// archives


This tag is associated with 3 posts

No More Coups in Turkey

23 September 2012

No More Coups in Turkey

By Gwynne Dyer

In my trade you get used to it after a while, but the first time you wake up to find a military coup has happened overnight where you live is quite alarming. That was in Turkey back in 1971, when the army seized control of the country after months of political turmoil. It was not as bad as the 1960 coup, when the military authorities tried and hanged the prime minister, but it was bad enough.

There were two more coups in Turkey: in 1980, when half a million were arrested, tens of thousands were tortured, and fifty were executed, and 1997, a “post-modern” coup in which the army simply ordered the prime minister to resign. But there will be no more coups in Turkey: the army has finally been forced to bow to a democratically elected government.

On 21 September a Turkish court sentenced 330 people, almost all military officers, to prison for their involvement in a coup plot in 2003. They included the former heads of the army, navy and air force, who received sentences of twenty years each, and six other generals. Thirty-four other officers were acquitted.

Five years ago, nobody in Turkey could have imagined such a thing. The military were above the law, with the sacred mission (at least in their own minds) of defending the secular state from being undermined by people who mixed religion with politics. Making coups against governments that trespassed on that forbidden ground was just part of their job.

This was the duty that the 330 officers thought they were performing in 2003, according to the indictments against them. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a moderate Islamic party espousing conservative social values, had come to power after the 2002 election: the voters had got it wrong again, and their mistake had to be corrected.

With public opinion abroad and at home increasingly hostile to military coups, a better pretext was needed than in the old days. So the plot, “Operation Sledgehammer”, involved bomb attacks on two major mosques in Istanbul, a Turkish fighter shot down by the Greeks, and an attack on a military museum by Islamic militants. The real attackers, in every case heavily disguised, would actually be the military themselves.

The accused 330 claimed that “Operation Sledgehammer” was all just a scenario for a military exercise, and the documents supporting the accusations (probably leaked by junior officers opposed to a coup) have never been properly attributed. But given the army’s track record of four coups in fifty years and its deeply rooted hostility to Islamic parties, the charges were entirely plausible, and in the end the court believed them.

The army has no choice but to accept the court’s judgement. The AK party has been re-elected twice with increasing majorities, the party’s pious leaders have not tried to shove their values down everybody else’s throats, and the economy has flourished.

A new constitution, ratified in a referendum in 2010, has finally made elected civilian governments superior to the army. It even removed the legal immunity that those who carried out the bloody 1980 coup wrote into the previous constitution to protect themselves. As a result, the leaders of that coup, retired generals Kenan Evren and Tahsin Sahinkaya, have also been brought to trial. And about time, too.

Even now, many secular-minded people in Turkey do not trust the motives of an Islamic party in government. They still think that the army is there to protect them from the dark oppression of the religious fanatics, and that any attempt to curb its power is a conspiracy against the whole principle of the secular, neutral state.

But the Turkish secular state has never been neutral. From the time when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his companions, all military officers, rescued Turkey from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, the state was at war with religion.

Ataturk began by abolishing the religious schools, the Sultanate, and the Caliphate (religious authority over all Muslims) that Ottoman sultans had traditionally claimed. He banned forms of headgear, like the fez and the turban, that had religious connotations. He replaced Islamic law with Western legal codes, and declared the equal status of women and men (including votes for women).

It was understandable, because Ataturk had always argued that Turkey must Westernise its institutions and write off the non-Turkish parts of the empire if it wanted to survive in a world dominated by industrialised Western empires. But that was 75 years ago. Today’s Turkey is modern, powerful, and prosperous, and there is no external threat.

It’s high time for the Turkish army to stop waging a cold war against the part of the population who are still devoutly religious. They are entitled to the full rights of citizenship too, although they are not entitled to force their beliefs and values on everybody else.

