Mustapha Kemal, otherwise Ataturk, took the corpse of the Ottoman empire and re- animated it as Turkey. Break-ing both the old sultanate and the hold of Islam, he laid the foundation of a democratic state. It was an extraordinary achievement, not to be witnessed again until Mikhail Gorbachev broke the Soviet Union and the hold of the Communist party — and that was more by accident than design.
In 1950 Turkey became the first Muslim country in history to replace its government through a free election. Politics since then, it is true, have been more a matter of strong personality than party and platform. As the guardian of Kemalist secular and nationalist virtues, the army has staged three coups. One unfortunate prime minister, Adnan Menderes, was hanged. The Seventies and Eighties were particularly grim. Assorted terrorists, Marxist or nationalist, secular or Islamist, Turkish fanatics or Kurdish separatists, murdered almost at will, killing an estimated 35,000 victims. Mehmet Ali Agca came out of this underworld of violence to shoot the Pope. One way and another, much of the Kurdish area of eastern Turkey was depopulated. But the army on each turbulent occasion returned power to the civilians, and therefore democracy never quite fell off the tightrope it was walking. In February 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected prime minister. He and his party were Islamists. Watchfully, the army waited in the wings, in contrast to the Algerian army, which had chosen to cancel an election rather than allow their Islamists to win it.
Andrew Mango knows Turkey well, and as the author of an admiring and admirable biography of Ataturk he is a thorough-going Kemalist. In the first part of this book, he describes how Kemalist secular and nationalist values have managed to survive. He makes the point that Ataturk and his heirs were determined to force Turks to think and behave like Westerners. In this case, Westernisation and modernisation are supposedly one and the same thing. The Turks, in a generalisation of Mango’s, are ‘avid for modernity’. And this means adapting to fit in with the United States and Nato, and of course the European Union, which to some Turks has the appeal of the Garden of Eden.
In the second part of the book, Mango sets about describing how the Turks have modernised, and continue to do so, in order to realise this idealised vision. Much of this is a valiant effort of building dams and metalled roads and pipelines, universities and schools and hospitals. Perhaps there is no easy alternative, but he amasses the material like a gazetteer, with humdrum statistics numbing page after page. A random sample: research in the Istanbul suburb of Bagcilar revealed
that the chief earner in two thirds of households had only primary education, that in 18 per cent of households children did not attend school, that in a quarter of households at least one child died in infancy, that one fifth of the children suffered from a physical handicap, and that seven per cent of the 40,000 inhabitants of the neighbourhood did not feature in the population register.
Not to probe the corruption and nepotism which are such features of public life is somewhat Panglossian. No mention of currency collapse. No mention either of the military and scientific undertakings with Israel, and their bearing on relations with the Arabs. Nothing about the newly independent Turkic republics of Central Asia. No proper analysis of Greek malignancy and the Cyprus question. Strangest of all, no reflections on the very evident re-Islamisation of the country. The voices of imams and Islamists are strikingly absent from this book.
The dangers are nevertheless real. Erdogan has an Islamist agenda whose ends remain invisible as yet. Events in Iraq may once more fire Kurdish separatism and the response of Turkish nationalism. In any case, are the Turks really European any more than the Russians are? France and Germany certainly think not. Does a secret inferiority complex drive this wish to be seen as modern on the particular European model? Not to worry, Mango thinks, everything will come out fine, it’s only a question of time. We have to hope he is right.