threats from across every  one of Turkey's eight borders and, most dangerously, from within the  country itself. In their minds Turkey is still a nation under siege. To  protect it from mortal danger, they feel obliged to run it themselves. They  not only ignore but actively resist intensifying pressure from educated,  worldly Turks who want their country to break free of its shackles and  complete its march toward the democracy that was Atatürk's dream.

 This dissonance, this clash between what the entrenched elite wants and  what more and more Turks want, is the central fact of life in modern  Turkey. It frames the country's great national dilemma. Until this dilemma  is somehow resolved, Turkey will live in eternal limbo, a half-democracy  taking half-steps toward freedom and fulfilling only half its destiny.

 The most extraordinary aspect of this confrontation is that both sides are  seeking, or claim to be seeking, the same thing: a truly modern Turkey.  Military commanders and their civilian allies, especially the appointed  prosecutors, judges and governors who set the limits of freedom in every  town and province, consider themselves modernity's great and indispensable  defenders. They fear democracy not on principle, but because they are  convinced it will unleash forces that will drag Turkey back toward  ignorance and obscurantism. Allowing Turks to speak, debate and choose  freely, they believe, would lead the nation to certain catastrophe. To  prevent that catastrophe, they insist on holding ultimate political power  themselves and crushing challenges wherever they appear.

 Yet what this means in practice is that state power is directed  relentlessly against the very forces in society that represent true  modernity. Writers, journalists and politicians who criticize the status  quo are packed off to prison for what they say and write. Calls for  religious freedom are considered subversive attacks on the secular order.  Expressions of ethnic or cultural identity are banned for fear that they  will trigger separatist movements and ultimately rip the country apart.  When foreign leaders remind Turkey that it can never become a full member  of the world community as long as its government behaves this way, they are  denounced for harboring secret agendas whose ultimate goal is to wipe Turks  off the face of history.

 These attitudes have turned Turkey's ruling elite into the enemy of the  ideal that gave it life. Originally dedicated to freeing a nation from  dogma, this elite now defends dogma. Once committed to liberating the mind,  today it lashes out against those whose minds lead them to forbidden  places. It has become the "sovereign" against which its spiritual  ancestors, the Young Turks, began rebelling in the nineteenth century. 

"Our sovereign and our government do not want the light to enter our  country," the Young Turk theorist Abdullah Cevdet wrote in 1897. "They want  all people to remain in ignorance, on the dunghill of misery and  wretchedness; no touch of awakening may blaze in the hearts of our  compatriots. What the government wants is for the people to remain like  beasts, submissive as sheep, fawning and servile as dogs. Let them hear no  word of any honest lofty idea. Instead, let them languish under the whips  of ignorant gendarmes, under the aggression of shameless, boorish,  oppressive officials.".

 The Young Turks were members of insurgent groups that defied the absolutism  of Ottoman rule during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These  groups built a rich tradition of dissent that shaped the intellectual and  political life of the late Ottoman period and laid the foundation for  Atatürk's revolution. Their principles were admirable, but most of their  leaders believed instinctively that the state, not popular will, was the  instrument by which social and political change would be achieved. They  bequeathed to Atatürk the conviction that Turkish reformers should seize  state power and then use it ruthlessly for their own ends, not try to  democratize society in ways that would weaken the centralized state.

 Turkey's effort to rid itself of this authoritarian mind-set has been  difficult and scarred by trauma. Not until 1950 did military commanders,  the vanguard of Atatürk's new class, allow free multiparty elections for  Parliament. To this day they watch politicians closely. Three times they  have staged coups to depose elected governments. After the last one, in  1980, they ruled the country for three years, and before returning to their  barracks they wrote a new constitution and called a national referendum to  ratify it. Criticizing the document or campaigning for a "no" vote was  illegal, and in the end ninety-one percent of voters approved. This  constitution, which remains in force, was written to embody the needs of  Turkey's military-dominated elite. The article guaranteeing freedom of  speech and the press stipulates that "the exercise of these freedoms may be  restricted for the purposes of preventing crime." Another article bans "any  news or articles that threaten the internal or external security of the  state." A third asserts: "Fundamental rights and freedoms may be restricted  by law, in conformity with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, with  the aim of safeguarding the indivisible integrity of the state with its  territory and nation, national sovereignty, the Republic, national  security, public order, general peace, the public interest, public morals  and public health.".

