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Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds
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But the real reason I love to hear the word istiklal is because it is the name of Turkeys most fascinating boulevard. Jammed with people all day and late into the night, lined with cafés, bookstores, cinemas and shops of every description, it is the pulsating heart not only of Istanbul but of the Turkish nation. I go there every time I feel myself being overwhelmed by doubts about Turkey. Losing myself in Istiklal's parade of faces and outfits for a few minutes, overhearing snippets of conversation and absorbing the energy that crackles along its mile and a half, is always enough to renew my confidence in Turkey's future. Because Istanbul has attracted millions of migrants from other parts of the country -- several hundred new ones still arrive every day -- this street is the ultimate melting pot. The country would certainly take a huge leap forward if people could be grabbed there at random and sent to Ankara to replace the members of Parliament. Istiklal is perfectly named because its human panorama reflects Turkey's drive to break away from claustrophobic provincialism and allow its people to express their magnificent diversity.
That drive has been only partly successful. Something about the concept of diversity frightens Turkey's ruling elite. It triggers the deep insecurity that has gripped Turkish rulers ever since the Republic was founded in 1923, an insecurity that today prevents Turkey from taking its proper place in the modem world.
No nation was ever founded with greater revolutionary zeal than the Turkish Republic, nor has any undergone more sweeping change in such a short time. In a very few years after 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk transformed a shattered and bewildered nation into one obsessed with progress. His was a one-man revolution, imposed and steered from above. Atatürk knew that Turks were not ready to break violently with their past, embrace modernity and turn decisively toward the West. He also knew, however, that doing so would be the only way for them to shape a new destiny for themselves and their nation. So he forced them, often over the howling protests of the old order.
The new nation that Atatürk built on the rubble of the Ottoman Empire never could have been built democratically. Probably not a single one of his sweeping reforms would have been approved in a plebiscite. The very idea of a plebiscite, of shaping a political system according to the people's will, would have struck most Turks of that era as not simply alien but ludicrous.
In the generations that have passed since then, Turkey has become an entirely different nation. It is as vigorous and as thirsty for democracy as any on earth. But its leaders, who fancy themselves Atatürk's heirs, fiercely resist change. They believe that Turks cannot yet be trusted with the fate of their nation, that an elite must continue to make all important decisions because the people are not mature enough to do so.
Atatürk's infant Turkish Republic was a very fragile creation. Sheiks and leaders of religious sects considered its commitment to secularism a direct assault on all they had held sacred for centuries. Tribal chieftains and local warlords realized that a strong centralized state would undermine their authority. Kurds who dominated eastern provinces sought to take advantage of the new state's weakness by staging military uprisings. European powers hoped it would collapse so that they could divide its territory among themselves. The new Soviet Union actively sought to subvert it and turn it into a vassal state.
In this hostile climate, Atatürk and his comrades came to think of themselves as righteous crusaders slashing their way through a world filled with enemies. They ruled by decree and with a rubber-stamp Parliament, equating criticism with treason. During their first years in power, arrest and execution were the fate of their real and imagined opponents.
Three-quarters of a century has passed since then, and in that time Turkey has changed beyond recognition. The nation that faced Atatürk when he took power was not only in ruins but truly primitive. Nearly everyone was illiterate. Life expectancy was pitifully short, epidemics were accepted as immutable facts of life and medical care was all but nonexistent. The basic skills of trade, artisanry and engineering were unknown, having vanished with the departed Greeks and Armenians. Almost every citizen was a subsistence farmer. There were only a few short stretches of paved road in a territory that extended more than a thousand miles from Iran to Greece. Most important of all, the Turkish people knew nothing but obedience. They had been taught since time immemorial that authority is something distant and irresistible, and that the role of the individual in society is submission and nothing more.
