The arrest and indictment of top military figures in Turkey last week precipitated what is potentially the country’s most severe crisis since Ataturk founded the republic in 1923. The weeks ahead will probably indicate whether the country will continue its slide toward Islamism or revert to its traditional secularism. The denouement has major implications for Muslims everywhere.
Turkey’s military has long been both the state’s most trusted institution and the guarantor of Ataturk’s legacy, especially his laicism. Devotion to the founder is not some dry abstraction but a very real and central part of a Turkish officer’s life; as journalist Mehmet Ali Birand has documented, cadet-officers can hardly go an hour without hearing Ataturk’s name invoked.
On four occasions between 1960 and 1997, the military intervened to repair a political process gone awry. On the last of these occasions, it forced the Islamist government of Necmettin Erbakan out of power. Chastened by this experience, some of Erbakan’s staff re-organized themselves as the more cautious Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the decisive election of 2002, they surged ahead of discredited and fragmented centrist parties with a plurality of 34 percent of the popular vote.
Parliamentary rules then transformed that plurality into a 66 percent supermajority of assembly seats and a rare case of single-party rule. Not only did the AKP skillfully take advantage of its opportunity to lay the foundations of an Islamic order, but no other party or leader emerged to challenge it. As a result, the AKP increased its portion of the vote in the 2007 elections to a resounding 47 percent, with control over 62 percent of parliamentary seats.
Repeated AKP electoral successes encouraged it to drop its earlier caution and hasten moving the country toward AKP’s dream, an Islamic Republic of Turkey. The party placed partisans in the presidency and the judiciary while seizing increased control of education, business, media, and other leading institutions. It even challenged the secularists’ hold over what Turks call the “deep state” — the non-elected institutions of the intelligence agencies, security services, and judiciary. Only the military, the ultimate arbiter of the country’s direction, remained beyond AKP control.
Several factors then prompted the AKP to confront the military: European Union accession demands for civilian control over the military; a 2008 court case that came close to shutting down the AKP; and the growing assertiveness of its Islamist ally, the Fethullah Gülen movement. An erosion in AKP popularity (from 47 percent in 2007 to 29 percent now) added a sense of urgency to this confrontation, for it pointed to the end of one-party AKP rule in the next elections.