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Turkey emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I ( 1914 – 1918 ). Unlike most Middle Eastern countries, Turkey won its independence soon after the war and quickly developed into a modernized state based on Western political models. However, tensions between the secular government and citizens calling for a stronger Islamic presence in the nation continue to the present day.

Slightly larger than Texas, Turkey bridges the continents of Europe and Asia. It lies along three major bodies of water—the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea—and has the strategic Bosporus Strait running through it. Turkey shares borders with Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The country's mountainous terrain includes Mount Ararat, the supposed landing place of Noah's Ark. Its population consists of members of the Turkish ethnic group (80 percent) and Kurds (20 percent). Nearly all Turks practice Islam, with fewer than one half of one percent following Judaism or Christianity.

From the Ottomans to Atatürk

Asia Minor (modern Turkey) became part of the Islamic world in 1071 , when Seljuk Turks conquered the Byzantines. The Ottomans succeeded the Seljuks in the early 1300s and slowly assumed control of most of the Middle East. Although the Ottoman Empire included significant numbers of Christians and Jews, Muslims dominated the government and the military.

Waning of Ottoman Power.

The Ottoman Empire reached its peak in the mid-1500s but was hampered by severe economic problems and corruption. It had a weak central government, and local officials concerned themselves more with making a profit than with governing effectively. Crippling local taxes drove farmers from the land, sending them to the cities, where they suffered from food shortages and overcrowding. Guilds and local religious associations were forced to assume many of the responsibilities ignored by the government.

In the 1700s, European powers recognized and took advantage of the Ottoman Empire's relative weakness. The Ottomans lost much of their territory in southeastern Europe. In the late 1700s, disastrous wars against Russia and other powers brought the empire close to collapse. This crisis led to a series of major government reforms called the Tanzimat (Reorganization). Aimed at increasing efficiency and reducing corruption, the Tanzimat introduced Western-style governmental institutions, such as a parliament, that increased the power of the central government. It also opened the way to legal equality of non-Muslims and Muslims.

Ottoman Collapse and Independence.

The years following the Tanzimat saw increasing Western influence and modernization in the empire. This angered many Turks, who called for a return to Islamic values. In 1878 Sultan Abdulhamid II disbanded the parliament and established a repressive regime that relied on secret police and censorship. In the early 1900s, a group called the Young Turks rose up, overthrew the sultan, and restored the constitutional government. They held their power only briefly, however, as they joined the group of countries that lost in World War I. With the defeat of the Central Powers in 1918 , the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Over the next five years, Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal fought the victorious Allied forces and the Greeks to establish an independent Turkish state. By 1923 Mustafa Kemal, who became known as Atatürk (Father of Turkey), had driven out all foreign forces and established the Turkish Republic. Atatürk believed that the new state could only prosper with the adoption of secular and modern reforms. He abolished the caliphate and sultanate in favor of an elected president and legislature.

Changing Role of Islam

During the Ottoman Empire, Sunni Islam served as the faith of the ruling classes. Sufi orders attracted popular support as mystical nomads spread Islam throughout the countryside. Sufis bestowed magical protection on the army and adorned new sultans with swords. However, the Sunni ulama surpassed the Sufi teachers in influence, especially during the 1800s when Western influence in the empire increased. Because the Sufis opposed European customs, the sultans viewed them as an obstacle to modernization. Sultan Mahmud II (ruled 1808 – 1835 ) appointed the leading members of the Sunni clergy to government offices. He also took control of mosque funding and Sufi orders to halt opposition to his policies.

Although the sultans took steps to secularize the nation, they continued to promote Islam, portraying themselves as the caliphs of all Muslims. Atatürk cited the Muslim heritage of the region as a reason for fighting for Turkey's independence. When the Turkish Republic came into existence in 1923 , he continued to support the private expression of faith, although he also worked to remove religious control over state policies.

Sweeping Reforms.

Had his political rivals not used Islam to challenge his leadership, Atatürk might not have moved so swiftly to secularize Turkish society. However, the attempt of Caliph Abdulmecid to take power jolted Atatürk into action. In 1924 Atatürk eliminated the position of caliph, placed all schools under state control, and created a ministry to oversee matters of religious dogma and ritual.

