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 2003


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 dangers.

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 economic performance."

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 encourage it.


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.

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