The expression, the ‘terrible Turk’ is clearly racist but a case can be made for applying it to Turkey’s generals. Since Necmettin Erbakan of the Refah Party became prime minister exactly a year ago, his generals have gone berserk. From forcing the prime minister to renew the widely unpopular defence treaty with the Zionist State of Israel to demaning that all Islamic schools be closed, they have barged like a bull in a china shop.
The generals have taken it upon themselves to act as guardians of the country’s secularism even if the people - the overwhelming majority of whom is Muslim - believe otherwise. The brutes in uniform have threatened on several occasions to roll out the tanks and crush the civilian government. On February 4, they actually did so in Sincan, a small town 25 miles from Ankara, which is controlled by the Refah. Since then, they have used every opportunity to humiliate Erbakan.
The most glaring example of this was on February 28 when the military-dominated all powerful national security council handed down a 20-point ultimatum to the prime minister. The measures include a ban on all religious attire and turbans and promulgation of laws to curb radicalism. Traditional tarikat and the tekke Islamic brotherhoods are to be placed under surveillance alongwith Islamic presses and businesses, especially those that provide funding for Refah. The generals also demanded that the number of Islamic schools be limited and existing schools placed under the control of the education ministry. This last demand proved the final straw for the people of Turkey. On May 11, an estimated 100,000 people poured into the streets of Ankara condemning the military-backed law to close down Islamic schools.
It is interesting to note that the generals’ strongarm tactics in Turkey have not only not been condemned in the west, the self-appointed champion of democracy, but powerful voices in the US media have actually called for the military to ensure Turkey’s secularism is protected. While the people are being denied the fundamental right to freedom of religion in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, secularism is being pushed down their throats because it serves the west’s interests. Why the generals in Burma, for instance, are bad but those in Turkey are good is never explained. Nor is there any hint that the west might be practising double standards.
The role of secularism and of the generals in Turkish society needs closer examination. Mustafa Kemal’s imposition of secularism on Turkey 74 years ago was not backed by the people. It was imported from the west and unilaterally imposed in the wave of nationalism that swept most Muslim societies at the time. Turkish generals then took it upon themselves to be its guardian angels. They have had the dubious distinction of staging three coup d’ etats since 1960 in a bid to prevent any tinkering with secularism. On the first occasion, they even hanged prime minister Adnan Menderes to teach a lesson to the politicians. Generals in Muslim societies are always eager to remind the civilians who is the boss, regardless of election results or mandates.
This brings us to the question of participating in the electoral process in a secular system. In all fairness to Refah, it does not claim to represent or introduce Islam in society, nor indeed to turn Turkey into an Islamic State. Erbakan has been forced to say, following the generals’ ultimatum, that his government was the best guarantor of secularism! He has, however, not discouraged people, at home and abroad, in believing that he would like to introduce certain reforms that would ease restrictions on Islamic practices. For instance, he wanted to change the hours of work in Ramadan to enable people to fast as well as to pray. Even such mild changes were not acceptable to the secular fanatics in Turkey.
It is ironic that when secularism was first introduced in Turkey, it was designed to prevent Islamic values from being forced upon society. It was not meant to deny Islam any role in people’s private lives. More than 70 years of secularism have brought the country to the point where people cannot practice religion even in their private lives. The generals not only want to be in politics but also in the mosques, tarikats, schools, homes and indeed in people’s minds. Such belligerence requires a simple but forthright response: a punch in the mouth.
Muslimedia - June 16-30, 1997