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The Transformation of Turkey: From Islamic Empire to Modern State

Transcript for:

“Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg”
The Transformation of Turkey: From Islamic Empire to Modern State

At Pfizer we’re spending nearly five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our life’s work.
Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, and the Dodge Jones Foundation.

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Can an Islamic nation be modern, democratic, secular, pro-Western--and still be Islamic? It is a question that may be a key to the current explosive situation.

Moreover, there is a pivotal but troubled country that might fit the bill: Turkey--a nation largely created by a legendary, charismatic leader, Ataturk. It is a country that bridges East and West, North and South, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. How is the Turkish experiment working out? Is it a model for other parts of the Muslim world?

To find out Think Tank is joined by Bulent Aliriza, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and director of its Turkey Project.

And Stephen Kinzer, New York Times reporter and author of the new book Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.

The Topic before the House: “Turkey Transformed.” This week on Think Tank.

Ben Wattenberg: At the turn of the 19th Century, the decaying Ottoman Empire was called ’the sick man of Europe’. During the First World War, the Ottomans were defeated at every turn, with one exception. In 1915, a Turkish colonel named Mustafa Kemal won a big victory at Gallipoli.

After the war, Kemal seized power, leading an insurgent group of so-called “young Turks” in a successful revolution that established a new and secular Turkey. He took the name of Atatürk, “father of the Turks.”

Atatürk believed that a principle source of Turkey’s backwardness was religion. He set out to secularize the 99 percent Muslim country. He eliminated the theocratic power of the Islamic caliphate and abolished the use of Arabic script, the language of the Koran. He extended full rights to women, including voting rights, in a society that he said would be democratic.

But by the mid-1990s modern Turkey faced challenges from within. The 1995 parliamentary elections brought to power an Islamist party, which promised reforms to allow Islam greater influence in public life. The Turkish elites, especially in the military, denounced the reforms and forced a rollback.

Today, Turkey is a strong economic and military power in Asia Minor. Some observers see Turkey as a success story in the Muslim world that will be a key ally for America and the West in the tense times ahead. Others look at Turkey and see trouble.

Ben Wattenberg: Gentlemen, Bulent Aliriza and Stephen Kinzer, thank you very much for joining us. Stephen, you have written a very fascinating book called Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds. It’s full of facts. It’s full of opinion. It reads like a novel--which is a compliment--with only one difference. I couldn’t figure out who’s the hero and who’s the villain.

Stephen Kinzer: Turkey’s a country that’s full of contradictions and if you came away with that view from my book, I think I succeeded. I would like to stand before you and say Turkey has completed its march toward democracy and is now completely ready to be a beacon in the Islamic world. It can be the magnet that pulls Islamic countries away from fundamentalism and says to them, “Be like us. Adopt our secular model and you can have all the successes and prosperity that we have had.” Unfortunately, Turkey, in order to change the world in this way, needs to change itself. And that’s why Turkey’s facing a double challenge.

Ben Wattenberg: So here’s this novel with a riddle at the end of it. How does it turn out in your judgment? Suppose we were sitting here twenty-five years from now, what’s the end of Stephen’s non-fiction novel?

Bulent Aliriza: Well, as a historian I know that this story doesn’t have an end. And it’s an ongoing process of organization that began in nineteen twenty-three, but actually predates the creation of the Turkish Republic. And I differ from Stephen in one respect: not only is the Islamic world far from looking for a beacon, but the experience of each Islamic state and the extent to which it has modernized itself and the extent to which it has achieved a degree of synthesis with the dominant Western culture--which dominates it politically, culturally, and in terms of sheer economic power--in every respect is different. Beyond that, Turkey itself is grappling with many, many problems. And having turned its back on the Islamic world in 1923, in many ways because of the leadership of Atatürk, it is far from the perfect model.

Ben Wattenberg: How is Turkey doing economically today?

Bulent Aliriza: Very badly. And that’s the other part of it that doesn’t quite fit. The Turkish economic situation is bad because of the mismanagement of the country by successive Turkish governments that have spent way beyond their means. The failure to complete the integration into the free-market economy...

Ben Wattenberg: What is the per capita gross national product, roughly speaking?

Bulent Aliriza: Around two thousand dollars.

Ben Wattenberg: Which is much lower than the Western countries but substantially higher than your poorer countries of that area, except for the oil countries.

Bulent Aliriza: Exactly, and the fact is that’s actually been going down in the past year because of a series of economic problems that they’ve had in the past year.

