With a per capita income of $ 8,200, a GDP growth of 9 %, over 86% literacy, and among the highest taxes in Europe, Turkey is the only Muslim country that has some part of its territory falling in Europe. Regarded as a bridge between Europe and Asia, Turkey has always been a geo-politically sensitive region. Modern Turkey has a 98 % Muslim population governed by a state that is avowedly secular. Vibrant, cosmopolitan, ‘developed’, on the surface it presents a near-perfect picture of the co-existence of contraries. The past and present, old and new, tradition and modernity seem wedded in close-to-perfect harmony. The Turkish economy has recovered from the debacle of the oil crisis of the 1970s and the devaluation of the Turkish lira and there are signs everywhere of a new resilience, bolstered no doubt by a buoyant tourist industry and bustling private enterprise and small-scale industry. But lurking beneath the surface calm, there is a dark undertow, a current of trouble brewing.
In 1923 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate, dismantled the rotting edifice of the unwieldy Ottoman Empire and set about rebuilding Turkish society. He ordered the closure of Islamic-style courts and seminaries, introduced a Constitution modeled on western lines and introduced a slew of wide-ranging social, political and religious reforms – all directed towards pulling Turkey from Ottoman decadence towards European post-modernism. In the early years while all this was being enforced almost with a missionary zeal by a single-party government, it was the military all along that was – and continues to be -- the country’s single most consistently secularizing force. Today it sees itself as a somewhat beleagured defender of the faith – the faith that the early Kemalists had reposed in it.
Turkey joined the UN in 1945 and became a member of NATO in 1952, the only country with a majority Muslim population to do so. In 1964, it became an associate member of the European Community; for over four decades it has been knocking at the doors of the EC and while countries such as Romania are being offered membership to the European Union, Turkey is being kept out. While Turkey’s human rights’ records is under scrutiny and its role in the Armenian genocide of 1915 is consistently held out as a reason to view it with suspicion, many within Turkey now see a larger design at work. A view once considered bordering on paranoia is now increasingly being given credence. The resistance to Turkey’s inclusion in the European Union is being viewed through the prism of religion, and the European Union itself is now being seen by many as an elitist Christian Club.
While religion and politics continue to be strictly separated by law in Turkey, the changing political scenario in the country, as also its immediate neighbourhood, has given birth to an increasingly political Islam. From 1950 onwards, Turkey has seen a succession of multi-party governments of different hues of religiosity, each such coalition has been more inefficient, corrupt and unworkable than the previous; each coalition has also been interspersed with military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. In 1974 Turkish military forces moved into Cyprus to prevent the Greeks from doing so. Ever since, Turkey has been the only country that officially recognizes the existence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In 1984, the simmering Kurdish issue came to a head with the Kurdish Workers’ Party declaring a separatist insurgency. In 1999 the Kurdish rebel leaders withdrew from turkey and began to operate from northern Iraq.
Since November 2002 a single-party moderately Islamic government lead by Tayyip Erdogan has been in power. But it can do little to alter the secular character of the country’s Constitution. The ban on display of religion in public continues, as does the ban on the wearing of headscarves known as turban in public. It doesn’t quite help matters that Erdogan’s wife wears a headscarf or that Erdogan himself is known for his traditional, some might say old-fashioned views. The military, never a spent force in Turkey, continues to take its self-appointed role as a secularizing force quite zealously and persists in viewing religious faith per se with suspicion and mistrust. In an increasingly de-militarised world, the military in Turkey continues to exert a covert pressure to crush all opposition. However, with the military goading the country towards the West, and the neo-Islamist political parties pushing the people to look back towards their once-glorious Moslem past, the people of Turkey find themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The west-oriented secularists who were once a majority find themselves over-run by the rising tide of Islam. Some of it is spilling over from across the borders – from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and beyond from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan – all of whom have historical, cultural and linguistic ties with Turkey. A new breed of politician is coming to the fore – unabashedly religious, informed of his religious ‘duties’ yet educated and aware of his rights as a citizen. This is coupled with increasing migration from remote mountain villages and farms of large numbers of educated, working-class people who are also unflinchingly religious. It is these who pose the greatest threat to the secularists and it is they who, after a hiatus of nearly eight decades, are most likely to turn the tide. For, in modern Turkey, unlike other Islamic countries, it is the educated, professional, modern young men and women who are propelling the engine of Islam. Religion is not being foisted by a regime or through state-sponsored propaganda; instead it is coming to the fore through a natural process of churning. It is the people of Turkey who, by dint of individual preference, are bent upon embracing Islam with a fervour that defies State-enforced bans. It is in Turkey, too, that Islam and modernity have the greatest chance on earth of co-existence. But till that state of perfect equipoise is achieved, the Turkish people must continue living on the edge of a rumbling volcano.
-- Rakhshanda Jalil