Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds, by Stephan Kinzer, published 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pp plus index, hard cover – $25.00, paperback – $14.00
Turkey straddles the Bosphorus, part in Europe, part in Asia, a crucial player in world politics. It sits beside the tumultuous nations of the Middle East: above it loom the Black Sea and the nations of the former Soviet Union and East Europe. It cannot divorce itself from Asia and the Middle East, nor from its Muslim heritage, yet it is a secular nation striving to maintain that secularism amidst increasing currents of religious fanaticism swirling around it.
At the end of World War I Germany and its ally, the Ottoman Empire, lay defeated. All Turkish territory in Europe went to Greece. Istanbul was placed under international control. What is now Syria was ceded to France; the Turkish Mediterranean coast fell to Italy. The Kurds in eastern Turkey were offered separate status, as were the Armenians. The Turkish people rallied around the one Turkish commander, Mustafa Kemal, who had obtained a major battlefield victory during the war. Led by Kemal, they drove out the occupying powers and reclaimed Istanbul, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Though the Kurds were reincorporated into the Turkish state, Albania remained a separate country.
Kemal took the name Atatürk (father of the Turks) and was thenceforth known as Kemal Atatürk. The Ottoman Empire was signed out of existence and the National Assembly declared Turkey a republic in 1923, with Atatürk as its president. With the abolishment of the Muslim caliphate in 1924, Turkey, which was – and is – 90 percent Muslim, became a secular state. Schools became secular, Turkish began to be written using Latin rather than Arabic characters, the veil was forbidden for women, polygamy was banned, the European calendar replaced the Muslim one, Muslim women were permitted to marry non Muslims, and adults gained the right to change their religion. In short, there took place a veritable revolution led by Atatürk. Since his death in 1938 he has became a national hero; the cult that grew up around him is known as Kemalism.
In accordance with its present constitution, ratified in a referendum in the mid-’80s, Turkey is governed by a National Security Council, made up of five elected officials (president, prime minister and the ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs) and five generals. Civil governments led by weak and unstable coalitions have, with few exceptions, been unable to govern with direction and purpose. The entrenched military holds sway and has ruled either openly or clandestinely since 1923.
Kinzer explores many crises through which Turkey has passed: the massacre of the Armenians in 1915, the Kurdish struggle in the late ’90s, the devastating 1999 earthquake, the frictional relations with Greece. Kinzer describes them as deeply impacting the Turkish soul and culture – in much the way the Revolutionary War and the Civil War with its struggle over segregation and racism impact every American, native or foreign born.
Turkey today faces a number of problems. There is the division between Turks and Kurds, and the conflict over the place of religion in public life. Within the Muslim community there is a split between the dominant Sunni majority and the Alexis, who comprise about a quarter of the Turkish people and practice a form of Islam that is far more heterodox and democratic than that practiced by the Sunnis. Over and above these, the dominance of the military is the primary obstacle to a functioning Turkish democracy.
To understand Turkey, so crucial in today’s world’s scene, read this gem of a book; you will not be disappointed.
– Julia Lutsky
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