Friday, 29 August 2008

Turkish Military and Islamists: a Grand Reconciliation?

Published in Articles

By Halil Magnus Karaveli (vol. 1, no. 12 of the Turkey Analyst)

The conclusion of Turkey’s regime crisis calls for a revisal of the conventional way of interpreting Turkish political dynamics. Turkey has moved from confrontation over the nature of the regime to a systemic reconciliation in the making. Significantly, the split between the moderate Islamists and the military is about to be bridged. That should make it less difficult for observers in the West to discern and appreciate the reality of civilian secularism in Turkey.

BACKGROUND: With the decision of the Turkish constitutional court this summer not to ban the ruling Justice and development party, the AKP, the confrontation that had shaken Turkey since 2007 was to all intents and purposes resolved. However, all but one of the court’s eleven judges did judge that the party had indeed acted in contravention of the secular order of the state, and there was a majority for a closure, although it remained one vote short of the required qualified majority. Thus, in legal terms the AKP was not acquitted. The court is yet to motivate its decision and account for its reasoning, but the judges evidently wanted to issue a dire warning to the AKP, while refraining from taking a step that would have made Turkish politics unmanageable and which risked to further exacerbate societal tensions. 

There is an expectation among moderately secularist commentators that the reasoning behind the ruling, when it is made public, will reset the boundaries of the secular order, and that these will check the Islamic drive to redefine secularism. The ruling would thus amount to a renewed attempt by the system to incorporate the moderate Islamists in the established state order. The key question for the future is whether Islamic conservatism will be emboldened or, as it is hoped, further moderated within this new framework of systemic reconciliation. The reconciliation on offer is however undeniably based on tacit secularist admittance of relative weakness. Basically, it signifies that the officially secularist state establishment has had to reconcile itself with the reality of the entrenched power of the Islamic movement. The moderate Islamist government not only enjoys broad popular support; the larger Islamic movement, the religious brotherhoods, wields significant power over the economy and controls much of the media. The secularist establishment has also had to take into account the international, not least American, support for the moderate Islamists.

IMPLICATIONS: An indication of the accommodation under way is the evolution of the relationship between the military and the moderate Islamists. It was obvious already a year ago that the General staff was seeking a consensus with the AKP government. There has been widespread speculation in Turkish media that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and then Chief of staff Gen. Yasar Büyükanit had indeed reached an agreement at a three-hour meeting at the Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul in May 2007, but that Erdogan subsequently failed to keep his part of the bargain. 

Accordingly, the prime minister was to deliver a compromise candidate to the presidency, but Abdullah Gül apparently imposed himself. The growing understanding between the AKP government and the General staff was manifested at the meeting of the High military council (Yüksek askeri sura) which was held two days after the constitutional court announced its non-closure decision. Since the AKP came to power in 2002, the gatherings of the High military council, at which the military and civilian leadership convene, had turned into manifestations of the split between the Islamists and the military. The council’s primary function is to approve of the purges decided by the General staff of junior military officers who have been found to be associated with Islamic movements. The representatives of the AKP government used to submit their reservations to the purges. This year they did not have to, since for the first time ever the General staff had not detected any Islamist activity within military ranks. The General staff responded to the criticism of the incredulous secularist opposition by stating that it did not act out of any desire to please any particular interests. The statement failed to impress the secularist opposition. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, deputy chairman of the parliamentary group of the Republican people’s party, the CHP, declared that the “military and the government are indeed best friends”. As the military accommodates religious conservatism, secular opinion is alienated.
Kilicdaroglu had earlier this year told this author that he did not see the military as being particularly sensitive about secularism at any deeper level. “What they want is just to be able to dance”, that is, to carry on with the traditional, westernized social life at the officers’ messes, he suggested. Hikmet Cetin, a former chairman of the CHP, on the other hand, used the word “existential” to denote the importance that secularism carries for the Turkish military. One momentous outcome of the Turkish regime crisis of 2007-2008 is that the former perception of the military’s relation to secularism has gained credibility.

Turkey’s experience with military rule is in fact not reassuring at all from a secularist perspective. The military dictatorship of 1980-1983 in particular, when the ruling junta introduced Islamicization as a counterweight to the left, cast a lasting doubt over the officer corps’ secular trustworthiness. The secular estrangement from the military is also due to democratic sensitivity; the rallying call of the “republican rallies” in 2007 – at which several million demonstrators gathered – “no to Sharia and no to a coup”, did capture the general mood among an urban middle class that is unwilling to sacrifice democracy in order to thwart the perceived threat to secularism.

Pragmatism, rather than secularist ideological purity, defines the military’s relationship to political Islam. Significantly, Islamic solidarity has revealed itself to be an effective antidote to separatism, as shown by the AKP’s ability to marginalize the Kurdish nationalist party, the DTP, in the Kurdish southeast. Indeed, that fact alone would account for the generals’ accommodation of the AKP.

In 2000, Abdullah Gül, then a leading representative of the Islamist Virtue party, had predicted that “the military will be isolated if it tries to direct the future”. The developments of 2007-2008 have not proven him wrong. For the first time in the history of the republic, the military failed in its attempts to steer politics; Abdullah Gül was elected president over the military’s objection, and the General staff has had to acquiesce in the continuation of the AKP’s rule. Although it still remains by far the most trusted institution in society (with a steady confidence level of eighty percent), the military has lost much of the high ground in the public discourse, a fact that was born out during the confrontation of 2007-2008, when the military was subjected to heavy criticism in the media and its political interventions were challenged – and repelled – as never before. The spectacular arrests of the retired four-starr generals Sener Eruygur and Hursit Tolon (who are yet to be charged) this summer symbolizes the new vulnerability of the military.

Yet, it should not be assumed that the moderate Islamists seek any degradation of the military as an institution. The heritage of history and Turkey’s volatile strategic environment combine to secure the future political clout of the military. Nothing suggests that the moderate Islamists are unprepared to reconcile themselves with that reality. Implicit in their vision is rather a division of labor, which basically would leave the supervision of national security to the military, while the generals would be expected to step back as supervisors of internal ideology and accept that religion permeates more of the daily life in society.

CONCLUSIONS: The main conclusion of the Turkish regime crisis of 2007-2008 is that the military, although it evidently does have a certain secular sensibility, will not stage a coup and that there is on the contrary a convergence of interests between it and the Islamic movement. The implication of that reconciliation is that while Turkey may become less secular, it may remain as militaristic as ever. It also means that the military will – reasonably – cease to bar the view of the secular, civil society of Turkey.
The perception of the military as the watchdog of a secular order has given Turkish secularism an authoritarian connotation, which in turn has made it intellectually and emotionally difficult for Western, liberal opinion to appreciate the civilian implantation of Enlightenment values in Turkey.

And despite enduring misgivings about the military’s secularist resolve and the repugnance to authoritarianism, the military had until now been counted on by the secularist opinion in Turkey as a bastion of last resort. The awareness that the military is no longer to be relied on can eventually result in civilian secularism evolving into a progressive political force – into a liberalism and/or social democracy of the modern, European kind – that would help to secure Turkey’s democratization. The urban middle class, and its civilian secularism, remains an untapped democratic resource. With the Turkish military reaching out to the moderate Islamists, the West would do well to reach out to Turkey’s civilian seculars.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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