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Madisonian Turkey

"Madisonian Turkey" Continued...

Issue: "2004 Election: Countdown," Oct. 23, 2004

Visitors on that Saturday came clothed in traditional Muslim dress; as one guide put it, "Headscarves here would be like blasphemy. This is a temple to the religion of secularism." It's because of Ataturk that Turkish kids can get an education not constrained by Muslim theology. It's also because of Ataturk that one tasteless woman could walk around in a "Latin Lover" T-shirt, and that Turkey has only recently moved away from socialist policies that held it back economically.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk set up a one-party system so that "Kemalists," as his followers are called, could always be on top. Kemalists from the 1920s through the 1940s were less vicious than the Stalinists to their north, but they also tried to create a new human nature by kicking aside religion and demanding state education and media monopolies. Kemalists banned institutions of civil society that were or could be autonomous from the state: Governmental edict dissolved whirling dervish lodges in 1925, Turkish Hearths Clubs in 1931, and the Turkish Association of Women in 1935.

Turkey, worried about the Soviet Union (Russia is Turkey's traditional enemy No. 1), lobbied successfully after World War II to join NATO, and in return agreed to have its first elections in 1950. The Turkish government allowed the formation of a second party, called the Democrat Party, which shocked the Kemalists by sweeping to victory in that first election and ruling for a decade.

During the 1950s, though, when the popularly elected government backed Muslim exercise of civil rights, Kemalists accused it of "reactionism," which meant "endangering secularism" or allowing the development of an "uprising against the Republic." Kemalists led a military coup d'etat in 1960 that was widely supported by bureaucrats and intellectuals. Another army smackdown came in 1980, and in 1997 the military forced the government to resign.

These coups were designed to force political pauses-but as quarterbacks who call timeouts amid hostile crowd noise often learn, the furor soon returns. Each time Kemalist military leaders, backed up by judges, have banned particular parties and leaders, a similar party has soon emerged under a different name and new leadership.

When the military banned the Democrat Party in 1960 (and took the timeout to an extreme by hanging three of its leaders), the Justice Party took its place, and with the help of two smaller parties led a new ruling coalition. When the military knocked out the Justice Party in 1980, the Motherland Party-supported by two new creations, the True Path Party and the Welfare Party-took over.

By the late 1990s those two new parties led a dominant coalition that again threatened Kemalism, so the military stepped in again. This time the Justice and Development party emerged as No. 1, and "rules" today under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "Rules" is in quotation marks, because if the government pushes measures perceived as threatening Kemalism, military leaders pressure it to pull back.

This year, for example, the government (pushed by its strong Islamist supporters) began talking about state funding for some Islamic schools and about legislation that would allow the wearing of headscarves in state offices or university classrooms. That is illegal now, which means Muslim women who believe heads need covering cannot be government workers or university students.

On both issues the moderate Islamic government pushed for changes, generated opposition from generals and other leaders, and backed off. This has become a repetitious political dance: Mr. Erdogan, who may be to hard-line Islamic politics what Britain's Tony Blair is to old-line Labor Party interests, says (in essence) I did my best, and keeps many radical Islamists in the fold.

Here's the bottom line: Turkish generals could sing, The eyes of Ataturk are upon you. (Some Turks still say about Ataturk, "His blue eyes see everything.") U.S. generals are trained to stay out of politics, but in Turkey the military is the preserver of Kemalism, which the Turkish Constitution enshrines as the country's official ideology. As the U.S. Supreme Court has become the defender of liberalism, so Turkish generals function like our nine justices in black robes-except that the Turkish soldiers can knock off an entire government rather than specific laws.

This leads to an ironic situation: Many leftists in Turkey are pro-military when push comes to shove, because officers are seen as protection against Islam. Left-of-center Turks, like their American counterparts, are all hat and no cattle: They talk a lot about democracy but know that conservatives have more popular support, so they are ready to have decision making on some issues (Islamic ones in Turkey, social issues involving abortion and homosexuality in the United States) taken out of the hands of the people and put into the hands of those deemed politically correct.

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