French Secularism Dies in the Middle East
Published on: July 31, 2011
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  • Luke Lea

    Is Turkey bedeviled by the same sorts of tribal and clan loyalties we see in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc.? What are the consanguineous marriage rates?

  • Jason P. Toups

    Dear Prof. Mead,

    Thank you for writing this post. I learned a lot about the history of secularism in the Middle East, and I never knew any of it before. I was just on the Yale Globalist Magazine summer trip to Turkey, and I learned a lot about the complexities of the Turkish AK Party.

    I have found that American media does not characterize the AK Party in the way that many Turks view the party, and that has always saddened me. However, I believe this post paints an accurate and informed picture of Turkey (at least from my humble perspective), and I commend you for that.

    I particularly liked this paragraph:

    “In order to challenge the Kemalist order in Turkey the AK Party had to demonstrate that it could succeed at core Kemalist objectives: making the economy grow, making Turkey respected around the world, moving the country closer to European standards on critical issues. The AK Party is popular precisely because it has not forced voters to chose between modern standards and Islamic piety.”

  • WigWag

    “God only knows what comes next.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    G-d may be the only one who actually knows what comes next, but mere mortals like us can make some educated guesses.

    The Turks are becoming increasingly hostile to the West; it’s obvious from all the recent polling of the Muslim world that has taken place and it’s obvious from Erdogan’s rhetoric and his behavior. Why Professor Mead thinks this is something to celebrate is mystifying.

    While the West is trying to forge a consensus on dealing with Iran, the Turks are cozying up to the Iranians. When the United States asked to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq, Turkey demurred. When the West asks Turkey to help moderate the behavior of the Turkish Cypriots, instead, Turkey riles them up and continues its military occupation of the island. When the West decides that Hamas should be isolated, Turkey offers Hamas rhetorical support and is happy to serve as a staging ground for flotillas designed to assist the terrorist group.

    How long will it be before Turkey leaks NATO secrets, war plans and even the specs for military hardware to the Iranians or Chinese?

    Now that the Turkish military is falling under the control of the Islamist AKP shouldn’t the United States be contemplating the expulsion of Turkey from NATO? Are nuclear weapons stored at Incirlik Air Base safe? According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, over 90 tactical as well as strategic nuclear weapons are housed at the Turkish base. Can Erdogan, Gul and their fellow Islamists be trusted to safeguard these weapons?

    Just a few days ago, Professor Mead proposed a test that he called “the five pillars of anti-Semitism.” Does Professor Mead believe that Erdogan, Gul and most of their followers would pass or fail his test?

    Of course with the demise of the secularist military and the ascendency of the Islamists in Turkey, not everything will change.

    Under both the secularists and the Islamists, Turkey continues to be a serial genocide denier. At the same time that Germany is doing everything it can to make amends with the Jews, the Turks have done nothing to acknowledge their murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians.

    Turkey continues to treat its ethnic minorities poorly. Under both the secularists and the Islamists, the Alevi are treated like second class citizens. Even worse, the Kurds are treated as if they are subhuman. How many Kurds have the Turks killed in the last quarter century? Despite lip service paid by Erdogan to reform, aren’t Kurds in Dyakibbir and other Kurdish strongholds still forbidden to speak their native language even in their own schools?

    Professor Mead mentions the French and their colonial history. It seems to me that the French, have done everything they could to assist their former colonies in places like Algeria, Lebanon and even Haiti. What have the Turks done to assist their former colonies and help them grow and develop?

    The American Interest is running an interesting blog about Kosovo (it’s called “Conflicts in the Corners”) The Ottoman Turks turned Kosovo into an economic backwater; what are they doing to help Kosovo enter the 21st century? To ask the question is to answer it; they’re doing nothing.

    As Turkey abandons the West and morphs from friend of the United States to an American enemy, it’s hard to see what there is to celebrate.

    One other mistake I think Professor Mead makes is to try to find an equivalency between Roman Catholicism in France and Islam in Turkey.

