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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 13    Issue 04   01 - 31 July 2018

Erdogan Wins Turkey’s Historic Election

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s historic victory in the presidential election of June 24 marks a turning point in the history of modern Turkey. Erdogan won 52.59% of the vote while the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) won 42.56% of parliamentary seats. The AK Party and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, together won 344 out of 600 (53.66%) seats in the Turkish parliament. The AK Party’s proposal for a constitutional amendment for replacing the existing parliamentary system with an executive presidency, approved in a national referendum in 2017, has now become a reality. The prime minister’s post has been done away with. Under the new system now in place, Erdogan becomes the Turkish Republic’s first executive president with wide-ranging powers. Under the new system, the president will appoint his council of ministers and will have the power to remove vice-presidents, ministers, senior judges and high-level officials, even without parliamentary approval. He also has the power to dissolve parliament and issue executive decrees. As promised by Erdogan in the election campaign, the state of emergency, imposed on 20 July 2016 in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in the same year, will be lifted by the end of July.

The historic significance of the election and Erdogan’s win can be better appreciated against the backdrop of certain political and social factors and processes. These include the aborted 2016 military coup, carried out by the supporters and sympathisers of Fethullah Gulen, terrorism, the long-standing Kurdish problem, Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war and the influx of over 3 million Syrian refugees into Turkey.

The 2016 Coup

As night fell on 15 July 2016, military jets were seen flying menacingly over Ankara and over the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul and gunshots were heard at some places in the two cities. It soon became clear that a small faction of the Turkish army had attempted a military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP-led government. Rebel soldiers seized parts of Ankara and Istanbul, blocked roads and bridges, hurled bombs at the police and intelligence service headquarters, attacked Parliament and the Presidential Palace in Ankara and fired at policemen and the public. The plotters had at their disposal 35 military planes, 37 helicopters, 74 tanks, aerial refuelling tankers and 3 ships. They held Turkey’s chief of staff Gen. Hulusi Akar hostage, almost strangling him with a belt, and tried to force him to sign the coup declaration. But a defiant and furious Gen. Akar rebuked the rebel soldiers and refused to sign the declaration.

Some commandos were despatched by the rebel group to capture or kill Erdogan, who was holidaying at a resort in Marmaris in south-west Turkey. They stormed the hotel and hurled grenades, which killed two bodyguards. However, an hour before the commandos stormed the hotel, Erdogan had got wind of the plot. He was whisked away in a helicopter and taken to Dalamar airport. From there he took a private jet to Istanbul. En route to Istanbul, he got in touch with CNN Turk, a private television channel, on his mobile phone’s video app and gave an interview on FaceTime, in which he informed the Turkish people about the attempted coup and urged them to come out on the streets to defeat the traitors.

Within minutes hundreds of thousands of people came out on the streets and squares of Istanbul and Ankara and defied the curfew imposed by the rebel group. Protesters sent out messages on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms, which greatly helped in mobilising large numbers of people within a short time. Large crowds surged forward, seething with rage and resentment, and surrounded the rebel soldiers on Istanbul’s Bosporus Bridge. Some people lay down in front of the tanks of rebel soldiers to halt their movement. Unnerved and intimidated by the huge crowds, the rebels surrendered themselves to the police. Many of them were thrashed by civilians. An estimated 265 people were killed in the aborted coup. In less than 24 hours the coup came to an end, thanks to the swift move of President Erdogan and then Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the courageous action of Gen. Hulusi Akar and, most importantly, the spontaneous and determined reaction of the Turkish people. It was undoubtedly a historic and unprecedented event in the history of modern Turkey.

