"The generals must be having nightmares." So observed a Turkish analyst after his country's parliament passed laws last week dramatically reducing the political role of the country's armed forces. Those laws will "revolutionize the conduct of Turkish politics," observes London's Daily Telegraph.
What might seem like bureaucratic wrangling has such potentially profound importance because the Turkish armed forces have long been Turkey's main bastion for political moderation and close relations with the United States and Israel: How will the country fare absent this steady hand?
The question is the more urgent because last week's overhaul was carried out by the Justice and Development Party (known in Turkish as AKP), an enigmatic group that has dominated Turkish politics since its smashing electoral victory in November. Since then, the key issue of Turkish public life has been whether the AKP is:
- A militant Islamic party with authoritarian tendencies and a hidden agenda of radical change (as its opponents claim); or
- A secular party with moderately conservative views (as the AKP portrays itself).
Early signs were positive. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the AKP leader and now Turkey's prime minister, gave assurances that the AKP is "not a religious-oriented party" and insisted it has no intent to impose Islamic law. The party made soothing noises about putting off substantial changes until it had won the electorate's trust. It emphasized economic development and joining the European Union, not Islamic hot-button issues.
Optimists surveyed Erdoğan's record and concluded along with two leading Turkish professors, Metin Heper and Şule Toktaş, that he is "not pro-political Islam."
Others went further: American journalist Robert Kaplan proposed that the AKP could "usher in an Islamic version of the Protestant Reformation," leading to a general turn toward liberalism in the Middle East. Kaplan also raised the possibility that the AKP in power could benefit Americans by widening popular Turkish support for alliance with the United States.
But pessimists noted AKP's origins in two political parties subsequently outlawed for their militant Islamic activism. "The people who control AKP are much more extreme than they say," asserted one worried Turkish official. The Turkish military worried too; thus, Chief of Staff Hilmi Özkök reportedly warned the newly assembled Cabinet that "the Turkish armed forces will continue to devote all of its attention to protecting secularism."
The glow of optimism dimmed in March, when the Turkish parliament, firmly in the AKP grip, voted against permitting U.S. forces to deploy in Turkey against Iraq, overnight sundering decades of mutual confidence. Initial AKP attempts to hide behind parliamentary inexperience wore thin when Erdoğan later insisted his party "never made any mistakes" on this vote.
The vote had many consequences. It increased tensions between the AKP and the military. It upset the U.S. government; Paul Wolfowitz of the Defense Department dubbed the decision a "big, big mistake." It prompted a reassessment among Turkey's American friends; William Safire wrote with dismay in The New York Times how the AKP had transformed a "formerly staunch U.S. ally into Saddam's best friend." And it raised new fears about the AKP's covert militant Islamic agenda.
The optimistic view further eroded when it became known that the Turkish foreign minister, an AKP leader, had instructed Turkey's diplomatic missions abroad to support a virulent militant Islamic group called Milli Görüş - described by a Hamburg court as the "greatest danger" to a democratic order in Germany. Nor did it help when an AKP-dominated parliamentary committee voted to multiply nine-fold the number of new government-paid mosque positions.
By May, Gen. Özkök was privately scolding Erdoğan. Publicly, he spoke of military "sensitivities" concerning the AKP and warned it against engaging in "anti-secular activities." He even alluded to the military possibly removing the AKP from power.
In this context, last week's vote represents the AKP throwing down the gauntlet. Ignoring the military's objections, it passed laws in the context of preparing Turkey for European Union membership that heavily restrict the generals' political influence.
This action raises two questions: Will the flag officers accept this limitation? And is this the start of a process that could transform Turkey, for 80 years the stalwart of secularism in the Muslim Middle East, into an Islamic republic?
The stakes are huge. Stay tuned.
August 25, 2003 update: The Turkish military began publicly expressing its displeasure today. General Tuncer Kilinc complained that with the reforms, the National Security Council (MGK) -- the main body through which the generals influence national policy - "has kept its place legally, but was left functionless. According to AFP, his remarks were the first public criticism of the changes from the military.
June 7, 2005 update: Nearly two years later, I return to this same topic, this time more warily, at "Is Turkey Going Islamist?"