Turkey, Secularism and the Need for Eternal Vigilance
by Hugh Fitzgerald (October 2009)
The many decades during which the systematic attempt, by Ataturk to remove Islam in Turkey from the political sphere and to limit its power to fashion society, over time managed to allow the formation of a class of Turks who, in their mental outlook are not as distant from Western man as are, say, Arabs or Pakistanis.
They do, unsurprisingly, continue to identify themselves as Muslims, sometimes out of civilizational defensiveness or filial piety. To abandon Islam might seem like abandoning a pious and loving grandmother. And to conceive the islamization of the former
Many of these people inhabit the same mental universe as do non-Muslim Westerners - a phenomenon that cannot be detected among more than a handful of Arabs or Pakistanis, even among those who have lived and studied in the West. But they still live within a world of Islam, where their numbers are swamped by the primitive Muslim masses, who once could be thought of as a rural population that would, over time, modernize.
But so many people have come from the villages to Istanbul, and instead of finding their Islamic faith weakened or diluted in the face of what might otherwise unhinge them, suddenly encountering and being jostled by a different world, may seek mental and emotional relief in more, not less, Islam and they cling ever more closely to the stability and certainty that Islam provides. Islam never went away.
But if you were a historian, say an Ottomanist, doing research in the Archives in the 1960s, or writing a book on the history of Modern Turkey, or a general from a NATO country meeting with a Turkish counterpart in Ankara, you might reasonably assume that the people of the secular class you met, and many of whom were extremely friendly and kind in a way that to you seemed (and was) genuine, were representative and permanent.
You might well believe that the
For a while, this replacement-theology worked. But Erbakan, and now Erdogan, and others, including Fethulleh Gulen, have brought Islam back, and the secular class is threatened. It knows it may yet again have to rely on the army, because in the outside world, in the advanced countries of the West, there is as yet no deep sympathy for these embattled secularists.
The relentlessness of those we too easily call "the Islamists," and the cunning ways they find to pursue unswervingly their immutable aims, is not understood. And why do we not understand the threat, and the means necessary to contain that threat? Oh, that is because - it's so often because - most people in the Western world cannot grasp the nature and meaning and menace of Islam.
Now those who know history know that the Army has sometimes been a force for good in the larger society, and that includes the occasional coup. I hesitate to dilate upon this for one very good reason: years ago, possibly a decade or two ago, I read in some journal - Revue international de sociologie, possibly, if such exists, in an issue devoted to the sociology of the military - an essay by Raymond Aron. Aron as always was enlightening on the different and surprising roles of the military, which in some countries, at some times, had been a force not of black reaction, as we have been taught unthinkingly to believe, but as a force for enlightenment and progress. Those who remember, for example, what were called the Army-McCarthy hearings back in 1954, remember the celebrated Hale-and-Dorr bow-tied Boston Brahmin Joseph Welch, Esq., who sent McCarthy, that demagogue and drunk, back on his uppers with his famous "Have you no decency, sir? At long last, have you no decency?" speech. But they forget that it was the American Army itself that was being attacked by McCarthy as a harborer of Communists, and that just wouldn't wash, and didn't.
But reliance on the military in
It is a "tragedy" - I am using the word in its current, lazily loose sense - to have handed over to the upper officer corps of the army the sole responsibility for being the upholder of Kemalism. For when the army is given such a task, the army can easily become the object of widespread resentment on the part of civilians, and can more easily be painted as an oppressive force. And mere force - while sometimes useful - cannot in the end enlarge the numbers of those Turks who have the mental freedom to move away, in general attitudes, from the constraints of Islam, even if many of them still call themselves "cultural Muslims," and even if they secretly or openly thank god every day for Ataturk.
In the last few decades there have been several - four? - military coups by the Turkish army. The very phrase "military coup" has in bad odor in the West, and generally, that reaction is deserved. Think of all the ambitious colonels, the would-be caudillos of
And then there are the coups in Arab and Muslim lands. Think of those Pakistani generals who have staged coups when they felt more Islam was necessary - such as Zia ul-Haq. Anglophone sophisticated Pakistanis of the upper-class like to pretend that Zia is the one who caused all the trouble, who brought Islam to Pakistan - as if it had not been there all along, in the lower depths, waiting for a chance to find the right representative who would seize power. Think of Colonels Nasser and Naguib and a few others (Nasser to elbow the others quickly out of the way), who seized power because of their disgust with the ancient regime of fat Farouk, with his yachts and his harem and, especially, his too-compliant attitude toward the West. Think of the coup of that Alawite Air Force Major, the quiet plotter Hafez al-Assad, who put the Alawites firmly in control of the officer corps, and hence of the military, and hence of all of
Such a secular class might actually develop in
A coup here and a coup there, and a coup everywhere, might work, temporarily, but what really needs to be changed are the minds of men. And the journalists, the university rectors, the professors, the people who, thanks to their benefiting from the Kemalist reforms that tied political Islam in knots, underestimated the cunning of the erdogans and guls and gulens of this world, did not do what they should have done. They were insufficiently vigilant in further extending what Ataturk set out to do.
