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Turkish generals’ periodic itch: ban on Muslim party
By Karamatullah K. Ghori

The Turkish Constitutional Court's verdict of June 21 banning the main Islamic party, Fazilat, has come as no surprise to those knowing the ways of Turkish 'democracy' and how it works by fits and starts under the watchful eyes of its powerful army. With 102 of its members sitting in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Fazilat was the third largest political party in the country. Its demise, therefore, is a matter of no small significance.

The Turkish army swept to political power in 1960 when the first of a series of martial laws was clamped on the country and proponents of civilian rule were numbed by the hanging of the popular prime minister, Adnan Menderes. The Turkish generals have never, since looked back or relaxed their chokehold over the country's political reins, whether in power themselves or by proxy through civilian 'rulers' too scared of them to call their bluff. The country has largely been run through edicts issued from the General Headquarters to the government of the day in the guise of 'advice'. A Prime Minister could afford to ignore such 'advice' only at his own peril. The most powerful institution in the country since 1960 is the National Security Council, nominally headed by the Turkish President but heavily stacked with the Services Chiefs who dwarf their civilian counterparts by their superior wisdom.

The Turkish army has arrogated to itself the role of being the country's arbiters because the generals regard themselves as the rightful heirs of Kemal Ataturk's secular creed. They openly disdain the politicians' incapacity to live up to the ideals of Kemalism, considered sacred and irreversible for the defence of Turkey's secular moorings. Kemalism has been built into a cult, and the generals are its self-anointed gurus. They have also become the font of all favours dispensed to favourite politicians who do not challenge their hegemony of power.

However the Turkish generals' secularism has a uniqueness of its own. Contrary to the universally accepted definition of secularism being predicated on general tolerance for all religions, dogmas and beliefs, the Turkish secularism thrives on total antipathy to religion, which in the context of a country 99 per cent Muslim, amounts to being anti-Islamic. The State, in a sense, has complete monopoly of religion in Turkey. All the mosques, and all the charitable trusts, function under the canopy of the State Auqaf Board whose director serves at the pleasure of the government. There is no concept of privately- funded , or administered, mosques. Likewise, all the 'pesh imams' must, by law, be paid employees of the state.

As guardians of the country's frontiers and faith ( which is secularism) the Turkish generals regularly undertake 'weeding and pruning' exercises to purge the ranks of the Turkish armed forces of any suspected 'Islamists' and their sympathizers. Every year before going on their summer holidays, the generals at the Turkish General Staff get down to the brass tacks of purging the rank and file of the armed forces of 'undesirable reactionaries'. A joke making the rounds in Ankara, at the start of summer, is that the generals do not get into the holiday mood unless they can first chop the heads of 'Islamists' in the ranks of the army. Scores of officers at all levels, and hundreds of soldiers are 'prune' to make sure that the armed forces remain free of Islamist influence. It is taboo for anybody serving in the armed forces to grow a beard; even a moustache is frowned upon. The quickest way to make an exit from the army is to ask for leave to perform 'Haj'. No employee of the Turkish state, civil or military, is permitted to perform Haj while in service.

With odds so heavily against them-and in favours of the generals-Turkish politicians and political parties have generally steered clear of the hectoring military establishment and its arcane apparatus ruling the roost. Not so the Islamists; they have been the sole challengers to the overt, and covert, dominance of the army over statecraft.
The banner of Islamist challenge to the military supremacy was first unfurled by Mr. Necmettin Erbakan in 1969 when he founded the National Order party ( NOP) with an Islam-based agenda in open defiance of the army's disdain of Islam. Eversince then, Erbakan has been the most prominent and valiant political campaigner against the army's lording of politics in Turkey. However, Erbakan's perennial nemesis, the Constitutional Court, soon clipped his wings by outlawing NOP, in 1971, for " breach" of Turkey's secularist constitution. Erbakan remained undaunted. Two years later, in 1973, he founded a new party out of the remnants of NOP, calling it the National Salvation Party ( NSP). He had better luck in his second coming; with its considerable following and influence, his party was sought after by other political groups anxious to get into power. Erbakan served in every government that followed, until the third military takeover of September, 1980.

