Turkey’s Transformation: On Islam, Nationalism and Modernity

Turkey’s Transformation: On Islam, Nationalism and Modernity

Turkey’s Transformation: On Islam, Nationalism and Modernity

Carter Vaughn Finley’s timely new history contends that Turkey’s development has been misunderstood as an upward march from Islamic empire to secular republic.


Last year marked a turning point for Turkey, or at least for its reputation among political commentators in the West. For decades it had been America’s darling: a secular, democratic Muslim country that was both a member of NATO and—mirabile dictu—an ally of Israel, with which it had signed a defense pact in 1996 and enjoyed close military and commercial ties. Tensions had occasionally flared up over Cyprus, Iraq and the Kurdish and Armenian issues, and Ankara’s courting of Russia, Syria and other Western bugbears had been a growing source of disagreement. But never, till this past May, had Turkey’s fundamental orientation come into question. Then, in the span of a few weeks, Turkey became a black sheep.

The falling-out began on May 31, when Israeli forces intercepted a flotilla, which had been partially organized by a Turkish NGO, that was trying to run the blockade of Gaza. During the ensuing struggle, eight Turks and one Turkish-American aboard the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, were killed, while seven Israeli commandos and dozens of other activists were wounded, prompting an international crisis and a sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. It soon came out that the NGO and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) shared many of the same supporters—wealthy religious businessmen—and that the Mavi Marmara and two other ships in the flotilla had been purchased from a company operated by the municipality of Istanbul, which is run by AKP. Then, on June 9, Turkey broke ranks with Europe and the United States to vote against sanctioning Iran. Just three weeks earlier, Ankara had helped broker a deal with Tehran whereby the latter would surrender some of its low-enriched uranium in return for nuclear fuel rods, and the Turkish government, loath to antagonize a neighbor, wanted to give that deal a chance.

Turkey’s row with Israel and perceived coddling of Iran led many pundits in the United States and Europe to wonder whether Ankara was “turning its back on the West”—as an October cover of The Economist had it—and if so, who was to blame. Washington and Brussels engaged in a round of mutual recriminations on this point. Defense Secretary Robert Gates blamed the EU for shunning Turkey, and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso retorted that, no, the United States spoiled relations by invading Iraq. Others insisted the West had nothing to do with it: they attributed Turkey’s eastward turn to a veritable Islamist revolution, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of AKP and Turkey’s prime minister. “Gone, and gone permanently, is secular Turkey,” wrote Michael Rubin in Commentary last summer. It has been replaced by an “Islamic Republic” that is our “enemy.” Lest it pass American weaponry and intelligence along to “Hamas, Sudan, or Iran,” he suggested, Turkey should be kicked out of NATO. He equivocated on this last point, but he wasn’t kidding.

The underlying problem with these explanations—that Turkey’s reorientation is simply the product of resentment or a revolutionary turn toward Islamism—is that they are superficial and take too short a view. Each contains a grain of truth: the former, that Turks resent being treated shabbily, as benighted supplicants at the altar of Brussels, and are angry about the destabilization of Iraq; the latter, that Erdogan is a pious Muslim and a blowhard who sympathizes—publicly and sometimes histrionically—with the plight of the Palestinians and likes to throw his weight around. But to fixate on a few recent incidents and ascribe outsize importance to them is to imply too great and too sudden a change, and to cast the situation in too dire a light. Turkey’s transformation has far deeper roots, and a far broader basis, than either of these pat explanations acknowledges, and it is not intrinsically threatening to the West.

This isn’t to say that all the charges leveled against Erdogan are false. He is an Islamist, albeit not an extreme one; his rule is heavy-handed; and his speech and behavior are often rough. As some of the wilder charges in the Ergenekon case show, the government over which he presides is growing increasingly bold, if not hubristic. (The case, which is aimed at unraveling an alleged ultranationalist conspiracy to stage a coup d’état, has at times seemed to slide into a McCarthyistic witch hunt, as when police searched the home of Türkan Saylan, the terminally ill president of an NGO devoted to educating poor children, who was a defender of women’s rights and an outspoken critic of AKP but hardly a threat to public order.) Erdogan has managed to sideline, neuter or cow his secular opponents, and his party’s pursuit of EU membership is obviously, though perhaps not only, tactical. The jury’s still out on whether AKP really cares to join the union or is just using the accession process to outflank its rivals and bring the army to heel (the subordination of military to civilian rule is one of Brussels’s key conditions). But it’s undeniable that Erdogan is genuinely popular, and that his party has twice won national elections, by wide margins, whose outcomes no one seriously contests. To comprehend Turkey’s transformation, one must understand the sources and nature of that support.

