Seven Questions: Between God and Atatürk
Posted May 2007
Turkey’s moderate Islamist ruling party recently provoked massive protests and even the veiled threat of military intervention over its bid to add the presidency to its pillars of power. The clash has exposed deep rifts in a country that prides itself on being a shining example of a Muslim democracy. FP asked Andrew Mango, a prominent scholar of Turkey and an acclaimed biographer of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, what’s really at stake in Turkey today.
MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images
Still the one: Millions of Turks still revere Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—as well as his vision of a staunchly secular Turkish state.
FOREIGN POLICY: What is your take on the situation in Turkey in general?
Andrew Mango: The main point is that society remains strongly divided on cultural much more than political lines. The majority of Turks who live in provinces are not particularly worried by the religious people. On the whole they practice their religion. They go to mosque at least once a week. They feel they can integrate their religion, also, in their political system, without going to extremes. But there is a very large minority, the traditional ruling class of Turkey, who do not wish to allow religion any role at all in the public domain. Now, although the people of both camps have very much in common, they lead a slightly different lifestyle.
FP: So if the divide is cultural, why is the position of the presidency causing the conflict to spill into the political sphere?
AM: Because for the first time it looked as if all the main political functions would be occupied by members of the same party. Until now, Turkish presidents have been practicing Muslims, but were not members of the religious camp in the way that the current rulers of Turkey are. Whereas now, if the president proposed by the ruling party, the Justice and Development party, were elected, the prime minister, president, and speaker of the Assembly would all come from the same camp.
It is basically the monopolization of political power by one particular party, representing one particular camp, that is worrying most Turks. If the president were one of them [the Islamists], there’d be no brake on their exercise of power. Although largely a symbolic figure, the president can still send laws for reconsideration by parliament, can block appointments. The current president, whose term is about to expire, has made maximum use of those powers in Turkey. And it’s this disappearance of a brake on the will of the parliamentary majority, which represents the religious vote, that is worrying Turkish secularists.
FP: A recent statement from the Army, stating that ”It must not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces are a party to this debate and are the absolute defenders of secularism,” seems to be a pretty clear threat to intervene if [current foreign minister and ruling party presidential nominee] Abdullah Gul gets the presidency. Are they right to worry? Do they have a legitimate concern?
AM: Well, it is very much a subjective judgment. Turkish secularists are in the minority, but they are a very large minority indeed. We’re talking about anything from 30 to 40 percent of the population. So there are millions of them. They see the armed forces as guardians of their way of life. Now, obviously, the military cannot intervene within the bounds of constitutional legality. But it seems, not for the first time, that a clear statement by the military of their opposition, the implicit threat of their intervention, is sufficient to force the government to reconsider its position.
After all, it was the threat posed by the military that is bound to have influenced the Constitutional Court when it invalidated the first round of voting for the president in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. If the military had not intervened, then Abdullah Gul would have been elected president. It is the military’s clear statement of displeasure at this process which has blocked his election. And this has certainly given a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure to the very large minority of Turkish secularists.
FP: In the West, it is usually assumed that modernization, secularism, and democracy naturally go together. Is that the case in Turkey?
AM: Turkey is rather different in this way. It differs from a lot of Western countries in that the religious tend to come from poorer segments of the population. And obviously because the secularized minority realizes that it is a minority, it wants the powers of the majority to be somehow or other circumscribed. It wants limits to be set. All Turkish military interventions have been designed to set limits to the power of a parliamentary majority, to stop what was called the dictatorship of the parliamentary majority, because they felt that this was a threat to their way of life. To the extent to which a democratic constitution sets constitutional limits on the powers of a majority, then the secularized minority is happy to abide by democratic values. Otherwise, it prefers to rely on the guarantee provided by the armed forces and to have a limited form of democracy that safeguards its way of life.
FP: Turkey has long been cited as a counterexample to doubts about the compatibility between Islam and democracy. Do recent events undermine its power as an example?
AM: No, I don’t think so. What’s happening in Turkey is reminiscent of what happened in France in the beginning to the 20th century. France and some European countries were similarly divided between clericalists and anticlericalists. After all, it was only in the second half of the 20th century that French Catholics began celebrating Bastille Day and the French Republic. For a long time they were very doubtful about the French Revolution and the French Republic. Now French society is united in its support of the principles of the revolution. I think that Turkey is undergoing rather more rapidly the same process that France underwent a century ago.
FP: What about in the sphere of foreign policy?
AM: No profound effects. But, after all, the secularist protest against the Islamists was also a nationalist protest. If you look at pictures of these huge demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara, there are hundreds of thousands of people carrying Turkish flags 2½ miles long through the streets in procession. One of their slogans was, “Neither European Union nor United States. Turkey first.” In a strange way, the Islamists were originally the more xenophobic party, the party that considered the European Union to be a Christian club. They have now become the more foreign-friendly party. And the secularists are much more suspicious of foreigners because they think that the foreigners are perfectly ready to sacrifice the way of life of the Turkish establishment in order to have a friendly Turkey.
FP: How do you see events playing out in the near future?
AM: I don’t see a military coup and I certainly don’t see civil disorder in Turkey. Unfortunately, I see the possibility of a weaker government—a more uncertain government and a government more prickly in its foreign relations. And a government less able to follow a firm economic policy that requires belt-tightening, fiscal discipline, and all that. Obviously efforts will be made to overcome this danger, but I think this danger has increased. Turkey has done very well under a firm government, a single-party government with an absolute majority in parliament. This particularly favorable position is likely to be lost as a result of this clash between secularists and antisecularists.
Andrew Mango is a scholar based at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of numerous books on Turkey.