No Comment — March 3, 2010, 10:57 am

A Transformation Underway in Turkey?

The developments in the last several weeks in Turkey strike me as extremely significant. They could have lasting consequences for the nation’s self-understanding and its role in the Western Alliance, both of which are clearly undergoing some sort of transformation.

Here are the basic facts as reported by the New York Times a week ago:

Tensions between Turkey’s powerful military and the government have escalated sharply as a court has ordered the formal arrests of 20 former and current officers on charges they had plotted a coup. The 20, arrested Wednesday and Thursday, were among 49 people detained Monday as part of an investigation into allegations of a 2003 military plan called Sledgehammer. Prosecutors say the military at that time intended to stir chaos to justify overthrowing the governing Justice and Development Party, known as the AK Party, which came to power in 2002.

Turkey’s army regards itself as a protector of the country’s secular traditions and has had tense relations with the AK Party, which is rooted in political Islam. The arrests of military officers, including several retired generals and admirals, in a security operation aimed solely at members of the army, have no recent precedent in Turkey and are likely to further alarm the country’s secular elite. But the military’s power has been eroded in recent years as Turkey enacts reforms intended to enhance its candidacy for admission to the European Union.

The tendency in U.S. media has been to view this as an aspect of political maturation in Turkey. A state that had an overweening military is now in the process of becoming more democratic, as elected rulers exert more direct civilian control over the military. The AK Party is presented as a political organization with religious roots but as still committed to a secular state and pursuing a slow but steady course of integration with Europe. Thus the developments in Turkey can be put in the context of a pattern easily understood by observers of democratization in Portugal, Spain, and Greece.

But I’m very skeptical about this analysis. The core of the current controversy is plainly between Islamists and secularists, and it goes to the founding principles of the Turkish state as laid down by Kemal Atatürk. The AK Party is not a radical organization, and its commitment to democratic government is credible. What is in doubt, however, is the AK Party’s commitment to secular government in Turkey—one of the pillars of the Kemalist state, and one that Turkey’s military, which has long constituted a part of the essential socializing glue of Turkish society, has been committed to uphold. The AK Party has been steadily undermining the secular concept through its policies and through its personnel choices—using its historically unprecedented position in Ankara as a stable majority party to transform the civil service and the military, putting persons with an Islamist perspective in positions of authority.

Many in the Turkish intelligentsia today are simply dumbstruck by the American posture, which has been to hold up the AK Party as the very model of a democratic Islamic political party that can serve as a model for the entire region. Many view this as a betrayal of the alliance or as evidence of hopeless American naïveté in grappling with Turkish politics. They’re certainly right on the second point. But America’s commitment to democratic rule is at the heart of her foreign policy, and the United States cannot therefore quickly turn against the policies of the government of an allied state that enjoy firm popular support–even if not among the elites who have long formed the core of the U.S.-Turkish alliance.

If Turkish politics were to follow the predictable paths of the past, we would anticipate Turkish prosecutors responding to the AK Party’s conduct by launching a new legal case to shut down the AK Party. That can’t be ruled out altogether, but most observers at this point think things have progressed too far for this to happen. The AK Party is deeply entrenched in government and the bureaucracy, and it has effectively wielded the process of European integration to shut the door to steps aimed at resurrecting the Kemalist principles of the state. Even if such a step were taken, moreover, the AK Party would simply resurrect itself under a new name with a handful of new leaders—as happened before.

In any event, Turkey is entering into a decisive transitional phase in which the AK government, which has proven itself far more competent than any of its recent predecessors, is likely to sharply transform the character of the Turkish state. Kemalist Turkey is about to give way to something new, and the new state is not likely to be nearly so ready a friend of the United States or Europe as its predecessors. Because of the strategic importance of Turkey, this process deserves far more attention than has been paid to it over the past few weeks.

Scouring the think tanks for some sensible discussion of the developments in Turkey, I find that there isn’t much. This discussion with Dr. Ömer Ta?p?nar of the Brookings Institution still offers a sensible and well-balanced read on the latest developments:

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
Article
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Article
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
Article
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer
Post
Greece, Europe, and the United States·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“A progressive Europe—the Europe of sustainable growth and social cohesion—would be one thing. The gridlocked, reactionary, petty, and vicious Europe that actually exists is another. It cannot and should not last for very long.”

Photograph by Stefan Boness

Percentage of Americans who believe that the population of the United States exceeds one billion:

28

Scientists explained why breast milk does not turn breasts to bone.

A pit bull was shot in Milwaukee after being mistaken for a lion.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today