Modern Turkey

In the last lecture in his series on Turkey at AACI, Eyal Offenbach spoke about the making of modern Turkey.   This is my summary of his excellent talk.

In 1950, the secular revolution that Kemal Mustafa, known as Ataturk, had forced upon the Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, started to unravel.  It was the first post-WWII election that was genuinely free and open and saw the end of one-party rule and the return of Islam and Muslims back into the public sphere.  The Republican Party of Ataturk obtained only 15% of the vote and was trounced by the new Democratic Party.  However, this was by no means the end of Ataturk’s revolution.

The desire to be part of the western world was still a guiding force in Turkey.  The Turkish Army that was dominant in politics, sent 25,000 troops to fight in the Korean war and Turkey joined NATO.  Turkey and Russia had always been rivals and the Turks especially hated communism, and so Turkey was a natural western ally.  However, the Democratic Party turned out to be as incompetent and corrupt as its predecessor, and the financial situation in Turkey deteriorated and inflation was rife.

In 1955, a group of mid-level Army officers met and decided to give the political establishment a warning, that the Army would henceforth be the guarantor of the secular constitution.  In effect this was the opposite to the usual situation, where the politicians warn the Army not to meddle in politics.  But, the situation continued to deteriorate, so in 1960 there was a military coup, although the Generals promised to restore democracy soon.  In 1961 there was a trial of 450 politicians, of which 150 were sentenced to death, but only 3 were in fact executed, although one of them was the Prime Minister Menderis.

From then on there was a cat-and-mouse game between the political establishment and the Army.  The economy got worse, there were strikes, violence, assassinations and finally the Army once again stepped in and took over in 1971.   This was partly caused by the assassination of the Israeli Consul Efraim Elrom.   Over 100,000 were arrested and the Army took over running the State.  But, there was no  cooperation between the power centers and things deteriorated, until in 1980 the Army carried out radical reforms, replacing most civil servants and replacing the President with an ex-General.  The Army then returned nominal control to the civil authorities, but retained control of a new Security Council that effectively ran the country.

However, this situation could not continue indefinitely, and this was foreseen by an astute academic Prof. Necmettin Erbakan.  He founded a new radical party that was both nationalist and Islamist. When it was outlawed, he founded another party and so managed to build up his following.  He was the mentor of present Pres. Recip Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey was a paradox, a secular state, a Republic, but also Islamic at its core.  It wanted to be accepted by the West, but could not change.   In 1987 Turkey applied to join the EU.  This was never going to happen, with Greece already a member and Cyprus too.  Germany was prepared to have Turks sweep their streets, but could not accept a country of 80 million Muslims into the EU.  Although the Turkish economy improved and met EU standards (while that of Greece did not, although they lied), Turkey was forced to change many of its policies to become accepted.  For example, its prison system was notorious, and was reformed.  Also, the war against the Kurds had taken ca. 40,000 lives.  The Kurdish language was banned throughout Turkey, there were no Kurdish newspapers, TV or radio stations, and no teaching of Kurdish in schools.  The EU forced Turkey to reverse that discrimination. When the head of the Kurdish KDP was captured, he was not executed due to EU pressure.

As the economy improved and politics became more open, the power of the Army was eroded.  Erbakan’s Welfare Party was voted in and he became President for a year, but the Army forced him to resign.  But his pupils, Adbullah Gul and Erdogan came to the fore. Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul, but the Army had him sentenced to 5 months in prison. However, that increased his popularity and his Justice and Development Party was elected in 2002 as part of a coalition government.  By a series of maneuvers he managed to replace some Generals and had some tried for planning another coup.  He developed what could be called Demo-Islam, a combination of democracy with Islam, that he later tried to peddle to some Arab countries.  As he imprisoned the Generals and some journalists he became more autocratic and in 2011 eventually won a total majority of 68% of the votes.

In the 1990’s Turkey and Israel were the best of allies.  But, Israel and Turkey, although they may be geographically in the Middle East are not really of the Middle East.  They are developed, westernized and have ambitions well beyond the range of the Middle Eastern Arab countries.  In fact, the Arab world has collapsed, and what is left intact are the three non-Arab countries of Israel, Turkey and Iran.  The future of the Middle East depends on what happens to these three countries.

Although Turkey has been going through a neo-Islamic return under Erdogan, nevertheless he too realizes that Turkey can only go so far.  Although in some ways he hates Israel, he has not severed ties. Trade has increased, Turkey sells Israel manufactured good, shirts, dresses and cars.  But, Israel sells Turkey computers, drones and high technology.  Erdogan knows that for Turkey to progress he has to be able to produce the goods he buys from Israel.  But he can’t do that. He has ambitions to re-expand Turkish influence as the former Ottoman Empire, but somehow all his neighbors, Russia, Syria, Iraq, Greece, Iran are his enemies.  He sees Israel and Iran as his competition for influence in the Middle East, but he needs friends.   Turkey is a great paradox.



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