Immediately after the abortive coup attempt, President Erdogan and Prime Minister Yildirim took a series of swift and strong actions against people who were suspected of being complicit in the July 15 putsch. A state of emergency was declared by Erdogan on 20 July. Since then, more than 160,000 people, suspected of being supporters of Gulen, have been imprisoned, suspended or dismissed. These include 705 judges and prosecutors, 78 judges of the Supreme Court, 2 members of the Constitutional Court, 149 generals and admirals, 6,954 soldiers, 5,139 law-enforcement officials, 6,587 teachers, 317 lawyers, 398 doctors and 283 members of the palatial guards. The then foreign minister Mevlut Cavsoglu said that more than 300 persons in his ministry had links to Fethullah Gulen, who is widely believed to have masterminded the coup. Of these, 88 were dismissed. As many as 1043 private schools, 1229 charities and foundations, 19 trade unions and 35 medical institutions, which are suspected of having links with the Gulen movement, have been closed down. The government has also ordered the closure of 3 news agencies, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines, 29 publishing houses and 16 television channels. As many as 1043 private schools, 1229 charities and foundations, 19 trade unions and 35 medical institutions, which are suspected of having links with the Gulen movement, have been closed down.

All political parties in the country, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), unequivocally condemned the coup and expressed support and solidarity with the government in dealing with this unprecedented crisis.

Fethullah Gulen

Fathullah Gulen was born in 1941 in the village of Korucuk, near Erzurum, in Anatolia. He studied at a madrasa in Erzurum and at the age of 20 left his village to teach in a mosque at Edirne. He later joined the Kestanepazari Quran School at Izmir as a teacher, where he drew a fairly large number of students, teachers, professionals and businessmen to his fold. He travelled to various parts of Anatolia to give lectures and discourses in mosques and public meeting places. After the 1971 military coup, Gulen was arrested for clandestinely promoting religious activities, deemed illegal by the authorities, and was imprisoned for seven months.

In 1999 Gulen migrated to the United States for medical treatment. While he was in the US, he was charged with plotting to subvert Turkey’s secular constitution and to overthrow the government and to establish an Islamic state. The trial, in absentia, dragged on for many years, and he was finally acquitted of all charges in 2008. Since 1999 Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in a highly secured sprawling estate in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.

The Gulen movement, known as Hizmet (service) has hundreds of thousands of followers in Turkey and in the Turkish diaspora in various parts of the world. His followers include wealthy and influential people who have founded newspapers, hospitals, insurance companies, schools and universities in more than 100 countries around the world. The Gulen movement controls the widely-read Zaman newspaper (closed down by the government), the private Bank Asya, Samanyolu TV and many media and business organisations, including the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON). In 1999 Gulen urged his followers to infiltrate public institutions, including the military, judiciary, civil services, charities and universities. The secret agenda that Gulen harbours is to take over the state by whatever means. The 2016 coup attempt was a part of the strategy.

Gulen is a cult figure, who is blindly revered by his followers. One of his former followers reported that once he saw Gulen eating an orange and then throwing the peel on the floor. One of his doctors immediately picked it up and ate it. Gulen’s followers have often been involved in political intrigue and fabrication of evidence. The trial of hundreds of army officers in the infamous Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases in 2010 are believed to have been orchestrated by Gulen’s followers in the intelligence, police and the judiciary.

President Erdogan has accused Gulen of building a deep state within the Turkish state, a “parallel structure” in the judiciary, military, education system and media. Nearly two-thirds of Turks believe that the failed coup was masterminded by Gulen.


In the past few years Turkey has been faced with terrorist attacks launched by Kurdish militants and the so-called Islamic State fighters. Nearly 500 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past two years. In 2015, terrorist attacks in Diyarbakir by Kurdish fighters left 4 dead and 400 injured. Another terrorist attack in Suruc took a toll of 33 lives and left over a hundred injured. In 2017, there were terrorist attacks by Kurdish fighters in Ankara (66 killed and 185 wounded in two separate attacks), Durumlu (16 killed and 23 wounded), Istanbul (91 killed and 396 wounded in two separate attacks), Gaziantep (57 killed and 66 wounded) and Semdinli (18 killed and 27 wounded. Istanbul witnessed three terrorist attacks in a span of two years, in 2016 and 2017. In 2017, a deadly terrorist attack in the city resulted in the killing of 39 people and left over 70 people seriously injured. In 2017, dozens of people were killed in Diyarbakir when a truck that belonged to the outlawed Kurdish outfit PKK and loaded with deadly explosives blew up.

