Dr. Susmit Kumar

Turkey is the only Muslim-majority NATO member and has the second largest army in the NATO after the U.S., with a combined strength of more than 1,000,000 uniformed personnel. It is a democratic, secular country established in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the aftermath of World War I. Before that war, Turkey had been the seat of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922), which at the height of its power ruled in three continents (southeastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East). It was also a religious empire, based on Islam. In the 16th Century, the Ottoman ruler started using the title caliph. Allied with Germany and defeated in World War I, the empire was dissolved and partitioned under the Treaty of Sèvres. Its Middle East territories were given as mandates to France and Britain. Currently, there are about 40 countries that formerly came under its domain.

Under the leadership of military commander Mustafa Kemal, Turkish nationalists defeated the occupying Italian, French, and Greek forces and founded the Republic of Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The dynasty was abolished and the sultan was banished. The caliphate was also abolished, in 1924. Kemal introduced several radical political, legal, cultural, social, and economic reforms, and Islamic courts were closed. In the new constitution, Turkey adopted European laws and jurisprudence. Both the administrative and educational systems were thoroughly secularized and modernized, with religious education being abolished. The “fez,” the red felt hat in the shape of a truncated cone introduced by Sultan Mahmud II as the Ottoman Empire's dress code in 1826, was banned and people were encouraged to wear European dress. Women were given rights to vote and own property. This occurred even before women in several Western countries obtained voting rights. In France, for example, women’s suffrage was granted only after World War II. In 1928, the old Turkish alphabet, based on the Arabic script, was replaced by a new alphabet based on the Roman script. The secularization of Turkey is so established that in 1999 Merve Kavakci, a female member of Parliament, was ousted from the assembly after she appeared there wearing a type of headscarf worn by more conservative Muslim women; wearing such a headscarf in public places is illegal. If Turkey is admitted into the European Union, its secular democratic principles would gain strength.

The Constitutional Court can strip the public financing of political parties that it deems anti-secular or separatist, or ban their existence altogether. In 1997, a popular Welfare Party was banned on the grounds of threatening the secular nature of the state. When the leaders of the banned party formed the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi), this too was found unconstitutional on the same grounds and was banned in 1999. In 2001, however, they formed the Justice and Development Party, which received the most votes in the 2002 parliamentary elections, allowing it to form the government. The Islamic party is popular among middle and lower class people.

The Turkish army has ousted four governments in the past 50 years (1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997) in order to maintain the secular status of the country. The first pro-Islamic Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, was one of its targets, in 1997.

When, in a 1997 speech, the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (at that time mayor of Istanbul), recited a poem that included the line, “The mosques are our barracks, the minarets our bayonets, the domes our helmets and the believers soldiers,” he was arrested and convicted of “inciting public enmity and hatred.” At his sentencing he received 10 months in prison, was stripped of his office, and was barred from politics for life. He only served four months, however, and in 2001 the political ban was lifted in a general amnesty.[1]

[1] Frantz, Douglas, “Turkey, well along road to secularism, fears detour to Islamism,” The New York Times, January 8, 2002.

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