Turkey has always been an object of fascination for Catholics. The reason for this is simple. As Pope Benedict put it, when still Cardinal Ratzinger: “Turkey is in permanent contrast to Europe.” Turkey represents the other: civilisation without Christianity, a Muslim culture. Any visitor to Istanbul senses this immediately: it is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and one of the world’s great maritime cities, but it is radically different from, let us say, Naples or Barcelona. Its beauty sprang from a different root. This is something that Pope Benedict grasped and which so many of our politicians simply do not get. Religion makes a difference, because it influences culture from its roots upwards. It is not some sort of icing sugar sprinkled over the surface of the cake.
The Ottoman Empire was unlike any Christian empire. The Sultan was also the Caliph: he was both pope and emperor. He appointed the religious authorities in his empire, both Islamic and Christian. There was no separation between the spiritual and the political; indeed the spiritual was the political. Moreover, the will of the Sultan was absolute in a way that a European monarch could only dream of. Personal power, even whim, trumped law. Thus the history of Turkey has been marked by the intervention of strong men and some strong women too. Coup has followed coup. Quite often these coups took place within the confines of the palace, where power was concentrated. Consider, for example, the career of the redoubtable Kősem, who brought to power and removed several Sultans, until she herself at last received a taste of her own medicine, and was strangled in 1651. This sort of thing was still going on as late as 1909, though on that occasion the Sultan was merely imprisoned not strangled.
Modern Turkey, the state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, retained the custom of forceful personal rule, namely that of Ataturk himself and his successor Inonu, who pushed through secularising reforms despite popular opposition. These reforms were backed by military power, and in 1960 when the mildly Islamic prime minister Adnan Menderes seemed intent of challenging Kemalism, the army staged a coup. Menderes was deposed and then hanged, along with two of his cabinet.
It cannot be but that the current Turkish leader, Mr Erdogan, often thinks of the fate of Mr Menderes, whose successor he in so many ways is. If the coup had succeeded, his fate would surely have been the same. Now the counter-coup is underway, which is in many ways a reworking of the “Auspicious Event” of 1826, which saw the suppression of the over-powerful Janissaries. Mr Erdogan is making sure that he will never ever face the same fate as Menderes. Mr Erdogan is frequently described as paranoid, but given the history of Turkey this is not altogether surprising.
The current situation does not represent a great change in Turkish politics, rather it represents more of the same, and is in continuity with Turkish and Ottoman history. Once more, let us remember the words of Pope Benedict – a permanent contrast to Europe. From this we can draw conclusions. An Islamic culture has presuppositions about politics, state institutions, human rights and the exercise of personal will which stand in strong contrast to those held in Europe. Turkey may have adopted some of the outward signs of European life, such as the Latin alphabet, and it may have made the wearing of the fez illegal, but these are cosmetic changes. A Muslim culture remains very different from a Christian one. Naturally Catholics are fascinated by Turkey, for it shows us what might have been, an alternative to the culture we have.