What might they have done? They might, for example, have used the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, nearby, to show how retrograde
That seems to be a general fault of the so-called liberals and reformers, the ones best able to talk to Westerners, and to inveigle them, out of self-interest, into adventures that will promote the position of those "reformers." These "reformers" may, for all I know, rescue their own societies, at least as long as the Americans stay or keep lavishing largesse of every kind on those Muslim societies, thus rescuing them from the consequences of their own political, economic, social, intellectual, and moral failures and, what is still worse, delaying the day when Muslims have to begin to examine and realistically analyze those failures. They might even have conducted such an examination without the conspiracy-theorizing that comes so naturally to people raised up in a system that everywhere discourages free and skeptical inquiry, beginning with any questioning of any part of Islam, but not stopping there.
No, the Turkish secularists should have not let a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour go by, without pushing into the consciousness of the Turkish public the sheer awfulness of the mullahs and of the practice of Islam in Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran. They should have played upon the natural impulse of Turks to declare their dislike, or even hatred, of the Arabs, and started a line of public discussion centered on all the ways in which Islam has been a vehicle of Arab supremacism.
They should have engaged in massive translations - for example, of such books as Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not A Muslim and Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel and Anwar Sheikh's Islam: the Arab National Religion and Bat Ye'or's The Dhimmi and The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam.
They might, furthermore, have begun to ask questions about the Armenian massacres, and insisted that - in a kind of absolution of Turks qua Turks - both the 1915-1918 massacres and the earlier ones from 1894-96 were not the result of Turks alone, but of other Muslims, impelled by Islam. Thus, in owning up to the Armenian massacres, these secular Turks would, deliberately and truthfully, put the blame not on all Turks, but on all the Muslims in the area who, impelled by Islam, had committed those crimes, and with especially fiendish glee, had attacked Armenian priests and their (often) pregnant wives. There is ample testimony, from American and German eyewitnesses (some of them missionaries) as to the Muslim nature of the statements made by the killers, and there is ample testimony, too, by the Armenians who survived and wrote their own testimonies, as to what impelled Turks (and Kurds) to kill Armenians in Anatolia, and what led the marauding Arabs, when they could, to grab Armenian women and girls, who often made the trek without their murdered husbands and sons.
And in the universities, there might have been much more vigilant attempts to undercut and discredit, if not Islam, then at least Arab Islam. There might have been a requirement that, for example, in Turkish law schools, students analyse the Shari'a and compare it to Western systems of law, especially in regard to the rights of women and non-Muslim minorities. There might be courses on the development in the West of the idea of democracy, and what, besides the ballot-box, was considered indispensable to an advanced Western democracy.
And if one remembers Alex Haley's Roots, and the fascination, all over the Western world, with discovering who one's ancestors were, and where they came from - this is especially of interest in the
Oh, there's a lot that the secular class of Turks ought to have done. And now they are panicky. They are right to panic, for Erdogan is cunning and relentless, and the re-appearance of Islam as a powerful social and political force must deeply disturb those who, with their parents and grandparents, have assumed - as did such well-respected foreign students of modern Turkey as Bernard Lewis - that Kemalism was here to stay, and that in case of need, the army could always come in. The army cannot always be expected to do what needs to be done through education, and a slow undermining of those who want to bring back Islam by undoing the Kemalist ties that so cleverly bind. The army cannot control Fethuleh Gulen, for example, and the insidious effect of his schools and institutions of higher learning. But the rectors, the professors, the journalists, the writers, the scientists - including those who go abroad for full mental freedom - can keep up the assault, and not only in
No, reliance on the army alone was never enough. There is still time for those who have most benefited from Kemalism to assume their own responsibility not merely for defending what Ataturk achieved, but in ruthlessly, and relentlessly, extending his reforms, so that the secular class of Turks will swell from one-quarter of the population to something like one-half. That should do it. But the rule must be to never let down your guard when it comes to the True Believers. For they never give up.
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