Friday, December 31, 2004


Five nations -- Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan -- possess the geopolitical strength, technological capability, and civilizational gravitas for leading Muslims through modern times. 150mm Indians being Muslim, their attitudes matter to us.

That they have squandered this opportunity -- causing a political vacuum where fanaticism has thrived -- is hardly news. Literature Nobelist V S Naipaul has ably chronicled failures of Iran & Pakistan in his classics Among the Believers and Beyond Belief. In the aftermath of 9/11, others have discussed Saudi Arabia and Egypt extensively.

The most interesting of these is Turkey. While the others have (variously) claimed leadership of the Ummah, Turkey has renounced such aspiration. While the others have (overt & covert) imperialistic aspirations, Turkey (the only one with imperial history) has renounced imperium. While the others have clashed with the West, Turkey wants to join the West.

Turkey also, superficially, resembles India. Both nations aspire to modernity marked by secularism, democracy, and global integration. Still, in a puzzling irony, it is the Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf who claims inspiration from Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk!

To understand the nation better, we asked our Turkish friends for guidance. They recommended Stephen Kinzer's Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds as a primer. We were surprised by what we read, and surprised even more that our friends picked this, patronizing and viciously critical, book as our introduction to Turkey. Our own reaction was not condescension (like Mr Kinzer) but fury.

Turkey appears to be a startling place, a frightened people, and a very disappointing nation. Here "modernity" is enforced by primitive means, educated people fear freedom, and the nation turns its back on its own proud civilization -- even worse, all this is in the name of Kemal Ataturk's legacy.

Being Indian, we are baffled. Whatever Turkey's valid concerns are about centrifugal & radical forces (which ostensibly require suppression of political freedoms), the same exist -- and on a much grander scale -- in India. Yet, India has marched to modernity using modern means. We are a free people (even war-torn Kashmir is rated "partly free", the same as Turkey!), and we treasure our civilization. The Turkish construct of the military as the people's guardian wouldn't stand one moment of intellectual scrutiny in India.

It took India decades to build institutions of democracy and freedom. In Turkey, the only institution of note is the military. In India, people have calibrated their freedom and the consequent political power, through trial and error, over decades. In Turkey, freedom and political power are abstractions which its intelligentsia -- naively -- believes will become widely- shared, concrete realities in a mere 15 years of negotiation with the EU! We don't think this is possible.

We don't think, therefore, that Turkey will be ready to join the EU in time. Absent, independent pressures (e.g., from the U.S.), Turkey's EU accession talks are likely to fail. Why? Because the proposed process of Turkish transition to freedom is way too ambitious, lacks adequate preparation of the Turkish people, therefore is, humanly impossible.

No people can be rushed into freedom -- with its attendant privileges & responsibilities -- by decree. They have to free their own minds, at their own pace. Being mortally afraid of freedom unmasking Turkey's inner, non-European identity, Kemalists and the Generals have, for decades, crushed it -- thereby unmasking Turkey's inner, non-European identity! Now, they naively believe they can reverse course, proclaim freedom, and become European. Wow!

The most shameful is the role played by Turkish intelligentsia -- who have abdicated their responsibility to keep the military in check. Ask any of them, or any young, cosmopolitan, highly educated Turk about the military, and they will rationalize why its role is so important. This is so myopic and politically illiterate as to stagger one's imagination. How did a proud and imperial people, with enormous intellectual and civilizational depth, get reduced to rationalizing military dictatorship? This too, alas, is the legacy of Kemal Ataturk.

When Turkey's EU accession fails, the arrogance of Kemal's century-long dictatorial project to become "European" too would have failed. It is only then, when an angry Turkish people demand accountability and freedom from Kemalists and the military, will Turkey finally begin its real march to a liberal and free Turkish identity, at peace with its history and with its neighbors in Europe.

For the sake of our Turkish friends, we can only hope.


Kiran said...

A very interesting take on the role of the military in Turkey. Surprisingly I had never thought of that. However, there seems to be one flaw with the entire argument: Turkey's aspiration towards "secularism, democracy, and global integration" is driven chiefly by the army. Without the army none of these would have existed - these are not necessarily the people's aspirations: they would rather have the Caliph back.

Manjunatha said...

It looks like some kind of social engineering is in place in Turkey. It's preposterous for non-Turks to talk about 'The proud Turkish' past. The Turkish military and intellectual elites which is generally the inheritor of that legacy and they had weighed the 'the proud Turkish' past to the present realities way back in the late 19th and early 20th century.
They look like the least hypocrites among other great powers with a 'proud past'. Instead of 'borrowing' or 'learning good things' from the Europeans, they want to be just part of that civilization and live without any egoistic dilemmas.