The Region’s Only Real Democracy?

It’s a long way from a conservative agenda to state-supported religious coercion.

Louis Fishman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Louis Fishman

The Turkish military elite, known for decades as the defender of the secular Turkish republic, found itself checkmated this week by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Long gone are the days when the army dictated politics, carrying out three coups d’etat in 1960, 1971 and 1980 and forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1997. In today’s Turkey, few people, whether from the government or the opposition, would support such interference by the military, or the military elite’s radical form of secularism, which actively discriminated against religious women choosing to wear head scarves in educational institutions and government offices.

While Erdogan has been chiseling away at the Turkish army’s influence since 2003, this week marked a major victory for him. Last Friday, the chief of staff, Isik Kosaner, as well as the commanders of the land, sea and air forces, threw in the towel, simultaneously handing in their resignations. Kosaner described the move as a protest of a new round of arrests of senior officers accused of planning to overthrow the government back in 2003 (accusations that seem feasible). However, the resignations seem to suggest that the army has become completely subordinate to the civil political system, with Erdogan now having the final say in the annual promotions of army officers, a process that took place this week. Simply put, it seems that the kitchen was too hot for this group of senior officers, so they opted to get out.

For Erdogan, the timing could not have been better. In June, he was reelected, with his party winning nearly 50 percent of the vote in a national election. Now, his main agenda will be to hammer out a new liberal constitution to replace the out-of-date one dictated by the army in 1982. The new constitution may finally put Turkey on the road to genuine democracy and at last solve the Kurdish question, which took the lives of nearly 20 soldiers in the last week alone. After decades of trying to solve this question through military force, it is clear that only a political solution can bring calm to Turkey’s southeastern regions.

Undoubtedly, Erdogan has led the country into one of its most dynamic economic periods ever. Yet after the arrests and detention during the past four years not only of army officers, but also of numerous journalists and academics, on suspicion of involvement in plotting a coup it is essential that fair and transparent trials be held in the near future, and even that some of the suspects be released until a verdict is reached. Such a move would put an end to claims by opposition members that the arrests are nothing more than attempts by the AK Party to silence its opposition.

The AKP does not deny that it seeks to make Turkey more conservative. But it’s a long way from a conservative agenda to state-supported religious coercion. In fact, putting aside the issues of alcohol and public demonstration of religious observance, the military elite and those who support their form of secularism are no less conservative. And during Erdogan’s tenure, numerous issues that were previously taboo, from gay rights to the Armenian genocide, are now discussed freely in public.

Regionally, a vibrant, democratic Turkey no longer under the military’s thumb, can offer the Arab world a true model, since who more than the Arab countries knows how the interference of military elites has stymied the emergence of democratic systems? The Turkish model could also provide a model of how Islamic factions can coexist alongside liberal and secular groups, despite their clashing worldviews.

Turkish-Israeli relations may well have been the biggest victim of the decline of Turkey’s military, as Israel during recent years has seen the limits of relying on its ties with it. While Israel benefited economically from the refurbishing of Turkish tanks and jets, the friendship never penetrated civil society, despite the wave of pro-Israeli sentiment that followed Turkey’s 1998 earthquake. Thus, as relations between the Turkish army and the government deteriorated, so did relations between the Israeli and Turkish governments. Turkey could also serve as an example to Israel of how a country with a stringent ideology can transform into a multicultural society, even as it retains a national identity. As Turkey breaks away from a radical form of Ataturkism, it seems as if Israel is trying to hold on to radical interpretations of Zionism even while preparing to go down with the ship if it must.

The week’s events, however, demonstrate perhaps most of all that Turkey is indeed on its way to becoming the region’s first and only true democracy. Certainly, that is a title that has been wrongly attributed to both Turkey and Israel during the past few decades. Compared to their neighbors, there is no arguing that the two states have enjoyed relative democracy, but this was possible only through the use of extreme violence: the Turkish state in terms of the Kurdish question; and Israel with its continued occupation of Palestinian territory, and denial of basic rights to the Palestinians.

Now, it is up to Erdogan and his government to ensure that all their work has not been in vain, and to move Turkey toward a more just and democratic future for all its citizens, regardless of religious, ethnic or gender identity. A liberal Turkish state will not only allow greater tolerance to marginalized groups within its society, but can also serve as a beacon for the Middle East at large.

Louis Fishman is assistant professor of history at Brooklyn College. He blogs about Turkish, Israeli and Middle Eastern politics at: