I have serious reason to believe that the planet from which the little prince came is the asteroid known as B-612. This asteroid has only once been seen through the telescope. That was by a Turkish astronomer, in 1909. On making his discovery, the astronomer had presented it to the International Astronomical Congress, in a great demonstration. But he was in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said … Fortunately, however, for the reputation of Asteroid B-612, a Turkish dictator made a law that his subjects, under pain of death, should change to European costume. So in 1920 the astronomer gave his demonstration all over again, dressed with impressive style and elegance. And this time everybody accepted his report.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story, The Little Prince, the modernization of Turkey was gently mocked. To be sure, the Turks changed their mode of dress after the First World War, increasingly conforming to Western norms, just as the Japanese had after their Meiji Restoration (see Chapter 5). But how profound a change did this represent? In particular, was the new Turkey really capable of playing in the same scientific league as the Western powers?

Mustafa Kemal was not born to power in the way that Frederick the Great had been in Prussia. A hard-drinking womanizer, Kemal was a beneficiary of the late nineteenth-century overhaul of the Ottoman army overseen by Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz (Goltz Pasha) in the 1880s and early 1890s. Goltz was the personification of the Prussia created by Frederick the Great: born in East Prussia, the son of a mediocre soldier and farmer, he rose to the rank of field marshal with a combination of bravery and brains. Kemal learned the German way of warfare and turned theory into practice at Gallipoli in 1915, where he played a key role in the successful Turkish defence against the British invasion force. After the war, with the Ottoman Empire disintegrating and a Greek army marching into Anatolia, it was Kemal who organized the decisive counter-attack and proclaimed himself the father – Atatürk – of a new Turkish republic. Though he moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara in the heart of Anatolia, there was no question in Atatürk’s mind that the state he had forged should face westwards. For centuries, he argued, Turks had ‘walked from the East in the direction of the West’.99 ‘Can one name a single nation’, he asked the French writer Maurice Pernot, ‘that has not turned to the West in its quest for civilization?’100

A key part of Atatürk’s reorientation of Turkey was the radical alphabet reform he personally introduced. Not only was Arabic script symbolic of the dominance of Islam; it was also poorly suited to the sounds of the Turkish language and therefore far from easy for the bulk of the population to read or write. Atatürk made his move in Gülhane Park, once a garden of the Topkapı Palace, on an August evening in 1928. Addressing a large invited audience, he asked for someone who could read Turkish to recite from a paper in his hand. When the volunteer looked in obvious bafflement at what was written on the sheet, Atatürk told the crowd: ‘This young man is puzzled because he does not know the true Turkish alphabet.’ He then handed it to a colleague who read aloud:

Our rich and harmonious language will now be able to display itself with new Turkish letters. We must free ourselves from these incomprehensible signs that for centuries have held our minds in an iron vice … You must learn the new Turkish letters quickly … Regard it as a patriotic and national duty … For a nation to consist of ten or twenty per cent of literates and eighty or ninety per cent of illiterates is shameful … We shall repair these errors … Our nation will show, with its script and with its mind, that its place is with the civilized world.101

The Westernization of the alphabet was only part of a wider cultural revolution designed by Atatürk to propel Turkey into the twentieth century. Modes of dress were Westernized for both men and women; the fez and turban were replaced by the Western hat, the wearing of the veil discouraged. The Western calendar was adopted, including the Christian numbering of years. But the single most important thing Atatürk did was to establish the new Turkey as a secular state quite separate from all religious authority. The caliphate was abolished in March 1924; a month later religious courts were shut down and sharia law replaced by a civil code based on Switzerland’s. In Atatürk’s eyes, nothing had done more to retard the advance of the Ottoman Empire than religious interference in the realm of science. In 1932, after consulting Albert Malche of the University of Geneva, he replaced the old Darülfünun (Abode of Sciences), which had been firmly in the hands of the imams, with a Western-style University of Istanbul, subsequently opening its doors to around a hundred German academics fleeing the National Socialist regime because they were Jews or on the political left. ‘For everything in the world – for civilization, for life, for success,’ he declared in words inscribed on the main building of Ankara University, ‘the truest guide is knowledge and science. To seek a guide other than knowledge and science is [a mark of] heedlessness, ignorance and aberration.’102

In breaking up the Ottoman Empire and propelling its Turkish core towards secularism, the First World War struck a blow – admittedly an unintended one – for the values of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. To ensure victory, however, the British sought to mobilize internal enemies against the Sultan, among them the Arabs and the Jews. To the Arabs the British promised independent kingdoms. To the Jews they promised a new ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine. These promises, as we know, proved to be incompatible.

