Rise of Islamists in Turkish Republic

Continued from : Turkish Voter Reigns in Riyadh Supported Islamists

It was Nacemettin Erbakan who founded the very first Islamist National Order party (NOP) in 1969, when Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel, his class fellow in Istanbul's Engineering school, refused him an Assembly slot. When NOP was closed in 1971 after the regime change, Erbakan established National Salvation party (NSP) and was twice deputy prime minister in 1970s coalition governments. After the 1980 takeover, the military banned all parties. Later when restrictions were removed Erbakan established the Welfare party, in which Abdullah Gul and Erdogan were prominent young new comers.

Erdogan was elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1995 and was apparently a great success. In the 1996 coalition headed by Erbakan, Gul became a State Minister. In 1997 the military forced Erbakan to resign for not curbing Muslim fundamentalism. Later Erbakan's party was closed and he was banned from political activity. 

Erdogan's jail experience following his conviction mentioned earlier was traumatic and a turning point. He and others like Gul saw the futility of fighting against the secular establishment on an open Islamic agenda. In 2001they established AKP and the rest is history, but is full of controversies. Many AKP sympathizers felt and claimed that like moderate Christian parties in Europe, it could also become a moderate Islamic party, but these hopes have been belied.

Adnan Menderes and his hanging - An echo from the past. 

Since the creation of the republic in 1923, Turkey was ruled by Republican People Party (RPP). In spite of his wish and some attempts to introduce multiparty democracy, Ataturk gave up when Kurdish revolts and Islamic obscurantism reared its head.

But after WWII, in which following Ataturk’s advice, under his successor Ismet Inonu, Ankara remained neutral, there was pressure on Turkey to introduce multiparty democracy. So before the first elections in 1947, a new Democrat party was formed by Adnan Menderes and a former PM Celal Bayar.

Menderes, son of a wealthy landowner, born in 1899 in Aydin, had fought against the invading Greeks and was a trained lawyer. His efforts to establish a political party in1930s were obstructed so he joined Ataturk’s RPP and became a deputy. In 1945, he was expelled from the party with two other colleagues because of opposition to nationalization policies.

Democrat party made its presence felt in 1947 elections but in the 1950 elections, DP won 52% of the votes in the first free elections in Turkish history on 14 May (in which votes were cast in secret and counted openly), Menderes became the prime minister and later won two more free elections, one in 1954 and the other in 1957. No other politician has ever been able to win three general elections in a row in Turkey. Except again NOW!

Coming after an austere and dreary Jacobinistic secular era of Ataturk, Menderes more tolerant towards traditional lifestyles and different forms of practice was liked by the masses. He had campaigned in the 1950 elections on the platform of legalizing the Arabic language and Muslim call to prayer which was banned. He re-opened thousands of mosques across the country which were left abandoned. In one of his speeches, he said that members of parliament could bring back Sharia law if they so desired. 

His economic policies after the earlier years of affluence, helped by US grants, brought the country to insolvency due to an enormous increase in imports of goods and technology .Menderes was most intolerant towards criticism, so he instituted press censorship and had journalists arrested.  He also attempted to oppress the opposing political parties and to take institutions such as universities under his control. His policies annoyed the armed forces and even venerable Inonu, Ataturk’s right hand man and successor who was insulted. Having lost power and pelf since1950, the military was most upset.

Menderes became a strong headed politician but was very popular among the masses. His survival from an air crash near London in 1959 further added to his charisma. But he was over taken by hubris and upset too many sectors of the society and polity, specially the military and his political opponents. A young colonel’s coup under Cemal Gursel led to the overthrow of Menderes government. He was tried and hanged along with two ministers. Many compare it to the later hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged by Gen Zia ul Haq, selected by Bhutto himself, since it was feared that if Bhutto was returned to power, he would seek revenge on Gen Zia.

There are many shades of similarity with Menderes, so Erdogan better heed history. 

Turkish media Corporatized and beholden to the Ruling party

Media like elsewhere, led by USA, has been captured by corporate houses (half a dozen control 90% of media in US). Turkey used to have a vibrant press with a number of national papers till some years ago. Now it is difficult to get unbiased news in Turkish media. There has been a consolidation of ownership to just a few business houses. The Dogan Group, for example, owns not only well-known dailies like Hürriyet and Milliyet but also Radikal, Posta, and the Hurriyet (old Turkish) Daily News among others. Together these capture perhaps 50 percent of total Turkish daily circulation. In addition, Dogan Group television stations like CNN Türk and Kanal D have perhaps a 20 percent market share. 

The problem is not that Dogan companies always tow the party line. Many Turkish journalists produce hard-hitting analysis. But a number of journalists complain of self-censorship. The same media barons who own a large portion of the press have branched into other sectors where they are more dependent on government largesse. "Everyone is vulnerable—economically and politically—if they oppose the government," a businessman explained. It is foolhardy to annoy the government. The Uzan group which opposed AKP was decimated. 

