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Point of VIEW.

A purely analytical perception...


TURKEY
A LAND AT THE CROSSROADS

 

page 1

 

Updated May 30, 2001

TURKEY, A LAND AT THE CROSSROADS

 

 

As the Mongols swarmed through Asia and Europe like locusts in the 13th Century, refugees looking for shelter scampered in all directions.  Turkish warriors were dislocated by the barbarians as well, but finally made a stand under Mehmet the Conquer, were victorious and ultimately captured Constantinople in 1453.  Things calmed down a tad under the reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent who made a fulltime job of beautifying Constantinople.  After sprucing up the place, he began to look for new worlds to conquer, and eventually he determined he was destined for more auspicious things.  He felt the acquisition of land should be a high priority and that the easiest way to begin this process was to invade his neighbors.  Suleyman was very successful at this new undertaking, and this became the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, which eventually extended into parts of Asia and carved out substantial territory in Europe. To give you some idea of the prodigious size that this empire achieved we only have to look at a short paragraph by Will & Ariel Durant in the Story of Civilization, Rousseau and Revolution.

 

In the eighteenth century Christianity was caught between Voltaire and Mohammed – between the Enlightenment and Islam. Though the Moslem world had lost military power since Sobieski’s repulse of the Turks from Vienna in 1683, it still dominated Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Persia, Asia minor, the Crimea, south Russia, Bessarabia, Moldavia, Wallachia (Romania). Bulgaria, Serbia, (Yugoslavia), Montenegro, Bosnia, Dalmatia, Greece, Crete, the Aegean Isles, and Turkey. All these except Persia were part of the immense empire of the Ottoman Turks. On the Dalmatian coast, they touched the Adriatic and faced the Papal States; on the Bosporus they controlled the sole naval outlet from the Black Sea, and could at will block the Russians from the Mediterranean.”

 

 

Sadly for Turkey, Suleyman's successors did not have his creativity, dedication or intelligence.  Although the Ottoman Empire continued into the 19th Century, it had gradually atrophied for three hundred years.  During this time, many of the subjugated countries started to throw off the Turkish yoke.  Greece was one of the first subjugated European countries to have their army inform Turkey that they were not happy campers under its domination.  With assistance from other European powers, the Greeks eventually drove the Turks out of their country.  Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Albanian, Armenian and Arab enclaves broke the chains of tyranny shortly thereafter.

 

Turkey tried to hold on to what little was left of its empire, but then made its most serious mistake by joining with the Germans in World War I.  The victorious allies looked ravenously at Turkey.  Greece, still suffering a grudge from the long years of subjugation, made the first move by invading Smyrna and started a push East; it was only then that the slumbering Ottoman Empire awoke with a flourish.  The Greeks were dispatched forthwith, and Mustafa Kemal was assigned the job of making Turkey a part of the modern world.  He died in 1938, but left a heroic legacy.  He is credited with creating a new and modern constitution, giving women their rights, abolishing polygamy and turning Turkey into a secular state.  The man became so highly regarded that Turkish Law, in a sort of secular canonization, forbids negative comment on Mustafa Kemal.  If you can possibly imagine it, Kemal is elevated to a position in Turkey far beyond that of George Washington in the United States; he is revered with and almost God-like passion.

 

Thus, modern Turkish history begins with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who -- as we have just pointed out -- is beyond being just a national hero.  He is so revered that it is a crime to even joke about him in a negative way.  His vision of the secular state guided Turkey into the 20th Century.  The book “Emerging Turkey 1999” puts this vision in perspective:

 

"Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, The Republic's founder, wanted a nation modeled on Western principles.  He saw religion as a backward and a malign [sic] influence in politics and sought to curb the power of the sheikhs.  Early on, therefore, the Republic abolished the caliphate, then banned the religious "tarikat" (brotherhoods) and dervish orders.  Wearing religious garb or the traditional fez was also prohibited.

 

But while secularism was adopted with enthusiasm by the republican elite, which set out to forge a new identity for the fledgling nation, the changes had less impact in the conservative Anatolian countryside, where attachment to religious traditions remained strong.  As soon as one-party rule ended in 1946, politicians identified the populist potential of Islam and allowed religion to creep slowly back into the public arena.  First, the call to prayer, which had been translated into Turkish, reverted to its original Arabic.  Then "imam hatip schools," designed to train preachers for Turkey's mosques, were opened and rapidly grew until 1997, when the government, under pressure from the military, felt the need to limit access to these establishments, by then seen as "nests of fundamentalism."