Stephen Kinzer: I would argue, though, that despite all these problems, which are very real, Turkey does have a big role to play right now. And I think it’s about to step onto the world stage in a way that it never has before. It’s certainly true that “Islamic world” is a kind of a misleading concept because that world is so diverse. But Turkey has long ties in Central Asia--the Turks just came to what is now Turkey from Central Asia only about a thousand years ago. Their ethnic ties there are very strong. As recently as the 1920s and 1930s, the Afghan king was corresponding with Atatürk and telling him, “We’ve seen the idea that you have for building a modern secular democracy after overthrowing European imperialists. We want to imitate that.”

Ben Wattenberg: You had free elections in a Muslim country, in an Arab Muslim country, in Algeria. And the fundamentalists won on a platform that they would not have any more elections. So it’s a dubious situation, isn’t it?

Stephen Kinzer: This is not going to happen in Turkey, though. The fundamentalist vote in Turkey is 10 percent at the most. There is a general agreement in Turkey, for all of its problems and for all the debate that’s going on in Turkey, that the secular idea is the way to go.

Bulent Aliriza: Turkey is a Western country in a sense that it is in the premiere Western security system, which is NATO, which it was admitted to in 1952. At the same time it is an Islamic country, because the majority of its people, as you said at the outset, are Muslims. There have been constant strains between the two roles that Turkey has been obliged to play throughout this period. To expect Turkey to play both roles, to appeal to both sides...

Ben Wattenberg: Tell me again the two roles.

Bulent Aliriza: Well, it is the one Islamic country…

Ben Wattenberg: Western and Muslim.

Bulent Aliriza: …inside NATO, and at the same time, because the majority of its people are Muslims, it is an Islamic state. Not in the sense that it governs itself according to the Shari’ah, but it is Islamic in the sense that the majority of its citizens are Muslims. Now Turkey consciously turned its back on the Islamic world in 1923, when Atatürk moved away from the caliphate, from the Shari’ah, and basically said there’s one civilization, Western civilization, and we have to join it. It was obliged, as I discovered when I was preparing my doctorate dissertation in 1952.

Ben Wattenberg: You are an ethnic Turk?

Bulent Aliriza: I am indeed.

Ben Wattenberg: Born in Cyprus.

Bulent Aliriza: Yes, and raised in England.

Ben Wattenberg: And raised in England. You are not an ethnic Turk?

Stephen Kinzer: No, but I think I’ve drunk enough raki and eaten enough mezes that I’ve absorbed enough of it.

Bulent Aliriza: From 1923, right up to the moment when Turkey felt obliged to turn towards the Islamic world, the Middle Eastern hinterland as it were, in order to justify its strategic importance to NATO--and there were many skeptical members of NATO that did not want Turkey to be included because it wasn’t part of the Judeo-Christian civilization--that were persuaded that Turkey’s ability to play a role, to buttress in the Middle East, to buttress Britain’s weakening role in Egypt would actually enhance the West’s strategic position in the area. I agree that Turkey can indeed play that role within its immediate neighborhood. But to go beyond the Caucasus, beyond the vast Caspian Sea to Central Asia, which the Turks vacated a thousand years ago when they moved to Anatolia and beyond to...

Ben Wattenberg: Stephen, we’ve begun our history lesson here. Let’s start with Atatürk.

Stephen Kinzer: Atatürk was really one of the most successful revolutionaries of the 20th century. He emerged at a time when other ideologies were coming out of the European cauldron--Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism--which all have disappeared from history’s stage, leaving legacies of untold pain. The Atatürk revolution is still very much alive, and his audacious idea was that a Muslim country didn’t need to be embraced by the traditions of Arab civilization, that there were plenty of different directions for an Islamic nation. And that one of them could lead it toward what he called “universal civilization,” by which he meant the European post-Enlightenment idea. And that idea of what an Islamic society can be remains the goal of Turkey.

Ben Wattenberg: Tell us something of the symbolic fights that Atatürk engendered that continue today. I had no idea of the head scarves, the fez, the western alphabet, that sort of thing. What is that all about?

Stephen Kinzer: Atatürk decided that religion was what was holding Turkey back, and he wanted to break his society away from the clutches of religious power. However, as that ideology is interpreted today, in Turkey it’s considered very suspicious when a woman wears a head scarf. A military officer who prays is likely to be cashiered from the Army. Expressions of religious devotion are considered very suspect. Even the imams in the mosques are supposed to read, in most cases, sermons that are prepared by a central religious directorate in Ankara. This has led many Turks to turn to their state and ask, “Why can’t we feel ourselves full members of the Turkish society and still practice a level of religious devotion as we would be able to practice in, for example, the United States?” And the Turkish State is wrestling with this problem. How do you crush fundamentalism? Do you do it by stamping out every sign of religious belief? Or do you do it by trying to embrace peaceful religious believers, give them a place in your society and not make them choose between their role as citizens of Turkey and believers in the Islamic faith?