 These articles and a series of laws passed to bolster them have been used  very effectively to prevent the flowering of Turkish democracy. In the  1990s, however, it became clear that the true core of the constitution was  Article 118, which established a body called the National Security Council,  composed of five elected officials (the president, prime minister and  ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs) and five generals (the  chief of staff and the commanders of the army, navy, air force and  gendarmerie). Article 118 stipulates that the government must give  "priority consideration" to its decisions.

 For most of the 1980s Turkey was dominated by Turgut Özal, an energetic  visionary whose rise to power the departing generals had tried to prevent.  He managed to impose a measure of civilian control over the armed forces,  and during his years as prime minister and then president, the National  Security Council remained in the background. But after Özal's death in  1993, Turkey entered a period of political upheaval in which small-minded  politicians bickered while the country drifted toward social and political  fragmentation and a new Kurdish revolt in the eastern provinces reached an  alarming peak. The politicians' failure to confront these challenges  created a vacuum, and to the relief of many Turks, military officers  stepped in to fill it. They became Turkey's true rulers, assuming the power  to veto every government policy of which they disapproved. The vehicle they  used to exercise this power, and use to this day, is the National Security  Council. It is not a forum for debate or discussion but a place where  generals come to tell the country's elected leaders what to do.

 The council usually meets once a month, and although its deliberations are  private, television reporters are admitted for a few minutes to film the  members as they arrive and settle into their seats. The pictures they take  perfectly convey the balance of power within the council. Elected  government leaders sit on one side of a long table, shifting uncomfortably  like guilty schoolboys. The military commanders, ribbon-bedecked and  unsmiling, sit opposite, glowering at their charges as they pull folders  from their briefcases and prepare to deliver their decrees. Always they  speak with a single voice, and always it is understood that their will must  be done.

 In 1997 I visited the Islamic Republic of Iran to write about the election  that brought Mohammed Khatami to that country's presidency. On the plane  trip back to Turkey, I reflected on the curious system by which Iran is  ruled. There is a fully functioning government headed by an elected  president and including a parliament and various local authorities. But  there is also a second center of power, the Council of Guardians, composed  of religious figures and headed by a mullah they choose for a life term.  The government is elected by the people, who are human and therefore  fallible, but the Council of Guardians is guided by God, who is infallible.  Whenever there is a conflict between the two branches, therefore, the  Council of Guardians must be right. What it decides must be done,  regardless of what the people or their elected representatives want.

 As my plane entered Turkish air space, my thoughts slowly drifted from the  country I was leaving to the one to which I was returning. Comparing Iran's  political system to that of Turkey, I saw a remarkable similarity. Turkey  has a diverse and often feisty Parliament that chooses a prime minister  according to the outcome of free elections, as well as a cabinet and all  the trappings of a bureaucratic state. Ultimate power, however, rests with  the National Security Council, dominated by military commanders accountable  only to each other. The commanders draw their authority from Atatürk, who  though long dead remains Turkey's secular god. Because they defend  Atatürk's principles and believe they know instinctively what he would do  in any situation, their decisions must take precedence over those of  fallible politicians. To allow civilians to overrule them, they believe,  would be an unforgivable betrayal of both duty and the nation's sacred  guiding spirit.

 There is one glaring difference, of course, between the roles of Iranian  mullahs and Turkish generals. The mullahs use their power to enforce a  reactionary theocratic order based on hatred of the modern world. Turkish  officers detest that order, and wield their power in an unrelenting battle  to assure that it can never take hold in their country. They want what most  Turks want: a society that is free, democratic and secular. The great  question they now face is whether the tactics they have used to promote  those ideals for four generations are still appropriate or whether it is  time for them to relax their grip and let civil society bloom.

 To portray Turkey's political system as a form of military dictatorship  would be unfair. Certainly military commanders, like many powerful  civilians, harbor a deep mistrust of the people and an abiding fear that if  given the chance to do so, the people would make disastrous mistakes and  bring Atatürk's magnificent edifice crashing to the ground. But these  commanders and the system by which they exercise power also provide a  measure of stability that Turkish politicians have been unable to offer. In  the absence of a strong constitutional tradition or a long-established  social consensus, they are a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism and  other threats to Atatürk's modern state. Turks are acutely aware of this  uncomfortable reality, and many sleep soundly at night because they know  the generals will not allow anything to go too badly wrong.

