The Wrong Answer

The Turkish military isn't a friend to democracy or progress, and never has been.

In a recent Huffington Post article Turkish-American journalist Hasan Piker explained Turkey’s failed July 15 coup d’état to American readers. Piker offered a fairly uncontroversial account of events, but his analysis of the role of the Turkish military in the country’s history was extraordinary:

[B]efore we talk about why the coup happened, let me tell you a little bit about Turkey’s military culture. Turkey has a unique military tradition dating back centuries to when the area was ruled by nomadic central Asian Turkic tribes. The military is a source of great national pride, and all able-bodied men over 18 are required to serve.

The military also plays an important role in the nation’s government by providing an additional layer of checks and balances. In the past 40 years the military has staged four successful coups, all of which resulted in the prompt turnover of power to elected civilian governments. Because of this, coup d’etats in Turkey are unlike coups in any other country, in the sense that they’re usually welcomed by the people. The military protects the citizens from oppression, and has repeatedly intervened to preserve the secularist values of the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The analysis winds up with the claim that “the Turkish military has long been a bastion of secularism and a source of national pride — and rightly so.”

This analysis, though skewed, is common among Western academics, journalists, and commentators. Piker’s own boss at the Young Turks network, Cenk Ugyur, has expressed admiration of the Turkish military, and in a 2010 Washington Post article Janine Zacharia described Turkey’s armed forces as the “unquestioned guardian of secular democracy, intervening when it deemed necessary to keep religion out of politics in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation.”

But the notion that the Turkish Armed Forces constitute a progressive force in the country is a gross misreading of history. A closer look at the military’s involvement in Turkish affairs — and its actions towards Islamists, Kurds, and leftists — demonstrates that it has been neither a progressive force for democracy nor a protector of “secularism.”

Behind the Coups

Piker’s assertion that the Turks possess some sort of unique “military culture” dating back centuries is particularly egregious. Such an essentializing statement calls to mind a fictitious character in Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love, who noted that for modern Turks “all pretense of democracy is killing them” and that they just wanted “some sultans and wars and rape and fun.”

It is certainly true that historically the Turks, like other predominantly tribally organized peoples in the Middle East such as Arab Bedouins, Kurds, and Berbers once possessed a culture which prized individual martial prowess. But that is quite a different phenomenon from modern militarism.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the increasingly beleaguered rulers of the Ottoman Empire hoped to revive their fortunes by reforming their armed forces along European lines. This meant implementing a program of mass conscription, a novelty in the Middle East.

The conscription program was a profound shock for rural society in the lands that make up modern Turkey today. For tribesmen and villagers across the region, the mandatory induction of their sons into military service was not at all welcome. It was not only difficult for the family and friends of the young men taken, but, more broadly, conscription removed an important source of economic vitality from the village or tribe. As a result, forced military service was widely resisted in the countryside, more feared and hated than even taxation.

So to claim that the military is a source of great national pride,” as if such pride grew out of some ancient impulse of Turkish “culture,” and not the political aims of the modern Turkish nation-state (or its Ottoman precursor), is to demonstrate either a profound misunderstanding of or a willingness to rewrite Turkish history.

This extends to Piker’s “progressive” and “democratic” characterization of the four coups the military has carried out since the introduction of multi-party elections in 1945.

The first of these coups occurred in 1960, and overthrew the government of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. The causes were varied, and included a stagnating economy as well as Menderes’s growing authoritarianism and fears that he was on the verge of trying to reorient traditionally pro-Western Turkey towards Moscow.

However, on a deeper level the 1960 coup was an intra-elite struggle, between Menderes’s Democrat Party (DP) (which drew on the support of Turkey’s landowning classes) and the bureaucratic and military elite which felt that their economic and military power was under threat.

While it is certainly true that the military returned power to a civilian government (after executing Menderes), this changeover was spurred more by fears amongt high-ranking military officers that military rule might threaten the chain of command than any progressive impulse. After all, the coup was initiated outside the chain of command by Colonel Alparslan Türkeş (father of Turkey’s neo-fascist National Action Party), and soon after the coup Türkeş and his confederates found themselves appointed to ambassadorial positions well away from Ankara.

It is also true that the 1960 coup resulted in the promulgation of the 1961 constitution, which was significantly more democratic than its predecessor; but this was largely accidental as the military delegated the task of writing a new constitution to a group of academics, including historian Tarık Zafer Tunaya and law professor Mümtaz Soysal, who had left-liberal political leanings.

