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July 13, 2012, Friday

Turkey’s long century and Westerners

Serious analytical skills and a lot of work are required for a good understanding of Turkey.

 I am saying this to the foreign readers of this column. From outside, if you do not expend particular efforts to properly read what has been going on in Turkey in the last century, and specifically in the last decade, your job will not be easy. Mostly, analyses of Turkey go through a filtering process involving colonial clichés about Islam and secularism. But this has to stop now.

This also applies to those who live in Turkey when they make analyses of the West. Most of the time, our assessments and views of other peoples and nations are based on information generated by others. For instance, there has always been a categorical view in Turkey on the West. This perspective is an anomaly inherited from the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which got Turkey into World War I when it was about to lose the entire Anatolian region. You could see this categorical view in CUP’s toppling of Sultan Abdulhamid II. In contrast, his point of view was shaped by the concept of raison d’état. In the fierce competition and struggle to carve up the world in the 19th century, he was reasonable enough to determine what had to be done to protect his soil, even though he massacred the Armenians. It is possible to say that he interpreted European politics better than CUP and took advantage of the rows and disagreements between Western states. For instance, Abdulhamid (of course because he was not a democrat) attempted to deal with the Eastern question, created by minorities in the East agitating for greater rights, by repressing the Armenians rather than honoring their demands. However, unlike CUP, he did not consider completely annihilating the Armenians. He was a sultan who believed in Ottomanism. It could be said that if he had not been toppled in the 1908 uprising, the 1915 disaster would not have been experienced, preferences would have been different in the World War I and Turkey would be completely different now. But because this is speculation, allow me to steer away from the boundaries of further anachronism.

A new state modeled on Western design

Naturally, the model in the minds of Mustafa Kemal and his associates who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923 was based on the Western model, which pleased Westerners. An empire that had been a source of trouble to the West for six centuries had collapsed, and the West played a decisive role in this. The state that replaced this empire dismissed its Ottoman past and declared it would be modeled on the Western design. Mustafa Kemal, who stood against Islam through a Jacobin approach of secularism, abolished the Caliphate and monarchy, introduced the Latin alphabet and recognized women’s suffrage even before the European states. While all this were happening, the West felt they had conquered the remnants of an Oriental empire. This came as confirmation of the Western paradigm, indicating that civilization was not something the lazy, savage Easterners would ever achieve. They could be tamed or they could be subjects of civilization imitating the West.

That was exactly what the Kemalists also thought. They were pro-Western, but the people were Oriental. They had created a new state, but the people were backward. In order to save them, they would have to be recreated. This was the worst part of what was done because the people did not want to be detached from their past, beliefs and traditions. Religion (Islam) was a source of trouble. The non-Muslims were no longer a threat, but what should they do with the Muslims, Kurds and Alevis?

Relying on the power and authority they were enjoying as well as the advantages associated with the state, they started a process of destruction they called a revolution. Historical experience and the values of the people were ignored and destroyed. Non-Muslims were wiped out; multicultural richness was destroyed; religious orders were banned; religious leaders and opinion makers were humiliated; and the people were asked to endorse what was done. Several leading Islamic scholars such as İskilipli Atıf Hoca were executed. Others, like Said Nursi, were sent into exile. Throughout the entire 20th century, Islam was presented as the number-one threat.

Of course, this top-down, artificial project would not work. As a result of this colonial-style rule, the Turks, Kurds, Sunnis and Alevis became distant to each other; they even thought that the crimes committed by the deep state were committed by each other. I am not saying these groups did not join in the commission of these crimes and that they should be completely exonerated. But, under the strong influence and pressure of the state, there was no option for the people but to comply with what they were told or to join in the commission of these crimes because the state showed it could be extremely brutal to people who tried to defend justice. We are talking about type of fascism that killed a prime minister and two ministers in the aftermath of the 1960 coup.

Naturally, free will and strong opposition have never been determiners in this country. The state was so skillful and talented in permeating these circles that over time it has become apparent that the many people we knew as strong opponents were actually intelligence agents. Many famous leaders known to be revolutionary or leftist are now known to have had ties to the deep state. Some of them have even been brought to justice in connection with investigation into Ergenekon and other coup attempts.

For these reasons, it may not be easy for Westerners, with their outsider perspective, to understand the radical democratic moves and progress made in this country since the early 2000s by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which has Islamist roots. This stems from modern-positivist prejudices vis-à-vis religious people as well as a lack of information and knowledge on the sociopolitical history of Turkey.

In lieu of a conclusion, let me say this: The only structure that was able to stand against Kemalism was a group of religious people and a handful of liberals. Kemalism was able to transform most groups but it failed to defeat Islam. For this reason, those religious people who did not want to stay at the periphery anymore went through a process of self-criticism in consideration of post-Bush global conjecture. Why should they live under Kemalist pressure in a country in which they were the majority? They concluded that they had suffered in this way because they were not sufficiently democratic. They had held views similar to those of the Kemalists, they had categorically viewed the West and the US as evil, they had failed to practice influential politics and they had remained radical; for these reason, the Kemalists were able to offer the argument: “Look. Our project is proper and well-grounded; these are the people who oppose us.”

I hope to continue from here later.

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