* * *

Who votes for AKP? Many devout Muslims, naturally: from committed but accommodating Islamists (like the party’s leaders) to the pious but passive masses. But AKP doesn’t draw much support—or inspiration—from religious extremists, who gravitate instead toward the late Necmettin Erbakan’s Felicity Party. Nor is its appeal limited to those who pray. The secret of AKP’s success—the reason it has been able to garner enough votes to win an unassailable majority in Parliament and govern without coalition partners, unlike its predecessors in the ’90s—is that it manages, to a degree, to transcend the secular/religious divide. It does so, above all, by appealing to the pocketbook, and to class and patriotic pride.

AKP styles itself primarily as a party of the center-right whose main concern is efficient stewardship of the economy and encouragement of trade. It is only secondarily a party of Islam. (It is wont to compare itself to the Christian Democratic parties of Europe—which is a stretch, but not implausible.) Its support of free-market principles and export-led growth appeals to the business class, while its emphasis on bread-and-butter issues, such as improving roads, and its reputation for effective governance at the municipal and local levels endear it to the average Mehmet. The latter appeal is amplified by the party’s populism and its play upon class sensitivities: Erdogan likes to remind voters that he’s a “Black Turk,” or a salt-of-the-earth type, like most of them, not a “White Turk,” or a member of the country’s urbane, Westernized, traditional elite. Wealthy industrialists, particularly the so-called Anatolian Tigers—provincial entrepreneurs who tend to be more conservative and religious than the tycoons of Istanbul—provide much of its financial support, but it’s the party’s appeal to regular people that explains its electoral success.

Among AKP’s supporters are blue-collar kids, no more than a generation removed from the village, who believe in God (who do they know who doesn’t?) but are mostly just glad to be living in the city, where they can find a bit of culture (all those bootleg DVDs!), and a bit of fun, and, if they’re lucky, a steady if dull job, with steady if meager pay, instead of just sitting at a crummy laminated table in a dingy provincial dive, sipping strong black tea and bumming cigarettes, all through the dog days of summer and fall and winter and spring—again and again, ad nauseam. For them, politics has little to do with Islamism as a movement. They’re not itching for a confrontation with the West, or for Sharia. They’d like to get rid of the ban on head scarves and destigmatize religion. But for the most part they’re just thankful to be living a better life than their parents, to have access to the Internet—even if it’s bought by the minute rather than the month—and to have someone as their prime minister who talks and acts like them (remember when they cut him off at Davos, and instead of bearing the insult he stormed out like a real man?), rather than one of those haughty, effete White Turks.

AKP draws its support from other types, as well: a plump, frumpy, head scarf–wearing teyze (literally “aunt,” but think “babushka”), still more at home in the village than the city, even after all these years. And her husband, a mustachioed doorman who’s good with tools and kids and goes to the mosque every day but doesn’t make a big deal out of it. A bearded imam, who does. A young lady who wears an ankle-length coat with long sleeves twelve months out of the year, for modesty’s sake, and, of course, a head scarf—but not one of those loosely tied rustic ones like the teyzes wear; hers is silk and stylishly patterned, and she wraps it tightly over a spandex skullcap to ensure that not one single strand of hair is visible at the office, where they hired her because she speaks good English. Her sister, whose English isn’t so good, but it doesn’t matter, because her husband, who works for AKP, is loaded. His cousin, who owns a furniture factory and three houses, drives a Mercedes and never drinks anything stronger than salgam (turnip juice) with dinner. A grumpy old man who sells chickpea pilaf out of a pushcart and clicks his tongue disapprovingly at public displays of affection. A middle manager for the country’s largest biscuit manufacturer. A law student who was supposed to be on the Mavi Marmara, until his parents found out and forbade him to go. The girl he has a crush on, who wears a head scarf—as well as more lipstick and mascara than Cher. A truck driver who listens to religious radio and refuses to haul beer. A guy who owns a liquor store and works there twelve hours a day. The guy down the block who graduated from Hunter College last spring and hasn’t been doing anything since he got back home but smoke and translate American pop lyrics for his buddies. A professor of political science. Farmers. Lots of farmers.

To an American audience, this kind of diversity may not surprise. But in Turkey social divisions are much sharper, both horizontally and vertically, and parties come and go and split and merge and change names with regularity. Right now, by my count, there are thirty-three parties, sixteen of which are less than ten years old, and seven of which are represented in Parliament—and I don’t know a single Turk who can name all of them. Under these circumstances, such breadth of appeal is rare, a once-in-a-generation phenomenon.

