Turkey: Crossroads at a Crossroads

October 20, 2010 § Leave a comment


A few months ago a friend of mine urged me to read “The New Turkish Republic” by Graham Fuller.  I checked it out of the library, read it , and Turkey, a country that never before held any fascination for me, has been lurking in the recesses of my brain ever since.  I don’t expect that my friends, mostly political malcontents like me, share this interest.   So, I will understand if they don’t care to invest time in these thoughts.

The Crossroads

Geography makes Turkey a crossroads.  It lies at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean  Its Western edge borders the Dardanelles, the narrow water passage from the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.  North of that passage, also bordered by Turkey, is the Bosporus, the strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.  In other words, Turkey controls a major means of maritime commerce for Russia and several former members of the USSR.

Turkey shares borders with Iran, Iraq, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Syria.  It currently has an ongoing conflict with Greece over a slice of Cyprus, occupied by a substantial Turkic population that wants to secede from Greece and join Turkey.  It also has a bitter, and occasionally violent conflict with a group, the PKK,  from  the oil-rich Kurdish portion of Eastern Iraq, that wants to break off from Iraq and form a separate nation with the Kurdish minority population of Turkey.

The commercial and ethnic results of this geography, as well as the Turkic culture and language that Turkey shares with several nations in the Balkans, Asia Minor and Russia makes Turkey a crossroads.  Turkey’s recent history, especially its relationship with the industrialized nations of Europe and its pending application for membership in the EU, pose a set of choices that face Turkey with internal political conflicts that are, as yet, unresolved.  Thus, it seems to me that Turkey is at a metaphorical as well as a geographical crossroads.  The path it chooses will,, I think, have significant consequences for the United States and several other nations, both in Europe and in the Middle East.

Turkish Traditions and History

In 1950, David Reisman and two co-authors published a book entitled “The Lonely Crowd”.  Reisman, a lawyer, law school teacher and  sociologist, presented three classifications for categorizing people:  Tradition directed; inner directed and other directed.   Tradition directed people pattern their lives according to some external set of mores, such as religions, philosophies, military traditions.   Inner directed people craft their own,  individual,  set of values based on their experiences and informed judgments.  Other directed people are driven by their need for the approval of others.  They measure their own worth according to their acceptance by others.  [Sinclare Lewis savagely satirized this type in “Babbit”, a salesman whose goal in life was to be “well liked”.  Lewis’ novel was published in 1922.]

Reisman  felt that tradition directed people were handicapped because they could not easily adapt to changing technologies and environments.   He believed that a population of other directed people was unlikely to produce creative and innovative leaders and that a culture dominated by this type would be vulnerable to manipulation by economic interests with access to mass media technology.  He plainly favored the inner directed class.

Reading about Turkey reminded me of these ideas.  I don’t think current Turkish foreign policy and domestic political conflicts can be understood without some attention to the historic ebb and flow of tradition-directed culture, based on religion,  that has affected Turkish people for more than fifteen centuries.  To do so would be like trying to understand modern Texas culture and politics without some knowledge of the Alamo, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Vietnam war and the closing of the frontier near the beginning of the 20th Century.  Past events may not dictate the outcomes of current events but, like a movie’s  background music , they affect and give emotional tone to those events.  And, for tradition-directed people, that music is like Ravel’s Bolero.  Inner-directed people look forward.   Tradition-directed people look backward.  Those are significant differences.

I have identified five historic figures and events that seem to me related to the choices that confront present-day Turkey:  The reign of Constantine the Great;  the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the capture of Constantinople; the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I; the advent of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; and the September 10, 2010, approval of several amendments to the Turkish constitution.

Constantine The Great

Flavius Valerius Constantinus was the illegitimate son of Constantius., a Roman military leader.   His mother was Helena, a barmaid and his father’s concubine. Constantinus received little formal education and became a soldier early in his life.  He fought in an army commanded by Galerius, a Roman general,  and, later, in an army led by his father.  In 306, when his father died in battle, the troops, fiercely loyal to both the father and the son, proclaimed Constantinus emperor.  He declined that title, but accepted the title of Caesar.

For reasons not pertinent to this story, a bitter rivalry developed between Constantinus and another Roman military leader, Maxentius.  This rivalry culminated in 312, at the  Battle of the Milvian Bridge  at Saxa Rubra (red rocks) located in Italy, nine miles from Rome.