 For years, Turkish officers took great pride in public-opinion surveys that  showed the armed forces to be the country's most trusted institution. This  was not so great a compliment as it seems. It is illegal to criticize the  armed forces, so no newspaper may publish stories about waste, corruption,  brutality, abuses of power or other negative aspects of military life.  Being thus protected, military institutions naturally seem to exist on a  higher moral plane than others. Yet in their hearts, many Turks feel a  sincere respect, admiration and even affection for their men in uniform.

 Part of the reason for this is historical. It was, after all, the army that  established the Turkish Republic against the will of European powers,  rallying behind Atatürk to rescue the nation from impending doom. The  Republic's first leaders rose from military ranks, and it was their  collective act of will that ripped Turks away from their old ways, reversed  their long decline as a people and set them on the road toward freedom and  prosperity. It is frightening to imagine what Turkey would look like today  without the influence of its army. Quite possibly it would be somnolent and  isolated, like Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries where  democracy and individual rights are concepts about which citizens dare not  even dream.

 All young Turkish men must serve in the army, which means that virtually  every adult male is a veteran and that most families have had the  experience of seeing sons in uniform. Turks do not fear their army or  consider it oppressive, the way terrified Africans and Latin Americans did  when cruel military dictatorships dominated their societies. Most see it as  a benevolent force that has successfully defended Turkey against foreign  and domestic enemies, and that truly has the national interest at heart.

 Some things the army has done are widely viewed as tragic errors--such as  its decision after the first military coup in 1960 to convene a tribunal  that convicted Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two of his cabinet  ministers of treason and then sent them to the gallows. Other stains on its  record, like the imprisonment and torture of thousands of political  activists following the 1980 coup or the brutish tactics used to suppress  Kurdish rebels in the 1990s, are not much discussed outside intellectual  circles. People understand that these excesses occurred, but choose either  not to dwell on them or to believe they were necessary to preserve the  nation. In much of Turkish society there is a desire to believe the best  about the armed forces and their commanders.

 Turks have a vivid collective memory of the chaos out of which their nation  was forged. Over the years they have also watched several nearby  countries--Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Lebanon, Iraq,  Afghanistan--dissolve into fratricidal conflict. These experiences have  convinced them of the supreme value of stability. In Turkey it is not hard  to find thoughtful, worldly people who believe their country is not ready  for full democracy. They know that once Turks are allowed to speak and  write freely, to form political parties that advocate unorthodox ideas and  to challenge long-held principles in the court of public opinion, Turkey  will become more turbulent. That is something they deeply fear. They doubt  their society can withstand the clash of ideas that is the essence of  democratic life.

 "You in the West also had long periods of backwardness and intolerance," a  Turkish diplomat once told me as we walked along a quiet corridor in the  foreign ministry in Ankara. "You had dictatorships, civil wars, religious  fanaticism, the Inquisition, all kinds of horror. Then, over a period of  centuries, you climbed out of that hole. You had the Enlightenment. You had  philosophers who wrote books about democracy. Very slowly, people started  to understand and accept these new ideas. You began to have governments  based on democratic principles. Now, because you went through all that, you  can give your people complete freedom. Your societies are stable enough to  handle it. But it's not the same here. Our Enlightenment began only  seventy-five years ago. It's too soon to lift every restriction. The risk  is too great. We could lose everything.".

 This rationale for limiting democracy is repeated constantly in Turkey.  After a while it begins to sound like what an overprotective mother might  say about her child. No mother would allow her four-year-old to cross the  street alone or handle knives or play with matches, but there must come a  time when, however reluctantly, she accepts that her child has grown up and  is able to handle the responsibilities of adulthood. The fear of popular  will that underpins Turkey's political system is like that of a mother  whose child turns fifteen and then eighteen and then twenty-five and older,  but is still not trusted to leave home alone.

 When I asked my diplomat friend how long he thought it would take before  Turks grow wise enough to assume the responsibilities of freedom, he  stopped in his tracks and turned to me, a very serious expression on his  face. Obviously he had pondered this question before. "It's been  three-quarters of a century since this process started," he said. "Maybe  after a century has passed we'll be far enough along." Then, after another  pause, he repeated the key word with emphasis: "Maybe.".

