Brief Lives December 2004

At the Gates of Brussels

If Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets his way, Turkey will be more Islamic and Europe will be more Turkish. Both would be good news

Who says empires are bad? The multi-ethnic Ottoman Turkish Empire, like the coeval multi-ethnic Hapsburg Austrian one, was more hospitable to minorities than the uni-ethnic democratic states that immediately succeeded it. The Ottoman caliphate welcomed Turkish, Kurdish, and other Muslims with open arms, and tolerated Christian Armenians and Jews. The secular-minded, modernizing "Young Turk" politicians who brought down the empire did not. They used Kurds as subcontractors in a full-scale assault on Armenians, which scholars now argue about calling genocide. Ottoman toleration was built on territorial indifference. Because the same loosely administered imperial rule extended from the Balkans to Mesopotamia, and as far south as Yemen, minorities could live anywhere within this space without provoking issues of sovereignty. Violent discussions over what group got to control which territory emerged only when the empire came to an end, after World War I.

The collapse of the Ottoman sultanate continues to haunt geopolitics: it gave birth to questions about the territorial status of Christians in Lebanon and of Jews in Palestine, and about whether Kurds north of Baghdad should live in the same polity as Mesopotamian Arabs to the south. Moreover, it changed the direction of Muslim thought. For 850 years—from 1071, when the Seljuks defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert, in eastern Anatolia, to the end of World War I—the House of Islam had drawn its spiritual direction from Turkey, not from Arabia or Iran. But with the official abolition of the Constantinople-based caliphate, in 1924, there was no longer any universally accepted authority for the interpretation of Muslim law. In the competition for doctrinal legitimacy that has followed, the most radical interpretations have won out.

Within Asia Minor itself, anarchy and invasion following the Great War led to the emergence of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's fiercely secularist regime, which delivered stability and a pro-Western orientation, but at a significant cost. The cost was a militarized state and the suppression of Islam—under which the Anatolian peasantry and working class increasingly chafed. Democracy developed late and anemically, leading to ineffectual minority governments. Because Turkish politicians assumed that the military would always rescue them in the lurch, at a subliminal level they never felt the need to act responsibly—and so they didn't.

The first break in this dreary chronicle was the election of Turgut Ozal to the prime ministership, in 1983. Ozal was a wily politician from the heartland of Asia Minor who shared the deep religiosity and crass nouveau riche tastes of many Turks. He loved to read the Koran and watch soap operas, to bang his head against the carpet in a Sufi mosque and go to Texas barbecues. He restored religion to Turkey's political space without threatening the country's pro-Western orientation or its tendency toward tolerance. He gradually wrested control over foreign policy away from the military—a healthy thing for an elected politician to do. By the early 1990s he was veering toward a neo-Ottomanism that would have effected a grand compromise with the Kurds, based on the Islamic faith that Turks and Kurds had in common. But Ozal died suddenly of a heart attack in 1993. It was said that he ate himself to death, just as Atatürk had drunk himself to death.

Because Turkey, like Tunisia, is a real state and not (like so many other places in the Middle East, Iraq included) just a geographical figure of speech, things don't collapse there; they simply go lugubriously downhill. The corruption and irresponsibility of lackluster, forgettable politicians became so extreme in the late 1990s that the military re-emerged in the guise of a National Security Council, which engineered, in stages, what became known as a soft coup. One analyst told me at the time, speaking of the council's meetings, "The generals bring thick dossiers from which to lecture, and the civilian cabinet ministers come as tourists to listen."

At the same time, something began to happen within Turkey's Islamic movement. A group of disciples parted ways with Necmettin Erbakan, their longtime mentor and the grand old man of Turkish Islam. Erbakan's movement had been involved in the hurly-burly of party politics for decades, and was thus intrinsically more Westernized than its counterparts in the Arab world. Nevertheless, Erbakan's visits to Libya and Iran, and his support for a religious school system that would have churned out Muslim firebrands, alienated him from the mass of middle-class voters. And so in 2001 the Justice and Development Party came into being. Its leader was one Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a politician in his forties who grew up poor in Kasimpasha, one of Istanbul's most notoriously crime-infested districts. Erdogan spoke no foreign languages. His wife wore a headscarf. He was hopelessly unsophisticated by the standards of Turkey's Europeanized ruling class. Yet he was a skilled politician, armed with a management degree, who had been a popular mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, adroit at improving utilities, cleaning the streets, and making municipal authorities more accessible through telephone hotlines.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is an Atlantic correspondent. He is the author of Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus.

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In