The New Yorker

The Experiment: Will Turkey Be the Model for Islamic Democracy?"

By David Remnick

November 18, 2002

Five hundred years ago in Constantinople, at the height of the Islamic empire, a young prince named Cihangir lived with his father, Süleyman the Magnificent, who was the most revered of the Ottoman sultans. Cihangir cut a pallid figure in the Ottoman court. He was a hunchback, weak and withdrawn, and when he learned that the Sultan had ordered the execution of his half brother Mustafa, the prince died of heartbreak. In his honor, Süleyman ordered that a mosque be constructed on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Bosporus, the Golden Horn, and the Sea of Marmara. The Cihangir Mosque burned to the ground in 1720, and another mosque was built on the same site; the new mosque, the "Blue Guide" sternly advises, "is of no interest whatsoever."

That seems harsh. Early in the evening just a few weeks ago, I walked up a steep side street past the mosque on the way to an appointment, in a nearby high-rise, with Orhan Pamuk, a novelist who holds a position in Turkey rather like Gabriel García Márquez's in Colombia—he is the house postmodernist. Pamuk greeted me at the door of a spacious one-bedroom apartment, which he uses strictly as a place to write; he lives a short walk away, near the city's busiest shopping district, Taksim Square. In the apartment, thousands of books were teetering in stacks of varying heights, a mesa of Dickens, a butte of quarterlies, vast and interesting geological formations accreting over time, all on the brink of seismic catastrophe. Pamuk is fifty, and boyish-looking, with straight floppy hair, oversized glasses, and an eager, unassuming manner. He led me into the main room, a living room that he has converted into a study. His view of the water, of the ship traffic and the slender bridges that connect Europe and Asia, is precisely framed by the tapered minarets of the mosque.

"It's something, isn't it?" Pamuk said. "I've been working here for years, from early morning into the night, and I never get tired of the view."

Pamuk grew up in a wealthy family, which made its money through the establishment of the secular Turkish republic. His grandfather was a civil engineer who built railroads just as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was building a nation after the fall of the last Ottoman sultan; his mother's family was in the textile business. Although much of the money is gone now, Pamuk is regarded around town as a kind of Istanbul aristocrat: a few of his friends even joke that he is a sultan himself. As an artist, he is the avatar of a new breed. Traditionally, Turkish novelists have been leftists who cultivate an image of modest wisdom; they portray, in the main, the hardships and domestic dramas of village life in the Anatolian heartland. A Turkish novelist, Pamuk said, is generally regarded not "as a person with demons but, rather, as a man of good will." In Pamuk's work, the setting is native but the imaginative models—Borges, Calvino, Nabokov—are not.

Pamuk waved me out onto the balcony. He pointed to the illuminated mosques on the far shore, then to a Russian oil tanker plowing north on the Bosporus toward the Black Sea. As he was describing the bridges across the Golden Horn, a muezzin, that buzzy summons to prayer present in all Orientalist narratives, wailed reliably in midsentence, and Pamuk laughed. "Sometimes my agent will call from New York, and the muezzin will start," he said. "You can tell that at the other end of the phone line he is thinking, Ah! The exotic East!"

The polarities of Pamuk's books echo the basic polarities of Istanbul: the tension between East and West, the pull of an Islamic past and the lure of modern European manners and materialism. Sixteen centuries of empire—the Christian Byzantine, then the Islamic Ottoman—lurk in every corner of the city, and yet the greatest ambition of the contemporary élites is to join someone else's country club, the European Union. In the days when the Ottoman Empire stretched from the Danube to the Euphrates, its leader could announce, "In Baghdad, I am the Shah, in Byzantine realms the caesar, in Egypt the sultan." Who today knows the name of Turkey's Prime Minister? The political class comprises modestly talented, often spectacularly corrupt politicians, whose pathos and ambition are the same: their fiercest desire is to leave behind a history of glory and blood for a future of bland stability and commerce.