    As Professor Mead surely knows there is nothing in either Jewish or Christian scripture that calls for Muslims to be treated poorly (how could there be, the Jewish and Christian scriptures pre date the development of Islam by centuries). The Koran on the other hand is chock full of anti-Semitic and anti-Christian sura. Anyone who doubts it should look up an online version of the Koran and then search for the words “Jews” or “Christians.” The results are not pretty.

    A revanchist Turkey is most certainly not something to be happy about. That is unless you are looking forward to another round of competition, animosity and even warfare between Islam and the West.

  • Neville

    In some ways the Arabs, as you describe them here, are turning out to pose difficulties similar to those presented to our ancestors by native Americans.

    The Arabs have an ancient culture, but it appears durably resistant to economic development or integration, and generates sporadic, ongoing and often indiscriminate outbreaks of violence against its neighbors, regardless of the fact that at least some of those neighbors possess the power to destroy it if sufficiently provoked. The hostility of younger Arabs in particular has been difficult to negotiate with, because their formal leaders frequently claim not to have been aware of approaching violent acts, and this has often in fact been the truth.

    Our ancestors never found a way of dealing with native American cultures that lived up to their own ideals, and as a result the bulk of whatever those cultures may have had to offer did not survive. Many Americans today are taught to despise their ancestors for that reason, but it is not clear that our generation will prove able in the end to find superior answers.

  • Kenny

    Nicely said, Wig Wag.

    A Turkey hostile to the West will eventually lead to its grief.

    And the jury is still out on whether Islam has been sucessfully ‘house trained’ or not in Turkey as Prof. Mead’s post implies.

  • Person of Choler

    “Religion was a backward looking force that left to itself would plunge Turkey back into impotence and superstition.”

    We’ll be finding out in due course if this assumption is correct or not.

  • Mike C

    In the United States… (t)he tax system provides an indirect subsidy for both religious and philanthropic activity; charitable contributions reduce the basis of income counted for tax purposes.

    Dr. Mead, you’re too smart to fall for this line of statist hoohaw. In the U.S. system, a tax deduction is NOT a subsidy in any way, shape, manner, or form; it simply allows people to keep more of what is rightfully theirs to begin with. How do we know? Because: at the founding of the republic, there was no direct federal tax on incomes. We did fine without it, I might add.

    (since nobody really knows what the Arab world can do to succeed)

    1. Stop fighting Israel.
    2. Allow the lending of money for interest.
    3. Provide an enforceable framework of private property rights.
    4. Stop fighting Israel.

    Just a thought, or 3 or 4….

    Cheers –
    Mike C

  • The difficulty stems from looking for a formula. When the best formula is to leave the people alone, see they are undisturbed (civil order), and see what happens.

    The problem is with “see what happens”. That does not lead to a directed outcome. It does not even lead to a predictable outcome.

    Americans mostly get it and the rest of them are coming around. Hopefully, it is becoming clearer elsewhere too.

  • Mike

    Echoing Luke Lea’s comment above, it seems to me that a lot of the difference between the Turkish experience with Western-style secularism vs. the Arab experience can be explained by the heavy influence of tribalism in Arab culture. David Pryce-Jones’ “A Closed Circle” does a good job of explaning this, as does Sam Huntington in his “Clash of Civilizations.” Prof. Huntington provides a helpful description when he says that Western cultures can be plotted as “U”-shaped graphs, with the y-axis standing for importance given to a certain idea and the x-axis having three points, left to right: (1) “individual/nuclear family”, (2) “tribe/extended family”, and (3) “nation.” Thus, Western cultures place a lot of importance on (1) and (3), with (2) being relatively unimportant. Arab cultures, on the other hand, have an inverted-“U” shape, with (2) being the most important and (1) and (3) having virtually no importance. (This inverted-“U” perspective goes a long way towards explaining the phenomenon of honor killing in the Arab world: the individual victim’s rights pale in comparison to the shame that the victim allegedly created for the tribe.)

