America’s Neo-Turcophiles
Dangerous illusions about Turkey, Islam, and the EU.


Turkish columnist Burak Bekdil coined the term “Neo-Turcophile” in a searing, must-read article about the looming threat to secularism posed by the AKP’s continuing attempt to take over all major government power-centers in Turkey. The AKP is an Islamist party, and Neo-Turcophiles (hereafter, “Neos”) are all the foreigners who claim to believe that by supporting the AKP, they are supporting Turkish democracy.

Many American Neos are quite sincere in this mistaken belief; most other foreign AKP supporters are not. The list of AKP supporters includes all of the Arab League despots and their associated terrorist groups, the Kurdish terrorists of the PKK, the Armenian Diaspora Holocaust Lobby, the unelect-ed bureaucrats who rule the European Union, and their longtime partners in the AKP-headed Organization of Islamic Countries. Diversity of motives notwithstanding, all the Neos insist that the AKP poses no threat to Turkish democracy because, unlike the banned, radical Islamist parties that the AKP’s leaders formerly belonged to, their new party is a moderate Islamist party, committed to making Turkey more Muslim and more democratic by throwing it open to foreign investment and bringing it into the EU.

A False Analogy
Bekdil uses the Washington Post’s Turkish correspondent, Claire Berlinski, as his example of a dangerously deluded American Neo and refutes her arguments. But for real clarity about the essence of the Neos’ arguments — arguments echoed in a recent NRO editorial, “Warm Turkey” — an earlier piece by John O’Sullivan provides the best summary in the fewest words:

“[T]he AKP …is today the Muslim equivalent of a socially conservative Christian Democrat party in Western Europe….its long-term policy is to replace the Turkish army with the EU as the guardian of secularism in Turkey….an aim that makes perfect sense for a socially conservative Muslim party because Europe’s secularism is more tolerant toward religious expression than either the Turkish army or Kemalism.”

Sincere good intentions notwithstanding, there are two very dangerous and fundamental illusions at work here. The first is assuming that Islam is, ever was, or ever can be anything like Christianity, when it comes to a role in government. The second is assuming that the EU is capable or even desirous of protecting Turkey — or Britain, France, or Spain, for that matter — from the growing threat of Islamicization.

Turkish secularists — even, or perhaps especially, the many pious Muslims who march in their ranks — know in their bones that the first assumption is so far off-the-mark that, by and large, only non-Muslims really believe it. It was, after all, Christ, not Mohammed, who said, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” and “My kingdom is not of this world.” Those statements are, at the very least, ambiguous enough to allow Christianity to play a limited role in some secular governments without turning them into all-encompassing theocracies. Islam’s Prophet never said anything remotely similar, and there was no ambiguity about what he did say on this topic. Islam is both a religion and a complete, all-encompassing system of theocratic government, here on this earth. Arguing that it can play a limited role in government is like arguing that one can be a little bit pregnant.

Modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal — renamed Ataturk (“Father of the Turks”) by his grateful countrymen — had a profound grasp of these home truths, and acted on them in ways that changed Turkey and the world. Ataturk is the man who abolished the Caliphate, and with it, Turkey’s 500-year-old claim to a divine right to rule the Muslim world and a good chunk of Europe, too. Ataturk is also the man who made secularism — not democracy or liberty — the bedrock constitutional principle of the Turkish Republic he founded in 1923. He did that because he understood that liberty and democracy can only coexist with Islam in a passionately secular state — a state that maintains an all-but-complete separation of mosque and state, confining Islam to the religious sphere, denying it any role at all in government on principle, and remaining ever watchful against Islamist encroachments on government. That was Ataturk’s formula for success, and American Neos, especially, should “bethink” themselves before dismissing it as an “unworkable” extreme, because it did work. It kept liberty and democracy alive in Turkey for 84 continuous years, and that’s a record no other mainly Muslim nation has ever approached, and only a very few mainly Christian nations have ever equaled or surpassed.

Ataturk’s contemporary followers — the Kemalists O’Sullivan sees as less “tolerant of religious expression” than European secularists — are, in fact, the most persistently tolerant Muslims the world has ever known when it comes to respecting the right to worship in peace of both their Sunni Muslim majority and their Alevi (Shiite) minority, and of Turkish Christians, Jews, and Sufis, too. As Bekdil forcefully reminds us, it wasn’t secularists who carried out the disturbing series of violent attacks in Turkey over the past five years — murders of priests, judges, Christian converts, and Armenians, bombings of synagogues and Western consulates, and more. The AKP didn’t order these attacks, but it is a mistake to ignore the fact that all of the men who carried them out came from the ranks of Islamists who back the AKP. Turkey’s secularists aren’t “intolerant,” and they don’t reject Islam as a religion. They’re Muslims; it’s their religion, too. What they reject is any role at all for Islam in the governance of their Republic.

Illusions about the Turkish Military
No matter, say the Neos: contemporary Kemalists are only a tiny, unrepresentative elite, working to thwart the will of the Turkish majority by allying themselves with the real threat to Turkish democracy: undemo-cratic Turkish military officers who cling to what EU Neos call “their illegitimate, self-appointed role” as guardians of the secular Republic. As Neos see it, these power-hungry military officers are just itching to mount a military coup, and are only barely restrained by the steady stream of warnings, threats, and condemnations issued against them by the EU in April and, sadly, echoed by our own feckless State Department in May.

These Neo warnings to Turkish generals may sound righteous to many Americans, but they offend and anger tens of millions of Turks because they ignore the actual Turkish facts about the Turkish military and its role in Turkish life. In place of these facts, Neos impose the conventional Western view of “the military,” refusing to recognize the unique character of Turkey’s military and the unique role it has always played in making Turkey the Muslim world’s only successful democracy. It is a mistaken view, on all counts.

First, with regard to the military’s constitutional role, American Neos may believe this “illegitimate, self-appointed” nonsense; EU Neos know better. That is why the EU’s unelected bureaucrats have worked so aggressively to force the Turks to abrogate Ataturk’s constitution and change their laws in order to deny the military — not the Islamists — any role in Turkey’s government. In fact, as I pointed out in in 2002, the Turkish constitution tasks the military with a sworn duty to act as a necessary check on democratic excesses that violate the constitution — a check our Founding Fathers also deemed necessary in order to preserve constitutional democracy. The big difference is that our Constitution assigns this role to the Supreme Court; Turkey’s constitution assigns it to the military. This is hardly surprising in light of the differing origins of America’s democracy and Turkey’s. Many of our founding fathers were lawyers; most of Turkey’s were professional military officers, like Ataturk.


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