Turkey, militarism, religion and modernity

There’s an interesting political drama happening in Turkey right now. The entire military command has resigned en masse.

General Isik Kosanar, the military chief, and the respective heads of the Turkish army, navy and air force tendered their resignations Friday, apparently in protest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on around forty generals and military officers being suspected of involvement in an alleged coup plot called Oplan Sledgehammer. Supposedly, the plot calls for bombings of mosques and increasing tensions with Greece in order to create political chaos, which would justify a military take-over. One of the generals, an ex-army chief, has allegedly ordered his subordinates to run anti-government websites.

To appreciate the significance of this development, we have to understand that Turkey is a nation still smarting from a long tradition of militarism. In the past century, the Turkish people had repeatedly turned to the military to intervene in times of great political instability. There had been coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. And while military rule has long been replaced by constitutional democracy, the military has managed to maintain its clout and continue to be a political actor, almost always in the name of protecting the state ideology enunciated by the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, called Kemalism by students of Turkish politics, which strongly emphasizes the Republic’s strong secularist tradition, against the rise of Islamism. In 1997, for instance, the military maneuvered to have an Islamist prime minister removed from office.

The legacy of militarism is always a problem for young democracies still struggling to develop their impersonal institutions as a way to achieve a stable polity. Some sociologist and political scientists consider this development of institutions as part of the transition to modernity; with modern political society being defined as one where laws and institutions, as opposed to personalities and traditions, rule. In Thailand, for instance, the elite and the Royal court often turn to the military to protect the state against what they perceive as threats, like Thaksinian populism’s pandering to the “illiterate” rural poor. In the Philippines, military adventurism remains a dangerous legacy of the Marcos dictatorship, exacerbated by the civilian leadership’s inability to punish military adventurers and, bewilderingly, the rewarding of the coup plotters with Senate seats. In Latin America, militarism has created banana republics still hypnotized by caudillismo.

Perhaps realizing that Turkey is not an exception to this problem, Prime Minister Erdogan’s  Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been very vigorous in confronting the legacy of Turkey’s militarist past. Last year, for instance, Erdogan led a successful ‘Yes’ campaign in a referendum to amend the Turkish Constitution. Some of the amendments nullified provisions that had long reinforced the military’s political clout, including one that gave military officers involved in the 1980 coup permanent immunity from criminal prosecution.

Clearly, therefore, what we are seeing in Turkey is part of a political struggle between the military clique desperately trying to protect its place in the nation’s polity on one hand, and  the AKP-led civilian government trying to change the political configuration on the other hand. It appears that the current goal of the AKP is to buttress constitutionalism by upholding the primacy of civilian rule.

Of course, it takes greater knowledge of the nuances of Turkish politics to know whether the AKP has succeeded– or is succeeding– in supplanting the military’s influence; but from what we see in the news, it would seem that the old guards of the Turkish armed forces are being outmaneuvered by Erdogan’s political acumen. The mass resignations succeeded only in melodrama; but in the end, it shows that the military old guards are running out of options.  The civilian leadership merely replaced the military leadership with Erdogan’s choices, and the prosecution of the generals and officers allegedly involved in the supposed coup plot will still continue. If this is the case, then we can say that, from the perspective of completing the transition to political modernity, perhaps Turkey is finally coming of age. Indeed, civilian primacy over the army is one step towards the harmonization of Turkish politics with Western political values, which is an important requirement for membership in the European Union, for which Ankara aspires.

But for others, this struggle may also be framed as a larger, more profound battle for Turkey’s political soul between Kemalist secularism and Islamism. And from the perspective of many of us, it would be dangerous for Islamism to gain an upper hand in a country as politically important as Turkey. This is because we almost always tend to associate Islamism with Islamic fundamentalism.

Of course, for many years, religion had been one of the biggest threats to secularism and democracy. This is why most staunch secularists are, quite understandably, wary of any ideals that are grounded on religious beliefs. But in trying to associate all religious ideals with religious fundamentalism, staunch secularists become fundamentalists themselves. And, as we are seeing in France, secular fundamentalism can be as oppressive to liberty as religious fundamentalism.

In reality, religious ideals don’t necessarily contradict respect for healthy secularism and democratic traditions. This is the gist of many of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals, where he often argues that Western secularism shoud let religions have reasonable space to allow them to play their own roles in society. The rise of Islamism in Turkey, as respected sociologist Randy David had argued last year, “is a development that is not adequately captured by simplistic labels like Islamic fundamentalism.”

“Over the years, [Turkey’s] strict secularist policy has given way to a more liberal practice that allows reasonable space for the practice of religion and the manifestation of Islamic faith and identity in various spheres of social life. This has come about partly as a result of the growing influence of Islamic ideas in the formulation of a vision for modern Turkey, but largely as an outcome of the renewed confidence that Islam is giving to its adherents in a globalized world,” wrote David. In this context, perhaps we can say that Turkish society is ahead of its Western counterparts.

So, is the AKP trying to supplant secularims with Islamism, or is it merely trying to let Islamic ideas influence Turkey’s transition to over-all modernity? Indeed, can Islamism co-exist with secular democracy? By following the developments in this intriguing moment in Turkey’s political history, we may soon find out.

If you like what you read here, you will definitely like The Observers, a group blog on politics, society, history, and international affairs. The Nutbox has moved to the said website. 


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