Transformations in Turkish Society: Military, Democracy and Civil Society

George Papademetriou, USA, Mainland Regional High School, 11th Grade


The rumbling boat churned up water as it motored around Old Istanbul and turned into the Golden Horn. Sitting on the bow of a ferry boat in August 2010, I gazed upon a historic city preoccupied with the new referendum for democracy.   I was headed to my Turkish class as a fellow of the US State Department National Strategic Language Initiative for Youth summer program. I quickly learned the Turkish word “evet” meant more than simply yes. “Evet” was a symbol for the new democratic reform that would transform the 1982 constitution, ending military intervention in civilian politics.

Ever since the modern Republic of Turkey was established almost a century ago, it has been a democracy haunted by a legacy of military control. The result is a modern country that struggles to be an effective democracy. In Turkey’s struggle for modernity, it has been constantly tied down by the military power behind the government. This struggle is epitomized by Turkey’s delay in entering the European Union (EU). Europe refuses to recognize Turkey as a part of the “European family,” which has forced Turkey to decide whether to turn towards European democratic reforms or towards the Middle East, and perhaps towards an Islamic confederation.

The tension posed by modernity has existed in Turkey since its inception. In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was founded by, among others, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “Father of Turks.” Throughout his life, Ataturk admired the western world and the sophistication of Europe. He believed that in order to develop and prosper, Turkey must imitate Europe, and become modern (Kinzer 2010 p. 67).

Ataturk felt that the Ottoman Sultanate, which had ruled the Ottoman Empire since 1299, was corrupt and antiquated. In order to modernize Turkey, he realized that the government must be completely overhauled. As a result, Ataturk and his cohort overthrew the Ottoman Sultanate and abolished centuries of tradition. Through persuasion and intimidation, he reformed Turkey and established a republic—a radical change from the sultanate. At the heart of Ataturk’s new government plan was the desire to industrialize, to civilize, and most of all, to modernize.

In the opinion of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the only way for Turkey to become a modern nation and world power was to secularize the government and relegate all religion to private life. Through a series of decrees and laws passed by the newly established parliament, he banished all traces of religion from public society. He banned the hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf. He outlawed the Arabic call to prayer, mandating that it must be in Turkish. He forbade Muslim clerics, and the preachers of any other religion, from wearing their robes outside of the mosques. He prohibited the fez, the long-established headgear of Ottoman society. He forced Sufi orders underground. He ordered Turkish scholars to change the alphabet from Arabic script to Latin script—a massive job that he demanded them to complete in three months. (Kinzer 2010 p. 66-67) With each new act, he stripped away the remains of the Ottoman Empire, replacing old traditions with suits, ties, and bowler hats.

Ataturk’s modernization was quasi-successful. Although the Republic established a democratic government and a parliamentary system, Ataturk’s personality and reliance on military control dominated the government. Even as president, he limited democracy. By maintaining a one-party parliament, Ataturk showed that he, “liked the idea of opposition, but not the reality.” (Kinzer 2010 p.100 ) Nevertheless, he became revered in Turkish society as a demigod. In Turkey, today, his image is still sacred. Many Turks continue to revere Ataturk as their liberator from the captivity of the antiquated monarchy of the sultanate. The Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP), or Republican People’s Party, the “Party of Ataturk,” was dominant in Turkish society for many years. The Kemalists continue to call for secularization and modernization.

The Kemalist secularist ideals have had a lasting impact on Turkish life. Pushing authoritative rule led by the military elite, the Kemalists have focused on supporting the urban elite, while neglecting development in the Anatolian countryside. The corruption the Kemalists perpetuated in Turkish society began to destroy the confidence Turks had in the Party of Ataturk. These Kemalist leaders shut down social programs and even empowered the rich elite. In the process, they ignored many of the pressing social and economic problems in rural Turkey, thoroughly suppressing democratic reforms.

Repeatedly, Kemalist military elites have interrupted Turkish democracy and enacted military dictatorships. In 1950, when President Ismet Inönü abandoned the CHP “power monopoly” and accepted election results in favor of an opposition party, many Kemalists were infuriated (Jung and Piccoli p. 86). Nevertheless, the new Democrat Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, served the country well, at least initially. Economic prosperity allowed farmers to invest in machinery and expand production. The middle class also prospered, and the number of motor vehicles increased 150 per cent. The Democrats were also successful in expanding Turkey’s infrastructure by laying down thousands of kilometers of rail lines (Yapp 1996 p. 313).

These economic successes in turn brought about democratic expansion. For the first time, the multi-party system allowed peasants and the lower class to voice their opinions in civil society. Former military officers in parliament declined, and businessmen emerged as leading voices in the new democratic government.

After initial prosperity, however, the Democrats enacted restrictions on political freedom. Suspicious of the CHP, they began closing CHP institutions and newspapers. Nevertheless, the most heinous offense that Menderes and the Democrats, committed according to the Kemalists, was loosening Turkey’s religious restrictions (Yapp 1996 p. 313). Kemalists attacked the Democratic Party (DP) on the grounds that they were initiating a departure from Ataturk’s secularist values. By lifting laws against religious broadcasting, permitting Arabic prayers, and recognizing religious schools, the DP infuriated strict secularists (Yapp 1996 p. 314).

