Prisoned between Democracy and Authoritarianism: State and Society in today’s Turkey

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“Gefangen zwischen Demokratie und Autoritarismus: Staat und Gesellschaft in der heutigen Türkei”

Published in Internationale Politik, November 2000, nr.55.

Yahya Sezai Tezel, Ph.D. (Cantab),


‘Understanding’ societal change in Turkey necessitates that we ‘see’ the contemporary scene within the context of the chain of transformations that constitute the history of this country in the last three centuries. This history was highly influenced by the transformation of the ‘state’ institutions, processes and norms.

The pre-modern scene had a central area dominated by the Imperial Ottoman state. The prevalent weltanschaung shared by men and women constituting the center as well as peripheral societal areas, was the Islamicised version of the Mesopotamian-Iranian ‘world picture’ and ‘state tradition’. There were other central zones of populations living on Ottoman territories, such as the Greek Orthodox Church and sufi orders, making the Imperial state innately unstable, like all empires.[1] Ottoman rule did not penetrate into local cultures. The Ottoman agrarianate world formed a mosaic of ‘low cultures, rural peasant settlements, nomadic tribes but also towns, sustaining the urban and literate central zones of the high culture(s), with which the local and folk cultures had weak but vital ties.[2] Muslims of various ethnic and sect identities lived side by side  with Orthodox Greeks, Gregorian Armenians, Nestorians, Syrians and Jews . They all had their own religions. But all shared the axiom that the order, the nomos of human society was not human product  but was fixed by God, like cosmos, and ‘given’ to mankind.

The Ottoman center was, unlike for instance the Chinese center in the 15th and 16th centuries, was essentially exposed to interaction with the ‘world’ of the adversary European ‘others’. There were the trading Levantines. More important were the pre-Ottoman roots of the ‘slave elite’ officialdom appointed from Christian/European boys taken away as booty. They, together with concubines and white eunuchs of European origin constituted the human content of ‘the palace’, the nerve center of the Ottoman center. Levantines. However, because of Ottoman military and political expansion in South-eastern Europe, Ottoman ruling cadre had the conviction that their ‘world order’ was far superior to any other contemporary ‘world order’ on earth, including the European one. Although the Ottoman expansion came to a halt on the Habsburg borders of the ‘West European world order’ and the Imperial state faced severe economic and law and order problems from mid 16th century onwards, this conviction was not shaken until the end of the seventeenth century.

In late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Ottoman confidence in their ‘world order’ collapsed as a result of a fundamental defeat in Europe.  The ‘helplessness’ of  ‘prolonged process of defeat’ resulted, now, in an enduring perception, among some sections of the Ottoman officialdom that their ‘world order’ had serious relative insufficiencies, and innovation by emulating of some elements of the ‘alien’ European world order’ was essential for the survival of the Ottoman polity. Thus, from 1718 onwards, a long process of change began, initially in institutions, practices and norms of the Ottoman military-administrative establishment. These affected changes in economic, social and cultural institutions, norms and values.

An important extension was the transition from seeing the ‘world-order’ as ‘God given’, to an understanding shared by initially small but a growing number of Turkish speaking Muslim members of the Ottoman center, some at critical stately decision making positions, as ‘human product’. Adoption of equality of Muslim and non-Muslim subjects in front of Ottoman law in 1839 when a Europe inspired reform edict was proclaimed, was perhaps the first radical political innovations in Islamicate history, conspicuously contradicting the Koran. Soon other innovations contradicting the Koran and Islamicate heritage followed, such as adoption of European codes as property, commercial, criminal and procedural law, a written ‘constitution’, holding elections and convening parliaments with large non-Muslim representation amending the constitution so that the Caliph-Sultan takes an oath in Parliament that he would be loyal to the Constitution, ‘fatherland’ and ‘nation’.[3]

When discussing such issues as ‘secularism’, universal human rights, civilian governance and democracy in present day Turkey, it is important to remember that the establishment of the 1923 Republic and the subsequent reforms, were not the beginning but the result of societal change in Turkey. Reforms carried out by republicans under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s leadership, owed a lot to the introduction of such ideas, principles and values as “state as the motherland of the people … citizenship … not with respect to religious communities … but as individuals … equal in front of law … protection of individual rights and civic liberties … [citizens] right to control … responsible [and] … representative government” by the ‘enlightened despots’[4], that had emerged from Ottoman officialdom.

