by Austin Bay
March 2, 2010
Over the last
two weeks, the Turkish police have detained and interrogated several dozen
retired military officers allegedly involved in plotting an intricate coup
government, led by the "moderate Islamist" Justice and Development
Party (AKP), has cause for concern. The Turkish military has toppled elected
governments four times since 1960. The European Union has made continued
civilian rule a key requirement for Turkey's admission to the EU.
alleged coup was planned in 2003, the current situation is quite serious. The
Turkish press reports that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and
Turkish Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug have held intense discussions
where they have addressed the arrests and the evidence.
Turkish confrontation involves much more than a classic "military junta
versus civilian rule" media template, however. Turkish law tasks the
Turkish military with defending Turkey's secular state and the secular reforms
of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. The spring 2010 crisis
in Ankara reflects what historians have dubbed "the struggle for Turkey's
soul" and a long-term battle for the terms of modernity.
journey since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 has been remarkable.
By the mid&S209;1920s, after a bloody war with Greece (in Anatolia, Thrace and
Ionia) and an extended military and political confrontation with French,
British and Italian occupiers, nationalist forces led by Ataturk regained
control of the Turkish heartland. The "Kemalist" Republic, using the
armed forces as a source of stability, focused on internal Turkish development
-- and the once "Sick Man of Europe" became the Quiet Man of Europe.
the Ottoman's Islamic superpower of four and a half centuries embarked on a
mission into "modernity" -- a secular government, Latin written
script, women's rights, public education and a careful program of industrial
modernization. A cornerstone of the Turkish Republic was "non-recidivism":
Turkey made no claims on lost territory.
As the 21st
century begins, Turkey has emerged as a regional super-power of military,
social, political and economic import. It maintains the second-largest army
directly committed to NATO.
however, remains in the middle of a hot political crucible. Iran is a neighbor
and a major competitor. Turkey also faces other troubles: a bleeding Kurdish
insurgency in its southeastern provinces that extends into Iraqi Kurdistan;
conflict with Greece, over Cyprus and the Aegean; resentment in the Balkans;
lingering claims of Ottoman-directed genocide by Armenians; and hard-left
radical terrorists (a Cold War hangover).
Turkey's membership negotiations with the EU
often sound more like divorce proceedings than marriage arrangements, but
today's tough rhetoric bests the war-littered past. For eight centuries, Turks
and Europeans battled in the Balkans and Mediterranean.
Yet Turkey has
spent the last eight decades edging toward Europe, politically, economically
and culturally. Kemalists (Turks who favor strong secular, nationalist
institutions) believe Turkey is the "bridge nation" demonstrating the
path to genuine modernization for other predominantly Muslim nations.
Then in 2002
the AKP, a party with Islamist roots, came to power. There were reasons.
Corruption and cronyism ripped the secular parties. Some secularist politicians
had played their own versions of "the Muslim card" (appeals to
conservative Muslim sectarian sympathies).
challenges the Kemalist model. The Kemalists reject the
"re-Islamization" of Turkey and see the AKP-led governments as the
slippery slope to Muslim fundamentalist control (referred to as "religious
In his book
"The Kemalists," Turkish journalist Muammer Kaylan (former editor of
the influential newspaper Hurriyet and a Reuters reporter) illustrates how the
AKP uses EU membership requirements to strengthen its position. Reforms
required for EU membership are "the Islamists dream ... come true to
expand their powerbase. The generals, however, regarded some of the (EU)
reforms ... as potential weapons to subvert the state. They feared that these
reforms could change the state's ideology based on the Kemalist reforms and
weaken their role as the guardians against separatist and fundamentalist
Over the next two decades, the struggle for
Turkey's soul will continue to be Turkey's most important domestic political
clash. It may also be the region's most important strategic battle.