A tug of war between the Refah-led government of prime minister Necmettin Erbakan and the military establishment over the role of Islam in public life has dominated Turkish political scene since the end of February. The political row has given rise to a rash of commentaries and editorials predicting the coalition government’s imminent collapse either through a military coup or a carefully calibrated campaign of political pressure. So far, however, the government appears to have weathered the pressure and has managed to stay on its feet.
The most recent twist in this simmering political saga occurred on April 26 when the military-dominated National Security Council (NSC) reiterated its stance that Erbakan implement the anti-Islamic measures it had presented to him last February or resign. At a news conference three days later, general Kenan Deniz, head of the army’s powerful department of internal security, characterized the military establishment’s effort to ‘eliminate fundamentalism’ in apocalyptic terms: ‘a matter of life or death for Turkey.’ The general also demanded a tougher stance against Greece and Iran, whom he accused of fueling and abetting separatist and Islamic agitation in Turkey.
The NSC’s list of demands amounts to nothing short of a full-scale political witchhunt. It prescribes a purge of practising Muslims from the bureaucracy, a ban on government hiring of former military officers expelled for harbouring ‘fundamentalist sympathies,’ an investigation of private businesses owned by committed Muslims, a strict enforcement of laws proscribing the wearing of Islamic dress in government offices and educational institutions, and a crackdown on Sufi brotherhoods. The list also includes measures designed to curb the growth and influence of private Islamic schools by placing them under closer State supervision and extending compulsory State education from five to eight years.
The NSC’s move followed proposals by Erbakan to institute such mild Islamic reforms as changing working hours in government offices during the month of Ramadan to suit those who wanted to fast and allowing women wearing the hijab, the Islamic dress code, to work in government offices and in universities.
If anything, the NSC’s measures would legalize a form of discrimination and constitute an affront to the fundamental principles of religious and intellectual freedom. And the generals’ do-or-perish attitude remains resolutely authoritarian and runs counter to their platitudinous insistence on the need for stability, law and order.
The military’s effort to bully Erbakan into reversing and abandoning the policies pursued by his Refah (Welfare) party is part of a concerted campaign ‘to preserve the principles of secularism.’ It was accompanied by a parallel effort on the part of the secular opposition to censure the government and/or bring its downfall. This was to be done by galvanizing political pressures on Tansu Ciller, deputy prime minister and leader of the conservative True Path party, the government’s junior coalition partner, to quit the government. However, Ciller has hitherto resisted these pressures, some of which have emerged even from within the ranks of her own party, and succeeded in preserving her party’s coalition with Refah.
The military’s bid to undermine Erbakan’s political agenda is not confined to the sphere of domestic policy. It extends to the realm of foreign policy as well. In this regard, the top brass have sought to foster closer political, economic and military relations with Israel in the hope of undermining Erbakan’s efforts to diffuse long-standing tensions and cultivate better ties with neighbouring Muslim countries.
It is not a mere coincidence that the ultimatum given to Erbakan on February 28 to implement the 20-measure list was preceded by a visit to Israel by the Turkish military chief of staff, general Ismail Hakki Karadayi. Similarly, the recent bout of army-induced pressures on Erbakan was followed by high-profile visits to Israel by the Turkish defence minister, Turhan Tayan, and deputy chief of staff, general Cevik Bir.
During his visit on May 6, general Bir and the 23 high-ranking officers who accompanied him held discussions with Israeli and American military officials on organizing joint manoeuvres this summer in the Mediterranean. Israel and Turkey also committed themselves to increase their cooperation to fight ‘terrorism,’ a euphemism for Islamic activism.
The increased military cooperation with Israel over the 11-month-old tenure of Erbakan’s government has cast a shadow of suspicion and distrust over Turkey’s relations with its Muslim neighbours. For instance, a military cooperation agreement signed between the two countries last year elicited strong protests from Arab countries and Iran.
The army, who perceives itself as the guardian of the secular establishment, has always maintained a special role in the political life of the Turkish republic. Three elected governments have been ousted by military coups since 1960. Yet this time around the possibility of a fourth coup seems remote.
The army’s reluctance to stage another coup stems mainly from its fear of jeopardizing Turkey’s efforts to secure its much-coveted membership in the European Community. It resolved, therefore, to launch a political war of attrition against Erbakan’s government by making political demands while avoiding direct military action.
In the long run, however, the military’s bid to pressure the coalition government to burst apart seems ill advised. The likelihood of an effective cabinet without Refah is remote. Cooperation between the secularist parties has often been badly hindred by petty and acrimonious personal and political rivalries. It was only due to the disunity in the secularist camp that Refah was able to come to power last year after it had secured 21 percent of the vote in the general election in December 1995. Now the same lack of effective secularist opposition - which collectively won more than 75 percent in the elections - is complicating the military’s search for a solution to its political woes.
For his part, Erbakan has responded to the army’s campaign with studied pragmatism. His pragmatism rests on two pegs. On the one hand, he has consistently played down the feud with the generals and paid lip-service to the army’s ‘loyalty.’ On the other, he has reluctantly accepted to go ahead with the army-inspired measures as the price of staying in office. However, by agreeing to go along with the army and by failing to implement the ‘Just Order’ that he had promised the voters to institute, Erbakan finds himself in the uneasy position of contributing to the erosion of his own popularity and credibility, as well as sowing the seeds of internal dissension within the ranks of his party.
Muslimedia - May 16-31, 1997