Western politicians and media unvaryingly hail Turkey as a democratic and social role model for other Muslim nations. `Why can’t the Muslim World be more likely Turkey,’ goes the refrain in Washington.
The recent dramatic political events in Turkey should instruct us that behind its veneer of parliamentary democracy lie unelected, semi-totalitarian power structures that have directed this nation’s affairs since the 1920’s.
Exhibit A: attempts by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (known as AK) to elect its able Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, as president. Under the current unrepresentative system, parliament, rather than voters, elects the powerful president.
Gul failed to win election due to a boycott of parliament by opposition parties and threats from the military. He withdrew his candidacy and called for the direct election of Turkey’s president. What Turks call their `deep government’ had once again used its iron fist.
AK, which runs Turkey’s most popular and successful government in living memory, is mildly Islamist. It advocates Islamic principles of social justice, better education, some wealth distribution, and fighting corruption. AK does not advocate imposition of Sharia law or major social restrictions, as in neighboring Iran.
In fact, the moderate, centrist AK is quite close in outlook to Europe’s Christian Democratic parties.
AK has enacted more beneficial reforms in human rights, education, public finance, health, and relations with old foe Greece than all of Turkey’s previous governments since 1945.
Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has achieved great strides in aligning Turkey with the European Union’s laws and conventions. Today, the EU is the world’s leader in human rights and advancement of democracy.
Turkey’s westernized elite mobilized to prevent Abdullah Gul from replacing the outgoing president, Ahmet Necdet, a hardline secularist installed by Turkey’s powerful military. Turkey’s ironically-named Constitutional Court, created by the armed forces after its last coup, denied Gul’s legitimate election. In response, AK called national elections for 22 July.
Political power in Turkey has long been contested between the elected parliament and the generals of the 515,000-man armed forces, NATO’s second largest. Turkey’s military, too-powerful security forces, courts, government bureaucracy, universities, and industrial oligarchy are widely known as the `deep government.’ This minority has held power since the 1920’s.
Turkey’s military and security organs closely control the nation’s religious life and clergy, who are paid by the government. All sermons are written by government officials and distributed to mosques for Friday services. Islam, in Turkey, is on a tight leash. In fact, Turkey’s state control of religion was likely directly inspired by Stalin’s takeover and management of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The `deep government’ has battled all attempts to alter the status quo or abandon Turkey’s state religion, the bizarre cult of 1930’s dictator Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who continues as an idol of veneration by Turkey’s hard right and westernized elite.
Turkey’s `deep government’ has not hesitated to use gangsters and neo-fascist nationalist groups against opponents or arrest political opponents. In Turkey’s chronically unstable political equation, the `deep government’ holds about 60% of real power and the elected parliament roughly 40%.
The election of Abdullah Gul to the presidency could have seriously altered this status quo. As president, he would have been able to appoint the military’s senior officers and bringing the armed forces, a state within the state, under control of the civilian government for the first time in Turkey’s modern history.
In recent weeks, Turkey’s glowering generals openly threatened to overthrow the AK-led government of Prime Minister Erdogan. Turkey’s military juntas have ousted four governments since the 1950’s, including the last Islamist-light government in 1997. While mayor of Istanbul, the highly popular Erdogan was actually jailed for reading a classic poem that the military deemed too Islamist.
Until recently, Turkey’s military junta received unlimited American backing. Turkey closely followed Washington’s lead and acted as its regional gendarme. Close political, military, intelligence, and commercial relations were established with Israel which, in return, opened all doors in Washington for Turkey and held America’s powerful Greek and Armenian lobbies at bay. But after recent brazen coup threats by Turkey’s brass, the US and the EU rightly warned them to stay out of politics.
Turkey’s `secularists,’ who have been staging large anti-AK demonstrations, fear AK will curtail the privileges they enjoy. The generals would cease being Turkey’s shadow government and benefiting from arms purchases. Industrialists could lose their monopolies and state contracts, government bureaucrats in Ankara their perks.
Many of Turkey’s westernized urban dwellers fear Islamists, even AK’s moderate ones, might impose Iranian-style Sharia law, including dress codes and bans on alcohol. AK supporters, many of whom have emigrated from rural to urban areas in recent decades, support a return to Turkey’s more Islamic culture, but hardly to an Islamic theocracy, as claim their secular enemies.
This is the traditional open-minded, easy-going Islamic culture that Attatuk ripped out by its roots in the 1930’s in his headlong effort to transform Turkey from a Muslim into a western European nation. Remarkably, almost eighty years later, the ghost of this deified dictator, who was deeply influenced by such contemporaries as Mussolini and Stalin, continues to hold Turkey in thrall. Ataturk’s ruthless anti-Islamic revolution also left Turkey with a permanent case of national schizophrenia, unsure to this day whether it is a western or Asian nation.
Americans and Europeans who cite Turkey as a model of Islamic good government have little understanding of what really transpires behind its façade of parliamentary democracy. Turkey cannot become a real democracy or modern nation until the power of its self-serving generals and industrial oligarchs is replaced by a truly independent government, and Turks are allowed to worship as they please.
Those nations who claim to be friends of Turkey, like the US and the EU, should keep telling Turkey’s generals to get out of politics and return to their barracks for good. It’s time to shine bright lights into Turkey’s `deep government’ and end its sinister, reactionary influence.