In the past month, worries about foreign minister Abdullah Gul of the AK Party being nominated to the position of President came to a head with over a million marching in Istanbul for secularism preceded by a thinly veiled threat by the general staff of the Turkish army to intervene. The Western medias response was positive towards a Middle Eastern and predominately Muslim nation having large public shows of support for secularism but tempered by the possibility of another military coup to defend this position, leading the Economist to declare ‘If Turks have to choose, democracy is more important than secularism’. The majority of the reasoning led towards a questioning of the Turkish military’s role, a role that seems foreign to industrialized nations where the military is typically subordinate to civil governments.
While this speaks to an ideal of a coexistence of democracy and secularism, the reality is that there is popular support for the AK Party that outnumbers the secular opposition – if elections are to be held in July, they will most likely be dominated by the AK. While this shouldn’t be declared as an Islamist majority or secular minority, the ambitions of the AK Party are unclear in regards to their Islamist roots (to be fair, the majority of their rule has respected secularism and presided over a period of sustained economic development).
In this predicament, the military shouldn’t be discounted as the self-appointed defender of Ataturk’s secular legacy. The West’s difficulty with its position is obvious: in a global memory bereft of military juntas that turned countries into prisons, the capability of a military to interfere in politics in a positive, progressive manner seems negligible. But the reality is the military has acted as an institution maintaining Western values in a country that is a member of NATO and seeking future membership in the European Union.
While the Turkish system may not be the best of all worlds, in a region where Hamas in Palestine, Lieberman in Israel, and Ahmadinejad in Iran all attained power democratically, the short falls of an unchecked democracy should be apparent. More importantly, the Turkish military has acted as an arbiter of power and primarily maintained a stable political system while countries around it have welted into Islamic regimes and authoritarian police states. Given the climate of perpetual conflict and chaos in the Middle East, there needs to be a pragmatic approach towards the forces of secularism and modernization, including the Turkish military.
More Reading & Sources
Turkey’s army and the west’s hypocrisy by Rageh Omaar, http://www.newstatesman.com/200705140019
The battle for Turkey’s soul, The Economist, http://economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9116747
Secularism v democracy, The Economist, http://economist.com/world/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9116841
The Military and Democracy in Turkey, http://www.theglobalist.com/DBWeb/StoryId.aspx?StoryId=1982
AYAAN HIRSI ALI COMMENTARY: Can Secular Turkey Survive Democracy?, http://bookerrising.blogspot.com/2007/05/ayaan-hirsi-ali-commentary-can-secular.html