Internal Struggle—East or West?
From the birth of the republic, Mustafa Kemal clearly stated his desire to see Turkey Westernized and modernized to the level of European nations. Though Atatürk died before realizing his dream, others proudly carried the baton. As a founding member of the United Nations and the only predominantly Muslim nation in NATO, Turkey became an important bridge between the Muslim East and Christian West. By 1959, formal economic bridges were also extended westward as Turkey applied for full membership in the newly established European Economic Community (EEC). Without granting Turkey full membership, the 1963 Ankara Agreement and 1970 Protocol paved the way for Turkey's gradual integration into the EEC.
Many Americans are surprised to hear that Turkey has surpassed the United States in its empowerment of women. In 1993, Tansu Çiller was elected as Turkey's first female prime minister, while the U.S. has yet to see a female vice president or president.
In 1993, EEC members formed the supranational European Union (EU). As the EEC's longest-standing associate member, Turkey applied for full membership in the new coalition. Though the EU continued to strengthen ties with Turkey, a number of social and economic concerns kept the European powerhouse from giving Ankara a definitive answer. While many Turks believed membership in the EU would cure Turkey's economic crisis, some looked east to Islam for their salvation.
Example or Disgrace?
In the 1995 elections, East/West differences came to a head as the pro-Islamist Welfare Party ousted Çiller from power. In response, two moderately conservative parties formed a coalition against the victorious Welfare Party, temporarily keeping the Islamists from controlling the government. Within a year this partnership fell apart, allowing Necmettin Erbakan and his Welfare Party to set up the Turkish republic's first pro-Islamic government.
Statements from Prime Minister Erbakan such as, “We will create an Islamic currency . . . an Islamic United Nations, an Islamic NATO, and an Islamic version of the EU” startled European leaders already hesitant about bringing Turkey into their ranks. Erbakan's promises to reclaim Jerusalem for Islam and save Turkey from the European “infidels” worried leaders around the world.
With Atatürk likely turning over in his grave, Turkey's Kemalist generals once again intervened, forcing Erbakan to step down in 1997. In the following year, Kemalists banned Erbakan's Welfare Party (the largest group in Parliament), moving the elderly Bülent Ecevit back to the post he had filled in the 1970s.
The Kurdish Question
As Kemalists worked to salvage their damaged image in the West, the opportunity arose to capture republic enemy number one, Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Öcalan. Though Öcalan's arrest and punishment would likely ruffle the feathers of European human rights groups and politicians, Kemalists’ hatred for this man was greater than any political or economic concerns.
Since the early 1980s, Öcalan and his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militia had waged a bloody war of independence in Turkey's eastern provinces. Viewed as terrorists by most Turks and as freedom fighters by many Europeans, the Kurdish question was an extremely touchy issue for both sides. In the face of imminent European condemnation, Turkish commandos (likely with the aid of American and Israeli operatives) extracted the Kurdish leader from his refuge at the Greek embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. A truly international affair, Öcalan's arrest touched off a global firestorm of finger-pointing and scolding, but in Turkey it was celebrated as if they had won soccer's World Cup.
Head coverings mean different things for women in different countries. If an Iranian woman wears a veil, she may or may not be a pious Muslim. As a citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran, she is following the norm for women in her country. If a Turkish woman wears a veil, she is more than likely making a statement of her conservative Islamic views. As a citizen of the secular Republic of Turkey, her modest dress is going against the modernist grain.
After Turkey's celebrations subsided, and the “terrorist” mastermind was issued a death sentence, European pressure (and Öcalan's willingness to do anything to save his neck) moved Ankara to reduce his punishment to life in prison. With their leader's life secured, PKK rebels ended more than fifteen years of armed struggle as they laid down their weapons and agreed to work peacefully within the Turkish political system. Ironically, the year that began with harsh European criticisms of Ankara's actions ended with a conditional invitation for Turkey to eventually become a full member of the European Union.
Sacred and Secular Synthesized?
The dawn of the twenty-first century produced more of the same as the pro-Islamic Virtue Party was banned from the GNA but the Islamic-based Saadet Party was born. Hoping to improve their chances for EU membership, Turkish officials abolished the death penalty, removed laws recognizing men as “head of the household,” gave women full legal equality, and lifted restrictions on Kurdish broadcasting and education.
After winning the 2002 elections, the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party replaced the aged Bülent Ecevit and his secularist People's Republican Party. Though viewed with suspicion by many in the West, Justice and Development Party leaders unveiled a synthesis of East/West orientations, promising to promote Islamic values while adhering to the secular principles of Turkey's constitution. As prime minister, Recep Erdoğan set out to bridge the gap between modern secular urbanites and the more traditional and conservative rural populations. Though many continue to question the sincerity of the Justice and Development Party's secularist claims, it seems for now that they have reached a healthy balance between Turkey's cultural and ideological extremes.