Battle for the Soul of Turkey

A fortnight ago Turkish prosecutors indicted 86 secular Turks on terrorism charges for their alleged involvement in plots to topple the governing conservative populist Justice and Development Party ( known as the AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan. Though lips across the ideological spectrum were for the most part restrained and tightly buttoned, Aykut Cengiz Engin, a chief prosecutor has stated that the suspects, believed to include at least one former general and an opposition politician, were charged either with belonging to a terrorist organisation, or of attempting to instigate a military coup.

It appears that after some years of relative quietude these two stalwart adversaries have reawakened their longstanding animus, as the onetime radicals turned Islamist democrats and the Kemalist establishment once again start to claw at one another, duking it out over who’ll ultimately exercise control over the levers of power defining the oft precarious terrain of Turkish politics. The Kemalists not only have a virtually unchallenged stranglehold on the judiciary, but also have close to a monopoly on violence by means of their porous boundaries and symbiotic relationship with the armed forces. If the history of modern Turkey is anything to go by, there have been four military coups since 1960, then the present game of tit-for-tat is unlikely to end civilly, with an exchange of respectful handshakes and boisterous pats on the back. Turkish politicians of all persuasions have come to know well that the military is far from shy about issuing threats, or flexing it muscle if and when deemed necessary.

Though the days of flooding the streets of Ankara and Istanbul with tanks and armed soldiers are of the past, Turkey’s military establishment penetrates most if not all the key institutions of the Turkish republic. Steven A. Cook, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations contends that:

“Like-minded members of the bureaucracy such as the state prosecutor and the Kemalist stronghold that is the judiciary are critical partners of the military in the effort to undermine the AKP. The confluence of interests among these groups produced the present case before the Constitutional Court that seeks to close the party and ban 70 of its members [including both the Prime Minister and the President] from politics for five years.

The old establishment is seeking to regain its predominant position in the political system through an outdated set of ideas–Kemalism–that never achieved ideological hegemony.”

Ever since Turkey first made its bid for accession to the EU there has been a watchful eye on domestic political developments as well as unremitting scrutiny of civilian-military relations, prompting the top brass to tread with greater deftness than in the past. Politically motivated use of the courts and what one prominent commentator has referred to as ‘lawfare’ have emerged for the time being as the preferred tactic, even if the omnipresent threat of violence is never far too far in the distance.

The overriding conclusion amongst key analysts in the foreign policy establishment is that what we are witnessing is a struggle, not between the Kemalist vanguard who have been bequeathed the role of safeguarding and buttressing the tradition of Turkish secularism AND a quietly creeping Islamic albeit passive revolution (a la the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci) fostered and cultivated by the ruling AKP party and various other ‘subterranean’ elements hell-bent on subverting the state to theological dogma, but rather a struggle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism with a military hue. And what many in west may find counterintuitive, given the never-ending parade of hyperbole and tabloid sensationalism regarding the foreboding and forever looming ‘Islamic threat’, is that it’s the staunch secularists of a Kemalist bent that are guilty of contempt and a risible attitude toward democracy, democratic institutions and minority rights. The latter’s frosty attitude toward the US, European Union and inter-civilizational dialogue is also deepening, since all demand (to varying degrees and levels of ingenuousness) the hitherto indeterminate relationship between the civilian government and military be resolved once and for all in favor of the former.

On both poles of the ideological spectrum there’s a fairly robust consensus that the Islamist AKP has done more than any previous government to propel Turkey toward EU accession and reconciliation with its sizeable minority population of 15 million Kurds. Omer Taspinar, Professor of National Security at the US National War College, only last year in Foreign Affairs argued that:

“The AKP government has doubled the country’s per capita income, significantly improved its democratic record, and begun accession negotiations with the EU – even the most zealous secularists would struggle to find an Islamist agenda behind all this…Thus, the AKP’s landslide victory in July – it won 47 per cent of the vote [in 2007], compared with 34 percent in 2002, when it first came to power – was less a victory for Islam over secularism than a victory for the new democratic, pro-market, and globally integrated Turkey over the old authoritarian, statist, and introverted one.”

That it’s in the AKP’s interest to push for liberalization so as to enervate the iron-grip of the military establishment is a point of which be must remain cognizant, but it nevertheless fails to detract from the gains made by the AKP in working toward a more liberal polity. The AKP’s pragmatism, pro-Western and pro-globalization attitude is not something that can be ignored or easily sidestepped, and it’s in this respect that they have been blasted by both the far-right and far-left. Many problems undoubtedly remain, but the key is that the current momentum shouldn’t be permitted to stall and aimlessly meander so as to finally taper off into oblivion.

