Turkey is half pregnant with political Islam, if one believes Western foreign ministries and the mainstream press. Its Islamist government last week arrested 82 alleged coup plotters from Turkey’s military and intellectual elite, on the strength of a secret indictment of 2,445 pages. Turkish media have offered fanciful allegations linking the secular leaders of the alleged “Ergenekon” plot to al-Qaeda as well as the violent Kurdish Workers’ Party. Among those detailed are pillars of the secular establishment, including the head of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce and the Ankara editor of the country’s leading daily newspaper, Cumhuriyet.
Before shouting “Reichstag Fire!” in a crowded theater, one should read the indictment, when and if it is made public. A few Western analysts, such as Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute, are warning  that an Islamic putsch is possible, after the fashion of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. The question of the moment, though, is not whether mass arrests of civic leaders on charges that challenge the imagination are compatible with Turkey’s image as a democratic nation, but rather why the world’s media have printed nary a harsh word about the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A perfect storm of enmity has come down on the beleaguered Turkish secularists, who find themselves without friends. That is a tragedy whose consequences will spill over Turkey’s borders, for the secular model established by Kemal Ataturk after World War I was the Muslim world’s best hope of adapting to modernity. Many years of misbehavior by Turkey’s army and security services, the core institutions of secular power, have eroded their capacity to resist an Islamist takeover.
The United States State Department, meanwhile, has found a dubious use for what it thinks is a moderate strain of political Islam. Washington apparently hopes to steer Turkey into a regional bloc with the short-term aim of calming Iraq, and a longer-term objective of fostering a Sunni alliance against Iran’s ambition to foment a Shi’ite revolution in the Middle East.
By rejecting Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union, France and Germany have destroyed the credibility of the secular parties who seek integration with the West. Perhaps the Europeans already have consigned Turkey to the ward for political incurables, and do not think it worthwhile to try to revive Western-oriented secularism. Turkey’s liberal intellectuals, who suffered intermittent but brutal repression at the hands of the secular military, think of the Islamist government as the enemy of their enemy, if not quite their friend.
Sadly, the notion that moderate Islam will flourish in the Turkish nation demands that we believe in two myths, namely, moderate Islam and the Turkish nation. Too much effort is wasted parsing the political views of Erdogan, who began his career in the 1990s as an avowed Islamist and anti-secularist, but later espoused a muted form of Islam as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Whether Erdogan is a born-again moderate or a disguised jihadi is known only to the man himself. Islam in Turkey flourishes in full public view. At the village level, the AKP draws on the same sort of Saudi Arabian patronage that filled Pakistan with madrassas (seminaries) during the past two decades, and incubated the Wahhabi forces that have now all but buried the remnants of Pakistani secularism.
If political Islam prevails in Turkey, what will emerge is not the same country in different coloration, but a changeling, an entirely different nation. In a 1997 speech that earned him a prison term, Erdogan warned of two fundamentally different camps, the secularists who followed Kemal, and Muslims who followed sharia. These are not simply different camps, however, but different configurations of Turkish society at the molecular level. Like a hologram, Turkey offers two radically different images when viewed from different angles. Turkish Islam, the ordering of the Anatolian villages and the Istanbul slums, represents a nation radically different than the secularism of the army, the civil service, the universities and the Western-leaning elite of Istanbul. If the Islamic side of Turkey rises, the result will be unrecognizable.
Modern Turkey is a construct, not a country in the sense that Westerners understand the term; it is the rump of a multi-ethnic empire that perished in World War I, and the project of a nation advanced by a visionary leader who could not, however, pierce the sedimentary layers of ethnicity, language and history that make modern Turkey less than the sum of its parts. Turkey’s army prevailed as the dominant institution of the secular state simply because no other entity could array the poor farmers of the Anatolian highlands according to the secular program.
The trouble is that there are not that enough Turks in Turkey. To replace the imperial identity of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal proposed Turkum, or Turkishness, an Anatolian national identity founded on the many civilizations that had ruled the peninsula. Ethnic identity in the sense of European nationalism informed neither the Ottoman Empire nor the Kemalist state. The Orghuz Turks who conquered the hinterlands of the Byzantine Empire during the 12th century never comprised more than a small minority of the population. At the height of their conquests during the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire ruled over more Christians than Muslims.
Kemal created modern Turkey by thwarting the attempts of Western powers to partition his country after its defeat in World War I, but at terrible cost. The 20 million population of the Ottoman Empire was reduced to perhaps 7 million (by a French government estimate) in 1924. Up to a million and a half Armenian Christians were murdered in 1914-1918 at the instigation of the Turkish government, to neutralize a population considered sympathetic to wartime adversaries. Most of the killing was done by Kurdish tribesmen. Between 1.5 million and 3 million Greek Orthodox Christians, whose ancestors had settled Asia Minor thousands of years before the Turks arrived, were expelled in 1924 at the conclusion of the Greek-Turkish War.
