Turkey: Last week's mass military resignations signal the end of Ataturk's secular vision.

A wartime lexicon.
Aug. 1 2011 11:32 AM

The End of the Kemalist Affair

When was the last time a conservative NATO army pushed out its highest-ranking officers?

(Left) Gen. Isik Kosaner. Click image to expand.
Turkey's Gen. Isik Kosaner and Cmdr. Necdet Ozel 

To read of the stunning news, of the almost-overnight liquidation of the Ataturkist or secularist military caste, and to try to do so from the standpoint of a seriously secular Turk, is to have a small share in the sense of acute national vertigo that must have accompanied the proclamation of a new system in the second two decades of the 20th century.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

For example, today's vice president of Kemal Ataturk's historical political party, the Republican People's Party or RPP, was quoted on Friday as speaking of "a second Turkish republic" with a heavy heart "in the seaside city of Cannkkale," and not long after, it seemed that some high-ranking Turkish officers would now be arrested rather than, as previously reported, having had their resignations accepted. That famous seaside peninsula, as the New York Times did not emphasize, also bears the name of Gallipoli. It is the place where Gen. Mustafa Kemal inflicted the most bloody and tragic defeat on British imperial forces in 1915-16, while also convincing Rupert Murdoch's cocky colonial ancestors that their brave Aussie forebears had been used as cannon fodder by teak-headed British toffs. The apple of the notorious 1981 Mel Gibson movie did not roll very far from the tree. Within a few years of Gallipoli, the same Turkish general had, in fact, reversed the local verdict of the 1914-18 war, and expelled Greek, French, and British forces from Anatolia.


The historic weight of this is almost impossible to overstate: Ataturk (who was quite probably a full-blown atheist) could write his own secular ticket precisely because he had ignominiously defeated three Christian invaders. Yet for decades, Western statecraft has been searching feverishly for another Mustafa Kemal, someone who can jumpstart the modernization of a Muslim community under his own name. For a while, they thought Gamal Abdel Nasser might be the model. Then there was the Shah of Iran. They even briefly fancied the notions of Saddam Hussein, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and other characters who will live in infamy. But nobody ever came close to touching Ataturk for authority and authenticity. Under his power, the great caliphate was done away with, and the antique rule of the celestial and the sublime reduced to a dream in which only a few ascetic visionaries and sectarians showed any real interest. Until recently, modern Turkey showed every sign of evolving into a standard capitalist state on the European periphery.

There was, however, an acid rivalry concealed within the new Turkish establishment. The nascent Islamist populist movement—the Justice and Development Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan—understood very well that, once in the European Union proper, Turkey would be prevented by EU law from submitting to another period of rule by men in uniform. We thus saw the intriguing spectacle of quite conservative and nationalist Turks (with a distinct tendency to chauvinism in Erdogan's case) making common cause with liberal international institutions against the very Turkish institution, the army, that above all symbolized Turkish national pride and prestige. This cooperation between ostensibly secular and newly pious may have had something to do with a growing sense of shame among the educated secular citizenry of big cities like Istanbul, who always knew they could count on the army to uphold their rights but who didn't enjoy exerting the privilege. The fiction of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's complex Nobelist and generally liberal author, has explored this paradox very well. His novel Snow is perhaps the best dress rehearsal for the argument.

Because of course Pamuk is also the most edgy spokesman for the rights of the Kurds and the Armenians, and of those whose very nationality has put them in collision with the state. He has been threatened with imprisonment under archaic laws forbidding the discussion of certain topics, and he must have noticed the high rate of death that has overcome dissidents, like Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who have exercised insufficient caution.


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