 Many Turks, especially the impatient young, feel profoundly insulted by  this contempt for their intelligence. Why, then, do they not rebel against  the army's insistence on guiding the political system? One reason, at least  during the 1990s, was the widely held belief that without a strong military  hand, Kurdish rebels and religious fanatics would plunge the country into  crisis. But with the rebellion over and fundamentalists in retreat, another  unpleasant reality still hangs over the body politic. No matter how  committed one may be to the principles of democracy, the inescapable  reality in Turkey is that the political class deserves its poor reputation.  Military schools are far superior to those most civilians attend, and as a  result the average officer is considerably more likely than the average  politician to understand history, speak foreign languages and grasp the  principles of effective government. It is no wonder, then, that many Turks  like the idea of a military hand on the tiller of state.

 Most developed countries are overflowing with people qualified to serve as  legislators or public administrators, and as a result they are run  relatively well. At the other end of the spectrum are countries that are a  mess partly because their educational and social systems have, for one  reason or another, failed to produce a capable political class. Turkey is  caught uniquely between these two extremes. Its writers, thinkers,  university professors and business executives are as talented, highly  trained and broadly experienced as any in the world. But its political  system has been very effectively designed to exclude these people from  positions of power, and as a result Turkish democracy remains stunted. In  no country is the gap between the quality of the educated elite and the  quality of the political class as great as it is in Turkey.

 For decades, each of Turkey's important political parties has been run by a  single individual, sometimes with a tiny coterie of co-conspirators. These  few figures choose candidates for public office by using a single  criterion: blind obedience. Only sycophants need apply, and independent  thinkers are avoided as if they carry the virus of a deadly plague. The  political system has become ossified, dominated by a handful of phlegmatic  reactionaries whose only true allegiance is to the status quo.

 In Turkey, as in any democracy, the defense minister is supposed to be  responsible to civilian leaders. Interviewing one, however, is a revealing  experience. During my years in Turkey I did so only once, and the folly of  it quickly became clear. The minister's office is located inside the walled  complex in Ankara where the general staff has its headquarters, vividly  symbolizing his position as a prisoner of his generals. It is the generals  who make military policy, usually without even consulting the civilians who  are their titular superiors. The defense minister I interviewed was almost  blissfully ignorant and took great pains to avoid saying anything that  might offend his uniformed masters. A colonel sat beside him, serving not  simply as chaperone and note-taker but also as keeper of correct answers.  Every time I asked a substantive question, the minister leaned his head  toward the colonel and listened to whispered advice. Then he straightened  up and repeated what he had been told.

 Commanders of the Turkish army, navy, air force and gendarmerie are  appointed as a group along with the chief of the general staff, normally  serving in top command posts for three years and then, always in August,  turning power over to the next group. They choose their own successors,  with the principal qualification being absolute loyalty to the established  order. Each group has its own attitude toward the press, so there are  periods when they welcome journalists and other periods, often years along,  when they view us as lepers or worse. During one interlude of openness, I  was able to meet them regularly. Once I sat transfixed as a top commander  launched into an astonishingly frank monologue full of contempt for  politicians and their system. 

"Idiots!" he began, shaking his head slowly and sounding almost as sad as  he was outraged. "Those people in the Parliament are idiots! They don't  know anything about government or Turkey or the world. The only thing they  want is to steal money in their own little ways, to build their own little  empires. Public good? Forget it. Planning for the future? Never think about  it. Duty or integrity? Unknown. You should see the defense ministers they  send us! They hardly know a tank from a plane. And those are the ministers!  The rest are even worse. Their intellectual level is incredibly low. How  can anyone expect us to take orders from people like that? Turkey would  never forgive us if we did.". 

My first reaction to this tirade was horror, coupled with a sinking feeling  that this country was doomed to live a very long time under military  dominance. But my indignation and outrage were soon overwhelmed by  unwelcome thoughts. Against my will, I had to admit that much of what this  general was telling me was true. Of course the Turkish Parliament and other  elected bodies include men and women of intelligence and character, but not  nearly enough of them.