The Guardian wrote apiece on 30 September, 2010 on the curbs on media ever since AKP took over in 2002, Erdogan has been accused of seeking to quash dissident voices. In August 2010 Bekir Coskun, a militantly secular columnist for a mass-circulation daily, Habertürk, was sacked under pressure from the government .There has been a steady dismissal of anti-government journalists from the mainstream media which has reinforced the view that Erdogan is intolerant of criticism. In September 2009, Aydin Dogan, was slapped with a huge fine for alleged tax fraud (with accrued interest, the fine stands at $3.7 billion). 

“Under AK the press has been declared the enemy,” says Ferai Tinc, who runs a media watchdog. According to the International Federation of Journalists over 40 Turkish journalists are in jail and around 700 others face trial, many of them Kurds accused of spreading separatist propaganda. One, Irfan Aktan, was sentenced to 15 months in prison in June for quoting a rebel of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Mehmet Baransu, an investigative reporter who has exposed a string of alleged coup plots and episodes of army incompetence, has faced 40 separate court cases and received six convictions in the past 15 months. The government has gone back on promises to ease tough media laws.

Erdogan likes to recall, hundreds of journalists (again, mostly Kurds) who were imprisoned or kidnapped at the height of the PKK insurgency in the 1990s. Many died in so-called “mystery murders” thought to have been carried out by rogue security forces. Yet few in the mainstream press uttered a peep, for fear of falling foul of the generals. Corporate media bosses often buckle under state pressure to protect their business interests. Today almost everybody, be they Kurdish, secular or anti-army, are under pressure. “The net,” concludes Mrs. Tinc, “has widened liken ever before.” 

Military in Politics;
Struggle between Miri and Piri in Muslim Countries

In mid 1990s a British journalist was going on and on against the role of military in Turkish politics. Finally I said when and what the Windsors or its earlier incarnation German Saxe-Coburg and Gotha did for the United Kingdom. Still a family and its hangers on along with its perennial feudal landed elite and an incrementally added economic elite rule over the masses differentiated as ‘we and they’.  Yes, with little to do except cutting ribbons the British Royals provide endless media gossip of extramarital and other, even sordid affairs with salacious details to satisfy the citizens like circus in Roman Empire. ’They’ become teachers,  bank tellers ,waiters , nurses, read weather news on BBC ,the junior commissioned officers parading proudly with pieces of bronze and colored ribbons , and sent to die in Iraq, Afghanistan and Malvinas (Does not British Govt mouthpiece BBC describe Kashmir as India administered and 26/11 terrorists as gunmen) 

Of the oldest of the three revealed religions, Judaism’s only state since ancient times, Israel, founded on leftist tenets has since morphed into a rule by Zionist-Military oligarchy. Christians after centuries of warfare in Europe managed to create secular polities which are still underpinned if not haunted by sectional religious ideologies. In the last of ‘the Book’ based polity Islam, the lines between the Mir and the Pir, the temporal ruler and spiritual ruler still remain blurred, contested and changing. 
After the 1979 revolution in Iran, Shias created the ideal but mythical office of Imam in the person of Ruhoallah Khomeini. The status of the Imam was evolved into the doctrines of intercession and infallibility, i.e., of the faqih/mutjahid .But the Iranians have since found that a system based on the concepts of 7th century AD was inadequate to confront and solve the problems of21st century. 

Prophet Mohammad was both the religious leader and military commander. But the Arab Caliphs lost out on power by 10th century to the Turkish slaves from central Asia who formed the core of their fighting forces. The Turks raised the minor title of Sultan to a high rank who literally became a protector of the Caliph, left with only spiritual powers. Even this role was seized by the Ottoman Sultans ruling from Istanbul.

Turkey, known in the past as Asia minor and Anatolia, which comprises most of  today’s  Republic is located at the juncture of  Asia (and connected to Central Asia via the Caucasus), Africa and Europe, with the straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles separating Asia and Europe. Ruled in the past by Achaemenid Persians; Greeks, Romans and Byzantines; and then by Muslim Seljuk and finally Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, the inhabitants of Anatolia have tough identity problems (Perhaps 15% only are migrants from central Asia, mostly now Alevis and many times victims of Sunni Muslim establishment). So there is a spiritual and psychological dichotomy between the Europe oriented elite (with perhaps many originally of European ethnic origin) at the head and a  conservative oriental majority in the body politic of Turkey. 

Ataturk cut the Gordian Knot of Secular and Religious 

After the modernizing and westernizing reforms and measures during the last century of the Ottoman rule, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk cut the Gordian Knot by disenfranchising Islam in the Republic. It included the abolition of the Caliphate, closure of various tariqas aka Sufi and other brotherhoods, with Whirling Dervishes of Rumi’s Konya becoming tourist attractions, change over for Turkish language script from unsuitable Arabic script to Roman script, excluding Arabic and Persian words and adding French and English words. The Fez and Ottoman loose trousers were banned and replaced by western hats and caps with European style jackets and trousers. So do not be misled that wearing of western clothes has transformed the thinking of Anatolians into western thinking and mores. Ataturk also decreed that the 6 century AD magnificent Byzantine St. Sophia Church, which was converted into a mosque by the addition of minarets in 1453, after Ottoman Sultan Fethi had conquered the city of Constantinoplebe turned into a museum. In Topkapi Museum you can gaze at the doors from Mecca, dresses, swords etc., of Prophet Mohammad and the Caliphs. (In mid-1960s, loss of a few hairs of Prophet Mohammad in Hajratbal in Kashmir had created an ugly situation).