The following year, Turkey's Kurdish minority rebelled. The government launched an intense period of reforms that lasted four years. During this time, Atatürk removed religion completely from political life. He outlawed dervish orders and public mystical devotional meetings. A new civil code based on Swiss law replaced Islamic law (shari'ah), and Islam lost its place as the official state religion.

Atatürk also worked to secularize Islamic society. To make Turkish men look more European, he banned the fez, a head covering introduced by Mahmud II in 1826 as an improvement on the turban. The Hat Law ( 1925 ) made the wearing of the fez a criminal offense and led to widespread rioting. Atatürk also exhorted women to remove their veils. He supported education for women and held dances to integrate the sexes. By 1935 Turkish women had gained the vote, and 17 women had entered the Turkish parliament. Concerned with high illiteracy rates, Atatürk replaced the elaborate Arabic script used by the Ottomans with Latin letters. He referred to this action as an effort to free Turkey “from these incomprehensible signs that for centuries have held our minds in an iron vice.”

Atatürk did not seek to stamp out religion, but merely to remove it from national politics. In fact, the state sponsored and promoted religious groups and activities. It encouraged Friday prayer at mosques to build a sense of community. The government wrote the sermons to inform the public that their religious obligations included such duties as military service, paying taxes, and serving the government obediently. Atatürk also introduced religious instruction into military training to stimulate a sense of loyalty and discipline.

Growing Influence of the Military.

The Turkish leaders who came to power after Atatürk's death in 1938 displayed more sympathy for Islam. In the 1940s, religious education returned to schools, and the tombs of saints were reopened. Islamists sought a voice in government, along with Sufi orders that had remained influential despite years of secular policies. Although Atatürk had made great changes within the government and cities, his reforms had barely touched the countryside. When the Sufis tried to demand more power, however, the government punished them and jailed their leaders. The orders then joined various political parties, which used the orders to spread their messages.

In 1960 conflicts between the Democrat Party and their rivals led to a political crisis. With the civilian leaders unable to agree on a government, the military took control. This was the first of several military coups in modern Turkish history. The military regime created a new constitution that granted the Turks more rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to hold strikes. It quickly returned power to civilians, but remained ready to step in if religious tensions again threatened political chaos.

The National Order Party (MNP), Turkey's first openly Islamic party, came into existence in the late 1960s. Banned by a military regime that seized power in 1970 , it reappeared under a different name only to be abolished again in 1980 . The MNP's leader, Necmettin Erbakan, bounced back to form a new party called the Welfare Party (RP). In 1996 the RP joined with secular parties to form a coalition government with Erbakan as prime minister. Once again, the military intervened. Worried about the party's Islamic roots, the army pressured Erbakan's main political ally to abandon him. This forced the creation of a new government. Many Turks grew concerned that the military had gained too much control over the country.

Current Issues.

Despite the hardships facing Islamic political parties, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a parliamentary majority in 2002 , gaining control over the government. Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan assured Turkish citizens that the AKP would fight for human rights and freedoms. To further this goal, he pushed for Turkey's membership in the European Union (EU). The EU, however, denied the nation membership in part because of the large role the military plays in state decisions.

Despite this humiliation, Turkey generally enjoys a strong relationship with the West. Unlike other Middle Eastern states, it maintains friendly relations with Israel. It serves as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and has provided a base for Western military troops during several wars. Turkey has, however, attracted criticism from the West for its treatment of its Kurdish minority. When Turkey became a state, it refused to give up territory to the Kurds despite an earlier agreement that promised the Kurds a homeland. The Kurdish people revolted against Turkey three times between 1925 and 1938 , but the Turks retaliated with aerial bombardments and poison gas. In response to Kurdish terrorist attacks in 1992 , the Turks killed more than 20,000 Kurds, sending millions into exile.

Turkey faces complaints of human rights abuses among its Turkish population, as well. Prisoners have frequently complained about the use of torture in the justice system. Many Muslims also feel that they lack freedom of religion. In 1998 the National Board of Higher Education banned head scarves for female students, keeping women in veils from attending classes, taking exams, and graduating. This move angered many Muslims and symbolizes the ongoing tension between orthodox Muslims and the secular government in Turkey. See also Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal; Istanbul; Ottoman Empire; Secularism; Seljuk Dynasty.

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