In lecture 3 of the Islamist Entanglement, I presented the history of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. I introduced this topic to my students by explaining that Turkey is by far the most westernized of all the Islamic countries in the Middle East. As such, Turkey is a kind of historical prototype–an advanced model whose development can help us predict how other countries in the Middle East might develop. Sadly, in this regard, Turkey’s history demonstrates that there is a frightening limit to how much even the most progressive Muslim countries can be expected to achieve given the interaction between the Middle East and the Western world.
Turkey’s relatively advanced position stems from its history of close cultural contact with Europe. After failing to take Vienna in 1683, the Ottoman Turks were driven back across Eastern Europe, and in the wake of the “Great Turkish War,” agreed to a peace that involved the first dictated terms ever endured by that medieval superpower. Over the next century, they continued to lose to the West, most notably in the Russo-Turkish Wars of 1768-74 and 1787-92. Subsequently, their autonomous vassals, the Mameluks of Egypt, were also trounced by Napoleon in 1798. In light of all these military defeats, the Turks hit upon the need to discover the secret of the West’s superiority and began to study Europe intently.
At first, the desire to learn from Europe was entirely pragmatic. The Turks were merely looking among their adversaries for the means to destroy them. However, the first ambassadors ever sent to the West by Sultan Selim III in 1793 reported back that European countries had achieved certain political advances, which, when they were copied, began to make Turkey more like the very enemies it hated.
Ostensibly, Europe’s countries had moved beyond feudalism. Their centralized monarchies boasted efficient conduits of information within and between the military and civilian authorities, allowing the monarch’s tentacles of power to extend outward to touch every aspect of the state. Feudalism, an unwieldy system with unreliable arrangements of vassalage, had been replaced with standing armies and a hierarchy of professional civil servants to integrate and support them. This was believed to be the political dimension that underlay European success. Selim and his successor Mahmud II set about mimicking this apparatus, hoping that by duplicating the “technological” side of Western government, they could match its efficiency.
Despite such efforts, European supremacy over the Ottoman world continued unabated. More radical reforms were needed. As it became evident that military and bureaucratic changes were insufficient, education became an area of special focus. Military cadets were sent to Europe in waves. The first secular educational institutions for military, medical, and scientific training were created.
In a report of the Ottoman “Board of Useful Affairs” concerning this work, it was noted that “Religious knowledge serves salvation in the world to come but science serves the perfection of man in this world.” A more fundamental factor fueling the West’s advance had thus been identified: the emancipation of science and practical life from religion.
This was not something that traditionalist Muslim authorities were willing to accept, however, or to allow to be widely implemented. Thus knowledge of the West’s secular superiority was restricted to the ranks of a small educated elite associated with the Ottoman Sultanate, and a rift between that elite and the bulk of the people developed.
When asked by a scholarly committee about the religious validity of implementing a secular Western legal code for regulating commerce, the Ottoman Grand Vizir replied, “The holy law has nothing to do with such matters!”
“Blasphemy!” responded the committee.
Sadly, this has continued to be the response of the ulema (religious scholars) and the large, religiously submissive element of the Turkish population to this day.
By the time Turkey was formed in 1923, the educated Westernized intelligentsia still constituted less than 10% of its population. Most of the people were still agricultural peasants, and still under the sway of their local imams (“priests”).
Not surprisingly therefore, when Turkey’s great modern leader, Mustafa Kemal, came to power after WWI, he found that it was necessary to “force the people to be free.” He would establish a benevolent, secularist dictatorship, until a more stable foundation could be erected and the people could be entrusted to direct their own progress.
Primary and secondary education were secularized. Women were emancipated, and given access to all levels of education. All symbols of traditional submission, such as long beards and headscarfs, were eliminated within government institutions. Even the alphabet and the calendar were Westernized. Given such measure, within a few generations, perhaps, the people would be ready.
It may seem surprising that Kemal, and his successor Ismet Inonu, who were both oppressive dictators after a fashion, were indeed committed to freedom. They definitely crushed any opposition–often violently. Critics could be exiled, or just as likely hanged in public, while the reform program was imposed upon the people. Still, Turkey’s leaders continually tinkered with democratic forms, trying to expand the peoples’ participation in the government.
Sadly, they found them still incapable of understanding and defending their own freedom. In 1950, hoping that the time had come, Inonu allowed the first free elections to be held, and the incumbent regime was removed. From this point on, Turkey’s history is a dizzying, erratic succession of democratic and military regimes, with coups almost as numerous as elections. The army, the most westernized institution in the country, has repeatedly defied the majority of the population’s wish to re-inject Islam into the government. Most recently, a democratically elected Islamic party was ousted by the military in a 1997 coup, only to be succeeded by a new democratic regime whose leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also intends a shift towards Islamism.
The situation in Turkey is inherently unstable.
Indeed, without a fundamentally positive shift in the culture, Turkey’s Kemalist system is likely to come to an end. However, no such shift seems likely to occur, and the United States deserves a good deal of the blame.
What Turkey has needed since WWII, when it came to America’s attention, is much more than just a nuclear aegis to fend off Communism. It has needed principled guidance by the United States on how to advance the secularist program so that it can truly Westernize once and for all. Unfortunately, that’s not what it got.
Truman specifically had Turkey in mind when he enunciated his doctrine. If its regime could be propped up, he believed, then the Soviets would be prevented from penetrating to the Mediterranean. Of course, Turkey was but one piece in a much larger containment scheme. If, in order to appease the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, America needed to withdraw Turkey’s nuclear shield (American Jupiter missiles) then so be it. If in 1964, Turkey planned to intervene in Cyprus, where a civil war between Greek and Turkish Cypriots was brewing, but this was deemed counterproductive by the United States, then Turkey was warned that American support against the Soviet Union was contingent upon following orders to diffuse the conflict. Throughout the past sixty years, though nominally committed to helping Turkey, the United States has done nothing but treat it as a disposable asset.
How then could Turkey be expected to progress? Could it reasonably be expected to model its culture on America’s? The United States certainly hasn’t shown Turkey any special respect for its secular virtues.
On the contrary, it is entirely understandable that Turkey should reject American domination and American values — a trend that began during the Ford administration — while seeking closer ties with both the Soviet Union, and especially Europe.
This will probably be its undoing. The great irony of Turkey’s rapprochement with Europe is that the European Union requires democratic governments in its candidate states. For Turkey to embrace Europe’s democratic ideal, however, is to insure that the Islamist element in Turkey wins a permanent voice in its political system, and possibly even that it becomes the dominant element — as foreshadowed by the Erdoğan premiership.
Turkey thus seems poised to regress rather than progress.
There is no sign that it will find any new guidance from America, or that on its own, it will be able to realize the aim of full cultural secularization. Turkey has been stuck on a plateau ever since the Kemalist secularization program stopped and the country’s progress was undercut by America’s Cold War treatment of it. Now Islam appears ready to make a political comeback.
What Turkey is thus likely to transmit to the Islamic world in the next generation is not the image of a successful secular Middle Eastern country, but rather the frightening picture of the partial-birth abortion of one.