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Turkey's corset of modernisation

Zafer Senocak on the legacy of Turkey's modernisation and the AKP's electoral victory

Well into the 1980s, Turkey was still largely isolated from the rest of the world. Since the reforms of the state's founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s, Turkish society had been held in a corset of modernisation. This modernisation, referred to locally as Westernisation or Europeanisation, had aspects of a culturally revolutionary nature. It created an elite that distinguished itself from the greater masses. Members of this elite had it good.

It was a brave new world for a small minority that didn't have to concern itself with the society around it. You lived in one of the three major cities, preferred of course the green banks of the Bosporus and lived like in Paris or London. The provinces were far away, geographically and mentally. Those simple folk that could be spoken down to, however, were on the move - through the belts of misery surrounding the large cities, abroad, in search of bread and a roof.

The elite's enlightened intentions dissipated quickly. They ceded to darkness and property maintenance. The wish to educate and civilise the masses, however, was on every political party's agenda. These programmes resulted only in nepotism and a popular dumbing down. The system felt so sure of itself that it allowed free elections. Even though the elite lost these elections on a regular basis, it was able – thanks to its overly powerful military-bureaucratic apparatus - to steer the country according to its own interests.

In the 1980s, Turkish society got mobile. One of the Turkish paradoxes is that every military putsch has contributed to both a stabilisation of power relations - as intended - but also the opposite. The putsch of 1960 gave the country a democratic constitution, modelled after that of the German Federal Republic. The putsch of 1980 rendered this constitution null and void and replaced it with a restrictive set of regulations.

But despite all the restrictions, a man was able to come to power in the parliamentary elections of 1983, whose influence on the country may only have been surpassed by Mustafa Kemal. Turgut Özal opened up Turkey. He rose to the challenges of globalisation. An economic system that had been based on a weak domestic market became increasingly international. Turkey became an exporting country, tourism began to boom. Private media were founded. But democratisation hobbled along behind.

Unlike economic liberalism, it was not being supported by the elites. The masses became more religious but not more democratic. The reforms had little effect on the education system that was raising obedient subjects rather than independent thinking citizens. The result was stagnation in Turkish society in the 1990s. The 1990s were a lost decade. The opportunities arising from the post-communist change in neighbouring countries were missed entirely. Armed conflict with the Kurds mobilised the country's energy and means. The unsettled elite responded to the complex challenges with repression, corruption and a distinct lack of creativity. Their inability to adapt came at a high price – their being decisively voted out, rule by the outcasts, power takeover by a party that had nothing to do with the elites but that had Muslim undertones.

Over the past five years, the AKP has stood for a new style of governing, one that refrains from using the language of the bourgeois elites. It continued the path of reform taken by Turgut Özal, but more decisively and with more success. That was one major reason for it being so overwhelmingly returned to office.

But can you trust the people? This question is all the more crucial when it concerns a Muslim people who have elected a Muslim party. But how Muslim is the Turkish people? Aren't a quarter of all Turks Alevis – a free-thinking variant of Islam that has nothing, absolutely nothing, in common with the Islam of the Sharia? Has not a vast majority of the Turking people made peace with the idea of secular society? Turks have a more pragmatic attitude towards religion than most of their brothers and sisters in the Islamic world. And that is now evident: Mustafa Kemal's reforms were not just the attempt at an Utopia for the elite that went unnoticed by the masses. Civil rights and democracy are no longer foreign concepts requiring translation for the Turks.

Turkey is in the throes of an irresistible process of transformation, one that can't be understood by someone who thinks only in terms of irreconcilable opposites. In Turkey, Europe and Islam, East and West, military and democracy have long been more than simple antipodes. In the same way, the opposition between Istanbul elites and the people from the provinces has also been destabilised. It's this very motion that accounts for the dynamic character of Turkish society. The social climbers from the provinces have taken their place at the table. Perhaps they don't even want to elbow the others aside. Perhaps they just want to participate and learn the ropes, if only the established players would let them do so. The future of Turkey hinges on whether or not the old elites can free themselves of their chronic fears. The bureaucrats and the military are no longer at the centre of power - or at least they're no longer alone there. Now they're part of an increasingly globalised world. They stem themselves against the dissolution of borders and against the hybrid society. In so doing they create tensions that could curb, but not stop, the development of Turkish society.

Yet one mustn't forget that the corset once placed on Turkish society has also had a healing effect. Without the reforms of Mustafa Kemal, the AKP would certainly not have had so many women on its list. Society would be less sensitive to the radical outgrowths of Islam, and it would have no feeling for freedom.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on July 24, 2007.

Zafer Senocak
, born in Ankara in 1961, has lived in Germany since 1970, where he has become a leading voice in German discussions on multiculturalism, national and cultural identity, and a mediator between Turkish and German culture.

Translation: nb, jab. - let's talk european