  Although the generals are justified in lamenting this unfortunate  situation, their outrage is a bit disingenuous. They themselves are the  ones who dictate the outlines of the political system, and they have shaped  it so that parties reflect military ideas of order and discipline.  Conditioned by their training, they like dealing with a handful of  autocrats and are repelled by the brawling untidiness of open politics.  Laws that govern Turkish political parties, including those that make it  all but impossible to challenge or depose party leaders, were inspired by  the generals themselves. So was Article 68 of the constitution, which  allows the banning of any party whose program is found to conflict with  "the democratic and secular order." And beyond these laws is the memory of  three coups staged by the military, the execution of a prime minister and  the jailing and humiliation of hundreds of politicians, along with the  knowledge that dissidents have little legal protection from the vengeance  of the ruling elite. With its array of spoken and unspoken laws, this  system allows generals to control politicians and, ultimately, the course  of the nation.

 To ensure that the public does not stray too far from the ruling ideology,  not only the political system but also the press must be brought to heel.  In Turkey this is done with marvelous efficiency. The most potent weapon in  the state's hand is a set of laws that allow reporters and editors to be  imprisoned, newspapers to be closed and radio or television stations to be  silenced if they challenge any aspect of the ruling dogma. Beyond those  laws is the structure of the press itself, which functions not as an  independent watchdog or critic but as a conscious part of the ruling  system. Publishers readily accept guidance from the state about what should  and should not be published, even to the point of suspending or firing  columnists about whom the generals complain.

 Eighty percent of the total circulation of Turkish newspapers and many of  the country's most powerful broadcast outlets have traditionally been  controlled by two industrial groups that together function very much like a  cartel. Under a gentlemen's agreement between these groups, no reporter or  columnist fired by one may be hired by the other. Their collaboration with  each other and with the ruling elite is dictated not simply by misguided  patriotism but also by crude economic interests. The cartel that runs the  news business is also involved in a host of other enterprises, from real  estate to power generation, that succeed or fail according to Ankara's  whim. Thus do press barons join generals and leaders of political parties  as key figures in the maintenance of the status quo.

 Turks do not torment themselves by asking endlessly how they can push the  army and its allies away from politics. They know the answer. All they need  to do is elect a capable and united government that could assert civilian  power. Such a government would be able to act without much resistance.  Certainly the army is not willing to surrender its power to make key  decisions, and someday that may lead to a confrontation. But today military  commanders would give up much of their political power without a fight.  Unlike commanders in countries under military dictatorship, they are not  grasping to dominate every aspect of society. They seem genuinely to regret  that they must intervene so often, and would welcome a strong civilian  regime that would allow them to concentrate on military matters. Such a  regime, however, is only beginning to take shape.

 The larger reason for this state of affairs, beyond the structural weakness  of Turkey's political system, lies in the nation's deep uncertainty about  its identity and future. Should it look east or west, turn toward its Asian  or its European heritage, take the risks of democracy or remain wrapped in  comfortable paternalism? Many of today's Turkish leaders believe the  Ottoman Empire was brought down by treacherous citizens who joined with  foreign powers to extract special privileges from the state or to break  away from it entirely. They fear that if they yield to the rising demand  for recognition of Turkey's political, social, religious and ethnic  diversity, the Republic will ultimately be dismembered and collapse just as  the empire did.

 One day, especially if Turkey moves closer to joining the European Union,  the ruling elite will have to embrace democracy fully and without  reservation. That will mean abandoning the system under which the Republic  has been governed since its foundation. Most important, it will require  that military commanders surrender all their influence over politics and,  by extension, abandon their belief that they know what is best for Turkey.  Before that can happen, Turks must finally succeed in building the civic  consensus that has eluded them for so long. If they are able to do so, they  will have the political and moral authority to demand that they finally be  set free to shape their own destiny.

