What Turkey’s ref­er­en­dum re­veals

The out­come rep­re­sents fur­ther ev­i­dence of a crum­bling global sta­tus quo

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Robert W. Merry Robert W. Merry, long­time Washington, D.C., jour­nal­ist and pub­lish­ing ex­ec­u­tive, is ed­i­tor of The Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive. His next book, due out from Si­mon & Schus­ter in Septem­ber, is a biog­ra­phy of Wil­liam McKin­ley.

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.


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