Increasing tension in Turkey as Islamist government foils secularist coup

Developing Just Leadership

Hajira Qureshi

Rajab 29, 1429 2008-08-01


by Hajira Qureshi (World, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 6, Rajab, 1429)

The long-established fault-lines dividing Turkish society are emerging to dominate its politics once again. As on so many occasions in the past, the secular elites are once again up in arms to protect the nation-state that they have dominated for 85 years. The difference, this time, is that within their own government they have found an adversary ready to stand up to them, one that will not go quietly. Even as they have defended themselves in court against attempts to overturn the democratic desire of the Turkish people to be ruled by an Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) itself has indicted 86 people in connection with an alleged attempted military coup.

On July 1 Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, Turkey’s chief prosecutor, began the official closed-door court hearing on the closure of the AKP, laying out the arguments for the ruling party to be banned for trying to undermine the secular principles of the Turkish nation-state. Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya told the court that there was a “real and present danger” of an Islamic state emerging under the AKP. The eleven-judge Constitutional Court is now in session.

As reported previously in Crescent International (February 2008), the AKP, which has governed since 2002 and was re-elected to office last year with 47 percent of the votes, voted overwhelmingly to relax the ban on hijab in universities. This was seen by the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Turkey’s secular elite (the Turkish military and judiciary) as an unforgivable and dangerous affront to the secular principles of the Turkish state and a step towards implementing shari‘ah law in Turkey. The CHP therefore took the AKP to the Constitutional Court to overturn the amendments allowing Muslim women to wear hijab in universities, which the Court did on June 5. There were cries of frustration from the AKP at the Turkish political parties’ inability to reach a compromise. However, the implications of these events were much greater. In March of this year, the CHP filed a case with the Constitutional Court to outlaw the AKP and ban 71 of its members, including prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and president Abdullah Gul, from politics for five years on the grounds that the AKP had become a “focal point” of Islamist activity aimed at installing an “Islamic regime”.

When the court hearing against the AKP began on July 1, events had already taken an interesting turn. Hours before the court came into session, 21 members of the secular elite, and known government critics, were detained, including two retired four-star generals, some journalists and politicians, and the head of Ankara’s chamber of commerce, for alleged links with a group known as Ergenekon, suspected of attempting to topple the government. Documents seized by the Turkish police indicated that this shadowy, ultra-nationalist and illegal organisation was planning a coup to unseat the government: one that involved launching illegal protests on July 7 across 40 provinces, sparking clashes with security forces and publishing fake documents showing a worsening economy. A few days later, a Turkish court charged ten of the 21, including two generals, Hursit Tolon and Sener Eruygur, of “setting up and leading an armed gang”. Currently the number of people in custody in connection with the Ergenekon investigation, which was launched in June 2007 after the discovery of explosives at a house in Istanbul, stands at over 50. Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based expert on Turkish security forces, has said that Ergenekon may be a criminal organisation and so should be prosecuted, “but it appears to have been a small and rather shoddy organisation, which was probably unravelled before it managed to plan any major act of violence. It was discovered in June 2007. By January [2008], the founders and leaders were behind bars and the organisation had effectively ceased to exist.”

Secularists accused the government of making the mass arrests on July 1 in revenge for the court hearing against the AKP on the same day. Two days later, the AKP defended itself in a closed-court hearing with deputy prime minister Cemil Cicek, a former lawyer, and Bekir Bozdag, a senior MP from the AKP, rejecting the charges, denying accusations that the AKP was trying to impose shari‘ah law and saying that the charges were politically motivated to unseat a popular twice-elected government. The AKP has long complained that the case against it is motivated by ideological rather than legal considerations. A few days later, Osman Can, advisor to the Turkish Constitutional Court, backed the AKP in a non-binding report, saying that the AKP’s decision to relax the ban on hijab had only been intended to expand freedoms. He argued that, as the removal of the hijab ban in universities had been reversed, no further action was necessary and the case for closure of the AKP could be dropped. Mr Can’s recommendations were relayed to the eleven judges, nine of whom are known to have strong secular allegiances and seven of whom need to vote for the closure of the AKP for the closure to take effect. The result of the case is due to be announced in three or four weeks.

The AKP is eager for the ruling to come sooner rather than later, so that it can make plans for its own and the country’s future. Should the AKP be closed down, it is expected that its members will simply rally round and found another political party, under a new name, than will be able to contest the next general elections. Should prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan be banned from politics he may return to parliament by running as an independent.

On Monday, July 14, Aykut Cengiz Engin, Turkey’s chief prosecutor, announced charges against 86 people of attempting to topple the government by military coup. The 2,500-page indictment accuses suspects of possessing explosives and arms as well as obtaining classified documents and provoking military disobedience. In the last 50 years, military coups have unseated four elected, Islamically-inclined governments. The military considers itself a guardian of Turkey’s secular interests. It is interesting to note that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic, himself advocated the non-involvement of the military in government affairs.

Secularists accuse the twice-elected AKP of becoming drunk on power. While, in its first term in office, the AKP introduced extensive political, human rights and economic reforms under the pretext of preparing for membership of the European Union, in its second term its priorities have changed. Pig farms have been closed, attempts made to restrict alcohol advertising and, most controversially, the hijab ban relaxed in universities, making it clear to the secularists that the AKP considers some human rights to be more important than others. On the other hand the AKP, formed in 2001 by politicians who once belonged to Turkey’s Islamic movement, has always strongly defended democracy, the liberal economy, human rights, civil freedoms and national integrity; the AKP is one of the two political parties that have managed to integrate the Kurdish population into Turkey’s democratic political system. While Yalcinkaya is seeking to ban the AKP on the grounds that its members want to dismantle the secular reforms introduced by Ataturk, the AKP argues that it is trying to further Ataturk’s modernising agenda with economic development, expanded human rights and EU membership. In addition, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pointed out that the principles of secularism set out in Turkey’s constitution are for the state, not for individuals.

A fierce battle is being fought in Turkey between the government and the secular elite, a battle between the new elite and the old one. It is a clash between 80 percent of the people struggling for full democracy, a real market economy and basic human rights, such as the freedom to practise one’s religion, and 20 percent of the people, who do not want to lose their privileges, which stem from the status quo. The conflict is between authoritarian secularism on the one hand and “moderate Islam” and “modern democracy” on the other.

Opportunities for compromise have been missed. Quite possibly, and unfortunately for what it says about the state of the contemporary Ummah, if Muslims in Turkey were allowed such basic religious rights as wearing hijab and praying in the work-place, they may well be content to allow the secularists to continue to rule their country. However, the personal expression of an individual’s Islam (such as the hijab) frightens the secularists so much that they are antagonising the majority badly, to no one knows what eventual end.

If the relaxation of the hijab-ban in universities in February was unconstitutional (which is doubtful because the opposition has argued that the hijab ban and its consequences – such as education and public services being denied to Muslim women – are in direct contravention of human rights laws), and at the same time a popular move, one brought about by a democratically elected government, it provokes the question of whether it is the people who need to mould their aspirations to the Kemalist constitution, or the constitution that needs to change to serve its people?

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