The afternoon before the battle, Constantinus looked up at the sky and saw a flaming cross and the Greek words en toutoi nika (in this sign conquer).  He responded by ordering his troops to mark their shields with an X with a line curling around the top, a symbol of Christ.  He also marched his troops into the battle behind a standard featuring that  symbol.

Constantinus won the battle and, convinced that he had benefited from the alliance with Christ, he converted to Christianity.   He then, joined by Licinius, another Roman general,  issued the Edict of Milan, ordering the end of Christian persecution and  the restoration of all property confiscated from Christians.

During the next few years, conflict developed between Constantinus and Lucinus.  This ended with a series of military victories by Constantinus.  He became more and more committed to Christianity and finally asked all his countrymen to join him in that faith.  He moved the capitol of the Empire from Rome to Constantinople, assumed the title of Emperor Constantine the Great and effectively established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Constantine was responsible for another major development in the early history of Christianity.   A year after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, a serious schism arose among Christian bishops.   Some argued that Christ was like God but not of God’s substance. Others were outraged at that idea because the “consubstantiality” of God and Christ was central to the theology of the church.  Constantine tried to settle the argument with a letter but that failed.  He then convened a council of bishops at Bithynian Nicaea.  318 bishops attended.  After long and contentious argument, a majority agreed to the “Nicaean Creed” which began “We believe in the Father Almighty, maker of all things . . . .” which, with some  later modification, is recited in Protestant church services throughout the world every Sunday.  Nineteen bishops dissented, but the majority prevailed and the schism ended.

These events, that affected most of Europe and Asia Minor, are part of Turkey’s history.  They are probably as well known to Turkish citizens as the American Revolution is familiar to Americans.  I assume knowledge of these events, in much greater detail than I have recorded here, is part of Turkish culture.

[As a sidebar:  There are some Christians who believe that Christianity, theretofore a radical movement, subversive of all governmental institutions, Jewish as well as Roman, was itself subverted and co-opted by Constantine’s governmental embrace, an unfortunate event from which it never recovered.  This view is not shared by the Roman Catholic Church, which regards Constantine as one of its greatest heroes, a circumstance which tends to confirm the opinion of the aforementioned Christians.]

The Advent of  Islam and the Ottoman Empire

Mohammed was born in 570.  He was a warrior prophet, fought in battles against rival Arab tribes and against Jews who challenged him or offended his followers,  suffered many wounds, dictated the Koran and founded Islam.  He was a student of both Judaism and Christianity, required his followers to honor both the Old and New Testaments and taught that Abraham, Moses and Jesus were prophets inspired by God.  He taught that he was another, and the last such prophet.  He taught, however, that there was only one God, Allah and he firmly rejected the notion that Christ was both man and God. 

Mohammed died June 7, 632, at the age of 62.  He did not name a successor, an omission that has resulted in millions of deaths as Shia and Sunni Muslims pr ove their devotion to Islam by maiming and  killing each other.

After Constantine’s death, the Christian church split into a Greek empire centered in Constantinople and a Latin empire centered in Roma.

During the next eight centuries,these three competing religions, Islam, Latin Christianity  and Greek Christianity  fought over a vast territory stretching from Spain to Western Europe to Asia Minor and the Balkans.

The two Christian theocracies shared many core beliefs but they differed about the nature of Christ.  The papacy in Rome insisted that Christ was both God and man.  The emperor in Constantinople believed that Christ was divine but that his divinity came from God in the form of the Holy Spirit,  thus dodging the charge that Christianity was not monotheistic.  The Roman pope finally excommunicated the emperor in Constantinople.  That ended the negotiations.

The hostility between these two Christian sects intensified in 1204 when, during the 4th Crusade, on their way to confronting the Saracens at Jerusalem, the Crusaders attacked Constantinople and sacked the city.   The Latin forces occupied Constantinople for fifty years, until 1266, when the Byzantine Empire was allowed to resume control over some of its lost territory, including the city.    The strength of the Byzantine Empire was, however, waning and in  1453, Constantinople fell to Islam and the Ottoman Turks.

This Ottoman Empire had humble beginnings indeed.  In 1243, Mongols swept across Asia Minor and attacked Seljuk Turks in the Muslim Sultanate of Rum, located just East of the present Eastern boundary of Turkey.  The Seljuks were no match for the Mongols and the Sultanate fell apart.  A Turk named Othman and his family, who herded cattle for a living, owned a tiny plot of land near the west edge of the Bosperos that they managed to retain.   They were apparently a resourceful group because, after prevailing in some skirmishes with adjoining clans, they and successor members of their clan proceeded to expand their holdings and hegemony into an empire that included all of Turkey, the Balkans, most of the former Byzantine Empire and were finally stopped at the gates of Vienna and Paris, thus prevented from annexing Eastern Europe.  As  stated, in 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and effectively ended the Byzantine Empire.

