TURKEY: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Turkish army purge spells end of Kemalism
, August 20, 2011
When NATO’s second biggest army falls victim to a ruthless political make-over, one would expect that it would send political shockwaves across the world.
The Turkish army has undergone a radical transformation since 2007, yet this has been barely reported in the Australian media.
On July 29, chief of Turkey’s general staff, General Isik Kosaner, and the heads of Turkey’s army, navy and air force, resigned.
Kosaner said he did so because it was “impossible” for him to continue serving in light of the government’s detention of 250 serving and retired military personnel, including several generals and admirals.
On the eve of his departure, 22 high-ranking soldiers were indicted for allegedly calumniating the government.
For decades it has been said in the West that all countries have armies, but that in Turkey the army has a country.
As strange as this observation sounds, it carries an element of truth due to the army’s prominent role, since the 1920s, in guiding Turkey towards modernisation.
Modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), deliberately placed his armed forces at centre-stage in his drive to modernise the Turkish culture and people.
The Kemalist goal was to fully secularise — that is, to de-Islamise — governance and public life, so that Turkey could aspire to equality alongside its primarily European neighbours.
Turkey’s 400,000-strong army and its officer class, including especially its commanders, have doggedly sought to ensure that their country never returns to old Ottoman Islamic ways, even if that meant at times resorting to a military coup d’état.
Longstanding Islamic governing and cultural practices — including even traditional attire — were either forbidden or positively discouraged.
Turkish soldiers, for instance, are not permitted to grow beards.
The key trend-setter in this almost 90-year modernisation process and repudiation of Ottoman tradition has been the Western-style army that Ataturk founded.
However, this secular army culture has been steadily undermined since the emergence in 2002 of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who heads the increasingly overt pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP).
According to surveys undertaken after the 2002 election, over 80 per cent of Turkish voters viewed themselves as Muslims first and Turks second, surely a measure of the failure of the Kemalist army’s efforts to infuse Turkish nationalism ahead of Islam.
Erdogan moved, at first cautiously, to transform Turkey into a neo-Ottoman force — via the slow and deliberate re-adoption of Islamic mores and tenets in government and other areas, including foreign policy.
Clearly a day was coming when the army itself would also be subjected to transformation despite Erdogan’s early insistence that “the AK Party is not a political party with a religious axis”.
British Middle East expert, David Pryce-Jones, says: “Since his election in 2002 as Turkish prime minister … Erdogan has been engaged in fashioning what had been a secular state and a Western ally into an Islamist state taking the lead in the Muslim and especially Arab world.
“According to the previous constitution, the army had been guardian of the secular state, and Erdogan therefore had to break it.
“In time-honoured style, he declared that the army had been plotting a coup, whose code name is Ergenekon. Since 2007 something like 270 senior officers have been arrested and some of them have faced fantastic charges in court though so far none has been convicted.”
In a major turnaround Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul, a close Erdogan ally, earlier this month appointed Kosaner’s successor, General Necdet Ozal, as the army’s new chief, thereby imposing for the first time civilian control on the military.
The code name Ergenekon refers to the alleged discovery of a crate of grenades in an Istanbul shantytown in June 2007, which sparked ongoing nationwide investigations into alleged political opposition to the ruling AKP.
Ever since then, Turkey’s officer class has been under protracted political siege.
Turkish affairs expert, Gareth H. Jenkins, in an 85-page report, Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation, published in August 2009 for a Johns Hopkins University-sponsored project, has analysed thousands of pages of evidence of what increasingly appears to be an orchestrated protracted political purge.
Writes Jenkins: “Hundreds of suspects have been detained, mostly in multiple simultaneous dawn raids by members of the Counter-Terrorism Department of the Turkish National Police (TNP).
“By May 2009, 142 people had been formally charged with membership of the ‘Ergenekon armed terrorist organisation’ in two massive indictments totalling 2,455 and 1,909 pages respectively.
“In mid-June 2009, a third indictment containing charges against yet more alleged members of Ergenekon was expected to be announced later in the year.
“The trial currently appears likely to continue for several years. The claims contained in the indictments are as ambitious as the scale of the investigation.
“According to the public prosecutors handling the case, Ergenekon is a vast organisation which has penetrated virtually every aspect of Turkish life and is committed to destabilising and eventually overthrowing the government of the Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP)” (page 11).
These ongoing Ergenekon investigations, alongside the toppling last month of Turkey’s top military personnel, look as though the way has now been cleared for Turkey’s open repudiation of the secular Kemalist path.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and writer.
Gareth H. Jenkins, Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation (Washington DC: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Silk Road Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University): Silk Road Paper, August 2009.
David Pryce-Jones, “Keep your eye on Turkey”, David Calling: National Review Online, August 1, 2011.