The Catastrophe in Turkey

The failure of the military coup in Turkey earlier this month was a catastrophe for the West and the non-Muslim world generally. 

Turkey was the only majority Muslim state that had been successfully secularized and Westernized, the only majority Muslim state in which Islam had been defanged, its religious component separated from its military-legal-imperial component. 

But Turkey is going in the wrong direction.  The current strong-man, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has ruled Turkey since 2003, is an Islamist.  Erdoğan is slowly changing Turkey from the secular state established in the 1920s into an Islamist nation. 

This month’s failed coup attempt is a boon for Erdoğan, allowing him to eliminate all opposition and consolidate absolute power in his own hands.  Because of the failure of the coup, Turkey will become a Sunni version of Iran, an Islamist state inalterably hostile to the West and all Western values.


Kemal Ataturk and the Founding of Secular Turkey

Modern Turkey is the creation of Mustafa Kemal, a general who forged the Turkish nation out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.  Kemal gained prominence in the First World War for his defense of the Gallipoli peninsula.  The Gallipoli campaign, planned by Winston Churchill and fought mostly by troops from Australia and New Zealand, aimed to capture Turkish shore guns and thereby open the Dardanelles straits to British warships, who would then steam up the Sea of Marmara and capture Istanbul, knocking Turkey out of the war.  But like most offensives of the Great War, when military technology favored defenders over attackers, the Gallipoli campaign failed.  As commander of the victorious Turkish forces, Kemal became a national hero.  After the war, between 1919 and 1922, Kemal led a Turkish army that drove several foreign armies out of metropolitan Turkey.  The Grand National Assembly gave him the surname “Ataturk,” meaning “Father of the Turks.”

Islam is best explained to a Western mind as a totalitarian political-legal ideology that is aggressive and has universal aspirations—and, oh by the way, it also has a religion attached to it.  The religion of Islam—beliefs about God, the Adversary, angels, demons, the afterlife, praying multiple times daily, making a pilgrimage to Mecca, giving charity, etc.—is not especially problematic.  But the military-jurisprudential component of Islam, which requires the Muslim to fight Jihad until sharia law is established throughout the whole world, is another story entirely. 

In modernizing Turkey, Kemal faced the same problem the West faces today—how to tolerate the religion of Islam while, at the same time, very firmly suppressing Islam’s political component: sharia law and the law of jihad. 

But, in fact, Kemal did not like even the religion of Islam.  Baron Kinross, author of "Ataturk: The Rebirth of a Nation," wrote that for Kemal, Islam and civilization were a contradiction in terms.  “If only we could make them Christians,” Kemal reportedly said of the Turks. After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, the Hagia Sophia, once the greatest cathedral in Christendom, was converted into a mosque, but in 1935, Kemal made it into a museum, and a draw for Western, Christian tourists.  

Kemal Ataturk -- Father of Secular Turkey

Kemal Ataturk -- Father of Secular Turkey

According to H.C. Armstrong's biography of Kemal, “The Grey Wolf” Kemal reportedly said:   

“For nearly five hundred years, these rules and theories of an Arab Shaikh and the interpretations of generations of lazy and good-for-nothing priests have decided the civil and criminal law of Turkey.  They have decided the form of the Constitution, the details of the lives of each Turk, his food, his hours of rising and sleeping, the shape of his clothes, the routine of the midwife who produced his children, what he learned in his schools, his customs, his thoughts-even his most intimate habits. Islam - this theology of an immoral Arab - is a dead thing. Possibly it might have suited tribes in the desert. It is no good for a modern, progressive state.”

Of course, Kemal realized that he could not uproot Islam as the religion of individual Turks.  He believed, however, that he needed only to extirpate the political project of Islam, and that he could do that by secularizing and Westernizing the government and all public institutions in Turkey. 

“The antiquated religious courts and codes must be replaced by modern scientific civil law. The [Muslim madrasas] must give way to secular Government schools. State and religion must be separated. The Republic of Turkey must finally become a secular state.”

Kemal closed the Sharia courts, and substituted Western law--the Italian penal code, the Swiss civil code--for Islamic sharia jurisprudence.  To further separate Turkey from Islam, he abolished the Turkish written in Arabic and substituted a written Turkish employing a Latin alphabet.  He abolished the fez, the brimless red hat, in favor of brimmed Western headgear.  

Ignoring Islamic law, he elevated women, encouraging them to become educated, gradually extending the franchise, and finally encouraging them to run for parliament.  Although he knew that a law purporting to abolish the veil or niqab could not then be enforced, he encouraged his own wife to go unveiled, and encouraged social mixing of the sexes at meals, dances and parties.  After Kemal’s death, women working in public sector jobs—teachers, civil servants, lawyers, parliamentarians, etc.—were barred from wearing the veil, and the practice was eventually adopted by most of Turkish society.     

