The Lesson from Turkey

After Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration’s insistence that its misadventure in Iraq has anything to do with promoting democracy should by now come across as grossly fraudulent to any half-thoughtful, non-self-deluding adult. At the outset, a charitable anti-imperialist could, if not share, at least conjure some sympathy for the optimistic outlook of Thomas Friedman and other opponents of tyranny who thought that the end of Hussein’s regime (for ‘Hussein’ is his surname, and he and I are not on first-name terms) would trigger, by way of the domino effect, the conversion of all those middle eastern, pre-Enlightenment hold-outs into so many Jeffersonian republics. Beyond the obvious difference, though, that American democracy, such as it is (or once was), was born of revolution against a colonial power, and not imposed by a colonial power, our anti-imperialist might also have pointed out the hypocrisy of pretending to promote democracy in the Islamic world while simultaneously denouncing the Turkish parliament’s rejection, shortly before the invasion of Iraq a year ago, of $15 billion dollars in US aid and loans, offered in exchange for permission to send over 60,000 more troops into their country as part of a two-front invasion of Iraq.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz immediately criticized the Turkish military for not playing “the strong leadership role we would have expected,” while the body-snatched Christopher Hitchens took Turkey’s refusal as confirming something he’d long held, that Turkey is an “ally we can do without.” West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, in contrast, courageously proclaimed on the senate floor: “It is astonishing that our government is berating the new Turkish government for conducting its affairs in accordance with its own Constitution and its democratic institutions.” Wolfowitz evidently wanted Turkey to do what it indeed has traditionally done throughout its 20th-century history: to override democratic decisions that, in the long term, could easily spell the end of its alliance with the US. As the great sociologist and theorist of modernity Ernest Gellner has argued, modern Turkey’s idiosyncrasy lies in the fact that its periodic military coups really have functioned to keep the democratic will of the Turkish electorate and the governing bodies from straying too far from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s initial, revolutionary vision of what a secular, democratic, Turkey should look like, which included, among other things, alliance with Western, secular democracies. Amazingly, after the civilian leaders have been roped back in and the voters humbled, the military really does restore power to democratically elected officials. This, then, has been a feature that has distinguished Turkey from every other country in which military coups regularly happen, for in all other cases we can be sure that the general in charge, promising to restore power to civilian leaders just as soon as order is restored, will be exceedingly careful not to let things get sufficiently orderly to enable him to come good on his promise. Military coups, on Gellner’s analysis, are, or have been, just a part of Turkey’s unique system of checks and balances.

Wolfowitz, presumably, and likely without all that much knowledge of Kemalism’s history, would have liked to see the military step in at just the moment that its new governing party began leading Turkey away from its traditional role as a stalwart, strategic ally of the United States. But a coup didn’t happen this time; Turkey turned its back on an ally and the military has not bothered to set the matter right.

The religiously secular republic created by Ataturk in the 1920s _when I taught at a state university in Istanbul last year I used to watch female students remove their head scarves in a booth just at the campus’ entrance, so as to comply with the law prohibiting religious dress in state institutions_ has been compromised to some extent by the rise of the AK Party (the acronym stands for “justice and development”) and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to presidential power. There was some fear shortly after the election that, even in licentious Istanbul, alcohol would be banned or severely regulated (some of us were more afraid than others), and that instruction at state universities would have to be conducted in Turkish only. Bush, for his part (this before the Turks turned against him and his bellicose scheme), praised a confused Erdogan on the White House steps for being, like Bush himself, a man with deep and abiding faith in the Almighty (and of course, as Bush’s penetrating work in comparative religion has revealed, this is the same Almighty).

It is of course an interesting question for political theorists to ask to what extent a democracy can or should allow antidemocratic movements to flourish inside it. If too much is permitted to such movements, then they may get what they are after, in which case the democracy that tolerated them ceases to exist. If they are banned, the democracy is also compromised, not by those who would bring it down, but by its own zealous effort to not be brought down. Presumably, the more robust a democratic culture, the more antidemocratic opposition from within it can sustain, and this is why the protection of the First-Amendment right to wax antidemocratic might be seen as a reliable indicator of the health of American democracy. And this, in turn, is why the ACLU really is patriotic, while the Patriot Act is treasonous.

In Turkey, throughout most of the 20th century, democracy was a rather more fragile thing, and, for better or worse, was protected by the force of an armed few against what could rightly be called the popular will. It is a testament to the strength of Turkish democracy today, in my opinion, that an Islamist party can be elected without intervention by the military, and without any evident erosion, subsequently, of the (limited) freedoms and opportunities that are part of the Kemalist legacy and that distinguish Turkey in the Muslim world from undemocratic secular states, such as Egypt, as well as from undemocratic fundamentalist states such as Saudi Arabia.

What does this have to do with Iraq? It is unlikely that this country, held together so effectively by tyranny, could avoid splitting into at least three separate enclaves if the US were to pull out abruptly. Of these three parts, it is unlikely that any (except, perhaps, the majority-Kurdish area) would put forth a leader with much sympathy for Western-style democracy. The Shiites would rally behind an ayatollah, and the Sunnis would fall back into Baathism. If Iraq is ever to arrive where Turkey is now, it is safe to say that democratic culture will have to be cultivated, which means in part that ayatollahs and neo-Baathists will have to be blocked from gaining too much power. This is a task that, under the best of circumstances, may easily come to reek of illegitimacy, since it boldly denies any performative contradiction in defending a political system supposedly based on what the people want against what the people want. If the task is to be carried out with any legitimacy at all, it will be handed off to the United Nations without further dallying, and preferably to Arab and Muslim states under the auspices of the UN.

But of course nothing of the kind is going to happen, at least not as long as the current US administration is in power. For, as Wolfowitz’s comment a year ago about the outcome of democratic procedure in the Turkish parliament reveals, the Bush administration can only perceive as democratic what suits US interests. In Wolfowitz’s eyes, if an elected government makes a decision that reflects the popular will of those who elected it, but not the will of the Bush administration, then ipso facto this is not democracy. ‘The will of the people’ means ‘the will of the American people,’ and ‘the American people’ apparently means the cabal in power in Washington, since by their own lights they are the ones with the real interests of these people at heart. As Tom DeLay put it (and we might express some thanks here to the house of representatives for giving us characters who will say for their parties what officials elected to higher offices can only intimate), the party in power is not out to win any popularity contests, domestic or international, but to secure the best future possible for the American people. ‘Democracy’ has undergone a strange sort of semantic drift indeed, rivaled perhaps only by the dazzling insistence made by hawks, and not exactly discouraged by the mainstream media, that being concerned about the well-being of US soldiers in Iraq can only mean ‘supporting’ the troops, while supporting the troops must mean ‘getting behind’ the president, which in turn means ‘supporting’ US foreign policy.

Ban alcohol, conflate church (or mosque) and state, outlaw minority languages and cultural practices. Just as long as you give us what we need when we ask for it, we will recognize you as a democracy. As in the Cold War, so today. The difference, though, is that fundamentalism, the real threat today, unlike the perceived threat once posed by the Communist bloc, is one that doesn’t even pretend to like democracy. How much more urgent a task this makes it, then, to ensure that the term ‘democracy’ not be worn down into a blunt tool of double-speaking war profiteers, but that it be made to mean, by those of us who are horrified by its exploitation, what it in fact means: government by the people through elected representatives, so long as this ensures respect for social equality and individual freedom, and even if this government by the people is at odds with the interests of American democracy, or of the usurpers who claim to represent it.

Justin E. H. Smith teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He can be reached at: