The struggle for Turkey's soul

Dozens of top Turkish military officers were recently arrested for plotting a coup. Why is Turkey in turmoil?

A member of the Turkish military on patrol.
(Image credit: Corbis)

What’s really going on in Turkey?

A simmering power struggle has burst into the open, pitting Turkey’s secular military against its Islamist-leaning civilian leadership. Turkey, located at the crucial crossroad where Europe meets the Middle East, is one of the world’s largest democracies with a Muslim majority, and it has the second-largest military in NATO. The country has long modeled its government on the secular democracies of the West, but that may be changing. In 2002, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, installing in the government men who previously belonged to banned Islamic parties. Erdogan quickly began to blur the lines between mosque and state. One of Erdogan’s first actions was a push to allow religious head scarves to be worn in universities and government offices. More recently, Erdogan opened up trade and closer relations with Iran, called the terrorists of Hamas “my brothers,” and demanded the expulsion of Israel from the U.N.

What does the military think of this?

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It’s appalled. The military has always seen itself as the guardian of the secular legacy of modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (see below), and has never hesitated to exert its power. Indeed, military coups have overthrown elected Turkish governments four times since 1960. In 2007, the generals spoke out against the presidential candidacy of Abdullah Gul, then foreign minister, on the grounds that he was too religious and his wife wore a head scarf.

How did the public react?

The generals’ comments were perceived as a tacit coup threat, and Turks—religious and secular ones alike—rallied to the government. When Erdogan called a snap election, his AKP won an even greater majority. Then, in 2008, the military tried to get the Constitutional Court to ban the AKP, on the dubious charge that the party was seeking to impose sharia (Islamic law). After that effort also failed, the emboldened government challenged the military in a manner never before seen in Turkey.

What form did that challenge take?

The government launched a massive investigation into an alleged plot at the highest levels of the military. It claims that a shadowy, ultranationalist cabal—known as Ergenekon—has been conspiring against it, with the backing of many in the military. Over the past two years, hundreds of people, many of them retired military officers, have been detained, and scores have been charged with planning attacks and assassinations. Prosecutors accuse the network of planning bloody provocations that would cause Islamists to riot and send the country into chaos, laying the groundwork for a coup against the AKP.

Does Ergenekon exist?

Not as a distinct, centralized organization, and it’s clear that the government crackdown is directed at least partly against Erdogan’s most outspoken critics, including journalists, professors, and human-rights activists. But that doesn’t mean the government’s charges are wholly invented. Secret caches of weapons and explosives have been found, and some officers have been implicated in assassination plots. And two months ago, a Turkish newspaper uncovered a well-documented military plot that resulted in the arrests of dozens of top officers, including the former commanders of the navy, air force, and army.

What are the officers accused of?

An outrageous plot—dubbed “Operation Sledgehammer” by the alleged conspirators—to stir Islamists into violence and thus cause a backlash against them. According to 5,000 pages of military documents leaked to the newspaper Taraf, the military was planning to stage multiple attacks, including bombing Istanbul’s busiest mosques. Dozens of current and former officers have been arrested, hauled away by civilian police. “It’s a first in Turkey’s history,” said journalist Yasemin Congar. “The high-ranking military officers have almost always been deemed untouchable.”

What does the military say?

The military claims that Operation Sledgehammer was created as a kind of war game. Many of the incriminating documents had been drawn up for a seminar on wartime contingency plans, the military says, and were part of a training exercise. “How on earth could the Turkish Armed Forces plan to bomb mosques?” said Army chief Gen. Ilker Basbug, who is not accused of any wrongdoing. “It is an absurdity.” Still, even military prosecutors, who are conducting their own investigation, concede that at least some of the evidence is genuine.

What does that mean for Turkey?

It may continue to become a more openly Islamist state, choosing to ally itself with Iran and other Muslim nations, while distancing itself from the West. Analysts have raised concerns that if the military is defanged, there may be no countervailing force to the AKP. And that would have significant implications for the U.S., which considers Turkey a major ally in the war on terror, the Middle East peace process, and other matters. The air base at Incirlik, for example, has served as a critical staging area for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the Mideast. “One might feel better about the military’s loss of power,” says Eric Edelman, a former American ambassador to Turkey, “if Turkey had a balanced political system with the possibility of alternative governments.”

Ataturk’s vision

After World War I, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created modern Turkey from the ashes of the defeated Ottoman Empire by insisting that Turks adopt Western ways—from dress to politics. He banned the wearing of fezzes for men and veils for women. Polygamy was outlawed, and women were given equal rights. Crucially, Ataturk insisted on the separation of government and religion. He abolished the caliphate, closed Islamic schools, and abandoned sharia. No longer was Arabic used for the call to prayer; Korans were published in Turkish. A charismatic general and war hero, Ataturk is revered by the Turkish military and, indeed, by most Turks. Turkey’s true faith isn’t Islam or secularism, writes historian Stephen Kinzer. “It is the cult of Ataturk,” who is “a virtual deity.”

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