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Armed forces

Self-appointed guardians of secularism

by Canan Topçu
In Turkey, no office, restaurant or public square is complete without a photograph or statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The founder of the republic thus still seems omnipresent. Many of those who accuse the country’s democratically-elected government of gradual Islamisation refer to him, including the military commanders. [ By Canan Topçu ]

The Turkish military see themselves as legally mandated to maintain security. It is their duty to protect the legal system from any internal and external danger; and they claim to safeguard the constitution, promote the unity – and even existence – of the nation as well as to serve all national interests, whether in political, social, cultural or economic terms.

This comprehensive understanding of national security can lead to the restriction of individual freedoms, while giving the military many opportunities to exert its influence. It is precisely this military power that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to weaken.

Tensions became obvious when Abdullah Gül was elected president in summer last year. Against opposition from military and a substantial share of the people, the parliament chose a head of state whose wife wears a headscarf. The Kemalists, as the followers of Atatürk call themselves, interpreted this as a sign of the increasing Islamisation of Turkey. The military takes advantage of such widespread fears, in defence of its own claims to power in the country. It is helping to preserve authoritarian structures.

In spring 2008, the power struggle between the mili­tary and the government led by Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to a head. The public prosecutor’s office moved the Constitutional Court with the demand of banning the AKP. The argument was that the government was promoting an unconstitutional Islamisation of the country under the guise of democratisation. Kemal Atatürk, after all, had enshrined the principle of the secular state in the Turkish constitution. The military keeps stressing this point. The attempt to influence the current political developments by means of a legal coup, however, failed. At the end of July, the Constitutional Court ruled against the ban.

It is difficult for outsiders to understand why the AKP is considered a threat to the secular state. It has carried out reforms like no other ruling party and has set the course for EU membership. The call for a ban is also perplexing because the AKP was endorsed last year by 47 % of the electorate, after an election was called due to the tension between the military and the government over Güls’ presidential bid.
Six pillars of Kemalism

Turkey is a country full of contradictions – a republic in which the military has played a prominent role in domestic affairs since the state was founded. The high command sees itself as the guardian of Kemalism. In order to understand the tense relationship between the military and Kemalists on the one hand, and the AKP-led government and its supporters, in no way a homogeneous group, on the other, one has to know Turkish history.

The separation of state and religion in Turkey dates back to Atatürk. It is one of the six basic principles that were central to the formation of the state. In additon to laicism, the state ideology of Kemalism also emphasised nationalism, republicanism, populism, statism and revolutionism.

In his 15 years as head of government, Atatürk ruled a one-party state, implementing reforms and fundamentally changing the political and social system. Earlier, as a military officer, he had joined the reform forces, the Young Turks. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, he led the national war of liberation against the Western occupying powers that wanted to divide the country up among themselves in accordance with the Treaty of Sèvres (1920). He proclaimed the Republic in Ankara in 1923, and was elected president. Mustafa Kemal consciously chose Ankara to be the capital. As the seat of the Ottoman rulers, Istanbul was too closely linked with the sultanate and backward-mindedness. The parliament gave him the surname Atatürk, which means “father of the Turks” in 1934, when surnames were introduced in Turkey.

Atatürk was convinced that Islam hampered progress. Through the radical separation of state and religion, he deprived religious institutions of their power. The caliphate and religious courts were abolished, the sharia was replaced by Swiss and Italian law, the veil and fez were banned.

In 1928, a new constitution that no longer contained any religious references was adopted and the Latin alphabet was introduced. A year later, compulsory Arabic and Persian lessons were abolished. In 1932, the muezzin’s call was then banned in Arabic, and the call to prayer was made in Turkish instead. Muezzins have only been heard in Arabic again since 1950.


Top-down revolution

The reforms were extensive, affecting political, social and religious life. The “father of the Turks” made a secular nation-state with a new legal system out of the caliphate, and ruled the one-party state he founded in accordance with the principle of “educational dictatorship”, one of Lenin’s principles. The background: around 90 % of the population were illiterate. 80 % lived in the country and aligned themselves with religious and regional affiliations and clanships. In Atatürk’s view, the people were ignorant and had to be educated.

