16 July 2016

A little background on Turkey and coups

Turkey is one of the Middle East's two long-standing democracies (the other is Israel), but this week's failed coup there is a reminder of how differently things can work in different societies.

After World War I led to the collapse of the decrepit Ottoman Empire, the modern Turkish state was established by Kemal Atatürk, perhaps history's best example of a charismatic leader who changed the course of a whole country's development.  Atatürk, an atheist, was determined to make the new Turkish state as modern and Western as possible in every respect, including both democracy and secularism.  By and large the republic he founded has remained true to his vision; by the 1950s it had evolved a genuinely democratic system, and the state has remained secular.

Yet there remains a tension between the two goals.  In a nation whose population is mostly Muslim and many people still believe that Islam should influence government, there is always the risk of secularism being eroded by Islamic-leaning elected governments.  The Turkish military, one of the country's most solidly secular institutions (this is a common pattern in the Middle East -- an effective military has to understand technology and other realities not very compatible with a superstitious world-view), has long viewed itself as the guardian of Atatürk's legacy.  Several times from the 1960s to the 1990s, the military either threatened the government with a coup or actually carried one out, at least in part because elected leaders were introducing religion into government (in most cases there was also significant economic turmoil or street violence which the state seemed unable to cope with).  In each case, however, the military left power and restored democracy as soon as the crisis had passed.  Bizarre as it may seem, the Turkish military could be viewed as having a role similar to that of the US Supreme Court -- exercising a final veto in cases where elected leaders transgress against the essential principles of the state.

The current Erdoğan government is aggressively Islamist and has also openly attacked essential elements of freedom, such as freedom of the press.  In light of precedent, it is almost surprising that the military did not act earlier.  Part of the explanation is the fact that Turkey has for years supposedly been under consideration to be admitted to the European Union as a member.  While it's unlikely that Turkey will ever actually be accepted by the EU, the EU has made it clear to Turkey that, to qualify, the military must stay out of politics.  Not only is this ironic in view of the flagrant lack of democracy in the EU's own institutions, but it has weakened the chief bulwark of Turkey's secularism, allowing Erdoğan to push an Islamist agenda and erode free institutions, threatening the survival of Turkish democracy itself.

The collapse of this week's coup reflects the fact that only a portion of the military was involved, with other units opposing it.  Evidently the generals failed to reach consensus.  But from every viewpoint, the implications of this event are discouraging.  It shows that almost eighty years after Atatürk's death, Turkey still seems to need the military as the chief safeguard of its secular republic -- and that now even that safeguard is failing.


Blogger Rosa Rubicondior said...

Good to see you posting again!

I may be mistaken but I believe Turkey's military has a constitutional duty to defend the secular Turkish constitution that Ataturk established. It's record has usually been one of benign, temporary intervention.

Ataturk was, of course, deliberately trying to make modern Turkey west-facing and European rather than east-facing and Islamic because he recognised that Europe was progressive whereas the Middle East and North Africa were conservative and regressive. It was a military coup that brought him to power as head of a provisional government when the Ottoman Empire finally disintegrated. His power and authority stemmed from the prowess he earned as a patriot and military commander when he defeated the allies at Gallipoli. It also solved a problem for the allies who were handing out mandates to govern the rest of the old Empire. A neutral and western-looking Turkey was just what we needed.

Ataturk is probably one of the most important historical figures of the 20th century and deserves to be more widely appreciated. His Atheism informed much of his political thinking.

17 July, 2016 02:04  
Blogger Pinku-Sensei said...

This is why the military is often mentioned as part of what's called "The Deep State" in Turkey. On the one hand, it maintains secularism. On the other, it's anti-democratic.

17 July, 2016 10:36  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Rosa: Atatürk's achievement in creating a secular democracy in a Middle Eastern country was remarkable, and it would be a tragedy if Erdoğan succeeds in destroying it. I hope the rest of the leadership realizes that degenerating into an Islamist dictatorship would endanger all the country's international relationships, including the critical NATO ties to the US.

Pinku: That sounds very typically Turkish. It's always seemed like a "hard" country in a certain sense, with a touch of the old Mongol aura about it, even after 945 years on civilized soil.

17 July, 2016 14:24  

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