St. Sophia, the great Byzantine church in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), had been transformed into a mosque by the Ottoman Sultan.
When Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in New Delhi on April 30, he will find in his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, something of a kindred spirit. Both aspire for absolute power. The April 16 referendum has removed constraints Erdogan was uncomfortable with. He will now be an executive President, a position from where he can manipulate whatever checks and balances may still be theoretically in place. What Erdogan has achieved is unparalleled in Turkish history. He is well on the way to completely overhauling what the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had diligently put together. When Mahatma Gandhi held Maulana Mohammad Ali’s hand in support of the Caliphate (Khilafat Movement) in Istanbul, the founder of modern Turkey was embarked on exactly the opposite: He was abolishing the Caliphate. It was an anachronism.
St. Sophia, the great Byzantine church in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), had been transformed into a mosque by the Ottoman Sultan. Ataturk reversed the decision. Christendom’s most magnificent church would, were it to be retained as a mosque, hurt Europe in perpetuity. It is today a great Byzantine museum. Ataturk saw modern Turkey’s future in Europe. The Fez cap was banned. Turki script gave way to Roman letters. No head scarf for women except as a statement of fashion. Raki, distilled from aniseed (same as Ouzo in Greece, Pastisse in France and Arrack in Lebanon) became the unofficial national drink. It was Ataturk’s favourite.
Ataturk’s inspirational steps towards Europeanism notwithstanding, Ottoman Turkey’s civic and social backwardness remained an obstacle in the way of its union with Europe. Diligently the nation set about improving its infrastructure, environment, laws to make it clubbable with Europe. What Turkish leaders had not taken into account was European prejudice about the “Turk” from medieval times. Its desire to join the European Union was dodged and spurned. President Valery Giscard d’Estaing of France was the most blunt: “European civilisation is Christian civilisation.” This became something of a muted European chorus.
On the Aegean Sea or Cyprus, Europe would singly or unitedly thwart any movement in Ankara’s preferred direction. Even the most Kemalist of all Prime Ministers, Bulent Ecevit, was exasperated. Ecevit, Modi may like to know, was almost a self-taught Indologist. His translation of Tagore’s “Geetanjali” is something of a Turkish masterpiece. The modernism that Ataturk imposed on Turkey was not as shallow as the one in North Tehran under the Shah and Kabul during King Amanullah. But it had not radiated out of Istanbul and Ankara. Had Europe been sensitive enough, the modernism from the top would have taken root across all of Anatolia — such was the momentum Ataturk had imparted to the “Turkey-in-Europe” project.
It was Western insensitivity to Muslim societies in general, the rampaging Islamophobia, which began to shake the secular citadels even in Muslim societies. Turkey under leaders like Ecevit, Suleyman Demirel, Turgut Ozal, and most certainly army generals like Kenen Everen, jealously guarded its secular constitution despite being a Muslim country, indeed, a deeply Muslim country until the West crossed some Red lines. The televised occupation of Iraq, the two Intefadas, the manner in which post-9/11 anti-terror wars were fought from Afghanistan to each and every Muslim country began to affect public opinion even in a country which retained warm relations with Israel.
An anti-Western groundswell became unstoppable in Turkey when brutalities against Muslims in the Bosnian war, the four-year siege of Sarajevo were brought into every Turkish home live, mornings and evenings. The West forgot that Bosnia was once an Ottoman province. Sarajevo came from the word “Sarai”, a resting place. Little wonder the Refah Party under Necmettin Erbakan came to power. Erbakan was a diehard though closet Muslim Brotherhood member. The army dismissed the government — Turkey’s constitution would not tolerate even a trace of religiosity in public life.
Erbakan’s principal disciples, Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, reinvented the Refah as the Justice and Development (AK) party, taking great care to abide by the constitution. Anti-Westernism was cleverly promoted without invoking Islam. For instance, when Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought permission to ferry US troops to Iraq through Turkish territory, Prime Minister Erdogan tossed the issue to Parliament, which blocked permission. Israeli high-handedness against a Turkish humanitarian ship carrying succour for Palestinians led to a rupture with Tel Aviv — an outcome hugely popular with the electorate.
When Greece, the mother of Western civilisation, was on its knees, in every sense of the term, every Turkish indicator placed the country favourably with every member of the European Union. By the time of his third election victory Erdogan had performed the impossible: His popularity exceeded even Ataturk’s at his height. The Arab Spring provided the West with a carrot to dangle before him: He could become the democratic model for the Arab world. Some Turks began to nurse fanciful dreams. If there could be a commonwealth group of nations freed from Britain, why can’t there be an Ottoman grouping? This raised Arab hackles.
During a meal at one of the world’s fanciest restaurants on the Bosporus, the late Mehmet Birand, one of Turkey’s most distinguished journalists, summed up the situation succinctly: “We were a docile ally of the West, swallowing our Turkish pride.” Under Erdogan, “we are a proud dissident nation in the Western alliance”. The war in Syria brought out into the open the closet Muslim Brotherhood in Erdogan. He pleaded with Bashar al Assad to accommodate the Syrian Brothers into the Baath-dominated power structure. Assad’s difficulties whetted appetites in Riyadh, Doha, Jerusalem, Ankara, Washington, Paris and London. This is the bubbling, overflowing cauldron — the Syrian Civil war.
The attempted coup last summer by a section of the army and allegedly backed by the hugely influential, US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen brought out the fighter in Erdogan. He was going to obviate all threats to his rule by ensuring an all-powerful Presidential system for himself. There is symbolism in the fact that this most powerful of leaders, not concealing his Brotherhood affiliations, has chosen Modi as an early interlocutor.