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Revisiting Kemalism's 'Western Orientation'

[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News] One of the narratives about Turkey that we hear very often these days is the "Western orientation" of its Kemalist revolution. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, we are told, Mustafa Kemal and his followers emerged as the saviors of the country by recreating it as a modern republic and turning its face to the West. This story is often followed by alarmist comments about the current destination of Turkey under its current government. The Kemalists are not in power anymore, we are warned, and the new non-Kemalist elite is changing its orientation from the West to the East. Unfortunately, the commentators who publicize this narrative hardly note the fact that most Kemalists in contemporary Turkey have become diehard opponents of the European Union accession process. They also rarely speak about the fact that the latest Kemalist attempt to overthrow the current government (aka "Ergenekon") was also planning to make the country an ally of Russia and China rather than the EU and U.S. Which West? But that is the smallest of the flaws in their argument. The bigger problem is their dismissal of the problems in Kemalism's "Western orientation." Let me explain what I mean. Today when we use the term "the West," the political system that comes to our mind is often liberal democracy. But during the formative years of Kemalism, i.e., the late 20s and 30s, that was not the case. In fact, liberal democracy was a growingly marginal model in Europe at time. The ascendant model was totalitarianism, as exemplified first by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. And these two had some considerable influence on Kemalist ideology and practice. First came corporatism, the economic model of Fascist Italy, which was based on Mussolini's fundamental idea: "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." As scholars Taha Parla and Andrew Davison explain in their book, "Corporatism in Kemalist Turkey," Turkey adopted this state-dominated way of organizing the economy by orchestrating social segments and interest groups. The authors, as the book's publisher note, illuminate "Kemalism's emphatic and self-conscious, corporatist ideological core," and "require a rethinking of its democratic, secular, and modernist reputation." But this was not the most problematic theme that Kemalism incorporated from "the West." A worse one was racism. Although they never became a full-fledged policy, racist theories that gloried the "Turkish stock" became popular among the Kemalist elite in the 30s. In 1932, the First Turkish Historical Congress was held in Ankara under the auspices of Atatürk. Afet İnan, one of Atatürk's protŽgŽs, presented a "scientific" paper in which she argued that the Aryan race, whose "brachycephalic skull" made it superior to others, included the ancient Central-Asian Turks. Another speaker at the same congress, Dr. Şevket Aziz Kansu, shared his extravagant studies on the features of the "Turkish skull." He had measured the skull sizes of 50 "pure Turks," half male, half female, and found them to be of pure European "Alpine race." These nutty race theories influenced official policies. Some government advertisements in newspapers for new personnel noted that applicants had to be from "the Turkish stock," in addition to being a citizen of Turkey. In 1935, the "third man" of the regime, Recep Peker, the general secretary of Atatürk's Republican People's Party, or CHP, had a long trip to Nazi Germany, and came back with a deep sense of admiration. He wrote a long report suggesting that Turkey should adopt the principles that made this new Germany so "efficient." He also started to promote the idea of "disciplined liberty" and denounced liberalism as a deviant idea. In 1936, Turkey adopted the hallmark of all totalitarian regimes: The unification of the ruling party and the state. The heads of CHP's local branches became governors of their cities. Nasty stuff Luckily, Atatürk did not really embrace these racist and totalitarian visions. After toying with them for a while, he decided to take a more moderate path, which was paralleled by his decision to approach Britain, rather than Germany, on the eve of World War II. When he died in 1938, however, the fascist tendencies within the CHP were still alive and were soon emboldened by the Nazi's initial success in the war. In 1942, in tune with the zeitgeist, the CHP government issued the infamous "wealth tax," a very heavy levy on the non-Muslim, especially Jewish, minority. Some who failed to pay were sent to a labor camp established in eastern Turkey. When the Nazis started to lose the war, the CHP government silently changed sides, and soon accepted a multi-party system in order to cope with the new global trend. But it never questioned the nasty stuff in its past. Regrettably that nasty stuff still lives on among Turkey's dogmatic Kemalists, who still idealize an authoritarian state, a xenophobic nationalism and a tyrannical secularism. Drifting away from their understanding of Kemalism will only be a blessing for this country.
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