"The relationship between the cities of big, fallen empires—Moscow, Beijing, Istanbul—and the people who live in them is strange," Pamuk said as we came back into the study and settled in to talk over coffee. "It is a sad thing to live among ruins. I'm interested in the idea of people living among these grand buildings, people who, compared to the builders, live far lesser lives.

"There's a Toynbee-like theory that if you have a great empire and lose it you will then become angry and nationalistic. Turkey's consolation after sixteen centuries of the Byzantine rulers and the Ottoman sultans was, O.K., we have lost an empire, but now we have a modernized, Western state. And this belief lasted for a generation after Atatürk. Then the frustrations set in."

Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923. It was his dream to accelerate the reforms of the last Ottoman leaders and to banish from his country all traces of Islamic authority. "I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea," Atatürk once said. He was so determined to minimize the Islamic presence in Turkey that many of his opponents believed that he was a Jew. A military man born to Muslim parents in Salonika, Atatürk spent many years abroad and was deeply influenced not by the mild, Anglo-Saxon notion of a separation of church and state but, rather, by a far more severe version of secularism, the laïcisme of revolutionary France.

Atatürk's goal was to establish liberty and a Turkish identity—although certainly not by democratic means. Employing authoritarian politics (and, when necessary, the gallows), Atatürk foisted modernity on his countrymen. His mission of social engineering was predicated, too, on historical forgetting; any but the mildest and most private form of Islamic influence, he insisted, would keep his people in a dark age of poverty and isolation. "I flatly refuse to believe that today, in the luminous presence of science, knowledge, and civilization in all its aspects, there exist, in the civilized community of Turkey, men so primitive as to seek their material and moral well-being from the guidance of one or another sheikh," he said in 1925. "The Republic of Turkey cannot be the land of sheikhs, dervishes, disciples, and lay brothers." And so, just as the French Third Republic banned crosses from the schools, Atatürk abolished the Islamic caliphate and the religious courts, changed the calendar from the Islamic to the Gregorian, and, by fiat, replaced Arabic script with Latin and "purified" the language of all Arabic words, lest Turkish continue to be linked to an Islamic heritage. Even appearances mattered. "The civilized, international dress is worthy and appropriate for our nation and we will wear it," Atatürk declared. "Boots or shoes on our feet, trousers on our legs, shirt and tie, jacket and waistcoat—and, of course, to complete these, a cover with a brim on our heads. I want to make this clear. This head-covering is called a 'hat.' " Atatürk banned the fez and endorsed the fedora. To this day—and it has been a central issue for the devout—female students are not permitted to wear a headscarf to classes; even women elected to parliament may not wear a headscarf into government buildings.

Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, and with particular energy since September 11, 2001, many analysts have pointed to Turkey as an exemplar of regional enlightenment, a model of moderate secularism and democratic ambition. Bernard Lewis, a distinguished scholar of both Turkey and the Arab world, acknowledges the drawbacks of Turkey's semi-democracy—the outsized role of the military in politics, instances of censorship, the persistence of torture in the precinct houses and prisons—and yet he has written that, in the context of the Islamic world and its history, Turkey is a country of possibility.

Democracy in Turkey is not easily mistaken for the European or American version. Four times—in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997—the Army has forced governments from office. The sympathetic refer not to coups d'état but, more gently, to "interventions" or "corrections," and quickly point out that the Army never, in the Latin-American mode, remained in power. In each instance, the officers "retreated to their barracks." Since 1950, when Atatürk's party lost in national elections, Turkish politics have been a chaotic multi-party jumble. Most recently, in the mid-eighties and late nineties, the Kurdish minority formed an opposition movement, which evolved into a terrorist organization led by Abdullah Öcalan—the P.K.K., or Kurdistan Workers' Party. In a military campaign that left more than thirty thousand dead, the Turkish Army overwhelmed the Kurds. Öcalan is now the sole inmate at an island prison, and the P.K.K. has been banned.