  • Typo — you mean WWI.

    I would suggest that the thing that stopped success of the “Franco-Kemalist model” in Arab countries was that the Arabs adopted two (bad) ideas that Ataturk never fell for — socialism and the Marxist-Leninist imperialism theory.
    As to socialism they have finally run out of money (food prices and subsidies have a lot to do with what’s going on in the Arab world)and the imperialism theory leads to hostility towards the successful and an endless obsession with The Enemy.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      No typo.

  • Richard

    As Ramadan begins and the Islamic world starts its month of fasting . . . . Not the whole truth: Fasting is required from sunrise to sunset, so not a “month of fasting.” Of course, some Muslims choose indeed fast as required, but there are many fasting caveats, so it al depends on what you mean by “fasting.” And, commonly there is feasting after sunset – gorging even – which mitigates that whatever “fasting” occurs during the daylight hours.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Quibbling about widely accepted word usage is a waste of time.

  • “They not only defeated the western allies after World War Two even as Britain and France divided the Arab possessions of the Ottoman Empire into dependencies and colonies.”


    • Peter Mellgard

      Patrick – you’re right, it’s changed.

  • Andrew in Toronto

    No typo.

    Would you mind explaining the World War Two part of this quote then?

    Atatürk and his followers achieved results that electrified the Middle East. They not only defeated the western allies after World War Two even as Britain and France divided the Arab possessions of the Ottoman Empire into dependencies and colonies.

  • G.R. Mead

    No relation — as far as I know…

    I am more intrigued by the seeming counter-revolution in faith as it concerns the peoples of the region. This man
    certainly has that aim in view. Our government’s policies seem to ignore that dimension of the conflict — and seem to assume the French secularist pose you rightly note is already in rampant failure across the region.

    These Muslim gentlemen a decade ago seemed to fear a surge of religious disaffection with Islam in North Africa, specifically, (mostly private for obvious reasons)

    Whether the numbers they discuss were exaggerated (probably), with subsequent events in perspective (the scholar in question was based in Libya) the matter takes on a markedly different cast.

    The severe Christian repressions in Egypt both just before and continuing after the removal of the Mubarak regime suggest this desperation is focused on a religious threat of palpable dimension to the Islamist worldview. The repression is certainly outscaled to the small number of professed Christians actually there, but perhaps not if the number of secret conversions of the heart among the people of the region has become sizeable enough to create real fear. The professed body of Christians thus becomes the surrrogate for the unknown but feared number of secret converts or merely open hearts in the population at large.

    A recent study at Rensselaer said showed that if 10% of a population stand for a firm position, the population as a whole quickly begins to conform to or adopt those positions.

    Islam’s famously deadly enforcement of conformity may thus be an admission of severe weakness and not a source of strength after all.

    Fr. Zakaria Boutros is recently returned to the air after a hiatus of about 18 months. He does Christian evangelism over the air to the ubiquitous satellite dishes — mostly by teaching what the Koran actually says to the Arabs, and asking if they really believe that — rather than just the parts the imam wishes to give on any given Friday …

    That subversive undercurrent to the Islamist program, with anything like the numbers assumed by the scholars in the interview ten years ago — would certainly add a dash of real desperation to the Islamist vision,…

    I wonder what you may think of that aspect
    of current trends.

  • Richard

    The invocation of reverence for “Ramadan fasting” is a media meme – a rote genuflection to the dominant Saudi/Wahhabi hegemonic orthodoxy, which conforms to the diktat of what the the Muslim author Stephan Schwartz calls the “Wahhabi Lobby.”

    In a seemingly innocuous phrase, it blinks and overrides the beliefs and practices of traditional Muslims who practice in accord with a more ancient interpretations of the Koran’s doctrines that pre-existed the unification of the Saudi crown with the reforming Wahhabi clerics. The meme serves to indoctrinate the uninformed politically – correct secularists, who would never dare mention the Christian fasting months of Lent and Advent, or Jewish fasting for Yom Kippur.