To summarize:  This war torn period of history,was driven by intense theological arguments.  It  featured the advent and violent expansion of Islam,  five Crusades, the conquest of Byzantium by the Ottoman Turks, as well as  internecine conflicts between warring Christian groups.   There were intermittent periods of mutual toleration but they did not last.   It is not clear whether greed, egos or true belief that conflict was required by devotion to ones faith impelled people to return to killing each other.  Sam Harris argues, in “The End of Faith”, that religion has become unacceptable because, in this time of nuclear weapons and other such horrific threats, religion is simply too prone to the incitement of violence and potentially planet-ending destruction.  He makes a strong case but he does not suggest any way to accomplish his goal of eradicating religion.  History does lend credence to his contention that religion more often leads to war than to peace.

Regardless of these issues, it is plain that Turkey was fully engaged in all of these events and it seems reasonable to assume that this history became a significant influence on Turkish culture.

The End of the Ottoman Empire

In December 1914, the Ottoman Empire made a bad bet.  It joined the “Central Powers” led by Germany as World War I began.  For several years before that, Germany had made substantial efforts to ally itself with the Ottomans as a means of establishing favorable trade relations with North African portions of the Empire as well as realizing the German dream of a “Berlin to Baghdad Railway”.   In addition, although I have not seen or read evidence to support this, I suspect that the French, Dutch and British colonial powers were generally hated or, at least distrusted,  in the part of the world occupied by the Ottomans.

Regardless of the reasons, the choice of entering the war on the side of Germany proved to be the death knell for the Ottoman Empire.  The Treaty of Sevres reduced the “Empire” to the area that comprises present-day Turkey.  In addition, Greece was granted some ill-defined rights to some territory around the Aegean Sea claimed by Turkey.

These claims of Greece led to a bitter war for two years between Greece and Turkey, a war won by a Turkish army led by Kemal Ataturk, a former Ottoman military officer.  The war began in 1919, lasted for two years and was finally ended in 1922.   The massacre of Greek civilians by Turkish troops  left scars of hostility that have out-lived the war.  The war did help launch the political career of Ataturk, who assumed leadership of an effort begun earlier by a group of  former Ottoman military men nick-named “The Young Turks”.

Kemal Ataturk

In the 1930’s, 40’s  and 50’s  a journalist named John Gunther served in Bob Woodward’s present role.   Like Woodward, John Gunther interviewed everyone of consequence and then wrote books about what he learned.  He wrote a series of  “Inside” books:   “Inside Europe”, “Inside Asia” and “Inside USA”.  He updated these books and sometimes re-wrote them as second editions.  In the 1938 edition of “Inside Europe” Gunther entitled a chapter about Ataturk “The Turkish Colossus”.  He began the chapter with this description of Ataturk”  “The blond, blue eyed combination of patriot and psychopath is the dictator of Turkey. . . .”  In the 1961 edition he added “ruthless” to his “psychopath” diagnosis.

Following his victory over the Greeks, Ataturk, with the support of a military group known as the “Young Turks”, became the absolute ruler of Turkey.   His administration was characterized by a degree of micro-managed control of the Turkish people that far surpassed anything that had occurred when the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire had ruled Turkey.

Ataturk’s goal was to destroy all vestiges of Muslim theocracy, including every personal habit and custom associated with Islam.  He, like Peter the Great in Russia, was determined to convert Turkey into a Western European style country.  [As I write this I am struck at how similar this notion is to the neo-con fantasy about Iraq as  a future Vermont situated in the Middle East.]  Ataturk was nothing if not thorough.  Here is Gunther’s description of post-Ataturk Turkey:  “He has abolished the fez, turned the mosques into granaries, Latinised the language.  He has ended polygamy, installed new legal codes, and experimented with a (paying) casino in the sultan’s palace.  He compulsorily disinfected  all the buildings in Istanbul, adopted the Gregorian calendar and metric system, and took the first census in Turkish history.  He cut political holidays down to three, demanded physical examination of those about to marry, and built a new capital, Ankara, in the Anatolian highlands, replacing proud Constantinople.  He limited most business activity to Turkish nationals and Turkish firms, abolished books of magic, and gave every Turk a new last name.  He emancipated women (more or less), tossed the priests into the discard, and superintended the writing of a new history of the world proving that Turkey is the source of all civilization.”

