Turkey has been an emphatically “secular” country since its foundation. Mustapha Kemal “Ataturk” (“Father of the Turks”) wanted a secular state, not one of those messed up backward Arab countries. He prohibited the wearing of the fez for men and veils for women. He granted women equal rights with men (including the outlawing of polygamy). He insisted upon the separation of Church and State. This included banning the “sharia” (Islamic religious law). Kemal was a general and the army he created has been the guardian of Turkish identity since its foundation. The army has overthrown governments from time to time when they strayed too far from honest or secular government. Explicitly religious parties have been banned from time to time.
A bunch of the religious politicians migrated from the banned parties to the Justice and Development Party, which was formally not a religious party. (Wink, wink.) In 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a majority in the parliament and formed a government under prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Hostility soon mounted between the AKP and the army. In 2007 the generals were alarmed by the direction being taken by the AKP. They made a veiled threat of a coup. Many Turks took offense at the threat and voted for the AKP in the next election, increasing its majority. In 2008 the army tried to get the Constitutional Court to declare the AKP illegal on the grounds that it was trying to impose the “sharia” on the country. The Court rejected this charge. The AKP government then launched a hunt for conspirators among the ranks of present and—especially—retired officers. From 2008 to 2010 hundreds of officers were arrested and many were charged with conspiring to commit terrorist offenses. At the same time journalists, professors, and human-rights activists also were targeted. The government alleged a plot to provoke Islamists into violence, then to use that as a justification for a new military government in place of the AKP. The government leaked a huge file of documents to the press. The army’s response is that all the government has found are the records of contingency planning for an Islamist revolt.
“The struggle for Turkey’s soul,” The Week, 26 March 2010, p. 15.
The quarrel between the secularist military and the democratically-elected AKP has important implications. First, Turkey has been trying to get into the European Union. The Europeans are deeply concerned about Muslim immigration and Muslim fundamentalism. What Frenchman wants to see Notre Dame turned into a mosque? So the prospect of a fundamentalist government in Turkey does nothing for the country’s prospects of admission into the European Union.
Second, the United States sees Turkey as an important regional power in an area of American concern. The Greeks are nice, but the Turks are tough. The Turks offer a model of what other Muslim countries might become if they would just get their ten pounds in a five pound bag. Turkey borders on the Kurdish part of Iraq and contains its own large Kurdish population. The possibility of Kurdish nationalism messing up conditions in both Iraq and Turkey is very real. Turkey was the one Muslim state that was reasonably pro-Israel. American officials dread that “one man, one vote” in an Islamist Turkey might take place only one time, leaving the country in the hands of a pro-fundamentalist, pro-Iranian, and anti-American government.
Third, ISIS is on the southern border. So the Army will protect the Republic, right?