    If that is “quibbling” with mere “word usage”, amen.

  • Robert

    “In the United States, the government takes no religious position and endorses no faith”

    Horse cookies.

  • Anthony

    Turkey (Kemalist/AKP) has since WWII been guided by military in both society and politics utilizing model described by WRM as French Secularism; however as implied, that era has past and now AKP oversees secular state founded in 1923 trying to weld ideological forces to 21st century trends.

    “Istanbul is an apt metaphor for Turkey: at once multifacted, diverse, and unitary: Byzantine, Ottoman, Asiatic, and European; modern and traditional; parochial and cosmopolitan; Muslim and Christian, even Jewish.” That background suggests spectre of Islamism, ethnic minorities, Kurdish nationalism, etc inferred in WRM’s exposition – forces vying to replace French Secularism as underlying social order.

    Turkey has come a long way since emancipating itself from its Ottoman legacy. The political order established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and in the hands of AKP has balanced U.S. interest with regional interests (Cyprus/Iraq) while doing so is never easy (Turkey shares hundreds of miles of border with Syria and Iran). Conceding that Turkey’s democratic changes are far from complete, Recep Erdogan and Abdullah Gul recognize economic interests as well as regional defensive strategy mitigates against Turkey turning its back on U.S. diplomacy despite “what comes next.”

  • Strong, forceful West = Secular Muslim world.

    Weak, passive West = Islam on the march.

    Add a few thousand nuclear weapons to the Muslim world and everybody loses.

  • Following GR Mead’s comment there are those who claim that people are leaving Islam in significant numbers.

    See this
    “The Internet site published an interview with Ahmad Al Qataani an important Islamic cleric who said: ‘In every
    hour, 667 Muslims convert to Christianity. Everyday, 16,000 Muslims convert to Christianity. Ever year, 6 million Muslims convert to Christianity.'”
    Here’s another set of claims and numbers (But quoting al-Qatani again)

    No idea whether these numbers are even in the ball park but there is at least one Muslim cleric who’s worried.

  • Capn Dan

    I’m afraid I don’t share the professor’s belief that the islamism currently ascendant in Turkey is capable of coexistence with a secular government. That would require a change in islamist thought and goals that is nowhere evident, in Turkey or elsewhere. Further, he states that secularism in Arab countries has failed to produce material progress, ignoring the fatal difference between Turkey and Iran/Egypt/Syria. The latter have for years been de facto or de jure dictatorships. Turkey, while far from perfect on this point, has, thanks to kemalism, provided much greater freedom for its people, as well as a rule of law that has provided the basis for technical and economic advancement.

    Bottom line: To me, this is an islamic apologist, working hard to provide cover for a movement guaranteed to move Turkey back to pre-Ataturk levels of civilization.

  • Well, Prof. Mead is very sanguine about the whole situation in Turkey and the Middle East.

    It’s almost as if there was never a creeping ruination of a country. As if no leader or government ever started out as an improvement and then went rapidly downhill.

    And yet it has happened time and time again.

    The original French Revolution is a great example of out of the frying pan into the fire. So is Nazi Germany. So is today’s Cuba, today’s Venezuela. I give these examples because they come quickly to mind.

    In fact, it happens far more often than not.

    Hey, how about the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is another good, recent example.

    And how about Iran? Somehow I don’t think the Shah (whoever would be the Shah today) would be planning to nuke anybody, but of course we’ll never know for sure.

    And as to the modern revolutions it would appear that even if the lot of some in the countries involved “improve” or become more to an individual’s liking (even if others would not consider it an improvement), in every case the USA gains an enemy.

    So, I’m not sharing the rosy outlook about any of this stuff.