Regardless, military intervention in 1971 soon rolled back democratic freedoms. The 1971 coup was launched largely in response to the rising influence of the Left, which had, thanks to the relatively democratic provisions of the 1961 constitution, been slowly gaining ground in the Turkish parliament in the form of the Labor Party of Turkey (TİP) — a progressive political party which sought to bring social democracy to Turkey via constitutionalist means.

1971 saw a wave of arrests as leftists and Kurds were rounded up. The TİP was closed and pro-Kurdish civil society organizations like the Revolutionary Eastern Cultural Organizations (DDKO) were suppressed.

The 1980 coup d’état made things even worse. Kurds and leftists were once again rounded up en masse and thousands were tortured and murdered. Indeed, the brutalization of Kurds in Diyarbakir’s infamous military prison did more to solidify support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) than any propaganda leaflet penned by the group’s founder, Abdullah Öcalan.

Moreover, in reconstituting Turkish society, the junta of 1980 moved away from the policies of import-substitute industrialization and state control of the “commanding heights” of the economy followed by Turkish governments since the 1930s, towards establishing a neoliberal economic order (under the auspices of Turgut Özal, a former employee of the World Bank), an order which has formed the economic underpinning of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

What of claims that the Turkish military have been the guardians of secularism? This too is a falsehood, easily disproven by a cursory examination of Turkish history. Atatürk never “secularized” Turkey in the sense of separating mosque and state; he merely banished it from the realm of political and legal discourse and sought to Turkify it.

Religious institutions continued to be overseen by a state institution, the diyanet, which was responsible for maintaining and building religious institutions as well as distributing salaries to Turkish clerics.

The key objective of the Turkish military, and more broadly the Kemalist elite, has been to control religion and mobilize it as part of the Turkish nation-building process rather than to banish it to the private sphere. This is most clear in the actions taken by the junta that took power in 1980. In a move designed to immunize Turkish youths against the “dangers” of leftism, the military government sanctioned the expansion of Turkey’s system of religious schools as well as the inclusion of “religion” lessons in regular Turkish high schools.

Indeed, the policies of the 1980 military junta might well be seen as central to the gradual Islamization of Turkish society. While the military did often restrict the actions of Islamists groups it did not approve of, it was not against the political use of Islam per se.

Not Welcome

Finally, have people in Turkey not only tolerated, but welcomed, the coups d’etat as observers like Piker claim?

On the one hand, admiration of the military was common amongst the narrow bureaucratic and military elite which dominated Turkish politics until they were defeated by now-president Erdoğan and his confederates in the late 2000s and early 2010s. And Kemalist nationalism, with its “secularist” and “pro-military” themes, also possessed a broad appeal amongst Turkey’s large middle class of functionaries and professionals, especially in the large cities of Thrace and Western Anatolia.

Even influential factions within the Turkish left have, at times, viewed the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the military on which his power was based as forces for progress and democratic development.

But beyond narrow sections of Turkey’s bureaucratic and military elite, the evidence, particularly regarding the violent 1980 military coup, seems to indicate widespread disapproval of military takeovers. The 1980 coup lives on in popular memory as a horrific event. Indeed, the tragedies of the coup have been the subject of popular mainstream movies such as Çağan Irmak’s 2005 film Babam ve Oğlum (My Father and my Son).

The history of Turkish military involvement in suppressing progressive forces in Turkey and its role in (inadvertently) sowing the seeds of growing Islamic radicalism is a brutal one. In fact, given such a history, is it any wonder that not only supporters of the AKP but also progressive parties such as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and even the secular-nationalist Peoples’ Republican Party (CHP) condemned the efforts of factions within the military to take over on the evening of July 15? Many Turks do idolize the military, but there is little appetite for military rule.

While progressives rightly fear the fallout of the July coup attempt, as Erdoğan uses the opportunity to legalize his de facto position as Turkey’s sultan through a purge of the public sector, no one should shed a tear for the generals who orchestrated the failed takeover. In fact, their attempt to take over has made things worse in Turkey, just as military interventions have done over and over again.

The question for those who oppose Erdoğan’s rule is not only one of removing an authoritarian leader, but how that leader is removed. Turkish history shows that a military junta is no better than Erdoğan’s constitutional autocracy.