Taspinar also forcefully contends that in the advent of the AKP’s proscription and marginalization, the party’s constituency may well turn to more radical means in order to make their voices heard and articulate their societal grievances. Despite the marked softening of these former Islamists cum media-savvy politicians, there’s no guarantee against the tide once again turning in favor of the latter trend, amongst both Turks and Kurds. Though there is little need to worry about the old-guard of the AKP who appear to have decisively mellowed with little desire to give up the power and privilege to which they are now accustomed. The worry resides with those young men and women who have come to eke out a dejected, disillusioned and disenfranchised existence on the edge of Turkey’s rapidly growing metropolises and the peasantry whose subsistence earnings have compelled them to migrate and fall into pauperized urban lifestyles teetering on the breadline. This is where the potential for ‘righteous anger’ and fury at state inaction finds its constituency, not over symbolic and often sensationalized issues such as whether the headscarf should be allowed in Turkish universities or the permissibility of alcohol consumption in certain districts.

The three main issues which perform the role of tacitly understood redlines between the Turkish government and the military establishment are:

  1. An intolerant brand of Turkish secularism (laiklik) and any publicly visible challenge to its hegemony.
  2. The question of Cyprus and the preservation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized solely by Turkey and perceived as a key strategic asset by the military elite. A coup was very nearly mounted against the government on just this issue in 2004.3
  3. Kurdish cultural rights and greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds who number 15 million in total (hardly a negligible figure) and heavily populate the southeastern regions of the country.
  4. Acknowledgement and open discussion of the Armenian genocide during and in the aftermath of the First World War.

Governments and individuals who have dared broach these issues with even a modicum of seriousness have paid a heavy price, since the top brass, have willingly intervened without hesitation to valorize what it perceives as the Kemalist legacy . Even Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s greatest living novelist and 2006 Nobel Laureate was slammed with a barrage of nationalistic vituperation and litigation for adducing the Armenian genocide and was consequently charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’; an obscure law which has allowed hyper-nationalist lawyers to file lawsuits against anyone who questions or contests the official Kemalist narrative and imprimatur. Historical accuracy is mere quibbling in this regard and finds a paucity of support amongst the Kemalist constituency. The case against Pamuk was eventually dropped at the behest of the highest echelons of government because of the reams of bad western press rained down upon Turkey as a consequence of his Nobelist status; many others, however, aren’t so fortunate. The Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was gunned down in the street by an extreme Turkish nationalist and a great many other individuals have been prosecuted under the vague and inchoate constitutional stipulation of ‘insulting Turkishness’, first postulated by the military cabal who ousted the government in 1980.

Many see Turkey’s present turmoil as stemming from the innate and manifold contradictions latent in Ataturk’s legacy. Mustafa Kemal made his way from a position of petit-bourgeois obscurity to the highest office in the land. In the aftermath of the Second World War, he not only prevented his nation from being torn asunder and carved up by the European powers, but in tandem forged an emboldened, assertive and highly militarized state. Many Turks almost in automaton-like fashion avow that they will never forget Ataturk’s great service to their nation and the debt they owe him. In good old republican fashion (think of Machiavelli’s Discorsi where the Italian philosopher argues that the republic’s founders remain its touchstone and ultimate source of legitimacy, blessed with a boundless capacity to lend cohesion and reinvigorate the body politic) he has become well-nigh immortalized with a somewhat kooky cult of personality to boot, which even the man himself, one might speculate, would have found distasteful.

Ataturk’s modus operandi was of a different era and germinated in response to what he saw as an imminent crisis and dissolution of the Ottoman state and society, which if not confronted head-on might well have spelt the demise of the Turkish nation as he knew it. In an effort to combat the decline of the once awe-inspiring Ottoman Empire and paradoxically stave off western interference and intrusion in Turkish affairs he sought to emulate and even outdo the west, and to that end adapted the republican laws and codes of conduct he’d witnessed in France and other western nations, as he saw fit and tailored them to his own country’s specificity. He Latinized the alphabet, purged the Turkish language of Persian and Arabic words in order to construct a ‘purer’ and more ‘authentic’ Turkish, forbade the fez and veil, lampooned the religious establishment under the umbrella of state-control, and finally instituted a secular legal code.

As far as he was concerned such measures needed to be unilaterally enforced from above and divorced from the protracted and tedious rumination and deliberation characteristic, as he saw it, of the parliamentarian mould. Hence a great many allude to the man’s penchant for authoritarianism, disdain for the rule of law and therefore Ataturk’s complicity in stressing the will of the military over the will of the people. These same critics intimate that authoritarianism was tossed aside at the expense of democracy and liberalism. Defenders of this aspect of the Kemalist legacy claim that Turkey wasn’t yet sufficiently ‘mature’ for democracy and so democratic reform was necessarily retarded until the guardians of the realm decide otherwise.

