The Old Turks’ Revolt: When Radical Secularism Endangers Democracy

November 1, 2007


Countries eyeing membership in the European Union do not usually come to the brink of a military coup. Yet that is precisely where Turkey found itself on April 27 of this year, after weeks of a pitched battle between the country’s generals and the ruling Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP).

The AKP, a conservative populist movement with Islamic roots, had announced its decision to nominate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, a well-respected, jovial politician and the architect of the AKP’s ambitious drive to get Turkey into the EU, to the largely ceremonial but prestigious post of president. The media and the business community welcomed the choice as a conciliatory sign; they were relieved that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the more mercurial and polarizing prime minister, would not be running. But the staunchly secularist military and the Republican People’s Party (known as the CHP), a center-left opposition party, were not happy. To them, the presidency was the last bastion of secularism, and Gül, who once flirted with political Islam and whose wife wears a headscarf, posed an existential threat to the republic.

The CHP, along with other parties, boycotted the first round of the parliamentary election, held on April 27, and the vote proved inconclusive. There was little doubt that the AKP would eventually prevail, however, since in a third round, if it came to that, a simple majority would do. But that day, the CHP also challenged the whole process before the constitutional court, asking that the election be annulled on the dubious grounds that the legislature had lacked the necessary two-thirds quorum to vote. That night, all eyes were therefore on the court. And just as television pundits were debating how long it would take to issue a decision, sudden news from the military struck the country like lightning.

The generals had just staged the country’s first “e-coup,” as a dumbfounded Turkish press called it, by posting on the Turkish military’s official Web site a warning that “if necessary, the Turkish Armed Forces will not hesitate to make their position and stance abundantly clear as the absolute defenders of secularism.” Given Turkey’s history—the country has known four military interventions since 1960.the note was a thinly veiled threat that a more conventional coup might be in the offing.

The next day, the AKP condemned the military’s attempt to influence the judiciary, but within 48 hours, the constitutional court decided that parliament did lack the quorum needed to hold elections for president. A coup was avoided, and a semblance of democracy maintained.With parliament now unable to select anyone at all, early general elections were called for July 22. Turkey was on edge during the following three months. Political polarization over the country’s deeply rooted identity problems worsened amid concerns that the military might once again step in. Millions took to the streets in anti-AKP demonstrations, some orchestrated by retired generals. But Prime Minister Erdogan refused to be intimidated. During his campaign, he appealed to the pragmatic and democratic instincts of the Turkish people, asking them to consider his political and economic record rather than the sinister scenarios of creeping Islamization put forward by his opponents.The AKP government had doubled the country’s per capita income, significantly improved its democratic record, and begun accession negotiations with the EU—even the most zealous secularists would struggle to find an Islamist agenda behind all this.

Thus, the AKP’s landslide victory in July—it won 47 percent of the vote, compared with 34 percent in 2002, when it first came to power— was less a victory for Islam over secularism than a victory for the new democratic, pro-market, and globally integrated  Turkey over the old authoritarian, statist, and introverted one. As many Turkish journalists wrote in its wake, the July 22 election represented “the people’s memorandum”—a rebuke to the generals’ online memorandum of April 27. The AKP crowned its victory by electing Gül to the presidency in August. Since then, Gül has sought to ease the fears of his critics by declaring that he will abide by the secular principles of the republic and continue to steer Turkey toward the EU. Yet the top brass refused to salute him during his first o/cial engagement and stayed away from his oath-taking ceremony. The military’s shadow still looms large over Turkish democracy.

To be sure, alarmism about Islamization will continue to dominate the narrative of secularists in Turkey and the narrative in some Western circles for some time. But much of this anxiety is misplaced, for it overlooks both the radical and illiberal nature of Turkish secularism and the pragmatism of Turkey’s reformed Islamists. It also overlooks an ironic role reversal: just as the AKP and its supporters have become more pro-Western and pro-globalization, the military and the Kemalist establishment have become more insular and more nationalist, and resentful of the EU and the United States.

The real challenge for Turkey will be to maintain a working democracy by keeping the military out of politics. This is a tall order, but the future of the most promising democratic experiment in the Muslim world is at stake. Turkey has simply come too far in its democratic journey to be consumed by problems that hark back to its founding years and to revert to the old days of military intervention.