The False Promise by Ahmet T. Kuru

Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, most Turks preserved the belief, beyond a simple expectation, that one day they would have ‘grandeur’ again. In fact, this was largely shared by some Western observers who regarded Turkey as a potential model for the coexistence of Islam and democracy. Almost a century after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, however, it would be fair to depict Turkey as a mediocre country, in terms of its military, economic, and socio-cultural capacities, and a competitive autocracy, regarding its political system. The promise of the Turkish case to combine the best parts of Islamic ethics and modern democratic institutions appeared to be false. What explains the failure of the idea of the‘Turkish model?’

To simplify a complex story, one could define the competing groups in Turkish politics until 2012 as Kemalists and their discontents. For the former, it was the religious and multi-ethnic characteristics of the Ottoman Empire that led to its demise. The Turkish Republic, in contrast, had to be assertive secularist, and Turkish nationalist, to avoid repeating the maladies of the Ottoman ancien régime. This project required radical reforms, including the replacement of the Arabic alphabet with Latin, and an authoritarian regime, since the majority of Turks were conservative Muslims, and Kurds resisted assimilation. A major problem of the Kemalist understanding of Westernisation was its extreme formalism, probably due to the fact that Kemalism was primarily represented by the military. According to this formalist perspective, dress code and way of life defined the level of Westernisation of a person. A modern Turk was supposed to drink alcohol, wear a swimsuit on the beach, and keep anything religious in the private sphere. Someone fulfilling such criteria, even if the person did not have a successful career and was very unproductive, proved to be a good citizen. The most infamous reflection of this formalism was the Hat Law, which made the omission by any man to wear a top hat punishable by imprisonment, and even death, as it was regarded as an insurgency in a dozen cases. Thus, unless someone fitted the formal requirements of being modern, the person’s merits, achievements, and productions could be ignored.

Nevertheless, the Kemalists allowed democratic elections and power transition in 1950. They hoped that the conservative and Kurdish resistance would weaken after one party rule for three decades. To their surprise, the resistance continued. The centre-right Democratic Party led by Adnan Menderes ruled the country for a decade with popular support and some revisions in the Kemalist system.

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