“Turkey Is Not Iran”: Middle East Experts in the 1979 Moment

By Alp Yenen

“Turkey is not Iran” is the title of Metin Heper’s 1981 book review of C.H. Dodd’s Democracy and Development in Turkey (N. Humberside: Eothen Press, 1979). The title is actually a quotation from Dodd’s conclusion that claims Turkey’s advanced institutionalism “makes an Islamic resurgence … less likely.”[1] Regardless of the differences between Turkey and Iran, the former can no longer be overlooked in the regional wave of contentious politics and regime changes—what Amir Moosavi calls the “1979 moment.”[2] With at least 5,000 people killed, the death toll during Turkey’s unappreciated “civil war” between radical leftist and far right groups in the late 1970s was actually higher than of pre-revolutionary Iran.[3] The 1980 military coup that ended the so-called “anarchy” resulted in the end of the “second republic” in Turkey’s modern history.[4]

In the wake of 1979, Middle East experts and political analysts in the West expressed concern over the possible spill-over effects into Turkey of Iran’s revolutionary momentum, seeing Turkey as part of the same wave of crises that had just affected its neighbor. According to President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, there was an “arch of crisis”. This “crescent of crisis”, as Time magazine redubbed it, encompassed a vast region stretching “across the southern flank of the Soviet Union from the Indian subcontinent to Turkey, and southward through the Arabian Peninsula to the Horn of Africa.” While revolutionary Iran was the “center of gravity,” Turkey was “torn by religious unrest and social instability to the point that martial law had to be declared in 13 provinces.”[5] Meanwhile, Afghan-American political scientist Zalmay Khalilzad, who would later assist Brzezinski during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, feared the growing Soviet interference in the region, while Turkish leftists, as he dismissively noted, continued to “hope that their activities will result in a leftist military coup in the country.”[6] In the face of the crisis in Iran and the broader unrest in the region, Iran expert Shahram Chubin advised that Turkey’s Western allies should enhance Turkey’s regional role and demonstrate “sensitivity to Turkish interests,” especially regarding Cyprus.[7] Political philosopher of Turkish-Sephardic origin Seyla Benhabib noted that Turkey had two options—none better than the other. Either Turkey would fall into a sectarian revolution, like Iran, or, more likely it could “do well to follow the ‘Brazilian example’,” quoting the scandalous remarks of the British ambassador in Ankara. Hence “a right-wing junta in Turkey that promises stability” was commonly considered “attractive to Western strategists and policy-makers”.[8] Middle East expert George Lenczowski pointed out that in the last decade “Turkey has been plagued by sporadic urban guerrilla warfare and terrorism.” Yet, to the pressing question of whether Turkey was threatened with a revolution, like Iran, he replied, “The answer should be cautiously negative—for Turkey has certain built-in safeguards that are likely to cushion it against abrupt changes.”[9]

Besides concerns about geopolitics, the Iranian Revolution opened new debates on the role of Islam in politics. On the one hand, Raphael Israeli, as well as many others who were concerned with the resurgence of Islam, regarded Turkey as part of 1979’s Islamic wave.[10] On the other hand, many journalists had arrived in Turkey after the Revolution in Iran in expectation of the next mass uprising of Muslims.[11] However, not everybody was so sure of the potential of an Islamic movement in Turkey. “Sixty years of enforced Turkish secularization,” as political scientist Dwight James Simpson reminded readers in January 1980, have “produced the effect [that] Atatürk intended.”[12] Kemalist secularism as a success model of modernization theory was assuring political analysts that Turkey could ward off the threat of Islamism. One of the leading modernization theorists and a Turkey expert, Dankward Rustow, ruled out the possibility of “Turkey becoming ‘another Iran’” due to institutional and structural differences. Instead, Rustow pointed out that a military intervention was more likely.[13] Another Turkey expert, George S. Harris, stated that unlike elsewhere in the Muslim world, Islam was absorbed into the political system of Turkey and, hence, no longer posed “a serious threat to the political and social fabric of the country”.[14] Moreover, Andrew Mango cautioned in a lecture on the Turkish crisis in March 1979 that “one must draw a sharp distinction between Turkey and Iran.” He underlined the strengths of institutionalism, secularism, parliamentarism, and military professionalism as well as the Turkish state’s continued control of Islamic currents. “Thus, I do not expect a Turkish Boxer Rising after the Persian one.”[15]

In the wake of the 1979 moment, there was consensus among Middle East experts that Turkey was going through a major crisis as part of a regional upheaval. Their responses, though, came mostly as replies to yes-or-no questions: Will Turkey become the next Iran? And, if so, what policy options did Western decision-makers have in order to pull Turkey back? Most forecasts—as cautiously structuralist and institutionalist they were—ended up being more or less accurate in assuming the unlikeliness of an Islamic revolution and the likeliness of a military coup in Turkey.

