ANKARA — “The main obstacle to democracy is not Islam, but Kemalism,” says Atilla Yayla, the unassuming head of Turkey’s Association for Liberal Thinking. Turkey is a critically important country, but also an amazingly complicated and frustrating one. And while it has done better than most other Muslim countries in mixing Islam and secularism, as a democracy it remains a work in progress.

Turkey today is suffering political instability, with the illness of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. It is still recovering from the economic crisis of the last two years. And it is at a geopolitical epicenter: eastern Mediterranean, Mideast and South Asia.

Ankara’s future is still in play, as contending factions battle over joining the European Union. Ankara is a nominal democracy, with regular elections. Yet the military holds ultimate power, upending governments and dissolving political parties. This frustrates Turks who are liberal, in a classical sense, supporting individual liberty, economic freedom and political democracy. Professor Soli Ozel at Istanbul’s Bilgi University commented sardonically, “They have the bayonets and we don’t.”

Turkey’s reigning ideology is statism, embodied in the nation’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. “Kemalism is treated like a religion,” says Yayla, also a university professor. It is hard to find a room in Turkey without Ataturk’s photo; his overpowering, square-block memorial in Ankara is a shrine. Dissent is highly constrained. Criticism of the military and individual generals is simply banned. Criticism of other officials can be almost as dangerous.

A magazine published by Yayla’s Association for Liberal Thinking criticized a Supreme Court ruling kicking religious conservatives out of politics. The ALT’s publisher, Liberte Publication, and the author found themselves subject to a lawsuit and now face ruinous damages.

Academia offers no security. Ozel speaks of “immense pressure by the government” because the private university is seen as having “too many leftists and liberals, allowing women to wear head scarves and talking about the Kurds.”

The government also controls the economy, creating a class of businessmen dependent on political subsidies; one cause of Turkey’s recent economic crisis is a state banking system that lost billions while shoveling money to favored interests.

Ankara has begun to reform. “They’ve dug themselves halfway out,” observed Scot Marciel, an economic counselor at the U.S. Embassy. But in his view Ankara still needs to privatize state enterprises and eliminate barriers to foreign investment. Unfortunately, “you don’t really have a political party that represents economic liberalization,” complains Mustafa Sayinatac of Cargill.

All of these problems run back to Turkey’s overarching philosophy of government. Gokhan Capoglu, a former member of Parliament and now professor at Bilkent University, argues that “we have to achieve a liberal democracy. I’m speaking of the rule of law, separation of powers, accountability to the rules.”

More fundamentally, suggests Yayla, “Without dismantling Kemalism, I don’t think there can be a real democracy, a real market economy.” Democracy is important, but more basic is liberalism, with its commitment to human dignity and freedom. Ozel says there are “liberal people in most every political party,” though no party has yet taken up the reform cause. Liberal-minded Turks tend to look outside for help, to both the EU and America.

But European pressure could easily spark a nationalist counter-reaction in Ankara. As for Washington, warns Capoglu: An open endorsement would risk “making the same mistake as in other countries,” when people ended up “associating the U.S. with unpopular governments.”

Moreover, a domestic constituency is necessary for reform. Which the Association for Liberal Thinking hopes to create. Yayla emphasizes that “we are not for political parties but for liberal politics.” Indeed, ALT has “contact with members of all parties,” including “the Islamic-oriented. They like us because they know we respect their rights.”

Headquartered in a small, four-bedroom suite in a central Ankara neighborhood, ALT (www.liberal-dt.org.tr) employs five staffers. Formally organized in 1994, ALT seeks to spread market liberal thought, publishing books and magazines, hosting forums and seminars, and working with like-minded groups around the world.

“Anything you do is risky,” says Yayla. But “if you are too cautious, you can’t do anything.”

Turkey’s potential is vast. Strategically located and filled with entrepreneurial people, it could become a regional powerhouse between Europe, the Mideast and Caspian Basin. It could also provide the model for Islamic peoples to retain their culture while adapting to modernity and enjoying human liberty. But to fulfill that role Ankara must move away from its authoritarian past.

Turkey may be more democratic “than any other Islamic country,” observes Yayla, but that’s not nearly enough. “We want freedom, peace and the rule of law.” That is a prescription for an abundant future for Turkey and its neighbors.

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