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Turkey: Military Upholds Secularist Tradition

  • Jolyon Naegele

Istanbul, 4 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - There is growing discussion in Turkey that the governing parties and military may be willing to risk a return to authoritarianism to uphold the country's secularist tradition.

Turkey's last coup was in 1980 when the military, frustrated with the growing instability of Turkey's leftist rulers, seized power and held on to it until 1983, when parliamentary democracy was restored. A diverse civic society has developed in the 15 years since then.

Simultaneously, Turkey has experienced rapid urbanization brought on by the migration of Kurds from the fighting in the southeast of the country and of Turks from across Anatolia to the country's big cities in search of jobs and a higher standard of living. These first generation urban dwellers have proven fertile ground for Turkey's Islamist movement.

Last year the military orchestrated the ouster of the ruling Welfare party and in January the constitutional court banned Welfare and barred its leader Necmettin Erbakan from political leadership for five years. Several weeks ago, the military purged scores of senior officers from its ranks on suspicion of being Islamist sympathizers.

The Welfare party's successor, Virtue, remains the largest party in parliament. Virtue is led by an aging leadership that faces internal tensions over its apparent reluctance to share power with younger politicians, such as the Mayor of Istanbul, Recep Erdogan.

Virtue is widely perceived as having the best chances of taking first place in parliamentary and provincial elections due next April.

Once again, the secularist military will face the dilemma of deciding whether to intervene in the interest of domestic stability and upholding the secularist ideals of the Turkish republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The military has tried to maintain a low profile while making it clear to the government that what it calls the "fundamentalist threat" must be dealt with. Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz warned the military leadership yesterday: "If you confront the Virtue Party (FP)... you will only increase their votes. You leave the FP to us."

Some Turkish news media are speculating that the decision to announce early elections nine months in advance -- three months is standard -- is evidence that Yilmaz' minority coalition government is seriously concerned with the threat of a military intervention. The press suggests that by calling early elections so far in advance Yilmaz will give the government, the courts and parliament time to come up with a solution before the elections and thus keep the military out of politics. One option is to ban the Virtue party. Another option is to let the unusually long campaign so antagonize Virtue's dissonant wings that the party splits prior to the elections.

A Turkish sociologist who studies women and politics, Nur Vergin, says the writing is on the wall and the military will not suffer a victory by Virtue.

Similarly, another Istanbul sociologist, Nilufer Gole says the secularists in government and politics continue to rely on the military for support in the event of a perceived Islamist threat.

"What I find a pity is that in the name of secularism, we go back again to authoritarianism. This is a very vicious circle in Turkish politics which is very similar to other Muslim contexts which experienced modernity and secularism."

Gole says the growth of civil society has lulled many observers into believing that military interference in Turkey was a thing of the past, that despite three military interventions between 1960 and 1980 history will not repeat itself.

But she says the banning of the Welfare party and the military's growing control over Turkey's educational system have resulted in what she terms "a shrinking of democratic space" in Turkey through military control in the name of secularism.

Gole notes that although the military still guards state radio and TV buildings, there is now such a plethora of private radio and television stations in Turkey that state or military control is no longer conceivable. Moreover, she says, society has become diversified and the military has had to become more deft in dealing with society.

"You don't have people and state. This way of putting it doesn't make sense in Turkey any longer. You have many associations, many political parties and many sources to shape public opinion. But at the same time, we can still feel the importance of the military and this is because of the nature of the political debate in Turkey. So today I call it the 'pashas' intervention,' because they have started to be present in the public sphere as spokespersons, they have almost become civil."

But Gole insists authoritarianism cannot keep society together. On the contrary she suggests, Islamism is part of the solution because it is what she calls "inclusionary".

The Bosphorus University sociologist describes Turkish Islamism as a "social movement politicizing Islam and redefining the category of 'Muslim.'" She says that over the last 20 years, through upward social mobility, the new urban population, inspired by Islamic identity and the Islamist movement, has found new opportunities to better their lives. They now have a voice in the public sphere, in the market economy, a place in the educational system, and their own newspapers, TV and radio stations.

Gole says it is paradoxical that Islamist women are profiting from modernity as much as Euro-Turkish women. She notes that for years sociologists believed the more one becomes modern and urban the less religious one becomes, and the less one plays with traditional symbols the more one is emancipated. But instead of asking for assimilation and equality the Islamists claim differences, much as U.S. Afro-Americans have done. As Gole puts it, "Islam is beautiful like 'black is beautiful.'"

But she warns that what makes the Islamist movement different from other new social movements is that the Islamists have not yet given up their utopian belief in trying to islamize the whole of society --including sexual relations, family concepts, private and public divisions, science, government and the rule of law.

Gole notes that societies which do not know how to work out these conflicts end up with totalitarian systems. But in the case of the Islamists, she says, they are evolving and have changed considerably over the past two decades.

(Eds: This is part 2 of a 2-part package on the rise of Islamism in Turkey)