Early in the 16th century, as the Ottoman and Safavid empires fought for control of the Middle East, Selim the Grim, ruling from Istanbul, indulged his artistic side by composing distinguished poetry in Persian, then the Middle East’s language of high culture. Simultaneously, Ismail I, ruling from Isfahan, wrote poetry in Turkish, his ancestral language.
Selim (ruled 1512–20) wrote his poetry under the name Mahlas Selimi; his arch-rival Ismail (ruled 1501–24) wrote as Khata’i.
This juxtaposition comes to mind as the populations of Turkey and Iran now engage in another exchange. As the secular Turkey founded by Atatürk threatens to disappear under a wave of Islamism, the Islamist Iranian state founded by Khomeini apparently teeters on the brink of secularism. Ironically, Turks wish to live like Iranians, and Iranians like Turks.
Turkey and Iran are both large, influential, and relatively advanced Muslim-majority countries, historically central, strategically placed, and widely watched. As they cross paths while racing in opposite directions, as I predictedback in 1994, their destinies will affect not just the future of the Middle East but potentially that of the entire Muslim world.
Let’s review each country’s evolution:
Turkey: Atatürk almost completely removed Islam from public life in the period 1923–38. Over the decades, however, Islamists fought back, and by the 1970s they formed part of a ruling coalition; in 1996–97, they even headed a government. Islamists took power following the strange elections of 2002, in which winning a third of the vote secured them two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. They ruled with caution and competence, and they got nearly half the vote in 2007, at which point their gloves came off and the bullying began, from a wildly excessive fine levied on a media critic to hare-brained conspiracy theories targeting the armed forces. Islamists won 58 percent of the vote in a referendum this September and seem set to win the next parliamentary election, due by June 2011.
Atatürk excluded Islam from Turkey’s public life; Khomeini made it central in Iran’s. Should Islamists win the next Turkish election, they will be able to remain in power enduringly, and they will bend the country to their will, instituting Islamic law (the Sharia) and building an Islamic order resembling Khomeini’s idealized polity.
Iran: Khomeini did the opposite of Atatürk, making Islam politically dominant during his reign, 1979–89, but soon thereafter it began to falter, with discordant factions emerging, the economy failing, and the populace distancing itself from the regime’s extremist rule. By the 1990s, foreign observers expected the regime to fail. Despite the populace’s growing disillusionment, however, the increased sway of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and the coming to power of hardened veterans of the Iran–Iraq War, epitomized by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gave it a second wind.
This reassertion of Islamist goals, however, increased the people’s alienation from the regime, including a turn away from Islamic practices and toward secularism. The country today is wracked by growing social pathologies, including rampant drug-taking, pornography, and prostitution. Alienation sparked the anti-regime demonstrations in the aftermath of fraudulent elections in June 2009. The repression that followed spurred yet more anger at the authorities.