Kemal Abolishes the Caliphate

The caliph or Khalifah (Arabic for “successor”) is the successor to Muhammad.  Muhammad was both the prophet and the chieftain of his followers.  Hence, the Caliph is both the religious and political leader of the Muslim nation (the “ummah”).  The first four caliphs were the Rashidun (“rightly guided”) caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali.  The Umayyads (661-750) were next, followed by the Abbasids of Baghdad (750-1258), the Abbasids of Cairo (1261- 1517), and lastly the Ottoman caliphs (1517-1924). 

Kemal knew that he could not de-Islamify Turkey while the caliphate existed.  “At all costs, the Republic must be maintained . . . The Ottoman Empire was a crazy structure based upon broken religious foundations. The Caliphate and the remains of the House of Usman [Ottoman] must go.”  (Armstrong, The Grey Wolf).  Kemal argued that abolishing the Caliphate, and with it the political part of Islam, would actually make the religious part of Islam stronger: “The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past.”  (Kinross, Ataturk: The Rebirth of a Nation)

Because the Caliph was a symbol of the unitary religio-political system Muhammad founded—in which the believer was both (1) part of a monotheistic religion and (2) a citizen of a nation-state, or empire—Kemal’s abolition of the caliphate on March 3, 1924, was a dagger aimed at the heart of political Islam. It was perhaps Kemal’s most symbolically laden action in his campaign to change Islam in Turkey from a political system to a private religion.    

Naturally, there was reaction.  A "Caliphate Conference" was held in Cairo in May 1926.  The Muslim scholars gathered there agreed that a caliphate was a theoretical necessity in Islam, but the office had been an accoutrement of the largest Muslim empire—first the Arab, then the Turk—and after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, there was no Muslim empire. 

The re-establishment of the Caliphate remains the most basic goal of every Sunni jihadist group in the world.  They differ only in how soon they believe it feasible to re-establish the caliphate.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is not waiting; in 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself Caliph.  Osama bin Laden, by contrast, did not believe that a caliphate could effectively be re-established until after the United States was neutralized.  

(Arguably, it is unfortunate that Kemal abolished the Caliphate.  A Caliphate based in modern Turkey might be a solution to the multiplicity of Muslim terror groups each declaring Jihad at its own election.  Given that Jihad is the duty of all believing Muslims, it would be better if declaring it were clearly in the power of one Caliph.  On the other hand, a universally acknowledged Caliph might be able to mobilize the entire Muslim ummah in a way that scattered jihadist groups cannot.


The Turkish Military as Guarantor of Turkish Secularism

Kemal died in 1938, having accomplished most of the reforms he sought.  He intended the Turkish military to be the ultimate enforcer of secularism.  The armed forces considered themselves the guardians of the secular republic and the custodians of the legacy of Kemal.  Any officer suspected of Islamist tendencies was dismissed from the service.  

Turkey has a long history of military intervention in civil affairs to enforce Kemalist secularism.  The military intervened in 1960 to overthrow the government of Adnan Menderes, whom it accused of undoing secularism (Menderes' party had orchestrated a well-planned pogrom against ethnic Greek residents of Istanbul).  In 1971, the military imposed "guided democracy,” both to maintain secularism and to protect against the socialist Left.  In 1980, the military staged another coup, again in reaction against both Leftism and Islamic extremism.  In 1997, the military forced the resignation of an Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, without violence and merely by making strong threats.     


The European Union Helped Undo Turkish Secularism

Ironically, it is Turkey's aspiration to join the European Union that set in motion the events that have undone Kemalism. 

To a casual European observer, a country in which the military periodically intervenes to set matters right does not look like a democracy. Many senior EU officials demanded that Turkish politics be freed from the military's influence in order for it to qualify for entry into the EU.  These reckless EU officials did not, and do not, understand (1) the nature of Islam as a militant, expansionist political system, (2) Kemal’s heroic efforts to de-politicize Islam in Turkey, (3) the de facto constitution pursuant to which the military had a role in guaranteeing secularism in Turkey, and (4) that their rash actions endangered the secularism Kemal has achieved.

In part to placate Europeans and secure Turkey’s admission to the EU, in 2003, Turkey undertook "harmonization" efforts to curtail the military's role in politics.  But there was another, and much more animating, reason for the changes:  the party elected in 2002, the AKP (the “justice and development party”), wanted to get the army out of civil politics for their own reasons.  Because they were Islamists themselves, the AKP wanted to prevent the army from performing its historical and constitutional role of ensuring Kemalist secularism.