Ataturk died in 1938.  During his lifetime and continuing to the present time, the  zealous secularization of Turkey was backed and enforced by the Turkish army.   There are practical reasons for this.  Throughout this period of time, the West and, in particular, the United States was the source of superior military weapons and military training.   In order to use efficiently this technology and expertise,  changes in infrastructure were necessary.   Young men had to be educated in ways that equipped them with the skills necessary to use western armament.   An alphabet, language and a system of measurement different from those used in the West were obstacles to this efficiency.  Hostility toward western ways and culture, based on religious teachings was contrary to the desire of  military leaders to cooperate with and benefit from the technology and expertise available from the United States.

Under Ataturk’s leadership a system was put in place that empowered the judiciary to declare that a political party or leadership was inimical to the national policy of secularization and to order the abolition of the party.  As a result military coups were judicially   legitimized and courts came to be perceived as mere arms of the military, without accountability to the elected representatives in the parliament.

Criminal justice was swift and brutal under Ataturk.  John Gunther describes one incident following a 1926 botched attempt on Ataturk’s life.  After the would-be assassins and all others who were suspected of supporting the attempt had been arrested, Ataturk threw a champagne party at his lonely farm house located in a small village near Ankara.  When the guests returned home at dawn they found saw the corpses of the alleged plotters hanging in the town square.

One of the weirdest episodes during Ataturk’s administration occurred when he became curious about whether western-type democracy would work.   He ordered a group of men to form an opposition faction in parliament and to oppose the measures he proposed.  Understandably, the hapless group of faux opponents were reluctant to play their assigned roles.  The experiment did not work and Ataturk abandoned it.   Ataturk apparently lacked the imagination that inspired George Orwell’ s 1984, in which both “Big Brother” and the dreaded opposition were part of the same ruling authority.

The September 10, 2010 Constitutional Amendments

Led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish people approved a series of amendments to the Turkish constitution on September 10, 2010.  These changes amount to a major reaction against the zealous secularization forced on Turkey by Kemal Ataturk.  They do not amount to a reversion to an Islamic theocracy.

The  amendments effectively ended the military domination of the elected agents of government and the use of the judiciary to empower that domination.  The secularization of Turkey mandated by Ataturk was enforced by the right of the military to intervene and abolish any political party or group that, in the opinion of the military, veered too close to Islam and the restoration of a country in which Muslims could practice their religion and abide by its customs without governmental interference.

Over a period of fifty or sixty years, this system led to repeated military coups that were legitimized by the judiciary.  Consequently, the courts came to be perceived as agents of the military rather than protectors of civilian rights.  The September amendments aimed directly at this issue and sought to free  the elected parliament and the judiciary from military supervision of the military.   I have not found an English language version of the amendments but Reuters has posted a summary of them written by a couple of staff reporters.  [ See http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE68B28B2010091%5D  In addition to the reorganization of the judiciary, the amendments authorize the wearing of the head scarfs favored by devout Muslims.  The limits on military authority are topped of f with an authorization for the prosecution of the military personnel who engineered the coup of 1980 for the deaths and physical abuse of the Turks who opposed the coup.

As stated, I have not been able to find an English language text of the amendments, but I have read the constitution which they amended.  It was crafted by the military or agents acting at its direction.  It is 55 pages long and, so far as concerns limitations on executive power, guarantees of individual and political rights, and provision for what we understand to be “due process”,  it is a joke.  It is also a cynical joke.  It is replete with descriptions of rights, but every section that begins by granting a right closes with a proviso that the right can be suspended or denied if circumstances make the exercise of  the right inappropriate.   And those in charge of deciding whether the right is or is not denied or suspended are not independent judges with lifetime tenure.  They are agents of the executive branch of the government.

