The most dramatic thing that happened last weekend was an attempted coup by elements of the Turkish Army on Friday night. For a few hours, there was high drama, as troops shut down TV stations and rumors circulated that President Erdogan had fled Turkey in a private plane and was trying to request asylum in Germany. By Saturday morning it had all unraveled, though; the government was back in charge and a purge of the military and judicial system is already underway.
There’s been predictable shock and outrage at the military daring to involve itself in politics. What a lot of people don’t realize is that, in Turkey, the Army is supposed to get involved in politics. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk set up modern Turkey in the 1920s, he borrowed heavily from the British, French and US models of government; one thing he particularly liked about both France and the USA was the formal separation of church and state.
Turkey rose out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, which had been ruled according to Islamic law. Although 99.8% of the Turkish population is Muslim, Atatürk wanted nothing to do with sharia law. In a series of breathtakingly bold reforms, he imposed secular law and banished sharia to religious matters only, banned the veil for women, ordered politicians to start wearing western clothes, gave women full equality, including the right to vote, and finally replaced the Arabic alphabet used by the Ottomans with a new one based on the Latin alphabet. Atatürk wanted Turkey to be a modern secular country and he didn’t mess around.
Mostly, he succeeded – but he always knew his reforms could be reversed. Urban Turks are mostly pretty westernized, but rural or poorer ones often prefer the old, Islamic way of doing things. In a democracy, which Atatürk was determined Turkey would be, they might elect a government that would turn Turkey back into an Islamic state. To prevent that, the Army was given the role of guarding the new constitution. Atatürk took this so seriously that his order to preserve secularism is carved above his tomb in gold letters.
Since the Second World War, there have been occasions when a government wavered towards undoing Atatürk’s reforms. Four times the Army has stepped in to halt that process. Erdogan, a determined political operator, was always aware that this was the biggest threat to his plan. Since coming to power, he’s worked hard to get rid of Kemalist generals who might one day move against him.
And, sadly, it looks like he’s succeeded. Last Friday’s coup attempt was too small and too uncoordinated to take power. It came close, but in the end didn’t quite make it. Now, Erdogan will take the opportunity to clear out his remaining opponents and tighten his grasp on power. This is a man who has compared democracy to a bus ride, and announced that he’d get off when he reached his stop. He wants to turn Turkey back into a theocracy, and now it looks like nobody is left to stop him.
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