Release Date: June 10, 2002
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Turkey: Where East Reluctantly Meets West

by Eric Margolis

ISTANBUL - American politicians and media keep asking, `why can't other Muslims be more like the Turks?' In the North American view, Turks are `good Muslims:' - democratic, pro-western, cooperative, and non-troublemaking.

Turkey is assuming command of the western `protective' force in Kabul, Afghanistan propping up the US-installed regime of Hamid Karzai. Turkish intelligence works closely with CIA and Israel's Mossad against Islamic militants. Turkey has become a close ally and major arms customer of Israel. Islam - particularly its political and social sides - is severely restricted by Turkey's militantly secular, anti-religious regime.

In return for Turkey's `strategic partnership,' Washington just rushed to save Turkey from financial collapse through a US $12 billion IMF loan. Turkey's shaky economy shrank nearly 10% last year; inflation is rampant, with one US dollar now equal to almost 1.5 million Turkish lire. The ongoing illness of Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit has further worsened the financial crisis.

On closer view, Turkey's credentials as a western-style democracy are far from perfect. When US Vice President Dick Cheney came to Turkey to drum up support for war against Iraq, he devoted far more time meeting with the Chief of Staff of Turkey's powerful armed forces than with Prime Minister Ecevit. The real power in Turkey remains the army. Turkey, like Prussia, is an army disguised as a nation. Behind a facade of squabbling, impotent politicians, real power in Turkey is held by the generals, who throw out prime ministers whenever they please.

Turkey's generals see themselves as keepers of the sacred flame of Kemalism, the statist political system created by Kemal Ataturk in the 1930's. Ataturk was a brilliant general who saved post-World War I Turkey from being carved up by Britain, France, Italy, and Greece. As the father of modern Turkey, he imposed a dictatorial regime that was influenced by 1930's fascism and the communism. Ataturk sought to remake Turkey into a European nation by banning the Arabic alphabet and the fez, repressing Islam and even hanging Islamic scholars. He literally ripped out Turkey's Islamic roots and replaced them by a form of imitation Europeanism that left Turks with a persisting national identity crisis, unsure of what they really are: easterners, westerners, or something in between.

Turkey's armed forces perpetuate Ataturk's philosophy. Enshrined in a regal mausoleum, Ataturk has become the secular god of Turkey. Anyone daring to question Kemalism is jailed - or worse. Leaders of Turkey's moderate Islamic parties have been routinely ousted from office on phony charges and thrown in prison. One, the popular mayor of Istanbul, for daring to read a classic poem deemed too Islamic by the generals.

Turkey's Kemalist political system is designed to perpetuate the interests of the nation's US-supported ruling elite, an alliance between the military and big industrialists. Leftist critics call it the last of the 1930's totalitarian systems. Westernized urban Turks, mostly nominal Muslims, generally support the status quo and favor joining Europe. Rural Turks, larger in number but without any political power, are deeply religious, do not support westernization, and favor a return to Turkey's Islamic roots. The nation's largest minority, Kurds, remain a central problem for Turkey. Though the long Kurdish struggle for an independent state has been suppressed, and Kurdish leader Ocalan captured, Kurdish nationalism still remains sand in the eye of the Turkish nation. Turkey's brutal war against equally brutal Kurdish insurgents was marked by serious human rights violations that earned condemnation by Europe. Turkey's oft-criticized rights record has been the ostensible reason Europe has continued to deny Turkey admission to the EU. The true reason: Christian Europe's potent prejudice against admitting Muslim Turkey, with millions of farmers. Europe is up in arms against its Muslim emigrant population, and certainly has too many subsidized farmers.

Turkey's strategic alliance with Israel - underlined by a recent $800 million tank deal signed with Israel during the bloody Israeli invasion of Palestinian territory - won Ankara important support in the US Congress and silenced complaints over its human rights record, but outraged the Muslim World. The Israel Lobby has been running interference for Turkey in Washington and preventing the Greek and Armenian lobbies from imposing restrictions on US-Turkish relations. Good relations with Israel assures good press in the US.

President Bush's crusade against Iraq and militant Islam has put the Turks in a difficult position. Turkey has lost billions on trade with Iraq by supporting US sanctions against Baghdad. Now, the US is pressing Turkey to act as policeman against Islamic groups and deepen its anti-Islamic cooperation with Israel. A majority of Turks oppose such policies; many Turks are calling on Ankara to embrace moderate Islam, stop acting as Washington's gendarme, forget hostile Europe, and resume Turkey's traditional close relations with the Arab Mideast.

Turks have long complained their enormous contribution to NATO - its second largest army - has been ignored and their nation taken for granted by the west. A few Turkish intellectuals and writers risk prison by proposing to ditch Kemalism, get the army out of politics, build a genuine democracy, and allow Turks to be the fierce, self-assured, and devoutly Islamic people they used once to be.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster, and author of War at the Top of the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet which was reviewed in The Economist, May 13, 2000]

Lenore G. Martin, "Turkey's Iraq Problem," Washington Post, September 16, 2006

Copyright © 2002 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
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