The Kurdish Problem

The Kurds are largely concentrated in the region called Kurdistan, which comprises contiguous areas in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds make up about 18-20 per cent of the population in Turkey, 15-20 per cent in Iraq, 10 per cent in Iran and about 9 per cent in Syria. In addition, small Kurdish populations are to be found in Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Lebanon. Kurdish nationalism emerged after World War I in the aftermath of the enforcement of national boundaries. Some of the Kurdish groups articulated a demand for the establishment of an independent state of Kurdistan, which brought them in confrontation with governments in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Since the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923, the policy of the state towards the Kurds, as well as other ethnic and religious minorities, was marked by the denial and suppression of their ethnic identity and cultural rights, forcible assimilation, de-ethnicization, demonization and persecution. There were Kurdish uprisings in eastern Anatolia in the 1920s and 1930s, which were ruthlessly suppressed by the Turkish security forces. In 1938 thousands of Kurdish tribesmen were killed in a military offensive. While a majority of Kurds sought a redress of their grievances through political negotiations with the Turkish authorities, some of the Kurdish groups resorted to armed confrontations with the Turkish government and the security forces.

One of the most militant and popular Kurdish groups is the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which was inspired by the Marxist-Leninist ideology and founded by Abdullah Ocalan in 1978. The PKK launched an armed guerilla movement against the Turkish state in 1984. The violent confrontations between the Turkish security forces and Kurdish fighters have taken a toll of over 40,000 lives, mostly Kurds, and cost the state more than $300 billion. The main objective of the PKK is the establishment of an independent state of Kurdistan. However, in the 1990s the party scaled down its demands to linguistic and cultural autonomy for the Kurds. The PKK has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, United States and the European Union. Abdullah Ocalan was captured by the Turkish security forces in 1999 and was sentenced for life. He has been incarcerated in a high-security prison in western Turkey.

Though the Turkish security forces have doggedly pursued Kurdish fighters during the past three decades, a realization grew in the early 1990s that a military solution of the Kurdish problem had proved to be futile. The gradual shift in the Turkish government’s perception and policy towards the Kurds came about in the context of the growing alienation among the Kurds, the increasing incidence of violent confrontations between the Turkish security forces and the PKK, and the failure of the state-sponsored project of assimilation. Turgut Ozal, who was Turkey’s prime minister for two terms and was the republic’s president in 1991-93, was the first Turkish president to publicly recognize the Kurdish problem and to admit that the Kemalist regime had done injustice to the Kurds. In 1991 he tabled a bill in the Turkish parliament that would allow the Kurds concentrated in the country’s 13 provinces to speak in public – but not to write – their language. The bill was passed amid protests by the opposition parties.

In 2009 Erdogan announced the launch of the National Unity Project (Milli Birlik ve Kardeslik Projesi). The broad objectives of the project include the deepening of democratic freedoms and human rights, strengthening grassroots participation, decentralization of the state, the creation of an anti-discrimination committee to address the grievances of ethnic minorities, allowing the teaching of the Kurdish language in schools and universities and renaming of villages and residential areas in accordance with the demands of local residents. A specific objective of the project is to address the Kurdish problem in a framework of negotiations. However, the project has run into rough weather due to objections raised by the main opposition parties which have accused Erdogan of compromising with Turkey’s unity and integrity.

Since assuming office in 2002, Erdogan has repeatedly said that he was keen to resolve the Kurdish problem through democratic negotiations. In 2004 the AK Party announced a package of cultural, linguistic and educational rights for the Kurdish people, which included freedom of broadcasting in the Kurdish language, the right to use Kurdish names for Kurdish villages and the right to teach Kurdish in schools. In a rally in the Kurdish-dominated city of Diyarbakir in 2005, Erdogan declared that the solution to the long-standing grievances of Kurdish people was not more repression but more democracy. In October 2008 he said that “the main approach here is that no matter where a person lives and from which ethnic origin he or she comes from, they should all feel as equal and free citizens of our country.” On January 1, 2009, the state-owned TV channel TRT6 began, for the first time, round-the-clock broadcasting in the Kurdish language.