Since the establishment of the republic, Turkey has witnessed three coups d’état -- in 1960, 1971 and 1980 -- and in1997 the military forced a coalition government to step down. 

The 1960 and 1980 were full-fledged coups, when the armed forces took over power, brought out a new Constitution and handed power back to the politicians. The 1960 coup was a colonel’s coup with Gen Gursel at its head. He had to exile the head strong colonels, led by Col Alparslan Turkesh (who later founded the Nationalist Movement party now led by Bahcheli) out of Turkey as they had planned to rule the country.

The 1971 half coup was by a memorandum by the National Security Council (NSC), under pressure from junior officers and changed the regime. Suleman Demirle was replaced by Nihat Erim to carry out socialist reforms .The 1997 quarter coup forced the first ever Islamist PM Erbakan heading a coalition government to resign and make way for a new secular government. The author then based in Ankara in 1971 and 1997 was a witness to the events.

Changing Role of the National Security Council 

Following the 1960 coup, the 1961 constitution transformed the earlier innocuous National Defense High Council into the National Security Council.  The president of the republic, instead of the prime minister, was made its chairperson, and "representatives" of the army, navy, air force and the police became its members, apart from the prime minister and four other ministers. The council became a constitutional body and offered "information" to the Council of Ministers (cabinet) concerning the internal and external security of the country.  After constitutional amendments following the 1971-1973 military intervention, it has submitted its "recommendations" to the Council of Ministers.

The 1982 constitution, a less liberal product and the result of the1980-1983 military intervention, further strengthened the NSC's role by obliging the Council of Ministers to give priority to its recommendations.  Threats from military members of the NSC made then premier Suleyman Demirel resign in 1971, and the first-ever Islamist premier, Necmettin Erbakan, then heading a coalition with a secular party, was forced to leave in 1997 for not curbing increasing fundamentalism in Turkey.  Both the times, direct military takeovers were avoided.  The military intervened directly in 1960 and 1980 when politicians had brought the country to an impasse. Before the 1980 coup, hundreds of people were killed in daily violence while the politicians had abdicated responsibility by refusing to even elect a president of the republic .But after cleaning up the mess and getting a new constitution in place, the armed forces, as usual, returned to their barracks.

Trials and badmouthing of generals who were forced to carry out the 1980s coup is irrational and like disturbing the hornet’s nest. There would be a blow back.  

The Turkish armed forces have traditionally enjoyed total autonomy in their affairs and are very sensitive about it.  Their chief of general Staff (CGS) ranks after only the prime minister, and along with the president forms the troika that ruled the country. Turkish people have great respect and regard for its armed forces and trust them more than the politicians.

When I returned to Ankara as head of mission in 1992, I praised the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly for putting up a brave front during the military’s attempt to get Gen Faruk Gurler elected as the President of the Republic in 1973. He said yes, but the politicians had to pay a heavy price i.e. banning of mainline political parties and their leaders and their imprisonment.

The inhabitants of Turkey always a very passionate people, influencing and influenced by outside philosophy and ideas, have a tendency for vendettas, a habit inculcated after half a millennia rule by tribal customs of Ottoman ruling elite and earlier the Seljuk from central Asia.


While there were many reasons, historic, economic and organic for the decline and fall of the Ottoman empire, but with the taking over of the holy places in Mecca and Medina and the title of the Caliph, began the era of decline .Immediately there was an increased influx of Mullahs, Shiekhs and orthodox Islamic habits and beliefs, which soon opposed study of modern science and knowledge. The Ottoman society and elite became closed to new ideas while the Europeans made progress in science and new ideas and technology; industrial and military. 

The central Asian Turks, many of them Buddhists, were cosmopolitan and not Salafist. Many wives of the Ottoman Sultans in the beginning of the empire were Christian princesses, who were allowed to keep their Church in the harem. Some of the Ottoman Sultans were brought up as Christians boys in childhood by their Christian mothers till they were taken away from the harem to be trained as Gazis and warriors of the faith.

As in Ottoman era, so now, the increasing influence of Saudi money and obscurantist ideas would not be beneficial and the Turkish society will regress into old habits. The controversies and fights over the veil or ‘Ergenekon’ mystery and trials are only symptoms of the battle. It suits US led West to keep Muslims backward and divided. The funding of conservative Muslim regimes and groups was used by the British and taken up by Washington after WWII, with Riyadh now the western bagman, to keep the thousands of Princes rolling in wealth and some in sin. Look at the mal-influence of Saudi money and ideology on Pakistan and elsewhere.

So what is happening in Turkey is a struggle between the Mir and the Pir, the temporal ruler and spiritual ruler, which still remains blurred, contested and changing in most Muslim countries. Coming into power of AKP is retrograde development. There will be many ups and downs and episodes, some even bloody, before a balance is achieved, if at all, but not any time soon.  


More by :  K. Gajendra Singh

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