Turkey's Secular Forces Oppose Islamist Advance : Shades of Byzantine Heritage

More than a million Turks chanting "Turkey is secular and will remain secular", "Neither Sharia, nor coup d'etat, democratic Turkey" and "No imams in the presidential palace," demonstrated in Istanbul on 29 April after the first failed attempt on 26 April to get Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul elevated to the Presidential Palace by the ruling Islamic- rooted Justice and Development party (AKP). In an statement later Turkey's powerful secular Armed forces declared that they would safe guard secular Turkey. Two weeks earlier half a million Turks had protested in Ankara after Gul's nomination.  

This piece was written before Turkish PM Erdogan addressed the nation last night and lauded economic stability, growth of 7.3% between 2003 and 2006, and doubling of per capita annual income to $5,477 ('2,738) during his government. As expected he refused to withdraw the candidacy of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. So we now have hard rock against a harder rock and the situation is pregnant with all possibilities . Hopefully the Constitutional Court will declare the first round of polls invalid, opening the way for early elections and rethinking on everyone's part.

I for one am with the Pashas. While the Algerian Salvation front which had won elections in 1992 was foolish by announcing no more elections and were banned leading to rounds of violence, still smoldering, in which almost 200,000 people have been killed so far, the AKP leadership is smart. Unfortunately Turkish media is owned by business houses who expect government favors and advertisements.

In the volatile middle east, Turkey is the only beacon of stability (unless you count fossilized Islamic Saudi Arabia). So what happens if Turkey goes wobbly? Violence extends to the Gulf with millions of Indians.
In most countries for a party with 357 seats out of 550 in the Parliament , the electoral college, it would have been a shove in for its candidate, but not in Turkey. This would not be the only time for Byzantine intrigue. But this time around the secular forces led by the armed forces have a valid point. AKP won 2/3rd seats but only with 35% of votes cast .With another religious party polling a few % of votes meant, over 60 voted for secular parties.

In spite of all AKP endeavors Abdullah Gul failed to get required 2/3rd votes in the first round. In fact the opposition Republican Peoples party ( RPP) which controls one third of the seats , refused to enter the Parliament, thus 'even the quorum was not established'. Later it filed with the Constitutional Court that in the absence of quorum of 367, the proceedings were illegal and be declared invalid. The Court is likely to decide before the next vote.

Ever since AKP stunned everyone including itself in November 2002 elections by winning over 360 seats, the Turkish Armed forces, a bastion of secularism have made no secret of its dislike for the former's policies. AKP has used the criteria for joining the Europe Union (EU) to reduce military's decision making role in the National Security Council, now an advisory body.

Apparently it was in a coordinated maneuver by the secular establishment that the Chief of General Staff (CGS) issued the statement that "It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the sides in this debate and the absolute defender of secularism." It added, "when necessary, they will display its stance and attitudes very clearly. No one should doubt that."

Next day, in a show of confidence rarely seen in past civilian administrations, the AKP government rebuked the military said that it was "unthinkable" for the institution (military) to challenge its political leaders in a democracy. "It is out of the question to withdraw my candidacy," Gul insisted on 29 April. "The Constitutional Court will make the right decision."

"We must avoid polarization ... Turkish democracy has been wounded," said Erkan Mumcu, leader of the center-right ANAP party, referring to the army statement. Protests began with thousands at Ankara University against the government on 27 April. Then came the Istanbul show of strength.

The secular establishment and citizens suspect AKP of harboring a secret Islamic agenda like National Salvation Front in 1992 in Algeria which had almost won but was banned. (US led West said nothing then). AKP attempted to criminalize adultery, restrict alcohol sales and lift a ban on Islamic headscarves in public places. It even tried to intervene in the autonomy of the military which expels suspected Islamist officers each year.

It is feared that the strict separation of state and religion will be eroded and Islam will creep into all fields of life if Gul were elected. Control of Presidency will give AKP a free hand to implement Islamist policies.

A hard and determined Prime Minister Recep Erdogan with statements like "Minarets are our bayonets, domes are our helmets, mosques are our barracks, believers are our soldiers," for which he was convicted and jailed for 4 months ,make people nervous. Perhaps pre-poning general elections due in November, which AKP is likely to win but not with 2/3 rd massive majority, would be the best option. To cool tempers for now.

The Turkish press was unanimous in calling on the Government and the army to resolve their differences democratically with early elections as the only way out too. If AKP insists and gets Gul elected, the simmering tensions between the military and AKP are bound to burst out sooner or later.

More confusion was added by EU, when Olli Rehn, Commissioner for Expansion said on 28 April that the election was a "test case" for the Turkish military's respect for democracy. After 9/11, EU is becoming more of a Christian fortress .Former French President Giscard d'Estaing, architect of the voted out constitution said before the 2002 summit that Turkish membership would signal "the end of the EU". Turkey was "not a European country". It had "a different culture, a different approach, and a different way of life".