Ben Wattenberg: Do you have the somewhat bizarre situation that the Islamists in Turkey--they are the ones who are pro-religious freedom--whereas in the rest of the Islamic world, they are the ones, in theory at least, who are against religious freedom and regard all “infidels” as infidels?

Bulent Aliriza: Now this is one of the paradoxes that we need to look at. The Islamists in Turkey who emerged as the first party after the 1995 elections, as we said at the outset, and then headed the coalition that came into power in 1996, were basically pushed out by the military. And the military effectively pushed them out by making the point successfully, through the media and through the debate that it very much encouraged and pushed, that the survival of this particular regime was inimical to Turkey’s interests and ultimately a threat to the very...

Ben Wattenberg: They didn’t want anything too pro-fundamentalist.

Bulent Aliriza: Exactly. Now, fundamentalism may be in the eye of the beholder, like terrorism. But the problem within Turkey, as well as within the wider Islamic world, is how do you divide personal devotion, within Islam, and political Islam.

Ben Wattenberg: President Bush has said, as is perfectly proper, that it’s a peaceful religion, it’s a wonderful religion, and so on and so forth, which is fine. That these people are aberrational. They’re, as he calls them, “the evil ones.” There are a lot of people writing that, well, it’s okay for President Bush to say that, but really, at root, Islam is violent, and proselytizing to a point of violence.

Stephen Kinzer: I would certainly say that, despite what we’ve seen in recent weeks, Islam is far from having killed as many people over its whole history as Christians killed in the name of Christianity. But our Muslim guest perhaps will be able to give us a better, more personal interpretation.

Bulent Aliriza: Well, you know, if you look at the history of Ottoman rule in the Balkans, they did not proselytize to the point of destroying the various churches, that actually then played a role in defining the nation-states that emerged out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman system rested on a recognition, with taxation of the non-Muslims as an integral part of the Ottoman system, of the survival, existence and, to a great extent, the prosperity of the various Christian peoples that actually lived in the Ottoman Empire.

Ben Wattenberg: So Atatürk was able to accommodate Islam, provided it was not the basis of statehood.

Stephen Kinzer: Ataturk’s idea was that individuals could be free to guide their own personal lives and private morality by religious principles. But religious principles would have nothing to do with guiding the state.

Bulent Aliriza: No, I think he went further than that, frankly. I think, you know, he was not personally religious himself…

Ben Wattenberg: He was not religious.

Bulent Aliriza: …and, in fact, he described himself many times as someone who was far from religious principles, and if he could he would have eradicated the kind of open devotion to Islam within Turkey’s borders.

Ben Wattenberg: Eradicated it.

Bulent Aliriza: For example, he trans...

Ben Wattenberg: Not tolerated, not kept it subservient, but just wiped it off the face of the earth?

Bulent Aliriza: Throughout the war against the Greeks, the national war of independence, Islam was very much a factor. As he defined Turkey, the modern Turkey, different from Arabs, different from the other Muslim peoples, he took important steps that would take Turkey away from the kind of state where Islam was such an integral part of life, as in the Ottoman Empire, as he could. For example, the Koran was translated into Turkish. Pilgrimage was very much discouraged and, quite frankly, it was not an easy time for someone to be personally devout in Turkey if they wanted to rise within the new Kemalist establishment.

Stephen Kinzer: I think Atatürk ultimately realized something that is a historical truth that has been proven by every human civilization that has ever lived, which is that people seek answers to great questions in their existence. And to find the answers to those questions they look to religion. And no state that has ever posited itself against religion has ever emerged as victorious from that confrontation.

Ben Wattenberg: The greatest modern example of that, of course, is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was in power, the Soviets were in power for seventy years and were convinced that they had eliminated Russian-ness and the Orthodox Church and everything else. And as soon as they fell, there were the Russians again, there was the Orthodox Church again. I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s true in every religion.

Bulent Aliriza: I think that a distinction needs to be drawn between Turkish-ness and Islam and you know, within Kemalist system, after the creation of the Republic and subsequently the young Turks who came to power in 1908.

Ben Wattenberg: That’s a phrase that has now come into common usage to any group of insurgents--“the young Turks,” I mean.

Bulent Aliriza: These are the great reformers, primarily in the Ottoman military, who took power in 1908, who were committed to emphasizing Turkish-ness at the expense of the Islamic-ness as it were, which had actually bound the Muslim peoples of the Ottoman Empire together.

Ben Wattenberg: If, as this war in Afghanistan unwinds, Turkish troops are sent into Afghanistan, would that play reasonably well, or would that acquiescence remain?

