It’s not just women in the Islamic East who may be veiled. It can happen to whole countries. See what’s happening in Turkey, the West’s old ally and new adversary. The danger to freedom there becomes ever more clear and present every day. But the tragedy of it can scarcely be apprehended without an appreciation of the dark past out of which this current Turkey arose, and to which it is about to return.
The new, modern, secular Turkey emerged from the shadows of the crumbling old Ottoman Empire when the sultan found himself on the losing side of the Great War. Then a young, much decorated army officer who would be given the name Ataturk, Father of the Turks, set out to bring his country into the light.
Seldom has any one man since Washington put his stamp so clearly on a new republic and, indeed, a whole new society. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk revolutionized his whole country’s culture, seizing power from the decrepit old regime and then fighting off the Allies to establish his country’s independence from all comers – Greek, Russian or British. No wonder his portraits remain ubiquitous in modern Turkey, for it was he who made it modern.
The changes Ataturk decreed were as comprehensive as they were revolutionary. There’s a reason we still call ambitious reformers Young Turks. Choosing neither fashionable Wave of the Future at the time – fascism or communism – Turkey’s new ruler didn’t just move the country’s capital from storied old Constantinople/Istanbul to Ankara, a little village on the Anatolian plain. He turned his back on a whole imperial past that a corrupt court had come to represent. The Ottoman Empire had finally collapsed, and in its place this young army officer was determined that a new Turkey would rise free of the enslaving past.
Ataturk proclaimed a republic in 1923 and established a constitutional government with all the modern fixtures, principally the separation of powers. Montesquieu and the writers of the Federalist Paper would have been proud of the result. Legislative and executive branches took form under Ataturk’s tutelage, along with an independent judiciary. The rule of law would be given a chance to supplant the old authoritarianism.
One of the first changes Turkey’s new ruler and his ruling party made was to abolish the medieval caliphate and the quasi-religious, quasi-state powers it had exercised under the sultans – a decree that Osama bin Laden, the infamous leader of al-Qaida, still considers the original, unforgivable sin of modern Islamic societies. Ataturk proceeded to separate mosque and state, and remodel the rest of Turkish society, too.
The old religious schools (madrassas) were secularized, and a system of public schools were established as an alternative. Ataturk himself adopted Western dress, replacing the fez with Western headgear and discouraging the veil and turban. The Turkish republic, he insisted, could not be a country of sheikhs and dervishes but must become part of the secular West, of modernity.
This was perhaps the most important part of Ataturk’s legacy: Foreseeing the violent reaction to his radical changes, he charged the military with preserving his new order in the face of what he knew would be fierce, fanatical and recurrent opposition.
From time to time after he was gone, the generals would fulfill that responsibility, seizing control whenever a government threatened to undo Ataturk’s republican reforms and pull Turkey back into its long sleep. As the years passed, Turkey became increasingly Western in outlook, more European than Asian, a strong American ally, a member of the North Atlantic alliance, and a bulwark against Soviet expansionism.
But what a fanatical opposition could not achieve by an outright challenge to Ataturk’s new Turkey, a stealth Islamist has now done step by step, all the while denying that he was undermining Ataturk’s old dream and the country’s secular constitution.
When the country’s new prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presented himself as a clean-government type, his Islamist rhetoric was dismissed by the usual sophisticates as just that – only rhetoric. The way they once thought Nazi slogans were only slogans, or communist ideology only a cover for conventional realpolitik. They’ve always underestimated the power of ideas, our “realists,” not understanding that an idea may be the most real thing in the world when it comes to shaping reality.
By now, thanks to Saudi money and Western gullibility, Turkey’s dictator-in-the-making has reinstituted the old Muslim madrassas in place of secular education, subverted the country’s once independent judiciary, and begun to remake Ataturk’s secular democracy in his own image. Every day it becomes closer to becoming one more sordid Islamist police state.
If there was any one moment when Recep Erdogan showed his hand, it came in July of 2008, when his regime indicted pretty much the whole opposition on charges of conspiring against his regime – 86 prominent figures in all, from military officers to journalists, trade unionists, professors, and even the candidate who once ran against him for mayor of Istanbul. Like a German dictator in the 1930s, there is no grudge he may leave unsettled. Another night of the long knives may be in the offing.
Now a court has indicted 196 more defendants, including four retired military commanders. The charge: plotting to overthrow his regime. More than 400 other leaders of secularist bent are already on trial, the evidence as ridiculous as the regime’s wiretaps are comprehensive. The handwriting is on the wall for Ataturk’s old dream of a modern, secular Turkey. It is turning into a place where anyone who takes an interest in politics knows he is being watched – and listened to.
Yet there are still those who can’t see that Turkey has changed from ally to adversary. Any more than they can grasp that Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could possibly believe the hateful things he says. If we just extended the hand of friendship to Iran’s mullahs, we were assured at the beginning of this new and naive administration, all could be worked out. By now even the Obama administration begins to see how well that approach has worked – that is, not at all.
As for the president’s Cairo address, the quintessence of naivete at the time, it now seems even more so. Though delivered only a year ago, it now has the sound of an embarrassment from a distant past best forgotten. Realism has a way of proving unreal, and an American president seen as weak and indecisive, anxious to make his peace with totalitarianism, only invites the erosion of freedom worldwide, as in Turkey. Or Iran, where the green revolution fades.
Those who can see no real danger to freedom in this new Turkish regime are the diplomatic descendants of Neville Chamberlain, who couldn’t believe that a petit-bourgeois agitator out of Austria could dominate a civilized nation like Germany. But now, step by step, a similar process is under way in Turkey as dissent is systematically suppressed, constitutional restraints overridden, and Ataturk’s military heirs cowed. If the generals are guilty of anything, it is of not acting as Kemal Ataturk would have done in their place. Now it may be too late; they’ve missed their chance.
Ataturk’s dream is dying, and with it, freedom as another nation falls under the spell of a resurgent Islamism. Ignoring the shift, or trying to pretend it isn’t important, won’t help the West cope with it. To fend off danger, one must first recognize it. And at this point, the Obama administration can’t even bring itself to say Islamism out loud. Not for the first time, the defense of the West, and all it stands for, begins by calling things by their right names.
© 2010 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
Start a conversation using these share links: