Living in Kemalist Turkey is instructive in how a country can nourish a Great Leader cult and still veer short of dictatorship. Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Idi Amin’s Uganda and Pol Pot’s Cambodia make for a roll-call of 20th century totalitarianism. But Turkey – and its controversial Law 5816 banning the denigration of Ataturk or his memory – proves that even semi-democracies can be obsessed with their Great Leaders.
After four years when I lived in Iran and visited North Korea and Iraq, my tour of the three totalitarian regimes lumped by the Bush Administration into the ‘Axis of Evil’ appropriately ended in the world’s foremost secular Muslim democracy.
Turkey may be a democracy, but it is also a militaristic society transformed from an ethnic mosaic to a largely homogenous population over the course of the 20th century. The secular Turkish republic’s politicians are both condescending and fearful of neighbours Iran and Iraq. In turn, Turkey’s Arab and Persian neighbours are scornful but furtive admirers of Ataturk’s creation.
The region’s difficult engagement with modernity is to blame for this bewildering state of affairs. Under the guiding influence of various strongmen, Turkey, Iran and Iraq all engaged with modernity.
Ataturk banned the Arabic alphabet and forced Turks to adopt Latin characters, a Christian weekend and a strict separation of church and state.
Iran’s Reza Shah followed the example of his Turkish idol by banning the chador and turban, and building the infrastructure of a modern state. But his son, Mohammad Reza, mistook modernisation for Westernisation and was overthrown in a traditionalist revolution with religious overtones led by an arch neo-traditionalist, Khomeini.
Iraq, the Arab World’s least religious nation, steered a secular Arab nationalist path after liberating itself from the Ottoman Empire, but promptly regressed after the overthrow of its strongman par excellence, Saddam Hussein, to a tribal state with secessionist tendencies and aspirations towards becoming an Islamic Republic.
Across the Bosphorus to Turkey’s Asian hinterland and all the way across that vast continent is North Korea. Pyongyang strongman Kim Jong Il is the centre of an extraordinary personality cult not content merely with papering portraits over public buildings. Kim Il Sung, the founder of the post-war state and father of the current president, refashioned the entire capital following the Korean War into a tribute to the world’s first Communist dynasty. Gargantuan public spaces were shaped from the rubble, designed to host memorials, mausolea, statues and all the paraphernalia required of a really good leader cult.
But by the time I visited North Korea in early August last year, Kim Jong Il had fallen off the face of the earth, presumed incapacitated. Nevertheless, I was keen to attend the Arirang Games in my quest to comprehend totalitarianism.
A regime creation, Arirang appropriates the aesthetic of totalitarianism and twins it with a vaudeville-style Korean-language musical. Thousands of sexy majorettes, muscular acrobats, militaristic children and fresh-faced soldiers are fielded in a show of total uniformity. Conceit, another characteristic of totalitarianism, prompted the North Koreans to reschedule the first night of their spectacle to pre-empt the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony by a few nights in a bid to steal Chinese thunder.
Kim Jong Il is a great fan of Arirang. A master of pageantry, he famously harnessed his totalitarian state in a cloak-and-dagger theatrical display to impress former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright. During the first high-level bilateral talks in 2000, he led the unsuspecting diplomat through Pyongyang’s darkened streets to the May Day Stadium, the largest in the world, and stunned her with a private display.
‘We pitched up in the lot and there were no cars, no people walking about, no sound, you could have heard a pin drop,’ said one of Albright’s aides. ‘We walked into the stadium and then, all of a sudden, the lights all flashed on and this wall of sound from a quarter of a million North Koreans hit us, all at once.’
What is the point of totalitarian states, after all, if they cannot be deployed to impress? And just as their dictators wield them as a club of intimidation towards their citizens, recalcitrant neighbours or the international community, so President Bush fashioned a straggling triad of bogey-men out of Iran, Iraq and North Korea in the aftermath of September 11 to daunt his electorate into supporting his pan-Asian military adventure.
The Axis of Evil was the term crystallising the Bush administration’s Manichaean worldview. It made a laughing stock of American foreign policy and was hastily retired shortly after its introduction. Its three members had little in common, aside from a generalised distrust of the West.
Western policies backfire
They had good reason to be wary. The American army pulverised North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, birthing the national trauma that explains the bizarre popular fealty shown to the Kim political dynasty (we were shown video of Kim Il Sung’s funeral featuring ordinary people paralysed in sorrow along the route that the hearse travelled). In Iran, the British and US intelligence services removed Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister the year the Korean War ended and entrenched the Shah’s rule. Six years later, in 1959, a young Iraqi thug by the name of Saddam Hussein was part of a six-man CIA assassination squad that tried to kill Iraq’s military ruler, Abdul Karim Qassim. Washington first elevated and then destroyed Saddam, in the process transforming a dysfunctional state into a failed one.