The ruling Justice and Development Party initiated negotiations with the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan in October 2013. Following the negotiations, Ocalan asked the Kurdish fighters to call off the armed struggle and announced a unilateral ceasefire on March 21, 2013. On April 25, 2013, Murat Karayilan, the commander of the PKK, announced that he would withdraw his fighters from Turkey by May 8, 2013. Kurdish fighters – estimated to be around 3,000 -- began leaving southeastern Turkey for their safe hideouts in Iraq on May 8, 2013. The ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government broke down in 2015 as hostilities between the two sides erupted as a result of the Syrian war.

The Syrian war, in which Kurdish militia are actively involved, has posed a serious threat to the territorial integrity of Turkey. Turkey had no choice but to plunge into the war. In early 2017, Turkish armed forces and Free Syrian Army fighters launched a military operation in northern Syria’s Afrin region for the purpose of pushing back a Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The US-backed YPG is an armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria, with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is banned in Turkey. Some members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including some MPs, have links with the PK. 13 MPs from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have been detained for links to the PKK.

The AK Party and Erdogan

When the AK party came to power in 2002, it was faced with four distinct and formidable challenges: the legacy of a centralised, authoritarian, ultra-secularist state bequeathed by the Kemalist establishment, a constitution drafted by the army generals in the wake of the 1980 military coup, which reinforced the autocratic powers of the government and violated basic human rights and civil liberties, a powerful army that was impervious to civilian control and oversight, and a civil service – judges, public prosecutors, lawyers – that was wedded to an ultra-secularist ideology.

Restructuring the State

Since the founding of the Turkish Republic, Turkish society and polity have been shaped by the Kemalist ideology, which rests on five core principles: a highly centralized, authoritarian state, republicanism, secularism, ethnic nationalism and Western-style modernization. Kemalism remained Turkey’s dominant political ideology for nearly seven decades, and it was only in the early 1990s that it became a subject of debate, controversy and contestation. Ataturk sought to create a political nation based on the Westphalian model of the nation-state and the French republican system. The Westphalian model of the nation-state, which provided the cornerstone of Western political philosophy, is based on the idea of a unitary, centralized state, a culturally homogeneous society, a common language, a uniform system of laws, and common citizenship. The French republican system, which was essentially derived from the Westphalian model, places exceptional emphasis on laicite (the French model of secularism), a homogeneous national culture and the pre-eminence of the French language.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the establishment of Turkey as a republican and secular state in 1923, Ataturk abolished the caliphate and launched a state-sponsored project of modernization, secularisation and Westernization. The ideology of Kemalism was enunciated in terms of six core principles, which were set out in the ruling Republican People’s Party Statutes of 1935. These principles, which constitute the official creed of the Turkish state and are written into the constitution, are Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Statism, Secularism and Revolutionism. All social, religious, cultural and educational institutions were placed under the control and regulation of the government and all powers were concentrated in the hands of a centralized, Jacobin state.

Erdogan and the ruling AK Party have repeatedly declared that they are firmly committed to the principle of democratic governance. The prerequisites of the principle of democratic governance include the rule of law and equality before the law regardless of status or rank, basic freedoms and civil liberties, democratic accountability for all institutions of state, inclusive citizenship, participation of all sections of society in the process of democratic governance, and equal opportunity for all citizens. The AK Party is wedded to the belief that the state must protect the democratic freedoms and rights of all of its citizens, including the religious and ethnic minorities, that this should be enshrined in the constitution and that the state must ensure that all institutions – Parliament, government, military, courts, bureaucracy – comply with the constitutional mandate. The state has no business to foster a homogeneous national culture or to impose it on citizens or to interfere in their religious beliefs and traditions.

Revisiting the 1982 Constitution

The 1982 constitution was drafted by the military junta in the wake of the 1980 military coup headed by Chief of General Staff General Kenan Evren. The 1982 constitution enshrines the Kemalist ideology and vests the military with immense, unchecked powers and privileges. Some articles of the constitution violate minority rights. For example, Article 42 prohibits the teaching of any language other than Turkish as a first language in schools. Due to this prohibition, Kurdish children are denied the right to get their education in their mother tongue. Similarly, the 1982 constitution outlaws the wearing of headscarves on university campuses. In 2008 the AK party successfully introduced a proposal in Parliament for an amendment to the constitution whereby women with headscarves could attend university. The proposal was buttressed by the argument that that the headscarf was a symbol of individual liberty and religious freedom. However, later in the same year, the amendments were set aside by the Constitutional Court.

