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Why is Turkey the Only Muslim Democracy in the Mideast?

The Secret of Turkish Democracy
Why is Turkey the only Muslim democracy in the Mideast? In a region where "democracy" means one-man-one-vote-one-time, how has Turkey's republic managed to survive for 79 years? That's not just a record for the Mideast. It's longer than any comparably democratic regime in France, Belgium or Germany, three countries currently beset by doubt about whether Turkey is a fit candidate for the European Union able to meet their own allegedly high moral and political standards. That will be decided in Copenhagen in December, but European pretensions aside, it is remarkable that the republican form of government Kemal Attaturk imposed on the Turkish people in 1923 is still functioning. Fellow Muslims, in all the Arab and Persian lands that surround them, are ruled by despots, and in all of them, fanaticism and terror run rampant. Only the Turks keep holding hotly contested elections, then turning over power to the winners without firing a shot, as they are set to do after yesterday's election. What makes the Turks so different from their Arab and Persian neighbors, and indeed, their European ones? What is the secret of Turkish democracy?

For answers, look first to the indispensable Bernard Lewis. He gives us four excellent, non-obvious reasons; my purpose, in this article, is to suggest a fifth. Here, first, are Lewis's four. In his quiet scholarly way, he tells us to start by discarding ubiquitous old stereotypes about the absolute power of Oriental potentates. Stalin may have had unlimited power; Turkish Sultans did not. Their powers were vast in the 16th century, they ruled much of Europe as well as the Mideast but, as Lewis shows in intricate detail, Ottoman rulers had obligations too, widely recognized and respected obligations to a complex web of groups and institutions, many organized along lines that transcended family, clan, and tribe. Thus, Lewis tells us, Turkey had two of the basic prerequisites for a democratic society long before she became one. First, the idea that there are limits on the power of even the most exalted rulers was firmly embedded in Turkish minds; second, Turks had a long-established and quite elaborate array of intermediate institutions in short, a civil society. Lewis points to two other democracy-friendly differences between Turks and their neighbors. In essence, he argues that Turks knew and understood the West better, and feared and hated us less. Arabs and Persians, after all, were largely isolated from the West for centuries. Then, in the last two, Arabs were conquered, colonized, and set free again by a who's-who of European nations. The Turkish experience is nothing like that. Turks had more intimate contact with the West over a longer period of time but, in Lewis's apt phrase, they "were always masters in their own house," never having been conquered or colonized by any foreign power.

They almost were, at the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire was in the final stage of its long slide into corruption and ineptitude. After much vacillation, the last sultan backed the losing side in the war, and the victors, after stripping Turkey of its empire, were about to carve up Anatolia itself: to conquer and colonize her at last. It didn't happen because rebel Turkish forces led by Kemal Attaturk won a dramatic, come-from-behind victory over the British at Gallipoli. And it was this same victorious Turkish officer and his young-Turk, military-intellectual followers who deposed the last Sultan, declared Turkey a republic, and imposed a sweeping program of modernization, Westernization and reform on their countrymen. They created a constitution too, to enshrine the two bedrock principles of their republic: 1) Turkey is one nation, indivisible, embracing all its citizens equally, no matter their ancestry or religion; 2) Turkey is a secular republic in which religion and the state occupy separate spheres. So far, so good, to Western minds, but the Turks did something more, something that strikes most Westerners as utterly incongruous: they created an elected, civilian government, but they made the Turkish military the guardian of their constitution, giving it the power to depose civilian rulers who violate its basic tenets, a power the military has exercised three times since 1950. All these military takeovers were brief and bloodless, and each time, the military voluntarily returned power to an elected civilian government. But, to most Western observers, that doesn't change the fact that these were serious lapses from democratic governance, lapses into despotism. Benevolent despotism, perhaps, but despotism nonetheless.

I disagree. I think the Turkish military is the great secret of Turkish democracy a fifth reason for its remarkable longevity. It keeps Turkey democratic by acting as a necessary limit on the potential excesses of popular majorities and the sometimes demagogic elected leaders who represent them, a role not unlike the one the Supreme Court plays in our own republic. And like our own justices, Turkish military officers profess loyalty only to the constitution, not to any politician or party. At first glance, it may seem crazy to com-pare military officers to justices, but to understand the Turkish military and its role in Turkish life, you have to start, once again, by discarding old stereotypes this time, about the military and the sort of men who become its leaders, especially in the Mideast. We all know only too well about ignorant, greedy, megalomaniacal military thugs like Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein, but Turkish military officers are nothing like that.