Quds demonstrations in Konya on September 6, 1980, a week before the military coup. Image source: Ekran Gazetesi

In the early hours of September 12, 1980, tanks indeed rolled onto Turkish streets and radios announced the military’s takeover in the face of anarchism and Islamism. Kemal Karpat, by then a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, underlined the role of the Islamist demonstrations in Konya a week before and the rising popularity of Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamic-conservative National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi) as a triggering factor in the military’s final decision for intervention.[16] Professor Feroz Ahmad was more skeptical about the alleged threat of Islamism, because “it is impossible for anyone who knows Turkey at all to take this threat seriously.” As some journalists had implied that Konya was Turkey’s Qom in reference to the Iranian city known as the epicenter of Shi‘a Islamism, Ahmad repeated the formula that Turkey was not Iran, because “Turkey’s historical development is very different from that of Iran, and Necmettin Erbakan is no Ayatollah Khomeini.”[17] Aforementioned Metin Heper critiqued the Islamic turn in the study of Middle East politics, while addressing the role of Islam in Turkey. Rather, he emphasized that due to the Ottoman tradition of state sovereignty and the success of the Kemalist cultural revolution, Turkey was “a unique case in itself.”[18]

The Turkish military coup of 1980 successfully isolated Turkey from the regional framework. As a result, in the eyes of analysts and scholars, Turkey returned to its “default settings.” Accordingly, Turkish studies also returned to its conventions. Once again, Turkey experts assured each other that Turkey was “exceptional” in the Middle East. The combined effects of the Ottoman Empire’s institutional legacy and the Kemalist determinism of top-down reforms defined Turkey’s exceptionalism. Turkey’s Western outlook in security and development proved to be far more resilient to domestic and regional challenges. The notion of military tutelage came to explain all aspects Turkish politics—for good or bad. Yet, looking back, we know that Turkish state and society had radically changed after 1980.

The military coup of September 12, 1980 marked the dark dawn of the making of “postmodern” Turkey. The destruction of the political left alienated some leading intellectuals from the revolutionary promise of Kemalism.[19] The Kemalist Republic was now increasingly considered by the leftist-liberal intelligentsia as an artificial product of modernity. Turkey’s much-appreciated secular institutions found themselves indeed increasingly inept in addressing the challenges posed by Islamist and Kurdish identity politics. In Turkish studies, the modernization theory paradigm was ultimately replaced by the post-Kemalist paradigm in the 1990s and 2000s. Ironically, the post-Kemalist turn in Turkish studies similarly subscribed to notions of Ottoman institutional legacy, Kemalist/Young Turk determinism, and military tutelage in critically deconstructing Turkey’s very same, yet mischievous, Sonderweg.[20]

For all this, the epistemological closure of the 1980 coup made it difficult to place Turkey within the 1979 moment in the Middle East. Turkey was perhaps no Iran; nevertheless, the Turkish civil war in the late 1970s and the military coup of 1980 were part of the same wave of contentious politics and regime changes that shaped the new Middle East in the post-Cold War era.



[1] Metin Heper, “Turkey Is Not Iran,” Government and Opposition a Quarterly of Comparative Politics. 16, no. 1 (1981): 125–27. The Iran reference is in C.H. Dodd, Democracy and Development in Turkey (N. Humberside: Eothen, 1979), 189.

[2] On the “1979 moment” see: “Reading the ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East – Interview with Amir Moosavi,” TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16 May 2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6705. See also: David W. Lesch, 1979: The Year that Shaped the Modern Middle East (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001); Jeremy Black, “1979: The Real Year of Revolution,” History Today 59, no. 5 (2009): 5–6; Niall Ferguson, “Forget the Fall of the Iron Curtain: The Events of ‘79 Matter More.” Newsweek 154, no. 20 (2009): 42–45; Hamit Bozarslan, “Revisiting the Middle East’s 1979,” Economy and Society 41, no. 4 (2012): 558–67; Christian Caryl, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century (New York: Basic Books, 2013); Frank Bösch, Zeitenwende 1979: Als die Welt von heute begann (München: C.H. Beck, 2019).

[3] For the death toll see: Sabri Sayari, “Political Violence and Terrorism in Turkey, 1976–80: A Retrospective Analysis,” Terrorism and Political Violence 22, no. 2 (2010): 198–215, here 201. On the nature of political violence in this “quasi-guerre civile” see: Benjamin Gourisse, La violence politique en Turquie: L’État en jeu, 1975–1980 (Paris: Éditions Karthala, 2014).