On September 12, 2010, Erdogan, who was then Prime Minister, placed a package of constitutional amendments, which were earlier approved by the Turkish Grand Assembly and endorsed by the then President Abdullah Gul, for a national referendum. The amendments included expanding the sphere of individual rights and civil liberties, gender equality, positive discrimination for children, women and the disabled, the establishment of ombudspersons, collective bargaining for government employees, curtailing the powers of the judiciary and army, and bringing Turkey more in line with the European Union. The amendments gave the Turkish president and Parliament greater say over the appointment of senior judges and prosecutors and over the functioning of the Constitutional Court. According to the amendments, civilian courts have the power to prosecute military personnel for crimes against the state. The amendments were approved by 58 per cent of the voters in the referendum.

Since coming to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party has repeatedly affirmed that it was in favour of drafting a new constitution. In 2007 the AK Party appointed a cross-party Constitutional Reconciliation Commission to draft a new constitution. The commission had three members from each of the four main political parties in Parliament. The commission, headed by Burhan Kuzu, prepared a draft but failed to reach a consensus among the members. The contentious issues in the drafting of the new constitution include the definition of citizenship, the role of religion in public life, recognition of Turkey’s ethnic and cultural diversity, protection of religious freedom (including the freedom to wear the headscarf) and minority rights, regional autonomy and the replacement of existing parliamentary system of government by the presidential system.

Clipping the Wings of an Impervious Military

The Turkish army, the second largest in NATO, consists of more than 500,000 soldiers and officers and has an annual budget of over $20 billion.

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the army has wielded enormous powers and influence and has blatantly interfered in matters of state, politics and society. Since 1960, the generals have toppled four democratically elected governments on specious grounds. Following the 1980 military coup, 50 people were executed and 500,000 people were arrested, and many of them died in prison. Former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan was forced by the military to step down on the grounds that he and his Refah Party harboured a secret agenda to promote Islamic fundamentalism in the country. Erbakan was prohibited from all political activities and his party was outlawed. In 2007 Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the then chief of the armed forces, was opposed to the nomination of Abdullah Gul for the presidency on the grounds that his wife wears a headscarf. However, the AK party and Parliament ignored his intervention and elected Gul as President. In 2008 the generals urged the Constitutional Court to ban the AK Party on the grounds that it was pursuing a secret agenda to impose Islamic laws on the country. The plea was eventually dismissed by the Constitutional Court.

In the past couple of years, a series of startling cases – known as Ergenekon – have implicated the top army brass in a carefully orchestrated conspiracy to topple the government. Some 400 serving and retired high-ranking army officers, including 139 generals and admirals, have been arrested on charges of hatching a conspiracy to overthrow the Erdogan government. One of the plots involved the murder of some Armenian and Greek Christians, which would intimidate large numbers of Christians into leaving the country. This would then be used as an indictment of the government and provide an excuse for the army to intervene. On January 5, 2012, Mr. Basbug, former chief of the armed forces was arrested and jailed for associating with a terrorist group that conspired to topple the government.

Following the revelations about the implication of the army officers in the conspiracy and the subsequent arrests, the image and morale of the military has been severely dented. Furthermore, the government has clipped the wings of the National Security Council, through which the generals wielded their incredible powers. Following the failed 2016 coup, the Turkish army is now diminished and discredited in the eyes of the Turkish people.

Reform of the Judicial System

The 1982 constitution, which mirrors and buttresses the Kemalist vision of the Turkish state, vests the judiciary with enormous powers and privileges, without any checks and balances. Until recently, judges and prosecutors, like military officers, bureaucrats and the political class, were drawn from the secularist elite. The judiciary has often acted in cahoots with the military. It was complicit in the dismissal of four democratically elected governments in the past. The constitutional amendments proposed by the AK Party and approved by parliament were a part of the process of redemocratization set in motion by the ruling party. They were aimed at introducing checks and balances on the arbitrary exercise of judicial authority.