Others are equally negative ie French Presidential front runner Nicholas Sarcogy or German, Austrian, Dutch and other leaders. Rehn could have saved his breath. Turks now know and have given up on EU membership .The endless negotiations will continue, Brussels only wants Ankara to remain a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism east of Turkey. What about inside!

Turkey's Abiding Byzantine Heritage

Under the shadows of Istanbul's slim minarets piercing its skyline lie monuments and ruins from Turkey's millennium and half long Roman and Byzantine past. It was only in 1453, that Constantinople, the Byzantine capital founded in 4 th century AD by Emperor Constantine was transformed into the new Ottoman Capital Istanbul, by adding minarets to the magnificent 6th century St. Sophia Church .But the Ottoman architects could not get away from its conceptual construct even for their mosques.

Crucible of over 40 civilisations, Turkey, known as Anatolia and Asia Minor in history, has more Greek sites than Greece and more Roman monuments than Italy. Cradle of early Christianity with the churches of revelation, Chalcedon, Nicomedea, Nicea, Turkish soil was the play ground of Byzantine power and glory. With perhaps only 15% inhabitants of Turkic origin, buried deep lies in Turkish psyche a more persistent tradition of Byzantine intrigue which seeps up from time to time ,more so during Presidential elections so akin to choosing Popes, Patriarchs and Archbishops.

The simple Central Asian nomad conquerors of the Byzantine Empire named villages, forts, mountains, rivers and seas; white, black , green or red. Leaders like Suleyman Demirel might have described a dangerous political crisis as passing through a narrow pass (like Turcoman tribes and their herds). Or Mesut Yillmaz might use the phrase 'I have taken out my sword to fight' a political battle. Their sibling like political rivalries are more akin to tribal vendettas. The Republican Constitution and the electoral system endows political party chairmen with excessive arbitrary powers, so many behave like powerful tribal chiefs, branching off with their flocks and clans or persisting with their rigid positions instead of democratic give and take .But under pressure, the deeply engrained but dormant Byzantine proclivities are not far from the surface.

Recent Presidential Elections

I remember well in April 1973 when after many rounds the parliament had not elected a President, a frustrated columnist in Milliyet wrote that he might as well study Byzantine history to comprehend what was going on.

Following the 1971 memorandum by the Turkish military, which had forced Prime Minister Demirel to resign, a national Government under the military's shadow was in place to conduct the 1973 Presidential elections. The pugnacious and ambitious Gen Faruk Gurler, a major force behind the memorandum , first made Chief of General Staff (CGS) Gen Tamac hand over a day before the due date and took over as the new CGS. He then resigned and presented himself as the Military's candidate to replace President Cevdet Sunay, also a former CGS.

Demirel and Bulent Ecevit, leaders of the 2 major political formations with other politicians, in spite of the Military brass occupying the parliament galleries, gave a stunning display of Byzantine intrigue at its best, with the Parliament going through the motions of voting round after another round inconclusively. The politicians tired out the now unsure and somewhat divided Military in a virtuoso performance which would have made their Byzantine ancestors proud. Finally a compromise was reached on a retired and innocuous Naval Commander Fahri Koruturk, who was installed the new President. A rejected and dejected Gurler died a few years later, forgotten and unsung.

At the end of bloody 1970s during which intra-religious, intra-ethnic and left right violence left tens of thousands dead in Turkey, leaving its polity scarred and divided. In April 1980 President Koruturk's term ended, but Demirel and Ecevit would not agree on a candidate. For five months hundreds of rounds of voting were conducted in the Parliament, without any result. This was a display of clannish obstinacy and total abdication of political responsibility.

Gen Kenan Evren then took over in September 1980 much to everyone's relief, banned political parties and debarred political leaders. As a measure of abundant caution, the 1983 Constitution prepared under the military regime provided dissolution of the Parliament if it fails to elect a new President after 4 rounds. Gen. Evren stayed head of state till 1989. In 1992, on my return to Ankara when I lauded some politicians for their defiance of the military in 1973, they complained that, yes, but the military had handled them roughly by jailing them in 1980.

It is as if the custodians of Ataturk's secular legacy, merit based Armed Forces since the days of Janissaries, modernized by the French and the Germans during late Ottoman era and since 1950s as part of NATO, are trying to guide Turkish society towards modernity and western contemporary values, a polity with tribal overlay over a Byzantine past and nature, from chaos and obduracy to conformity and order. Even by changing the Constitutions, thrice in the last 40 years; a liberal 1961 Constitution was replaced in 1983 by one restricting freedoms.

The elections of last three civilian Presidents i.e. of Turgut Ozal in 1989, Demiral in 1993, both politicians and former head of the Supreme Court Ahmet Sezer in 2007 were peaceful and orderly affairs.

K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Copy right with the author. E-mail: Gajendrak@hotmail.com 


More by :  K. Gajendra Singh

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