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Jerusalem Center: Between Atatürk’s Secularism and Fundamentalist Islam

From the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk founded a modern democratic state by forging the entirely unprecedented notion in the Islamic world of a secular Turkish identity. Moreover, this identity was to be based on the Western notion of loyalty to a geographic entity rather than religious solidarity.

Today there is an internal battle among Turkish Muslims between forces that want to be part of the Western world and those that want to return Turkey’s political identity to be based primarily on Islamic solidarity. But it isn’t Ottoman Islam that these Islamist Turks seek to revive. Their Islam is more in tune with the fanatically anti-Western principles of Saudi Wahhabi Islam.

It is not clear whether the present government of Turkey really cares to be part of the EU. Thus, when European leaders insist that Turkey has no place in Europe, they may be playing into the hands of the Islamist forces in Turkey who can say, in effect, “The EU is a Christian club which will never accept us, so we need to look elsewhere, to our Muslim brothers.”

In addition, American involvement has not always proven helpful. The U.S. attempted to reach out to radical leaders in a mistaken belief that they were forces of moderate Islam, thus inadvertently granting them legitimacy.

If a moderate form of Turkish Islam is to be revived, it must stand up to the onslaught of Wahhabism and the temptations of Islamism.

Inventing the Modern Turkish Identity

In the nineteenth century, Ottoman Turks borrowed the Arabic word watan, to signify loyalty to the geographic entity called the Ottoman Empire. Until that time, the word at most conjured in people’s minds the very local place where someone was born. The definition of identify defined by place and language is a European concept – not an Islamic or Middle Eastern one. In the Middle East, identity is defined by religion and then by genealogy, which can become ethnicity. The Ottomans were attempting to instill the Western concept of loyalty to a geographic entity into the minds of the people under Ottoman rule. It was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, who created a Turkish identity – a loyalty to a land – from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. It is he and his associates who set Turkey on the road to democracy.

After the Turkish war of independence, which ended in 1923, arguments ensued about what to call the new country. By choosing to call the country “Turkey” and its citizens “Turks,” who were clearly the most numerous ethnic group in this country, Atatürk and his followers unwittingly created a problem for non-ethnic Turks – the most numerous of whom were the Kurds – in that new country. Atatürk and his colleagues wanted the word “Turk” to mean a citizen of that country irrespective of ethnicity or religion. But the word “Turk” was also used to describe an ethnic identity which made other non-ethnic Turks unsure of their position in the state. Since they were not ethnic Turks, the confusing and double meaning of the word “Turk” – now to mean both ethnic and national identities – made some non-ethnic Turks wonder whether they could be full citizens of this new republic.

Had Atatürk named this new country “Anatolia,” the geographic/non-ethnic name for that area, this problem would probably not have arisen.(A similar problem existed in the UK. The British solved this by separating political from ethnic identity. They use the word British to connote the political identity of the country, and the terms “English,” “Scottish,” “Welsh,” and “Irish” for ethnic identity.)

The Role of the Military in Turkey

Unlike other Western countries, the military has a unique role in Turkish society. Its job is to protect the secular and democratic republic created by Atatürk. That means that when the principles of secularism are threatened or when the country descends into chaos, it is the role of the military to step in and restore order. This has been enshrined in every Turkish constitution since the founding of the republic. So it should not be surprising that every time the secular republic came under threat, the military stepped in. There have been three military coups in Turkey, but, unlike other countries, after the military acted to restore order – as required by Turkey’s constitution – it then returned to its barracks. Curiously, when Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan went too far in the late 1990s, the Turkish National Security Council military issued a 17-point ultimatum – in essence demanding that he stop Islamicizing the country. This may be the world’s first “post-modern” coup. Erbakan refused and resigned. In short, the military sees its role as to protect the republic, not to rule.

The Struggle Between Political Islam and the State

Changing the way the people of Anatolia understood themselves was truly earth-shattering. It is therefore not surprising that tensions developed between the country’s Islamic identity and the Turkish national identity. This is a battle among Turkey’s Muslims, between people who want to be part of the Western world – i.e., emphasizing their Turkish nationalist identity, and the Islamists who want to emphasize their Islamic identity as their most important political identity.

But their Islam is not the Ottoman Islam that the Islamists seek to revive. It is a version of Islam based on the principles of Wahhabism and the ideas of the fount of Wahhabism – the fanatical medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya.

To understand the difference between the relatively tolerant Ottoman Islam and Wahhabism, imagine that the Ku Klux Klan took over Texas and harnessed the state’s oil wealth to promote its radical brand of Christianity. That’s what Wahhabism is to traditional Islam. But it’s precisely that brand of Islam which is being promoted throughout the Muslim world, and which is increasingly evident in Turkey. Islam isn’t the problem; Islamism is the problem.

In the 1980s, before I was the Turkish desk officer in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, I served as an advisor on Turkish affairs to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, Richard Perle. We would visit Turkey and I would go to the bookstores of the Ministry of Religion where I would marvel at the beautifully produced, cheaply-priced books on sale there. These books were in Turkish, but many were viciously anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Israeli. The government didn’t have the money to produce such books, so it is clear that the money came from elsewhere. With time, it became clear that the funding was largely Wahhabi. But since they were in Turkish, a language few Westerners could read, Western diplomats either had no clue about what was being sold in these government bookstores or, if they did, chose to ignore the problem.

