Recently Turkey came close to experiencing a soft military coup. In late April, faced with the prospect of the moderate Islamist Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul becoming president, the country’s top generals threatened to overthrow the elected government under the guise of protecting “secularism.” When the minority secularist parliamentarians boycotted the poll for president, the Constitutional Court, powerfully influenced by the military’s threat, invalidated the parliament’s vote for Gul on the technical grounds that it lacked a two-thirds quorum — something that had never been an issue before.
This demonstrated vividly that secularists are not invariably the good guys engaged in a struggle with the irredeemably bad guys from the Islamic camp. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve KalkÃ½nma Partisi or AKP) called the Court’s verdict “a bullet fired at the heart of democracy.” Other critics pointed out that earlier Presidents had been elected without the presence of two-thirds of the 550-member Parliament.
Here was an example of the complex interplay between secularism and Islam in a Muslim country. The Turkish secular elite, fearing a further loss of power, raised the cry of “Secularism in danger!” and got their way — for now — even though a recent poll showed that only 22% of Turks agreed with this assessment.
During its nearly five years in office, the AKP government, led by the charismatic, incorruptible Erdogan, has kept religion separate from its politics — the sort of behavior the American Constitutional system used to emphasize — while expanding democratic, human, and minority (that is, Kurdish) rights through the most thorough overhaul of Turkish laws in recent memory. The AKP has also been vigorously pursuing Turkey’s full membership of the European Union (EU).
“The primary reason behind the intervention of the secular establishment was not the fear that Turkey would become Islamic,” noted Suat Kiniklioglu, director of the German Marshall Find of the United States’ Ankara Office, in an International Herald Tribune op-ed. “Their fear was that the democratization drive, led in part by hopes of entering the European Union, will erode their power.”
The present confrontation between the AKP and the secularist establishment, with the military at its core (originating with the founding of the Republic in 1923), is rooted as much in political power and class differences as it is in Islam.
On one side is an affluent, university-educated, westernized elite, popularly known as “the White Turks,” which dominates the military, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the Education Ministry; on the other, a coalition of the urban underclass and a rising group of prospering entrepreneurs from (Asian) Anatolia, which covers 97% of Turkey. Both groups are devoutly Muslim and socially conservative. Both have come to value democratic rights and governance.
Torn from Landlords, Hooked to Pious Politicians
The urban underprivileged and the energetic entrepreneurs have, in fact, been the primary beneficiaries of the Erdogan administration’s adroit management of the economy, which has expanded by an annual average of 7% for five years. During that period per capita income has, astoundingly, almost doubled, to $5,500. And foreign investment since 2003 has soared to an unprecedented $50bn.
The alliance of these classes has occurred against the background of a multi-faceted socio-economic change: the fast diminishing size of the Turkish peasantry as villagers abandon agriculture for better paying jobs in urban centers; a staggering rise in the literacy rate to over 90%; and the gradual loss of the traditional working- and lower-middle class awe of the White Turks.
Ever since the prosperous mid-1980s, an increasing number of Turks have benefited from an unprecedented extension of access to information. They have also gained personal mobility through car ownership. Television, telephones, and cars have become part of everyday life for many Turks. Collectively, they have helped the previously underprivileged to think for themselves.
This is particularly true of the rural migrants into cities such as Istanbul, the capital Ankara, and Konya, which together account for a quarter of the national population of 71 million. In an unfamiliar, impersonal urban environment, they have found their moral and ethical moorings in Islam. And they seek solace in the mosque and a caring political institution like the Justice and Development Party and its two antecedents — the Islamist Welfare and the Virtue parties.
Over time, they have also come to realize the power of the ballot — how the principle of one-person one-vote, if applied fully, can help to right socio-economic wrongs. It was their backing which initially placed the Welfare Party in the town halls, inter alia, of Istanbul, Ankara, and Konya, and then transformed it into the largest single party in Parliament in late 1995 under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan.
Unlike their counterparts in the secular camp, Welfare Party leaders, who derived their moral and ethical values from Islam, were not corrupt. This mattered a lot to voters, growing increasingly disenchanted with the corruption and factiousness of secular politicians
Breaking with past party practices, Welfare Party leaders set up social networks at the grassroots. Their regular attendance at local mosques — popular with traditionally pious rural migrants as well as local traders and artisans — helped strengthen the networks. The success of such a strategy can be judged by the fact that two-thirds of 2.5 million first-time voters favored the AKP in the November 2002 general election, when the year-old party won 363 seats.
By contrast, such secular factions as the Republican Peoples Party (RPP) — whose boycott of the presidential poll in late April made the Parliament inquorate — are stuck in the old, elitist mode of politics. “You talk to the AKP people and they try to persuade you,” remarked Ali Caroglu, a political science professor in Istanbul. “But the RPP is very judgmental. They don’t want to talk to the people they don’t approve of.”
On being elected mayors in the early 1990s, Welfare leaders drastically reduced corruption in town halls and delivered municipal services efficiently. As Istanbul’s mayor, Erdogan was instrumental in furnishing the metropolis with a sorely needed subway system and tramway, as well as providing bread at a subsidized price to residents.
The difference wrought by the Islamist parties was summed up aptly by Omar Karatas, leader of the AKP’s youth section in Istanbul. “Before, the state was up here and the people down there,” he said. “Now, there’s a harmonization between these two groups.”
A Tortuous Road to Democratic Power
The road to “harmony” has, however, been tortuous. The progenitor of the Islamic factions was the National Salvation Party (NSP), formed by Necmettin Erbakan in 1972, which propagated pristine Islamic ideas brazenly. It was dissolved, along with other political parties, following a military coup in 1980.
