March 23, 2010

Growing pains of Turkish democracy

Aydoğan Vatandaş

In a recent op-ed piece, “Turkey’s Republic of Fear” (March 4, 2010), Soner Çağaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), hurled cheap and unsubstantiated shots at Turkey’s current ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the moderate, pro-democracy Fethullah Gülen movement.

First, let’s clarify who Mr. Çağaptay’s employers are: WINEP has its roots in and is still closely affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). This raises the question of whether the powerful pro-Israeli lobby group has an interest in seeing the global influence of Turkish moderate Islam decreased and inflaming anti-Muslim sentiment.

Çağaptay falsely describes the Gülen movement as “ultra-conservative” and accuses it of funding Hamas and Chechen terrorists. Yet he presents no empirical data to support these extreme ideas; equating the Gülen movement with radical Islam is like saying all members of the Christian right are violent abortion clinic bombers.

Çağaptay, and anyone else who’s spent time in Turkey, knows the truth about the nature of the Gülen movement: that the movement is visible and transparent, seeks integration with society rather than isolationism, is non-authoritarian in structure and does not reject modernization in favor of traditionalism. With absolute certainty, it is impossible to say that the Gülen movement has ever been associated with radicalism.
Fethullah Gulen
Fethullah Gulen

Recognized internationally for promoting dialogue and global peace, Mr. Gülen was invited to give the keynote address at the 2009 World Parliament of Religions in Melbourne, Australia.

Mr. Gülen has always rejected the philosophy that violence is a legitimate means to a justifiable end. After the London subway bombings and suicide attacks in Israel, he criticized the terrorists who condoned such acts. “Unfortunately some condone acts of suicide bombings with the rhetoric of ‘they have no other means.’ If this is the only means Muslims have, let that means be buried deep in the ground together with the one who uses it,” he said.

Then what motivates Mr. Çağaptay to be so brazen in his misrepresentation of Gülen and the AK Party? Could a recent shift in Turkish-Israeli relations be a motivating factor? I guess so! Mr. Çağaptay mischaracterizes the AK Party reign as a republic of terror when in fact, since voted into office in 2002, the AK Party has facilitated major constitutional and legislative reforms, leading toward greater democratization and preserving the secular structure of the government while creating a space for religious freedom. One shortcoming of the party is that Turkey has not yet been able to align its military-civilian relations with European Union standards.

However, important changes have been made to the judicial system, including the abolition of the State Security Court (DGM) system, but the judicial system’s current structure and methodology continue to present some difficulties.

Turkish civil society has grown stronger. Cultural rights for the Kurds are beginning to be recognized -- and the AK Party has made progress on the Armenian issue. Finally, they have enhanced political dialogue; Turkish foreign policy is contributing positively to regional stability.

Photo: Turkish soldiers marching
Some military generals thought that it was time to put a stop to the AK Party’s burgeoning power; in countries like Turkey, democracy operates differently. Whenever democracy gains traction, the military grabs for power again. When the Democrat Party (DP) won 52 percent of the vote in the first free elections in Turkish history, on May 14, 1950, Adnan Menderes became prime minister. He later won two more free elections, one in 1954 and the other in 1957. No other Turkish politician has ever been able to win three general elections in a row. Then, in 1960, a coup d’état was staged by a group of Turkish army officers; the tribunals ended with the execution of Prime Minister Menderes, Foreign Affairs Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu and Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan on İmralı Island on Sept. 16, 1961.

The ‘70s were a time of political violence and economic uncertainty. The 1971 coup d’état, carried out on March 12, was the second to take place in the Republic of Turkey, coming 11 years after its 1960 predecessor.

In 1980, another junta was formed that instituted martial law and abolished all political parties. The junta was dissolved because of a new constitution, adopted in 1982.

On Feb. 28, 1997, the military pressured the democratically elected government to resign and allowed another civilian government to take power.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have always played a central role in the nation’s political agenda. The military has long enjoyed the privilege of an autonomous position because of its role as guardian of the unitary republic, secularism and Kemalism.

And this brings us to the present: the latest coup attempt by the TSK was revealed in leaked military documents that were recently published in the liberal Taraf daily newspaper. The alleged plot aimed to create an atmosphere of chaos in the country through a series of violent acts that would eventually lead to a military coup.

While Mr. Çağaptay claims that the Turkish military denies the coup allegations, in fact the top army prosecutor has already announced that the coup documents are authentic and that the plans were staged in 2003 without the official permission the Turkish General Staff.

Recent arrests of military generals in Turkey mark a milestone in the nation’s democratic history. Four previous governments have been ousted by the military, and not one coup leader has ever been convicted.

As the right-wing military leaders planned this coup attempt, they failed to notice changes in Turkish civil society. A whistle-blower within the military who believed in democracy leaked the documents to the press. Meanwhile, the press has changed and diversified, making the publishing of these damaging documents possible. And finally, the common people, a broad-based electorate led by the Turkish middle class, were able to stand up to the elites. These arrests in Turkey are not signs of an authoritarian regime, but the healthy process of a maturing democracy.

Published on Today's Zaman, on 22 March 2010, Monday

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