The Quiet Revolution
All eyes are on Iraq, but
the most breathtaking democratic reforms in the Muslim world are
happening in Turkey-with Islamists leading the way.
by Stephen Kinzer
The American Prospect, December
In a year of enormous global turmoil,
the most astonishing political revolution of all has been unfolding
not in Iraq but next door in Turkey. The first hint of its depth
came on March 1, when Turkey's parliament shocked the world by
refusing to grant the United States permission to launch an Iraq
invasion from Turkish soil. Since then, an audacious new government
has been working relentlessly to redefine both the nature of the
Turkish state and the country's role in the world.
This process has already permanently changed
relations between Turkey and the United States. For half a century
the two countries maintained an intimate partnership, underpinned
by their joint campaigns against communism and later Saddam Hussein.
With those threats now gone, Turkish and American leaders are
wondering whether they still need one another.
The Turks, hoping more fervently than
ever to join the European Union, are sliding out of the American
orbit and steadily closer to Europe. Their new government has
embarked on one of the most sweeping reform campaigns in the country's
history. If this effort succeeds, Turkey will become important
in a new way: It will be the counter-model to Muslim fundamentalism
and a living example of how an Islamic country can progress by
embracing what Kemal Ataturk called "universal values."
That would make Turkey an even greater asset to the West than
it was at the height of the Cold War. In the past, Turkey was
strategically vital because of where it is; in the future, it
may be vital because of what it is.
The political earthquake now shaking Turkey
was set off by two events. The first and more dramatic was the
election of November 2002, which brought to power the first stable,
single-party government the country has had in more than a decade.
It was an amazing triumph for the Justice and Development Party,
which had existed for less than two years, and also an expression
of disgust with the encrusted political establishment.
Then, just after that stunning election,
European Union leaders promised that in December 2004 they would
vote on whether to begin talks with Turkey about joining their
elite club. These two events sent Turkey onto a frenzied course
of reform that is breathtaking in its ambition-but also full of
The new government has used its large
parliamentary majority to pass a series of profound reforms aimed
at expanding civil and political freedoms. One package was designed
to reduce the military's power in politics. Another legalized
broadcasting and education in Kurdish languages, a major breakthrough
in a country where promoting Kurdish culture has long been considered
seditious. Parliament also voted to expand the rights of religious
minorities, impose heavy penalties on abusive police officers,
and make it harder to punish citizens for what they say or write.
Such reforms would be extraordinary in
any Muslim nation. But what makes this scenario especially fascinating
is the fact that the party leading this peaceful revolution has
its roots in Islamic politics. Its leaders, Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, shun the Islamist
label and prefer to be called "conservative democrats."
Both, however, pray regularly, avoid alcohol and are married to
women who wear headscarves. Such people are often assumed to be
intolerant. In Turkey today, however, their party is turning out
to be more committed to democracy than any of the corrupt "secular"
parties that bled the country for decades.
During a visit to Washington last year,
Erdogan did not deny his fundamentalist background but said that
he had been on a "sharp learning curve" and was assimilating
"new lessons and new ideas." His dream, he told one
audience, was a Turkey that would "match other countries
in the world in democratic values, as well as in technology and
A Muslim party leading the charge toward
European-style democracy-this is a deliciously subversive contradiction.
Turkish intellectuals have consumed much raki while musing about
how it came to happen. One of them, the political scientist Soli
Ozel, calls it "another example of a historical irony or
dialectic, that the most unexpected people deliver what is most
unexpected of them."
Pro-lslamic politicians in Turkey used
to be part of the reactionary establishment. That changed in the
late l990s, when a cabal of prosecutors, judges and generals launched
a crackdown on the Islamists. They arranged for Erdogan to be
removed from his post as mayor of Istanbul and sent to prison
for 10 months, ostensibly because he had recited a pro-terrorist
poem. Islamists say that this persecution led them to a kind of
conversion, a turn toward the ideal of pluralist democracy.