 

Turkey is located in what can be termed "hell central."  Its neighbors, Greece, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Georgia are perpetually embroiled in ethnic conflicts.  Such a neighborhood demands superb civil and military leadership.  It has avoided armed conflicts with its neighbors by deft diplomacy backed by substantial military might.   For the most part, Turkey has stayed away from foreign intrigue, the sole exception being its invasion of Cyprus in the 1970's.  It diligently supports NATO's efforts in the region.  A restive southern Kurdish minority and revolutionary religious leaders committed to the destruction of its secular state make Turkey's internal stability just as difficult to maintain as its external peace.  These sorts of uppity neighbors require a strong army, which Turkey is known for, but their democratic principals require the army’s total allege to the principals of the Government.  This has made for an interesting political distinction, for while the army upholds the country’s constitution and does it in grand style, it does not represent the incumbent party.  Moreover, the army is basically the interpreter of the Turkish Constitution as well as the defender of it.

 

“The military has, continues to, and will run Turkey. Despite a revolving cast of democratically elected politicians, the army steps in when things get too silly for their tastes. There have been three military coups in modern Turkish history, in 1960, 1971, and 1980. That is not to say there are not democratic freedoms, it just means only the people who play ball get to have them. The military sees itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s secular and nationalist legacy. There are two things the military really doesn't like very much, toga wearing Islamists and cocky Kurds. The Kurds are officially considered no different than any other minority in Turkey and logically they are entitled to all the benefits Turkish citizens have. But quite frankly, that’s a load of bollocks.” ([1])

 

Moreover, the army has done a first-class job of guaranteeing the security of secular and religious life alike.  When a religious party, The True Path Party, headed by Tansu Ciller (Turkey's first woman Prime Minister) took control of the government and a hack politician, Necdmettin Erbakan grabbed the Presidency, the army immediately had second thoughts and began seriously monitoring the situation.  Erbakan was a known quantity, openly Islamic and formerly the head of the National Order Party, which strongly believed in restoring religion to government.  As both Ciller and Erbakan were ardent Muslims, the military worried about what kind of new government would result.

 

Not long after the deadly duo took command, utterances such as "Just Order" (A reference to Sharit or Islamic law) started emerging from the mouths of their followers and within the text of their speeches.  The Generals wondered what would be next.  Ciller’s and Erbakan's frequent visits to Iran and Libya soon caused even greater concern.  For some unknown reason, Ciller declared that the Turkish lira was over-valued and ordered the Central Bank governor to lower interest rates.  The Turkish Army generals had seen enough by this time and decided to remove her from office.  Simultaneously, the Central Bank governor resigned over the interest rate issue, and stated that this had been one of the stupidest moves ever ordered by a Turkish Prime Minister.  To add insult to injury, he asserted that he would consider serving in another administration as soon as Mrs. Ciller had been impeached.

 

A banking crises ensued.  A severe liquidity crisis followed a run on the banks.   Three major banks failed and a fourth had to be bailed out in rapid succession.  Foreign exchange reserves diminished as Mrs. Ciller asserted her conviction that she had done the correct thing.  While Mrs. Ciller continued to blither that she was correct, the Turkish Lira dropped so precipitously that some shops in Ankara would not accept it as currency.  At this point, both the army and the International Monetary Fund (“IMF”) had seen enough. They carefully explained to Mrs. Ciller that if she didn't leave office, she would probably be strung up by an unhappy population that was now going through a violent recession, thanks to her ghastly leadership.

 

Mrs. Ciller told them she would take their suggestion under consideration and waffled for a time.  The army then came to Mrs. Ciller with an even more strongly worded idea, which had some teeth in it.  This time, they told her, she should abdicate “now,” that is, if she wanted to live through the night.  The President, who had only come along for the ride (he had been part of a coalition government), saw his own Welfare Party banned by the constitutional court for failing to heed the recommendations of the National Security Council to curb the rise of political Islam.  He saw the reasonableness of the army’s position  and was also dispatched without bloodshed or incident.