When the present Turkish government took power in November 2002, some of its advisors, when dealing with Americans, would tell us what we wanted to hear, and in our obsession with finding moderates, we allowed them to do so. One of the prime minister’s advisors insisted, “We have no Wahhabi money coming into this country.” So I asked him, “Why are all these gorgeous mosques being built all over the country in very poor areas?” He replied that local communal organizations had built them. I responded, “In the Muslim world, Wahhabi money is absolutely everywhere. You say that Turkey is one of the most important countries in the Muslim world. Isn’t it curious that Turkey is the one country that is not awash with that money?”

Political Islamification

The troubling political Islamification of Turkey has several dimensions. First, there is the matter of religious discrimination. To take but one example, between a quarter and a third of Turkey’s citizens are not Sunni Muslims but Alevis. (The term “Alevi” derives from the name “Ali,” the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, whom the Shiites and other Middle Eastern groups revere.) Alevis worship in assembly houses they call cemevis, not in mosques. The Turkish Ministry of Religion funds mosques but not cemevis, even though the Alevis use cemevis to pray. Why is the government discriminating against a quarter to a third of its citizens? When asked, senior government officials have argued that cemevis are not religious centers and therefore are not funded. Is the Sunni government trying to “de-Alevify” the Alevis and turn them into Sunnis? These same officials also claimed that Alevis engage in immoral acts. Interestingly, this is exactly what the Ottoman Sultans said about the Iranians, to whom Turkey’s present government is trying to cozy up.

Second, the EU has acted as a vehicle for the present Turkish government to advance the process of Turkey’s political Islamification. As long as Turkey retains a hope that it could be part of the EU, the military and the secular establishment are restrained from taking any action to protect the republic from the Islamists, knowing that Europe will condemn them for doing so. However, it is not clear whether the present government of Turkey, whatever it says overtly, really wants to be part of the EU. Thus, when European leaders declare that Turkey has no place in Europe, they may be unwittingly playing into the hands of the Islamist forces in Turkey who can say, in effect, “The EU is a Christian club which will never accept us, so we need to look elsewhere, to our Muslim brothers.”

Third, American involvement, well intentioned though it is, has not always proven helpful. For example, in the early 1990s, the leader of the Islamic fundamentalist party, Necmettin Erbakan, was overtly and viciously anti-Western, and very closely allied with some of the more radical forces in the Middle East. In our eternal quest to identify “moderate Muslims,” the American ambassador at the time decided to publicly meet this man, inadvertently signaling that America considered Erbakan a legitimate, moderate Muslim. That is because in Turkish culture, the fact of the meeting matters more than what is discussed at the meeting. Like it or not, the meeting was understood by the Turks to mean that the U.S. conveyed legitimacy upon Erbakan. The secular establishment in Turkey and the military were livid. That is why so many passionate secularists in Turkey felt betrayed by the West, by Europe, and by the United States. Unfortunately, our attempts to reach out to what we in the West mistakenly believe are forces of moderate Islam have alienated those most committed to Western values.

Erbakan eventually became prime minister, though with tremendous restraints. His blatant attempts to politically Islamicize Turkish society failed and his party was banned on the grounds that it sought to overthrow the secular republic that Atatürk had established. The current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a then-protégé of Erbakan, learned from that experience that only a gradualist approach had any chance of success.

Islamist Governmental Tyranny in Turkey

The present Turkish government is methodically taking over every aspect of society, including every branch of government, businesses, schools and newspapers. How has this affected the citizens of Turkey? Natan Sharansky has posed what he calls the village square test. Can a person go out in the village square and say he does not like the government? Can you talk freely? I’ve been visiting Turkey regularly since 1968. People were always prepared to talk about politics – but no longer. Today, the Turks are obviously afraid of something. It saddens me to see this taking place in an industrious country that was in the vanguard of moving Islam into the modern world.

The battle for Turkey’s identity is far from over. The forces of secularism are waiting right below the surface. There are a lot of passionate, if disorganized, secularists. Yet if a moderate form of Ottoman Turkish Islam is to be revived, it must stand up to the onslaught of Wahhabism and the temptations of Islamism.

If matters continue as they are, both in Turkey and Iran, then one plausible outcome might eventually be that Turkey and Iran switch places. Iran, after its Islamist experience, may rejoin the community of nations, while Turkey may turn toward Islamism and become a driving anti-Western force throughout the Islamic world. How sad for Turkey; how sad for one of the most interesting and industrious peoples in the Islamic world; how dangerous for the world.

* * *

Dr. Harold Rhode joined the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon in 1982 as an advisor on Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Since then he has served as the Turkish desk officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as advisor on Islamic affairs on the Pentagon’s policy planning staff. From 1994 until his recent retirement, Dr. Rhode served in the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. He is now a Senior Advisor at the Hudson Institute, New York. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on March 4, 2010.

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