Monday, 01 March 2010

Will the Reversal of the Regime of Military Tutelage Encourage a Reinvention of Turkey's Secular Camp?

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 3, no. 4 of the Turkey Analyst)

The critical question today is whether the Turkish secularists will conclude that a reassessment of their ideological stance has become inevitable subsequent to the reversal of the regime of military tutelage. Not unlike the Islamists a decade ago, the seculars face the challenge to either broaden their appeal or concede defeat.  Without secular forces making a transition to liberalism, the democratic evolution of Islamic conservatism will remain uncertain.

BACKGROUND: On February 28, 1997 the then all powerful Turkish military staged the operation that would end with the resignation of the country’s first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan four months later. The “post-modern” coup of 1997 targeted not only Islamists, but liberal intellectuals as well, as newspaper magnates were told by the General staff to fire liberal columnists who had challenged the regime of military tutelage. On February 22, 2010, another date that will go down in Turkish history, the military intervention in politics thirteen years ago was effectively reversed. The historic importance of the detention, starting that day, of top military officers charged with having taken part in a coup scheme in 2003 can hardly be overrated. Irrespective of how much of the allegations against the officers are indeed true, it is a singular event in the history of the Turkish republic, whose custodians had remained above, indeed dictated, the law.

The “post-modern” coup of 1997 served as a corrective for the Islamists; they were eventually to shed most of their ideological rhetoric, repositioning themselves as pro-Europeans and liberal reformists in the shape of the Justice and development party (AKP). The critical question today is whether the secular forces in Turkey, long accustomed to rely on the power of the military, will similarly conclude that a reassessment of their ideological stance has become inevitable subsequent to the reversal of the regime of military tutelage.

The repositioning of the Islamists in the aftermath of 1997 was occasioned by the appreciation that the religious conservatives needed to broaden their appeal in order to strengthen the legitimacy of their traditional demands; the issue of the headscarf, for instance, was no longer presented in terms that evoked religion, but as a matter pertaining to individual freedom.

The subsequent “openings” to minorities, in particular the Kurdish minority, has had the benefit of further refurbishing the image of the AKP as a party that represents a radical departure from the authoritarian nationalist ideology of the republic and its military custodians. Yet, the democratic pretensions of the AKP are belied by a series of events. These include, most recently, the clampdown on Kurdish mayors and other political representatives of the Kurdish movement – those arrested amount to over nine hundred; the continued imprisonment of Kurdish children on charges of “terrorism”; and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regular assaults on the freedom of the press. Indeed, the precipitate retreat from the much vaunted “opening” to the Kurds strongly suggests that the replacement of the regime of military tutelage will not necessarily entail an appurtenant abandonment of the statism and the Turkish nationalism that were the hallmarks of the defunct regime. The transition of Islamist forces to democracy remains at best incomplete; it is certainly easier to envision a synthesis of Islamic conservatism with Turkish nationalism and statism, than an emergence anytime soon of a Turkey where liberal values govern the political debate.

That is the case not because the evolution of the religious conservative mindset would be inconceivable. On the contrary, opinion surveys do indicate that those who adhere to religious conservative values in their private realm are increasingly prone to hold democracy in high esteem. That evolution could obviously be ascribed primarily to the fact that a religious conservative party is in power; nevertheless, the prospect of an eventual democratization of the conservative heartland cannot be dismissed, not least as the increased economic interaction of the religious bourgeoisie with the outside world could theoretically encourage cultural and political liberalization as well.  However, ultimately, Turkey’s democratization will depend on the interaction between the secular and religious parts of society.

IMPLICATIONS: Historically the vector of the modernization of the country, the secular middle class of Turkey has been singularly unable to cope with the turn that modernization has taken during the last two decades. As that process has resulted in the empowerment of the lower, culturally conservative classes, the secular middle class has become increasingly estranged from the very values – Westernization, freedom – with which it was once associated. According to a 2008 survey, those who were most inclined to hold libertarian views in their private lives were also those who exhibited an authoritarian stance concerning politics. The existential threat that religious conservatism is believed to represent has turned seculars – who a decade ago advocated Turkish EU membership – into reclusive, authoritarian nationalists.

Tellingly, Deniz Baykal, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s party (CHP), defended the arrested military officers, designating their arrest as something that supposedly would never have occurred in a democratic country. Baykal went on to compare the arrested officers with the Ottoman dignitaries who were exiled to Malta by the British in 1920. Consoling the military, Baykal predicted that the arrested officers would have their freedom restored, just as the “national heroes” exiled to Malta had been returned to the homeland. The latter were in fact accused of complicity in the mass killings and deportations of the Armenians 1915, and were never acquitted. Their release was the result of power politics, not of justice being administered. The implication of the CHP leader’s historical analogy is problematic to say the least – he seems entirely indifferent to whether the accusations against the imprisoned officers are true or not.

