What is the function of a nation state? If we listen to Rousseau,
“… the general will is always in the right and inclines toward the public good” in a modern state. It finds its origins in a “contract”. A contract between the electorate and elected to serve in the good of the people at large. As nation states evolved on historical axis, democracy became another of its essential characteristics. Democracy is;
“Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them either directly or through their elected agents;… a state of society characterized by nominal equality of rights and privileges” according to Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary. But let’s listen to Alexis de Tocqueville:
“If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”
“Democracy therefore requires minority rights equally as it does majority rule. As democracy is conceived today, the minority’s rights must be protected no matter how singular or alienated that minority is from the majority society; otherwise, the majority’s rights lose their meaning.” It all boils down to the state being the servant to both the society and individual alike to provide equality in opportunity and freedom in its broadest sense to its contractors.
Historically Turkish state is a totally different story. Since its early evolution, especially after the influence of Islam, subjects (“kul”) were the servants of the ruler, the “khalifa”. The individual existed for the state, not vice versa. One might argue that was the case in feudal west as well. The underlying difference is the serfdom in the west was purely economical. And when the economical relations started to change, and with the rise of bourgeoisie, infrastructural change resulted in a totally different set of social relations between the different layers of society more easily. With the lack of industrial revolution, and a rising, independent and demanding bourgeoisie, Turkish society remained subjected to the state as a father figure who is supposed to take care of the individual or a cast in a dire situation.
Şerif Mardin states:
“the state was of greater importance to the Ottomans in comparison to the significance of the states in any other part in the region. This is why Turkey … was founded on the power of the state…”
From its birth, modern Turkey was found on “Young Turk” ideals. Influenced heavily by late 18th century thought movements in Europe, they wanted a nation state for Turks. They were also influenced by the modernization attempts in Ottoman Empire in the same period which enabled them short terms in government. This made them familiar with the executive tradition of the Ottoman state. But they had one problem: remaining lands of the Ottoman Empire lacked a homogenous “nation”. Society were divided through religious lines. Islamic law did not provide rights, it set boundaries. The boundaries which caused religious divide to became economical as well. Therefore the governing elite did not have anything in common with the economical elite to be joined in the same nation.
“The Turks’ social experience and the ethnic diversity over the past centuries have affected their understanding of religion. Religion and the state of Turkey always used to run parallel to one another. The current regime may be regarded as a continuation of the Ottoman solution in terms of the relationship between religion and the state.”
We may consider the foundation and evolution of the modern Turkey as an attempt to find that nation, and at the same time a continuous effort to preserve “Turkish” tradition of statesmanship. Asia Minor, where Turkey finds its red line of existence, was mostly clean of its Christian population by the time the country was founded. But that resulted in a great loss in economical might. Coupled by the tradition of a strong state, this vacuum was filled with state enterprises as Turkey rose as a heavily centralized state machine.
1930’s and the WW2 years were fortifications on the nation front as more oppression towards the general public and further discrimination of minorities resulted in a total climate of despair. Turkish society in general has an interesting reaction to despair. They become more obedient subjects. Only in 1950’s, when the pressures from rural landlords and the periphery in general became so ostensive, then the state loosened its grip and allowed a second party, which of course on the first elections swiped the founding party of Turkey out of the government. A new bourgeoisie started to rise on the ashes of the minorities who had been forced out of the country.
The honeymoon only lasted a decade. State machine was not ready to be overthrown by the people yet. A “coup”, tailored to the needs of CHP, the founding party of the state, by military forces resolved the issue. Then started what I call “revolutionary” years. One military intervention followed another, in ten year intervals, every single one of them calling themselves a revolution. And in every single one of them a generation of “adversaries” of the state were annihilated. Put in jail, hanged, forced to spend decades in prison and in many cases forced to escape the country. These were leftists with a wide range of ideologies at one time, communists at another. Although they never came to power or even shared a coalition government, a trademark of that period, extremists were always the culprit. State, when threatened by any hint of real democracy found its way to crush any opposition albeit imaginary.
By tradition the only exception were the Islamists. “99% of the population is muslim” was their excuse in providing a legitimate ground for harassing the population with religion for political ends. They ended up in a comfortably majority government in 2002.
Their story is subject of another article. Nevertheless, in 2010 the state in Turkey is at war with the idea of democracy. First of all, the establishment is older than the republic itself, they have invested in political tactics for over a century now. Secondly, general public opinion is on their side. The perceived protective quality of the state is hard to beat in collective subconscious, especially when worldly wealth is not a real prospect for John Doe. Even though when that state is protecting people from themselves and their welfare.
The cracking role of Turkish state as an impediment to progress is not observed to be going anywhere any time soon. There is only hope if Turkey will find itself a place among civilized nations in the minds and soul of its people.