If Atatürk could return to see what has become of his nation, he undoubtedly would be astonished at how far it has come. Muddy villages have become bustling cities and cow paths have become superhighways. Universities and public hospitals are to be found in even the most remote regions. The economy is unsteady but shows bursts of vitality. Turkish corporations and business conglomerates are making huge amounts of money and competing successfully in every corner of the globe. Hundreds of young men and women return home every year from periods of study abroad. People are educated, self-confident and eager to build a nation that embodies the ideals of democracy and human rights.
The ruling elite, however, refuses to embrace this new nation or even admit that it exists. Military commanders, prosecutors, security officers, narrow-minded bureaucrats, lapdog newspaper editors, rigidly conservative politicians and other members of this sclerotic cadre remain psychologically trapped in the 1920s. They see threats from across every one of Turkey's eight borders and, most dangerously, from within the country itself. In their minds Turkey is still a nation under siege. To protect it from mortal danger, they feel obliged to run it themselves. They not only ignore but actively resist intensifying pressure from educated, worldly Turks who want their country to break free of its shackles and complete its march toward the democracy that was Atatürk's dream.
This dissonance, this clash between what the entrenched elite wants and what more and more Turks want, is the central fact of life in modern Turkey. It frames the country's great national dilemma. Until this dilemma is somehow resolved, Turkey will live in eternal limbo, a half-democracy taking half-steps toward freedom and fulfilling only half its destiny.
The most extraordinary aspect of this confrontation is that both sides are seeking, or claim to be seeking, the same thing: a truly modern Turkey. Military commanders and their civilian allies, especially the appointed prosecutors, judges and governors who set the limits of freedom in every town and province, consider themselves modernity's great and indispensable defenders. They fear democracy not on principle, but because they are convinced it will unleash forces that will drag Turkey back toward ignorance and obscurantism. Allowing Turks to speak, debate and choose freely, they believe, would lead the nation to certain catastrophe. To prevent that catastrophe, they insist on holding ultimate political power themselves and crushing challenges wherever they appear.
Yet what this means in practice is that state power is directed relentlessly against the very forces in society that represent true modernity. Writers, journalists and politicians who criticize the status quo are packed off to prison for what they say and write. Calls for religious freedom are considered subversive attacks on the secular order. Expressions of ethnic or cultural identity are banned for fear that they will trigger separatist movements and ultimately rip the country apart. When foreign leaders remind Turkey that it can never become a full member of the world community as long as its government behaves this way, they are denounced for harboring secret agendas whose ultimate goal is to wipe Turks off the face of history.
These attitudes have turned Turkey's ruling elite into the enemy of the ideal that gave it life. Originally dedicated to freeing a nation from dogma, this elite now defends dogma. Once committed to liberating the mind, today it lashes out against those whose minds lead them to forbidden places. It has become the "sovereign" against which its spiritual ancestors, the Young Turks, began rebelling in the nineteenth century.
"Our sovereign and our government do not want the light to enter our country," the Young Turk theorist Abdullah Cevdet wrote in 1897. "They want all people to remain in ignorance, on the dunghill of misery and wretchedness; no touch of awakening may blaze in the hearts of our compatriots. What the government wants is for the people to remain like beasts, submissive as sheep, fawning and servile as dogs. Let them hear no word of any honest lofty idea. Instead, let them languish under the whips of ignorant gendarmes, under the aggression of shameless, boorish, oppressive officials."
The Young Turks were members of insurgent groups
that defied the absolutism of Ottoman rule during the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. These groups built a rich tradition of dissent that shaped
the intellectual and political life of the late Ottoman period and laid the
foundation for Atatürk's revolution. Their principles were admirable, but most
of their leaders believed instinctively that the state, not popular will, was
the instrument by which social and political change would be achieved. They
bequeathed to Atatürk the conviction that Turkish reformers should seize state
power and then use it ruthlessly for their own ends, not try to democratize
society in ways that would weaken the centralized state.
Excerpted from Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds by Stephen Kinzer. Copyright © 2001 by Stephen Kinzer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.