As long as an Empire populated by mosaic-like mixture of multi-religious and multi-ethnic communities survived, the strategy for saving the ‘Ottoman state’ was pulled towards the project of building a multi-religious and multi-ethnic ‘Ottoman nation’. However this project became superfluous as the Empire disintegrated. When Greeks and Armenians attempted, after the Ottoman defeat in the First World War,  to carve out Anatolia,  Turkish speaking and other Muslim populations of Anatolia, including Muslim communities who had taken refuge there as Empire contracted, resisted. Thus, the Turkish speaking Muslim reformist generation of the last decades of the Empire, ‘learned’ their Turkish nationalism, from lessons drawn from the secession of  local Christian ‘nations’ and then by the so called ‘betrayal’ of the Arabs. This was a ‘Turkish nationalism’ brought forward by Turkish speaking individuals of various ethnic origins.[5]


Many of the reasons why contemporary Turkish scene seems perplexing to ‘looking’ at it from the view point of post Second World War Europe are related to societal characteristics of this long process of ‘political transformations that lead to the Republican experience of the 20th century.

First, this process was associated with the ideas, actions and internal conflicts of a small cadre of military and civilian officialdom and not with political movements in the civilian society as such.. A ‘public realm’ as the collectivity of organised social decision making and conflict resolving processes, reflecting diverse sections of a ‘civil society’, as witnessed in the histories of some European countries from within the Middle Ages onwards, did not exist in Turkey of the Ottoman centuries, in spite of the fact that, from the 19th century onwards constitutions were written, elections held and parliaments convened. These were, predominantly, ‘officialdom led reforms’ with very little participation from the realms of  civilian subjects of the state.

Second, the core dynamics of what we now refer to as political change in the Ottoman/Turkish scene from the early 18th century onwards, was related to the problem of ‘the survival of the state’. ‘What was to be done’ to ‘save’ the state, a state which the officialdom saw as ‘their’ state, from expansionist aggression of European ‘states’ and nationalistic secessionist movements of the local Christian populations supported by them, was the main question.

A growing number of Turkish speaking Muslim Ottoman officials learned European languages and got interested in ‘ideas’ emanating from the Age of European Enlightenment and European ‘revolutions’. However, in spite of this ideational exposition, ‘value’ based or ‘value’ oriented changes, although naturally starting to take place, mostly, as unintended and non-official results of intended official reforms, had not become significant in the shaping of political history of Turkey.

That the main dimension of political change extended from attempts to resolve the problem of ‘saving the state’, brought forward the ‘saviours of the state’. Mustafa Kemal and his friends, by defeating the Greek and Allied armies in 1919-1922 and saving a ‘state’ for Turkish speaking Muslim populations of Anatolia, assumed charisma in Max Weber’s sense, in the eyes of this Turkish speaking population, as persons with almost transcendental properties because they achieved a ‘miracle’, These officials, saw, after the miracle of victory, the right to decide on behalf of the ‘nation’ as their natural right the legitimacy of which emerged from history rather than a social contract.

The Turkish Republic in the single party period (1923-1946) was a social engineering project of the ‘state saviours’.  It was the charismatic nature of the legitimacy of their power, which gave them social confidence and effectiveness as social engineers. They wanted to create a new society where, first, the political/legal realm would make no reference to ‘religion’ (to Islam). Second, men and women ‘citizens’ equally endowed with civil rights would constitute and belong to ‘the Turkish nation’. Third, this nation would develop itself so that it could participate constructively in ‘contemporary’ (Western) ‘civilisation’.

This project was not implemented through consensus building processes of representative democracy. Kemalists, the ‘secularising reforms’ of whom brought similar changes of  the Ottoman reformists to their logical conclusion, dismantled the Islamic legal foundations of the ‘public/social’ realm together with such key symbolic constituents of the Islamic ‘weltaanschaaung’ as the Arabic script, weekly holiday, Islamic calender, dress codes and social status of women. A project which entailed such a radical dismantling of Islam in the public realm would have been rejected by the Muslim populace if it was to be tested in the ‘ballot box’. Its execution did indeed face significant opposition and resistance but was carried on while a clear majority of especially urban population followed the leaders with enthusiasm.