The Rise of Erdoğan and the Islamist AKP

The AKP, Erdoğan’s party, was an openly Islamist party of the sort that was not allowed in Turkish politics in the past. The AKP came to power in 2002, when they won 34 percent of the votes cast, and continued to win elections over the next 14 years, in 2007, 2011, June 2015, and November 2015, winning 46.6%, 49.8%, 40.9%, and 49.5% respectively.

If Vladimir Putin is the new Russian Czar, then Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the new Turkish Sultan.  Erdoğan is even building a billion-dollar presidential palace near Ankara, four times larger than Versailles, to far surpass anything the Sultans could boast.  Putin’s and Erdoğan’s careers have followed remarkably similar trajectories: each man was democratically elected, but each retained power even as they switched offices from prime minister to president in order to honor the forms of democratic government while denying the substance.  Yet both Putin and Erdoğan have managed to remain very popular despite their despotism becoming progressively more obvious, even flagrant.  


Erdoğan the Islamist

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

While at university, Erdoğan met and joined the movement of Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamist Prime Minister who was deposed by the military in 1997.  In 1994, Erdoğan became mayor of Istanbul, and banned alcohol in all city cafes.  In 1998, he was convicted of inciting religious hatred by reading an Islamist poem that included the lines:  "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers..." He was sentenced to 10 months in jail, and served four.  Because of this conviction, he was barred from holding political office, but that law was repealed after the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power, and Erdoğan became prime minister.

In August, 2007, he decried the use of the term “moderate Islam.”  “These descriptions are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.”  This comment not only undermines Western attempts to foster a moderate Islam, it inherently repudiates the Kemalist vision of modern Turkey—an Islam stripped of its political-jurisprudential component and effectively privatized.

This past April, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour, Erdoğan stated, “I expect an official declaration that Islamophobia is a crime against humanity. Islamophobia emerged from the Western countries and this is a challenge that we all together need to surmount.”  This is transparent advocacy for imposing sharia law, which forbids any criticism of Muhammad or Islam, on the West.  Erdoğan has the same goal as the terrorists who murdered twelve journalists at Charlie Hebdo—to place criticism of Islam beyond the pale even in the West—he is merely more polished in his advocacy of that goal. 

Erdoğan's own wife wears the hijab, and he has abolished the ban on headscarves in public institutions like schools and universities.  To an American, this seems like a small and harmless thing, but to a Turk the headscarf—hijab, niqab, burka, etc.—is a very potent symbol of political Islam.  “We will never allow our country to be dragged back into the dark ages," said one Turkish lawmaker in reacting against the measure to legalize the headscarf.  Another lawmaker said the approval of the law would amount to “the death of the secular republic. . . . This law will create chaos in universities and will lead to the disintegration of the nation.”


Erdoğan and Christians

Under Erdoğan and the AKP, Turkey has become a less secure place for Christians.  In April, Erdoğan was in the United States to open a huge new Turkish mosque in Lanham, Maryland, but Turkey follows the ancient sharia rule that Christian “dhimmis” cannot build churches in Muslim countries. 

In June, 2015, Turkish authorities shut down several Christian schools in Gaziantep that were attended mainly by Syrian refugees.  Although providing humanitarian relief, the schools were also giving Bibles and Christian literature to their refugee students, many from Muslim backgrounds, and this was apparently too much for Erdoğan. 

In April of this year, the Turkish government seized six Christian churches in Diyarbakir, including a 1,700-year-old structure. 

The failed coup attempt occasioned some attacks on Christian churches.  But compared to the Turks before the Kemal era, who conducted a series of pogroms against Christians culminating in the 1915 genocide of 1.5 million Armenian Christians, there is, as yet, nothing in Turkey today that can be called persecution.


The Coup Attempt “A Gift from Allah”

On July 15th, a group within the Turkish military made a clumsy attempt at a coup.  They did not scoop up Erdoğan and without capturing him the coup was doomed to fail.   Erdoğan’s government retains popular support; the weak coup attempt was easily defeated. 

Erdoğan had already begun purging the military of officers who might present a secularist threat to his Islamist agenda.  In April, 2010, Erdoğan jailed 86 officers he accused of plotting to overthrow him back in 2003; in September 2012, over 300 more officers were imprisoned on the same grounds.  In February, 2013, the AKP prosecuted several generals who, in 1997, had forced from office Erdoğan’s Islamist predecessor, Necmettin Erbakan.