Stephen Kinzer: There is already considerable talk that small groups of Turkish troops will be going over there. And I think that’s already happening. Certainly if there’s a large-scale Turkish ground presence in Afghanistan, there’s going to be a lot of trouble in Turkey. I don’t think anybody wants that, and I don’t think that will happen.

Bulent Aliriza: With respect to Afghanistan, Turkey is peripheral. If the war against terrorism was to spread to Iraq, then Turkey would be central. While I think Turkey could play a small role in Afghanistan without really incurring much domestic upheaval, if Turkey was asked to play a role, with respect to Iraq, that would be a major crisis in Turkish-American relations.

Ben Wattenberg: Stephen, let me ask you a question. And you Bulent, as a historian. If you tried to graph the line of democratic values in Turkey over the last seventy years or so since the Atatürk revolution, is that an ascendant line? Is it moving ever more toward Western democratic values? Or is it...don’t know?

Stephen Kinzer: I think it is. Turkey is getting steadily more democratic each decade, but I think the real question is, where are we when the line ends? How close are we to the ideal of democracy? What many Turks are now saying is, “It’s not enough for us to be making this step-by-step progress. What is wrong with us that we can’t enjoy the freedoms that Estonians, Uruguayans, and Taiwanese enjoy? Why can we not as civilians determine the direction of our state?”

Ben Wattenberg: If Turkey went ever further in that direction, would it be a model for places like Pakistan, for example, which is the other pivotal, or a pivotal, player?

Bulent Aliriza: Well, the acid test is the Turkish application to the European Union, because there are certain criteria, Copenhagen criteria, that Turkey needs to fulfill in order to demonstrate to the Europeans that it is indeed a live candidate, an appropriate member for the European Union. It also has to fulfill the Maastricht criteria, which relate to its economic performance. After all, this was the European Economic Community before it became the European Union. So before it becomes a model for these countries, it really needs to regularize and cement its relationship with the West and primarily the European Union, which the U.S. has been encouraging. And the signs there are not good.

Ben Wattenberg: So all the nations of the European Union have to pass a certain democratic threshold. France barely made it, but that’s the idea.

Stephen Kinzer: The reason why it’s so important that Turkey move ahead to meet these European criteria is not just because it would be great for Turkey to be in the European Union, or that it would be great for the European Union to have Turkey, both of which are true. The reason why Turkey needs to embrace these criteria is that they are simply a more specific version of what Atatürk wanted for Turkey. They are what most Turks want. So it’s not something they’re doing for the outside world. It’s something that is responding to the desire of their own population.

Ben Wattenberg: And if that happened, that could change the course of Islamic history, and as we now see it, global history.

Stephen Kinzer: The good news is, yes. The bad news is that it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Bulent Aliriza: If Turkey, the European Union and, the U.S., as the leader of the Western alliance, can actually strengthen the triangular relationship between them with Turkish entry into NATO, then we’re talking about a real model. Then Turkey as a full member of, not just of NATO…

Ben Wattenberg: But of the EU.

Bulent Aliriza: Of the EU, would indeed be a model for the Islamic world, that indeed the Judeo-Christian civilization, the Western community of nations, has indeed admitted one of us, in spite of the fact that the majority of its population are Muslims and are personally devout, even if the country itself is not Islamic. That would be a signal, and I would argue that before Turkey begins to play that kind of role within the wider Islamic world, it really needs an understanding with the U.S., with Washington and Brussels, as to how exactly it fits into the picture. As a strategic ally, to be remembered only when there are crises, when you need Turkish soldiers on the front lines, like in Korea, like in Afghanistan maybe--and I hope that is not the case--or as a full member of the Western community, demonstrating to the entire Islamic world that there is indeed a synthesis.

Ben Wattenberg: All right, let me ask you a question. We have to close. Last question. Let’s turn the calendar forward to the year 2020, and we’re having this discussion. And I say to you, “Is Turkey a democracy?” What’s the answer?

Bulent Aliriza: I’d say partial. And I doubt whether it will be a member of the EU either. And I would also say that the idea of a bridge works only when the two worlds are in sync. And I’m afraid that the two worlds Turkey belongs to may not be in sync by 2020.

Stephen Kinzer: I would say the answer to that question is totally up to Turkey. When will Turkey join the EU? It’s up to Turkey. If Turkey can make the psychological and political leaps necessary to fulfill these criteria, then the cultural and religious arguments in Europe--I don’t think--will be enough to keep it out. But Turkey itself has to decide. Is this the road that it really wants to go on? And is it willing to make the final breaks with its past that are necessary for it to be embraced by the EU and, by extension, by Western civilization?

Ben Wattenberg: OK, thank you very much Bulent Aliriza and Stephen Kinzer. And thank you. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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