'The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as has been the case in the past.' - Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
If the world were an enormous jigsaw puzzle, certain pieces would have more important, strategic linking roles than others. Turkey, bordered by eight countries, would certainly represent one of these.
Linked to Europe (Bulgaria) via the Bosporus Strait, Turkey could be regarded as the bridge between two major cultures, the difference of which seems as radical today as ever.
It's plausible to believe that the history of Turkey, throughout the Ottoman Empire epic, would generally qualify the nation in management of coexistence between peoples of varied ethnicity, despite what could be one or two exceptions.
The Empire lasted an incredible 600 years, from 1299 until 1923, and at its peak it spanned three continents, (South-eastern Europe, the Middle-East and North Africa) 29 provinces, numerous vassal states and certain islands. The Ottoman Empire of which the capital was to be Constantinople (Istanbul) was therefore the governing centre between eastern and western worlds for six centuries, and could be considered the Muslim successor of the Byzantine Empire.
'Ottoman' derives from 'Osman'. Osman I (1258-1326) was a Ghazi emirate pioneer responsible for extending the Ottoman frontiers. Many legends have been written in honour of this much admired, brave warrior and ruler.
When Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, the Empire's power in south-eastern Europe and eastern Mediterranean was fully established. Its formidable naval force also greatly contributed towards further expansion and trade control. This was reason enough for Columbus to attempt reaching Asia by sailing West, to avoid passing through the dangerous waters controlled by the Ottoman Muslims.
The history of the Ottoman Empire is intricately vast. It's fall was partly caused by the breakdown of centralised government, the rise of European powers, regression of what were renowned institutions due to intransigent conservatism, and the general increase in the natural need and desire of former States and provinces to establish and express their own ethnical and national identity.
In 1914 the Ottoman Empire allied with Germany which also led to its downfall. In 1915 the fear that the ethnical Armenians of the Empire would take advantage of the war and create a fifth column, led to the arrest of their leaders and mass deportation and execution. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians died in what is recorded as 'the Armenian genocide'.
After the First World War the allied powers attempted to reduce the remainder of the Empire with the Treaty of Sèvres.
But Turkey was to be extraordinarily modernised by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). He successfully led the Turkish national movement against allied forces thus establishing the independence of Turkey, and on the 29th October, 1923 this man of rare spirit and great providence became the first president of the National Assembly of the peoples Republican Party, and supreme commander of the Turkish forces. It was the first time in the history of a Muslim State that a laic, republican regime was adopted.
In view of the relatively recent resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, Atatürk's reforms of the twenties and thirties, listed below, seem even more boldly revolutionary today than perhaps they were considered at the time they were adopted. Indeed the present Muslim world would categorically reject such reforms today.
Perhaps such a brief outline of the history of the Ottoman Empire might serve sufficiently as a rough 'backcloth' to highlight the importance of Turkey, not just as a mere member state of Europe, but as a leading nation, historically qualified and strategically situated to assume a major responsibility as part of an eastern Mediterranean, if not eastern and southern Mediterranean alliance. Assuming the idea of this alliance will be adopted by all the countries concerned, Turkey, also a powerful member of NATO, should have a leading role.
The importance of the idea of a Mediterranean alliance is considerable. It could contribute towards the balance of powers of this vulnerable part of the world and be a moderating influence with its own constitution. It could represent a guaranty of sovereignty and security to much smaller States such as the Lebanon. With the arbitrage of Egypt and Lebanon it could persuasively contribute to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. It could counter religious fundamentalism and be an additional safeguard against this common threat.
Geographically, Turkey can hardly be considered a part of Europe, and European membership could impede the nation from assuming a more significant role. It could create complications regarding the neighbouring southern and south-eastern countries of Syria, Iraq and Iran, and possibly by extension, an additional security problem for Europe.
In spite of the admirable, farsighted reforms of Atatürk, the history and culture of Turkey have naturally delayed the development of its democracy in relation to that of western countries.
What might be regarded as a daunting shadow of the Ottoman influence still seems to wield an uncompromising sword regarding issues such as the problem of the Kurds, whose claims are not unreasonable in terms of democracy. And democracy also requires a modern nation to confront its less honourable past with integrity, in order for it to advance in the same way. But then one wonders how many nations can pretend that there's no possibility that such a suggestion could still apply to them?
Turkish reforms under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Abolition of the Sultanate. (Sovereignty belongs to the people, without reserve or conditions).
Abolition of the Caliphate.
Reform of head dress. The wearing of the fez is prohibited for men. The wearing of the veil is prohibited for women.
Ancient Koranic law is replaced by the Swiss civil code, the French criminal code, the Italian penal code and the German code of commerce.
Equality of the sexes is proclaimed. Polygamy and repudiation are prohibited. Marriage and civil divorce are recognised.
The Gregorian calendar (occidental) replaces the Muslim calendar.
Vast economical and agricultural reforms are introduced.
Islam is retracted from the State constitution to separate the influence of religion from political, social and cultural affairs.
Reform of the language. Arab manuscript is replaced by the Latin alphabet, which greatly contributes towards correcting analphabetism (formerly at 90%). General moderisation of education.
Creation of a Turkish linguistic society.
Women have the right to vote. (In the 1935 elections 17 women become parliamentary deputies).
Sunday replaces Friday as the day of rest. The law is past that Friday is the day of prayer but no longer the day of rest.
All Turks must take a family name. (Until then one was addressed by one's first name followed by that of one's father).
Sources: planet-turquie-guide and Wikipedia. Satelite image, with grateful thanks to NASA.
Text © Mirino (PW) April, 2009