May 9, 2007
The Relative Stablity of TurkeyBy J.R. Dunn
Nicolas Sarkozy’s triumph was not the only good news for the resurgant West this past
weekend. The Islamists also suffered a setback in Turkey, by way of the May 5 announcement by Abdullah Gul, the fundamentalists' favorite candidate, that he will no longer seek election as prime minister. For this we have to thank a man who has been dead for seventy years.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was one of the most fascinating, impressive, and unlikely figures of the past century. A Muslim from birth who became a champion of the secular state, a dictator who established the sole working democracy in the Muslim world, an ascetic visionary who died of complications of alcoholism, Kemal deserves to be much better known than he is. He accomplished with Turkey what many insist even today is an impossibility: dragging a battered, defeated, nearly medieval Muslim state into the modern era by main force, and without the wholesale brutality demonstrated by nearly all other nationalist leaders of his era.
No one seeing Kemal in the years prior to WW I would have expected anything of the sort. He was an army officer who had aroused the suspicions of the ruling triumvirate of the Young Turks - Djemal, Enver, and Talat. Few ever survived such suspicions, and Kemal might have suffered the same fate if he hadn't spent much of his time outside the country.
During WWI, Kemal played a crucial role in the Battle of Gallipoli as a divisional commander. It was largely through his efforts that the British landing was contained and at last turned back. He led from the front, at one point making his way alone into the center of no man's land before giving the signal to attack.
He later served in the Caucasus, fighting the Russians. He had nothing to do with the Armenian massacres, instigated by the vicious and paranoid Djemal Pasha. At the end of the war he was commanding an army on the Palestine front. He escaped Edmund Allenby's breakthrough at Megiddo, keeping most of his command intact. Retreating to Aleppo, he reorganized and succeeded in holding the British at the border of Anatolia, on the line that still exists as the frontier between Turkey and Syria.
Turkey was now a defeated empire, facing occupation and partition by the Allies, who had decided to solve the longstanding Turkish Question by eliminating Turkey itself. The discredited Young Turks had fled, leaving a power vacuum. Kemal began organizing a Turkish national movement to resist the occupiers. Fleeing to Anatolia just ahead of an execution order, he set up a government at Ankara, the new parliament first sitting in April 1920. The sultan's government in Istanbul effectively lost legitimacy after signing the Treaty of Sevres, which agreed to Allied occupation of Anatolia. Kemal immediately picked up the reins.
Allied forces moved against Kemal, attacking on no less than three fronts. Kemal allowed them to advance within fifty miles of Ankara before striking. The three-week long battle of Sakarya in August-September 1921 turned back the Greek army. After a diplomatic blitz which persuaded the French and Italians to withdraw their support from the occupation, Kemal routed the British-backed Greek forces at Dumlipinar on August 30, 1922. Within weeks all foreign forces had fled the country.
Kemal now began the reform of Turkish society from top to bottom. He effectively dismissed the sultan, ending centuries of Ottoman rule. In the sultan's place, he set up a representative government, with the balance of power resting in the parliament. He completely severed relations between government and Islam, insisting on secularism as the basis of the new Turkey. Kemal was so insistent on democratic forms that he not once but twice founded opposition parties to serve as competition for his own Republican People's Party.
His actions reached deep into the daily lives of the Turks. He banned the fez, internationally recognized as the symbol of Turkey, on the grounds that modern nations wore modern hats. He liberalized the dietary laws, particularly as involved alcohol. (He himself was grievously addicted to raki, the Turkish national liquor.) He was an adamant proponent of the rights of women. Two of his adopted daughters pioneered new roles for women in Turkish society. Afet Inan became a professor of sociology at a time when few women in the West held such positions. Sabiha Gokcen joined the Turkish air force and became the world's first female combat pilot.
Some of these changes went down with difficulty in a traditionalist society for centuries kept in ignorance and isolation. Several revolts occurred, the most serious of them a 1925 religious revolt triggered by Sheik Said Piran in the guise of a Kurdish nationalist uprising. But no one else joined the rebels and they were defeated in a little over a month.
Kemal had an easy solution for such throwbacks - he had them shot. But as ruthless as he could be in defense of his vision of a new Turkey, he never approached the excesses committed by other nationalist leaders of the period. He considered Mussolini and Stalin to be thugs, and Hitler no better than a maniac.
Kemal's drinking caught up with him at last in November 1938, when he died of cirrhosis. He was succeeded by his comrade-in-arms and chosen successor Ismet Inonu, who continued his reforms. Kemal today is known today as "Ataturk", Father of Turks. He remains a legend among the Turks, a combination of Washington, Pericles, and Suleiman. The Kemalist state endures to this day, the oldest governmental institution in the Islamic world.
One of the things that has preserved it is an odd and unique system of checks and balances in which the army acts as the guarantor of the Turkish state. If extremism or corruption of any sort threatens the state, the army intercedes. It generally does not take over governing on its own, but stabilizes the situation and makes way for a new civilian government. It has on several occasions overthrown rulers it considers to be fundamentalist, the last time occurring in 1997, when the army forced Necmettin Erbakan out of office. This is not a procedure anyone would wish to import or encourage, but it has unquestionably worked to keep Turkey a democratic nation. While Kemal himself would probably have disapproved, it cannot be denied that the process grew directly out of the Kemalist system.
This is what stymied Abdullah Gul on April 27. The army expressed its displeasure with Gul's Islamist inclinations and policies, and clearly implied he would not be allowed to take office. Gul has obviously thought the better of his ambitions. While this is far from what we would call democratic, it's possible to disapprove while still retaining the ability to appreciate the results - this is, after the Middle East, where worse happens every hour. Turning respect for democracy and its forms into what amounts to an ideology accomplishes nothing and succeeds nowhere. (Anyone who doubts this is invited to look at the current situation in the Palestinian Authority.) We can say with some confidence that Turkey will not go Islamist anytime soon - and that's a good day's work by anyone's measure.
The Islamists have been stymied by the hand of a dead legend reaching out of the past. Think about that when the war appears to have gone on too long and the defeatists are all you can hear and a Jihadi victory appears inescapable. There are currents beneath the surface that are operating in ways that we cannot even begin to fathom, and not all of them are operating against us. History keeps its own counsel, and makes no one any promises. Mustafa Kemal, the soldier who salvaged a nation, would be the first to agree.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.