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Realism About Turkey By: Serge Trifkovic
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 13, 2003


One in a series of excerpts adapted by Robert Locke from Dr. Serge Trifkovic’s new book The Sword of the Prophet: A Politically-Incorrect Guide to Islam.

It is no secret that in America’s desperate search for allies in the Moslem world, Turkey is at the top of the list of our supposed "friends," both because of its strategic location and because of its supposed success in creating a secular Moslem society. While not wanting to scant the positive aspects of this nation, we should be distinctly realistic about its shortcomings. We got into enough trouble lying to ourselves about Saudi Arabia, the nation that largely – albeit indirectly – financed 9/11 due to its bizarre fundamentalist kleptocracy. Let’s not repeat the mistake of entertaining romantic illusions in a political marriage of convenience. Turkey has a serious dark side.

To understand contemporary Turkey, some history is required. A century ago the Ottoman Empire was moribund, the Sick Man on the Bosphorus whose hold on the far-flung provinces in the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East was growing more tenuous by the day. Its precarious survival in the century before the Great War was due mainly to the inability of Europe to agree on what to do with the spoils, leavened with some realization that breaking it would create a mess. This was the notorious "Eastern Question," which remained on the European diplomatic agenda until WWI.

After the Ottoman Empire collapsed by joining the losing side in WWI, Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish Republic emerged from the ashes. This coincided with the final curtain for the Christians of the Ottoman Empire. Between 1915 and 1922 most of the Armenians and Greeks in Asia Minor were exterminated or ethnically cleansed. At least 1.5 million people died.

To this day, it is the official position of the Turkish government that this never happened. This is as if David-Irving style Holocaust denial were the official position of the German government. It is this reality that should be the focus of any consideration of modern Turkey. That the modern descendants of the Ottomans are perhaps among the least tolerant nations in the world — as is evinced by Turkey’s continuing persecution of not only fellow Muslims such as Kurds and Alawites but of Greeks, Cypriots and Armenians as well — echoes what the Eastern Christians endured.

Today, Turkey is back as a major player in its own right, a regional power par excellence and the pillar of the U.S. strategy in Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Its population will exceed that of Russia in thirty years if today’s demographic trends continue. Its influence is on the rise in its old holdings in the Balkans as well as throughout the former Soviet Central Asia. Turkey is aggressively pursuing its European Union candidacy, while resisting even feeble Western demands to end its brutal war against the Kurds in the eastern part of the country, which has been going on, accomplished by ruthless cultural suppression, for almost three decades and has claimed some 30,000 lives.

More egregious is Turkey’s refusal to make any concessions on Cyprus — invaded in July 1974 and partly occupied by 35,000 Turkish soldiers ever since. Over the past 28 years, Turkey has flooded the occupied northern part of the island with settlers from the mainland; their numbers by now exceed the number of native Turkish Cypriots, about 115,000 in 1974 as opposed to just over half a million Greeks. They occupied two-fifths of Cyprus and, in the best tradition of the prophet and the great caliphs, ordered Greeks inhabiting the area to leave within 24 hours. Greek houses and businesses were handed over to Turkish Cypriots. Greek villages and towns were attacked indiscriminately but in cities with mixed populations targets were selected: Christian churches were the first to go up in flames, or be converted into mosques. The final toll was 4,000 men, women and children dead, 1,619 missing and presumed dead. The entire Greek population of the Turkish-occupied part of the island was physically exterminated or ethnically cleansed. Forty percent of the island, including 65% of the arable land, 60% of all its water resources, two-thirds of its mineral wealth, 70% of its industries and four-fifths of tourist installations came under Turkish rule.

While other countries would be condemned, embargoed, or bombed for similar transgressions, Turkey’s status as a bona fide member of NATO and the essential pillar of U.S. strategy in the eastern Mediterranean, and the bridgehead of influence in the oil-rich Caspian basin, was never in doubt. Its position as an essential U.S. ally, and its ability to get away with murder, was further reinforced in 1979, when the entire U.S. strategy in the Middle East was thrown into disarray with the fall of the Shah of Iran. The Turks have exploited their supposed usefulness to us ruthlessly.

Almost a quarter of a century later, the axiom in Washington, that Turkey will remain "secular" and "pro-Western," looks tenuous at best, and it behooves us to examine the validity of those assumptions. What will happen if history repeats itself, if Ankara goes the way of Teheran, cutting off America’s access to the oil-rich Caspian region and bringing into its orbit America’s new clients in Sarajevo, Tirana, and Pristina? Is it possible, or likely, or even imminent? Can the U.S. afford to be caught by surprise yet again? What can it do to prepare for such eventuality?

The lack of a coherent "Turkish" strategy in Washington was apparent in June 1997, when the Turkish army abruptly forced the resignation of Necmettin Erbakan, the country’s democratically elected Prime Minister. This was hailed by the Clinton administration as a welcome event, a defeat for "Islamic fundamentalists" of Erbakan’s Refah party and the victory for the "pro-Western" camp led by the army and supported by some "secular" parties. Such posture mirrored the U.S. reaction to the military coup in Algeria that prevented the establishment of a pro-Islamic government following the victory of radical Muslims at the polls.

In real democracies, the army does not replace elected governments, of course, but the propriety of political acts is judged in Washington on the basis of the desirability of their outcome, not on any such lofty principle as mere democracy. To this day the Turkish army is regarded by the U.S. foreign policy establishment as the guarantor of Ankara’s permanently "pro-Western," secular orientation. But in the Middle East, "secularism" does not coincide with "democracy," as the vicious regimes in Iraq and Syria demonstrate.

If we are to have a serious debate on America’s long-term interests in eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East experts in Washington should stop pretending that Turkey is democratic. At present it is, at best, a "guided democracy" in which no institution, judicial or civil, is independent of the state and the lurking power behind the state, the generals of the Turkish army whose tough Kemalist ideology is all that stands between Turkey and chaos.

It is also time to admit that any real "democratization" of Turkey will mean its irreversible Islamization. This is because Turkey is a polity based on an Islamic ethos, regardless of its political superstructure. Turkey inherited this Islamic legacy from the Ottoman Empire. With the establishment of the modern Turkish state in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk", the project introduced a secular concept of nationhood. However, the establishment of the multi-party political system in 1945 gave political Islam an opportunity to reassert itself. Popular Islamic political movements of the past three decades have produced a "Turkish-Islamic synthesis" - an Islamic concept of nationhood that has Ottoman roots and seeks to re-establish an Ottoman-Islamic concept of Turkish nationhood. They are explicit in their rejection of the contemporary Western way of life, values, and ideology. Their success is due to the fact that an overwhelming majority of Turks are Muslims in their beliefs, values, and world outlook.

The fact that political Islam has found such fertile ground in Turkey comes as a shock to many in our own government, revealing the ultimate dependence of the political system on the army. The CIA’s 1997 "State Failure Task Force" report identified Turkey as a nation in danger of collapse. The resulting erosion of the ruling stratum’s self-confidence has led to increased oppression. Journalists now risk fines, imprisonment, bans, or violent attacks if they write about "the role of Islam in politics and society" or "the proper role of the military in government and society."1 Turkey is a "guided democracy" at best, with no institution, judicial or civil, truly independent of the State, and with the military as the final guarantor of its pro-Western, secular orientation.

Just as enormous oil revenues could not resolve the problem in Iran, there is no reason to believe that the proposed massive injections of foreign aid and support, of whatever kind, will do the trick in Turkey. The Kemalist dream of strict secularism has never penetrated beyond the military and a relatively narrow stratum of urban elite centered in Istanbul.

The lack of cultural rootedness of Turkey’s political elites remains as serious a problem today as it was in Ataturk’s times, and in many minds the question about the dormant Islamic volcano is not if, but when. The narrow stratum of the Kemalist ruling class rules Turkey by the grace of the West and the will of the Army, period. The same dynamics that have swept it away in Teheran may apply in Ankara in the next decade. The parallel with Iran is alarming. Backed by the United States, both the Shah and the Turkish generals have pursued a policy of militarization as a means of solving the tension between modernization dictated from above and religiously expressed resistance from below. Repression and militarism have provided fertile ground for Islam.

Inseparable from internal repression is Ankara’s external expansionism as a means of lessening political tensions and military threats in pursuit of territorial revisionism. In January of 1996, Ankara disputed Greek sovereignty over the Greek islet of Imia. Six months later Turkey claimed the Greek Island of Gavdos near Crete - 240 miles from the Turkish shore. And this is a country that wants to be allowed to join the European Union, further flooding the already-Islamized streets of Germany and other European nations with cheap Turkish labor?

With each passing year it is becoming more urgent for the U.S. government to break away from its unthinking Turkophilia. It is using its special status in Washington to develop itself as a regional power of considerable significance, and that position will not be subject to change if the Islamists take over. Turkey’s cultural and political influence is on the rise in its old holdings in the Balkans, as well as throughout the former Soviet Central Asia. Its proximity to the Caspian oil fields has fortified its position as a key U.S. ally in the area and a major recipient of American weapons and technology, whose air base at Incirlik is regularly used by the U.S. Air Force to bomb Iraq.

The Bush administration may yet discover that "democratization" of Turkey may mean its irreversible Islamization. The latest crisis should sound alarm bells in Washington that America needs alternative scenarios to cover such eventuality. We have seen former friends turn foe before in this part of the world, and it is time to plan for realistically-conceived possibilities. Above all, let’s stop lying to ourselves on the theory that flattering foreign nations can make them conform to our wishes for what they should be.

Footnotes

1. Human Rights Watch, 1999.


Serge Trifkovic received his PhD from the University of Southampton in England and pursued postdoctoral research at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. His past journalistic outlets have included the BBC World Service, the Voice of America, CNN International, MSNBC, U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Times of London, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He is foreign affairs editor of Chronicles.


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