How did AKP pull it off? Savvy strategy and marketing played a role, as did its unprecedented grassroots organization. But no amount of strategizing, marketing and legwork can conjure up this degree of consensus out of thin air. As Carter Vaughn Findley’s timely new history, Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity, makes clear, AKP is as much the beneficiary as the creator of Turkey’s transformation.

Findley’s book is the first history of modern Turkey to have been published in English in more than a decade. Findley intended it to be no more than a state-of-the-art synthesis, “a panoramic history of the late Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey” from 1789 to the present. But somewhere along the way, he stumbled into an argument, and a provocative one at that. He contends that modern Turkish history has been fundamentally misunderstood as a teleological “upward march from Islamic empire to secular republic.” It’s a major revisionist claim, and he’s thoroughly convincing.

Findley identifies two sources of misunderstanding: a Kemalist, or secular nationalist, historiography dating to the earliest years of the Turkish Republic, which wrote religion out of the story because it did not conform to the ideal of the “modern” state being built; and Western scholars of the 1960s, whose “foundational studies” of Turkey were tainted by the modernization theory then in vogue. Those studies’ “secularist biases” have been recapitulated in almost all later writings and continue to carry influence, Findley argues, and he aims to set the record straight. Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity is meant to be a balanced and comprehensive history, which gives religious developments their due. It’s not an unqualified success, but its central argument is persuasive and important enough to demand our attention.

Findley’s premise is that over the past two centuries there have been “two major currents of change”—the first radical and secularizing, the second conservative and committed to Islam—that “interacted to shape Ottoman and Turkish history.” Both currents, Findley argues, have been preoccupied with defining and achieving modernity, and neither is monolithic. “Like political parties or other large sociocultural formations, both currents…included divergent tendencies or movements. Moreover, many Ottomans or Turks identified with both currents and resisted choosing between them. At critical moments,” he concedes, “the choices embodied by the two currents became unavoidable and polarized opinion,” but in the long run their differences were “more matters of emphasis.” As they evolved and responded to the challenges of the day, the currents “interacted dialectically, alternately clashing and converging.” In the process, they transformed each other—and Turkish society—significantly.

Whereas the secularizing current took root in the Ottoman bureaucracy and achieved its first flowering with the Tanzimat, a mid-nineteenth-century movement committed to reforming and modernizing the empire, the Islamist current began with Mevlana Halid, a sheik from Ottoman Iraq who, in the early nineteenth century, introduced a reformist form of Naksibendiye Sufism that became popular with merchants and landowners. The currents converged at points—as in the drafting of the Gülhane Rescript of 1839, one of the cornerstones of Tanzimat, which contained elements of both Westernizing and Islamic thought, Findley argues. But as the empire’s fortunes declined, secularization took center stage, since it was championed by the men most qualified to address the state’s problems: at first, diplomats; later, as the empire began to disintegrate and descended into war, military officers.

It was the officers—including Mustafa Kemal, soon to be Atatürk—who forged the new nation of Turkey out of the Ottoman rump state in Anatolia. To create a new basis of political identity, they imposed a modernizing ideology, which has come to be known as Kemalism, on the state and its populace. Its two main tenets—secularism and nationalism—remain Turkey’s guiding principles to this day, both in the hearts and minds of secularists and in the country’s constitution. The majority of the populace felt the ideology to be an alien imposition, and some resisted; but most bore it because of their tremendous respect for Kemal, who had led them through crisis to victory in their war of independence. In keeping with the new doctrine of secularism, religious interests were repressed and brought under state control. Yet even during this period, when the secularist current was in ascent, some members of the countervailing religious current found ways to exert a kind of veiled influence, Findley argues. For example, after the Sufi brotherhoods were outlawed and their meeting halls closed, many Naksibendis—whose doctrine had long emphasized cooperation with the state—chose to join the government’s new Directorate of Religious Affairs. As a result, they ended up “colonizing” it from within and—contrary to the Kemalists’ intentions—finding a way to perpetuate their influence. Meanwhile, the army came to see itself as the institutional bulwark of Kemalism, whose officers were the final guarantor of Atatürk’s secular order.

The Kemalists’ second tenet, nationalism, also had some unintended long-term effects that boosted religious influence. In their desire to create a vibrant “national bourgeoisie” to replace the Greeks and Armenians who had previously controlled much of the empire’s industry and commerce, they favored ethnically Turkish merchants and landowners—most of whom were religious and had long formed an important base of support for Islamic thought. As those merchants and landowners grew wealthy and influential with the state’s support, Findley argues, they not only acquired modern habits and ways of thinking—as the secularizing reformers hoped they would—but also began to reconceptualize “modernity” in less stridently secularist terms. Many of them found inspiration in the writings of Said Nursi, whose “Treatise of Light” (Risale-I Nur), essentially a Koranic answer to modern conditions, encouraged Muslims to study science and technology but rejected the scientific materialism underlying much Western (and Kemalist) thought. With the growth of an Islamic print culture to match the one that had long facilitated the development of the secular sphere, Nursi’s treatise became the foundational text for a modernizing Islamist movement that gained tremendous influence.