The reformer and his comrades-in-arms regarded themselves as the elite who knew what was good for the people. They did not shy from making people do what they thought was good for them. The reforms went down very well with urban people and the educated class – a minority in the new country. By contrast, terms such as “nation” did not mean anything to the simple folk. They were ordered to adopt the changes. The rural population reacted to this with unrest and resistance.

Atatürk repressed this kind of rebellion with the help of the military, which was his main pillar of support from the outset. Officers and generals were his most loyal followers. A broad middle-class, which could have helped Atatürk build the country according to the western model had not yet formed. In this respect, it is not surprising that a third of the members in the first cabinet of the republican government came from the army. In times of crisis, Atatürk could rely on the armed forces, which have legitimised their power since the formation of the republic by invoking two threat scenarios: separatism and Islamism. The fact that that the AKP government takes a more conciliatory and tolerant line towards the Kurds and Armenians than previous cabinets did irritates commanders.

Religion in public life

It was already apparent after the Second World War that the Kemalist break with religious heritage had not succeeded. Islam had simply been suppressed, but retained its importance among the people. With the introduction of a multi-party system in 1946, Islam gained more space in public life. Democratisation led to a paradigm change. Initially, laicism had meant that religion should have no influence at all in the state system. Now, Diyanet, the religious affairs directorate, was supposed to control religion and shape the way it was practised.

Secularism in Turkey has never meant the institutional separation of state and religion. Nor has it had anything to do with the equal treatment of denominations by the state: the rights of religious minorities have always been severely restricted. Even today, Christian communities are not allowed to acquire real estate or train religious recruits.

Constitutional provisions for the military

With the creation of the National Security Council (NSC), Atatürk’s successor Celal Bavaria gave the military greater latitude. The committee was enshrined in the constitution in 1961. The armed forces thus secured their influence on domestic policy. The NSC has an advisory function to the government, and is made up of the commanders-in-chief from the army, navy, air force and police, the chief of the general staff, the prime minister, his deputy, the minister of foreign affairs, internal affairs and defence and the president.

The military, claiming to preserve the legacy of the state’s founder, toppled three governments: in 1960, 1971 and 1980. Torture and murder were common. Moreover, there was a “soft coup” in 1997, when the government under Islamist Necmettin Erbakan was dismissed under threat of military action. Interventions was easy for the generals: Along with the police force, the military controls 90 % of the country. It is beyond the civil judiciary on account of having its own court-system. The Oyak Group, which belongs to the armed forces, is one of the largest industrial and commercial enterprises in the country. The group, with around 60 companies and equity hol­dings in banks, mines, steel and power plants, has approximately 35,000 employees and makes large profits.

With an amendment to the constitution in 2003, the AKP government reduced the military’s power in the NSC and changed the composition of the committee in favour of civilian members. While the NSC could previously voice its recommendations in all political spheres, this is now limited to security policy. In addition, the authority to supervise and control how recommendations are implemented was transferred to the prime minister. The civilian head of government is now calling the shots.

The constitutional amendment also enabled civi­lian control of the military budget. Parliament can request that the audit office review military expenditures. The weakening of their position – not only in the NSC – is causing displeasure among the generals. They regard Erdogan and his supporters as a threat to secularism as defined by Atatürk. It is true that Erdogan roused fundamentalist sentiment in the past; how­ever, as head of government he comes across more like a German Christian Democrat than the mullahs in Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Neither the AKP reform policy nor Erdogan’s path towards European-Union membership pleases the military. Democratisation, after all, restricts the armed forces’ room for manoeuvre. Turkey’s accession to the EU would further deprive them of power because such a strong position for the military does not comply with EU principles founded on the rule of law.

For a long time, the people considered the special role of the military to be legitimate. Now, however, more and more people, including intellectuals, human rights campaigners and the industrialists’ association TÜSIAD are demanding that the military withdraw from politics and society. It is argued that the military’s proclaimed fear for secularism is a mere pretense and that the commanders actually worry about keeping in place the pro-elitist status quo.

Furthermore, the stronger presence of Islam must not be interpreted as Islamisation, say critics of the Kemalists. Rather, the religion has been suppressed for decades and is now gaining more space in public again in the course of democratisation.