These days, the parties that most successfully embody the popular disdain for a failing economy and a corrupt ruling class are the Islamic parties, especially the Justice and Development Party. In Istanbul, I saw a number of campaign demonstrations supporting the Party, and every night on television there were clips of even more enthusiastic rallies in Ankara and the smaller cities and towns of Anatolia. On November 3rd, Justice and Development received thirty-four per cent of the vote, far more than any other party, and will soon form a government and nominate a Prime Minister.

The Islamic movement's stunning success in the election has spooked some urban cosmopolitans like Orhan Pamuk, to say nothing of the ardent republicans who fear for the future of the secular state that Atatürk brought into being. "There is a whole range of people in Turkey who play around with Islam, beginning with some who are like the Christian Democrats in various European countries," Pamuk said. "And there are fundamentalists who will make no concession to the West: God is in power and democracy is merely a tool to seize power for Him. They believe only in the Koran and will not reconcile freedom of expression and the Koran. I don't think the fundamentalists can take power by themselves, but I fear they will use the umbrella of the so-called 'modern' Islamists."

This is not the first time an Islamic party has appeared on the scene. As early as the forties, parliament debated, and finally allowed, the restoration of religious education, and in the late sixties a coterie of Islamic intellectuals began publishing attacks on the state; they wrote about corruption, pollution, and consumerism as the loathsome by-products of Western modernity. Small Islamic parties, such as the National Order Party and then the National Salvation Party, appeared. But Turkey's strongest opposition voices were still on the secular left. Then, in the early eighties, as a result of the revolution in Iran and a widespread disgust with the Turkish government, a new opposition group came into being, the Welfare Party, which advertised a startlingly Islamist program. The Party's leader, a career politician named Necmettin Erbakan, was seen by at least some of his supporters as a savior. "Khomeini in Iran! In Turkey, Erbakan!" they chanted. In those days, Islamist leaders like Erbakan made little pretense of moderation; Atatürk's ideology, Kemalism, was anathema, the politics of infidels, and they did not hesitate to say as much. In the mid-nineties, Erbakan vowed an Islamic currency, an "Islamic United Nations, an Islamic NATO, and an Islamic version of the European Union"; he promised a jihad to recapture Jerusalem and a war to win back Turkey from "the unbelievers of Europe" and from "imperialism and Zionism."

In the 1995 elections, Welfare won just over twenty per cent of the vote, which allowed Erbakan to form a coalition government. As Prime Minister, he began to promote a brand of Islamism never before imagined in the Republic of Turkey. He paid friendly, even obsequious, visits to Qaddafi, in Libya, and to the mullahs in Iran. He invited Islamic leaders to his home; he gave a speech promising to build an enormous mosque on Taksim Square. In January of 1997, the Islamist mayor of Sincan, a suburb of Ankara, organized a rally celebrating "Jerusalem Day," the day of Muslim protest against Israel initiated by Ayatollah Khomeini. A play was staged in which actors dressed as Hamas militants hurled stones at "Israeli soldiers," in a mock intifada. The guest of honor was the Iranian Ambassador, Mohammed Reza Bagheri. "Do not be afraid to call yourself fundamentalists!" Bagheri told the people of Sincan. "God has promised them the final victory!"

The Army reacted quickly. Tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled through the streets of Sincan, if only to remind the mayor of the nature of republican Turkey (and the strength of the military). Then, on February 28th, the military leadership, in the shape of the National Security Council, met for nine hours and pressured Erbakan to accept eighteen "recommendations," many of them directed at reaffirming the secular nature of the state. One military leader, Brigadier General Osman Ozbek, said of Erbakan and his team, "Our grandfathers would spit on them. They want to cut off our heads and come to power, just as in Algeria." Neutered and humiliated as a political leader, Erbakan resigned from office in June, 1997—the culmination of an event that has become known in Turkey as "the postmodern coup." The Welfare Party was outlawed, and, in time, even the most ardent Islamists recognized that fundamentalist rhetoric had no future as long as the Turkish Army held on to its prerogatives.