* * *

By the mid-1940s the propertied classes had grown strong enough to split off from the bureaucratic-military elite that had facilitated their rise. In 1950 they compelled the Republican People’s Party (known by its Turkish acronym, CHP), which had ruled Turkey as a single-party state since the founding of the republic in 1923, to hold free and fair multiparty elections for the first time in the country’s history. The result was a victory for the new Democratic Party (DP), led by Adnan Menderes, a wealthy landowner from western Turkey. The party’s rise marked the first epochal shift in Turkish politics, according to Findley. Pursuing a more economically liberal and populist tack than its predecessors, the DP pushed for privatization of state industries and made some concessions to religious interests, such as allowing the call to prayer to revert to Arabic from Turkish. The latter won the DP the support of many Nurcus (as followers of Said Nursi are known), who supported the party in the elections of 1954. The concessions also earned it the enmity of staunch Kemalists. Although the DP was re-elected, its popularity waned in the following years, as the economy languished and the party’s behavior grew authoritarian. By 1960 the army had had enough: it staged a coup d’état, after which Menderes was executed and the DP disbanded. The following year, after installing a more liberal constitution, the junta stepped down.

The 1960s and ’70s were tumultuous decades for Turkey. The new constitution’s liberality allowed Marxist and other leftist groups to operate freely for the first time, and their ideas and activities provoked a rightist reaction. The resultant mobilization engaged a broader spectrum of the population than ever before, but not always in constructive ways. Surging demographic growth and a massive internal migration of villagers to cities—what Findley calls the country’s sudden “superurbanization”—brought more Turks than ever before in touch with modernity, but they also introduced new social stresses and made it impossible to maintain Kemalist unity. The era’s short-lived coalition governments found it difficult to cope with the growing instability; by the end of the 1960s, with the economy in recession, a series of strikes, demonstrations, bombings and kidnappings wracked the country. In 1971 the army once again intervened in an attempt to restore order. Alas, the same problems re-emerged later in the decade—albeit this time with the rightists rather than the leftists holding the upper hand—prompting the army to stage another coup in 1980.

When the army stepped down in 1983, after installing a more restrictive constitution, Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party won the election. Özal, an electrical engineer by training, had been a longtime civil servant and onetime employee of the World Bank, and he had been tapped by the generals to serve as deputy prime minister for economic affairs during their rule. He went on to serve as prime minister until 1989, at which point he became president—the first to be born in the republic instead of the Ottoman Empire. When he died in office in 1993, he was entombed next to the mausoleum of Menderes, whom he revered (and had rehabilitated in 1990).

Özal echoed Menderes in a number of ways. Both presided over center-right parties that enjoyed broad enough support to form single-party governments; both ruled for ten years, pursued liberal economic policies, pushed for privatization and showed unprecedented tolerance for religion in public life. Indeed, in this last respect, Özal surpassed his idol: while in office, he not only granted concessions to religious interests—for example, by allowing the number of religious imam-hatip schools to grow—but publicly admitted to being a Naksibendi, and completed the hajj.

Curiously, Findley fails to draw a connection between Özal and Menderes. “With Özal,” he writes, “the religiously committed, business-oriented, Anatolian-rooted but now increasingly urbanized sector of society finally came to power. After decades as targets of state policy, they became policy makers.” All that is true—but much the same could be said of Menderes, who rose with the support of provincial agricultural and commercial interests. Yet when assessing Özal’s importance, Findley reaches for another comparison: “Embodying the combination of economic liberalism and Islamic values that bested overtly Islamist parties in gaining voter support, [Özal] reoriented Turkish politics more significantly than anyone since Atatürk.” Again, that’s true—but only because Menderes’s reorientation was reversed by a coup. Özal clearly saw himself as Menderes’s heir, and emphasizing that would have strengthened Findley’s argument for the continuous dialectical interaction of religious and secular currents. That he fails to do so is mystifying.

