Turkey, Secularism and the Need for Eternal Vigilance

by Hugh Fitzgerald (October 2009)

he 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 Byzantine Empire as a historic mistake, well, many cannot bring themselves to do that. This secular class consists, in the main, of businessmen who have dealings with the West (the Sabanci family comes to mind), writers (for example, Orhan Pamuk, now delivering the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard), journalists, professors, rectors of universities, art gallery owners, and musicians who play Western music.

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 Turkey you saw would always be the same, and the only thing that would change would be a constant expansion in the number of those belonging to that secularist class. And if you considered the cult that had been formed devoted to the worship of Ataturk, and were aware of some of the writings about "the Turks" of those who followed Ataturk - as Inonu - you might conceivably recognize this as a replacement theology for Islam, where Ataturk-worship replaced the Muhammad-worship of Islam, expressed in the need to emulate the words and deeds of Muhammad, al-insan al-kamil, the Perfect Man. Ataturk instead of Muhammad, and "the Turks" (or, "the Sun people") as the Best of Peoples, instead of Muslims.

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 Turkey, the certainty that it would always be there to rescue the situation, had a bad effect. For it allowed the secular class to think that Kemalism would always be there, was unassailable.

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
Latin America. For example, there was the unpleasant bully-boy Noriega. There was the unpleasant Pinochet. There have been coups in Guatemala, and Brazil, in Bolivia and Peru. In Honduras, the other day, there was a "military coup" which instantly, knee-jerkishly, was opposed by the O.A.C. and a rushing-to-judgment Obama Administration. In fact, the Honduras coup was one prompted by fears that Zelaya was another potential Chavez - Morales in Bolivia was a warning - and Micheletti, his replacement, was a civilian. But the fact of a "military coup" was enough to get things off to a bad start. Then there are all those "military coups" in Africa. Think of Qaddafy, who seized power in 1969, when King Idris went off for medical treatment in the West. And Qaddafy is now celebrating forty years of his daffy Qaddafy-ism. Think of Charles Taylor in Liberia, or Omar Bongo, or Jean-Bedel Bokassa with his peculiar cuisine, or the most infamous of them all, Idi Amin Dada (see "The King of Scotland"), who grew a little tired of rising through the ranks and simply seized murderous control, and as the dictator of Uganda killed hundreds of thousands before retiring to Saudi Arabia where, as a Muslim, he knew he would not be touched. But just think of how the Saudis would have dealt with him if, say, he had converted back to Christianity and, born-again, tearfully confessed his many sins.

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 Syria. Think of the succession of coups in Iraq - the one of Colonel Qassem, during which the Prince Regent was killed, and so too, even more importantly, was the "strong man" of Iraq (that was the fixed epithet for him at the time) Nuri as-Said. Nuri as-Said had been a plotter ever since the days of Rashid Ali, and in turn found himself plotted against. Though he tried to escape from Baghdad dressed as a woman, he was found, killed, his body mutilated, and then the mutilated body dragged through the streets of Baghdad so that anyone who wanted to further mutilate it would get his chance. This is the country to which George Bush wanted to bring "freedom" for "ordinary moms and dads."

Such a secular class might actually develop in Iran after the Islamic Republic unravels, for the Iranians have available to them a pre-Islamic history, and a cultural heritage that includes a narrative in which Persian poets patriotically withstand the attempt at linguistic and cultural imperialism by the Arabs. The would-be secularists in Iran could finally be shaken to their senses by what the Islamic Republic has wrought ever since the fateful day that Khomeini came back in triumph (but to Teheran, not to Persepolis, and no Theridamas or Usumcasane accompanied him, the Ayatollah and Lonely Supreme Leader). The Turkish secular class has become less vigilant, not only less vigilant about the wiles and guiles of Erbakan, Erdogan, and Fethulleh Gulen (now allowed, from his center in Virginia, to conduct his sinister campaign that, of course, is misunderstood in the Western world, and regarded - madly - as the innocuous "moderate" Islam some even think we should encourage).

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 Iran had become. They might have used every nightmarish bit of information about Iran under Khomeini and his epigones, beginning with the wave of terror instituted by that hanging judge Khalkhali, and with the execution of leaders of the Baha'i and Jewish communities, and continuing with the turning on, and assassination of, the original leftists and secularists who, with such miscalculation, underestimated - they wanted to underestimate - the forces of black reactionary Islam. They joined forces with Khomeini against the Shah. The Pahlavi regime was admittedly corrupt, and was led by a vainglorious man who did not understand how unhinged the oil money had made Iran's ruling class. This was clear from the evident corruption at court, which was widely deplored, and the changes it brought, or threatened to bring, to rural, and deeply Muslim villagers, not to mention the opposition roused in Muslim bazaaris. The Shah was brought down not only by Khomeini, but by those who, on what might be called the secular left, the worshippers of weepy Mossadegh, refused to believe that Islam was as powerful as it proved to be.

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 United States - why could not Turks be urged to find out about, wherever possible, their own pre-Islamic roots? How many of those who are convinced, in Turkey, that they are Muslims, and their families have always been Muslim, in fact are the descendents of Greeks, Armenians, Jews, who converted either forcibly or in order to escape the onerous condition of the dhimmi? We have all read stories about this or that Turk who, though he thought himself to be a Muslim, suddenly finds out that his grandparents or great-grandparents were Armenian, and this has the electrifying effect of causing some to shed Islam as promptly as a snake sheds its skin. Just as in India, were Hindus to begin to discuss openly the conditions that led millions of Hindus (and Jains, and Buddhists) to convert to Islam (hint: it was not the sheer wonderfulness of Islam that led them to do it), who knows how many of those who have come to suspect or think that perhaps, even for the mental and moral development of their own children, Islam might not be quite as wonderful as they had once thought, would welcome a way out, a way to "return" to being Jains, or Buddhists, or Hindus?

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 Turkey itself, but by warning the outside world of what the "Islamists" are about. They can possibly help, in Western Europe, to encourage not fellow Muslims but the imperiled non-Muslims to watch their step, and to be vigilant about the tariq-ramadans, those smylers with the knyf under the cloke, as Chaucer, well of English undefiled (or so I've heard) once memorably translated Boccaccio's allegorical "Il Tradimento."

Turkey cannot be admitted to the E.U., and that no doubt will disappoint Turkish secularists. But what they can and should be offered is understanding and support from the West, if those secularists have to undo those supposed "reforms" to Turkish law that weaken the army and judiciary, or even if the secularists find that they must welcome another army coup should Erdogan continue to behave as he did recently, with the attempt to destroy the Dogan media conglomerate that stood in his way. He thought he could get away with destroying it through the power to tax or levy fines. Perhaps he won't get away with it this time, but he will, like determined Muslims promoting Islam everywhere, keep trying, until he does wear away the opposition.

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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