Turkey’s Difficult Democratization

February 15, 2010

On February 4, the Turkish government shelved the controversial Protocol on Cooperation for Security and Public Order (EMASYA). This protocol was used by the military each time it wanted to take charge of internal security when law and order broke down.

In many ways, EMASYA’s purpose was to provide the legal framework and justification for a military intervention. No doubt, the abrogation of this protocol is a step in the right direction for Turkish democracy. Yet, there are other regulations and bylaws that the Turkish military can use if it decides to intervene in politics.

For instance, Article 35 of the internal service regulation of the army gives the military the duty to protect and secure the Turkish Republic from “internal threats.” Although it is hard to legally define what exactly these internal threats are, anyone familiar with the official ideology of the Turkish Republic — Kemalism — know what they are. The military considers separatism and regressive reactionary Islam (irtica) as the two most important internal threats. To translate all this into plain English: It is the duty of the army to protect the Kemalist republic from political Islam and Kurdish separatism.

It would certainly be another major improvement for Turkish democracy to get rid of Article 35. Yet, I have my doubts about how important all these legal improvements are in terms of truly establishing civilian supremacy over the military. The real problem, it seems to me, is the political culture of the military and the educational system it created. It is much easier to change laws and regulations but much harder to alter the mindset, particularly of a country like Turkey where the official ideology of Kemalism is indoctrinated from elementary schools to universities. Liberal democracies and official state ideologies do not mix well.

Today, any deviation from the Turkish character of the nation-state and the secular framework of the republic presents a challenge to the official Kemalist ideology of the republic. Any public assertion, no matter how minor, of Kurdish ethnic identity is perceived as a major security problem which endangers Turkey’s territorial and national integrity. A similarly alarmist attitude characterizes the military’s approach to Islam. Islamic sociopolitical and cultural symbols in the public domain are seen as harbingers of a fundamentalist revolution, no matter how innocuous such symbols may be intrinsically, as in the case of headscarves.

Such alarmist approaches to Kurdish and Islamic identity have been extremely counterproductive for Turkish democracy. Particularly during the 1990s, at a time when Turkey needed to demonstrate its post-Cold War credentials as a Western democracy, the Kemalist republic came to be seen as an illiberal country fighting against its own ethnic and religious identity. This fight created “the lost decade” of the 1990s. If the current trends of nationalist and secularist polarization in Turkish politics continue, we may end up losing another decade. Let’s not forget that Turkey’s Kurdish and Islamic predicament is made more difficult by certain rigidities inherent in the Kemalist formulation of secularism and Turkish nationalism.

Ironically, it is the very success of Kemalism that transformed it into a “conservative” reaction. Kemalism, in other words, displays an understandable urge to conserve what has been achieved: a secular nation-state. Especially for Turkey’s politically powerful military, Kemalism represents a “defensive” and “protective” political reflex. This transformation of Kemalism from a “progressive” ideology to a “conservative” reaction creates a great paradox because it also turns Kemalism into a reaction against the European Union. The Kemalist dilemma is indeed very acute. The mission of protecting the republic against its twin enemies — Kurdish nationalism and political Islam — now presumably requires strong resistance against the European Union. As a result, the two main tenets of Kemalism — the urge to protect the republic and the urge to Westernize — are now clashing. Herein lies a tragic paradox. It is tragic precisely because it fuels a Kemalist reaction “against” the West.

Turkey’s already difficult chances of becoming a member of the European Union ultimately depend on Ankara’s willingness to deal with the country’s ethnic and religious identities in a less authoritarian manner. As long as the republic justifies its reluctance for multiculturalism and a tolerant secularism in the name of preserving its founding principles, the political and cultural distance between Turkey and Europe will widen. Paradoxically, Kemalism was designed to achieve the contrary.