Following the failed 2016 coup, 705 judges and prosecutors, 78 judges of the Supreme Court and 2 members of the Constitutional Court, who were suspected of being supporters or sympathisers of Gulen, were suspended. In the new system approved in the 2017 referendum and endorsed in the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdogan will have greater control over appointments to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

A Resurgent Economy

Turkey is now one of the world’s top 20 economies and one of the three fastest-growing economies of the world. There has been a huge expansion in the middle class. Millions of Turks have been lifted out of poverty and deprivation and have been economically and financially empowered. In 2016, the Turkish economy grew by 3.2% and expanded at 7.4% in 2017. In the first quarter of 2018, it registered a growth rate of 7.4%.

Turkey’s GDP per capita is $10,787.61. It has the world’s 13th largest GDP by PPP and the 17th largest nominal GDP. The key sectors of the economy are agriculture (which accounts for a quarter of employment in the country), tourism, manufacturing, banking, construction, fisheries, forestry, oil refining, petrochemical products, mining, food, shipbuilding, exports, iron and steel and machine industry. Turkey has a sizeable automative industry, which ranks as the 14th largest producer in the world. Turkish brands like Beko and Vestel are among the largest producers of consumer electronics and home appliances in Europe. Turkey’s exports, mainly to Germany, UK, Italy, France, Spain, USA, Iran, Iraq and UAE, were worth $14.31 billion in May 2018.

Rethinking the Kemalist Legacy

Ataturk was considerably influenced by the ideas of Mehmet Ziya Gokalp (1875-1924), an influential Turkish poet, writer, sociologist and political activist and a pioneering figure in the nationalist and modernist movement in Turkey. Gokalp, who was greatly influenced by French secularism and the sociological positivism of Emile Durkheim, argued that the process of secularization should encompass all aspects of social and political life and that religion should be confined to the private sphere. He equated secularization with Westernization. Gokalp rejected the imperial, religious and cultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire and was an advocate of Turkish nationalism. As a member of the parliamentary committee that drafted Turkey’s constitution, his ideas had a profound impact on the formation of the Turkish Republic. Gokalp believed that Islamic institutions, including mosques and Shariah courts, should be under the control of the state. He argued in favour of the adoption of a civil code, modeled after the Swiss code, in place of Islamic family laws.

The Kemalist ruling elite introduced wide-ranging and sweeping changes in Turkish society, with a view to make it a mirror-image of Western societies. The education system was radically modified and modern subjects replaced the traditional Islamic subjects. The Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar and Islamic family laws were substituted by the Swiss Code. Turkish replaced Arabic as the liturgical language and it was decreed that calling the faithful to prayer (azan) should be in Turkish, not in Arabic. People were prohibited from going on pilgrimage to Makkah. The Quran was to be read not in Arabic but in its Turkish translation. The post of Shaykh al-Islam was abolished and the ulama were made state employees under the authority of the ministry of religious affairs. Sufi orders were banned and Islamic madrasas and Sufi lodges (tekkes) and shrines were closed down. Sunday replaced Friday as the weekly public holiday. The Arabic script of the Turkish language was changed to Latin and an attempt was made to purge it of words of Arabic origin. The wearing of the traditional Turkish cap – fez -- was prohibited and the wearing of veils and headscarves was banned in all public institutions, including schools, universities, government offices and public hospitals. In 1928 the Assembly voted in favour of deleting the words ‘The religion of the Turkish state is Islam’ from Article 2 of the constitution. The ruling regime sought to nationalize and manipulate religion in order to make it subservient to the state ideology. Interestingly, the first state-run industry during the reign of Ataurk was a brewery.

Secularism or laicism (laiklik in Turkish), which has been inspired by the French laicite, has been a cornerstone of the Turkish republic and is considered a key instrument for the creation of a rational and modern society. The Kemalist elite adapted and contextualized the idea of laicite to Turkish society. In the Turkish context, secularism does not mean a radical and watertight separation of state and religion. Rather, it connotes the control and appropriation of religion by the state. The Kemalist elite viewed traditional Islam as representing backwardness and as an obstacle to modernization and progress. They sought to invent a modern, Turkish version of Islam.