The Islamic movement did not vanish; it revamped itself, with a new name, a new leader, and a new, less threatening rhetoric. Now called the Justice and Development Party, it inherited Welfare's constituents; a well-respected former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inherited the mantle of Party leader. Erdogan is forty-eight, the son of a lifeguard from the town of Rize, on the Black Sea coast. After his family moved to Istanbul, he sold lemonade on the streets and attended a religious school; later, he studied management at Marmara University. As the mayor of Istanbul, his reputation was Giuliani-esque: honest, efficient, attentive to things like crime prevention and garbage collection. Although Erdogan was the focal point of this fall's election campaign, speaking to huge rallies around the country and appearing on posters and billboards, he is a kind of ghost. The Turkish courts banned him from higher office, precisely on account of his rhetorical excesses. "You cannot be secular and a Muslim at the same time," he once declared. "The Muslim world is waiting for the Turkish people to rise up. We will rise up! With Allah's permission, the rebellion will start." His greatest offense, which led to a charge of sedition, came in 1997, when he recited a poem with these lines: "The mosques are our barracks, / the domes our helmets, / the minarets our bayonets, / and the faithful our soldiers." The author is Ziya Gokalp, a secular nationalist from the early twentieth century.

This time around, the Party, Erdogan included, stifled any talk of religious politics, emphasizing instead an ideology of centrist populism. Many of the secular journalists and businesspeople I spoke to expressed awe at the discipline of Erdogan and his followers. They stayed on message. Opponents accused Erdogan of takkiye, or lying in the name of promoting Islam—in this case, masking a politics of Islamic revolution with the rhetoric of more earthly issues. Justice and Development candidates talked about how Turkey needed to feed the poor and create jobs, how it had to gain acceptance from the European Union, how the economy could not, must not, go the way of Argentina's and Brazil's. Erdogan even dodged one of the basic Islamic grievances: when asked if his wife would wear a headscarf at public events, he replied, "I won't take her along."

Justice and Development's supporters in the media were equally circumspect. I spoke with Fehmi Koru, the Ankara bureau chief for Yeni Safak (the New Dawn), the leading Islamist newspaper. Koru is fifty-one; he studied Islamic theology in Izmir and politics at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Many Turks told me that on television and in his column Koru had flirted with various anti-American and anti-Israeli conspiracy theories about September 11th. "Iran is a religious state, and the majority of the Islamically minded in Turkey do not want that," he said coolly. "The biggest question in Turkish society is whether Islam is compatible with democracy, whether we can have individuals who accept Islam as a religion and enjoy the benefits of a secular state. I think we can." Koru's was the same public tact that brought Justice and Development to victory. "If the Justice and Development Party is successful in creating a government, it will create such an atmosphere—secular and Islamic," Koru said. "Now, will the Army put up with this? That is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. It is silent so far."

It wasn't just the Islamists who defended the new turn in Turkish, and Islamic, politics. Cengiz Candar is a liberal who also writes for Yeni Safak and, at the same time, has close connections to American academics and politicians, including Paul Wolfowitz, at the Pentagon. When we spoke, Candar was unworried about the increasingly strong position in Turkish politics of a party with Islamic roots. "Turkey is developing a synthesis of democracy and Islam," he said. "The Justice and Development Party sees itself as a conservative party"—not unlike the traditional Christian Democratic parties in Western Europe—"and the core leadership tends to the political center, not Sharia," Islamic law. "The real fear is that the Islamists will create enough tension so that the military will again not let them rule the country. We are exhausted by this pattern in Turkey. Also, the Islamists might not be competent enough to run the country according to the International Monetary Fund's straitjacket." Turkey, as it happens, avoided an Argentine-style meltdown largely because it won a seventeen-billion-dollar bailout this year from the I.M.F.

