Retired Gen. Özkök served as the top commander for four years, beginning in September 2002. A month later, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power for the first time. It was a paradoxical situation. This is because a party having a strong Muslim identity came to power despite the then-politically more powerful military and its staunchly secular followers' perception that such a political formation, i.e., the AK Party, is an internal threat to secularism.
Contrary to the fierce secularists' expectations, Gen. Özkök, in his first comment about the AK Party's election victory, described this development as a democratic process. Gen. Özkök used to be labeled -- and still is, though to a lesser extent -- an “Islamist” simply because he did not, generally speaking, challenge the elected ruling party's democratic reforms.
It was under the first term of the AK Party that Turkey made serious military and civilian reforms to meet the democratic criteria set forth by the European Union, of which Turkey is a candidate member country. Retired Gen. Özkök's ability to silence those within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) who stood against the reforms that started to reduce the military's supremacy over elected governments helped, to a great extent, the military reforms be passed in Parliament.
It was also discovered a few years following Özkök's retirement in 2006 that this top commander had played a significant role in preventing military coup plans allegedly prepared by some higher ranking generals to overthrow the government from becoming a reality.
Currently there are over 250 retired and active officers, including active and retired generals, former service commanders and active commanders of military headquarters in jail. They are being tried on charges of plotting coups to change the constitutional order through force.
The trials are commonly known as the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) coup plots.
The military has overthrown four governments through hard and soft coups between 1960 and 1997.
When four top commanders, including former Chief of General Staff Gen. Işık Koşaner, retired in late July of this year in protest of the arrest of several generals as part of the Balyoz investigation, Özel, the gendarmerie general commander, was appointed by the government as the new chief of General Staff.
Under his command, Turkey witnessed some changes in favor of civilian rule, though they were more symbolic. Those changes included the removal of the TSK's e-memorandum from the website of the Turkish General Staff. The e-memo was issued in July 2007 as a warning against the government to prevent it from nominating Abdullah Gül, the then-foreign minister, as a nominee for the presidential post. The TSK's objection to Gül stemmed from his wife wearing a headscarf. Gül was later elected as president by Parliament despite the TSK's e-memo.
Another symbolic change under Gen. Özel came in the form of a change to the protocol order. For the first time in the republic's history, a Turkish president received greetings on behalf of the Turkish nation during national holidays and as the commander-in-chief on Victory Day, celebrated on Aug. 30.
Gen. Özel's ideological stance has prompted curiosity because Turkey is still undergoing a transformation where problems surrounding civilian-military relations have not yet been settled. That is to say the TSK has not yet come under full civilian democratic control.
Turkish skeptics, as have some foreign diplomatic circles in Ankara, have quickly concluded that Gen. Özel is an “Islamist,” and that he will play a role in breaking the strict secularist indoctrination of the Turkish officers. I should say that such a mindset is extremely problematic.
I reject claims that he is prone to any kind of Islamist influence. Such claims have no basis. But the Turkish public has been brainwashed for decades over the threat of an Islamization of Turkey and that practicing the Muslim religion is associated with extreme fundamentalism. This has never become reality and, under AK Party rule, we saw quite the opposite, as Turkey has engaged in a drive for democratization.
It was only last year that the government rewrote its national security policy paper under which practicing Muslims are no longer perceived as fundamentalists.
Those who think that Gen. Özel will be inclined to turn the military into an institution that does not respect the concept of a secular state are mistaken.
The core problem that needs to be solved is the TSK's misconception of secularism, under which individuals are also expected to be secular.
I am of the opinion that Gen. Özel is making an effort to portray himself as a real soldier in the European sense, where militaries are controlled by the civilian authority. But in essence, he received the same ideological upbringing along with his other classmates at the military schools -- namely, that the TSK is the guardian of Atatürk's secular principles.
He cannot change overnight. But at least he appears to have realized that Turkey has been transforming itself into a democratic country and that he should respect the governance of the civilian-elected authority.
To turn the TSK into an institution that fulfills its main duty of protecting Turkey from outside threats and returns to its barracks forever, the government and Parliament need to continue with fresh military reforms. That is the only way the TSK will be brought under full civilian democratic control.