 This would be a grand challenge for any country, but it is especially  important that Turkey succeed because that success would have such profound  effects in Europe, the Middle East and beyond. Though Turkey has looked  inward for most of its short life, it has begun to share its cultural  riches and make a serious mark on geopolitics and the world economy. A  truly modern Turkey governed by the rule of law would raise the Turkish  people to levels of prosperity and self-confidence they have never known  before. Despite this country's political and psychological  underdevelopment, it has the resources to become a towering power. If it  can liberate itself from its paralyzing fears and embrace true democracy,  it will also serve as a magnetic example of how the ideals of liberty can  triumph over enormous obstacles. By adding moral strength to its military  strength, Turkey could become a dominant force in the Middle East,  encouraging peace and pulling Arab countries away from the social  backwardness and feudal dictatorship under which most of them now suffer.  It could exert a mighty and stabilizing influence westward to the Balkans  and eastward to the Caucasus and Central Asia, becoming the key power in a  region that is strategically vital, overwhelmingly rich in oil and other  resources and now ruled mostly by tyrants who are dragging it toward chaos.

 As a result of geography and because of their Ottoman past, Turks occupy a  singular position in the Islamic consciousness. If any country is going to  prove that Islam can coexist with modernity and democracy, it will almost  certainly be Turkey. That achievement would make Turkey an invaluable  countervailing force against religious fundamentalism everywhere. As a real  democracy, Turkey would be a shining beacon not only for Muslims in nearby  countries but for the entire Islamic world. Its example would be immensely  important to the more than one billion people who live in the fifty-six  predominantly Muslim countries stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. If  Turkey can entice those countries toward democracy, it will reshape the  entire world.

By embracing democratic principles Turkey would also qualify for membership  in the European Union, which would be a historic breakthrough for Turkey  itself and also bring Europe a badly needed injection of youthful energy.  By embracing rather than denying its ethnic diversity, it would show the  world, as the United States has done, what great benefits accrue to richly  diverse societies. Once again, as during the Ottoman centuries, it would  stand like a colossus at the point where two continents come together,  drawing riches from both and offering itself as a meeting point for  civilizations that might otherwise drift toward calamitous confrontation.

 Whenever I sit in a café beside the Bosphorus I sense the power of Turkey's  geography. Behind me lie Paris, Berlin and London. Across the narrow  waterway is Asia, an unbroken land mass stretching from the streets of  Istanbul to Baghdad, Delhi and Beijing. The Black Sea, gateway to Russia  and the Slavic world, is a few miles to the north. To the south lies the  wine-dark Mediterranean, most storied of seas, which washes the shores of  Europe and Africa. Turkey's own heartland, Anatolia, is a paradise of  dreamy coasts and coves, vast fruited plains, thick forests, deep lakes,  raging rivers and soaring mountain ranges. This country is the great bridge  between East and West, North and South. Seen another way, it is a barrier  protecting Europe from the tides of political upheaval and religious  extremism.

 Turkey is an easy country to appreciate, but not such an easy country to  help. Its leaders are proud, sensitive and quick to take offense. They  don't make things easy for their friends. So the great question facing  Americans and others who sympathize with Turkey is: What can we do to  encourage Turkey to become the kind of country we can help without  reservation?

 Outside pressure on Turkey has proven effective. The United States has  applied it discreetly, maintaining a strong military relationship while  seeking gently to promote the values of tolerance and free choice. European  leaders have taken a more direct approach, denouncing Turkey's human-rights  abuses and publicly lamenting its failure to meet modern democratic  standards. For many years this approach seemed unproductive, but now that  Turkey has been officially designated as a candidate for membership in the  European Union, there is a very concrete reason for its leaders to listen.  If they can meet Europe's high standards, they will be rewarded with a huge  prize that will guarantee them generations of freedom and fulfillment.

 Turkey's success in creating a genuinely democratic space in a part of the  world where there has traditionally been very little democracy is a  historic achievement. It is, however, still incomplete. To fulfill its  destiny, Turkey must create a democracy that shines not just by regional  standards but by world standards.

 This transformation will require more than mere political reform. It will  require Turks to change the way they view themselves and their relationship  to society. In Turkey the individual is considered less important than the  collective, but the collective is the family or village or clan rather than  the nation. There is little civic or environmental consciousness. Few  people feel that they have a stake in society or care much about  contributing to it.

 Time and again I have stepped off an ugly or dirty Turkish street, passed  through a portal and entered an immaculate and lovingly kept home. The  contrast is striking, often amazing. Whether because of their nomadic past  in Central Asia or as a response to their centuries of life under  autocratic rule, many Turks still believe that life is to be lived within  the family or clan. They feel no true allegiance to national goals and  aspirations.

