What's Next for Turkey: The Marathon?

On December 17, 2004, the European commission president Jose Manuel Barroso frustrated Turkey's hope to become immediately a member of the European Union. He urged Ankara to "go the extra mile" - including the recognition of Cyprus - to convince skeptics from Christian Europe about her seriousness to join the Union. Turkey has so far refused to recognize the island nation arguing that it is an issue for the United Nations. French President Chirac has also threatened that if the accession talks, to begin on Oct. 3, 2005, succeed, the Turks may have to accept the responsibility for mass killings of Armenians, something that Turkey has denied, during World War I. Austrian Chancellor Schuessel cautioned that bringing a Muslim country into the EU "must not be decided in an Ivory tower." He would call a referendum, so as not to be "indifferent to public opinion" in Europe. 

Supporters of Turkey consider these intimidations as nothing less than blackmail, and maintain that the country could be a bridge between Europe and Muslim world. Ten percent of Turkey's landmass is in Europe. It is the only Muslim country with a membership in the NATO. The Turks have been waiting, as an associate member, at the door of Europe for 41 years. Since the days of Kemal Ataturk, they have followed secularism more stringently than any country, including their harshest critics. Then, why this fuss about running the "extra" mile? 

Truly, there is hardly a Muslim country that even comes close to Turkey in its unswerving commitment to secularize, westernize and modernize. The history of westernization in Turkey portrays the features characteristic of this movement everywhere else, only perhaps more clearly. In the last half of the 18th century, Ottoman Turks were the first Muslim nation to adopt European inventions, such as Military techniques and printing, a process followed, in the course of the 19th century by the reforms of the Ottoman administrative and legal system on western patterns. 

In 1826, Sultan Mahmud instituted a series of westernizing reforms. The first reforms were connected with the modernization of the armed forces. Help was sought from the English, French and German advisors to reorganize the Turkish Army on purely European lines, a practice that has now been picked up by most Arab governments. A year later, European type schools were opened. The young Turkish students were sent to France for advanced education so that they would accelerate the rate of westernization in the coming decades. Finally, western dress was made compulsory for official purposes. All these reforms were made roughly a hundred years before Kemal Ataturk came into the scene. 

Secular state laws were promulgated. In 1831, Sultan Mahmud founded the Imperial Music School to promote European music, and clothed Turkish soldiers for the first time in western-style uniforms. 

Needless to say, such westernization brought no benefit whatsoever to the country. In 1839, Sultan Abdul-Mejid launched the Tanzimat (Turkish for "Reorganization") movement - a plethora of reformist measures (to continue until 1876) - as a cure for the body politic of the semi-moribund empire. Ironically, the Tanzimat hastened the decay it was meant to arrest. Soon the Ottoman state came to be recognized as the "Sick Man of Europe." 

In the second half of the 19th century, when Sultan Abdul Hamid became the Caliph, the empire was already on the verge of collapse. He tried to follow an Islamic policy, away from the tides of Turanism and Jacobin-influenced westernization that had became so assertive. But it was too late. Ottoman military was totally in the hands of the Jacobins linked to the Young Turk Movement. In December 1876, the Jacobinist leader Mithat Pasha forced the Sultan to accept constitutional monarchy. But the Sultan was quick to regain his absolute powers by dismissing the Constitution on 14 February, 1878 sending the Young Turks to exile and executing their leaders, including Mithat Pasha. The exiled Young Turks adopted the Jacobin principle of the French republic, and formed the Ittihad ve Terakki Cemiyeti [Committee of Union and Progress (CUP)] as the indigenous wing of the movement in 1889. 

Soon the CUP was able to win over the modernist intelligentsia within Turkey. However, not until 1900, when the Grand Orient virtually took over the CUP/Young Turk party and its Masonic lodges in Salonica (Thessalonica), did the movement assume a serious feature. There were even pressures on the Sultan to curb out the Zionist state; but he did not relinquish. 

Through a successful coup in 1908-09, the Young Turks eventually took control over the empire by dethroning the Sultan. Thus began the second Constitutional (Mesrutiyet) period to last until 1922. The CUP became the ultimate power. They resembled the Jacobins from the French Revolution in their republican zeal, intolerance of opposition, and ruthlessness. Islam was shelved and Turkish nationalism, more and more (arrogantly) secular in nature, emerged as the dominant ideology. Zia Gokalp became the father of Turkish nationalism. The Young Turks sought to expedite the political and social westernization of the Ottoman state by applying the Jacobin nation-state model, but on a much broader scale, and with all the force and coercive power it could muster. Their misadventure took the empire into World War I, a decision that completed its dismemberment. And at the end of this period, Mustafa Kemal emerged as the sole leader of Turkey. 

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, went much farther than anyone to westernize his nation. He believed that in order to modernize Turkey, the path was an uncompromising one, that being westernization, and it should be done without retaining traditional cultures. So, everything from the past had to go. His program was for Turks to become Europeans. He abolished the caliphate, and changed the country to a secular republic. He closed the Shari'a courts of law and religious colleges; replaced the remaining parts of Islamic law by western civil codes. He moved the capital city from Istanbul inland to Ankara. He instituted a unified secular education system; religious instructions were banned from schools and the Latin script superseded the Arabic script (this was done to permanently seal the separation between the Turks and their religion). He removed the Islamic ban on reproducing human images; statues and pictures were introduced. So was Western music. He ended the ban on alcohol and encouraged the growth of a wine industry. Sunday, instead of Friday, became the official day of rest. Women were given western "emancipation" and strong pressure was put upon them to discard their veils, scarves and other traditional dresses. In 1928, Islam lost its status as the established religion in the Turkish Republic and secularism was enshrined as the state policy. It was a total cultural revolution, imposed by one man's iron will and by the force of a ruthless army. 

