Recently, there is a hot debate on Turkey’s importance as model for Iraq, Pakistan or any Muslim country among the American thinkers. ‘Turkish model prescription’ is very important for the US who has confronted with difficulties in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq. US decision-makers have no hope for Muslim democratization or liberalization, they think that Muslims can not become democrats, Muslims can not develop liberal economy and Muslims can not be integrated to the global political and economic system. The Western World has lost its all hopes about Iran and Arabs. For them, Arab means poverty, war, terrorism, backwardness, uneducated children and humiliated women. Iranians are similarly perceived as barbarian, militarist people who want to destroy Israel and the West. The US’ post 9/11 measures against terrorism and extremism nourished religionist terrorism and extreme movements in Muslim world instead of moderate groups. Despite of this simple fact, the fresh republican prescriptions for international terrorism and relations with the Muslims are not different and/or better than Bush policies. For example, one of the republican presidential nominees affirmed “If there is a need, we will bomb Mecca and Medina, two holiest Muslim cities.” Proposal of the Democrats is not much different than the Republicans’. Even Democrat presidential candidate Barrack Obama, who is pacifist and anti-militarist, affirmed that the US may occupy Pakistani territories and overthrow Musharraf’s government in order to fight terrorists. Similarly in Netherlands, which is considered the most liberal European country, there are some discussions about forbidding Koran, Islam’s holly book.
In such an atmosphere, Turkey appears as a different example compared with the rest of the Muslim world. Even tough Turkey has no natural energy resources; it is the biggest economy among the Muslim countries. Turkish economy is the 5th largest economy of Europe and 17th of the world. By courtesy of economic reforms realized within last years, Turkish economy became industrial and service economy instead of agrarian economy. Level of education, use of internet and other educational indicators are closer to European countries than Muslim countries. During last 5 years, thanks to the legal reforms important clauses of Turkish law (including penalty of death) were changed. As a result of the economic, political and legal reforms, the European Union (EU) accepted that Turkish democracy, human rights records and Turkish economy fulfilled the criteria for full membership to European Union and negotiations for full membership started on 3 October 2005. It means that Turkey’s membership to the European Union is a matter of time.
This awkward Muslim country, Turkey, attracts specially US’s attention and the American intellectuals and experts try to understand secret of this success. For them, reason of this success is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his up-to-down policies of modernization. In other words, Americans and some Europeans do the same mistake again; they simplify cases, explain the causes as they want to see (wishful thinking). But Turkey’s story can not be reduced only to Ataturk or anyone in spite of Ataturk’s undeniable contribution to Turkish development. Moreover, the model that Ataturk formed can not be evaluated as dictatorship or “aggressive reforms” under the military protection. A society can not be changed only by the efforts of a man; democracy, human rights and liberalism can not nourish under any army’s pressure. Secret of Turkey’s success story is more complex than the Western experts think.
First of all, ‘Turkish Islam’ concept has always been different than other Muslim nations’ religious understanding. Ghaznavid Empire (Gazneliler), Karakhanids (Karahanlar), Seljuk Empire (Selcuklular), Ottoman Empire (Osmanlilar) and other Turkish states in the past saw expanding Islamic borders as ultimate aim as French, Italian states who had seen increasing Christianity as state politics. But these Turkish states at the same time were never been administered by solely religious rules contrarily to modern Iran and Saudi Arabia. Although Turkish Sultans were caliph, they did not act as the highest ecclesiastic, thus the religious rules didn’t dominate the society. Ottoman sultans acted as a secular political power and Sheyhülislam (the chief religious official in the Ottoman Empire) represented religious authority. However, when Sultan’s and Sheyhülislam’s point of view were in contradiction in any issue, the Sheyhülislam lost his post and ‘secular’ Sultan’s decisions were implemented. Although the Ottoman Empire is defined as modern Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Iran in some books published in Western countries, in reality, the Ottoman case was so different. There were pubs in 19th century Ottoman Empire, people wore whatever they wanted with no official pressure and religious and sectional minorities executed their religious exercises without restriction. Chief rabbi, Armenian, Bulgarian, and Greek Patriarchs were deputies for the Sultan, and Jewish and Christian minorities were autonomous in their internal affairs, including legal issues and taxation.