Koru and Candar clearly regard people like Orhan Pamuk as political snobs, who indulge in scare tactics, but in fact Istanbul is filled with secularists, liberals, conservatives, and all sorts of others who, like Pamuk, feel that an Islamic political party could hold Turkey back from joining the E.U. and cost the country a historic opportunity, to say nothing of billions of dollars. There is no bigger issue in Turkey. This was never clearer than on the day in early October when the European Commission recommended ten new countries for acceptance into the E.U.—from Poland to Malta, a total of seventy-five million people—and rejected Turkey. The Islamists, who had once dreamed of a bloc of major Muslim nations to counteract the influence of the G-8, the circle of major industrialized nations, were now among the first to express their disappointment. Islamists and centrists alike charged that the E.U. was accepting Eastern European countries with corrupt economies: could the reason be that, by accepting Turkey, "Europe" would suddenly have borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran?

One of the main reasons that the European Union, although it was willing, in 1999, to endorse the principle of welcoming Turkey, keeps putting off the actual embrace is that Turkey's human-rights record does not come close to meeting E.U. standards. After the Army crushed the Kurds and jailed or killed their leaders, the incidence of ethnic discrimination, censorship, and torture receded—but not entirely. Turkish police are notoriously brutal and still practice the falanga, or beating the soles of a suspect's feet, and the wet submarino, or submerging a prisoner's head under water to force a confession. Prisoners still suffer mock executions and electric-shock torture, and are allegedly hung by their wrists. Sometimes suspects are sandwiched between blocks of ice to force testimony, a practice that leaves no marks but causes lung infections and other illnesses. Two years ago, Sema Piskinsut, the head of the Human Rights Commission in the Turkish parliament, undertook a prolonged investigation of torture in Turkish police stations and prisons. She gathered testimony and physical evidence—manacles, truncheons, prods—and published an eleven-volume study. In the end, the report was shunted aside and she was forced out of her own political party.

The leftists, who still dominate the human-rights movement—among them Esber Yagmurdereli, a blind lawyer who spent fourteen years in jail for defending political prisoners and four more for making a speech deemed propaganda, and Nadire Mater, a journalist who wrote "Mehmet's Book," a collection of interviews with Turkish soldiers in the war against the Kurds—have made common cause with the Islamists on one question. None of them seem to vote for Justice and Development and some are no less suspicious of the Islamists' real intentions than Pamuk, but they sympathize with the complaints about the lack of religious freedom.

"The Turkish government has a Directorate of Religious Affairs, and the state intervenes on a regular basis," Ragip Duran, a writer who went to jail because of his articles on the war against the Kurds, told me. "All the imams are state-approved and state-employed; their salaries are from the Turkish government, their sermons are sanctioned. And all the imams must be Sunni, even though we have other sects."

In Istanbul, I spoke with a number of religious women who said they were outraged by the ban on headscarves in schools and universities. They were shy about being quoted, but there were secular women who were quick to express the same sentiment. "The Kemalist ideology was a positive thing for women at first: it gave us education, a sense of being a European woman who can work or marry whom she likes or hang out with friends at a pub," a leftist university lecturer, a "totally secular" woman named Esra Arsan, told me at dinner. "But try to imagine a student banned from an American university because she was wearing a cross on a chain around her neck."

There is not nearly as much division on the subject of the United States. Sometimes I thought I was in far more hostile territory: Riyadh, say, or the Fifth Arrondissement. One afternoon, I went to the Asian side of Istanbul to speak with Ilter Turkmen, a retired diplomat whose conscience allowed him, in 1980, to accept the office of foreign minister after a military "correction." With a framed portrait of Atatürk staring at us in the living room, Turkmen tried to impress upon me not only that an American invasion of Iraq was a "bad idea" but that a new Turkish government, headed by the Islamic party, would not accept direct military involvement in Iraq. The Bush Administration, like others before it, has so far taken Turkey's support as a given and is counting on using the airbase in Incirlik for an invasion, if necessary.