From the very onset of coming to power, Kemal Ataturk and his followers - the Kemalists - tried to doom Islam from ever becoming a vital force in the Turkish social and cultural life. Sufi orders were dissolved. Adhan was initially banned from being transmitted in Arabic. A Turkish form of Adhan was endorsed, only to be rejected later (because of mass disapproval). Sermons were to be delivered in Turkish, and no longer in Arabic. Even private instructions in religion were disapproved. Official Imams were appointed to preach the official line. Many mosques were closed down. People were not allowed to put on turban and the Fez for prayer. Even keeping beard was restricted. 

The Kemalists wanted to reform Islam in the light of Reform Judaism. In this regard, it is worth noting some of the suggestions put forward by Kopruluzade, a disciple of Zia Gokalp: religious service should be made inspiring by the employment of musically trained chanters and prayer leaders and the introduction of instrumental music; the Turkish language is to be used as language of worship, instead of the Qur'anic Arabic. Kopruluzade's Masonic ideas caused such uproar in the public that the government had to shelve the report. 

Kemalism rejected the continuity of Turkish national history and attempted to link the present to a remote period of the past - the Jahiliya - prior to Islam (later to be followed by the Shah of Iran). The Turkish Historical Society founded by Ataturk in 1931 was charged with giving special attention to the study of Turkish and Anatolian history prior to Islam. All these were done in order to diminish the importance of Muslim history. The Kemalists succeeded in turning Turkey into the most staunchly secular, non-communist country in the world. 

But the more important question is: what did the secular leadership really achieve for Turkey after some 96 years of effectively running the nation? Did westernization make Turkey any better? Has it narrowed the gap with Europe? 

Turkish society is surely more urbanized than ever before, with major cities that resemble many European cities. Of all the Muslim nation states, she also (probably) has the most educated populace. Yet her GDP per capita income is estimated at $6700, only about a third of the original EU member nations.[2] The number of talented Turks leaving the country is more than those returning home. 

In his book - "Revival of Islam in Modern Turkey," Professor Uriel Heyd of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, after reviewing the history of westernization in modern Turkey, said: "Can Islam last without its holy law? In the Turkish Republic the Shariah has been almost completely abrogated. In spite of this, the Turks not only say that they have remained Muslims but in recent years many of them, in fact, display a growing Islamic consciousness and an increased attachment to religious practices." 

It's thus no wonder that Necmettin Erbakan surged to power in June 1996 with a platform of Islamic-based, anti-Western populism for a new Just Order and rapprochement with the rest of the Muslim world. He was removed within a year by a military coup, and his Refah (Welfare) Party was closed down. Islamic politicians reorganized themselves in the Fazilet (Virtue) Party, under the banner of Western-style democracy. However, this party, too, was closed down by the constitutional court in 2001. Thereafter, the members founded the Saadet Partisi. 

In the last election of Nov., 2002 Justice and Development Party (AKP), a moderate pro-Islamic party, has formed the government with first Abdullah Gul and later Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the Prime Minister. What is more amazing is that in the last two decades, AKP is the first party to ever form a single-party government. Quite an achievement for a party that is not shy of its Muslim credential! 


The conditions now put forth by the EU member states towards Turkey's accession clearly reveal their hypocrisy. In recent days, violence against Muslims living in Europe is on the rise. The process, initiated by 9/11, the French ban on hijab and the train bombing in Spain, has been catalyzed by Theo van Gogh's murder. As a result of this last wave of hatred, Muslim schools, business places and mosques have been gutted. Europe has repeatedly failed to distinguish individual actions from mob actions. 

It is also nervous time for the Bush and Blair governments that have been trying, no matter how deceitfully, to prove that there is no 'clash of civilizations' between Christians and Muslims. The decision by the European commission shows that Europe is still not ready for pluralism and is worried about inclusion of a Muslim majority country. They can preach about the wisdom behind secularism, but religion still matters. So, the Turkish constitution can be the most secular on earth, and upheld doggedly by its military to the extent of even unseating its elected government, but is no guarantee for admission into the EU. Pure and simple! 

How far are the Turks willing to run to join the European Union? And what is the guarantee that they would ever be admitted? Wouldn't it be better for them to look south and eastward and reclaim their leadership position as they once held? 


[1]. This essay is partially based on a speech that the author gave at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on Nov. 19, 1982. 

[2]. Per CIA Fact sheet for 2004. 

Related Suggestions

The opinions expressed herein, through this post or comments, contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of IslamiCity. These are offered as a means for IslamiCity to stimulate dialogue and discussion in our continuing mission of being an educational organization. The IslamiCity site may occasionally contain copyrighted material the use of which may not always have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. IslamiCity is making such material available in its effort to advance understanding of humanitarian, education, democracy, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and such (and all) material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.