The failed coup will allow Erdoğan to take an unshakable, iron grip on power.  Realizing this, Erdoğan called the coup attempt “a Gift from Allah.”  Erdoğan is using the coup as an excuse to snuff out all opposition.  Nearly 16,000 people have been detained since the failed coup. A total of 8,113 people have been formally arrested and are awaiting trial.

Erdoğan's enormous presidential palace complex

Erdoğan's enormous presidential palace complex

Erdoğan had already begun cracking down on unfriendly media, but the coup allows him to shut down any media outlet that disagrees with him or the AKP.  He has ordered the closure of more than 130 media outlets, including three news agencies, 23 radio stations, 16 TV channels, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines, and 29 publishers and distributors.  Warrants have been issued for 47 journalists.

Erdoğan’s previous purges of the military, and EU-demanded changes to the law since 2002, had rendered the military relatively toothless compared to what it had been in the 20th Century—another reason the coup failed.  But the failed coup attempt crushes, with extreme finality, any remaining hope that the Turkish military might ever again act as an enforcer of Kemalist secularism.  Erdoğan has dismissed 1,684 officers and men from the military, including 149 generals and admirals, nearly half of the general officers.  He has arrested military cadets as young as 16 years old, and is planning to shut down all of the country’s military schools and academies.  A decree is set to be released that will expel all military cadets, who will need to continue their education at regular schools.

Erdoğan is purging not only the military but also the civil service, another stronghold of Turkish secularism.  There are reports that 58,881 civil service employees have been dismissed, forced to resign, or had their licenses revoked. 


Whither Turkey?

There is now nothing preventing Erdoğan from Islamizing Turkey as fast as he can.  He might choose to follow a gradual path, especially in Istanbul and its environs, in order to retain popular support in Turkey’s more secular precincts.  But he need not.

My prediction is that, within a generation, Turkey will become a Sunni version of Iran—militantly Islamist and extremely hostile to the West.  This is also the prediction of an Iranian on the ground in Turkey:  "Turkey is like Iran in 1975,” said one Iranian in Istanbul. “I’m sure we will see it become an Islamic Republic very soon. “But Erdogan is clever. He will survive."

At best, Turkey will resemble Saudi Arabia—superficially friendly to the United States and the West, but inwardly Salafist and not-quite-clandestinely promoting aggressive Islamist expansion. 


Why the Shift Toward Islam?

For 80 years, a vigilant secularist cohort both within and outside Turkey’s military, devoted to preventing a resurgent Islam, kept Turkey modern, secular and Western-oriented.  But now the Islamist Erdoğan is poised to completely erase Kemalism.  We have seen what happened; why did it happen?   

Osama bin Laden famously said, “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”    

In the 1920s, the West was the strong horse.  Starting in 1798, when Napoleon easily destroyed a Mamluk army at the Battle of the Pyramids, the West has militarily dominated the Muslim world.  Britain and France kept the Ottoman Empire alive during the 19th Century as a buffer against an expansionist Russian Empire. And although Kemal prevailed at Gallipoli, Britain defeated the Turks using a small fraction of the troops it committed to the Great War; the Ottoman campaign was a sideshow compared to the contest with Germany. 

Beyond military might, for centuries all civilizational progress in science, commerce, manufacturing, agriculture, the arts, literature, etc., had come from the West.  The Muslim world was a backward backwater.  Small wonder Kemal believed that Turkey’s only way forward was to suppress Islam and imitate the West.

A century later, how things have changed!  The West is palpably in decline.  Its institutions, prominently including the Christian churches, are compromised.  Its corrupt governing elites despise their own civilization, and zealously work to “totally transform” it.  Sexually, the West is astonishingly degenerate.  The Sexual Revolution, still unfolding in ever more bizarre and destructive ways (most recently, governmentally-enforced gender confusion), has destroyed the West’s sexual functioning, with the result that no Western nation’s fertility rate is even close to replacement. 

The West’s self-extermination through failure to reproduce has necessitated massive immigration which, in Europe, means importing millions of Muslims.  Muslims no longer need to fight jihad; they need only wait for self-hating Western politicians like Angela Merkel to import millions of them, and birth-rate demographics will do the rest.  Already, 25% of French teenagers are Muslim.  Hundreds of thousands of Westerners will “revert” to Islam because European Christianity is long dead, and Westerners, too, like a strong horse.  In less than a century, Muslims will be the majority in every Western European country

Christendom is dying, and Islam is poised to be its undertaker.  Islam, “this theology of an immoral Arab,” is no longer the “dead thing” Kemal saw.  It is now the strong horse.