BACKGROUND: One of the guiding assumptions in the field of Turkish studies during the recent decades has been – and remains – that the Kemalist project of enforced westernization and secularization in Turkey is a typical example of a "false monolithic modernity", whereas the "conservative democracy" of moderate Islam represents a supposedly more mature, pluralistic approach to modernity that – crucially – has the potential to succeed where Kemalism failed, in making Turkey enduringly democratic.
The great irony of the process of Turkish modernization is that the powerful central state – which according to the historical narrative of Turkish liberals has impeded all democratization attempts – was a necessary requirement for any serious modernization project to emerge in the first place. In other words, the strong state was actually the very reason why the Turkish modernization attempt could succeed, albeit only partly, at all. Had there not been a strong state that the Kemalist cadre was able to make use of in its radical modernization attempt, the whole reform movement would have run into a dead-end, and the reactionary forces, not democrats, would have been victorious.
What characterizes modernizing states in the Middle East is the way in which the newly established constitutional government institutions become a battleground between two elite groups, namely the new class of educated bureaucrats and the conservative class of large landowners. In this respect, Turkey was no different from its Arab or Persian neighbors; the more radical modernization drive, although more successful, was nonetheless ultimately obstructed by conservatives in Turkey as well.
Although one should not overlook the significant ruptures that took place in the passage from empire to republic, it is nevertheless useful to see the Young Turk constitutional revolution of 1908, and the subsequent Kemalist revolution from 1919 onwards, as constituting a single revolutionary process during which the Ottoman socio-political system was fundamentally altered through two successive mechanisms: First by an attempt to remake it, and secondly, by thoroughly rejecting it. Compared to Iran, what was crucially different in the Turkish case was the existence of a strong central state. As Ervand Abrahamian has noted in his book A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2008), the most characteristic aspect of the Iranian constitutional revolution from 1905 onwards was the absence of state institutions powerful enough to execute any kind of radical reform.
By contrast, in the Ottoman Empire and later in the Republic of Turkey, a strong central state could be used to execute a radical revolution, at least in the largest cities. In Turkey, it was precisely the state functionaries, and in several cases the Ottoman sultans themselves, who by the middle of the 19th century had become, although at first very reluctantly, thoroughly educated in new, Western-type institutions. These "modernized" authorities were powerful enough to challenge the existing order and overcome the conservatism of the religious establishment, although only within certain limits.
The Turkish revolution succeeded because the revolutionary cadres were able to win the battle over the state institutions, to marginalize the conservative forces eager to retain the Ottoman caliphate, and to successfully launch a radical modernization and secularization project in the urban centers. This included the successful implementation of the republican form of government and the dissolution of the material bases of the religious establishment, and most importantly, not only regarding the official institutions of religious scholars and schools, but also the unofficial forms, the Islamic brotherhoods, Sufi lodges, and saintly tombs.
IMPLICATIONS: It has become commonplace to argue that Kemalism in the 1920s and 1930s was a Turkish variant of right-wing nationalism with strong corporatist leanings and even fascist aspects. This is often compounded with the assertion that the Kemalist secularist state elite only sought to secure its own power and status in society, and that it only paid lip-service to the Enlightenment ideals it claimed to advance.
The argument is that the Kemalist call to make Turkey a member of the modern civilization was nothing but a tool to legitimate the exercise of power – and the discourse of "enlightenment" has indeed been used as a tool to legitimize authoritarian power. However, at the same time, there was a real attempt to bring "enlightenment" to Turkey: it is impossible to overlook the implementation of several indisputably progressive and democratizing policies, such as the emancipation of women through judicial equality, the universal science-based education, and the attempt to liberate the individual from the restrictions of traditional, religiously sanctioned communities.
The great paradox of accusing the Kemalist regime of the 1920s of being a repressive dictatorship is that it was precisely during this era that the Kemalists succeeded in safeguarding some of the most crucial modernizing reforms, such as the abolition of the remaining sharia courts, the introduction of a secular Civil Code, and the establishment of a nationwide secular, education system.
It is pertinent to ask why the Kemalists would have embarked on a hugely unpopular project of culture revolution that threatened their hold on power by provoking a popular reaction, if they only sought to establish a right-wing dictatorship. The argument that they needed to undertake this because the establishment of an efficient bureaucracy and powerful armed forces called for such an endeavor is not convincing. The secularist reforms of the Ottoman Westernizers during the 19th century had already secured these practical aims. The Kemalists, however, went much further in their aspiration to create a "new human being" in Turkey.
The representatives of this bureaucratic, cultural reformism were certainly not democrats or liberals. They did not allow all sections of the society to participate freely and with equal opportunity in the formulation of national policies. However, the elitism that this attitude reflects does not mean that such reformist cadres as the Kemalists necessarily represent political illiberalism. European liberalism, in its historical experience, was also deeply elitist, advocated by educated men (rarely women) who thought that they had acquired the knowledge and skills not yet acquired by their less educated, typically agrarian, compatriots.
The purpose of the modernizing state elite, both in Europe and Turkey, was not only to perpetuate its own rule but beyond that to spread scientific education to the masses, so that one day, they too could be informed enough to participate in national decision-making. This has historically been the great liberal agenda, and it is important to keep this in mind when assessing the possible merits and faults of the Kemalist modernizing project.
CONCLUSIONS: In Turkey, the reformist movement was able to secure full national independence, and to create – through arbitrary state intervention – the initial basis of domestic capital accumulation and thus industrialization. The opposition was silenced. However, the liberals were few. The bulk of the opposition was made up of reactionary forces that aimed to re-establish the caliphate. The great success of the Turkish revolution was that it put in place secular institutions that were to produce a large enough middle class constituency willing to defend the secular republican order and its modernization drive.
However, the promise of universal suffrage and popular representation soon created an enormous pressure on the Turkish political system, as the ruling elite was accused of simply serving its own interests. The more the reformist state managed to educate its citizens, the more these same citizens not only came to reproduce the state's legitimacy: at least as often, they challenged it by increasing their demands, both in terms of political participation and material benefits.
Furthermore, from the very beginning there were groups, often attached to, and stemming from, the more traditional elite formations such as religious scholars and Islamic networks, that increasingly challenged the modernizing elite's Western-inspired reform agendas. The present-day populist Islamist movement, represented by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has re-invigorated this form of political articulation, and combined it with a present-day, religiously inspired discourse that serves to mobilize the popular masses in the context of globalization.
The Kemalist leadership silenced and repressed the counter-revolutionary forces that – unlike the Kemalists -- were intrinsically illiberal, but at same time the regime also repressed pluralism. Because of this ambiguous "success", the verdict on Kemalism has been that its intolerant progressivism condemned Turkey to authoritarianism. Much intellectual energy has been spent on critically scrutinizing the Kemalist experience of the 1920s and 1930s. However, the right-wing authoritarianism from which Turkey has suffered during most of its history has other sources.
Toni Alaranta is a Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons, accessed on February 17, 2017