* * *

During the 1990s, Turkish politics was again dominated by a series of coalition governments, the most notable of which was led by Necmettin Erbakan (who died in February). A mainstay of Turkish politics since the 1970s, when he briefly served in a coalition with CHP, Erbakan had founded two Islamist parties, both of which had been banned for violating the constitution’s strict laicism, before he founded the Prosperity Party in 1983. Effectively sidelined by Motherland’s dominance during the next decade, Prosperity did not enjoy notable success until 1994, when several of its candidates became mayors of major municipalities—including Erdogan in Istanbul. Building on those victories, Prosperity outperformed all the other parties in national elections the following year. Though the party didn’t receive enough votes to form a government on its own, Erbakan was able to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement whereby he would rotate as the prime minister with Tansu Çiller of the True Path Party. But as Findley writes, “His inflammatory rhetoric and idiosyncratic, Islamic-themed policy ventures alienated interests as far apart as the military high command and the leader of the branch of the Naksibendiye with which he had once been affiliated.” Thus, in 1997, after Erbakan had been in office just over a year, the army intervened once again and compelled him to resign. The following year, Prosperity was banned, as its two predecessors had been.

Erbakan re-emerged with the Virtue Party, which was banned in 2001, and again with the Felicity Party, which is still in operation. But he was never able to reclaim a central position in Turkish politics. His former lieutenants, on the other hand, are now running the country. After Prosperity was banned, and after Erdogan served a ten-month jail sentence for reading an incendiary poem at a rally, he and other ex-Prosperity “innovators” broke with Erbakan and formed AKP.

Many Turkish secularists (and many in the West) refuse to believe that AKP is at heart any different from Prosperity. They insist that its moderation is a sham, designed to keep the prosecutors and the army at bay, and that in secret it pursues a radical Islamist agenda. But as Findley notes, there is no reason to think so. If anything, AKP seems to be responding to the Turkish electorate, which in recent years has been concerned primarily with “employment, the economy, and inflation, not religion. Almost all of those surveyed [in 2002] believed in God, but the proportion who went to mosque once a week (23 percent) was lower than that of those who never or rarely went (30 percent). Equally high proportions believed that women university students should be free to cover their heads (78 percent) but opposed a sharia-based state in Turkey (75 percent). It is no wonder,” he concludes, “that the political scientists who study the AK Party seldom share the fear, voiced by some…that it will turn Turkey into an ‘Islamic republic.’ ”

“Organizationally,” Findley concedes, AKP may be “a descendant of Erbakan’s Islamist parties.” But “in vision, quality of leadership, and breadth of support,” it “more nearly recalls Özal’s Motherland Party of the 1980s.” This is a profound observation, to which I would add: it also recalls Menderes and the Democrats of the 1950s. All three parties have demonstrated that (as Findley says of the more recent two) “religious conservatives’ greatest political successes have come, not with narrowly religious movements, but with center-rightist parties able to appeal to business interests as well as ‘values voters.’” This has been by far the most successful political strategy in Turkey for the past sixty years. None but these three parties have appealed to a broad enough demographic to construct a strong and long-lasting single-party government. In the periods between their rules—the 1960s, the ’70s and the late ’90s and early 2000s—Turkey was governed predominantly by unstable and ineffective coalitions, and each period ended in economic crisis and military intervention. The fact that AKP’s government is the most religious of the three recent single-party governments is neither coincidental nor revolutionary. Each successive single-party government has been more openly religious than the last because at each stage the religious current has figured out how better to “mainstream” itself, while the secular current has grown more accepting. But at no point has religion been the key factor. It is only when religious parties have embraced more-or-less liberal economic principles—which stand in stark contrast to Kemalism’s rigid (and elitist) statism—that they have enjoyed notable success.

The brilliance of Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity lies in its conception and thesis, which are novel and incisive. It is hampered by Findley’s tendency to abstraction and the cant of academic theory, as well as a somewhat shambolic structure, which at times makes his argument hard to track. His discussion of the secularizing current is clear enough, as one would expect: this ground is well trod. But his discussion of the religious current is episodic and unconnected. He provides an adequate précis of several Islamist thinkers and the movements to which they gave birth, but he does not demonstrate how their ideologies influenced political actors or society. This is not necessarily Findley’s fault: these topics are not well studied; there is little material upon which to draw. But knowing that, he would have done better to advance his argument in pithier, more focused form, instead of shoehorning it into a synthetic history of modern Turkey. By trying to accomplish both goals at once, he does justice to neither.

I fear that because of his overreaching, Findley’s book will fail to find a large audience. That would be a shame, because his argument is a necessary and timely corrective to the prevailing wisdom. Against the secularist narrative—in which a Kemalist elite forged the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into a modern nation-state, and then led it willy-nilly out of Islamic obscurantism into the light of Western civilization—Turkey’s recent developments seem aberrant and atavistic. But they are neither. Rather, as Findley has shown, they are merely the latest stage in a long-running evolution, the newest steps of a proud but factious people making its way in the world.

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