Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Explaining Turkey - The Buffer to Islam

Turkey is an enigma, ruled by an elected President, whom in turn is overseen by a Secular Military tasked with upholding a Secular Constitution in an overwhelmingly Islamic country. That Turkey has recently, in 2007, elected an Islamic government, has made this all the more miraculous. That is until last week, when the military resigned in the face of a growing Islamist government. First, as I like to say, a little background....

Turkey, at the end of the First World War, was struggling to recover from her near destruction as the seat of the Ottoman Empire. Prior to the war Turkey had already fought the Italian-Turkish War (1911–1912), the Balkan Wars (1912–1913), and the resultant First World War (1914–1918). T.E. Lawrence, popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, had sided with the Turks in their fight against the Axis powers, advocating for a strong and unified Turkey.

The Turkish War of Independence (1919–1922) was born of the ethnic struggles between the differing tribes of Islamics. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk became the leader and first President of the new Republic. His vision was to bring Turkey into the 20th century by ending the tribal warfare which had plagued Turkey since the birth of Islam. In order to do this he had to outlaw both the Fez, and the Veil, two of Islam's most iconic images. His goal is best stated in this quote from a 1923 speech in which he outlined this vision, “ ...by complete independence, we mean of course complete economic, financial, juridical, military, cultural independence and freedom in all matters. Being deprived of independence in any of these is equivalent to the nation and country being deprived of all its independence.”

Turkey’s road has not been an easy one. Since the founding of the Turkish Government in 1923, she has been continually plagued by sectarian fighting and terrorism. That Turkey has survived in the Middle East, sandwiched, as it is, between the Soviet Union and the West, is somewhat of a miracle. That she has survived internal divisions is unbelievable. But there is a reason that she has weathered the storms. And that reason is often hard for Americans to understand.

We, in the West, take for granted the freedoms which we enjoy. Our military is limited to strategic goals defined by our elected officials. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. We argue amongst ourselves, and we even come close to the edge of destroying our own democracy, but we always seem to step back at the last moment, allowing reason to prevail. Currently, we are struggling with a fervent religious movement which would bring religion into our government, in spite of the tenets of our Constitution. Here is where a good look at Turkey can offer a lesson in regards to safeguarding our secular freedoms.

The Turkish military is today facing the largest crisis since the formation of the government almost 90 years ago. In the last Presidential election, in 2007, the people elected a Pro-Islamic candidate as President. When the time came to swear the new President into office, the military was conspicuously absent from the proceedings. And with good reason. Let me give you an example, which I witnessed first-hand during my travels in Turkey between 1978 and 1984.

When I first visited Turkey in 1978, the country was in turmoil. Islamic insurgents, seeking to topple the duly elected government, were doing what they do best. There were daily bombings and shootings in the streets. These battles were fought not only with the government, but with the competing tribes vying for control of the country, who would gladly take Turkey back to the days preceding formation of the Government. When the people went to the polls and elected an Islamic candidate as President, the military simply took over, as mandated by their Constitution, until such time as the people were willing, and able, to elect a responsible secular leader. At the time I remember thinking what a load of crap this was. There was no way in which the military would ever give the reins of governance back to the people. Boy was I wrong.

By 1983 the people had united behind a secular candidate and the military held elections. The Secular candidate prevailed and the military returned control of the country to the Turkish people. I was there. I was astonished.

By 2007 the electorate voted for Abdullah Gul as a candidate for president. However, Turkey's secular establishment considered Gül as having a hidden Islamist agenda that sought to undermine the strict separation of religion and state, and they opposed his nomination. The Grand National Assembly – the body politic that at the time chose Turkey's president – much like our Electoral College system, allowed Gül to take office. That vote was annulled by the courts on Constitutional grounds, Gul had not received the required 2/3 majority of the Grand National Assembly. A major political crisis ensued, and new laws were enacted to have the President elected by popular vote every 5 years, beginning in 2012. Thus, the President’s term would be reduced to 5 years, rather than the 7 year term which had been the norm.

By March of 2008, Turkey's chief prosecutor petitioned the Constitutional Court to ban the Justice and Development Party (Gul’s party) for "anti-secular activities.” This came on the heels of parliamentary approval for a constitutional amendment which would allow women to wear headscarves at universities. Although the Constitutional Court later ruled that the scarf reform violated the constitution's secular principles, the Court narrowly upheld the amendment.

What all this amounts to is Turkey’s slide back into an Islamic state, and the restoration of the Ottoman Empire. Last Friday the top Commanders of the Turkish military resigned en masse. This was the result of a disagreement with the Government over military promotions and some corruption trials, which are ongoing. At first glance this looks like an ordinary legal case, but the roots run much deeper than that. They strike at the heart of modern Turkey, which has, in recent years, once again been struggling against Turkish Islamists, notably in the Southern part of the Country, with the Kurds, who are supportive of an Islamic state. This is the same tribe which was a problem to Iraq’s military government under Hussein, which we toppled in an ill-advised war in 2003.

The real fear for Turkey, at this juncture, is the question of whether or not the military will allow the country to slide backwards into an Islamic state. As the land-bridge straddling the East and West, this is of extreme importance to America, as well as Western Europe. Having toppled the regime in Iraq, replacing it with an ineffective government, at a time when Egypt also seems to be sliding in that direction, an Islamist Turkey would virtually restore, intact, the Ottoman Empire which was so carefully taken apart as a result of the First World War. This bodes ill for the West. Turkey has served us well for almost 90 years, acting as the buffer between the East and West. Keep your eyes on this situation, as the outcome will affect us greatly in the years to come.

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