Turkey and Pakistan

How they are similar — and dissimilar

Aziz Ahmad
8 min readJul 28, 2020


Hagia Sophia — Photo by Oleksandr Naumenko on Pinterest

Turkey is probably the only country that continues to receive Pakistanis warmly. Pakistanis know Turkey not only as another Muslim country but a country that was home to the caliphate (Khilafat-e-Osmania) for several centuries.

They also know Turkey because of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (died 1938) whom they rate high among the Muslim leaders, just as they do their own Quad-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Islamabad has also a major road named Ataturk Avenue. And I believe Turkey has a major road in Ankara named after Jinnah, Cinnah Caddesi

Jinnah was a great fan of Mustafa Kemal. He would talk so much about him at home that his young daughter, Dina Wadia, started calling him Grey Wolf, the name Harold Armstrong gave to his biography of Mustafa Kemal.

Stanley Wolpert also mentions this fact in his biography of Jinnah that, once on holidays, Dina said to her father: “Come on, Grey Wolf, take me to a pantomime; after all, I am on my holidays.”

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was also a great admirer of Mustafa Kemal. When he visited his mausoleum in Ankara he was so impressed with the change of guards ceremony at Kemal’s mausoleum that he introduced a similar ceremony at the Jinnah’s Mazar in Karachi, which remains in place to this day.

General Musharraf, too, talked about Ataturk when he first appeared on TV carrying his two little dogs, in 1999, soon after he took over as president. But when the mullahs growled, Musharraf’s dogs disappeared never to be seen again, nor was Musharraf heard eulogizing Mustafa Kemal anymore.

Politically and socially, Turkey has changed a lot since Mustafa Kemal, and so has Pakistan since Jinnah. But if Mustafa Kemal were to return today, he would still be able to recognize the country he left behind 80 odd years ago. The country is still called the Turkish Republic, the name given by him. It has the same territorial boundaries, and secularism, the centerpiece of Kemal’s reforms, is still protected by the constitution, even though it has come under some pressure lately.

Mohamed Ali Jinnah

On the other hand, if Jinnah were to return today he would not recognize the country he created. He had left behind a much larger country with a short name, Pakistan. Today, he will find a much smaller country with a long name — Islamic Republic of Pakistan — and rife with bigotry.

Turkey and Pakistan also share a few dubious distinctions. The armed forces have been major players in each country’s politics — and economy. Both countries have had four military coups each in as many decades, and they also hanged their popularly elected prime ministers. Turkey hanged Adnan Menderes in 1961 while Pakistan hanged Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979.

The hangings cast a long shadow on each country’s politics, which in the case of Pakistan, persists even today. Turkey, however, in a gesture of remorse and reconciliation, pardoned Adnan Menderes posthumously, in 1990, removed his grave to a mausoleum in Istanbul, and even named a university and an International airport (Izmir) after him. Pakistan is still battling the ghost of Bhutto.

Turkey, it seems, is gradually beginning to emerge from the shadows of the armed forces and moving towards a stable democracy. It had two peaceful and free elections in a row. Justice and Development Party (AKP) was only recently voted in with a landslide majority and they were able to put their candidate, Abdullah Gul, in Jankaya (Turkey’s White House). AKP’s leaders, even though labeled as Islamists, vow to maintain the secular character of their country. And the Armed Forces are, hopefully, learning to live with civilian governments in command. All indications are that Turkey would remain politically stable in the foreseeable future.

Pakistan, unfortunately, is still governed by a General-President who believes that Pakistan’s stability depends on his continuing in the office.

My hotel room overlooked the Bosphorus, the famous waterway, running north to south between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, which is the dividing line between Asia and Europe. Istanbul sits astride the Bosphorus, a city of 12 million embroidered over a range of hills on both sides of the Bosphorus, its millions of lights twinkling at night like sequins. The two suspension bridges, connecting the European and the Asian sides of the city, glittering like necklaces studded with different colored gemstones, present a beautiful view at night.

Istanbul is to Turkey what Karachi is to Pakistan — a bustling port city. But unlike Karachi, Istanbul attracts millions of tourists annually who pump billions of dollars into its economy.

Another thing that a newcomer notices in Istanbul are the mosques. There are, reportedly, 2,500 mosques, distinguishable by their peculiar architecture — a cluster of rather shallow domes and spear-like minarets. When lighted at night, they look picturesque.