[4] Erik Jan Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History, 4th rev. ed. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017), 271.

[5] “The Crescent of Crisis: Iran and a Region of Rising Instability,” Time Magazine 113, no. 3 (January 15, 1979): 18–25.

[6] Zalmay Khalilzad, “The Superpowers and the Northern Tier.” International Security 4, no. 3 (1979): 6–30, here 16.

[7] Shahram Chubin, “The Northern Tier in Disarray.” The World Today 35, no. 12 (1979): 474–82, here 478–479.

[8] Seyla Benhabib, “The Next Iran or the Next Brazil?: Right-Wing Groups behind Political Violence in Turkey,” MERIP Reports, no. 77 (1979): 16–17, here 17.

[9] George Lenczowski, “Arc of Crisis,” Foreign Affairs 57, no. 4 (1979): 796–820.

[10] Raphael Israeli, “The New Wave of Islam,” International Journal 34, no. 3 (1979): 369–90, here 377–8.

[11] İlkay Sunar and Toprak, Binnaz. “Islam in Politics: The Case of Turkey.” Government & Opposition 18, no. 4 (1983): 421–441, here 421.

[12] Dwight James Simpson, “Turkey Moves into the 1980’s.” Current History 78 (1980): 5–8, 33–34, here 8.

[13] Dankwart A. Rustow, “Turkey’s Travails.” Foreign Affairs 58, no. 1 (1979): 82–102, here 98–99.

[14] George S. Harris, “Islam and the State in Modern Turkey,” Middle East Review 11, no. 4 (1979), 21–26, here 26.

[15] Andrew Mango, “The Multiple Crisis in Turkey,” Asian Affairs 10, no. 2 (1979): 125–131, here 131.

[16] Kemal H. Karpat, “Turkish Democracy at Impasse: Ideology, Party Politics, and the Third Military Intervention,” International Journal of Turkish Studies 2, no. 1 (1981): 1–43, here 40–41.

[17] Feroz Ahmad, “Military Intervention and the Crisis in Turkey,” MERIP Reports, no. 93 (1981): 5–24, here 10. In regards to Konya-Qom reference, Ahmad cites David Barchard, “The Religious Reactionary Who Triggered Turkey’s Army,” Manchester Guardian Weekly, 28 September 1980.

[18] Metin Heper, “Islam, Polity and Society in Turkey: A Middle Eastern Perspective.” Middle East Journal 35, no. 3 (1981): 345–363, here 347.

[19] Ahmet Samim [aka Murat Belge], “The Tragedy of the Turkish Left.” New Left Review I, no. 126 (1981): 60–85.

[20] İlker Aytürk, “Post-Post-Kemalism? Why Is Studying the Turkish Far Right More Relevant Now Than Ever?” l’Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman (EHESS – CNRS), 16 May 2018, https://soundcloud.com/iismm/post-post-kemalism-why-is-studying-the-turkish-far-right-more-relevant-now-than-ever-i-ayturk

Alp Yenen is a university lecturer at Leiden University, where he teaches courses on the political history of Turkey and the Middle East. He holds a PhD from the University of Basel and a MA from University of Munich. He has published widely on the transnational history of the end of the Ottoman Empire. He is currently working on the international history of the Turkish civil war, 1968–1982.

Citation: Alp Yenen, “Turkey Is Not Iran”: Middle East Experts in the 1979 Moment, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.12.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/21107.

Further articles in the series “The ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East” on TRAFO:

Amir Moosavi (2018), Looking Back at the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East

Behrooz Moazami (2018), The Making and Unmaking of the Moments: From the 1979 Revolution to the Arab Spring

Yvonne Albers (2018), Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif

Jihane Sfeir (2018), The Disenchantment of the Left: Two Memories of the Palestinian Struggle

Shervin Malekzadeh (2018), The Forlorn Arab as Foil in the Curriculum of Postrevolutionary Iran

Joseph Ben Prestel (2018), When Threads Wear Thin: The West German Radical Left and Palestinian Groups at the End of the 1970s

Jan-Markus Vömel (2019), Green was the Name of my Civilization: Turkish Islamism in the Late 1970s

Arash Davari (2019), Covering Iran: Leftist Continuities and Discontinuities, from Propaganda to PR







Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2019, 18. Dezember). “Turkey Is Not Iran”: Middle East Experts in the 1979 Moment. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 15. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/usv1

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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  1. 22. Mai 2020

    […] Alp Yenen (2019), “Turkey Is Not Iran”: Middle East Experts in the 1979 Moment […]

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