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Columns and Articles by Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman

March 20, 2010

Whose Ally is Turkey Today?

Register Pajaronian

In my college Sociology text (decades ago), was a surprising survey asking who would American fathers most object to their daughters marrying. At the top of the list came Turks—yet few of these fathers had ever met one. This reflected a fear so old that it was buried deeply in the western memory bank.

In 1452, the Ottoman Turks conquered the old Byzantine Empire, that eastern part of the Roman Empire that had been a great power for a thousand years. They overran Constantinople and then conquered much of Eastern Europe (the Balkans and Greece), getting as far as Vienna, when turned back. They also took over the Southern Mediterranean region that the Arabs had originally taken. They ruled with an iron hand, but permitted some self-governance of non-Muslims, some of whom flourished by knowing whom to buy off. Corruption was rampant.

Europe had much to fear from the Turks, but as Europe became stronger, they feared them less and in many ways were enchanted by Turkish culture. In the 18th century, this interest was apparent in a flourishing of harem-fantasy art and even a comic opera by Mozart: “Abduction from the Seraglio.” Although in treating such an abduction as comedy, it was still a real possibility that travelers in the Mediterranean could be so abducted and wind up on the Muslim slave market or in a harem.

The Ottoman Empire was beginning to fall apart in the 19th century and finally collapsed after World War I. Out of this crumbled empire emerged a new country, modern Turkey. In 1923, Turkey’s first president (with dictatorial powers), an admired general, was Kemal Ataturk.

Ataturk created a modern state—which he envisioned as part of Europe, rather than part of the Muslim world. He changed the alphabet from Arabic to Latin (much opposed by the Muslim clerics); abolished women’s veils; established public schooling and a civil service; and modernized the military, giving them the duty to preserve the new democracy for secular, not religious governance. His remarkable transformation of Turkey served them well over many decades. They had a strong alliance with the United States, who brought them into NATO as a defense against the Soviet Union (despite protests from Greece).

Turkey also had a fruitful relationship with Israel, contrary to the inflamed passions of the Arab world, as well as a solid relationship with Iran, whose own shah/dictator modernized that country on a model established by Ataturk. Both countries thrived during that period.

For the past decade, however, Turkey has changed. Demographics have played an unforeseen role here: secular Turkey has only a modest birthrate, but the less educated eastern part of the country, more conservative and more religious, has flooded into Istanbul and Ankara, and through voting they are transforming Turkish society. The military intervened in a prior election of an Islamist party, but because of Turkey’s desire to enter the European Community, the military has refrained from interfering this time with what appears to be a creeping Islamization of the government.

Under what some Europeans call “mild Islamism” (like being a little pregnant?), an Islamist government not only came to power, but has changed the country’s direction. They have cooled toward the United States and are freezing out Israel. Their new best friends are Iran and the rest of the Muslim world. So far, some of the more draconian social legislation they have proposed has failed, but they fully intend to add control of the military to that of the courts and other institutions. Even worse, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was recently awarded the Saudi King Faisal “International Prize for Service to Islam.” How will that sit with secular Turks?

In February, the government supposedly quashed a military plot to stage a coup and have rounded up Turkey’s most distinguished top military. A show trial is guaranteed—and Turkey’s secular population will be gradually suppressed. Ataturk is turning over in his grave, and Turkey’s former friends had better rethink their alliances.

664 words

Laina Farhat-Holzman is a writer, lecturer, and historian. You may contact her at Lfarhat102@aol.com or www.globalthink.net.