This ‘democratic deficit’ of the late Ottoman early Republican project of saving the state, modernising the existing society(ies) and thus creating a nation, resulted in a fundamental tension between this self assigned custodianship of public interest, and a wish to move towards the ‘enlightenment’ ideal of a nation of self governing individuals, of sovereign human persons who create their own ‘nomos’ without reference to revelation emanating from God who might have created them. Mustafa Kemal and many of Republicans did have a sincere commitment to this ‘enlightenment’ ideal. A part of their souls sincerely believed in the dictum that ‘true spiritual guide in human life is science, philosophy, critical thinking’. However, as custodians of ‘the state’, they also sincerely believed that it was them who had, if not God given, a history given ‘right’ to dictate to the populace to be converted into a nation of ‘enlightened and sovereign citizens’ what was to be done in the name of ‘public good’ and ‘state interest’. These contradicting aspirations of the soul of the Kemalist project, so to speak, which is referred to by some authors as “schizophrenia of Turkish nationalism”[6], is still strongly affecting Turkey. It is important in understanding why Turkey seems as frozen between two worlds, two ‘weltaanschaaungs’, of European democracy and Middle Eastern authoritarianism.


Secularizing reforms in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire were carried out primarily for the ‘necessities of saving the state’ in the given realities of the Ottoman world. On the eve of the First World War, the Empire, although severely contracted, still had large local Christian populations. Of the 16 million living within the boundaries of present Turkey in 1915, 20 % were non-Muslims, primarily Greeks (1.7 million) and Armenians (1.2 million). European powers put effective pressure for equal treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims. Preventing secessionist movements in a country with religious heterogeneity where use of brute for repression was sanctioned with outside intervention, induced the Ottoman officialdom to define Ottoman citizenship without referring to Islam.

Secularist reforms of the Republicans were somewhat more value oriented. However they took place at a time when religious plurality had disappeared from the Turkish scene. Turkey of the 1920s. During the cataclysmic 1915-1922 period of wars and disturbances, Turks and other Muslims suffered large losses, while nearly all of the local Greek and Armenian communities disappeared, due forced exile, deaths and killings, outward emigration and population exchange between Turkey and Greece after the Lausanne Peace Treaty (1923). By 1927,  total population within present boundaries had decreased by 17 %, and urban population by 35 % from their1915 levels.[7]

The Kemalists started with a de-populated and de-urbanised Turkey. A religiously homogeneous but ethnically heterogeneous population 90 % of which were illiterate and disease stricken peasants and nomads living in segmented communities producing mostly for subsistence needs with ancient technologies, was the ‘human resource’ to be mobilised for the Republican project. It was this population to be transformed into a ‘secular nation’ upon the ‘image of Europe’, which would participate as an equal partner in ‘contemporary’ civilisation.


Almost three centuries of ‘West’ oriented change in Turkey is now at a critical phase. The outcome of Turkey’s application to join European Union, whether difficulties facing Turkey’s candidature will be overcome, will constitute a judgement passed, so to speak, on the meaningfulness of an attempt that was made in Ottoman/Republican Turkey towards a civilisational transformation.

Turkey is required to fulfil Copenhagen criteria. She has to convince European political systems that she has met three conditions. First, that she has a well functioning market economy able to cope with international competition. Second that Turkish state is commitment to not using force or threat of using force in inter-European disputes, including Turkey’s disputes with Greece and Cyprus. Third, that Turkey is a well functioning democracy where universal human rights of all citizens, including linguistic and religious rights of non-Turkish speaking citizens and ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ of all convictions, are protected and where armed forces are subservient to elected civilian authorities. Let us briefly look at where Turkey stands now as viewed from the perspective of her ambition to join European integration but also with a retrospective eye to the venture of the Republican/Kemalist project.

In the field of economic development, population growth has been one of the main constraints on increasing material living standards of the average family in Turkey. Only in the last decade that the population pressure on economic resources began to decrease. Second, a semi-socialistic etatist resource allocation mechanisms limited development of a market economy and restricted economic growth potential of Turkey. The sliding of the ‘progressive’ intelligentsia to Marxism in the 1960s, resulted in an ex East Europe like economic environment. State enterprises had large shares in banking, manufacturing and mining while many sectors were under state monopolies. Import substituting trade policy and the accompanying ‘industrial policy’ of the post 1960 ‘five year plan’s era, were reminiscent of the priorities of Soviet planning. This brought forward an industrial structure increasingly in need of imports without generating a capacity to earn export incomes. When Ecevit’s 1978-79 government toyed with the idea of leaving the Western alliance,[8] Turkish economy collapsed, in a domestic conjuncture armed struggle of left and right organisations. Although after the 1980 coup which was widely seen in and outside Turkey, as legitimate intervention of the army, ‘saving Turkey’ from economic chaos and civil war, international trade and financial markets have been liberalised, Turkey is yet to dismantle her semi-socialist heritage of state banks and enterprises. The third constraint on the growth performance of Turkish economy has been and still is an almost ‘a national economic culture of free riders’. Populist policies of the last forty years, two prominent architects of which were Süleyman Demirel and Bülent Ecevit, resulted in a widely held assumption that ‘state can provide free public goods to citizens who do not pay taxes and can pay salaries and wages to public employees who do not add value to national economy’. Nepotism and corruption, together with ambivalence between a market economy supervised with law and a redistributive command economy not supervised with law, freezes Turkey’s growth potential and results in one of the most unequally distributed national incomes among countries of comparable scale and development level.[9] Turkey’s ambition of joining European Union, should be assessed in front of the limitations of Turkey’s economic scale, constituting only less than one half of world output and trade, with a GDP of 200, exports of 30 and imports of  55 billion USD, but over one percent of world population with her 70 million people.