The military regime that wrested power from the politicians disbanded all political parties, and jailed all political leaders, including Erbakan. The ban on political parties came off in 1983, and Erbakan wasted no time in founding yet another Islam-based party, the Welfare, known more widely, and popularly, by its Turkish name, Refah. Four years later, in 1987, full political activity was restored in the country, and the ban on pre-coup leaders was also lifted. Erbakan, there upon, assumed the mantle of Refah's leadership.
The fortunes of the Islamists soared in the 90s. Disgusted with the run-of-the-mill politicians taking their cue from the General Staff, the Turkish people started responding to the call of the Islamists for a fresh start. There was a groundswell of support for them not only in the hinterland of Turkey, where the western-orientation of big cities like Istanbul and Ankara is only skin-deep, but also in the heart of metropolitan Turkey. Even today, despite the military's backlash against them, the Islamists still control the mayor's office in both Istanbul and Ankara.

Refah's mounting clout with the people translated into substantive political ascendency for it at the 1995 general elections when it topped the polls and captured the most seats in the Assembly. Erbakan became the first Prime Minister of Turkey with a pronounced Islamic platform in early 1996. His one year-long rule was to take the country literally by a storm.

Erbakan's rise at the pinnacle of political power was a rude shock to the generals ; his Islamist agenda-like lifting the ban on headscarves in public workplaces and building mosques in secular strongholds-was deemed a slap in the face of the General Staff to whom these ` reactionary ` innovations were anathema. The battle lines between the Premier and the fuming generals did not take long into shaping. The latter found willing allies amongst supine `secularist` politicians accustomed to being spoon-fed by the generals. The call from the General Headquarters went out that Turkey's secular ramparts were under siege by the Islamists and had to be secured. A massive backlash was mounted against the Erbakan government at the behest of the army.

On February 28, 1997, the military-dominated National Security Council demanded in a strongly-worded communique to put a halt to Erbakan's Islamist policies. While Erbakan remained unflinching in the face of the ultimatum, his coalition partners buckled and cut a deal with the military high command to literally feed Erbakan and his Islamist agenda to the wolves. The generals boasted of their strongarming of Erbakan. `The spirit of February 28` has since become a battle cry in the Turkish lexicon, as much as Mao's `The Great Leap Forward` was in China in Mao's heyday, or ` the Perestroika` was in the Soviet Union under Gorbachov. On June 18 of that year-within 4 months of the generals reading the riots act to Erbakan, his government was toppled. Six months later, Refah was outlawed by the same Constitutional Court which has lately banned its successor Fazilat, and Erbakan himself was banned from politics for 5 years. The charge against him was subverting the secularist moorings of the Turkish constitution.

Another trumped up court case against him, in 2000, subsequently disqualified him for life from politics. He has challenged that verdict in the European Court of Human Rights, to which Turkey is a member.

However, the Islamists refused to be daunted by the brazen use of brute power against them. Sensing the ultimate wrath and fury of the generals against Refah, they had preempted their vengeance by launching its successor, the Fazilat ( Virtue ) Party a month ahead of its dissolution. Erbakan's disqualification was disturbing but not unnerving to his followers. His closest and trusted lieutenant, Recai Kutan-a modest and soft-spoken man who is the antithesis of a militant-stepped into his shoes at the helm of the new party. The Islamists were ready again to do battle with the hectoring generals, on a level playing field, if possible. That was not to be.

Fazilat, always in the sights of the generals as the standard-bearer of the Islamists in Turkey, was no more tolerable, or acceptable, to them than Refah was. Tolerated, at best, as a necessary evil, Fazilat remained a stick in the generals' craw, and they watched over it like a hawk ready to swoop down on its prey at the earliest opportunity. It was a case of zero tolerance for the Islamists as far as the guardian angels of secularism in Turkey were concerned.

