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Who Lost Turkey?

Turkey_Islam_IstanbulCross-posted from National Review Online

Two main explanations are circulating that address this now-burning question:

  • Blame the European Union: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says that if Turkey is, as he delicately puts it, moving eastward," this resulted "in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought."

  • Blame Islam: A reader of mine argues that the Atatürk revolution, now nearly ninety years old, "had all the ingredients of success (Westernization, modernity, secularism, democracy, economic growth) - and these were not imposed from without, but came organically from within. That the Atatürkist experiment is rapidly failing points to the futility of trying to modernize Islam."

I reject these explanations (Turkey hardly met Western snubs; and its turn to Islamism is a solitary case, not proof of anything about Islam). Instead, I offer a third explanation:

  • Blame the accidents of history: (1) Turkish regulations require that a party receive a minimum of 10 percent of the votes cast to enter parliament. (2) The secular political elite in the 1990s fractured into many small parties whose self-absorbed leaders refused to join forces. Keep these two factors in mind, then look at the results of the decisive 2002 elections and weep:


Center-right and center-left parties excluded from parliament had 9.5, 8.3, 7.2, 6.2 and 5.1 percent of the vote, amounting to 36.3 percent in all. Add their percentages to the CHP's 19.4 and they controlled 55.7 percent of the chamber. Had the gaggle of selfish party tyrants combined efforts, they all would have been represented in parliament and secularists would likely still be running the show.

Comment: This disagreement has major implications. If either of the first two explanations are correct, Turkey is lost for good. But if mine is correct, Turkey's going Islamist resulted from an accident of personalities and regulations which can be undone. The country can return from the abyss. We who appreciate the Turkey of old must not give up on the country but work to bring it back by pressuring it carefully while working with Turkish allies. (June 10, 2010)

June 10, 2010 update: There's yet another explanation, forwarded by Michel Gurfinkiel, that focuses on demographic changes. As he explains:

The rural areas of central and eastern Anatolia had enjoyed strong growth under Atatürk and Inönü, and were primarily responsible for the rise in the Turkish population from 14 million in 1923 to 21 million by 1950. Since then, the overall population has more than tripled to 70 million, with most of the growth occurring in the rural areas or among first-generation rural migrants to the big cities. As a consequence, the political heirs of [the Anatolian-based opposition party,] the Democrats-they include Süleyman Demirel's Justice party in the 1960's and the 1970's, Turgut Özal's conservative Motherland party in the 1980's, and finally the Islamists-have enjoyed an ever-growing edge over the old CHP and its heirs.

Comment: Gurfinkiel's compelling thesis points to larger changes in Turkish life. But Islamists are a special form of "Anatolian" and their 1/3 of the electorate in 2002 reached power only due the reasons enumerated above.

Daniel Pipes is founder and director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based research institute. Although there is coordination between and the sites belonging to the Middle East Forum (,,,, this site is the private, personal property of Daniel Pipes. It is registered in his name, it is owned by him, and it is legally unconnected to the Middle East Forum.


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