[1]  Center versus periphery of a society and/or civilisation area is here defined following Shils. In each city based literate civilization related society, there is an “order of symbols, of values and beliefs, which govern the society”. Some of these are of such a higher status so that they constitute “the ultimate and irreducable”symbols, values and beliefs, “partak[ing] of the nature of the sacred”. This is the first dimension of centrality. The second dimension is in “the realm of action”. In the network of existing institutions, there is a central “structure of activities, of roles and persons” in which “values and beliefs which are central are embodied and propounded”. Shils, Edward (1961) The logic of personal knowledge: essays presented to Michael Polanyi … (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), p.117.

It is obvious that, in the sense of Shils, in Imperial states which are created through conquest and in which the center of the conquered populations as ‘symbols, values and beliefs partaking of the nature of sacred’ is fundamentally different from the ‘center’ of the conquering population. This multiplicity of ‘centres’ in Empires as an amalgam of ‘communities’ constitute tension challenging the stability of the Imperial system.

[2] The view that the Imperial Ottoman State was on the Mesopotamian-Iranian tradition is shared by the doyen of Ottoman historiography, Halil İnalcık. See his “Kutadgubilik’te Türk ve İran siyaset nazariyeleri ve gelenekleri”, Türk Kültürü Araştırma Enstitüsü Dergisi (1966), the English translation of which appeared in İnalcık, H. (1993) The Middle East and the Balkans under the Ottoman Empire (Bloomingtale, Indiana University Press). The same view forms one of the main dimensions of the seminal sociological analytical framework that Marshall G. S. Hodgson constructed for his three volume history of Islamicate heritage, The Venture of Islam (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1974). I follow Hodgson’s definition and articulation of ‘high culture’, ‘local culture’ and ‘agrarianate civilisation’ in The Venture of Islam, vol. 1, 79-99. These categories also form the basis of Ernest Gellner’s analysis of nationalism. See his Nations and nationalism (Oxford, Blackwell, 1983).

[3] 40 percent of the deputies in the lover house of the first Ottoman parliament (1876) were non-Muslims. On legal reforms see Üçok, C., Mumcu, A. (1976) Türk hukuk tarihi (Ankara, Ankara Üniversitesi Yayını); on the Constitutionalist movement and the 1876 Constitution, elections, and Parliament see Devereux, R. (1963), The first Ottoman constitutional period (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press). For the text of the amendment see eds. Gözübüyük, Ş., Kili, S. (1982) Türk anayasa metinleri 1839-1980 (Ankara, Ankara Üniversitesi yayını).

[4] Davison, R. H. (1981) “Atatürk’ün siyasi reformları ve Tanzimat”, in Okyar, O., et. al, eds. (1981) Atatürk ve Cumhuriyet dönemi Türkiyesi (Ankara, Türkiye Ticaret ve Sanayi Odaları ve Borsalar Birliği yayını), 28-56.

[5] It is essential never to forget that the heroic dictionarist figure of ‘nationalism in language’ Şemsettin Sami was of Albanian, and the intellectual mentor of the early Republicans, the sociologist of the Turkish nationalism, Ziya Gökalp was partly of Kurdish origin.

[6] Poulton, H. (1997) Top hat, grey wolf and crescent: Turkish nationalism and the Turkish Republic (London: Hurst  Co.), 315-22.

[7] See Tezel, Y. S. ( 1994) Cumhuriyet döneminin iktisadi tarihi, 3rd edition (İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı yayını), 97-100.

[8] See recent memoirs of retired Ambassador Yalım Eralp for first witness reporting of Ecevit’s “ideological freezing of relations with the European Community”, and clumsy attempts to leave Nato and mate Turkey a non-alinged country, “Büyükelçi gözüyle anılarla AB yolculuğu”, Milliyet , 11-14 October, 2000.

[9] World Bank (2000), Turkey: economic reforms, living standards and social welfare study, May 17, 2000.

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