  • teapartydoc

    The most attractive things about Western Civilization that helped turn the scions of other cultures toward it were the ideas of the equality of man and individual freedom. The ability to make good on one’s own, as Henry Sumner Maine called it: the move from status to contract. Progressivism has now undermined all that with a program that returns us to the age-old habit of determining how things are arranged by one form of status or another by its concentration on categories such as race gender and class. People of other cultures can see the irrationality of this turn much clearer that those blinkered by their life within an increasingly inconsistent and skewed culture, and have decided that perhaps it is not worth emulating. In this way one can say that multiculturalism can at last be congratulated for accomplishing something. Something one would hope never gets emulated, but an accomplishment nonetheless.

  • Alan

    A thought provoking article followed by a series of insightful comments. Thanks to all contributors.

    Just wondering: Is it my imagination or does the esteemed Professor Mead betray a surprisingly thin skin in his rather curt responses?

  • ahmet vardar

    I must say that, generally all the western thoughts about the political movements in Turkey are inadequate.

    Firstly, past 10 years, everyone who comes to oppose the Islamic policies of the AKP’s silenced. AKP takes control of justice, media, police force and all the school system. And now people afraid of talking about politics, female rights and situations of minorites etc.

    Because when you say someting against AKP, suddenly you find yourself as a part of a Ergenokon terrorist organization and they put you in a jail for made-up connections.

    Finally they faced down the army. And as a person live in Turkey, we’re not modernized in a good way, an ignorant and islamic generation rises, people in western governments should carefully examine the situations going on here, because here is not the same secular country anymore.

    ahmet from turkey, istanbul

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Islamic culture is moribund, and what we are witnessing are its death throes. The Arab Spring was inspired by Democracy, The Rule of Law, and Free Enterprise in Iraq, just as the US intended, not by Islam. The Military attack on Iraq was a diversion; the real attack was a cultural attack on the entire Islamic culture. It’s the purple fingers, the corrupt going to prison, and tyrants being hung that has inspired the revolts. Most revolts fail, and some new tyrant takes over, but the national culture will have learned and there will be another revolt further down the road. Cultures evolve at glacial speeds, and yet thousands of times faster than genetic evolution, patience is necessary. We should simply be happy and proud that we are now seeing movement in the frozen, and stagnate Islamic cultures.
    As for the French, they may have a Western Culture, but it is much inferior to the most successful Human Culture, American Culture derived from British Culture.
    “There’s no arguing with success”
    Its evolution, when a superior culture meets an inferior culture, the inferior culture changes, this is known as good luck. LOL

  • Luke Lea

    Speaking of unreconstructed Islam, though there is nothing funny about it I couldn’t help but chuckle at the headline.

  • Nate Whilk

    Alan August 1, 2011 at 3:41 pm wrote,

    “Just wondering: Is it my imagination or does the esteemed Professor Mead betray a surprisingly thin skin in his rather curt responses?”

    Just wondering: is it my imagination or did you betray a surprisingly one-sided viewpoint in your omission of another more probable alternative: he’s really busy and sees no need to waste words?

  • The story of AtaTurk modernizing Turkey is like the Rumi’s story when “a crow wanted to walk as sexy as a partridge …” , Turkey defently have failed to achieve nither a scholar nor a free socitey , if you look at the muslems of turkey they are the most anti-semetic muslems of them middle east , and after 80 years of clashing non-Turk ethnics Kurds, Armenians, they have failed to provide other ethnics rights .
    The story of Turkey is the Crow that wanted to look like a Partidge .

    There is a very big diffrence between Being Secular and Looking Secular .some may think just because in turkey you can drink and dance and , then it is free society ,but controversy it is pretty close backward going country with second largest prison for journalists in the region . (after Iran)

  • carvaka

    so which model india follows?

    by the way, is pakistan a part of middle east ? geographically surely it is not. i suppose you mean ideologically.

  • Claire Berlinski says the Turks have appointed the head of the Military Police to command its forces. It seems they are expecting internal security to be a more serious problem than external threats.

    Very bad news.

  • Due the to current Burqa ban in France, Various Ninja clans throughout the country are complaining that their traditional garb(similar to a burqa) is now under fire. It’s really causing some issues there!!!

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