Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mark Lindley - Islam and the military in modern Turkish politics

Turkey's military officers are all secularists (unlike many American military officers), and there is a clear historical reason for this. Their predecessors a hundred years ago were in the service of a decadent imperial regime—Westerners called it "the sick man of Europe"—which was hanging on partly by claiming that the sultan was the caliph, the successor to Muhammed. That claim entailed for the Ottoman state the task of defending Muslims against Christians in a vast geographical area including the Crimea, Bulgaria, Egypt, Lebanon, Greece etc.; and a group of Turkish generals, among whom most brilliant politician was later named "Atatürk," meaning "father of the Turks," saw that that task was too much; so, after the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I and then the allies occupied Istanbul for four post-war years, the Turkish army not only drove them out of Istanbul but also overthrew the sultan and founded the republic in 1923 with a new capital at Ankara in the heartland far away from Istanbul, and Atatürk obliged his parliament in Ankara abolish the caliphate altogether in 1924.
His political party was called the "Republican People's Party" (of course "republican": not imperial), and it governed Turkey until 1950. In the early days he had his parliament legislate a lot of drastic reforms. On one day, everybody had to take a surname, on another day it became illegal to wear a hat without a brim (this did away with the Ottoman fez), on another day it became illegal to use the traditional Arabic alphabet, you had to write Turkish with newfangled Western letters (there was a lot of preparation for this, with Atatürk setting an example by visiting schools and teaching the alphabet), on another day it became illegal to call the faithful to the mosque in Arabic, you had to do it in Turkish (this law is no longer in effect), and so on. You can understand why the Saudis say that the Turks aren't really Muslims at all; but of course they are.
Atatürk did, however, supplant the religious identity of the Ottoman imperial state with a secular national identity drawing upon pride in the historical Turks even though the population was to a considerable extent racially mixed since it had a lot of Turkish-speaking immigrants from Greece, Bulgaria, the Crimea etc. (not to mention the Kurds in eastern Turkey). One rather odd part of the new secular identity was a new national dance, the Turkish tango, promoted by Atatürk; you dance it to the same music as the Argentine tango, but it's more demure, and a lot of high-school students learn it still today. Two important features of his policies were, on the one hand, to favor state ownership of industry as the quickest way to build up a modern economy, and on the other hand to cultivate peaceful relations with all of Turkey's neighbors. 
Atatürk put this latter precept on display when he visited the city on the western coast which had been the capital of the Greek part of the Turkish mainland before he had driven the Greeks out. His assistants put a Greek flag on the ground so that he could trample on it, but he wouldn't do it. That part of his heritage is still very alive today. Let me mention two examples: (1) When the new year is ushered in at midnight at the end of December, on TV in Istanbul you see the crowds celebrating in Athens, and on TV in Athens you see the crowds in Istanbul. And (2) when the USA was about to invade Iraq eight years ago, the Turkish generals issued a statement saying that they were prepared to let their friends the Americans enter northern Iraq from Turkey, but of course they would have to have parliament's permission—which was a good joke and of course the permission wasn't forthcoming.
There have been some military coups and the like in Turkey since the abolition of the sultanate. Let me mention briefly three preliminary facts in order to explain about them. (1) Turkey has, like a lot of Western European countries, a president as well as a prime minister, and the president has, as in those other countries, a few important functions whereas the prime minister is the head of the executive branch of the government. (2) The constitution obliges the "National Security Council," which consists of the president and the top elected officials and cabinet officers and the top generals, to meet at least once every other month. (3) There could never be a military coup in the republic until some party other than the Republicans could win an election and then make a hash of governing.
In 1945 the prime minister gave a speech inviting politicians to form opposition parties in order to cultivate the principals of parliamentary democracy which had gained prestige as a result of how the Second World War had gone. And in that same year, a difference of opinion among the Republicans about economic policies (How much state ownership should there be?) was aggravated by the passage of a land- reform bill, the leading opponents of which were expelled from the party and formed a new, somewhat right-wing but culturally somewhat populist "Democratic Party," which was voted into power in 1950. These Turkish "Democrats" did not reject secularism and Westernization, but they did win support among the village peasants by upholding those basic Republican precepts a little less strictly than the Republicans had done. The peasants included, of course, the women who wear head-scarves instead of dressing French-style and showing off their figures and plucking their eyebrows like those hussies in Istanbul.
The Democrats had Turkey join NATO in 1952 to protect herself from Russia, which had taken the Crimea away from the old empire and was now trying to foment a Communist revolution to overthrow the republic but couldn't succeed, partly because of American support to the republic as promised in the Truman Doctrine. Yet by 1955 there were, even though it was now peacetime, terrible economic conditions in Turkey, including high inflation and a shortage of consumer goods. This made the governing Democrats very unpopular; theyreacted by suppressing opposition in dictatorial ways; and thatprompted a military coup in 1960, with tanks in the streets and a year and a half of government by a junta which put the top Democrats on trial for "unconstitutional rule and high treason" and hanged the deposed prime minister. This coup lasted for two years. It wasn't about secularism vs. Islam, it was about other things.
Then, in 1968, a deep economic recession led to strikes and mass demonstrations and a surge in robberies and left-and right-wing political assassinations and bomb attacks and kidnappings, and, amidst all that, some Islamist manifestos repudiating secularism; so the generals in 1971 handed a memorandum to the prime minister demanding "the formation, within the context of democratic principles, of a strong and credible government which will neutralize the current anarchical situation and which, inspired by Atatürk's views, will implement the reformist laws envisaged by the constitution." The prime minister quit; the generals decided to control the government not directly (because they didn't want to look like the Greek junta) but by giving instructions behind the scenes to a non-partisan parliamentary government of technocrats; but that didn't work very well, there was still a lot of chaos in the streets and imprisonments and torturing to suppress the Islamic fundamentalists and all the other extremists, including the Kurdish Communists. 
In fact, a lot of this was really a proxy battle between the USSR and the USA; and in 1980 a direct military takeover was sponsored by the CIA. This coup was not mainly about secularism vs. Islam, it was much more about Russia and Communism.
Civilian government was restored in 1983, and 14 years after that, the first pious-Muslim prime minister (whom the generals disliked, of course) got into office in a deal for a coalition with a secularist party whereby he and a very corrupt lady who was the head of that other party (which had come in third in the most recent election) were supposed to take turns in office, switching back and forth every year until the next election. But just a short time before it became the pious Muslim's turn to take over, there was an appalling public corruption-scandal—a story which you would dismiss as lacking in verisimilitude if it were written in a novel—and then the devout Muslim, after getting into office, outraged everyone by making scornful remarks about the people who were demonstrating in the streets all over the country against the corruption, and so when the time came for him to give his office back to the very corrupt lady who was the head of the third largest party, the president put an end to the political deal by appointing instead the head of the second largest party. 
A leading newspaper in Istanbul called this a "post-modern coup"—and later in that same year of 1997 a court banned the former prime minister's Islamic-fundamentalist party. That was about secularism vs. Islam, but it was done by a court, not directly by the military, and the lady to whom the president denied a second patch as prime minister was not an Islamist but a corrupt secularist... read more: