Is Turkey the Key?

Girish Shahane
Anything That Moves
Opinions - IN

Of the countries I've visited, my favourites happen to share important features. They are all large but not intimidating in size, with proportionate populations. They have a varied landscape, a mostly temperate climate, and enough fertile land not only to feed themselves, but to have evolved exceptional cuisines. They are old civilisations possessed of the cultural self-confidence that comes from having been centres of empires, without the hubris or smugness of perpetual victors. I'm thinking of Spain, France, Turkey and Iran, and would have added Italy to the group, had its citizens been less loud, rude and vain. Turkey, despite all its gifts, and a convenient location straddling Asia and Europe, went off the world's radar for decades. The Orient Express stopped running, and was replaced in the popular imagination by Midnight Express. Indians, who now flock to Istanbul and Cappadocia in the thousands, had little connection with Turkey between the collapse of the Khilafat movement and Mallika Sherawat's item number in Guru.

The Khilafat movement: we all read about it in school texts; we learned Mahatma Gandhi supported it; but we never understood what it was really about. Which is not surprising, since I have problems wrapping my mind around it even as an adult. Khilafat activists protested against British rule in India because they felt Britain was mistreating the Sultan of Turkey. You might think there were enough complaints to be made against imperialist behaviour locally, what with millions paid out of the Indian treasury to aid Britain's war effort, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre; but Mohammad Ali, Shaukat Ali and Abul Kalam Azad were more concerned about the chap in the Dolmabahçe Palace. That's because the Ottoman ruler, who controlled Mecca and Medina, was the Caliph, or Khalif, symbolic leader of the world's Sunni Muslims, the latest in a line extending back to the Prophet's companion and father-in-law Abu Bakr.

At its peak, the tri-continental Ottoman empire encompassed all lands bordering the Black and Red seas, much of the Mediterranean coast and a substantial chunk along the Caspian sea. Turkish rule extended to Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Baku, Baghdad, Sanaa, Athens, Sofia, Belgrade, Bucharest and Budapest. As the list makes clear, Arab capitals wracked by unrest these past few months were once Ottoman territories. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the empire had atrophied and its administration decayed. At the outbreak of the first World War, the Ottomans allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The opposing Entente powers eagerly drew up plans to dismember the Sultanate, an effort led, needless to say, by the British, who love drawing dividing lines on maps (Scratch a contemporary border dispute and you'll find a line drawn by a Briton).

The winners of the World War almost had their way. Through the Treaty of Sèvres, much of what is now Turkey was either given to Greece and Armenia, or parcelled out into Italian, British and French zones of influence. The Sèvres agreement would have led to decades of unrest, except that a brilliant General named Mustafa Kemal ignored the Sultan's orders and fought back. He rallied Turkish troops and defeated Armenians in the east, French forces in the south and Greeks in the west. The allies were forced to negotiate a new treaty in Lausanne, creating an independent nation with borders closely matching those of today's Turkey. Mustafa Kemal, later to be honoured with the title Atatürk, meaning Father of the Turks, went on to abolish Ottoman rule in favour of a secular republic. This was a catastrophe for the Khilafatists and millions of Muslims around the globe for whom a world without a Caliph seemed inconceivable. Ever since then, radical pan-Islamist movements have promoted the idea of a new Caliphate.

The republic of Turkey did all it could to distance itself from its imperial history. Atatürk commanded that Turkish be written in the Roman script rather than the traditional Perso-Arabic one. The fez was banned, as were headscarves in universities and government offices. After the Second World War, the nation became part of NATO. Though less than 10% of its territory was in Europe, Turkey saw itself as part of that continent rather than Asia. This made qualifying for the football World Cup considerably tougher, but Turkey set itself the loftier goal of qualifying for EU membership.

Unfortunately, the Turkish brand of nationalism and secularism was frequently enforced at gunpoint. Authorities forbade discussion of mass killings of Armenian civilians during the first World War, and tried to squash Kurdish and other minority identities. Atatürk had stressed the need to befriend neighbours, even reaching out to Greeks he had fought; but that legacy unravelled when right-wing Greek Cypriots took over the government of Cyprus. Turkey invaded the island to protect the Turkish population, and the affair ended with a partition in which the southern Greek side was recognised as the legitimate government by the world at large, the northern side by Turkey alone.

At negotiations for full membership of the EU, Turks would be asked, What about the Armenian genocide? What about Kurdish rights? The fact that Bulgaria, hardly a paragon of liberalism, gained full membership of the EU, made Turks wonder if Europeans simply didn't want a Muslim nation in their Christian club, and were using civil rights as an excuse. When Cyprus was admitted to the European body in 2004, many Turks gave up hope of ever being full-fledged EU citizens.

At the same time, the country's internal politics led to a shift from its Western focus and hardline secularism. A moderate Islamist group led by Recep Erdoğan, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), won elections after a string of constitutional battles. It liberalised the statist economy and rode an economic boom to two more election victories, the latest coming a little over a week ago. Like India, Turkey had punched below its weight in international fora for decades, weakened by internal troubles. The AKP pitched Turkey not as a wannabe European country, continually slapped on the wrist and sent to the back of the EU queue, but as a Eurasian leader. Critics call the new foreign policy neo-Ottomanism, and view the moderate Islam of the AKP as the thin end of the wedge that will ultimately destroy the secular Turkish state. I am more optimistic. Although I find all communal parties distasteful, I believe the Ottoman's empire moderation in religious matters and Turkey's modern liberal civil society will keep fundamentalism at bay. Since the Turkish population is over 99% Muslim, and overwhelmingly Sunni, there's little scope for sectarian strife arising from the AKP's policies. The Turkish form of secularism, with its restrictions on headscarves and state control over religious preaching, was neither desirable nor sustainable anyway.

A number of Western analysts are troubled by Turkey's friendship with Iran, and its worsening relationship with Israel. Prime Minister Erdoğan's recent words and actions with respect to Syria ought to ease their fears. Erdoğan, a personal friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, threw open Turkey's borders to Syrian refugees, set up camps to house them, condemned the "savagery" of the Syrian crackdown, and asked Bashar al-Assad to fire his younger brother who has led the assault against protestors. When was the last time you heard such a clear moral line being taken by a leader against a friendly neighbouring regime? It's a sign that, following the Ottoman empire and Atatürk's Republic, which served as models to be emulated in earlier eras, Turkey could be the guiding light for newly emergent West Asian and North African democracies in our time.

Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He writes the blog Shoot First, Mumble Later.