Globalist Perspective

Post-Militarist Turkey: Falling Prey to Islamists?

How can post-militarist Turkey serve as a model for integrating religion into politics and society?

How can Turkey serve as a model for integrating religion into politics and society?


  • Between secular authoritarianism and Islamic authoritarianism, there is a third way: the Muslim way to democracy. Post-militarist Turkey seems to be its best bet.
  • Turkey's self-styled secularism is all too strict, and its pressures on peaceful religious groups helped create the country's Islamist political movement.
  • The Turkish military has often helped create the very threats from which it claimed to save its nation.

When Turkey’s four top generals unexpectedly resigned in July 2011, in an implicit protest of the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, they demonstrated not just dissatisfaction — but also despair.

For their once-mighty institution, which used to enjoy a self-proclaimed “guardianship” over elected politicians —a somewhat secular version of “the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists” in neighboring Iran — was now not even able to save dozens of its senior members from legal prosecution.

“They resigned because they can’t launch a military coup anymore,” wrote Ismet Berkan, a liberal columnist. “Those days are clearly over.”
This political disarmament of the Turkish army is a cumulative result of various dynamics that reshaped Turkey in the past decade. First, the country’s integration into the global economy, along with its booming media and civil society, made it much less controllable for any power center.

Secondly, the reforms encouraged by the European Union disestablished the legal infrastructure of what Turks call the “military tutelage” over the political system. And finally, the latest opponent with which the generals clashed swords, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), proved to be more competent and resilient than any of its predecessors.

For any given country, this civilianization process would be hailed as the consolidation of democracy. When the country in question is the majority-Muslim Turkey, though, and the military in question has made a name for itself as the defender of secularism, many have second thoughts. Some even argue that the military should have preserved its upper hand in order to block the AKP’s suspected “Islamist agenda.”

Yet this argument is not just unprincipled but also flawed, for it fails to see that the Turkish military has often helped create the very threats from which it claimed to save its nation. Kurdish separatism, the other bête noir of Turkey’s generals, is a good example.

Since the mid 1980s, Turkey’s generals led a massive counter-insurgency against Kurdish separatists, while disallowing any political reform on the “Kurdish question.” Little did they realize that it was the very strict Turkish nationalism that they imposed on all citizens, including humiliating bans on the Kurdish language, and the very violence they inflicted even on peaceful Kurdish activists, that created the trouble in the first place — and perpetuated it.

Similarly, the cliché that the Turkish open-minded generals defend secularism against wild-eyed Islamists ignores that Turkey’s self-styled secularism is all too strict, and its pressures on peaceful religious groups helped create the country’s Islamist political movement.

The latter was born in the 1960s, in the aftermath of Turkey’s first military coup that overthrew and destroyed the center-right Democrat Party, which had incorporated the Islamic pious into mainstream politics. In later decades, many pious Turks continued to reject secularism, for it seemed to be more about freedom from religion via the state’s authoritarian measures, such as bans on religious institutions or headscarves, and less about freedom of religion.

In fact, Turkey’s excessive secularism — itself an import from radical French Enlightenment and 19th century German materialism — even created a bad “model” for other Muslim nations, by giving a bad name to the secular state among the Muslim pious.

In Iran, Reza Shah (in power from 1925-41), who admired the Atatürk reforms in Turkey but vowed to do even more, took radical anti-religious measures such as banning the veil everywhere and executing the ayatollahs who raised protest. This secular tyranny soon created its religious mirror image by breeding a violent Islamist reaction that would culminate in the Iranian Revolution.

What made Turkey much luckier than Iran, and all the Arab nations, is that despite all the meddling of the military, its multi-party politics survived, and therefore the Islamic pious never resorted to any means other than casting their votes. Moreover, as the religious Turks opened up to the world and saw the nuances in the West, they realized that their search for religious freedom could be attained in a liberal model. “We are not against secularism,” said Tayyip Erdogan in 2005. “We [just] prefer the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of secularism to the French one.”

The gradual civilianization of the system has opened up a democratic space in Turkey in which these nuances about the principles of the regime — along with taboos such as the tragic fate of Ottoman Armenians — can be discussed.

The next big step will be to draft a liberal constitution, a goal which both the incumbent AKP and the main opposition People’s Republican Party promise to realize. The latter, which used to be in the shadow of the military, is becoming a more credible and promising party since it discovered, in the words of its secretary-general, that “the military was a paper tiger.”

In the years ahead, secular Turks will continue to learn how to compete with the AKP within the rules of the democratic game, as Turkey’s democracy will be further consolidated.

And this new “Turkish model” will be much more helpful to other Muslim nations of the Middle East, who have been haunted by the vicious cycle between what I call, in my new book, the two extremes: secular authoritarianism versus Islamic authoritarianism. Beyond these, there is a third way, the Muslim way to democracy — and post-militarist Turkey seems to be its best bet.

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