In both Turkey and the West, Kemalism -- the principle that Turkey should be secular and Western -- has been pronounced dead. The country is drifting away from both, the argument goes, and Islamists, led by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), are socially and politically aligning the country with the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East.

Turkey’s domestic and foreign politics are indeed transforming. In the ongoing Ergenekon trial, state prosecutors, encouraged by AKP officials, are indicting a group of alleged Kemalist academics, journalists, officers, and politicians (accusing them of plotting to overthrow the government) in order to purge them from public institutions. Meanwhile, a growing AKP-aligned religious bourgeoisie is starting to dominate various sectors, including energy, finance, manufacturing, and the media. Trade unions and professional associations, such as the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, are also increasingly under the sway of the AKP. And in terms of foreign policy, Turkey is pursuing ties with Iran and Syria while putting some distance between itself and its old allies in the region, such as Israel.

But in reality, most of the AKP’s policies are not incompatible with Kemalism. Indeed, the irony of Turkey today is that the AKP -- a religiously rooted, conservative political party -- has become the closest thing the country has to a defender of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey’s original Kemalist vision.s

For the last several decades, military Kemalism has been the organizing principle of Turkish politics, with a small group of military officials (along with a few bureaucratic and judicial representatives) responsible for guarding European values in Turkish society. But the military’s dominance has always been a distortion of Ataturk’s idea of Kemalism. Beginning in the 1920s, a few years before the declaration of the Republic of Turkey, the leaders of the Kemalist movement were adamant that the new state should embrace European social, economic, and political practices. Recognizing that Turkish society was still a long way from achieving secular modernity, they urged a period of tutelage during which the government would lay the socioeconomic and cultural foundations needed for transformation, such as modern infrastructure, better provision of social services, Western legal codes, a cadre of economic technocrats, and a reorganized educational system.

The military was never meant to lead this process. Ataturk, who had been a general in the Ottoman army and a field marshal in the Turkish army, set aside his military fatigues upon assuming the role of head of state in 1923. He removed other military officers from political posts, promoted civilian control of the armed forces, and cautioned the military against intervening in political affairs. He gave responsibility for developing the public’s understanding of liberal, Western values to politicians, civil servants, schoolteachers, journalists, and public intellectuals. Finally, he encouraged the country to adopt modern, liberal economics, though the worldwide depression of the 1930s forced him to resort to state control of the economy.

Elite guardianship over the country’s political and economic systems was to be temporary, lasting only until the bulk of the people had embraced modern norms and institutions. Thereafter, the guardians would relinquish their control over the economy, institute multiparty elections, and extend greater rights to the citizenry.

In 1938, Ataturk died and Ismet Inonu, who had served as prime minister until Ataturk removed him shortly before his death, became president. It was during Inonu’s 12-year, increasingly autocratic rule that civilian Kemalism warped into military Kemalism. Inonu relied on the military (which had supported his bid for the presidency) to implement his policies. Even after he was voted out of office in 1950, the military remained the most powerful actor in the Kemalist establishment. The Cold War only perpetuated this distortion: in exchange for Turkey’s alignment with the Western bloc, the United States gave its support to an increasingly strong military, which, in 1960, carried out the first of three Cold War–era military coups and brought Inonu back to power.

At the end of the Cold War, with communism no longer a threat, Turkish military rulers shifted their sights to creeping Islamization. Beginning in the 1990s, they sought to use the army’s status as the protector of secular Kemalism to justify its continued dominance in Turkish politics. In 1997, they forced the elected government to resign, purportedly because it was pursuing an Islamic agenda. Working with allies in the judiciary and bureaucracy, they banned Islamic political parties, jailed their leaders, and expelled suspected members from government posts. The media, which was supportive of military Kemalism, hailed their actions.

But the military’s claim that it is the protector of Kemalist values is increasingly falling on deaf ears. Many of the AKP’s policies represent an actual fulfillment of Ataturk’s notion of Kemalism. Western values are no longer abstract; they are codified in the Copenhagen criteria for EU accession. The AKP has tried to institutionalize civil liberties, improve minority rights by ending martial law in Kurdish regions, promote civilian control of the military, and further develop the free market.

The emerging industrial, commercial, and financial bourgeoisie, most of which is linked to the AKP, in effect accomplishes Ataturk’s grand historical vision. This rising middle class no longer wants (or needs) to be treated like an adolescent in need of supervision. It willingly embraces democracy, participation in civil society, and the market. It yearns to be a part of the modern world and -- if allowed -- would want to become a member of the European Union.

Rather than being apprehensive about the AKP and its political, economic, and foreign policies, the West should welcome it. A democratic, market-oriented, prosperous, and stable Turkey, at ease with its Islamic identity and at peace with its neighbors, will prove to be a more natural ally than a military Kemalist state. It will also be better positioned to promote Western interests. A Turkey that is respected and trusted by its neighbors can serve as a broker between, for example, Iran and the West, Israel and Palestine, and Israel and Syria.

This is not to suggest that the AKP is completely benign. Indeed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s frequent attempts at silencing dissent in the media are worrisome and should be countered.

In time, however, the rise of a middle class will be the most effective guarantee that Turkey will continue its route to secular, Western democracy. Although much of the emerging pious bourgeoisie is closely linked with -- even dependent on -- the AKP, this class will shun extremist policies that endanger its economic interests, even as it continues to embrace moderate Islam. Eventually, the AKP and parties like it may play a role akin to that of the Christian democratic parties of Western Europe.

Finally, those who worry that the AKP’s already lengthy tenure appears set to continue, thereby affording it the opportunity to erode Turkey’s secular foundations further, should recognize that the opposition’s prospects would improve if it embraced some of the more liberal tenets of the AKP’s political platform, such as market reform, civilian control of the military, and the extension of greater cultural rights to the Kurdish minority. But rather than dividing the AKP’s base among its intellectual, religious, entrepreneurial, and Kurdish components by championing progressive causes, the opposition parties have so far opted for reflexive opposition dismissal to its religious platform and bemoaned the end of Kemalism.

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  • DARIUSH ZAHEDI is a Research Fellow at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and currently teaches at Zirve University, in Turkey. GOKHAN BACIK is Associate Professor of International Relations at Zirve University and a contributor to Zaman and Today’s Zaman.
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