Democracy Yok – The State Of Democracy In Turkey

Dr. Kedar wrote this story for the August 9, 2013 issue of the Makor Rishon newspaper. Translated to English by Sally Zahav, it is published here with permission.

Democracy In Turkey

Democracy can be fragile. It can also be understood to mean different things to different people. There are always people trying to undermine each other, and some undermine the system because they don’t agree with it or they want something else.

This state of affairs is nothing new. It has been going on for as long as there have been humans – people are competing for their own slice of the pie. Dr. Kedar looks back just a short distance, the the 17th century, for a pointer to his story today.

democracy yok
Erdogan effectively says Democracy Yok

In the middle of the 17th century, Ibrahim – the Turkish sultan called “the insane” – instructed the commander of his fleet to conquer the island of Malta. The admiral went to sea but because of a navigational mistake did not find the island. One version of the story is that he had no intention of getting to Malta and he erased it from the ship’s navigational map so the crew would not be able to find it. He returned to Turkey saying: “Malta yok,” or, “there is no Malta.” These days, the question is whether there is democracy in Turkey or perhaps “democracy yok?”

This question is not only valid pertaining to the events of last week, when 250 senior public figures who were accused of attempting to bring about a revolution against Recep Tayyip Erdogan were sent to prison, and not only to the past decade either, during which time he ruled the country with an iron fist as the head of the Islamist-oriented Freedom and Development Party. The question can also be applied to the years previous to the Islamists’ rule, beginning with the secular revolution of Mustafa Kemal, “Ataturk,” who was elected as the first president of modern Turkey, in 1923.

Those who have a good memory will certainly remember the film “Midnight Express,” which clearly described the Turkish regime’s shocking methods of torture during the secular era. Even Erdogan himself was sentenced to ten months imprisonment in 1998 because he publicly read a poem that included the line “the mosques are our bases, their domes our helmets, their spires our swords and their believers our soldiers.” Was he sent to prison because reading that sentence was a democratic act? Was the justice system objective back then?

Two Contradictory And Conflicting Cultural Movements

Since 1923, Turkey has been a battleground for conflicts between two contradictory and conflicting cultural movements: the secular one, Kamalism (from the name Mustafa Kemal, “Ataturk”), that was imposed upon Turkey using violent and dictatorial means, and the Islamic tradition], which had been repressed for decades, managed to come to power and now makes every effort to retain its position, even by using means which would be considered undemocratic by Western criteria.

The guardians of secularism were mainly the army and the judicial system. According to the constitution, the army’s role as the guardian of the country’s secular character is even more important than its role as defender of the country from external enemies. The army has fulfilled this function four times, when it went into action, sending the politicians home: 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. The last time was after the Islamic movement’s first political victory: Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party won in the elections of 1996 but was removed from power by the army a year afterward and the party was banned. Erdogan’s Party of Justice and Welfare grew from the ideological platform of the Welfare Party, and it has been the ruling party in Turkey since 2002.

The present government felt obligated for its own protection to defang the secular watchdogs: the army, the presidency and the court. In a continual, gradual process, Erdogan has ultimately succeeded to put Abdullah Gul, his friend and his foreign minister in the past, into the presidency. And he has managed to bring about constitutional changes so that he can put judges who are not part of the secular elite into the High Court. The army – which had, in essence, been a totally secular, anti-religious body, underwent changes in personnel, whereby any officer who finished his service or was dismissed, was replaced by an officer loyal to the Islamic way.

However, the secular elite was still there in the background; they formed a secret clique composed of a few thousand people who remained faithful to the secular, anti-Islamic doctrine of Ataturk. They included senior military veterans, politicians, academicians, journalists, judges, attorneys, artists, authors, poets, and most important: business people who could make things happen using their economic means. This group felt that the country had been stolen from them, and that the Islamists who came to power – who, only one generation ago, were ignorant and uneducated – are not fit to rule a modern state.

Ergogan Struggles Against The Secular Movement

Erdogan and his party are engaged in a constant struggle against the secular movement, who are represented in parliament by a few small parties. To protect its image in the media, the Islamic government imprisoned dozens of journalists who had criticized the prime minister’s conduct and behavior. This took on more importance after the series of violent demonstrations that have swept over Turkey during the past several months as a result of the development project that the government is carrying out in the center of Istanbul. The ties between capital, press and government in Erdogan’s Turkey are just as strong and convoluted as they were in the days of the secular government.

It is against this background of the power struggle between the secular and religious movements that the Ergenekon Affair arose. In the Ergenekon Affair, hundreds of people, among them senior former officials,were arrested, and were accused of plotting to overthrow the Islamic party’s government. Those arrested include military people, business people, media people, academics and artists. All of them were put on trial before a special court, whose evidentiary rules do not make it easy for the defendant to prove his innocence.

According to the charges, each of the accused was responsible for part of the plot, and the operation was accused of being a terror network, a claim that makes it easier for the government to restrict the defendants’ rights. The chief defendant was the former army chief of staff, General Ilker Basbug, who was sentenced to life in prison. He was arrested in 2012 and accused of ordering Internet sites to be established where propaganda would be spread against the government and its head. Other senior officers were also sentenced to long prison terms, with the accusation – perhaps falsely – that they had arranged murders and assassinations.

The trial was held in Silivri prison in Istanbul, in a hall that was built especially for the trial, in order to keep the trial from being covered by the media. This way the government could conduct the process however it wanted. Each time demonstrators gathered in front of the prison to protest the trial and the way it was being conducted, the police broke up the demonstrations very violently.

Turkey’s Image At Stake

Turkey’s image is now at stake: will it be liberal and modern, as its founder, Mustafa Kemal, “the Father of the Turks,” intended, or will it perhaps revert to the days of the Ottoman sultans who waved the Islamic flag over their heads. The whole pot: the army, media, academia, art and commerce, is at stake in the struggle, and we can expect that in the wake of the of the defendants’ conviction in the Ergenekon Affair, the struggle will become sharper and stronger. Each side is entrenched in its position and takes increasingly stronger actions, and it may be that Turkey is sliding – but not as quickly as Egypt did – into a series of violent struggles in the public sphere, as we have seen in recent months.

This will effect both Turkey’s economy and its international standing, because the European states, who have in the past expressed doubts about allowing Turkey to join the EU because of the way the Turkish government treats its opponents, will now intensify their demand that Erdogan ease the pressure on his opposition. There may even be international judicial procedures to appeal the sentences that were imposed in the Ergenekon affair, whether in the form of an internal Turkish appeal, or a combination of international tribunals.

Will Turkey continue to claim that it is a democratic state as the cultural struggle between its opposing sides intensifies? Will the world continue to see Turkey as a partner in diplomatic processes when basic human rights are trampled internally? Time will tell.

Dr. Kedar is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.

Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav

Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Dr. Mordechai Kedar is the Director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam, a research associate of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is one of Israel's leading figures in understanding the Arab world.