Reckless military set Turkey on road to needless turbulence

Developing Just Leadership

Our Own Correspondent

Dhu al-Qa'dah 23, 1417 1997-04-01

Special Reports

by Our Own Correspondent (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 3, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1417)

With Greece, Armenia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, China and others engaged, to varying degrees, in attacking Turkish interests or blocking Turkish influence in Europe and Central Asia, Turkey is not short of enemies. But the reckless military and civilian secular establishment, desperate to preserve its corrupt grip on power and resources, has declared war on Islam and the ruling Refah (Welfare) Party - plunging the country in political turbulence, to the delight of its foes.

Before the month of Ramadan, the generals and secular politicians, together with their western allies, believed they had Refah leader, prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, in a corner. Not only was Erbakan forced to drop his campaign pledge of abrogating Turkey’s military agreement with Israel, but he was also obliged to sign a second one. The presence of the secular True Path (Dogru Yul) party in the ruling coalition, and its leader Tansu Ciller in the cabinet as foreign minister, meant that Erbakan was powerless to translate Refah’s Islamic platform into government policy or legislation.

But the Refah leader and politicians did not renounce their right to make proposals for the strengthening of relations with Muslim countries or to call for reviving the Islamic tradition of Turkey. And when ties with Iran seemed to blossom, and Erbakan floated some bland Islamic ideas to mark the month of Ramadan, the secular establishment went up in arms.

The generals rolled their tanks and armoured cars on February 4 onto the streets of Sincan, a Refah-governed small town, 25 miles from Ankara, in a clear message to Erbakan to abide by the country’s secular constitution. And president Suleyman Demirel chose the occasion of the ‘Id al-Fitr to warn Erbakan to uphold Turkey’s secular doctrine, proclaimed by Mustapha Kemal 74 years ago.

In what has now become practically, though not yet technically, a coup, the generals have ordered the country’s elected government to implement a twenty-point programme designed to obliterate all traces of Islam, and to destroy the credibility of Erbakan and Refah.

The ultimatum containing 20 measures for implementation was handed to Erbakan and Ciller at a nine-hour meeting of the all-powerful National Security Council, dominated by the military, on February 28. Erbakan refused to sign the document at the time, but an official statement reaffirmed the country’s commitment to Kemalist principles and referred to some undisclosed measures that had been suggested for the government to deal with the ‘forces of reaction’ and Islamic radicals.

At the end of the meeting, Ciller immediately phoned US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and the Italian foreign minister to tell them that Turkey was, and would always remain, a secular State, and to confirm that integration with Europe, which was specifically mentioned in the official statement, remained the country’s top priority.

The following day, Erbakan, seeking to reassure the population - who expected and feared a coup - announced that the government and the army were in ‘perfect harmony.’ But this was immediately contradicted by a sharp response from the secretary of the general staff who, in a written statement, said ‘the army could only be in harmony with people who believe in Ataturk’s principles and seek to implement them.’ Harmony with anyone other than those ‘was, and always would be, impossible.’

This communique demonstrates the army’s opposition to Erbakan and Refah and its determination to drive them out of power. The 20 measures - though subsequently signed by the prime minister - are so uncompromising that they must be designed to oust Erbakan. The two moves, taken together, have plunged the country into a future of political uncertainty.

Details have now emerged of the measures the generals want the government to implement. Existing laws banning religious attire and turbans would be strictly implemented, new laws would be introduced to curb the rise of radicalism, traditional tarikat and the tekke Islamic brotherhoods would be placed under surveillance, as would the Islamic press. Islamic businesses which provide funding for Refah would be investigated. The number of religious schools would be limited and those remaining placed under the control of the education ministry.

This total war unleashed on Islam and Refah coincides with attempts by Greece, Turkey’s most obdurate adversary, to beef up its military muscle for confrontation with Ankara over the Cyprus and Agean Sea disputes. On February 14, for instance, Reuters reported that ‘Greece, Turkey’s main rival, plans around $8.5 billion in military spending by 2000.’ The generals, whose duty is to defend Turkey against external threats, should concentrate on discharging its principal responsibility, instead of fighting Islam and Refah, neither of which is a threat to the country.

Refah’s modest Islamic proposals do not even threaten the country’s secular doctrine, or, unlike the army, its democratic pretensions. Moreover, the generals’ reckless action, claimed to have been taken also to improve Turkey’s prospects for joining the European Union (EU), has instead damaged Turkey’s reputation abroad.

Even western governments and the media agree on all three counts, as a recent editorial comment by the London-based Economist magazine indicates.

The Economist wrote: ‘Nothing Mr Erbakan has done, however, has directly undermined Turkey’s claims to be a democracy. That has been left to the military-dominated National Security Council, which announced 20 secularism-strengthening measures the government had to take if, it implied, the soldiers were not to seize power for the fourth time in 40 years. Mr Erbakan only bowed to the generals. Strangely, their warning was issued in the name of safeguarding democracy and improving Turkey’s image abroad. It has done the opposite.’

The leaders of six EU members said they would oppose Turkey’s long-standing application. Germany’s chancellor Helmut Kohl was adamant. In remarks said to have been made in private - which he has not so far publicly denied - he asserted that Turkey would never be allowed entry. As the Economist’s comment trenchantly put it, ‘they see the Turks as too poor, too numerous and too Muslim.’

But the secular establishment must surely know all this. So, why does it take on Refah and Islam so needlessly? The answer is partly that the injection of Islamic values, no matter how limited, could ultimately complicate the lives of the corrupt politicians, civil servants and army as well as police officers, who are involved in widespread fraud, drug-related and other mafia-type activities. These mafiosi are so powerful that they are sometimes described as a state within a State.

The biggest loser would be the military bigwigs. Establishing themselves as the traditional guarantor of Kemalism, which condemns Turks to a future of aping western secularism, they have secured for themselves a permanent position as the real rulers of the country behind the scenes. The right to intervene - exercised three times since 1960 - would be highly questionable if the underpinning notion that the military is the guarantor of Kemalism vanishes as a result of the acceptance of Islamic values.

Muslimedia - April 1-15, 1997

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