Many Turkish secularists don't believe
a word of this. They cannot imagine that anything good could come
from an Islamic party. Most suspect their new leaders of practicing
taqiyya, the permitted Muslim practice of hiding one's true beliefs
until the time is right to unveil them. Some are convinced that
Islamist politicians support free speech only because it will
allow them to spread their fundamentalist poison more easily.
They argue that Turkey has already achieved something quite spectacular
by building a secular and remarkably free society, and that if
the current reforms go any further, they could produce a reaction
toward the chaos of fundamentalism and separatist terrorism.
Tension is crackling between the two forces.
It flared into the open on Oct. 29, at the annual Republic Day
celebration hosted by the president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer. One of
the diehards, Sezer refused to invite women who wore headscarves,
meaning that Prime Minister Erdogan could not bring his wife.
Asked about this snub, Erdogan told reporters,
"Put yourselves in my wife's place
and decide for yourself."
As Erdogan's government presses ahead
with its reform agenda, it will face intensifying obstacles. Even
if the measures passed so far are implemented and strengthened,
Europeans will demand more. Turkey will have to show its commitment
to religious freedom by allowing the Greek Orthodox seminary in
Istanbul to reopen after more than 30 years; to minority rights
by freeing Leyla Zana and three other Kurdish members of the parliament
who have been imprisoned since 1994 on terrorist charges; to European
politics by accepting a settlement to the decades-old Cyprus dispute.
Traditionalists will resist these steps, but unless Turkey takes
them within the next year, it could lose its last chance in a
generation to move toward EU membership.
So far, according to an interim EU report
issued in November, the reform project has not gone far enough.
Military commanders still control many levers of civilian power,
jailhouse torture persists and expanded cultural rights for minority
groups are more visible on paper than in practice. Turkey has
pledged to do better, and when E leaders review the record at
their December 2004 summit, they will have to act very carefully.
Some will undoubtedly insist that the European Union needs time
to absorb its 10 new members and therefore should not consider
taking on such a big one as Turkey anytime soon. Others may suggest
that Turks are culturally and historically non-European and don't
belong in the EU under any circumstances. If, however, Turkey
has continued to make progress toward European political and economic
standards and still comes from the summit empty-handed, man Turks
will feel betrayed and angry.
For the Bush administration, mean while,
Turkey's move toward democracy comes at a very bad moment. Anytime
before the pivotal November z002 election, the United States would
easily have won Turkey's quick approval of a major strategic request
like the one regarding Iraq. But for once, the parliament voted
in accordance with public opinion and against the United States.
Months later, Erdogan's government agreed to send l0,000 peacekeeping
troops to the U.S.-led force in Iraq, only to discover afterward
that the Americans were changing their minds about the wisdom
of the deployment.
Some in the Bush administration would
like to punish Turkey for striking out on its independent course.
Pentagon officials, who had assured the White House that they
could persuade Turkey to allow use of its territory for the Iraq
invasion, were very embarrassed when they failed, and sought to
make Turkey pay for its defiance. The Bush administration's recent
decision to approve $8.5 billion in loans to Turkey, however,
suggests that those officials have failed to make their case.
Turkey is maturing toward democracy-exactly
the course that the United States has been urging it to follow
for decades. A more open Turkey will naturally be more difficult
to influence than one dominated by generals, but the United States
should welcome that kind of Turkey. It would be an oasis of pluralism
in a deeply troubled part of the world and a model for other Muslim
countries, perhaps even neighboring Iraq.
A truly democratic Turkey, committed to
humane values and anchored in Europe, could be a bridge between
the Islamic and non-lslamic worlds such as has not existed since
the days of Moorish Andalusia. The example of a pro-lslamic party
pushing a country toward modernity, rather than away from it,
would certainly resound throughout the Muslim world.
Turkey's challenge over the next year
is immense. Its leaders must first push the country to take steps
it has resisted for decades and then persuade the European Union
to reward it with a huge prize. This is a project of global importance.
All who seek a more stable world-especially Americans-should fervently
STEPHEN KINZER is a New York Times reporter.
He is a co-author of Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American
Coup in Guatemala and the author of All the Shah's Men: An American
Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.