The call for prayer, the azan, goes out of these mosques five times a day, and a very large number of people respond to it. However, unlike in Pakistan, the loudspeakers of Istanbul are, not as loud. I am not sure if they are set at a low volume, or if it is the enunciation of the Turkish muezzins that makes the difference. Or, perhaps, it’s because of the double-glazed windows of my hotel room that I never heard the crackle of loudspeakers even though there were two mosques nearby.

In Islamabad, I am used to waking up with a start when the muezzin taps the microphone a few times and clears his throat before delivering the morning azan.

Another thing that strikes a Pakistani visitor is the openness of the society in Istanbul. You see women everywhere — working in offices, shopping in the bazaars, “manning” the shops, riding the buses, trains, and boats, and also praying in the mosques. Many women wear a headscarf and many wear jeans and T-shirts. You also see women in bikinis on the beaches and swimming pools. There is no ban on alcohol, nor there are any restrictions on music, dancing, and nightclubs.

It is the openness and tolerance in the society coupled with the way they have preserved their historical monuments — both Christian and Muslim — that attract millions of tourists to Turkey.

Hagia Sophia, the famous landmark of Istanbul was the greatest Christian cathedral of the medieval ages. It was converted to a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. (Converting places of worship or destroying them was nothing unusual in medieval ages. People of all religions did it whenever they conquered enemy territory.) However, in 1935 Hagia Sofia was converted into a museum and was no more used as a mosque. On the walls and the ceiling of the building, both Christian and Muslim inscriptions and murals are preserved. It is a major tourist attraction in Istanbul. Incidentally, most mosques in Istanbul emulate Hagia Sofia’s architecture.

Turkey’s secularism is a bit different than the secularism that we see in Europe or North America. It’s aggressive, which, when introduced, might have had a rationale but is beginning to present problems. For example, women with headscarves are not allowed in schools, colleges, and government buildings. It so happens that the new First Lady wears a headscarf. She can and will live in the President's House but cannot participate in any reception held there. It sounds odd. A Turkish columnist, Mustafa Akyol, put it nicely: “Secular democracy should be neutral. It should not take sides with any religion — nor against any religion”.

But there is more to Turkish secularism than meets the tourist’s eye. And there is a whole history behind Turkey’s obsession with the headscarf and headwear in general. More on this in a separate post perhaps. Meanwhile, The New York Times, in a recent editorial, summed up the emerging situation in Turkey in the following words, some of which are also relevant to Pakistan:

“Though nearly all of Turkey’s 70 million people identify themselves as Muslim, the Turkish Constitution calls for strict secularity in public life. The insistence on secularism, in place since the country’s founding in 1923, was intended to counter what were viewed as anti-modern strains within Islam that impeded development. Over time, however, it led to the entrenchment of a secular ruling elite and the exclusion of more openly devout Muslims. In recent years, that observant group — which also accounts for much of the Turkish middle class — has fought back at the ballot box and scored victories.

“Secular Turks have been understandably anxious about the ascendancy of Mr. Gul’s Justice and Development Party. Widely known for its Islamist roots, the party now holds all the top offices in government. Mr. Gul himself has attracted a great deal of attention because his wife wears the Muslim headscarf, a visceral affront to some secularists.

“They fear that religion may creep into government and then into their own lives, encroaching on precious freedoms such as women’s rights. Mr. Gul and his party have pledged to maintain a secular government, and their five-year record in power so far — a time of economic growth and legal reforms that have brought Turkey closer to joining the European Union — suggests that they will keep their word.”

The military, which has toppled four elected governments since 1960, waves the banner of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in its ferocious embrace of secularism. But Ataturk’s ultimate goal was for Turkey to become a Western-style democracy. And in such a democracy, the military exists to serve the government, not the other way around.

I think both Turkey’s armed forces and the AKP government can learn from Pakistan’s experience. Each time the army has intervened in Pakistan it has created more problems than it has solved. In the process, it has not only landed the country in an intractable mess but also lost public support that is so vital to any country’s armed forces. And Pakistan’s “Islamization” process over the last 30 years should serve as a warning to AKP and all those who are toying with the idea of “Islamizing” their countries. It is a slippery slope. You go down sliding on it till you land in a pit from which it is impossible to get out — unless another Ataturk comes along and pulls you out.

One last observation about Turks. It is summed up in a kind of stereotypic saying that I came across during my visit.

“If you hit a Turk ten times he will do nothing. If you hit him the eleventh time, he will kill you”. This simply means don’t test a Turk’s patience.

First published in All Things Pakistan on October 3, 2007