For starters, they are very well-educated, not just in methods of warfare, but in the sciences generally, and the liberal arts too, and they are fluent in Western languages. They have to be. The required military school curriculum is anything but narrow or provincial. Some Turkish politicians are provincial; no Turkish military officers are. These are sophisticated, disciplined men, and no wonder. The Turkish military has a long tradition of eschewing nepotism and all the other forms of favoritism that are endemic in the region, selecting and promoting officers on a strictly meritocratic basis. The Turkish military is tough on graft and corruption too. Corruption in Turkish politics is about as bad as in France and Belgium, and all Turks know it. But Turks are as surprised to find a military officer on the take as we are to find a federal judge who can be bought. Not unheard of, but rare enough to retain a power to shock. Megalomania gets short shrift in the Turkish military too. To guard against power-hungry men in their own ranks, Turkish officers have developed a system of military rotation and succession with firm limits on the time any officer can serve in top leadership positions. Above all, Turkish officers have great pride in their role as guardians of the constitution, and a deep awareness that to retain it, they must be willing to observe limits themselves, not just to enforce them on others. This gives them an esprit des corps that is impressive and moving, even to those who, like Stephen Kinzer, formerly the New York Times man in Istanbul, are sure that Turkey has outgrown any need for military limits.

Will Europe say yes to Turkey in December? Francis Fukuyama thinks they should but won't, and he may be right. But with or without continental Europe's condescending blessing, Turkey is the best model the Muslim world has, and in trying to help other Muslim states follow her lead, it would make sense to look past the lofty constitutional rhetoric so many despotic states adopt and ignore, and take a harder look at the role and training of their military officers.
democracy? 04.Nov.2002 07:26

this thing here

here's what happens to democracy in the middle east...

during the 1950's, iraq's democractically elected leader nationalized iraq's oil. the british, with american support, staged a coup of this leader. there hasn't been democracy in iraq since that coup.

during the 1950's, iran's democractically elected leader planned, simply planned, to nationalize iran's oil. the c.i.a. staged a coup. the shah was propped up into power. there hasn't been democracy in iran since that coup.

as for turkey, how has turkey treated its Kurdish population?

as for these right wing essays, what a tremendous record of mixed messages. these authors blast middle eastern countries for not being democratic, then say that the typical middle eastern country couldn't handle democracy (and must have a strong military for suppression purposes), and then try to justify invading iraq for the righteous purpose of creating a democratic iraq.

?. destroying democracy in iraq, and then trying to reinstate it. destroying democracy in iran, and 45 years later labelling the entire nation of iran as part of the "axis of evil", alienating the moderates and reformers there, and then writing essays about the terribly repressive fundamentalist clerics and their treatment of the reformers and moderates who want to restore democracy to iran, the very same democracy america helped to destroy.

american foreign policy in the middle east, especially as it pertains to "democracy", is a complete, idiotic, counter-productive, counter-intuitive, debacle.

Not quite right. 04.Nov.2002 22:32


This evaluation of Turkish democracy is filled with so many half truths it is hard to know where to start.

I speak Turkish fluently and lived in Turkey for three years.

To begin, the article is self contradictory. The point is made at the beginning that Turkey supposedly
has a long history of democratic practice, exceeding that of Germany and France.

Later, the article admits that three coups have occurred in modern Turkish history. How long has Turkey actually
been a democracy? Ataturk ruled as a dictator, until his death in late 30's. Inonu was his
hand picked successor.

Three coups, in the 50's, 60's, and in 1980, broke democracy into bits. The supposed democratic
record of the last 19 years (the last dictatorship ended in 1983) is sketchy at best. The
election of 1983, which I observed closely, was a competition between parties which were
all hand picked and approved by General Kenan Evren, the most recent dictator. So we can say,
if we exclude the period 1983-1987 (when Turkey was ruled by hand picked parties) that
Turkey has had about 15 years of unbroken democracy. Even so, Turkey has continued to have
one of the worlds worst records in application of systematic torture.

The oppression of the Kurdish minority (which numbers in the millions) has been one of the severest
in recent history, amounting almost to genocide. What the Turks have done to the Kurds is far worse
than what Milosevic did to the Kosovars, or than what Saddam Hussein has done to his own Kurdish
population. Over 30,000 have been killed during the last two decades. Right of Kurds to demonstrate,
to publish or broadcast in their own language, or to peaceably engage in political organization or
to educate their fellows in Kurdish culture-- all these rights have been very severely curtailed.

I do not wish to exagerate the problems of the Turkish system. I think it is true that Turks have
more democracy than most Arabs do. Turkish women are treated far better than Arab women. Multi party
democracy, of a sort, has functioned in Turkey (But the same could be said of Lebanon).

Turkey has the advantage of not having ever been conquered by any foreign invading military power.

The military, as a force for secularism, has played a positive role, at times, though this positive
role has been exagerated, by foreign observers, and by many Turks themselves, who downplay the heavy
handedness of military rule.

The so called bloodless coups were hardly that. Thousands upon thousands were jailed and tortured
and deprived of basic civil rights (even if we exclude the slaughter of the Kurds).

Much more could be said about the relative merits and demerits of the Turkish system. It should
neither be idealized, nor totally vilified.