The Generals and Islam in Turkey

Military intervention in Turkish politics predates the establishment of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal in 1924 by several centuries. The elite Janissary corps were the powerbrokers of the Ottoman Empire, who could (and did) depose and murder successive sultans and grand viziers who dared to ignore or threaten their corporate interests.

By Matein Khalid

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Published: Fri 16 May 2008, 9:35 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:32 PM

Mustafa Kemal rose to power because he and his generals defended the Turkish homeland after the collapse of the Ottoman sultanate, defeated an Allied force that landed on the beaches of Gallipoli and drove Greek armies from Anatolia.

Mustafa Kemal abolished the caliphate, exiled the last Ottoman sultan to Paris, abolished the fez and the Hijra calendar, replaced the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet, persecuted the Ulema and Sufi dervishe order and established the first secular republic in the Islamic world.

Kemalism, Ataturk's legacy to a modern nation he midwifed in so revolutionary a manner, has been the guiding principle of the Turkish military elite ever since his death in 1938. Kemalism is modern Turkey's de facto civil religion, uncompromising in its secular ideals and Turkey's territorial integrity, enshrined in the Republic's constitution, laws and governance systems.

The Turkish military establishment has legitimised its recurrent intervention in national politics as the guardians of his legacy and enforced their own interpretations of Ataturk's ideological template on the modern republic.

Turkey's general staff have launched no less than four military coups against elected governments, often during periods of economic distress and political violence. In 1960, the Turkish military overthrew and hanged populist Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. In one of history's tragic ironies, the Pakistani government sent its top diplomat, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, to Ankara to plead with the Turkish military junta to spare Menderes from the hangman's noose.

The second Turkish coup ousted the government of Suleiman Demirel in 1971, paving the way for the General Staff's invasion of Cyprus three years later during the administration of his successor Bulent Ecevit. The third Turkish coup, in September 1980, occurred during a critical moment in US — Soviet relations. The Shah of Iran had just lost his Peacock Throne, revolutionary students had just overrun the American Embassy in Teheran and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in the latest spasm of Cold War geopolitical violence. General Kenan Evren's coup was hailed by the Carter White House, which resumed US military aid to Turkey, suspended after the Cyprus invasion, because it saw the Turkish military as the bastion of NATO against the subversive threats to the American empire in the Middle East represented by the Kremlin.

The Evren coup enshrined the Turkish military's role in national security in a rewritten Constitution and symbolised the military's anathema against political Islam, Kurdish secessionism and communism. The last Turkish coup occurred in 1997, when the military overthrew and banned the Islamist Refah political party of Necmettin Erbakan.

The electoral successes of Adelet ve Kalkima (Justice and Development Party) in 2002 was a milestone event in Turkish civilian military relations. For the first time in a generation, a single Turkish political party managed to win more than 300 seats in the Parliament in Ankara. AKP economists also engineered Trukey's financial resurrection from the banking meltdown, hyperinflation and collapse of the lira in winter 2001 as well as implemented a series of political reforms on the EU accession path.

The military was unhappy with Recep Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, AKP's political stars, both devout Muslims whose wives wore hijab, banned in Turkish universities and government offices as a symbol of political Islam, in public. Yet AKP's leadership did their best to prevent their more orthodox Islamist Anatolian supporters from precipitating a fatal break with the military whose endgame could only be a coup against Prime Minister Erdogan.

AKP aligned its policies with the corporate interests of the officer corps, particularly in relation to EU mandated reforms, an uncompromising stance against the secessionists of PKK and successive IMF/ World Bank accords that led to a colossal $50 billion in foreign direct investment, more than FDI attracted by all Turkish governments combined since Ataturk.

It is significant that the Turkish military did not overrule AKP legislators when they denied the Pentagon permission to invade northern Iraq from Turkish soil, even though Inderlik Air Force Base is the logistical hub for wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Erdogan has used AKP's electoral power to transform General Evren's national security state enshrined in the 1982 Constitution. The MGK, Turkey's National Security Council, was stripped of its executive role, relegated to an advisor to the government and its budget placed under the control of the Prime Minister's Office. AKP legislators also gained civilian oversight over the military's weapons procurement budget.

The Turkish Army was also removed from the Higher Education Board, which it had used to police universities for leftists, Islamists and Kurdish secessionists. However, the AKP government has acceded to the General Staff's insistence to conduct cross border strikes and air assaults against PKK bases in northern Iraq, even though its policies could complicate Turkey's relations with Baghdad, Washington and Brussels. Erdogan has also used the Turkish military's traditional relations with the IDF to mediate a potential peace deal between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights.

The Turkish military's role is critical as a judicial prosecutor seeks to ban AKP, President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan from political life. Though the General staff has warned the government not to compromise Kemalist values and the secular nature of the Turkish Republic (the fabled E coup of April 2007) the Generals in Ankara know that a military coup d'état now mean civil war, doom Turkey's EU bid, an economic meltdown and capital flight, as in the 1990's. The AKP represents the rise of Anatolia's conservative middle class and it will be a pity if the generals silence the voice of moderate Islamists as a mortal threat to the secular Kemalist credo of modern Turkey. The Praetorian impulse has bought only shame and misery to the Islamic world since the age of the Mamluks.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and commentator

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