Kemalism was one of the most successful ideological political ventures of the 20th century. The reason is simple; it worked in an era marked by the collapse of other revolutionary ideas. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the father of modern-day Turkey, created a republic whose population was 99 percent Muslim but whose constitution defined the state as secular. None of the other Muslim states, and there are 56 of them, have ever followed suit. But Ataturk went further. With the wisdom of foresight he entrusted the Turkish Army with the task of being the guardian of the secular constitution and, thus, the secularist character of the state.
Other elements of the Ataturk Revolution were less palatable. He refused to accept the rights of minorities. As a result, almost 35 percent of the population, ethnic Kurds as well as ethnic but Shiite Turks known as the Alevis or Quisilbash (the Red heads), have been subjected to harsh – and at times, bloody and fatal – repression.
Nevertheless, Ataturk’s revolution boasted ample positive results. Turkey was no more the “sick Man on the Bosphoros,” as it’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, came to be known. Ankara became an ally of the Western World, a founding member of NATO, the first Muslim State to recognize Israel, and enjoyed political stability for 40 years while allowing party politics. Indeed, the notion that a Muslim state can be pro-West, pro-Israel and democratic added prestige to Turkey and the ideology of Kemalism throughout the world.
This rosy picture started to change, however, during the 1960’s. Rampant corruption, an ever escalating Kurdish insurgency and, above all, clear signs that the rural and poor populations of Turkey kept their loyalty to Islam forced the military to take action. After two coup d’états and the harsh repression of minorities as well as radical left and right- wing movements, not much was left of Turkish democracy. Such conditions traditionally offer fertile ground to Islamic movements. Turkey is no exception.
Yet, the military establishment, loyal to its Constitutional obligations, stood fast. In the late 1980’s it brought down the first ever Islamic-led government in Kemalist Turkey, that of Necmettin Erbakan, the father of political Islam in modern Turkey. The military also jailed Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister, for his open propagation in favor of a political role for Islam. In the field of foreign policy, the military created strategic connections with Israel, which enormously benefited both countries. In 1998, Turkey almost invaded Syria in response to the latter’s support of the former’s Kurdish rebels. In addition, the U.S. remained Ankara’s greatest ally, while relations with the ayatollahs in neighboring Iran were cool at best.
But even with these successes, the secular military establishment failed in two arena. First, it was unable to eradicate chronic corruption within secular politicians and, second, it didn’t curb the Islamic sentiments of the disenfranchised Turkish masses. These failures proved fatal.
After Tayyip Erdogan was released from jail this shrewd politician understood that in order to beat the military he must join it – at least temporarily, and deceptively. Erdogan established the Islamist AK Party (the Justice and Development Party) and led it to power in democratic elections by using the military’s playbook. But, red lights were glaring in 2003 when the Turks under Erdogan, notwithstanding the country’s membership in NATO, refused to allow coalition forces to invade Iraq from Turkish territory. Then came a gradual pressure on the military to scale down relations with Israel. Erdogan also cleverly manipulated Turkey’s relations with the European Union. On the one hand, he used EU refusal to accept Turkish membership as a rallying cry for Islamic sentiments, and on the other hand the EU constantly cautioned the military from taking over again, thus providing Erdogan with a defense umbrella.
Erdogan, on his part, moved cautiously but persistently forward, using the growing Islamic sentiment of large parts of the population in his favor. In fact, Erdogan’s rule and increasing Islamic influence in Turkey grew hand in hand. Erdogan’s strategy seems to have been working.
With increased popularity, Erdogan decided to confront the military head-on, blaming it for plotting another coup d’état, something that has never been proved in court but further alienated the military from large segments of the population. Then came Israel’s war in Gaza, which enabled Erdogan to fulfill his long-time goal of breaking Turkey’s strategic relations with Israel, and replacing the latter with Syria and Iran. In fact, Erdogan personally became the chief rabble-rouser against Israel, a role that he also enthusiastically played after the flotilla incident, which, to a large extent, was instigated by his government in the first place.
So, is Kemalism dead? Well, not yet, but very close. What is dead is the notion that an Islamic government can be democratic, pro-West and pro-Israel simultaneously. Turkey was such when Kemalism ran supreme. Turkey is almost the opposite when ruled by an Islamic government. The message is clear and most disturbing.
Dr. Josef Olmert is a JPC contributor and Adjunct Professor at American University. He is a well-known Israeli Middle East expert and brother of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.