Their opportunity to teach another lesson to the Islamists came with the inauguration of the new National Assembly in Ankara after the general elections of April 1999 which returned Fazilat as the third largest party in the Assembly and ready to do its part as the main opposition. It was the day of the new Assembly's inaugural that also served Fazilat, literally on a platter, to its detractors,both inside and outside the Assembly.

May 2, 1999 would remain a day smeared in infamy in the modern history of Turkey, for on that day a spectacle which in no way enhanced Turkey's reputation as a democracy was put on full public view. As it happened, one of the female elected members of Fazilat, an American-educated young lady from Istanbul, Merve Kavakci, walked into the Assembly to take her oath of office wearing an Islamic hejab on her head. Her hejab, very proper and prim, and true to the Islamic form, instantly became a casus belli for the secularists. It was like showing the red rag to an enraged bull. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit himself led the onslaught against her. Springing to his feet, Mr. Ecevit demanded of the Speaker to teach ` that woman` a lesson in Assembly decorum and throw her out of the chamber for daring to wear a turban ( the derisive term used by the secularists for hejab ). The ruling party and its supporters stood up too, howling and screaming at Kavakci, en masse, amid scenes of total pandemonium.

Kavakci was never allowed to take her oath of office. She, and her party, were accused by the secularist establishment, abetted by the General Staff, of unfurling the ` reactionary` standard of revolt against Turkey's secularist foundations.The `spirit of February 28` was recalled with nostalgia, and the entire government machinery went into overdrive to hound Kavakci. Soon enough, evidence was found against her of having taken American nationality without the concurrence of Turkish government. She was, within days of that `disclosure`, stripped of her Turkish nationality and disqualified from her seat in the Assembly. She was made a horrible example to all the supporters of the Islamists in Turkey. The idea was to sow terror in the heart of anyone daring to challenge the secularists at their own turf.

Meanwhile, the chief prosecutor of the Court of Appeals-a notorious figure known for his hatred of the Islamists-got into the act against Fazilat. Within days of the Kavakci incident, prosecutor general, Vural Savas, asked the Constitutional Court to outlaw Fazilat because, in his words, the party was a continuation of the banned Refah and had become a "hub of anti-secular activities " and a " vampire." The stage was quickly and decisively set for the disbandment of Fazilat too, just like all the other Islamist parties before it. The curtain was finally rung down on the party on June 21 this year.

However, the decision to outlaw the standard-bearer of the Islamists has this time been carefully calibrated to cause minimum disruption to the present secularist establishment. Of the two main charges against Fazilat, i.e. being a successor to Refah and being a centre of Islamic militancy, the court has thrown out the former accusation but found the latter charge acceptable. Out of 102 sitting members of Fazilat in the Assembly, only 2 have been disqualified. This has been done with a purpose: not to cause dissolution of the current Assembly, which would have been the case had all 102 members been disqualified. The secularist establishment was obviously scared of an angry popular backlash returning the Islamists in greater strength to a new Assembly.

The generals and their cohorts and minions in the civil establishment might think they have managed to nip the evil of Fazilat without causing any inconvenience to their own choke-hold over Turkey. But this may prove to be a pyrrhic victory for them. Turkey's greatest ambition is to be accepted into the European Union as a full member. Europe has long kept Turkey at arm's length in that quest for largely two reasons: the visible lack of civil liberties and fundamental human rights in Turkey, and the undue dominance of the military in the statecraft. The vindictive action against Fazilat would undoubtedly be seen in Brussels, the EU capital, as clearly vouching , on both counts, that Turkey is still unfit to be taken seriously. To the Turkish generals, however, Brussels' anger or angst should matter little. They, of all the power brokers in Turkey, have never been known for their enthusiasm to join EU, for understandable reasons.

(The author was Pakistan's Ambassador to Turkey until August, 2000.
 
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