These same defenders point to the example of Iran. Iran’s Reza Shah was powerfully impacted by his formidable neighbor and even went on a fact finding mission in 1934 to see Ataturk’s sweeping innovations for himself. Though Reza Shah did institute a series of measures akin to those already implemented by Ataturk in Turkey, he was compelled to abdicate his throne in favor of his son Mohammad-Reza in the course of the Second World War due to his pro-German sympathies. That Reza was unable to finish the job, is cited as one of the prime reasons by partisans of Kemalism for the final takeover of the state by reactionary elements in the Islamic revolution of 1979. That all secular forces, whether liberal, leftist, nationalist, women’s lib etcetera, in concert with civil society and the network of informal political organizations of which it was comprised, were totally decimated leaving only an emaciated and enfeebled bundle of opposition elements (leaving Islamist forces in the ascendance and Khomeini as unifying nodal point upon the eve of revolution and as the only feasible alternative) to the dictatorship of Reza’s successor and son, Mohammad-Reza, is hastily swept beneath the rug. That question, however, necessitates a discussion of its own, and ought to be left for another time.

Despite Mohammad Reza’s putatively modernizing reforms the clergy reacted on one-level to the Shah’s ever-tightening grip on power and his growing disdain for democratic institutions. On another level, the clergy reacted to the steadily encroaching threat posed by the state to their traditional sphere of influence and financial earnings. Despite violent suppression by the Shah’s military and intelligence services, the clergy maintained relative autonomy and independence of action and were thereby able to mobilize supporters en masse against the Pahlavi regime. This of course culminated in the Iranian revolution’s rapid transformation into a full-blown Islamo-clerical revolt and overthrow of the status quo ante. It is this scenario which the Kemalist establishment avers it’s trying to forestall today.

Though at one time this may have perhaps been a legitimate concern, it’s become clear that the Kemalists continue to use the politics of fear and hyperbole as a fig-leaf to ensure they will never be forced to relinquish the reins of power to which they have grown used to wielding wherever and whenever they feel their traditional supremacy threatened. One example of the rhetoric customarily fulminated from out of the rightwing establishment is the branding of politicians of a religious persuasion and religious leaders of a liberal persuasion such as Fethullah Gulen who whole-heartedly endorse the coexistence of faith and scientific discovery, back the Kemalist tradition urging the separation of state and religion and extol the importance of faith as a matter of private concern as opposed to politico-legal institutionalization, as the Turkish Khomeini incarnate. Such slander unfortunately comprises a significant part of Turkish high politics where the back and forth of polemic and counter-polemic has left an electorate lukewarm and wearily apathetic.

The underbelly of the Kemalist legacy of course is that it suppresses all subaltern and marginalized voices: it’s fundamentally univocal, as opposed to plurivocal. One either accepts the dominant or rather domineering paradigm encumbered by ethnicity, language and to a lesser extent religion or one is ostracized from political life in toto. As Cihan Tugal, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Berkeley has argued, the modern Turkish state was birthed and established on this very basis, and balefully manifested itself in the form of religious homogenization, an aggressive brand of assimilationist nationalism and ethnic cleansing.

It is thus that an imposed homogenous identity along the lines of the Westphalian model which has long been the standard-bearer of statehood in the western world i.e. a single ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity, imposed upon a canvas that was and continues to be multi-colored, intrinsically diverse and cosmopolitan. The idea that dissent from the state-centric and pre-delineated Kemalist-identity is forbidden and should be greeted with opprobrium remains a powerful current in Turkish political life, and in all likelihood will take many years to erode and tame.

The AKP’s initial overtures to Turkish Kurds and the overwhelming majority of Kurd’s renunciation of violence in favor of inter-cultural dialogue, debate and discussion marks a step forward rather than a leap. A dangerous political cynicism continues to obdurately reveal itself amongst the military elite and top brass, perhaps best evinced by the Semdinli incident in which Turkish intelligence forces allegedly planted explosives in Semdinli deep in southeastern Turkey, in a bid to spark ethnic unrest by blaming Kurdish separatists and strengthen the military’s hand against both Kurdish militants and the civilian government whose credibility could be sapped due to being ‘soft on matters of national security’.

One can only hope that the humble steps already enacted are on track to definitively vouchsafing Turkey’s democratic future. No one should be under the illusion that we’re out of the woods yet, as tumult and intrigue, as we have seen, could with relative ease return to Ankara. It’s an oversimplification to frame it in such terms, but today it’s clear that Turkey faces a choice between a liberal-pluralistic parliamentarianism and military authoritarianism, and that the AKP with ample succor from the EU, for all their flaws represent the best chance of the former’s realization, whereby the paternalistic shadow of a meddlesome military will be once and for all expunged.

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