Though holy to all three monotheistic religions, Jerusalem today sometimes seems like the modern equivalent of Vienna in 1683 – a fortified city on the frontier of Western civilization. Founded in May 1948 as a Jewish state, by Jews but not exclusively for Jews, the State of Israel regards itself as a Western outpost. But it is a beleaguered one. Israel, which claims Jerusalem as its capital,* is menaced on all sides by Muslim forces that threaten its very existence: Hamas in the occupied territories of Gaza (which it now controls) and the West Bank, Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon, Iran to the east, not forgetting Saudi Arabia. In Egypt and Syria Israelis see Islamists making inroads against secular governments. Even traditionally friendly Turkey is now clearly moving in the direction of Islamism and anti-Zionism, not to mention a neo-Ottoman foreign policy. As a result, many people in Israel feel as threatened as the Viennese did in 1683. The key question is how far science can continue to be the killer application that gives a Western society like Israel an advantage over its enemies.

To an extent that is truly remarkable for such a small country, Israel is at the cutting edge of scientific and technological innovation. Between 1980 and 2000 the number of patents registered in Israel was 7,652 compared with 367 for all the Arab countries combined. In 2008 alone Israeli inventors applied to register 9,591 new patents. The equivalent figure for Iran was fifty and for all majority Muslim countries in the world 5,657.103 Israel has more scientists and engineers per capita than any other country and produces more scientific papers per capita. As a share of gross domestic product its civilian research and development expenditure is the highest in the world.104 The German-Jewish banker Siegmund Warburg was not wrong when, at the time of the Six Day War, he compared Israel with eighteenth-century Prussia. (Warburg was especially impressed by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovoth, a research centre established in 1933 by Chaim Weizmann, the distinguished chemist who had gone on to become the first president of Israel.)105 A sandbox surrounded by foes, each country needed science to ensure its strategic survival. Today, nothing illustrates better the nexus between science and security than the police surveillance control room in the heart of Jerusalem. Literally every crowded street in the old city has its own closed-circuit television camera, allowing the police to monitor, record and where necessary thwart suspected terrorists.

Yet today that scientific gap finally shows signs of closing. Although it is an Islamic republic, Iran hosts two annual science festivals – the International Kharazmi Festival in Basic Science and the Annual Razi Medical Sciences Research Festival – designed to encourage high-level research in both theoretical and applied fields. The Iranian government recently committed 150 billion rials (roughly $17.5 million) to build a new observatory as part of a major investment in astronomy and astrophysics. Surprisingly, given the strictness of the regime’s application of sharia law, around 70 per cent of its Science and Engineering students are now women. From Tehran to Riyadh to the private, Saudi-financed Muslim girls’ school I visited last year in West London, the taboo against educating women is receding. That is in itself a welcome development. What is much less welcome is the use to which Iran is putting its newfound scientific literacy.

On 11 April 2006 the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had successfully enriched uranium. Ever since, despite the threat of economic sanctions, Iran has been closing in on its long-cherished dream of being a nuclear power. Ostensibly, this is a programme designed to produce nuclear energy. In reality, it is an open secret that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad aspires to own a nuclear weapon. This would not make Iran the first Islamic nuclear power, however. Thanks to the pioneering work of the unscrupulous Dr A. Q. Khan, Pakistan has for years been the principal locomotive of nuclear-arms proliferation. At the time of writing, it is far from clear that Israel alone has a viable military answer to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Today, then, more than three centuries after the siege of Vienna, the key question is how far the West is still capable of maintaining the scientific lead on which, among many other things, its military superiority has for so long been based. Or perhaps the question could be phrased differently. Can a non-Western power really hope to benefit from downloading Western scientific knowledge, if it continues to reject that other key part of the West’s winning formula: the third institutional innovation of private property rights, the rule of law and truly representative government?

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