But all similarities between the three countries end there. Saddam’s invasion of revolutionary Iran prompted an eight-year war that transformed a merely traditional Arab-Persian hatred into a deeply personal one. Although the transfer of missile technology from Pyongyang to Tehran has kept ties close, the cultural gap is vast.
The most striking difference between the three lies in the degree of authoritarianism that characterises them. It ranges from the witheringly overt opposition with which ordinary Iranians address the guardians of the Islamic Republic, to the all-present fear of Saddam-era Iraq and Kim Jong Il’s North Korea.
But even there, shades of oppression differentiate the whimsically applied brutality of Iraq from the methodical full-court press applied by a North Korean regime that has been far more successful in co-opting every level of society. North Korean schools indoctrinate citizens into believing that all foreigners are spies. They are banned by law from communicating with the rare tourist.
A European businessman and full-time resident I met in Pyongyang told me that the North Koreans he knew ‘are all independent thinkers. But they’re also split personalities, they compartmentalise their thoughts. Even I’ve brainwashed myself when I’m here. I self-censor.’
North Korean totalitarianism skilfully incorporates the submissiveness of Confucianism into a state-mandated devotion to a Marxist royal family. Emaciated North Koreans are banned from owning radios without fixed dials pre-programmed to government stations. Indoctrination sessions hammer home the point that they inhabit a Communist Paradise into which their unfortunate South Korean brethren are struggling to defect. In order to maintain this pretence, the country is subjected to the strictest international isolation. North Koreans are not allowed to travel abroad, nor are foreign visitors free to move inside the DPRK without permission and an escort.
Iraq and Iran
There were no minders in Iraq, but the danger and rampant violence restricted my movement just as effectively. Two months before the US troop surge, the country was tearing itself apart. One morning in Baghdad, I huddled behind blackout curtains on the 10th floor of a high-rise witnessing the quietest Middle Eastern traffic jam I had ever encountered.
The capital was shrouded in haze and a din of police sirens, gunfire, car alarms and the odd car bomb punctuated the morning rush hour. Cars were banked up on one lane on the bridge over the Tigris as utes laden with masked gunmen surged across on the other lane. All the noise served to amplify the total absence of blaring car horns as the terrified men huddled over their steering wheels, obliged to venture outside the house to work and terrified of drawing attention to themselves.
Here was another kind of fear, diametrically opposed to North Korea’s dread of authority – it was the terror of no authority, the unpredictability of operating in a city that had reverted to a state of nature.
Such trepidation is present but much-reduced in Iran. The fear of the Shah’s secret police or of the vigilante Islamic militias in the early days of the Revolution has been washed away in the past 30 years. The tension has receded and the pageantry of morality roadblocks and Islamic executions blend into a background as dull as the electronic ticket-tape at railway stations warning citizens to be on the look-out for foreign spies.
Dictatorships bank on fear to keep them in power. They specialise in conjuring up nightmarish alternatives to dissuade their populace from contemplating insurrection. Invoking foreign threats appeals to the nationalists and promotes the impression of threat. Aside from appealing to personal interest, no other plea is more effective in rallying the crowds than the erosion of its culture.
Iran’s standard-bearer was the philosopher Jalal al-e Ahmad and his theory of Westoxification (gharbzadegi). North Korea’s Juche ideology promotes self-sufficiency and non-dependence on foreigners. And Saddam’s pan-Arabism was more encompassing for its appeal to common Arab roots across 20 Arabic-speaking countries, but hardly less chauvinistic.
What made these three dictatorships so deeply rooted and enduring was the skill with which their leaders tapped into enduring aspects of their countries’ national character. The power of Khomeini’s voice motivated thousands of Iranians to climb to their rooftops every night and shout ‘Allahu Akbar!’ in an eerie and unpunishable rebuke to the doomed Shah. When the Revolution came, of all the competing factions, it was not an imported ideology like Marxism that emerged to lead the country, but that which spoke most intimately to the average Iranian: his religion.
The vigorous idealism of the Revolution has abated, but its guardians cannot afford to admit it publicly. That is why today’s marches are staffed by civil servants stiltedly shouting irrelevant slogans. The numbers are made up by the poor and hungry, who are enticed by steaming cauldrons of free food. The only truly passionate crowds in Iran are those attending Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rural tours, where thousands of men, women and children run behind his motorcade stuffing personal notes to the president asking for hard cash, a civil servant position or exemption from military service for the family breadwinner.
‘The Revolution was not about the price of watermelons’ and ‘There is no fun in Islam’ are Ayatollah Khomeini’s most quoted utterances. But dictatorships are not just about depriving their citizens of free expression and a strong economy, as the China model shows. Nor can all dictatorships be lumped into one basket. Uniquely, though, today’s Iran is forging blossoming alliances with North Korea and former arch-enemy Iraq.
Perhaps this will be the greatest legacy of George W Bush and his Axis of Evil: cementing his three rogue states together stronger than ever.