 

The army’s message did not fall on deaf ears.  Without any violence or even a new election, Mrs. Ciller, Mr. Erbakan and their associates, packed up and left town.  Turkish justice can be very harsh, but these folks had been skating on thin ice for some time and had been oblivious to a number of messages that had been sent their way.  Despite its vast Muslim population, there is no question of religious equality and freedom in Turkey.  The army has shown dramatically how it deals with those who would have it otherwise.

 

The Turkish Army does not always serve as a mere traffic cop.  War is constantly being waged on one or another of its borders.  From time to time, Syria, Iraq and Iran have taken turns arming the Kurds and sending them into Turkey on suicide missions for a multitude of reasons.  Iran, which has recently been faced with internal disturbances, has also chosen to distract its population with fervent military action against neighboring Turkey and Iraq.  This is far from the first time this has happened; Iraq, Iran, and Turkey converge within a  "Triangle" where this sort of confrontation occurs on a regular basis.

 

There is also a public relations war being fought with diligence and sincerity, but it is reality a bit absurd.  Iran enters the triangle on the Iraq side and supplies the Kurds with whatever they need militarily, then sends them on their way.  The Turks are now supposed to believe that Iraq is the villain.  Either way, the obliging Turks bomb both the intruders and the land from whence they came back into the Bronze Age, and ultimately; the only losers are the Iraqi's and the Kurds.

 

Iraq at the moment has its hands tied behind its back because the territory is in a "no fly zone" created by the United Nations.  So, the Turks can pound Iraq whenever they want to flex their muscles to the applause of the hometown crowd with literally no fear of reprisal.  The Kurds are also victims; if they want continued Iranian support, they have to be good little boys and do what they are told.  The Kurds are similar to Gypsies and literally have no homeland, although the territories, which they occupy, are historic.  They reside in the center of the triangle and are used as political foils whenever one of the three regional powers desires to send its neighbors a serious message.  Not only are the Kurds pawns to the more powerful elements in the area, but as a people they would like a place to call home.  Because of this and because Kurds are a very restive people, it takes little to stir the pot and for someone to start shooting.

 

However, everyone who has befriended the Kurds has gotten a bloody nose, and these folks are rapidly running out of sponsors.  Each time a country in the region loses a succession of wars, it blames the Kurds and cuts them off.  Jordan beat Syria once, and Israel beat Syria three times.  The Syrians tried to take on little Jordan, which took the Syrian tanks apart piece by piece and sent what was left scurrying back across their border.  Syria had to have something to tell their people why they got their heads handed to them by a much smaller country and proceeded to blame the Kurds for aiding Jordan.  While we are unaware of any Kurds in Jordan, that did not interfere with the Syrian government’s excuse.   Syria's leadership has now passed on to a younger generation and hopefully, its dream of territorial conquest has been tempered by age and an unending sequence of lost battles.  Syria no long seems to want to jeopardize this unblemished record of defeat by supporting a few Kurds who might make trouble a little trouble in Turkey. 

 

It also must be noted that Turkish intelligence is pretty good.  When they take prisoners, they are able to extract significant information from them in spite of a strong desire not to cooperate.  It was during one of these self-help sessions in a Turkish dungeon that the subject of an intense interrogation suddenly determined to spill the beans.  He informed the dungeon keepers that Ocalan, the Kurdish leader, was being harbored by hated Syria.  The Turks now had enough of the Syrians, and they made a telephone call to Damascus.  The Turks explained to the Syrians what would happen to their country if Ocalan wasn’t delivered to Turkey immediately.  Although, the Syrians sometimes enter wars where they overmatch themselves, they cannot be matched in overall political pragmatism.  Damascus coughed him up like a bad lunch in the capital.

 

Abdullah Ocalan, a Turkish Kurd, had become a national anathema and caused the Turkish Government no end of grief by a continuous hit and run missions from bases in Iraq and Iran.  He now resides in a Turkish jail, looking forward to a death sentence, while Turkey’s borders have become more normalized. 



[1] Robert Young Pelton, The World’s Most Dangerous Places, 4th Edition, Harper Resource, 2000.

 

 

 

 

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