That was the significance of AK’s victories in the past three elections, and of the trials that have finally brought the army under control. The head of the Turkish armed forces and all three service chiefs resigned in July in protest against the trials of military personnel, but President Abdullah Gul promptly appointed a new head of the armed forces – who tamely accepted the post. It’s over.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 9. (“With…themselves”; and “The army…too”)


Islam and the Idiotic Autocrats

30 August 2007

Islam and the Idiotic Autocrats

By Gwynne Dyer

It was not a tactful way to start out in his new job as a Turkish government spokesman, but Suat Kiniklioglu did cut to the heart of the matter. The reaction to the outcome of the recent Turkish elections (22 July) in other Muslim countries, he said, “can be roughly summed up as asking: What the hell did the Turks do right that we didn’t do? How come they can manage a predominantly Muslim population, negotiate (for membership) with the European Union, and have a workable democracy while we’re stuck with these idiotic autocrats.”

Idiotic autocrats? Could he be referring to the generals who rule so many Muslim countries: the three generals in direct succession who have run Egypt for over fifty years, the shadowy Algerian generals who have dominated their country for just as long, the generals who currently rule Bangladesh and Pakistan, the son of a general who runs Syria, and the “colonel” who has ruled Libya for 38 years?

Might he even be including the kings and sheikhs who rule most of the rest of the Muslim world, from Morocco to Brunei, sometimes with a parliamentary facade, sometimes without it? Idiotic autocrats? That’s a bit strong, especially from a Turk, since the Turks ruled most of the Arab world for centuries, with not the slightest nod to the notion of democracy until shortly before the empire collapsed in the First World War.

Kiniklioglu may lack tact, but his question does weigh on the minds of people elsewhere in the Muslim world. They wonder why so many Muslims are indeed still ruled by autocrats (not all of them idiots). Some even wonder if there is a basic incompatibility between democracy and Islam. The “Islamist” extremists not only believe this; they perversely proclaim it as a virtue. What they all forget is that the Turks have been working on this agenda for a hundred years.

Turkey is an exception among the larger Muslim countries: a functioning democracy with a booming economy that is a candidate (although a controversial one) to join the European Union. But then, Turkey was never a European colony, while almost all other Muslim countries were conquered by the European empires and lost their statehood for generations.

The Turkish state has existed for six centuries, whereas most other Muslim countries have scarcely been independent for six decades. And for almost a hundred years, starting with the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, the country has been ruled by people with a deliberate project to modernise the Turkish state. The Young Turks were army officers who believed that if Turkey did not modernise quickly in a European style, it too would be conquered by the European empires.

It took fifteen years, many blunders, and a lot of lives, and the Arab parts of the empire were lost to Britain and France in the process, but they did save their country. It was mostly the work of one of the Young Turk officers, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who first rose to fame by stopping the Anglo-French attempt to capture Istanbul in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Turkey was on the losing side in the First World War, but in 1919-22 Kemal led a resistance war that stopped the victors from carving the country up as colonies.

By 1923 the Sultan was deposed, Turkey was a republic, and Mustafa Kemal (who took the surname Ataturk — “Father of the Turks”) was in charge. He created a militantly secular state that rejected any public role for Islam, and set about imposing European systems and norms in every domain of life. It was formally a democracy by the 1950s, but it was really still run by a modernising, secular elite who monopolised the officer corps, the judiciary and the higher ranks of the bureaucracy.

The old elite believed that if Islam were not rigidly confined to the private sphere, it would drag Turkey back into a Middle East that they saw as being run by “idiotic autocrats,” but they were wrong. The problem is not Islam, but the people who use it to justify autocracy. And what has now happened in Turkey is that the Muslim democrats of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party have won a key confrontation with the army and elected their man, Abdullah Gul, to the presidency.

When the leaders of the AK party say that they support the secular state, the old elite think they are lying, and fifteen years ago some of them probably were. But the leaders and the party have both matured, and now believe that the best way to protect Islam in a modern state is to have the state absolutely neutral, neither for religion nor against it. Kiniklioglu himself, like many of AK party’s new stars, is a “not very religious” liberal who joined the party because he saw it as the best vehicle for completing the democratisation of Turkey.

What does this mean for other, less fortunate Muslim states? If they don’t have time machines, not much of practical use, for their history over the past hundred years has been very different. Turkey’s value to them is as living proof that economic success, democracy and freedom of religion are all fully compatible in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Other Muslim countries will have to follow different routes to the same destination, but it shouldn’t take them nearly so long to get there.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Might…war”; and “It took…colonies”)

Turkey in the EU

13 December 2004

Turkey in the EU?

