Socialist Worker

Reality behind Turkey’s ‘defence of secularism’

After the recent huge demonstration and military threats against the government, Turkish socialist Ron Margulies spoke to Socialist Worker about the background to the crisis

Issue No. 2050

What is behind the recent threats by the Turkish army against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)?

At the end of April, parliament was due to elect a new president.

The prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he would stand, which was a piece of cake, given that his party has a majority in parliament. The army first started to grumble then.

Erdogan stepped back and put forward foreign minister Abdullah Gül.

The army screamed that it would not have a man whose wife wears an Islamic headscarf as president and that it would do what was necessary to defend the secular republic.

In fact, there is no threat to secularism at all. Neither from the population at large or from the government.

The AKP has been in power for four and a half years with a comfortable parliamentary majority, and has not taken a single step in an Islamic direction in that time.

It has not even done anything about women not being allowed into universities wearing a headscarf – the headscarf is banned in all public buildings.

However, for the first time in 80 years, people who are religious feel comfortable and not under pressure from the state.

The military’s ultimatum claims to defend the “secular

republic” in an attempt to mobilise the middle class which fears that its Westernised lifestyle is under threat.

In fact what the army is trying to overthrow is a government which is very open to reforms on the Kurdish issue, human rights and, perhaps most significantly, reducing the military’s role in the country’s political life.

“Secular” is a word widely used to describe Turkey. What does it mean in the context of its political system?

Turkey is secular in the sense that the state and religion are separate.

Given that 99 percent of the population is Muslim, Turkey’s secularism and parliamentary democracy is held up by the West as an example to the rest of the Muslim world. This is hypocritical claptrap.

Secularism is fine as far as it goes, and of course we are in favour of it. But the image of a democratic and harmonious Turkey hides all sorts of tensions.

As soon as a party from an Islamic tradition is elected, the military threaten a coup.

This happened in 1997, when the military issued an ultimatum against a coalition government led by the Islamic party and forced it to resign, and it has happened again now.

During the recent “secular demonstrations” the crowds chanted “we are not Armenians”. What are the origins of hostility to the Armenian minority?

The material basis for it is that the genocide of Armenians in 1915 led to huge amounts of capital and land owned by the Armenian minority being grabbed by Turks.

There is a serious (though unvoiced) fear of demands for reparations if the genocide is recognised.

Because modern Turkey emerged from the disintegration and collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, it has never known what to do with its Armenian, Greek and Jewish minorities.

They are always seen by the state as potential “enemies within”.

So the state veers between attempting to assimilate them and forcing them to leave.

What is the status of Turkey’s oppressed Kurdish population, and why are there worries over control of the oil rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk?

The Turkish state fears the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, for the obvious reason that it sets an example for the Kurds in Turkey.

The US does not allow the Turkish army to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, given that the Kurds are the main allies of the US in Iraq.

There is a Turkic minority (the Turkmens) in and around Kirkuk, and Turkey tries to use their plight as an excuse to meddle in Iraq.

But it cannot do anything as long as the US refuses to give it the green light.

If the AKP have implemented neoliberal programmes, why is there such hostility from the middle classes and the wealthy?

Big business has been solidly behind the government, and it is furious about the interruption of what was a reasonably stable political atmosphere.

When Gül’s name was put forward, the employers’ organisation immediately supported him.

They clearly did not want any military intervention.

When the constitutional court annulled Gül’s election, they immediately called for an early general election, hoping that this would restore stability.

It could, except that the AKP will win a new election and the military will get restless again.

What attitudes have the left taken towards the military and the AKP?

They have been utterly terrible.

The most common slogan is “neither Islamic fundamentalism nor a military coup”, failing to take sides and to defend the elected government against the unelected military.

The left has also failed to stand up for the right to wear the Islamic headscarf, often standing shoulder to shoulder with forces of the state against ordinary people.

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Article information

Tue 8 May 2007, 18:20 BST
Issue No. 2050
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