Turkey on the Tipping Point
Op-Ed by Christian Merville, L'Orient-Le Jour, 1 May 2007
Are there people seeking to redefine secularism? Do these people occupy high positions of power? Has the ideology introduced by Atatürk been attacked? If “yes” is the answer to any one of these questions, it would mean that Turkey is threatened by Islamic fundamentalism.The source of these statements, made during an address to the cadets of the War Academy last October 2nd, General Yasar Büyükanit, is hardly a shrinking violet. Quite the contrary. The Chief of the General Staff is considered, in the eyes of his peers, a hawk who does not mince his words. These four statements resonated like a shot across the bow, the first in a series of salvos that have continued through Friday, when General Büyükanit attacked the government in the harshest of terms and accused it of failing to defend secular principles.
It was a pointless effort on the part of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to defend his management of public affairs as he underscored that he had stepped away from the extremist movement to which his predecessor (and mentor), Necmettin Erbakan, belonged and to vaunt the fact that that over the last five years, Turkish economic growth has been spectacular. Try as he might, he was unable to mollify a wrathful army that jealously guards the heritage from the Father of the Nation.
Meanwhile, the West is confronted with a terrible dilemma: how to reconcile the necessity of strict observance of democratic norms, which would mean keeping the current cabinet in their jobs and the election a week from now of Abdallah Gül as head of state and, at the same time, to prevent Turkey from teetering dangerously on the brink of fundamentalism, which would reduce its chances of admittance to the European Union to zero and multiply by a factor of 100 the chances of contagion to every other state in the region.
Another problem for the Western pseudo-defenders of so-called republican values: How to demand for the Justice and Development Party what it denies to Palestine’s Hamas, which came to power after a perfectly honest election. One after the other, the Vice President of the European Commission, Guenter Verheugen, Special EU Envoy Hanjoerg Kretschmer and Enlargement Spokesperson Olli Rehm insisted that the army remain out of politics.
Yesterday, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy counseled “our Turkish friends to carry the Constitutional process (and, therefore, the presidential election) to its conclusion”, while recalling “concern for respect of secularism”.
These well-intentioned individuals would do well to make a practical demonstration of this unheard-of way of dealing with the democratic goat and the secular cabbage.
Nevertheless, all these considerations of pure form beg one more question, which is: How is the army able to claim the right to intervene in the country’s political life when this could result in seeing everything acquired since 1925 being swept away without there being a thing it can do about it?
On four occasions in forty-seven years –in1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997–, the military intervened to restore the state to the Kemalist rails. Following each of these interventions, they quietly retreated back their barracks being careful, however, to keep an eye on the switch to ensure respect for the heritage of Mustafa Kemal, who desired, he said, “to free religion from its role as a political instrument”, this goal being one of the famous “Six Arrows" of reform based on "laikdik", a word derived from “laïcité “ or secularity, so dear to Europe.
Some people may judge the fears of the military brass, who prefer prevention to cure, as excessive and misplaced, as singed as they are by the Iranian experience. In 1979, explains one of them, Zeyno Baran of the Hudson Institute, when those loyal to the Shah finally came to realize the danger of Khomeinism, it was too late to do anything about it.
Precisely. Iran. In the halls of power in Washington there are voices being heard underscoring the necessity of having a Turkey able to serve as a counterweight –from the confines of Afghanistan to the heart of the Middle East– to the influence of Tehran. But then, although it’s impossible, as the Anglo-Saxons say, to have your cake and eat it, too, the generals cannot really be blamed for an excess of political orthodoxy and the desire to prevent the repudiation, upon short notice, of everything that over the last eight years that has made Turkey modern.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, one should let the old Sick Man of Europe finish his convalescence with the hope that his return to health occurs through the Constitutional Council or under the bracing effect of the hinted use of force, rather than the real thing.