BACKGROUND: Turkey’s Chief of the General staff, General İlker Başbuğ, has on several recent occasions sought to reassure those who fear that their country faces the prospect of partition. Acknowledging that such fears do indeed exist, General Başbuğ has stated that the armed forces remain as vigilant as ever. Yet, more controversial has been that İlker Başbuğ has invited those who are worried about partition not to follow the debate that rages in the television channels about the consequences of the Kurdish (subsequently re-baptized as democratic) “opening” of the AKP government. “Please, do not watch these programs”, Başbuğ pleaded. That plea in particular and Başbuğ’s reassurances in general have provoked reactions from unusual quarters: The criticism against the General staff is leveled by the nationalist opposition, not by the customary foes of the military, the liberal intellectuals who usually decry the military for trying to muzzle public debate.
Indeed, the military is accused not of wanting to silence dissent but rather of implicitly being too liberal, of indirectly giving shelter to the expression of unorthodox views concerning the Kurdish question when it exhorts concerned Turkish nationalists not to follow the debate lest they get alarmed. In what amounts to a departure from past practices, the Chief of the General staff invites Turkish nationalists to switch off their televisions, or tune into other programs, instead of demanding that the debate itself is switched off. The significance of that evolution has not been lost on the nationalist opposition.
Thus, the deputy parliamentary group leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Hakkı Süha Okay, last week expressed the CHP’s displeasure with the public interventions of the Chief of the General staff. “We find it inappropriate that the military gets involved in the politics in this manner”, the CHP representative stated. The fact that a representative of the CHP expresses displeasure at what is deemed to be an illegitimate meddling of the military in politics is indeed a unique event in recent Turkish history. It is an occurrence that suggests that the traditiona attitudes and alliances at the center of the Turkish political system are shifting.
The military was subjected to heavy, unrelenting criticism from the nationalist opposition, in particular from the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), already after a meeting of the National Security Council in August produced an endorsement of the government’s Kurdish opening. That criticism subsequently prompted General Başbuğ to issue a stark declaration, in which he forcefully reiterated the founding principles of the Turkish nation state, a declaration that in turn was endorsed by President Abdullah Gül as well as by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Nevertheless, the nationalist opposition interprets General Başbuğ’s interventions, the reassurances that the state’s integrity is secure and its identity to remain Turkish, only as attempts to downplay the effects that the nationalists fear the Kurdish opening will inevitably have, and consequently as endorsements of the government line.
General Başbuğ had indeed anticipated the Kurdish opening of the AKP government with an “opening” of his own on the same issue at a landmark speech in April. Speaking at the War Academy in Istanbul, General Başbuğ became the first Turkish Chief of the General staff ever to acknowledge the grievances and legitimate rights of Kurds and Zazas. Başbuğ called for measures designed to counter the perception among Kurds and Zazas that they are oppressed, and for making equal opportunities more generally available to them.
Although the AKP government so far has not specified the particular contents of its “opening”, there is no reason to assume that it will eventually be revealed to differ in any significant form from the solution proposed by the Chief of the General staff – that is, a framework of extended individual cultural rights. The alternative is the path suggested by the representatives of Kurdish nationalism, the Democratic Society Party (DTP) and the terrorist PKK. That alternative would lead to the transformation of Turkey into a bi-national, Turkish-Kurdish state, as it would foresee the establishment of Kurdish national education alongside national education in Turkish, the elevation of Kurdish to official language, and the empowerment of local administrations. That is a path neither the AKP nor any other party can be expected to tread, lest they be reduced to insignificance as political forces among the Turkish population.
IMPLICATIONS: Indeed, the joint management of the Kurdish issue by the AKP government and the General staff, provoking the anger of an alienated nationalist opposition, is revelatory of the convergence that is under way between these erstwhile foes, after what has been a particularly testing and difficult time of adjustment for the military. (See Turkey Analyst, 29 august 2008 issue) That convergence – and the adjustment it implies on the part of the military to new conditions – could be accounted for in the light of the loss of political standing that the military has endured since the historical turning point of 2007, when the General staff, rebuffed by the AKP and the electorate, lost the decisive battle over the presidential election.
From having traditionally steered politics, whether openly or indirectly, the military is now in the position of having to defer to a civilian power that does not tiptoe to it, indeed is prepared to confront it, and which represents formerly peripheral forces that the state was used to holding at bay. The former periphery has assumed control over much of the state, and that is obviously a major change in itself. Yet, that undeniable fact notwithstanding, a narrative that assumes a simplistic dichotomy of the military and Islamic conservatism, with the generals ascribed the role as the unequivocal losers in an ideological sense, would fail to take sufficiently into account the deeper realities that have historically informed the exercise of state power in Turkey.
In an account which privileges the role of the armed forces as the ideological “watchdog of secularism”, the General staff obviously looms as the big loser, having had to cede to the ascendant power of Islamic conservatism. However, the relation of the Turkish military to religion has always been much less antagonistic than what tends to be acknowledged. In fact, the military regime of the 1980s itself actively promoted religion, not least in the school system, making education in the tenets of Sunni Islam compulsory. Indeed, his speech at the War academy in April, General Başbuğ reminded his audience that the military takes pride in being considered as the “hearth of the Prophet” by the people. What the military has jealously guarded has been not so much secularism understood as “enlightenment”, any supposed departure from religious traditionalism, as the preeminence of the power of the state. The historical importance of “secularism” in the Turkish realm resides in the fact that it served to liberate the state from the constraint of having to defer – as it had had to do traditionally – to religion in order to legitimate its actions.
Secularism turned the state into an independent agent in its own full right. It is thus more pertinent to describe the role played by the Turkish military as having been the watchdog of a statism that has been the real constant of Turkish politics. And statism is in turn what offers the ultimate point of convergence today between the generals and the Islamic conservatives.
The rise of the Islamic conservative political elite was naturally a provocation for the custodians of state power, unaccustomed as they were to the specter of societal forces moving into the territory of the state, reversing the traditional state-society relationship. Yet, with the transformation of the state now more or less completed, the eternally crucial question of how the state is going to be secured inevitably brings the current holders of state power, Islamic conservatives and the military, together. The fact that the state has changed colors is ultimately less consequential from the vantage point of the military, as what matters fundamentally is that the state is shored up.
CONCLUSIONS: The Islamic conservative movement has increasingly come to make use of the instruments of the same statist power that it had traditionally combated. Indeed, the AKP has displayed that it does not shy away from employing state power in order to bend societal forces to its own will. (See Turkey Analyst, September 14, 2009) Meanwhile, the perspective of the General staff on the Islamic conservative movement has evolved, from having seen it as an intruder on the territory of the state to judging it on its own possible merits as a protector of the integrity and strength of the state.
Indeed, Islam is arguably what holds the nation of Turkey together. As a recent survey of religiosity in Turkey demonstrates, a vast majority adheres to religious values. In so far as the integration of the Kurds has succeeded, with Turkish-Kurdish inter-marriages, it is to a large extent due to the sense of cultural affinity that a common religion, superseding ethnic identities, has offered.
What remains to be seen is whether the combination of Islamic conservatism and extension of individual cultural rights will ultimately satisfy and abate a Kurdish separatism that has become entrenched in the Southeast.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".