Teetering on the Democratic Edge
NOVEMBER 01, 2002 by DOUG BANDOW
ANKARA, Turkey-"The main obstacle to democracy is not Islam, but Kemalism," says Atilla Yayla, the unassuming head of Turkey’s Association for Liberal Thinking (ALT). While Turkey has done better than any other Muslim country in mixing Islam and secularism, as a democracy it remains a work in progress.
Where Turkey ultimately ends up is particularly important, given its potential membership in the European Union (EU). Membership could remake Turkey. A number of Turks are liberal, in a classical sense, supporting individual liberty, economic freedom, and political democracy. They believe the lure of EU membership is the best way to enable their country to escape its authoritarian legacy. Turkey is a nominal democracy, with regular elections. Yet the military holds ultimate power, upending governments and dissolving political parties. Professor Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Bilgi University commented sardonically: "they have the bayonets and we don’t."
Turkey’s reigning ideology is statism, embodied in the nation’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. "Kemalism is treated like a religion," says Yayla, also a university professor: "In this way, Kemalists are more religious than Islamacists." It is hard to find a room in Turkey without Ataturk’s photo; his overpowering, square-block memorial in Ankara is a shrine. Dissent is highly constrained. Criticism of the military is simply banned-indeed, the provision was tightened earlier this year to bar criticism of individual soldiers (meaning, in practice, leading generals).
Criticism of other officials can be almost as dangerous. A magazine supported by Yayla’s Association criticized a supreme court ruling kicking religious conservatives out of politics. ALT’s publisher (Liberté Publication) and the author found themselves subject to a lawsuit and now face ruinous damages.
Academia offers no security. Ozel nonchalantly speaks of "immense pressure by the government" because the private university is seen as having "too many leftists and liberals, allowing women to wear head scarves, and talking about the Kurds." He expects the school to survive the attacks, but "we are on our own."
The government also controls the economy, creating a class of businessmen dependent on political subsidies. One cause of Turkey’s recent economic crisis is a state banking system that lost billions while shoveling money to favored interests. The International Monetary Fund required Turkey to liquidate many of these banks as a condition for receiving aid last year, but much remains to be done. Ankara still needs to privatize state enterprises and eliminate barriers to foreign investment. Despite much talk of reform, "you don’t really have a political party that represents economic liberalization," complains Mustafa Sayinatac, Corporate Affairs Director for the Cargill corporation.
All these problems run back to Turkey’s overarching philosophy of government. Gokhan Capoglu, a former member of parliament and now professor at Bilkent University, argues that "we have to achieve a liberal democracy. I’m speaking of the rule of law, separation of powers, accountability to the rules. What is lacking in this country is accountability." More fundamentally, suggests Yayla, "Without dismantling Kemalism, I don’t think there can be a real democracy, a real market economy." Democracy is important, but it is only secondary. More basic is liberalism, with its commitment to human dignity and freedom.
There is popular support for change. Ozel says there are "liberal people in most every political party," though no party has yet taken up the reform cause. Fuat Keyman, an associate professor at Bilkent University, points to the gap between the "social and economic forces pressing for a more liberal Turkey, a more democratic Turkey," and "existing parties which have no ability to deal with tense problems."
Thus, liberal-minded Turks tend to look outside for help. Ozel argues: "If the EU were to accommodate Turkey, the entire context of politics would change." Yayla says simply: the EU "is our hope."
But, worries Ozel, "Just make sure the EU doesn’t screw this up." Alas, with Europe preparing to judge the adequacy of Turkish political reform, demanding abolition of Turkey’s death penalty, and addressing the Cyprus issue, there’s no guarantee that it won’t overreach, sparking a nationalist reaction in Ankara.
Nor will pressure from Washington for economic and political reform necessarily work out any better. Warns Capoglu: an open endorsement would risk "making the same mistake as in other countries," when people ended up "associating the U.S. with unpopular governments."
Moreover, foreign pressure will have an impact only if there is a domestic constituency for reform. That is the ALT’s mission.
Yayla emphasizes that his group is not a political party. "We are trying to influence politics indirectly through ideas. We are not for political parties but for liberal politics." Indeed, ALT has "contact with members of all parties," including "the Islamic-oriented. They like us because they know we respect their rights." Although Yayla is not religious, he chides Turkey for repressing religious expression in the name of secularism and the EU for ignoring that assault on human liberty. Headquartered in a small, four-bedroom suite in a central neighborhood in Ankara, ALT employs five staffers. Formally organized in 1994, it seeks to spread market-liberal ideas among the young. It has helped publish 65 books, starting with F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in 1995.
The Association also offers two quarterly magazines, underwrites a student journal, runs an Internet magazine, hosts a series of forums and seminars on classical-liberal thought, organizes two annual academic conferences, and works with like-minded groups in the United States and Europe. "It is good to know that we have international friends," he observes. ALT’s refreshing perspective is captured by its website. Yayla emphasizes that the Association is careful to follow the law, which limits its ability to accept money directly from foreign groups. "Anything you do is risky. Any time you can be charged for anything," he says. But "if you are too cautious, you can’t do anything." Luckily, the government recognizes that ALT is nonpolitical and nonpartisan.
Turkey’s potential is vast. Strategically located and filled with entrepreneurial people, it could become a regional powerhouse. It could also provide the model for Islamic peoples to retain their culture while adapting to modernity and enjoying human liberty. But to fulfill that role Ankara must move away from its authoritarian past. Turkey may be more democratic "than any other Islamic country," observes Yayla, but that’s not nearly enough. "We want freedom, peace, and the rule of law."
Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books.