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Turkey Beyond Kemalism

By Mir Adnan Aziz

29 June, 2008

The Ottoman Empire, with Turkey as the epicenter, was supposedly the zenith of the Islamic Caliphate. Its decline began in the sixteenth century. The initial response of the Ottoman court was to reform its military on the European model. Intended to be limited strictly to the military, it however led to more far-reaching consequences. In the mid-1700s, the Ottoman Empire had acquired a distinct European taint that compromised its core base. By the late 1700s there was no longer an Islamic authority that could even in principle mobilize the Muslims to support a war against any aggressor.

The Ottoman Empire continued to become involved in wars with rivals like Iran. In the European Wars, its role was determined not by religious but geo-political concerns. At the time of its collapse, it was far removed from even a nominal role as the leader of Islam and by virtue of its extensive adoption of European modes, from the core of Islam. This enabled Mustafa Kemal, also called Attaturk (father of Turks), in establishing a secular republic in its place. This also came to be known as Kemalism.

The strongest force ever for Islamic 'secularism', Mustafa Kemal embraced all things Western, portraying himself as the greatest of all liberals. In order to cultivate his secular image he even went to the extent of turning the Aya Sofia mosque into a museum.

Kemal Ataturk modelled his secular dream on the latest European fashions in statecraft. In creating a secular Turkey, home to a populace of which 98% were Muslim, he expelled Islam from the public sphere. This 'Kemalism' led to the creation of the modern Turkish Republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

The ruthlessly enforced Kemalism devoted attention to doing away from public all things Islamic. He endorsed the wearing of western hats, particularly the trilby (hat with a brim). Not meant to give the otherwise handsome Turks a more appealing look, this was designed to wean them away from the traditional headgear, the fez. This so because being brimless the fez facilitated bowing (sajda) while offering prayers. This met with resistance and many were executed in 1930 for defiantly wearing it.

Mustafa Kemal abolished the Caliphate, exiled the last Ottoman sultan to Paris, abolished the Hijra calendar, replaced the Arabic script with Roman alphabet, persecuted the Ulema and Sufi dervish order and established the first secular republic in the Islamic world. He gave a monolithic system where there was one identity - Kemalism and one arbiter of political power - the army.

To ensure that Kemalist principles, especially that of secularism, survive over time, Mustafa Kemal included in the country's constitution the military's role as the sole defender and protector of the constitution and its secular identity. In doing so he legitimized the military's interventionist role in politics.

Kemalism, Ataturk's midwifed legacy to Turkey has been the guiding principle of the military elite ever since his death in 1938. Till recent times, Kemalism was the unchallenged de facto civil religion, uncompromising in its secular ideals and enshrined in the Republic's constitution, laws and governance systems. In this enforced way of life the Turkish armed forces took upon themselves to defend an enforced legacy.

Turkey's military juntas ousted four governments since the 1950's. The greatly popular Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as mayor of Istanbul, was actually jailed for four months. His crime, reading a classic poem at a rally that the military deemed too 'Islamist'. It read: "The minarets are our bayonets. The faithful are our soldiers. God is great. God is great." Apart from serving the sentence he was barred for life from public office.

Political power in Turkey has long been contested between the elected parliament and the generals of the 600,000-man armed forces. Unlike the European entity that it aspires to be a part of, the Turkish army does not give the impression of being in the nation's service. It rather seems to govern it, almost dictating its will.

Ataturk's ruthless revolution also left Turkey with a sense of lost identity, unsure whether it was a secular or Islamic nation. Striving throughout these years to be a part of the European Union, Turkey's efforts have been continuously spurned with the harangue of doing more. Pope Benedict ignoring there zealously guarded secularism intoned that the EU was for Christians only.

Washington, more so in the present global scenario, considers Turkey's Kemalism to serve as a beacon for the Muslim world. In doing so it conveniently ignores the fact that the country's armed forces and their security agencies are the ultimate arbiter in politics. The judiciary is not independent but the instrument of an 'omnipotent' state.

Kemalism, with the military institution as a willing ally, has morphed into a macabre vehicle for violence and coercion. The generals, guardians of this system, are loath to admit that their actions are motivated more by concern over the loss of privileges and their elite status enjoyed since the birth of the Kemalist republic. With the perpetual charade of guarding an enforced ideology they have transformed it into a dogmatic doctrine.

Eighty years on Turkey is retracing its steps to its Islamic roots. The Justice and Development Party that Dr. Abdullah Gul helped find, known by its Turkish initials AKP, sprang from the Islamic political movements of the 1990s. By winning an outright majority of Parliamentry seats in 2002, it became the first non-secular party to have done so in 15 years.

This signalled a significant religious attachment among the Turkish people at large, despite eighty years of state-imposed Kemalism. It can also be well gauged from the fact that AKP occupies the posts of president – Dr. Abdullah Gul, prime minister - Recep Tayyip Erdogan and parliamentary speaker - Koksal Toptan.

Since taking power on a national level in 2002, AKP has created an economic boom by applying pragmatic policies. The economy has nearly doubled in its tenure. The secular elite, afraid of losing its grip, could never achieve this, absolutely reliant as it was on state control. The AKP draws much of its support from Turkey's religiously conservative heartland. These traditional Turks, suppressed for years, are now emerging as a powerful middle class, the engine that drives Turkey's boom.

The generals today see Mr. Gul and his party as a threat to their hallowed status. The Turkish President is commander in chief and has a veto power. No wonder the generals, still cocooned in the fading Kemalist legacy, refused to visit the presidential palace as Mr. Gul's wife wears a headscarf.

Girls now do the unthinkable in years gone by - they wear headscarves. Also aired are voices to give Quranic education to the children. This Turkish trek to its religious roots can be understood better by the words of the philosopher and sociologist Ernest Gellner.

He said: "In social sciences, one of the commonest theses is the secularization thesis, which runs as follows. Under conditions prevailing in industrial-scientific society, the hold of religion over society and its people diminishes. By and large this is true, but it is not completely true, for there is one major exception, Islam. In the last hundred years the hold of Islam over Muslims has not diminished but has rather increased. It is one striking counter-example to the secularization thesis".

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