 A classic Turkish village has no central plaza or square. In other parts of  the world such public spaces encourage people to come together to  crystallize their ideas and realize their collective power, to speak out,  argue and protest. But in Turkey, allowing people to do that has always  seemed vaguely dangerous. Turks gather to eat, drink and smoke, and  sometimes to chat in front of the local mosque, but most of them do not  enjoy the public space that has been the incubator of popular movements in  other parts of the world.

 Turkish leaders have sought to bind their people together by creating a  concept called devlet. Over the years this has become my least favorite  Turkish word. The dictionary says it means "state," but it also means  something much uglier. Devlet is an omnipotent entity that stands above  every citizen and every institution. Loyalty to it is held to be every  Turk's most fundamental obligation, and questioning it is considered  treasonous. No one ever defines what devlet means; everyone is supposed to  know. Its guardians are a self-perpetuating elite--the generals, police  chiefs, prosecutors, judges, political bosses and press barons who decide  what devlet demands of the citizenry. This elite has written many laws to  help it do what it perceives as its duty, and when necessary it acts  outside the law. In its collective mind, serving devlet is a responsibility  so transcendent and sublime that not even law may be allowed to obstruct  it. 

The reason that freethinkers must be imprisoned in Turkey is not simply  because they speak against hallowed principles but because they threaten  devlet. This devlet is much more than an abstract concept, much more than a  focal point for national unity. It is Turkey's apocalyptic swordsman, the  repressive mentality that overwhelms, constricts and suffocates the  citizenry. 

Many Turks who serve devlet are truly selfless. They consider themselves  Atatürk's heirs and servants and are utterly convinced that their ceaseless  vigilance is all that stands between Turkey and disaster. One of them,  Vural Savas, who for much of the 1990s was the country's most zealous  prosecutor, was once asked why he worked so tirelessly to close political  parties and imprison politicians and journalists. He replied, "One simply  has to know how to say no." That was a wonderfully precise answer, because  saying no is the main duty of devlet. Saying yes to devlet means saying no  to dissent, no to iconoclasm, no to new ideas, no to the kind of boldness  and daring that propelled Atatürk to greatness. In the end, it means saying  no to the possibility of Turkey rising to fulfill what could be a glorious  historic mission.

 Another fervent member of this secular priesthood, General Dogu  Silahcioglu, once met with elected officials in Samsun, a provincial  capital on the Black Sea coast, as they were making plans for a patriotic  celebration. One city councillor ventured the opinion that since Samsun is  home to people from various ethnic groups and Muslims of various  persuasions, the celebration should emphasize the value of tolerance. That  suggestion touched the general's rawest nerve.

 "Tolerance!" he shouted. "Tolerance is the password of those people with a  certain ideology. You cannot use this word here!".

 That too was a perfectly concise expression of devlet. Its defenders detest  the notion of tolerance because they believe tolerance will allow the  spread of ideas that will ultimately kill Turkey. They consider themselves  the truest defenders of Turkish democracy because they work day and night  to suppress ideas and forces and people who want to destroy that democracy.  More than a few Turks, conditioned as they are to obey and not protest,  agree that although devlet is an arbitrary and often unfair institution, it  is also indispensable. 

In today's Turkey, no two words are as fundamentally contradictory as  istiklal and devlet. The first stands not just for national independence  but for the freedom and progress that independent thought brings to any  society that encourages it. The second is a dark force that represents  fear, mistrust and arrogance. It keeps Turkey in chains. For Turkey to  live, devlet must die.

 Without surrendering its unique identity, Turkey must find a way to break  out of its political immobility. The world has changed radically since the  fall of the Berlin Wall, and in many ways so has Turkey. It is an  incomparably freer and more open society than it was a generation ago. But  still it lags behind the countries that are its natural friends and allies.  More and more of its citizens chafe under the restrictive order that so  relentlessly limits their progress as a nation. If they can find a way to  break free, Turkey will astonish the world by becoming the most audaciously  successful nation of the twenty-first century.

 Added material. 

Stephen Kinzer was Istanbul bureau chief for the New York Times and is now  that paper's national cultural correspondent. He is the author of Blood of  Brothers and co-author of Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American  Coup in Guatemala.

 Reprinted from the forthcoming book, Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two  Worlds. Copyright 2001 by Stephen Kinzer. Published in September by Farrar,  Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.