- The Strange Death of Turkish Liberalism
Turkey Unveiled is the best English-language introduction to Turkish politics currently available. This is real praise, because there are already a number of excellent studies on the market. Foremost among its many virtues is the way this book tries to redefine the agenda for discussions of Turkey. At present, when the West pays any attention to Turkey at all, it concentrates on two issues: “Is Ankara about to fall under the control of Islamic fundamentalists?” and “Does Turkey really belong in the European Union?” Nicole and Hugh Pope supply nuanced answers to both of these questions while they also shift attention onto those problems that appear most important to Turks themselves: the violent civil war with the Kurds and the steady degradation and corruption of Turkey’s judiciary, political parties, and parliament.
Some chapters in Turkey Unveiled deal with specific issues, such as the Cyprus imbroglio, relations with Europe and Russia, or the civil war with the Kurds. But most of the book is organized as a straightforward historical narrative. The first chapter deals with ancient Anatolia, the second with the Ottoman empire, the third with the establishment of the modern republic, and so on through summer 1996. 1
Most chapters focus not only on a specific period but also on a particular individual. Naturally, the early chapters center on the ebedisef (immortal leader), Atatürk himself. The 1980 military coup [End Page 262] is analyzed from the perspective of its leader, army chief of staff Kenan Evren; the economic reforms of the 1980s are explained through the quirks of their mastermind, Turgut Özal; and the corruption of the 1990s is highlighted through the personality of Turkey’s first woman prime minister, Tansu Çiller. The Popes do not devote much space to explicit descriptions of the institutions and social forces that undergird Turkish politics, preferring to let readers infer these facts from their characterizations of key individuals.
This strategy works because the Popes have a real gift for selecting anecdotes that humanize important social trends. When they try to explain how the early Kemalists strove to displace Ottoman values by importing the latest in European culture, they relate how Atatürk’s deputy, Ismet Inönü, forced himself and his barracks mates to listen to French opera until they at last developed a taste for it. When the authors want to communicate the absurd consequences of Turkey’s populist economic policies in the 1960s, they describe how the portly Özal used business trips abroad as an opportunity to smuggle pantyhose back for his wife—by wearing several layers of them under his pants to conceal them from customs officials. To convey the bitterness of the Turkish-Kurdish civil war in the 1980s, they mention that Turkish soldiers in the southeast once confiscated beads, cloth, and even pharmaceutical bottles that were tinted any combination of red, yellow, and green—because these were the colors of the Kurdish flag. (A Kurdish mayor jibed, “They’d remove the traffic lights, if we had any.”) The Popes’ eye for “telling detail” not only makes their analysis unusually penetrating, but it also makes the book a pleasure to read.
This mastery of nuance lets the Popes untie some of the knottier Western misconceptions about Turkey, such as the fear that it might follow Iran and turn to Islamic fundamentalism. Their analysis of Necmettin Erbakan and his followers, who form the leading pro-Islamic party in Turkey, is full of surprises. Few, if any, of the senior cadres of this party are clerics; most are young, Western-educated intellectuals who, disgusted with the rigidity of the Kemalist ancien regime, have constructed a very modernized interpretation of Islam. The grassroots organization of the party is maintained mostly by women, who not only encourage voter turnout but also dominate local charitable and civic committees. The backbone of the party’s electoral support is found among small businessmen, who proudly point to America’s Mormons as evidence that people can preserve traditional values while achieving material success.