[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
Today is the anniversary of a tragedy in Turkish political history. Eighty-two years ago, on this day, Turkish democracy was crushed and an authoritarian regime was introduced. And the legacy of that moment has continued to doom our political system to date.
If this is totally news for you, don’t worry. It is so for many Turks, too. For they have been raised on the creation myth of Republican Turkey, which can be summarized as something like this:
“From the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, which was rotten to the core, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk arose as a great savior. He won the war of liberation (1919-22), and rebuilt Turkey as a modern country via his radical reforms. His opponents were backward minded fanatics, which he rightfully got rid of.”
That would be the gist of an “Official Turkish History For Beginners” book, but it would only be a half-truth. It is definitely true that Atatürk was a great leader who modernized Turkey in many ways, but some of his political opponents were also men with alternatives, and at least equally promising, visions.
Modernization, But How?
To see that, one should first recall that the late Ottoman Empire had a very sophisticated intellectual elite. Most of the Ottoman intelligentsia spoke English and French, and they were very well versed in European thought, not to mention the Islamic tradition. Among them were different trends, but to generalize, we can speak of two main camps. One of these was what I call the “modernization within the tradition” camp. Its proponents realized the need for reforms, but were hoping to realize these without abandoning traditional values, and especially the religious ones.
The second trend was what I call the “modernization despite the tradition” folks. Their most radical representative was the secular fundamentalist Abdullah Cevdet, who thought Turks could only save themselves if they abandoned their religion. His distaste with traditional values reached a level of deep self-hatred. As a believer in Social Darwinism, he once argued that Turkish women should be bred with men from the “superior races” of Europe to ensure “biological progress.” He is still remembered with deep disgust among Turkey’s conservatives.
During Turkey’s War of Liberation, both of these intellectual trends – and all other segments of the society, which included Islamic clerics, Kurdish leaders, and local notables – were united against the occupying powers and under the roof of the Turkish Parliament. But even during those years, the two different political lines became evident within Parliament. The line that unquestioningly supported Mustafa Kemal was also secularist and revolutionary in nature. This was called “the First Group.” “The Second Group,” on the other hand, consisted of the “modernization within the tradition” people.
Enter Terakkiperver Fırka
When the war was won and the Republic was announced in 1923, the First Group turned into the People’s Party (“Halk Fırkası”), which was dominated by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and his right-hand man, İsmet İnönü. About a year later, The Second Group established the Progressive Party (Terakkiperver Fırka), whose leaders were also war heroes such as Kazım Karabekir, Refet Bele or Rauf Orbay.
There were three main differences between the conservative Progressive Party and the revolutionary People’s Party:
1) The Progressive Party believed in free markets and individual entrepreneurship, an idea that had been advanced by Prince Sabahattin, the nephew of the late Sultan Abdulhamid II. The People’s Party, on the other hand, held a more “statist” approach towards the economy, which would become almost socialist over time.
2) The Progressive Party was friendly to religion. Its founding document included the famous Article six, which read, “We are respectful to religious ideas and sentiments.”
3) On political issues such as the fate of the Kurds, the Progressive Party was tolerant and liberal. Kazım Karabekir, its leader, prepared a detailed report arguing that Kurds needed to be integrated into Turkish society gradually by encouraging agriculture and trade, and by keeping the spirit of common Muslim values. The People’s Party, on the other hand, believed in what its leader İsmet İnönü called the “Turkification” of the Kurds, by using authoritarian methods such as banning their language and destroying their culture.
Today the People’s Party is still around, and its current leader, Mr. Deniz Baykal, is still a statist, die-hard secularist, and ultra-nationalist. He is Turkey’s main opposition leader and one of the prominent flag-wavers in the recent “secularism rallies” held in major cities.
But the Progressive Party is not around, of course… Do you know why?
Well, it was shut down on June 5, 1925 – on the day of infamy I was talking about. The party was actually able to survive for only six months and two weeks. Then, not only was it destroyed, but also its leaders were excluded from politics. Its top figure, Kazım Karabekir, lived under house arrest until the death of Atatürk. All of his works were collected and burned on the orders of the government.
And do you know why the party was closed down?…
The announced reason was Article six in its program: the “We are respectful to religious ideas and sentiments” clause!.. For the Kemalists, this was a statement that encouraged “backward minded thought and action,” and which could not be tolerated.
The Post-1925 Trauma
From 1925 to 1950, Turkey lived under an ultra-secularist “single party regime,” which, unfortunately, established the perception that religion and modernity are incompatible. Turkish citizens felt themselves forced to abandon the former for the sake of the latter. Some of them did so, and they became the “secular elite.” Others, no wonder, resisted.
Yet they resisted peacefully and reasonably. In the first free and fair elections held in 1950, they brought an ideological heir of the Progressive Party to power: the Democrat Party (DP) which used the motto, “Enough, the nation has the word!” The DP brought relative religious freedom, encouraged capitalism, and softened the policy on the Kurds. It also made Turkey an ally of the U.S. by joining the Korean War and NATO. But for the secularist/socialist/nationalist Kemalist elite, this was all heresy. That’s why they decided to crush the conservative line once again: the military staged a coup in 1960, imprisoned all DP deputies, and executed the party’s leader Adnan Menderes and two of his ministers.
That Stalinistic purge would not be able to destroy the “modernization within the tradition” line, but it had a quite different and unexpected result: the rise of Islamism, i.e., the rejection of modernity for the sake of tradition. In the late ‘60s, Necmeddin Erbakan came on the scene with his message of splitting from the West and establishing an Islamic order. Interestingly enough, his inspiration was not the Ottoman tradition – which had been swept aside by the secularist state – but the radical Islamic movements of the Middle East, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
No More Days of Infamy
In other words, Islamism arose in Turkey not because its Islamic tradition was prone to it. No. It arose because its secular fundamentalists kept on suppressing even the most moderate and progressive expressions of religion.
And the bad news for today is that they are craving do the same thing again.
The current secularist hype in Turkey, which goes hysterical in the face of any sign of religiosity in society, is a very dangerous political force that might, once again, crush Turkish democracy and prevent the cultivation of a truly modern, moderate and yet still devout Muslim identity. The roots of the incumbent AKP, which is at the eye of the storm, is in the Islamist line of Erbakan, for sure. But the party reformed itself to a great extent and became a true heir of the Progressive Party, i.e., the “modernization within the tradition” line. Neither the AKP nor the rising modern Muslimhood in Turkish society that it largely represents should be sacrificed to the ideological rigidity of the secularist establishment, which is, despite all the changes in the world, as anti-religious, anti-capitalist, and nationalist as it was in the ‘30s.
To put it shortly, Turkey needs no more days of infamy. What it really needs is simple: more freedom and a real democracy.