It could be argued that Turkish people and statesmen acknowledged their mistakes about politics, religion and economics earlier than other Muslim peoples. As early as the end of the 18th century the Ottomans started to discuss why European countries were relatively more developed than the Ottoman Empire and they started to introduce reforms. In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was part of the European system and balance of power and Europeanization in diplomacy, politics, social life and economy continued during the 19th century. The Ottoman State even applied some of the fundamental concepts of modern liberal democracy such as democracy, decentralization, liberal economy, liberty, civic rights, constitution and fundamental rights to its very values and principles in 19th century. The Ottomans had parliamentary system almost more than one century ago. At the end of 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was a parliamentary kingdom as most of the European states. At this period of time, the Ottoman Empire had elections, a constitution, an elected parliament, a lively press and an opposition who criticized even the Sultan and the government. Minority rights were also under statutory protection. If we compare Ottoman Empire and other European States by this point of view, we see no substantial difference between them. At the beginning of the 20th century, Sultan’s competences were reduced and governments formed by the Committee of Union and Progress party were more powerful than the Sultan. At this period of time, the Sultanate was a more symbolical position. Reforms executed by Ataturk after the foundation of Turkish Republic had been proposed and even started to implement at this period of time. For example, use of Latin letters, change of weekend holidays, costume reform, reforms in educational system, support to modern arts, etc. were all Ottoman ideas. Modern educational system for instance wasn’t fully formed after foundation of Turkish Republic. II. Abdulhamit had made great contribution to establish fundamentals of modern educational system in Turkey. Primary, secondary and high schools were built not only in the city centers but also in the remote towns during the Hamidian period.
Another important factor which makes Turkey different than other Muslim states is that Turkey had never been colony of any other Western countries. Except for the short occupation period which was after First World War, more than 1000 years, Turkish people have been independent. In addition to independence, they could stand puissant against the Western World for a long time. The self-confidence and self-reliance of the Turks continued during the 20th century and Turkey has been one of the rare countries who could debate the problems with the Western countries equally. For example, Turkish war of independence was against the western countries, Turkish army’s detachment to Cyprus came true in spite of the US’s USSR’s and European Communities’ (EU’s) strong objections. And also, although Turkey has disagreements with western countries on Armenian issue, Cyprus issue and even on combating terrorism issue, sometimes Turkey can execute its policies without asking the West’s permission or support. When we compare Turkish attitude before the West with Arab Governments’ submissive attitudes, Turkey’s difference could easily be understood. That’s why after the Iraq War one of the Lebanese newspaper called Turkey ‘more Arab than the Arab states’.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk Model
In brief, Ataturk was one of the best Ottoman generals and he succeeded to realize the transformation at Turkish Republic that Sultans and the CUP at Ottoman Empire tried to perform. Unfortunately, the number of articles at which Ataturk is defined as a ‘dictator’ or militarist has increased recently. At these articles Ataturk is compared to Hitler and Saddam Hussein and only difference between Ataturk and them is explained by Ataturk’s success and the others’ failure. All these claims are not true and naming Ataturk as militarist is an insult to him.
Although Ataturk was a soldier, reforms that he executed didn’t aim to form a militarist country. Even when the country was surrounded by conflicts, Ataturk and his friends didn’t delay the elections and Mustafa Kemal defined the parliament as the uppermost authority over any power. Deputies had ardent discussions while deciding to ratify Mustafa Kemal’s supreme military commend though the enemy armies were just 90 km away from the Parliament. In a phrase, Ataturk refused to abjure the will of people even at war. While organizing resistance, he lost his military ranks and continued organizing the war of salvation as a civilian. After the foundation of Turkish Republic, he preferred to define himself as a civilian. He might declare himself general or the super-general as the leaders in many Third World countries did, but he did not follow such a way. Ataturk even forced his friend to leave their military posts when they applied for general elections. ‘Ataturk laws’ prevented the soldiers to make politics. The generals had to chooce military post or MP seat in the parliament. It was obligatory to choose to become a civilian to be a candidate at elections. In this frame, some of Ataturk’s friends abdicated and became politicians while the others chose to continue their work as soldiers. In most of militarist, authoritarian countries, politicians prefer to call themselves by military appellations although they had never been soldiers in the past.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk told that continuity of republic is depended on education and developed economy instead of military instruments. That’s why he gave more importance to education which makes Turkey different than many other Muslim countries. Unlike Saddam-like leaders in the Muslim world, Mustafa Kemal did not try to create a one-leader country. Republican educational system aimed to create a pluralistic youth, because Kemal had no doubt that pluralism and free minds are the only way to save Turkey’s future. Mustafa Kemal’s ideal country was United Kingdom, United States or revolutionary France, not the Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany
People who affirm that Mustafa Kemal was a dictator show the number of political parties at that time and ineffectiveness of opposition as proofs. This is an anachronistic approach. At that period of time, Turkey was as liberal and democrat as many other European countries. We should remember that the Czech Republic was the only liberal state at continental Europe at this period. Ataturk made efforts to pass to multiparty system but because of international crisis and conjectural depressions in Turkey, he couldn’t succeed. But after Ataturk’s presidency, Ismet Inonu, one of his closest friends, succeeded to pass to a multiparty system. And in 1950, multiparty system started to be carried out without pressure of Western countries and Turkey took part between the prestigious countries of Europe by the courtesy of its relatively liberal and democratic structure.
Defining Ataturk as a dictator, whose power depends only on army, and offering such a model for countries like Pakistan and Iraq is a capital mistake. Unfortunately, the Western World misunderstands Ataturk’s policies and Turkish model just like they misunderstand the Middle East in general.
17 August 2007
Translated by Jale Aktug and Meral Tuzce