With the introduction of a new constitution in 1983, political life slowly revived. The pre-coup NSP re-emerged as the Welfare Party under Erbakan. In mid-1996, as leader of the senior partner in a coalition, he became the prime minister. (His cabinet included Abdullah Gul, the AKP’s presidential candidate in the recent crisis.)
Within a decade of its founding, the transformation of the Welfare Party — treated as a pariah by the White Turks — into the senior constituent of a governing coalition was a symptom of democracy striking firm roots in Turkey. It invalidated the view — held by most Western commentators — that democracy and political Islam are incompatible. In Turkey, it was the secular elite, backing military coups against Islamists, that failed the test of democracy,
Five senior generals tried to forestall Erbakan’s premiership. In early 1996, as he was trying to form a coalition government, defense sources leaked the contents of a secret military cooperation agreement Turkey had signed with Israel a decade earlier. The generals figured that such a revelation would so embarrass Erbakan, and alienate him from his Islamist base, that he would abandon his prime ministerial ambitions. But, to their chagrin, he persisted.
As it had done in 1960, 1971, and 1980, the military hierarchy seriously considered staging a coup. Yet it could not overlook the drastically changed international scene following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In earlier years, in the midst of the Cold War, Washington had looked the other way when the Turkish generals sent tanks into city squares and arrested all politicians. Now, with NATO on the verge of opening its doors to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, the Clinton administration was emphasizing the importance of civilian control over the armed forces to their leaders. A coup by the Turkish generals in such circumstances would have made a mockery of this freshly stressed NATO principle.
To leave nothing to chance, however, following several private warnings to the Turkish generals, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright publicly urged them “not to exceed the armed forces’ authority within the democratic system.” (In the current crisis, an equivalent role was played by Olli Rehn, the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement, who warned the military to stop meddling in the presidential poll. Were the generals to seize power in Ankara, he indicated, it would destroy Turkey’s chance of becoming an EU member.)
Instead, the Turkish generals orchestrated a war of attrition against Erbakan by briefing the judiciary, the media, and businessmen on the evils of Islamic fundamentalism, while pursuing their own regional foreign policy centered on forging a military alliance with Israel. The generals’ offensive came on the heels of high inflation and unemployment as well as a chronic Kurdish insurgency that Erbakan had inherited. He resigned in June 1997.
Thus, the generals achieved their aim by mounting a “soft” coup, a novel strategy.
Seven months later, the Constitutional Court banned Erbakan’s party and barred him from public life. Yet Islamists remained a political force committed to parliamentary democracy. Erbakan managed to play an important role in creating the Virtue Party which emerged as the main opposition party in the 1999 general election. Not for long, though.
In June 2001, the Constitutional Court outlawed the Virtue Party, describing it as “a focal point of anti-secular activities” — which meant being at the center of protests against a ban on the wearing of women’s head scarves in government offices and educational institutions.
Over the past decade, the battle between secularists and Islamists has become focused on the symbolic politics surrounding the head scarf, which almost invariably is worn in public together with a long coat. The two garments constitute a modest dress for women according to pious Muslims. In Islam, the importance of women donning such dress is attributed to a verse in the Koran which enjoins believing women to “cast their veils over their bosoms, and reveal not their adornment (zinah), except to their husbands” and other blood-related males, as well as female relatives, and children.
In 1998, the Turkish authorities extended the head-scarf ban to universities. Protests in response lasted two years. The issue reached a fever pitch in May 1999 when Merve Kavakci — an America-trained computer engineer and freshly elected Virtue Party member of Parliament, holding a dual nationality — appeared there in a head scarf. She argued that nothing in the statute books barred her from doing so. When it was discovered that she had not secured permission from the authorities to contest a parliamentary seat — as someone with a dual nationality is required to do — she was quickly deprived of her Turkish citizenship.
Her case illustrates the difference between secularism as practiced in Turkey and in the United States. The American version guarantees individual religious rights, whereas the Turkish version invests the state with the power to suppress religious practices in any way it wishes.
With the general election due on July 22, secularists are trying to push the head-scarf issue to the top of their campaign. It is easier and more effective for them to stress that Gul’s wife, Hayrunisa, wears a head scarf than to remind the public that he was a member of Islamist Erbakan’s government a decade earlier.
“People think that if the First Lady wears a head scarf, then many things will change, threatening the whole secular system, forcing all women to wear head scarves,” said Nilufer Naril, a sociology professor in Istanbul. She seemed oblivious to the finding of the Turkish Economic & Social Studies Foundation that nearly two-thirds of women in Turkey already wear a head scarf.
By contrast, the AKP is set to contest the upcoming election on its record of providing a strong, uncorrupt government which has produced impressive economic growth and implemented political reform. In desperation, leaders of the Republican People’s Party, the only secular group represented in the Parliament, have decided to coalesce with a smaller secularist faction, to mount a strong challenge to the formidable AKP.
As yet, though, neither secularist party is showing any sign of abandoning its present strategy of building its program around its distrust of the AKP and Erdogan. But then, negative thinking seems to have inspired the early proponents of secularism in Turkey too.
“Influenced by the European anti-religious movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Turkish secularist elite views religion as a pre-modern myth, one that must be extinguished for modernity to blossom,” notes Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of the Turkish Daily News. “The outcome of this mindset is an authoritarian strategy: Political power is to remain in the hands of the secularist elite. Thus the ‘secular republic’ equals the ‘republic of seculars’ — not the republic of all citizens.”
Little wonder that secular fundamentalists in Turkey get along famously with the military.
Dilip Hiro is the author of many books on the Middle East and Central Asia. His most recent book is Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World’s Vanishing Oil Resources (Nation Books).
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]