Recently, I ran into a charming ‘Young Turk’ at a London pub who told me that she couldn’t stand the AKP which was in her opinion ‘anti-Turkey’ and ‘anti-women.’ This interesting comment forced me to read up on Turkey.
The modern Turkish state is the successor to the Ottoman Empire which was totally wiped out during the First World War. The Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Pasha was staunchly secular and (at least on paper) a Parliamentary democracy, though Turkey had a single party system till around 1946 and long stretches of military rule after that. After the Second World War, it morphed into an US ally and during the cold war, was a leading player within NATO. The war with Greece over Cyprus did nothing to dislodge Turkey from NATO or its pro-US position.
The Turkish military has also played a special role in safeguarding Turkish secularism. This is understandable since Kemal Pasha was a distinguished military officer.
The Turkish form of secularism was, until recently, almost dictatorial in style. It was initiated by the Ataturk who banned beards, fez, veils and traditional clothing within government buildings and other public areas, forcing Turks to switch to western clothes. Even the tradition Turkish alphabet, based on the Perso-Arabic script was replaced with the Latin script. The Ottoman had a reasonably good record for treatment of Jews and under Ataturk, Turkey even provided sanctuary for Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and Germany. After Israel came into being, Turkey developed friendly ties with it, unlike other Arab and Islamic states.
I was told by the charming ‘Young Turk’ I met that immediately after the EU was formed, Turkey refused an early invitation to join. That was when the EU was just a free trade zone rather than a political grouping. Later when Turkey started to show great enthusiasm in joining the EU, it received a lacklustre response from Germany, France and some of the more recent Eastern European entrants. For many Europeans, especially those in continental Europe, Turkey reminds them of the Ottoman Empire that once came up to the gates of Vienna and ruled over most of southern Europe. What such opponents fail to remember is that before the Ottoman Empire came into being, the land that is now Turkey was for over a thousand years, until the late fifteen century, a part of the Byzantine Empire, which was formed out of the eastern parts of the Roman Empire. Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey was once known as Constantinople, and was the capital of the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.
In the 1980s, a specific ban on head scarves was imposed by the military government which feared a return to Islamic values.
On the plus side Turkey has a liberal society where its women are educated and most of the ills plaguing other Islamic societies are absent. On the flip side, human rights have been a casualty. Minorities such as Kurds who refuse to integrate (by calling themselves mountain Turks) are persecuted and many Turks cannot even wear the clothes of their choice!
The backlash against fanatic secularism started in the 1980s. It gathered momentum after the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002. The AKP was formed mostly by former members of the Fazilet Partisi or Virtue Party which had been banned in 2001 for its non-secular nature. Led by an ethnic Georgian, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who used to be the Mayor of Istanbul and has served a brief jail term on account of his political beliefs, the AKP has sort of moved the clock back for Turkey. Some call it a return to the medieval past. Others say that Turkey is seeking to reclaim its Ottoman glory.
With roots in Islam and having values far removed from Ataturk’s fanatic secularism, Turkish policies have undergone a sea change under the AKP. The ban on headscarves in universities has been eased, by giving university students permission to wear traditional headscarves tied loosely under the chin. It was successfully argued by the AKP that not allowing students wearing the headscarf to enter schools and universities prevents them from having access to education. The ban on covering the head continues to be in force in other public buildings.
The AKP has moved Turkish policy towards its Kurdish minority and the Kurdish Freedom movement from confrontation to conciliation. Relations with former enemies Greece and Armenia have improved. Arab and Islamic neighbours such as Iran, Iraq and Syria have become friends of Turkey. The drive to join the EU has cooled down, though Turkey is formally still in the game. Ties with Israel are still warm, but it is noteworthy that Turkey did not take part in the invasion of Iraq, though it provided refuelling facilities to the US. A month ago, Turkey cancelled planned military exercises with Israel and scheduled joint training with Syria. Soon after, Prime Minister Erdogan led a 200 strong delegation for a state visit to Iran. The economy has grown under AKP’s rule. As the USA’s influence in the middle-east recedes, it looks as if Turkey is stepping in to fill the vacuum.
However, for many Turks, especially for the armed forces and those living in big cities, the AKP is the devil incarnate. It represents a return to feudalism of the Ottoman times. They fear the AKP and feel that the AKP is likely to take Turkey into fundamentalist territory. According to the lady I met recently, and I sympathise with her opinion, there is a high possibility that moderate Islamic rule will slide towards Islamic fundamentalism.
Pakistan is a very good example of how moderate Islam can slide towards fundamentalist Islam. Founded by Jinnah to be a sanctuary for Muslims with the intention of being a moderate state that would permit civil liberties for everyone, Pakistan is unable to ensure equal treatment for women of its other religious minorities. Will Turkey go Pakistan’s way? Or will it evolve into a benign regional power than other countries in the region can look up to, a country where everyone has the right to practice his or her religion, where women has the same rights as men, where diversity is respected, where Kurds, Georgians, Armenians and other minorities are able to cherish their languages and cultural heritage and still be considered loyal Turks? I hope the latter turns out to be true.