Turkey's Tug of War

Trial of Endurance

The Turkish army has been the guarantor of secularism
Passionate about secularism: A Turkish soldiers cries at a service marking the 64th anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's death (Photo: AFP).

European distrust regarding Turkey’s accession to the European Union (E.U.) and U.S. preparations for an attack on Iraq have further complicated the internal situation in Turkey, where a pro-Islamic government has completed its first 100 days in a normal and proven secular milieu. Right now, Turkey is undergoing an endurance test.

On the one hand, it should prove that it can survive on the basis of its European orientation and conditions set by the E.U., which has sent a message that geography and numerical questions regarding population are more important for Brussels than the fact that after 70 years of a pro-European orientation, Turkey is more pro-Western than its geographical position would indicate.

Once again, Turkey stands before the doors of Europe, which it has been trying to conquer since the times of Suleyman the Magnificent. Then, it attempted to do so by force; now it strives to conquer by implementing European legal standards and conforming to the European image established in the 1920s when [Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk separated religion from the state, eliminating veils from everyday life and replacing the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet.

On the other hand, Turkey should be wise in how it behaves in the current preparations for a new war against Iraq. “What is the minimum level of cooperation we can provide and still be on the side of the United States?” a columnist of the newspaper Milliyet asked, indicating the distasteful position into which Turkey has been pushed by Washington, its overseas friend and NATO partner. Ankara cannot reject logistical support in the war against Saddam Hussein, but explaining to a domestic public, 99 percent of whom are Muslims, why war against Iraq is necessary, is problematic. In this context, Turkey, which has been coping with a serious economic crisis, risks a new chill in relations with surrounding Arab countries. It has yet to get over the consequences of the first Gulf  War, which for the past decade have cost it US$40 billion in trade with Iraq.

Opening a new war front against Iraq means the return of the Kurdish problem, not just on the border but within Turkey itself. U.S. intelligence, as part of its preparations for a second clash with Saddam Hussein, is working with Kurdish representatives in northern Iraq, a region beyond Baghdad’s control. It remains unknown what has been promised, but it is almost certain that Kurds believe that the dismantling of Hussein’s regime will open up space for the installation of a Kurdish state on the border with Turkey. The Kurds have served as stand-ins and cannon fodder throughout history, never getting their own territory for the self-determination of a nation of 22 million, split among Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. But the pressure is the greatest on Turkey, where 9 million Kurds live, led by now-imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). [The Kurdish conflict] has cost Turkey more than 30,000 victims and $100 billion in a 14-year-long state of semi-war.

As if this were not enough, Turkey is coming to its senses after the electoral shock—the victory of the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Erdogan, the de-facto prime minister. He has been banned from holding political office because of his past sins. This one-time mayor of Istanbul was sentenced in 1999 for his poetic inspiration, as he publicly declaimed the verses: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.”

In the end, because secular parties were reduced to decimal figures, the AKP was forced to form a government on its own, setting itself up in an empty space and creating confusion both abroad and at home. The state that for 70 years has been practicing secularism is now facing diluted Islam in the executive branch and a newly converted believer who has aspirations for the prime minister’s seat.

After the AKP’s victory and ahead of the E.U.’s Copenhagen summit, Erdogan made an enviable tour overseas and in a number of European capitals, lobbying for the European identity card for Turkey. He has failed to obtain the support that he could have easily turned to political profit at home.

It is no coincidence that afterward President Ahmet Sezer vetoed a package of bills that would have enabled Erdogan to serve in Parliament and thereafter take over the prime minister’s seat from his colleague, Abdullah Gul. The veto, which was overridden by a second vote in Parliament, could be seen as a bid to cross swords and a test for cohabitation between the head of the state and the ruling party.

But both sides will have to show readiness for compromise. In particular, the AKP leadership is expected to give up a basic attempt to display Islam publicly, such as, for instance, showing the wife of the parliamentary speaker wearing a head scarf in public. Or Erdogan’s statement that his daughter studies in the United States because in that country women enjoy the freedom to wear the scarf. Turkey has too much Islam on its own border to afford such luxury at home.

Experience in the neighborhood makes Turkey cautious: Iran, the Taliban experiment in Afghanistan, and distant Algeria, where bloodshed resulted when the Islamic Salvation Front won elections in 1991 but was deprived of victory.

Turkey’s military leadership, responsible for preserving secularism, instructed Erdogan and his associates that Muslim customs are unacceptable and incompatible with public and state affairs. Representatives of the army headquarters recently visited Prime Minister Gul in his cabinet and asked for a drink. After being told that drink could not be served, because it goes against Muslim custom, soldiers entered the office carrying trays with whiskey.

The message of the military headquarters was clear. The army is third in rank of state protocol after the president and prime minister, but it has the greatest power in real terms. Such power is being exercised through regular monthly meetings of the National Security Council, which is dominated by the generals. Thus, officers suspected of having Islamic tendencies are being expelled from the army.

Also, the army turned society back to Ataturk’s path by means of coups in the 1970s and 1980s. Necmettin Erbakan, the Islamic prime minister who won the elections in 1995, was forced to withdraw from the post [in June 1997] after a “silk coup d’état” backed by generals.

But it is unlikely that the army will really engage itself now, particularly in a way that goes against E.U. standards. It is also unlikely that the president will block laws proposed by the ruling party through a referendum—an expensive operation—to keep Erdogan from becoming prime minister. Finally, the government will be scrutinized for its stability, which is most needed now because of  Turkey’s catastrophic economic situation, its image before the E.U., the United States, and NATO, and a challenge called Iraq.