What Turkey’s referendum reveals
The outcome represents further evidence of a crumbling global status quo
The outcome of the Turkish vote on constitutional changes, notwithstanding lingering allegations of fraud, represents further evidence of a crumbling global status quo. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared victory in the narrowly divided referendum, it wiped away 93 years of Turkish history and nearly 70 years of Turkey’s prevailing concept of its place in the world. Add that to today’s global flux, along with the rise of China, the Mideast conflagration, the fraying European Union, the threat to Europe from a rising tide of immigrants, intensifying U.S.-Russian tensions, and America’s lurch into rightwing populism, and it becomes clear that the Old Order is disintegrating.
Turkey’s latest 93-year status quo replaced an earlier status quo stretching back to the 14th century, when the Asia Minor principality of Osman, vying for dominance over other Turkish principalities, gained hegemony over that vast peninsula. Then it pushed to fill the void left by the decaying Byzantine Empire. That Osman force — or Ottoman, as it became known — emerged as one of the world’s great empires, lasting more than six centuries. At its zenith, around 1670, it encircled the Red and Black seas, stretched down to the Persian Gulf, encompassed much of the Middle East, including Egypt and large portions of Arabia, and controlled through vassal states the southern Mediterranean coastline. It gobbled up much of Europe, including Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Transylvania, and Hungary. Twice it laid siege to Vienna.
Then it entered a slow, agonizing decline. It became, as they said, the “sick man of Europe.” Finally, with World War I, the sick man died.
That’s when Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, emerged to fashion a new Muslim country upon the ashes of empire — a modern, secular nation-state looking westward and moving beyond even the vestiges of the old theocratic empire. He rejected multinationalism in favor of a homogeneous nation, intolerant of Armenians or Greeks in its midst. He deposed the sultan, abolished his caliphate, and established a Western-style republican form of political authority. He ended Islam as the state religion, abolished religious schools, terminated religious ministries, even prohibited the wearing of the fez because it symbolized Islamic traditionalism.
The late Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard described his next move: “Having redefined the national, political, religious, and cultural identity of the Turkish people, Kemal in the 1930s vigorously attempted to promote Turkish economic development. Westernization went hand-inhand with and was to be the means of modernization.”
This push to modernization through westernization gained momentum with the Cold War. Soon Turkey was seen by the West, and came to see itself, as the West’s eastern bulwark of containment against the Soviet Union. After gaining NATO membership in 1952, Turkey received billions of dollars in Western aid to bolster its defense. Its military was integrated into NATO’s command structure, and the country allowed American military bases to be constructed upon its soil. Eventually, Turkey sought membership in the European Union.
President George Bush endorsed that idea in June 2004 as he stood on the banks of the Bosporus in Istanbul. “As a European power,” he declared, “Turkey belongs in Europe.”
But Turkey wasn’t — and isn’t — a European power. It is an Asian power and a Muslim nation, culturally distinct from Europe. And all of Ataturk’s bold and implacable efforts to fashion it into a Western nation were ultimately doomed to fail.
Huntington, writing in 1996, saw that failure coming. He called Turkey a ”torn country” — one whose predominant culture places it in one civilization while its leaders seek to shift it to another. This process of “identity redefinition,” he wrote, is always prolonged and painful — politically, socially, and culturally. He added: “It also to date has failed.” He didn’t mean just in Turkey, but everywhere it has been tried.
The unraveling of Turkey’s Kemalist secular identity began after the end of the Cold War, when Turks increasingly wondered about their national and cultural identity. And, noted Huntington, “religion was there to provide an answer.” By 1993, reported Eric Rouleau in Foreign Affairs, Islamic-style beards and veiled women were proliferating, and bookstores were ”overflowing with books and journals, cassettes, compact disks and videos glorifying Islamic history, precepts and way of life and exalting the Ottoman Empire’s role in preserving the values of the Prophet Muhammad.”
That was the beginning of a process that culminated in this month’s referendum outcome. It was a near thing, with the Erdogan forces capturing only 51 percent of the vote to 49 percent opposing the autocracy now in prospect under Mr. Erdogan. The president’s tenure in office, 14 years thus far, could be extended under the new structure for up to a decade. During that time he can rule with a minimum of parliamentary interference, as that check on his authority has been gutted. Mr. Erdogan will be permitted to impose decrees at will, appoint vice presidents and cabinet officials without legislative approval, and dominate judicial appointments. A human rights organization in Europe says that Mr. Erdogan’s vision is a “oneperson regime.”
Mr. Erdogan’s declaration of victory also kills any prospect of Turkey seeking membership in the EU or otherwise pursuing a western identity. The Kemalist experiment is over. Turkey no longer is a torn country, in Huntington’s term. But it remains a split country, as the close referendum outcome attests. In that, it reflects the unsettled nature of global geopolitics as well as today’s ongoing assault on the status quo.