And they did it. Now the role of the Army has changed, and the question is whether Erdoğan will lead his Muslim population toward democracy or whether democratic forces will demand a more Islamist state.” (Defense News, Nov. 23, 2009) I suspect Mr. Peres knows better about Turkey. Still, it may be worth explaining once again, at least for the sake of those who may share a similar understanding with him, what the main question in Turkish politics today is about.
The role of the army in Turkey, since the first military coup in 1960 staged against the first democratically elected government, has been not at all to preserve democracy but an authoritarian state ideology called Kemalism, developed in the single party period of the republic between 1925 and 1950. This ideology has also been instrumental in defending and extending the privileges of the military.
Kemalism basically rests on two sets of policies. One has to do with the assimilation of various ethnic and linguistic groups into one homogeneous Turkish nation that speaks the Turkish language, adheres to the Turkish culture and believes in the official Islam represented and promoted by the state. Turkey’s Kurds have resisted this policy of Turkification through rebellions that have stretched over the history of the republic. The other has to do with secularization of society in line with a very positivistic and authoritarian philosophy, whereby religion is put under state monopoly, and religious freedoms are curbed. This policy has been increasingly resented by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
In line with the official ideology, the army has, since the introduction of multi-party politics in 1950, intervened in the democratic process several times in different forms. By imposing constitutional and legal changes, it has achieved for itself political autonomy and established a type of democracy under bureaucratic guardianship. Turkish society, which has suffered much under this illiberal and guided type of democracy, has with the help of the prospective of European Union membership that opened in 1999, is currently engaged in building up a democracy on EU norms. And the main political cleavage in Turkey today is between political forces that support liberalization and democratization of the regime on the one hand and those that resist it on the other, each side having international allies.
This cleavage cuts across business and professional elites, academics, intellectuals and journalists, and across bureaucratic elites, even including the military. It is clear that a growing part of the military establishment is also weary of the political role of the military, which has not only aggravated Turkey’s problems, but is corroding the military’s efficiency, discipline and integrity. This partly explains why civilian prosecutors for the first time in the history of the republic are today able to bring even former top military commanders involved in coup conspiracies against the democratically elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government before justice.
The leader of the AKP, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may not be the ideal, but is surely the most liberal-minded politician in Turkey today. The reforms led by the AKP government have earned Turkey a negotiating position for membership in the EU. The constitutional and legal basis of the political autonomy of the military has been restricted and the human rights situation has much improved. Turkey today is a far freer and more prosperous society thanks to the AKP policies which has made Turkey “an important model for the region in terms of its very vital democratic institutions” in the words of a US State Department spokesman.
The AKP government is currently engaged in solving the Kurdish problem and putting an end to the uprising led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by introducing reforms that recognize the cultural and political rights of Kurdish citizens. It is also expending efforts to improve the rights of the Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities. The AKP leaders are surely devout Muslims, but not at all Islamists. All should refrain from confusing Islam with Islamism and Muslims with Islamists. The AKP leaders have learned from their mistakes, changed their views and left behind whatever Islamist discourse they had back in the 1990s. Calling the AKP an Islamist party amounts to nothing less than turning reality upside down.
So yes, President Peres, the role of the army in Turkey is on the way to conforming to the norms of a liberal democratic regime where the military authority is subordinate to the democratically elected civilian government. And the main question in Turkey today is whether Erdoğan will lead his Muslim majority population toward broader freedom, democracy and prosperity or whether anti-democratic forces will continue to resist change and conspire for a more Kemalist regime, which is sure to pave the way for the end of Turkey as we know it. I am cautiously optimistic that the former will prevail.
You can be sure, on the other hand, President Peres, that even in the unlikely case of the military once more assuming power, Turkey will no longer be accommodating towards an Israel that continues to occupy and oppress the Palestinian people.