To read of the stunning news, of the almost-overnight liquidation of the Ataturkist or secularist military caste, and to try to do so from the standpoint of a seriously secular Turk, is to have a small share in the sense of acute national vertigo that must have accompanied the proclamation of a new system in the second two decades of the 20th century.
For example, today’s vice president of Kemal Ataturk’s historical political party, the Republican People’s Party or RPP, was quoted on Friday as speaking of “a second Turkish republic” with a heavy heart “in the seaside city of Cannkkale,” and not long after, it seemed that some high-ranking Turkish officers would now be arrested rather than, as previously reported, having had their resignations accepted. That famous seaside peninsula, as the New York Times did not emphasize, also bears the name of Gallipoli. It is the place where Gen. Mustafa Kemal inflicted the most bloody and tragic defeat on British imperial forces in 1915-16, while also convincing Rupert Murdoch’s cocky colonial ancestors that their brave Aussie forebears had been used as cannon fodder by teak-headed British toffs. The apple of the notorious 1981 Mel Gibson movie did not roll very far from the tree. Within a few years of Gallipoli, the same Turkish general had, in fact, reversed the local verdict of the 1914-18 war, and expelled Greek, French, and British forces from Anatolia.
The historic weight of this is almost impossible to overstate: Ataturk (who was quite probably a full-blown atheist) could write his own secular ticket precisely because he had ignominiously defeated three Christian invaders. Yet for decades, Western statecraft has been searching feverishly for another Mustafa Kemal, someone who can jumpstart the modernization of a Muslim community under his own name. For a while, they thought Gamal Abdel Nasser might be the model. Then there was the Shah of Iran. They even briefly fancied the notions of Saddam Hussein, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and other characters who will live in infamy. But nobody ever came close to touching Ataturk for authority and authenticity. Under his power, the great caliphate was done away with, and the antique rule of the celestial and the sublime reduced to a dream in which only a few ascetic visionaries and sectarians showed any real interest. Until recently, modern Turkey showed every sign of evolving into a standard capitalist state on the European periphery.
There was, however, an acid rivalry concealed within the new Turkish establishment. The nascent Islamist populist movement—the Justice and Development Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan—understood very well that, once in the European Union proper, Turkey would be prevented by EU law from submitting to another period of rule by men in uniform. We thus saw the intriguing spectacle of quite conservative and nationalist Turks (with a distinct tendency to chauvinism in Erdogan’s case) making common cause with liberal international institutions against the very Turkish institution, the army, that above all symbolized Turkish national pride and prestige. This cooperation between ostensibly secular and newly pious may have had something to do with a growing sense of shame among the educated secular citizenry of big cities like Istanbul, who always knew they could count on the army to uphold their rights but who didn’t enjoy exerting the privilege. The fiction of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s complex Nobelist and generally liberal author, has explored this paradox very well. His novel Snow is perhaps the best dress rehearsal for the argument.
Because of course Pamuk is also the most edgy spokesman for the rights of the Kurds and the Armenians, and of those whose very nationality has put them in collision with the state. He has been threatened with imprisonment under archaic laws forbidding the discussion of certain topics, and he must have noticed the high rate of death that has overcome dissidents, like Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who have exercised insufficient caution.
But the sordid fact is that the “secular” military elite in Turkey had already sold out a number of the values that were real to Ataturk and necessary for Turkey’s integration into the Eurosphere. The Turkish army not only allowed itself to become a participant in the dirty and illegal land grab that continues to offend all international laws and U.N. resolutions affecting the self-proclaimed colonial statelet in the north of the island of Cyprus, but in the early years of the occupation, the leader of Ataturk’s party—Bulent Ecevit—was rounded up as a political detainee. This negation of free movement within EU borders has poisoned relations with Greece, driven tens of thousands of Cypriots into economic exile, and delayed the integration of two advanced economies—Turkey and Cyprus—at just the point when the Athenian economy cannot go it alone.
Having for years provided a rearguard at Incirlik Air Base for the humanitarian relief of the Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite populations, the Turks were offered the opportunity to lend a “northern front” and to finish the job of Operation Provide Comfort in 2003. The strong impression received by some of us who sat in the waiting rooms outside the discussions of this policy was that the Turkish army was declining the honor mainly because the bribe or inducement wasn’t large enough. It also seemed that the same army was hoping for a chance to project its own power in the Kurdish provinces of northern Iraq. To be waging another dirty war on the soil of a foreign state, and to be paying for it by using money supplied by the foreign aid budget of the U.S. Congress, looked like bad faith of a very special kind.
In 1960, the Turkish army held the ring by intervening to execute two powerful political bosses—Adnan Menderes and Fatin Zorlu—who according to my best information had instigated vicious pogroms in Istanbul and Nicosia and even tried the provocation of bombing Kemal Ataturk’s birthplace in Salonika. (See, if interested, my little book Hostage to History: Cyprus From the Ottomans to Kissinger.) But this long, uneven symbiosis between state and nation and army and modernity has now run its course. In its time, it flung a challenge to the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles, revived regional combat on a scale to evoke the Crusades, and saw the American and Turkish flags raised together over blood-soaked hills in Korea in the first bellicose engagements of the Cold War. That epoch is now over. One wonders only whether to be surprised at how long it lasted or how swiftly it drew to a close and takes comfort from the number of different ways in which it is possible to be a Turk or a Muslim.