In fact, all the people I met with in Turkey—human-rights campaigners, artists, Islamists, establishment journalists—were profoundly anxious about an American-led war with Iraq. Some opposed it because of "American arrogance" or "American hypocrisy," others because of the unpredictable effect it might have on the Kurdish situation or on Islamic fundamentalism in the region. "We live in a bad neighborhood—that's always been our problem," Nuri Colakoglu, the former head of Turkish CNN, told me one afternoon over coffee at a hotel near Taksim Square. "Ever since the end of the Cold War, everything in international relations, it seems, has happened near here: the Gulf War, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, Georgia, Chechnya, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the problems in the Islamic world. Every time a gun goes off in this region, the Turkish people get hit: there's terrorism, oil prices go up, the economy slows down. So in Turkey it is hard to find anyone who is pro-war."

Perhaps because of this sense of beleaguered in-between-ness, I did not hear many expressions of sympathy for what the United States suffered on September 11th, and such expressions as there were often were followed by one variety or another of "Yes, but . . ."

"Yes, but America should have expected it, considering its foreign policy since the Korean War."

"Yes, but what's the difference between that and your killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan?"

Orhan Pamuk was not alone in brushing off such talk as a form of "provincial resentment," but far more sobering were the frequent complaints from Turks that they felt dictated to by the United States, condescended to, caught in the middle of a potential conflict that could aggravate the Kurdish problem and lead to a wave of refugees from Iraq.

"Like the subjects of all former empires, we look at the United States with awe and disgust," Cengiz Candar, the columnist from Yeni Safak, said. "Many people here see George W. Bush as unbearably arrogant. But there is also awe that a country can do virtually anything it wants. Under Clinton, America was seen as more benevolent, and possessing a real freshness and vigor, a force for the good—in Bosnia, for example. But this Administration, with all its muscle-flexing and aggressive rhetoric, reminds one of the United States of the nineteen-sixties, of Vietnam, of concocting plots in Chile and Guatemala, a return to all that."

"I have no hangups about the United States," Nuri Colakoglu said. "It's a one-superpower world, and that is a fact. Russia is dead. Japan is in perennial economic crisis. Germany is trying still to deal with reunification. England is a bygone era. There is no one except the United States. Being alone is hard. If you fine-tune your policies, you can create a peace that could last a long time. But, if not, an opposition front will grow over time, and it will develop alliances and counter the existing supremacy."

Justice and Development won the elections far more easily than anyone had expected. It was unclear, however, what the courts would say about Erdogan himself and the role he might play in selecting a Prime Minister. It seemed hard to imagine a democratic process in which a charismatic politician leads his party to victory and is then barred from public office because of his affection for incendiary verse.

After the polls closed and Justice and Development began its celebration, Erdogan quickly tried to soothe the many Turks—to say nothing of the Europeans and Americans—who were made nervous by the Islamic roots of his party. "Secularism is the protector of all beliefs and religions," he said, sounding more like Atatürk now than like the man who just a few years earlier had called for Islamic insurrection. He added, "We are the guarantors of this secularism and our management will clearly prove that."

And so, once more, an Islamic party has come to power in Turkey, and the question is whether it got there concealing a secret, fundamentalist agenda or is determined to become a ruling party with religious roots, democratic intentions, and a working relationship with "the inner state"—the Army hierarchy.

Earlier this year, Orhan Pamuk published yet another best-seller, a novel called "Kar" ("Snow"). His subject is a departure: contemporary politics, the war among Kurds, Islamists, and Jacobin nationalists.

"Of course, everything should be tolerated," Pamuk told me over dinner at a restaurant on the Bosporus. "If people vote for political Islam and you believe in democracy—and this is what we can learn from the West—then you have to believe that the people's will is greater than any other, greater than Atatürk's will or the sovereign's will or the Army's will. On the other hand, it is problematical, because political Islam may, in the end, have no place for the likes of me in this country if it comes to power. These are the antinomies of Western tolerance implanted in Turkey. All you can do is make guesses and take stands. There are no sure rational answers. You make an aesthetic choice, and my choice is to find a place that is equally detached from the cruelties of the Army and the cruelties of political Islam. And if you can occupy this place long enough full democracy could take hold in this country. On the other hand—there is always an 'On the other hand'—I may be just a naïve liberal to believe it possible."