BACKGROUND: At the southern Turkish seaside resort of Marmaris, 90-year old senior citizen, former president and coup leader Kenan Evren enjoys a quiet retirement. Evren is something of an exception in the world of today, a former coup leader who “got away with it”. He is a former dictator who does not have to worry about being tried for having overthrown a democratically elected government. He is, almost, forgotten. Kenan Evren can be sure that he will not share the fate of his colleague, Polands Wojciech Jaruzelski, who today, at the same age, is to stand trial for his dictatorship in the 1980s.
Turkey has never gone through the kind of collective and public soul-searching into its authoritarian past as Poland is doing or as Argentina and Chile still continue to do. Tellingly, few commentators have paid attention to the anniversary of the 1980 coup. There are several reasons for the silence. One obvious reason is that the Turkish military enjoys a status in society which is not comparable to the status of the armed forces of Argentina, Chile or Poland. Yet, although the military still ranks as the most trusted institution in society, it has lately been subjected to unprecedented criticism in the media and its political interventions against the AKP government have been repelled.
The arrests in July 2008 of the retired four-star generals Hursit Tolon and Sener Eruygur (who are yet to be charged, but who are widely believed to have been implicated in a coup plot) testify to the military’s new vulnerability. So, why is there no probing about the dictatorship of the 1980s? When Tolon and Eruygur were put behind bars, one or two commentators raised the question why the general who actually did stage a coup continues to enjoy comfortable immunity. But these are dissenting voices that remain marginal. The ruling moderate Islamists have in fact benefited from the effects of the generals’ rule; and those among the opposition who still harbor the hope that they will be able to somehow mobilize the army for the secularist cause are obviously disinclined to voice any public criticism of the military’s past record.
Yet, the 1980 coup stands out in Turkish history, and it was indeed no less far-reaching than the contemporary coups in Latin America that international opinion paid much greater attention to. 500,000 people were jailed; and an estimated 150,000 were subjected to torture. 55 death sentences were carried out. Although Turkey was subjected to certain international criticism, the junta of General Kenan Evren was more or less spared. The Turkish military escaped moral condemnation because the events prior to the coup had lent it a degree of legitimacy.
Indeed, Turkey between 1975 and 1980 was ravaged by political anarchy. By 1980, the average daily death toll in the fighting between the extreme right and the extreme left had reached thirty people. On September 12, 1980, the guns fell silent when the tanks rolled. The Turkish public was relieved, and many even welcomed the coup. That said, nagging questions about the anarchy that had preceded the coup, significantly speculations about the possible implication of shady institutions of the state that had allegedly masterminded the series of events that led to the coup, have since continued to occasionally surface. The recent unraveling of the alleged Ergenekon plot against the AKP government has renewed the interest in the workings of the “deep state”. Commentator Mehmet Kamis in pro-Islamist Zamanmaintains that the roots of the plot against the AKP can be traced back to what transpired in the 1970s, when the precursor to the current Ergenekon gang allegedly paved the way for the 1980 military coup.
What is in any case certain is that the military dictatorship, although it lasted for only three years, inaugurated a new era in politics, economics and society which endures three decades later.
IMPLICATIONS: The coup was above all directed against the left; it crushed not only the radical, violent left, but the nascent democratic left and the trade unions as well. The organizational and intellectual infrastructure of what in time could have evolved into a European-type of social democracy was obliterated. The military initiated a liberalization of the economy and, finally, it encouraged Islam as an alternative to the left.
General Kenan Evren took care to deliver public speeches with the Koran in one hand. The generals promoted a “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” as the new state ideology, in their attempt to wed right-wing nationalism and Islam. Education in the tenets of Sunni Islam was made compulsory at the elementary school level (it was already compulsory at high school level), and the decree was even written into the constitution. Several hundred new clerical-training schools, the imam-hatip, were founded. The military junta engaged in a frenzy of mosque expansion and ordered the building of mosques in Alevi villages as well, although members of the Alevi minority, who subscribe to a heterodox version of Islam, do not frequent mosques.
Simultaneously, and with lasting, confusing effects among liberal intellectuals, the military junta launched an unprecedented, extensive Atatürk campaign. The founder of the republic had of course always been the object of a personality cult, but it had never before attained the levels it did during the Kenan Evren regime. It was at this time that “Atatürkism” was elevated to a founding principle of the constitution. As Esra Özyürek observes in her recent study Nostalgia for the modern, (Duke, 2006) the junta used Atatürk as a symbol in order to reinstate the authority of the state, and literally forced Atatürk on everyone.
The paradox has been noted by leftist historian Taner Timur: “It was during the military interventions of March 12, 1971 and September 12, 1980 that the main principle of Kemalism – secularism – was dealt the most severe blows.” Timur wrote those lines in 1991, long before the advent of the moderate Islamists. His observations anticipated what was to ensue a decade later: “The constant exploitation by the 1971 and 1980 military interventions of the Kemalist cult and their incessant references to Atatürkism have distorted the public opinion’s perception of what Kemalism is about. By utilizing Kemalism as a label for policies that are in marked contradiction with its core principles, the 1980 coup Kemalists finally succeeded in repelling democrats from Atatürk.”
Thus, the military undermined the Atatürk legacy – of which it is generally assumed to be the unwavering watchdog, a modern myth if there ever was one – first by the promotion of the Islamicization of society and of the state ideology, and secondly, and perhaps more devastatingly, by mobilizing the Atatürk legacy of secularism (or rather the rhetoric about it) in the service of authoritarianism. The former policies helped pave the way for the Islamic movement, in particular by furthering the Islamic cadres’ advance in the state bureaucracy. The latter policy de-legitimized secularism among the liberal intelligentsia. Liberals and other democrats were, as Timur could foretell already two decades ago, ready to embrace any force that would present itself as the democratic alternative to Kemalism. Moderate Islamism was to cast itself in that role by 2002.
Civilian secularism offered another alternative. Özyürek notes that a voluntary Atatürk campaign, initiated by citizens and consumers themselves, followed on the campaign of the junta, to which it was partly a reaction, at the end of the 1990s. The late 1990s witnessed the emergence of a private market for Atatürk pictures and posters – significantly not in military outfit, but in approachable, civilian representations, in contrast to his fierce looks in the pictures that decorate state offices – as secularist citizens reacted to the rise of political Islam, and simultaneously distanced themselves from the “Kemalist” symbolism of the state establishment they had come to distrust. However, civilian secularism, although it is probably representative of a “silent majority”, evokes little intellectual support. Liberalism, aligned with an Islamic conservatism that was once nurtured by the military itself, occupies the high ground in the public discourse. And in yet another ironic twist, parts of the secularist left that was once victimized by the military in the 1980s has evolved in an authoritarian direction, seeking salvation from Islamic conservatism in an alliance with the military.
CONCLUSIONS: As long as the intellectual confusion that was sown by Kenan Evren’s junta endures, an effective defense of secularism will be difficult to mount. Turkey’s liberalization will continue to be hampered if the perception of the enterprise of secularism remains informed by the military dictatorship of the 1980s.
Indeed, a heavy responsibility in particular weighs on the liberal intelligentsia’s shoulders. During the last two decades, Turkish liberal intellectuals have expended significant effort on deconstructing the official state ideology, which they have done by settling accounts with early republican policies of the 1920s and the 1930s. They have failed to notice the shadow cast by Kenan Evren over Kemal Atatürk. Evren will not stand trial; but it is crucial that liberals realize that he has to be stripped of his Kemalist credentials.