Abandoning Ataturk

Article excerpt

How Turkey's secularists gave up.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire, having suffered military defeats at the hands of Europe, realized it could match its rivals only by becoming a European society itself. So it embarked on a program of intense reforms. In 1863, Sultan Abdulaziz established Darussafaka, the empire's first high school with a secular Western curriculum in Turkish. In the early 20th century, Kemal Ataturk followed through on the sultan's dreams, making Turkey a staunchly secular state. Institutions such as Darussafaka, my alma mater, thrived.

Not now. Last month, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) decided to start a training academy for imams in Darussafaka's iconic, 130-year-old former campus, abandoned by Darussafaka for a new facility in 1994. Such a step would have been unfathomable even two years ago. But it's a sign of how the era of Ataturk and Abdulaziz is coming to an end.

Since coming to power in 2002, the Islamist AKP has transformed Turkey. Bureaucrats in Ankara now feel compelled to attend prayers lest they be bypassed for promotions. Religious observance has become a necessity for those seeking government appointments or lucrative state contracts. The AKP firmly controls the country's executive and legislative branches and is extending its power by appointing sympathetic judges, university presidents, and the heads of major civil organizations. The party has used legal loopholes to raise the share of Turkey's media held by pro-AKP businessmen from 20 percent to about 50 percent.

The increasingly marginalized secular elite is largely to blame for its own downfall. After 1946, when Turkey became a multiparty democracy, the country ran on autopilot. Turkey's secular establishment grew fatigued and stopped doing what it takes to maintain popular support. After the collapse of communism, Turkey's working and lower-middle classes largely abandoned the left. Rather than cultivate them, secular parties waited for the masses to come to them. The AKP, by contrast, went to the people, establishing a vast, Tammany Hall-style network to distribute jobs and ben-efits while preaching traditional Islamist values. …