I have read several accounts and comments on the September 10 amendments.   The comments from Turkish commentators are either favorable, if they support limits on secularization and greater degrees of popular control of government; or unfavorable, if their judgment is based on fear that Islam is moving toward re-establishing control of Turkey and loyalty to the teachings of Kemal Ataturk.  There are two comments that I regard as both well informed and generally unbiased.   One is a blog by Max Fisher, a writer for Atlantic Magazine. [http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/when-islamism-is-liberal-democratic/62902/]   The other is an article in The Economist by an un-named staff writer.[ http://www.economist.com/blogs/newsbook/2010/09/turkeys_constitutional_referendum%5D

Both of these writers opine that the amendments represent a substantial move toward a more representative government and do not presage a return to Islamic theocracy.   They do hint that the adoption of the amendments probably means that Turkey will be more independent of influence by the United States, but not necessarily hostile.  This is not interpreted as a result of the amendments, but rather further confirmation of a trend that has been developing since at least 2003, when the Turkish parliament  refused to allow the US military to use Turkey as a launching pad for the invasion of Iraq.

It is encouraging to me that the citizens of  Turkey have, at last, moved away from an autocratic system that had them living inside a fence, guarded by military dogs to see that they remained docile and obedient to whatever the army thought was appropriate.  I am glad they have muzzled the dogs and started tearing down the fence.  If they want to wear fezes,  pray 5 times a day and believe that Allah is the only “true God”, that’s ok with me so long as they don’t go crazy about the Koran’s promise that every Muslim who dies while killing infidels goes to a hereafter populated by lusty virgins.  I assume that a pagan qualifies as an infidel, so I have a personal interest in that issue.

Concluding Thoughts

The part of this story that interested me was the extent to which Turkey has been a center of Reisman’s tradition-directed culture since at least the 4th century.  It seems obvious to me that the people who lived in Turkey for the past sixteen or seventeen hundred years have been either committed to Latin Christianity, Greek Christianity or Islam.  And that commitment has not been merely a matter of individual devotion to a set of religious principles, but has been woven into every aspect of their lives because their church was identical with their government.  They were not Christians who lived in Turkey, they were Christian Turks or Muslim Turks.  One history book I looked at claimed that when Christ’s divinity was an issue between the Greek church and the Roman church, the operators of Turkish baths in Constantinople could be heard arguing about it as they worked.

So, given this history, it made no sense to me that Kemal Ataturk could really change the brains of the Turks so that they would no longer  think of themselves as Muslims, shed their religion along with their fezes and become western men and women without religious commitment   Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutiions, describes how persistently scientists, professionally trained to look at reality without cultural bias and with impersonal detachment, cling to a theory long after it is demonstrated to be flawed or false; how they contrive ingenious modifications and alternatives to attach to the outmoded theory  to preserve its viability.  If scientists cannot be persuaded by proof, how much harder must it be for religiously committed people to abandon on command their religion, the source of their “inner direction”?

I think the recent history of Turkey, culminating in the adoption of the constitutional amendments, is proof that, while the threat of punishment or death may be able to stop people from openly practicing the source of their inner direction, it does not extinguish that source. Like an ember in a dying fire, it requires only an encouraging puff to reignite.

I  believe that Ataturk’s effort was successful only in a limited way.  He did succeed in ridding Turkey of a moribund and corrupt system of government that was obstructing progress.  That required brute force and boldness.  He had plenty of that.  He could count on the enthusiastic support of the army because the army wanted to be rid of the religious constraints imposed by an Islamic state.  I think it was inevitable, however, that a popular reaction would finally occur because he tried to uproot a tradition that was too old and embedded in too much history.

Because of the way American media presents Islam, it is counter intuitive for us to equate a national grant of more influence to Islam as a move toward popular democracy.  In the case of Turkey, however, I think it is true.  Ataturk’s secularization campaign was implemented in ways that were inimical to democracy.  It seems obvious to me that the reaction to that implementation was a move toward more democracy and popular control.  I have not read of Turkey’s abandonment of its effort to join the European Union although, at present, that effort seems to be stalled, not at the behest of Turkey but because of opposition from France.

It is possible that the more devout elements of Turkish Muslims will try to push Turkey toward more hostility toward the West and, in particular, the United States.  I am hopeful that the intelligence of Obama’s foreign policies will make that unlikely.  I dislike it, but the truth is that we are still a source for the most modern and technologically sophisticated arms available.  That, if nothing else, will probably enable us to maintain friendly relations with Turkey.

The most hopeful, and I think possible, outcome of the recent developments in Turkey will be realized if Turkey proves to be a willing and effective arbiter between the U.S. and other Muslim countries in the Middle East, especially Iran.  Turkey may actually become what the neo-con’s promised for Iraq:  a shining example of a democratic Muslim state.

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