Jobs @ MG
Turkish generals’ periodic itch: ban on
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
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,
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
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
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
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.