Modern Turkey thus began not only with the rump of an empire, but with the turnover of nearly half its 1924 population. Because Kemal’s concept of Turkum requires suspension of disbelief in favor of a nonexistent national identity, Turkey has avoided a census of its minorities since 1965. Perhaps 30% of its population are Kurds, whose integration into the Turkish state is uncertain. Kurds are concentrated in eastern Turkey in an area that before 1918 was known as Western Armenia – because ethnic Kurds replaced the slaughtered Armenians. In addition, there are 3 million Circassians, 2 million Bosniaks, a million and a half Albanians, a million Georgians, and sundry smaller groups. But even within the majority characterized as “ethnic Turks,” the sedimentary layers remain of millennia of contending tribes and civilizations.
The Kemalists had mixed results in their efforts to pack this ethnic and cultural jumble into a newly-designed national identity. What sometimes is called the “deep state” – the secretive Kemalist hold over military and intelligence services – may turn out to be shallow as it is brittle. One Turkish historian told me, “Like the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid, who fell 100 years ago this week because of an explosion of popular unrest, the Turkish military are the victims of their own success in creating a diversified and modern society which wants to live in a freer system. The hard hand they turned against intellectual dissenters drove sections of the westernized intelligentsia into the arms of the Islamists – and it is that alliance which is now at work to demolish both the military’s influence in politics and (perhaps) the entire heritage of Kemal Ataturk.”
Like its Ottoman predecessors, the Kemalist establishment recognized its danger far too late. This year, the country’s Constitutional Court attempted to ban Erdogan’s AKP for attempting to undermine the secular state. It seems probable that the suppression of the supposed coup plot constitutes the AKP’s response, as well as a pre-emptive action against the last-resort tactic of the secularists, namely military intervention to prevent Turkey from sliding into Islamism.
Turkey presently is composed of 70 million people who do not quite know who they are. If the hologram rotates towards Islam, that is, a return to sharia and traditional life in opposition to modernity, Turkey will no more resemble the “moderate Muslim” state of 2008 than Kemal’s Turkey resembled the Ottoman Empire of 1908. According to one Turkish analyst, “The Islamic movement in Turkey is a vast and varied coalition of which the AKP is only the nose cone. It was designed to look studiously moderate and allay the suspicions both of the military and of world opinion. Some sections of the AKP are undoubtedly moderates or pragmatists and deserve their moderate reputation. But alongside the party, there is an enormous groundswell of Islamic movements, at work transforming Turkish society and institutions. Successful revolutionaries tend to be those who conceal their intentions until the hour of victory: if anyone in the AKP intends to move towards sharia it is unlikely that they would be shouting this from the rooftops.”
It should be no surprise that the State Department looks favorably on Turkey’s Islamist drift: that is precisely how Foggy Bottom viewed Iran in 1979, when it sped the overthrow of the shah. It appears that the United States and Saudi Arabia, each for its own reasons, are doing their best to propel Turkey on the way to Islamism. Saudi Arabia’s support for Islamist organizations at the grassroots level is an open secret in Turkey, and the influence of Erdogan’s AKP at the village level stems to a great extent from Saudi patronage.
Less subtle is the burgeoning importance of Gulf state contracts for the Turkish economy. Turkey has two main sources of external business: consumer goods exports to Europe, and contracting as well as exports in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Economic conditions are deteriorating in Turkey, and the country’s stock market is the worst performer this year among emerging markets. With Europe in recession, and prospects fading for Turkish entry into the European community, Saudi Arabia looms larger in the Turkish economy, strengthening Erdogan’s hand among the business elite.
Washington’s immediate concern is the appearance of stability in Iraq, which will influence the November presidential elections in the US. As a self-styled moderate Sunni, Erdogan seems to be Central Casting’s idea of an Iraqi ally. Erdogan received an extraordinary welcome when he visited Iraq last week, with the promise of an economic and political alliance with the country.
An Iraqi spokesmen, Ali al-Dabbagh, declared after Erdogan’s visit that “Turkey is Iraq’s door to Europe,” adding that Turkey “can be the best trade partner of Iraq,” according to the BBC on July 13. Even more, “The security and political dimensions are also of paramount importance because the two countries are on the road to democracy. Turkey is a democratic country and democracy has started to take roots in Iraq … I think this relationship will be a large nucleus around which other countries will rally so that the region will develop into a common market benefiting its peoples.”
Less dramatic, but perhaps more important than the mass arrests, was another development in Turkey. The country’s Supreme Court dismissed all charges against the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, the man Michael Rubin believes will be Turkey’s answer to Khomeini. State prosecutors had accused Gulen of founding an illegal organization with the objective of undermining the secular structure of the state. An elderly diabetic, Gulen has lived in exile in the United States since 1998. “We expect Gulen here any day,” a Turkish analyst told me. Whether Rubin is correct to view Gulen as the Turkish Khomeini is of secondary interest. Gulen’s movement is one of a number of entities that might form the kernel of an Islamic Republic in Turkey.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentices of the State Department do not understand the sort of objects that they are animating. Political Islam will not merely change coloration of the country, but transform its character from the grassroots upward. For all the crudeness of the Kemalists, American diplomats will regret their failure as much as the fall of the shah.
1. Turkey’s Turning Point National Online, April 14, 2008.