Looking back over the decades since Ataturk and Reza Shah ruled we can see that much in way of economic development and social change has been achieved in the Middle East. Kemalist presidents, kings, and generals unified countries, and built roads, modern school systems, and hospitals. But those authoritarian regimes also often lost their way, succumbing to the temptation of despotism, and in the process growing corrupt. The leviathans they created also stifled market forces and hindered true economic change.
Top-down modernization had its limits. States can do things faster and more efficiently than markets, but only to get things moving; they are notoriously bad at managing economies once they are out of the gate. Kemalist states did not know when and how to stop growing, and that was their undoing. Unchecked by parliaments and unaccountable to the people, the Kemalist states have lived up to the saying: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Kemalism never had a problem garnering support in the West. Defenders of Kemalism, such as the historian Bernard Lewis, had hoped that by promoting secularism and modernity the state would serve as handmaiden of democracy, believing that modernity must come before democracy, especially given Islam’s strong hold on the structures of power, and the hearts and minds of the populace. Democracy would have to follow dictatorship.
But by the 1970s, Kemalism was running aground everywhere. The state remained imposing, but its modernizing edge was gone. The juggernaut of swift reform, secularism, and rapid change had ground to a halt. Accolades for the state and trust in its ability to transform society and economy had given place to widespread cynicism and doubt among the populace. In the Arab world modernizing states became platforms for the dynastic machinations of strongman presidents; their best-functioning institutions—impressive in their efficiency—became their dreaded mukhabarat, intelligence and security services.
One of Kemalism’s legacies is pent-up rage among the lower classes, to whom so few of the economic benefits flowed, and who greatly resented the assault on Islam. This pent-up rage has in time inflicted much travail on the region—as well as on the West. It was the driving force that tipped the balance of power toward fundamentalism in the Iranian Revolution, and it has been the fuel driving the support around the region for Islamic extremism. Crucial to Kemalism’s failure to generate more robust economic growth, and to distribute economic benefits more equitably, was the manner in which it bred a highly dependent, rather than entrepreneurial, middle class.