- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2001

It's been more than three-quarters of a century since Kemal Ataturk began Turkey's march toward a more Westernized society. The transformation is one of history's great makeovers, not to mention a model of success and stability within the Muslim world. This process has stalled, however, over the issue of greater democracy and human rights. They are matters bedeviling Turkish officialdom amid its European Union (EU) membership drive and the focus of Stephen Kinzer's "Crescent and Star."
Formerly the New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul, Mr. Kinzer witnessed a very turbulent period for Turkish politics. The Kurdish insurrection, Islam's rise and a growing malaise with officialdom underscored his watch, begetting an examination into the root causes of these dilemmas. In Mr. Kinzer's opinion, the onus of responsibility lies with "devlet," or state apparatus.
A somewhat nebulous term, "devlet" hinders Turkey from becoming a truly democratic society. It is Ataturk's modernization program enfeebled by "a self perpetuating elite the generals, police chiefs, prosecutors, judges and press barons who decide what 'devlet' demands of the citizenry." This oligarchy "keeps Turkey in chains. For Turkey to live, devlet must die." The sweeping tone notwithstanding, a serious dose of administrative reform is necessary. This was clearly illustrated by the government's inept handling of Turkey's terrible 1999 earthquake. An estimated 18,000 died in the disaster (many thousands are still unaccounted for), which shocked Turkey's national conscience.
It wasn't just the loss of life that affected people. As Mr. Kinzer concisely points out, the decades-old myth of a secure, paternalistic republic shattered. This wasn't a distant, fault-ridden city in Eastern Anatolia, but satellite towns and cities of nearby Istanbul. Many of that city's burgeoning middle class had either moved or bought second homes in the afflicted area, personal witnesses to what occurred. Their sensibilities were altered by the glaring absence of government-led disaster relief along with inadequate regulation of the buildings trade. An unquestioning fealty to devlet ended.
"Even before the pain of the tragedy had faded, another set of emotions surged across Turkey, beginning with outrage at the government but then moving on to jubilant self-discovery," writes Mr. Kinzer. "The generous and effective actions of ordinary people and private groups made millions of Turks realize, many for the first time, that they could take responsibility for their own lives and collective future without guidance from above."
This sense of empowerment indicates that Turkish society is ready to change. In fact, transformation is the book's central theme, advocating its inevitability, if not necessity, whether Kurdish rights, Islam or the Armenian genocide is being discussed. Nearly every chapter ends with a paragraph about a different world from Ataturk's time (the Cold War also gets mentioned) and Turkey's need to adjust towards "universal civilization."
This is a very high crossbar for a developing nation to jump over. Comparatively speaking, even complete democracies that Mr. Kinzer wants Turkey to emulate have their own psychological, even moral gaps. The recently ended Kurdish civil war was Turkey's Vietnam, a controversial conflict that left numerous scars. Mr. Kinzer believes that the healing process should begin with a conciliatory gesture from Ankara towards the Kurds, yet it took some 20 years for our nation to achieve rapprochement with Hanoi. The refusal to officially recognize that Armenians were systematically murdered during World War I blights Turkey's character, but is Japan held to similar standards? Japan's transgressions aren't brought to the public forefront, though it is considered a mature nation whereas Turkey is rebuked for not being one.
Islam presents the biggest challenge. Ataturk despised religion, but it has nevertheless survived and grown into a formidable presence. Politically speaking, Turkish Islam can be banned but not broken; despite fits and starts, it still gathers between 20 percent to 25 percent of the national vote. Head scarves are the latest issue testing "devlet's" Islamic tolerance. Acceptable wear in the provinces, it changes when entering a government institution. At public universities, scarf-clad students are harassed, even expelled for suggesting "a totalitarian approach."
I'm familiar with this rationale. Broaching the matter with a Turkish official, he wished to specify that the scarf itself wasn't objectionable, just how it was worn. "Loosely tied is fine, but when it's tightly creased to the head they're sending a fundamentalist message." As a distressed pupil relates to Mr. Kinzer, "It's bad to become a fanatic, but they are pushing us towards fanaticism."
"Crescent and Star" is an insightful albeit uneven work. The book recognizes Turkey's present condition but overreaches with a pat solution to each circumstance. Reviewed in the wake of Sept. 11, my sense is that "devlet" will tighten ranks and suspend any potential change.

Gerald Robbins is a travel writer and journalist specializing in Turkey and Central Europe.

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