In another statement, Baykal claimed that the AKP government is only motivated by a desire to “beat the military”, and reiterated the opposition of the CHP to a change of the constitution that would make it possible to try military personnel in active duty in civilian courts.

The stance of the CHP is remarkable, given the fact that the party is self-avowedly social democratic, and a member of the Socialist international. The CHP represents a modernist middle class, the best educated part of society; it has been remarked that the CHP would have obtained an absolute majority of votes if only university graduates had been allowed to vote. By any historical and international standards, such a party should not object to the application of the rule of law to the military. The CHP has not always supported military tutelage; indeed, the party was one of the main targets of the 1980 military coup. At one level, the CHP’s pro-militarism reflects the intellectual regression of the secular mindset that has been brought about recently. Yet, at another level, the anachronistic authoritarianism displayed by the secular, “modern” middle class is congruent with how modernity has always been understood by Turkish secularists.

Bülent Ecevit was a secularist who succeeded 
in reaching out to the popular masses.

Although Turkey’s secularist modernizers aspired to have their country accepted as a Western, European country, they never fully embraced the implications of the notion of Westernization. Westernization inevitably carried the implication of the empowerment of free individuals and civil society, notions which remained alien in a political context where the overriding concern was to ensure that society did not escape the control of the state. Liberalism along Western lines failed to develop among the secular middle class that largely remained beholden, not least in material terms, to the state. Neither has a social democracy of the European kind - an alliance of part of the middle class and the working class – ever materialized, except for a brief moment in the 1970s when such a promise was held out by populist leader Bülent Ecevit. This is precisely because the secular middle class never could connect, or indeed sought to connect, with the lower classes that it despised.

The social arrogance of those who deem themselves to be enlightened is a crucial determinant of the hostility toward the AKP. That was displayed recently by the officers in a military unit who chose “base Prime Minister” as password, an act that prompted Prime Minister Erdoğan to take legal action against those involved.

CONCLUSIONS: Political scientist Fuat Keyman, the author of a recent book that details the seminal sociological and economic changes that is altering the cultural fabric of Anatolia, describes Turkey as having three distinct middle classes, all defined by different versions of conservatism: The secular middle class, residing mostly in the western, coastal rim, has developed a reclusive nationalism in reaction to having been deprived of its formerly elevated position and status. The religious middle class of the Anatolian heartland, acquiring strength by the day, is culturally conservative. And in the Kurdish Southeast, a growing middle class is strongly tempted by ethnic nationalism. Keyman warns that Turkey faces the risk of becoming a country divided into mutually intolerant communities who seek freedom only for themselves, not tolerating the rights of the others. As Keyman argues, the risk of authoritarianism can only be averted if freedom and democracy is sought for society as a whole. Like other liberal leftist intellectuals, he believes that that is a mission to be shouldered by a reinvented left, as the AKP is “too burdened by its conservatism, although the party has been the vector of Turkey’s transformation”.

Indeed, the politics of the supposedly social democratic pro-militarist CHP has reached a dead end. Military authoritarianism can no longer keep a society whose heterogeneity has become too “unruly” in check, a fact the Chief of the General staff General İlker Başbuğ himself seems to recognize. To assail the authoritarianism of the AKP, while opposing the democratization of civilian-military relations will not enable secularist politics to reach beyond its core constituency.

The secularists face very much the same challenge as the Islamists did a decade ago: to either broaden their appeal or to concede defeat. And like the Islamists, the secularists will have to make a conceptual leap, albeit of a somewhat different nature, reappraising democracy, and ceasing to see the military as their ultimate rampart.

The adherence of Turkey’s Islamic conservatives to liberal and democratic values can certainly not be taken for granted, as the policies of the AKP during its second term have showed. Yet, no less consequential for Turkey’s democratization is that secularism is reinvented, making its own transition to liberalism. Haluk Şahin, a liberal secularist academic, exhorts the seculars to reclaim the banners of freedom that “rightfully belongs to them”. Such voices are rare among the secularists. However, challenging the AKP to forgo the habits of authoritarian statism and nationalism – instead of assailing it for subjugating the military to the rule of law – would indeed make the secularist claim to represent enlightenment values credible.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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