Thirty-six years ago today, just after I had begun graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame, we heard news of a coup d’état in Turkey. The civilian government in the capital city of Ankara had been overthrown, and the military was now in charge. Once they were running the country, they prepared a new constitution which was adopted in a referendum and went into effect in 1982.
Military incursions into civilian governance were nothing new in Turkey. From the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal’s nationalists took power and put an end to the faltering Ottoman Empire, the military had effectively become the guardian of the republic’s new secular identity, protecting his legacy against a possible Islamic renaissance. Previous coups had occurred in 1960 and 1971. Another “coup by memorandum” took place in 1997, when military leaders made a series of “recommendations” to the government backed by the implied threat of force.
Over the course of nearly a century, Turkey has charted a path that has set it apart from other countries with Muslim majorities. While Islam, claiming a near monopoly on the public realm, is not easily relegated to the private sphere, Kemal, also known as Atatürk, make a concerted effort to westernize his country, banning the public wearing of any explicitly religious or clerical garb, along with the fez and the headscarf. The French have a word for this: laïcité, or official secularism, which the military would be jealously guarding.
While this secularism has found favour with the country’s educated élite, it has not resonated at all well with the peasants in the Anatolian hinterland. These have been the backbone of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a moderate Islamist party that has posed a challenge to Turkey’s Kemalist legacy. Founded in 2001, the AKP has dominated Turkish politics under its savvy leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, currently President since 2014, and, prior to that, Prime Minister from 2003.
Not since Atatürk’s death in 1938 has a political leader so dominated Turkish political life. But in contrast to Atatürk, Erdoğan has aspirations that cause critics to question his commitment to democracy. He is the first directly elected President, a fact that makes him, unlike his predecessors, more than just a figurehead. Though the AKP is moderately conservative, its very existence as an openly Islamist party has been a sore point with Kamalist military leaders.
In July their patience finally ran out, and they attempted what their predecessors had done in the past: overthrowing the civilian government. This time, however, it didn’t take. The coup lost ground and was quickly defeated by the government. Undaunted by this potential setback, Erdoğan seized the opportunity to consolidate his executive power and to strike back at opponents, both within the military and without. For the first time since the 1920s, the military may now lack the ability to defend Kemalist secularism, and Turkey may be in for a more Islamic future, if Erdoğan has his way.
Some have accused Erdoğan, known to be an admirer of the Ottoman Empire, of behaving like an Ottoman sultan. The comparison is not entirely accurate. The Ottoman Empire was fairly tolerant of religious diversity within its far-flung territories, granting Orthodox Christians, Jews and Armenians special protections. By contrast, under Erdoğan, Turkey has refused to allow the Ecumenical Patriarch to reopen the Greek Orthodox theological school in the island of Halki which was closed in 1971. Secularists and Islamists alike strongly oppose reopening a school originally founded in 1844. Furthermore, there has been talk of returning the nearly 1,600-year-old Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s famous Church of the Holy Wisdom, to its pre-1931 status as a mosque, a move certain to alienate secularists and religious minorities alike.
It remains to be seen how the European Union, NATO and Turkey’s immediate neighbours will respond as President Erdoğan charts a new course for his country’s future. Stay tuned for more on Turkey in this space.
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