Turkey at the Crossroads

Article excerpt

Turkey--seen by the United States as a geostrategic linchpin in the execution of U.S. policy at the crossroads of Europe and the Near East, Central Asia and the West, Christianity and Islam--today has become a test case to determine whether modem, secular democracy can coexist with Islam.

This young nation-state, marking 75 years as a modern republic this year, is currently seeking to reconcile the powerful conflicting forces of secularism and Islam, democracy and the military, and its European identity and its deep roots in the steppes of Central Asia.

The military, appointed by the country's founding father, Mustafa Kemal--known fondly as Ataturk (literally "father of the Turks")--to protect the new republican order and the secular civic ethic called Ataturkism, has always played a predominant role in the Turkish state, and so it does today.

But it was not until 1960 that the army first left the barracks to intervene overtly in Turkish political life. Since then, it has twice more staged "caretaker" coups, aimed at restoring Turkey's secular democratic tradition during periods of social chaos and political gridlock between fiercely contesting political parties.

Today, however, the military is more wary of using its power so openly, aware of the inherent contradictions in the preservation of democracy through military force, and of criticism from abroad. Nevertheless, there is no question of its power. The National Security Council, a military-dominated body that includes the five top armed forces commanders, the president, the prime minister, and key cabinet members, has become the most powerful policy-making body in the country.

In June 1997, the council's blunt warnings that it would no longer tolerate what it saw as creeping Islamization forced Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to step down after 11 months, in what many here described as a "soft coup." The military exercised considerable behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, while keeping the troops in the barracks.

Turkey's top court banned the Welfare Party in January, saying it had violated the country's secular tenets.

The stormy year of Erbakan's government highlighted the deep divide that exists between secular modernist elites and Islamist elites in Turkey today, which is fueled by two radically different worldviews and lifestyles. Whether these two factions are able to arrive at some sort of modus vivendi or, beyond that, a new civic ethic that fuses both will determine Turkey's chances for achieving a stable, prosperous society.

And, while fully 80 percent of Turkish voters express their support for secularist parties, there is also widespread disenchantment with the secularist establishment. The latter has not only proved incapable of addressing some of Turkey's most serious economic problems, such as an annual inflation rate topping 100 percent, but has earned public scorn for a series of major corruption scandals.


On December 9, 1997, a watershed event occurred for Turkey that may reverberate for a long time to come. In its meeting in Luxembourg, the European Union (EU) failed to include Ankara, which had applied for membership back in 1963, in its list of candidates for future expansion.

Even more galling to Ankara was the inclusion of archrival Cyprus among the 10 east European states that were given the green light, Turkey bitterly complained that the EU had taken sides in the unresolved Cyprus question that has divided the island into two hostile camps of Greek and Turkish Cypriots since 1974.

Although the decision had been widely anticipated, it nevertheless enraged Ankara, already smarting from remarks attributed to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats that Turkey lacked the requisite "cultural values" for membership in Europe. Most Turks had no doubt in their minds what that meant: "Muslims need not apply. …