News Network / Groong 25 March 2002
Dreaming in Turkish.
Author: Kinzer, Stephen.
World Policy Journal v. 18 no3 (Fall 2001) p. 69-80
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.".
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.".
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
he shouted. "Tolerance is the password of those people with a certain
ideology. You cannot use this word here!".
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
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.
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.
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
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.