Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Turkey: a mix of the modern -- and authoritarian

(Page 2 of 2)

If the Army is less visible, it still controls the government, the press, and education. It is Turkey's President, Gen. Kenan Evren, who really calls the shots on critical decisions, although day-to-day government management is left to Ozal and his civilian team. General Evren is a popular figure who would almost certainly win a no-holds-barred election, though the military has been afraid to hold a truly democratic contest.

Skip to next paragraph

Indeed, Evren personifies the military hierarchy in his austere personal life style, his honesty, and his equal distaste for urban leftists and right-wing Islamic extremists. The President's credo could be his terse statement five years ago that ``There will be no more riots and disorder in Turkey -- period.'' He has kept that promise.

When Evren tours the countryside, he delivers paternal lectures to the peasants, sternly admonishing them against veiling their girls, since, as he says, ``A girl needs to see correctly, to hear, to smell. . . . This is necessary to her development.'' Though scarcely a revolutionary message by Western standards, Evren is nevertheless met with polite skepticism in remote areas of eastern Turkey.

Military relations with the press typify the ambiguities of human rights in a society that is in some respects Western, but has never enjoyed a stable democratic tradition. Unlike the news media in truly oppressive fascist or communist regimes, the Turkish press does not merely cheerlead for the government, nor is it subject to much direct censorship. Criticism of the civilian government is allowed, but the military is held to be sacrosanct. Former politicians considered responsible for the pre-1980 ana rchy, such as ex-Premier Suleyman Demirel, cannot be quoted by name, but instead must to referred to by phrases such as ``a well-placed observer.''

For Europeans and Americans long accustomed to the give-and-take of a democratic society, such restrictions are difficult to bear, as are continued trials of political dissidents. Western intellectual luminaries, such as Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter, have even gone to Istanbul in an effort to protest continued human rights violations by Turkish authorities. Typically, the two men vented their outrage solely to the international press, partly because of fears among Turkish journalists of confronting t he military, but also because of the fierce nationalistic pride that runs through the soul of nearly every Turk. As one Turkish journalist, long critical of human rights abuses, fumed, ``I am sure that these men have problems in their own country with Negro rights and other issues instead of trying to attack our country.'' To Western complaints of torture in Turkish prisons (such as beating prisoners on the soles of their feet), most Turks shrug their shoulders and reply, ``It was even worse before the mili tary.''

Such mutual miscomprehension is typical of the vast cultural divide that has always separated the West from Asia Minor. Indeed, Westerners are naive if they think the Turkish people can proceed much faster toward democratization without endangering the balance the military has struck between urban left and traditionalist right. What Americans should hope for from this vital ally is that Ozal's economic reforms will emulate those of Franco's Spain by providing the financial wherewithal for a future democ racy.

Kevin Michel Cap'e is a French-American writer who visited Turkey earlier this year.