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Turkey's Place in the War against Militant Islam
In 1996, The New York Times established a new Istanbul bureau to provide readers with insight into Turkey, a newly-vital country; it asked Steven Kinzer to head the bureau. Mr. Kinzer lived in Turkey until 2000 and has since published a critically acclaimed book, Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds. Prior to his stint in Istanbul, Mr. Kinzer served as chief of the Times bureaus in Germany and Nicaragua. The author of three books, he is now a national correspondent for The New York Times based in Chicago.
Turkey Has Two Faces
Turkey is an anomaly in the Muslim world, and as such, has found itself isolated in recent decades, for it is the only Muslim country committed to the principle of secular democracy and clearly pro-Western in its policies.
When Ottoman Turkey collapsed after World War I, England and France carved up its territories. Atatürk, the only Turkish officer to win a battle in the war, rallied a force of Turks to chase out the allies and established the Turkish Republic in 1923. He soon dismantled the theocracy that Turks had lived under for centuries and took such steps as outlawing the fez for men. Divorce was legalized, as was marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims. Turkish script was changed from Arabic to Latin script.
Over the years, Turkey evolved towards a real democracy, one where secularism is the guiding principle. This combination enables Turkey to send a vital message to the rest of the Muslim world; that there is an alternative to an Islamist regime. Turkey uniquely can seduce and attract many Muslims away from militant Islam.
Turkey and the "War on Terror"
Turkey has two roles to play as the world unites against Islamist terror. The first role is as a NATO ally. We can expect to see Turkey provide NATO with access to airspace and bases and to share the intelligence it gathered over many years in Afghanistan as a sponsor of the Northern Alliance.
We can also expect to see Turkey share what it learned while fighting the Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s in southeast Turkey. The terrain there is similar to Afghanistan, and the Kurds' tactics and weaponry are similar to the Taliban.
There has been talk that Turkey may play an important role if a peacekeeping force is needed in post-Taliban Afghanistan. However, Turkey has been reluctant to involve itself in international politics. When Turkey joined NATO, it assumed a quiet role. Regionally, its relations with Greece, Syria, Armenia, and Iraq have given the world only a small taste of its capabilities.
The Anti-Taliban Country
Despite this reluctance, Turkey is the nation best situated and best equipped to provide an example of how Islam can be faithful to religious principles but not necessarily shape the direction of the state. It is the anti-Taliban country. Militant Islam has dominated the headlines in recent weeks. Unfortunately, there is no articulate counter-message coming out of Turkey.
It could, however, construct such a counter-message. It has the ability to pull Muslims away from radical Islam. It can be the beacon in the Muslim world for the benefits of secular Islam and thereby reshape the Muslim world.
First, Change from Within
To actualize this change requires Turkey itself to change. It is still not a completed democracy. It is not yet in the position to say, "Be like us, and you can have the benefits our people have." When the rest of the Muslim world looks at Turkey, it sees unresolved social, economic, and psychological issues. For Turkey to serve as the model for democracy to Muslims, it must finish its own democratization process.
Many Turks are impatient now for that full democratization. They can see how close it is, but they can't quite fulfill it. They look longingly at those countries where people can truly choose their own destiny. They wonder, "What's wrong with us? Are we too primitive?" They are waiting for the leaders to overcome their fears.
The debate now is over whether democratization would help or hurt Turkey. I believe Turkey can handle the stresses of democracy. Of course, there are many Turks that believe otherwise. A debate on these issues is what is needed. Such a debate will help Turkey understand all of its options.
The Turks have a remarkable affection for their military. They are often willing to defer to the army, because prevailing wisdom suggests that the army knows what is necessary for Turkish security. In recent years, however, there has been a growing frustration revolving around the role of the army and its intrusions on civilian affairs.
Should the army be able to decide if the Kurds can have a television station, or if women can wear veils at university classes, or if individuals can establish Qur'anic schools without government approval? The army says these are national security matters, but more and more people disagree with this. A gap is widening for the first time in Turkish history. Some say this could cause instability. Others believe it is necessary for democratization.
Turkey and Militant Islam
In the mid-1990s, Islamists won a majority and brought a prime minister to power. This only lasted a year, however, due to the repressive tactics of the Turkish regime. Turkey's Islamists, consequently, are now embracing the rhetoric of Amnesty International and democratic freedoms. Further, a group of reformists has taken over much of the Islamist party, making the movement more moderate than it has ever been.
The ruling establishment now has a great opportunity to implement democratic reforms at a time when Turkish Islamism is at an all-time low. The goal here would be to give Islamists their right to exist on the condition that they explicitly accept the principles of a secular state. Repression worked in the past when dealing with Islamism, but perhaps now is the time to evolve.
The Question of Iraq
As America wages war on terror, Ankara is nervous about the overthrow of Saddam Husayn's regime. They fear that such a move would create conditions for a civil war where various factions emerge, leading to the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq that threatens Turkish security. If action is taken against Saddam, Turkey adamantly insists that a post-war scenario should be carefully planned, with Turkish interests considered.
The primary Turkish interest here is preventing a Kurdish state from coming into existence. Accordingly, Turkey may ask for control of Kurdish northern Iraq, should Saddam be toppled. Turks are not as terrified of Saddam as they are of the vacuum that would be created by his departure. They fear that his overthrow would lead to anarchy on their eastern border. They want to prevent the Kurds from making raids on Turkey or prevent al-Qa'ida cells from emerging, which is what is happening right now in the lawless "no-fly zone" imposed by the West.
Religious conservatives believe that true Islam requires an Islamic state and that Turkey falls outside of true Islam. The European Union has also been reluctant to accept Turkey as a Western partner. Geographically and politically, the country falls between two worlds. Turned around, this can mean that Turkey plays a crucial role in mediating between Muslim countries and the West.
Indeed, if Turkey's role is properly developed, we might even find it playing an important role in other conflicts, like the Arab-Israeli one or the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India.
For now, however, the top priority of the West is to see what moderating influences Turkey can provide in Central Asia and how to best counteract Usama bin Ladin's message.
Summary account by Jonathan Schanzer, research associate at the Middle East Forum.
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