By Gwynne Dyer

“I am absolutely in favour of Turkey’s membership in the European Union,” said Poland’s President Aleksander Kwasniewski in September. “We will support it. But — if we say yes’ to Turkey — it is a question then what we will say to Ukraine.”

The EU probably will say “yes” to starting negotiations for Turkish membership at its summit meeting in Brussels on 17 December, although it could be ten years or longer before Turkey is actually a member. Ukraine is not even a candidate yet, and has not begun the lengthy process of reform that would be needed to bring its laws and practices into conformity with EU human rights standards. But it is Turkey that faces the higher hurdles.

President John F. Kennedy was still alive when Turkey was first promised EU membership some forty years ago. Since then the EU has expanded from six to twenty-five members, with three more scheduled for entry in 2007 (including two, Romania and Bulgaria, with a lower per capita income than Turkey). The reason that Turkey is still at the end of the queue is not its relative poverty (though that is an issue), but its location, its size, and — above all — its religion.

Turkish membership would give the EU borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria, and make it a major power in the Middle East. Turkey would be the biggest country in the EU (its population, now 71 million, will overtake Germany’s within ten years), and since most EU decision-making is weighted by population, that would give it a huge voice in the EU’s affairs. Above all, it would kill the notion of “Europe” as a Christian club.

Add, say, eighty million Turks to the twenty million Muslims who already live in various EU member states, and an EU that includes Turkey would be an entity whose population is about 20 percent Muslim. This has prompted bigots like former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing to warn that Turkey’s membership would mean “the end of Europe,” but such voices are in the minority.

More representative of mainstream official opinion in the EU is French President Jacques Chirac’s comment that “We have an interest in having Turkey with us,” or the Advisory Council on International Affairs’s September report to the Dutch government that “Admitting a Muslim country may be new to the EU, but it does not differ in principle from earlier expansions. One way or another, Islam should gain a place within the EU….”

So far, so good, but the problem until recently was that Turkey simply wasn’t a sufficiently democratic country to meet the EU’s standards. As Britain’s Minister for Europe, Denis MacShane, put it in October:: “The process of the entry negotiations should promote as radical a reform process as that initiated by Ataturk.”

An immense amount has already been accomplished on this front in the past two years. After a decade of political turmoil and deadlock, the Turks elected a government in November, 2002 with a large majority in parliament and a clear mandate for change. The new governing party was, remarkably, an “Islamic” party whose predecessors had once been seen as opposed to the whole secular republic founded eighty years ago by Ataturk.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, however, the Justice and Development (AK) Party repackaged themselves as “Muslim Democrats” along the lines of Europe’s many “Christian Democratic” parties, and proceeded to remake the whole Turkish state in order to fit it for EU membership. In only two years, Erdogan’s government has rewritten a fifth of the constitution, ending the death penalty, bringing the army decisively under civil authority, granting language rights to the Kurdish minority and entrenching European standards of free speech in Turkish law.

Abuse and torture of prisoners in Turkish jails is one area where more work is needed (though the government is clearly trying), and there is a continuous tension between the AK party leadership’s Europeanising intentions and its conservative religious base over questions having to do with women’s rights and family law.

Nevertheless, enough progress has already been made that in October the European Commission declared that Turkey had met the political and economic conditions to be considered for EU membership.

What remains is the political decision to open negotiations, which must be taken unanimously by the governments of the 25 existing EU members. The Turks have been promised an answer, they have worked themselves to the bone to meet the conditions, and it looks like they will get the right answer. There is great anxiety about Tuskish entry at the popular level in a number of European countries, but the governments are mostly taking the longer view, and in some cases showing considerable political courage in doing so. (Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has consistently backed Turkish entry despite the German public’s clear opposition to it, for example.)

The wheels could still fall off this vehicle at the last minute –Austria, Cyprus and the Netherlands are the three governments that people most worry about — but it appears that Turkey will get the green light for opening membership negotiations in Brussels this week.

As Yusuf Kanli remarked in the Turkish Daily News when the European Commission gave its approval in October: “What we got is just a conditional green light to start a journey on a road on which for some reason many red lights were erected with great skill.” But it’s a start — and no country that ever started membership talks has failed to join the EU in the end.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“President –religion”; and “Abuse — membership”)