The transformation of Turkey

Allentown Morning Call, PA
July 18 2004

The transformation of Turkey
The moderate, modern Muslim country, if assimilated into the European
Union, would be an attractive role model for other countries

Eli Schwartz

In Victorian England, there was a common reference to “the
unspeakable Turks.” Much has changed. Today, Turkey is an
independent, modernized country of about 70 million inhabitants. It
is a charter member of NATO and is currently knocking on the door for
admission to the European Union.

In fact, columnist George F. Will noted last week, it is to this
country’s advantage to have Turkey in the EU. Its economy has a long
way to go, in comparison with others in Europe, but it is a nation
that is democratic, secular — and Muslim.

Turkey was not alway democratic and secular, of course, and I believe
that its story is helpful to us today, especially in light of
President Bush’s dream of seeing democracy spread throughout the
Middle East.

The modern history of Turkey starts from the defeat of the Turkish
Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. In 1920, the victorious
allies sat down to dispose of the Arab territories and carve up Asia

Of the Arab countries, the French were given a League of Nations
mandate over Lebanon and Syria; the British received mandates for
Mesopotamia (Iraq), Palestine, and some adjoining territories.
Turkey, in Asia Minor, was divided into Italian and French spheres of
influence, an autonomous Kurdish area, a section given to an Armenian
Republic in Causasia, and a Greek enclave starting out from the city
of Smyrna (now Izmir) on the Aegean Sea. A small area encompassing
the city of Constantinople and an oval on the Asiatic side enclosing
the sea of Marmora and the straits to the Black Sea was left to the
Sultan of Turkey. The whole was endorsed by the Treaty of Sevres,
signed by the Sultan in Constantinople.

In the meantime, a nationalist reform party lead by Mustafa Kemal
(later to become Kemal Ataturk) coalesced around the city of Ankara
in central Turkey. In 1920, the dissident assembly declared Turkey a
republic, and an army formed around Mustafa Kemal launched a series
of attacks on the Kurds, the Armenians, and on the Greek army
occupying the area coming out of Izmir. The campaigns were undeniably
victorious, marred by internecine warfare and by what is now
sardonically called “ethnic cleansing”; much of this has never been
clearly expiated to this day.

Suffice it to say, the war ended with the victorious Turkish Army
taking Smyrna in 1922. The abortive Sevres treaty was dropped and the
new treaty of Lausanne in 1923 assigned to the new republic of
Turkey, the territory it currently holds in Asia Minor, and in
Europe, the cosmopolitan city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and
the strategic straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

No one reigns completely alone, but the foundation of modern Turkey
rests with Mustafa Kemal, given the honorific name Kemal Ataturk
(Noble Father of the Turks), who as president ruled with a hard hand
from 1923 until his death in 1938. Kemal’s main goal was to wrest
Turkey into the modern world.

One by one, the edicts came down. The Sultan and his family were
exiled, the Caliphate was abolished, the Sharia, Islamic law, was
replaced by the Swiss Code as the basic law of the state, and the
Italian Penal Code and the German Commerce Code were adopted. This
essentially made Turkey a secular state.

Kemal made the wearing of the fez (traditional male headdress)
illegal, and he discouraged the wearing of the female head scarf. The
Islamic clergy were paid a stipend by the government, but the weekly
sermon was set by the state. The call to prayer was changed from
Arabic to Turkish.

Perhaps Kemal’s most revolutionary move was to enforce a change from
the Arabic script to the Latin alphabet. All the citizens from six to
40 years old were made to attend school to learn the new letters.
After four years, it was made illegal to use the old Arabic script. A
consistent increase in literacy followed.

There was a massive importation of typewriters and, under the law of
unintended consequences, the increased demand for stenographers led
to the increased employment of women and helped in the emancipation
of Turkish womanhood.

Even those quite critical of his methods acknowledge that Ataturk
left a legacy that has served as an obstacle to the rise of
anti-Western Islamists in Turkey.

Kemal Ataturk succeeded in modernizing Turkey, whereas operating at
the Eastern end of the Golden Crescent, the Pahlavi family (the
Shahs) failed in the avowed task of modernizing Iran.

Now, 66 years after Kemal Ataturk’s death, comes perhaps the final
test of the Turkish transition. In December of this year, the Turks
hope to start negotiations on the entry to the European Union. Many
questions arise.

Turkey is a poor country. It is not an undeveloped country, but it
ranks in the bottom rung of the class of developed countries. The per
capita GDP is about one third of the average for the EU. On the other
hand, the recent real growth rate of 4 percent to 6 percent per annum
exceeds that of the EU, and a recent report by The Economist magazine
shows Turkey with an astounding increase of 15 percent in the last
quarter in manufacturing and mining output, well above any other
country listed.

Trade with the European Union has been growing; since 1996; the
amount of exports to the EU has more than doubled from $10 billion to
$25 billion and imports have gone from $20 billion to $32 billion.
One third of new television sets sold in the EU last year came from

The inflation rate which had been running at a double digit rate for
35 years finally fell to a single digit level this February. The
government deficit of 10 percent of the GDP far exceeds the EU target
of 3 percent. Be that as it may, the stated economic criteria for
admission to the European Union is not perfection but the existence
of a “functioning market economy.”

Some political and social sticking points remain. The average
literacy rate is 87 percent with a significantly higher rate of 94
percent for males as against only 88 percent for females. However,
elementary school education is now compulsory for children of both
sexes. Average life expectancy at birth of 72 years is only slightly
below the developed world average, but the rate of 42 infant deaths
per 1,000 live births is shamefully high.

Of course, the main problem is the unrest and unease among the
minority Kurds, who constitute 20 percent of the population. The
current administration has eased relations with the Kurds, allowing
the public use of the Kurdish language and the development of Kurdish
culture. At any rate, Turkey would not be the sole EU member with a
minority problem; Spain has the Basques, Slovakia has the Gypsies,
and Great Britain has the IRA of Northern Ireland. The social,
political criteria for entrance to the EU is phrased as a “union of

>From my readings and experience of visiting the Middle East and
Turkey, I believe the admission of Turkey to the European Union would
be a worthwhile accomplishment. Certainly, it would help the Turkish
economy. But perhaps, more importantly, the successful assimilation
of a moderate, modern Muslim country into a vital democratic,
economic society would provide an attractive role model for other
countries to follow.

Eli Schwartz of Allentown is professor emeritus of business and
economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.