In addition, Kemalist military officers felt the army was losing its privileged position in Turkey (Jung and Piccoli p. 89). The tension between Kemalists and the DP culminated in riots that spurred on the 1960 military coup d’état. Early in the morning on May 27, 1960, the army usurped control from Menderes and announced, “Owing to the crisis into which our democracy has fallen, and owing to the recent sad incidents and in order to prevent fratricide, the Turkish armed forces have taken over the administration of the country.” (Jung and Piccoli p. 83). They justified the coup, citing Menderes’ egregious acts, and set about writing a new constitution.

When the constitution was completed in 1961, it included protections of civil rights and secularist ideas. Yet military supremacy in the new government was still assured. In section two of the new constitution, a National Security Council was formed, giving Turkish generals the ability to maintain executive power without participating in the partisan political process (Jung and Piccoli p. 90). The restrictions the military elite imposed prevented democracy from expanding in civil society.

The 1960 military coup set the precedent for subsequent overthrows of the government by the military. Soon, the newly established political structures were torn by political extremism. As militants staged bank robberies to raise money, strikes and assassinations were carried out (Hale p. 189), student protests and guerilla warfare threatened Turkey with anarchy. This resulted in the 1971 “coup by memorandum” conducted by General Memduh Tağmaç, who reasserted the military’s role in maintaining order (Yapp p.319). They believed that an authoritarian regime was the only solution that would propagate order and egalitarian modernity (Hale p. 186).

Although the coup calmed Turkey for a short time, the political tension heightened yet again in the 1970’s, resulting in a Turkish state tattered by violence. Both leftists and conservatives increased military activity, often spurred on by external American or Soviet groups fighting for a foothold in Turkey. Grey Wolves, a faction of the National Action Party led by Alparslan Turkeş, increasingly promoted violence to support their ultranationalist vision of Turkey (Yapp p. 319). Turkish Islamists were further incited when they heard of the 1979 Iranian religious revolution. Many Turks clamored for Sharia Islamic law, directly contradicting Turkey’s Kemalist and secularist origins (Yapp 323). In 1981, after economic and financial crises crippled Turkey, the army seized control of the government. Martial law was implemented, political parties and trade unions disbanded, and politicians arrested. Military leaders declared that a complete overhaul of the 1961 constitution was needed to establish a stable Turkish state (Jung and Piccoli p.93).

After 38 months of military rule, the army finally relinquished control of the state to civilian control (Jung and Piccoli p. 94). During this period of time, most of the terrorism was eradicated (Yapp p. 323). Nevertheless, the authoritarian military regime had a negative effect on society. By suppressing leftists and Islamists, the military limited democracy. When the army passed a new constitution, it was overwhelmingly ratified in a public vote. However, since the vote was compulsory and criticism of the constitution was prohibited, democratic values were being seriously breached.(Jung and Piccoli p. 94) Even after the military stepped down, the subsequent civilian government passed laws that violated democratic practices and prevented Turkey from expanding to its full democratic potential.

Ultimately, Kemalist rule impacted rural farmers the most. People living outside of cities on the plains of Anatolia were disenfranchised and no longer able to sustain themselves economically. The result was an influx of the rural population into the cities, such as Bursa, Kaiseri, and, of course, Istanbul. This rural population was utterly out of place in Turkey’s big cities. People whose families had not left their villages or their homes for centuries suddenly gathered their belongings and sought their fortunes in the city. But city life was no kinder to these urban transplants. They lacked the skills and education to succeed in a bustling city environment.

In order to help cope with the problems the rural villagers encountered in the big cities, small political groups began to organize. Established as Islamic groups, they created philanthropic institutions like soup kitchens. These groups held education as a priority, and as a result, they funded students attending universities. Gradually, these small Islamic groups developed into parties that were a major part of city politics. Soon, they rose to power on the national level. Now, Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan represents the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Islamic reform party.

The AKP represents Islam in society and promotes religion in government. Throughout their struggle to gain power, the AKP rooted out corruption in the government. Just recently, the AKP stopped a coup d’etat initiated by the “deep state”, Turkey’s military and business elites. Nevertheless, a conflict remains between the secularized Kemalists and the Islamists in Turkish politics. This rift in society is visible everywhere. The issue of religion’s role in society is so controversial that when current Prime Minister Erdogan was Mayor of Istanbul, he was imprisoned for reading a poem that talked about minarets as bayonets and domes as helmets. (Kinzer, p.133) Even the fact that women are banned from university campuses if they wear headscarves points to the clash of ideology between the conservative secularists and liberal Islamists.

As the latest constitutional referendum was passed in September 2010 the reforms have put all members of Turkish society on notice to respect all aspects of the law. No longer will one party or military group have authoritative rule over the government and society.   As recent as 2007, the military tried to take control of the government. Over 196 high ranking officers are currently being charged with an attempted coup d’etat. (Wall Street Journal, 16 Dec 2010) However, In spite of the lingering shadow of military power trying to stay in control, Turkish government has asserted its civilian authority over the military.   And the people confirmed this sentiment with an overwhelming “Evet” – yes. Turkey must continue with this same type of courage on this very path of democratic reform. In order to truly experience the full fruits of democracy, Turkey must fearlessly accept the constitution, written by and for civilians, without any attachment to the military. Only then can Turkey become a completely democratic state.


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