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Inevitable Divergence

By David Warren

There was nothing fey about Mustafa Kemal Pasa, a.k.a. Ataturk, the founder of post-Ottoman Turkey. Neither in his seizure of power, nor in what he did with it, was the man inclined to shrink from difficulties. An articulate and complex man (I have not been able to find a biography of him that makes him truly plausible), he was able to guide his independence movement as much ideologically as tactically, then shape the emerging Turkish republic to his own desires. Partly he did this by making himself, through his eloquence, the author of his own legend, and through that legend he personified, long after his death, what he wanted his countrymen to become.

Ataturk wanted a "modern" nation, by which he meant explicitly a secular one. It was his belief that the political power of the mosques would never voluntarily defer to a European-style civil order, and that the ancient Islamic customs of the countryside gave the imams great authority. He set out to break that authority. Among outward devices, he made the wearing of Islamic dress illegal, and among inward, he created an education system that would inculcate the modern European notion that religion is a matter only for one's private conscience.

Turkey prospered under his rule, and Ataturk's prestige grew with the prosperity. The country became urbanized and to some degree industrialized. In many ways it benefited from ceasing to be the centre of a large empire, for the expense of maintaining an empire is generally greater than the income to be derived from it (as each of the European powers in turn eventually discovered). The "sick man of Europe," as the Ottoman "Turkey" of the Sultans had been called, through the failure of their own successive modernizing half-measures, became a tremendous regional power, able to stand up through alliances even against such threats as Soviet Russia.

It is important to grasp why Turkey was the only Muslim nation to develop and maintain something like Western institutions over several generations. The point is that this was not achieved by "democracy," but by Ataturk. A limited, guided democracy, grew out of his authoritarian vision. The Turkish military always stood by, prepared to intervene in political life to vindicate a secular constitution, in which it was assigned the responsibility of doing so.

Turkey has been an unconscious model, for Western occupiers trying to guide political developments in Iraq and Afghanistan. She cannot be a conscious model, because the U.S. and allies have never been prepared to do what Ataturk did to create a civil order, nor what the U.S. and allies themselves did when they imposed democracy upon Germany and Japan after the Second World War.

President Bush's hopeful idea from the beginning, was that democracy would spread through the Arab and Muslim world, in the same way it had spread through central and eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He seems sincerely to believe, to this day, that freedom and democracy are things all human beings want, and will have, if only they aren't prevented from obtaining it. Hence, the rather naïve efforts to endow Iraq and Afghanistan with paper constitutions, and in Iraq especially, the failure of the country's politicians to agree to anything. (In President Karzai, Afghanistan has had something more like a strongman.)

Without a George Washington, I doubt the United States itself could have become anything like the vast free republic that emerged. On the other hand, without the cultural and social order that the U.S. inherited from colonial times, a Gen. Washington was inconceivable.

In retrospect, Ataturk is a man who strides through history more as a brilliantly successful Pinochet, than the failed Washington he could easily have been. In free and fair elections on Sunday, the Turkish people again voted a mild but expressly "Islamist" party to power (the Justice and Development Party, whose Turkish initials are A.K.P.) -- this time by a landslide, despite all the alarmed reservations about it expressed by Turkey's own diminishing Westernized, urbane, secular middle class.

As I've written several times before (most recently June 20th), there is every demographic and political indication that Turkey's "secular" experiment is ending. It went sufficiently against the grain of an Islamic society to begin with. Over time, the prestige of Islam revived, and by presenting themselves as only moderate Islamists, whose main intention is to clean up corruption, and deliver welfare services more efficiently to the country's poor, the A.K.P. has cleverly insinuated itself into the hearts and minds of the people who still have most of the children.

Let that be a lesson to us. The Islamic world is not going to become more Western and "modern" over time. For Turkey was the farthest "West" any Islamic society could be taken, and then only by force. We must confront that reality plainly, and stop dreaming that "democracy" will make the Muslims just like us.

© Ottawa Citizen

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