Turkey Getting Unstuck

EDITORIAL, 18 Oct 2009

#84 | Johan Galtung

Istanbul – Imagine a country losing an empire in their command for more than five centuries, ending with the occupation of Istanbul 1918 at the end of World War I.  England (Mr. Sykes), France (M. Picot) and the Russians had conspired, engineering Arab uprisings against the Ottomans (“Lawrence of Arabia” being a part of that)–promising them freedom if they do the job, then colonizing them, causing enormous problems and suffering: Palestine-Iraq to the UK, Lebanon-Syria to France, unloading the consequences on the future.

Imagine that country reinventing itself under the leadership of one of the greatest statesmen: Mustafa Kemal-Father of Turks, Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938).  Gone is the relatively benign empire, a Family of Nations under Istanbul patriarchs.  He secularized and modernized = westernized.  Knowledge and skills over faith.  Beard and fez out (the Hat Law 1925), dress code for men and women (Law of Garments 1934), the alphabet (1928) changed.  Women moved into parity politically (1934), and the Qur’an into Turkish (1935).

With the empire gone, the republic in 1923, the Caliphate gone in 1924, and the capital moved to Ankara, this was indeed A New Beginning.  From there came the nation building, and this is where he set his foot wrong.  Turkey did not become a family of nations, but a state of, for, and by Turks. Like so many in Europe.

[There is a message for the USA: when your century-old empire falls, reinvent yourself.  The USA bestowed “A New Beginning” generously on millions of immigrants; now be equally generous to yourselves.  Secularize, you are no more “under god” than anybody else.  Go beyond modernization and state building, revive the local, regionalize with neighbors, globalize but equitably, not imperially, move the capital out of Washington, closer to real people; the place has acquired a bad name.  Learn from Turkey].

But Turkey then got itself into a quagmire of problems. Military dictatorship.  Greek vs. Turkish Cypriots.  Kurds vs. Turks.  Armenians vs. Turks.  Secularism vs. Islam.  The Western liberal-capitalist vs. marxist-socialist models.  Turkey vs. EU.  And more recently Turkey vs. USA over nuclear arms, invasion of Iraq, war in Afghanistan, and Turkey vs. Israel over the Gaza massacre; all of them partly internal divisions, partly with foreign policy implications.  All with their Ottoman shadows.

Such unsolved contradictions zap enormous amounts of resources that could go into the livelihood of the population.  Military expenses in a war nobody can win, with PKK since 5 August 1984, 40,000 killed and wasted emotional and cognitive energies have paralyzed this great country.  A Turkey stuck in Cyprus, Kurdish and Armenian issues(1) can easily be manipulated by the USA as an alliance pawn, and humiliated in the EU waiting room.

A kemalist secular army in a majority Muslim country, seeking past, present and future military outcomes to all these problems was not the answer.  To submit them to civilian control meant not only democracy, but also an audible voice to the Muslim majority.  The AKP, justice and development, with an exceptional leadership–president Gül, prime minister Erdögan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu–masters balancing over a heavily mined landscape, giving kemalism that of kemalism, and Islam that of Islam.

A major breakthrough in Turkey-Armenia inter-state relations has just happened, supervised by the big powers that gave Turkey so many of its problems: USA, England (the border to Turkey is where there is no oil!), France (the Sarkozy line against Turkey in the EU) and Russia. How and when inter-state will spread to inter-nation, with reconciliation and cooperation in a complex issue, building a future together, is to be seen.

The Kurdish issue is on the horizon, even beyond human rights for Kurds inside Turkey, with the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in his one-person-prison on the Imrali Island playing a role.

Beyond the rationality of secularism the Turks, like many nations, are seeking a spirituality. Maybe the once banned Sufism?

Beyond the nation-state is the region.  Turkey is not limited to the EU, and many Turks are already cooling to the prospect as pointed out by Professor Sahin Alpay in his excellent columns in Today’s Zaman.  Relations to Russia are opening up beyond oil and nuclear energy.  Then there is the RCD, the Regional Cooperation for Development, from Turkey to Afghanistan, dead but a deep structure of some importance; ten countries.

Turkey and Syria just dropped visa rules; and Ankara talks with Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas, the blind spots in US “diplomacy”. Opening to neighbors was the policy of the Founding Father, a Nobel Peace Prize candidate, but being against the English empire with no chance, like Gandhi.

At the same time relations to USA and Israel are hardening.  Imagine, the hidden nuclear power-holders in Washington had not even informed President Kennedy that nuclear arms were deployed in Turkey till the brutal awakening of the 1962 Cuba crisis.

Turkey did not let US troops through to attack Iraq in 2003, and has only non-combat troops in Afghanistan–as opposed to stuck Norway where a girl soldier recently pulled a trigger and killed 20-25 Afghans, saying the parliament said so.  Democracy at work.

Erdögan–deeply critical of the Gaza massacre–walked out on Shimon Perez in Davos.  And the Goldstone report will probably be firmly supported, as it massively deserves.  In short, a country getting unstuck, yet keeping friendship in all directions.

Bosporus lights shine on a glass veranda, that transcendence of inside-outside contradictions.  May others be equally enlightened.


(1) TRANSCEND has worked on those, from 1964, 1991 and 2006, 50 Years: 100 Peace & Conflict Perspectives, TRANSCEND University Press 2008, chapters 15, 23 and 89; see www.transcend.org/tup.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 18 Oct 2009.

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