On Point: The Struggle for Turkey's Soul

by Austin Bay
March 2, 2010

Over the lasttwo weeks, the Turkish police have detained and interrogated several dozenretired military officers allegedly involved in plotting an intricate coupd'etat.

Thegovernment, led by the "moderate Islamist" Justice and DevelopmentParty (AKP), has cause for concern. The Turkish military has toppled electedgovernments four times since 1960. The European Union has made continuedcivilian rule a key requirement for Turkey's admission to the EU.

Though thealleged coup was planned in 2003, the current situation is quite serious. TheTurkish press reports that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan andTurkish Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug have held intense discussionswhere they have addressed the arrests and the evidence.

This domesticTurkish confrontation involves much more than a classic "military juntaversus civilian rule" media template, however. Turkish law tasks theTurkish military with defending Turkey's secular state and the secular reformsof Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. The spring 2010 crisisin Ankara reflects what historians have dubbed "the struggle for Turkey'ssoul" and a long-term battle for the terms of modernity.

Turkey'sjourney 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 andIonia) and an extended military and political confrontation with French,British and Italian occupiers, nationalist forces led by Ataturk regainedcontrol of the Turkish heartland. The "Kemalist" Republic, using thearmed forces as a source of stability, focused on internal Turkish development-- and the once "Sick Man of Europe" became the Quiet Man of Europe.

Under Ataturk,the Ottoman's Islamic superpower of four and a half centuries embarked on amission into "modernity" -- a secular government, Latin writtenscript, women's rights, public education and a careful program of industrialmodernization. A cornerstone of the Turkish Republic was "non-recidivism":Turkey made no claims on lost territory.

As the 21stcentury begins, Turkey has emerged as a regional super-power of military,social, political and economic import. It maintains the second-largest armydirectly committed to NATO.

Turkey,however, remains in the middle of a hot political crucible. Iran is a neighborand a major competitor. Turkey also faces other troubles: a bleeding Kurdishinsurgency 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-leftradical terrorists (a Cold War hangover).

 Turkey's membership negotiations with the EUoften sound more like divorce proceedings than marriage arrangements, buttoday's tough rhetoric bests the war-littered past. For eight centuries, Turksand Europeans battled in the Balkans and Mediterranean.

Yet Turkey hasspent the last eight decades edging toward Europe, politically, economicallyand culturally. Kemalists (Turks who favor strong secular, nationalistinstitutions) believe Turkey is the "bridge nation" demonstrating thepath to genuine modernization for other predominantly Muslim nations.

Then in 2002the AKP, a party with Islamist roots, came to power. There were reasons.Corruption and cronyism ripped the secular parties. Some secularist politicianshad played their own versions of "the Muslim card" (appeals toconservative Muslim sectarian sympathies).

The AKPchallenges the Kemalist model. The Kemalists reject the"re-Islamization" of Turkey and see the AKP-led governments as theslippery slope to Muslim fundamentalist control (referred to as "religiousreaction").

In his book"The Kemalists," Turkish journalist Muammer Kaylan (former editor ofthe influential newspaper Hurriyet and a Reuters reporter) illustrates how theAKP uses EU membership requirements to strengthen its position. Reformsrequired for EU membership are "the Islamists dream ... come true toexpand their powerbase. The generals, however, regarded some of the (EU)reforms ... as potential weapons to subvert the state. They feared that thesereforms could change the state's ideology based on the Kemalist reforms andweaken their role as the guardians against separatist and fundamentalistmovements."

 Over the next two decades, the struggle forTurkey's soul will continue to be Turkey's most important domestic politicalclash. It may also be the region's most important strategic battle. 

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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