Inspired by the French republican system, Ataturk and his colleagues believed that religion should be confined to the individual’s private life and that the visibility of religious symbols in the public sphere, especially in government offices, universities, hospitals and courts, should be curtailed. The wearing of the headscarf has been particularly targeted by the Kemalist ruling elite. In 1981, the Turkish cabinet, which was formed after the 1980 military coup, issued a regulation to the effect that female students and faculty members would not be permitted to wear headscarves in university premises. Following the regulation, female students who refused to remove their headscarves were expelled from the university. The ban was enforced more stringently after the military generals forced out the government of Necemettin Erbakan.

In 1999, Merve Kavakci, a Harvard-educated computer scientist, was elected a member of the Turkish parliament. She was prevented from taking oath because she wore a headscarf. The then prime minster, Bulent Ecevit, accused her of violating the tenet of secularism and the Turkish president Suleyman Demirel called her an agent provocateur. She was stripped of her Turkish citizenship and her seat in Parliament. In 2007 Kavakci won the legal case when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that her expulsion from Parliament constituted a violation of human rights. In 2008 the then Prime Minister Erdogan’s wife was not allowed to visit a friend in a military hospital because she was wearing the headscarf.

The Kemalist elite believed that the prerequisite for the establishment of a modern, forward-looking Turkey was the creation of a homogeneous society and a national culture. They disregarded the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity and launched a project aimed at the construction of Turkishness as the cornerstone of Turkish nationalism and national identity. The project of construction of a homogeneous Turkish society was carried out through the denial of the ethnic identities of non-Turkish groups, forced assimilation of non-Turkish communities into mainstream Turkish society, discrimination and persecution of non-Turkish groups and their forced migration and deportation. Between 1925 and 1938 more than one million Kurds were forcibly relocated.

The forcible assimilation of non-Turkish groups (Turkification) was carried out through planned population transfers, prohibition of non-Turkish names and surnames, replacement of non-Turkish names of villages and towns with Turkish names, and the new education system. The Turkish state forcibly transferred non-Turkish ethnic groups, such as Kurds, Armenians, Syriacs and Circassians, to Turkish-speaking areas with a view to weaken their ethnic cohesion and solidarity and to expose them to Turkish cultural and linguistic influences. In 1934 the Turkish National Assembly passed the Ordinance on Surnames that prohibited the use of foreign (non-Turkish) surnames and required all Turkish citizens to adopt Turkish surnames. In 1934 the traditional Syriac family names were forcibly changed to Turkish names. Kurdish parents who gave Kurdish names to their children were put on trial and imprisoned for “damaging the national culture and tradition.” Circassian students who spoke their native language in school were punished. In the early years of the Turkish republic, the Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Laz, Arabic, Circassian and Bulgarian names of thousands of villages in Turkey were replaced by Turkish names. Faced with discrimination and persecution, a large number of Armenians, Syriacs and Jews migrated to Europe in the 1930s.

Under the Ottoman Empire’s millet system, communities were recognized and organized according to religious affiliation and their beliefs, cultural traditions and collective identities were protected by the Ottoman rulers. Ataturk abolished the millet system in 1923, as a result of which communities such as the Syriacs and Kurds, which enjoyed considerable autonomy in the Ottoman Empire, were deprived of their rights and privileges. Ironically, the secular Kemalist regime was largely responsible for purging Turkey of its sizeable Armenian, Syriac, Greek and Jewish communities which had thrived in the Ottoman Empire.

Forced assimilation of non-Turkish groups entailed de-ethnicization, denial and suppression of their collective identities and violation of human rights. In the early years of the Turkish republic, the terms Kurds and Kurdistan were outlawed and replaced by “Mountain Turks” and “the East.” The Kurds were officially described as a tribe of Turanian origin who had forgotten their language due to living in inaccessible mountainous regions for a very long time. In 1924 the Turkish National Assembly passed a decree that prohibited the use of the Kurdish language in public and the wearing of the traditional Kurdish dress in the main administrative cities. In 1980, the names of 2842 villages were changed from Kurdish to Turkish. In 1994, Leyla Zana, a newly elected Kurdish member of Parliament, was put on trial and imprisoned for ten years for saying a few words in the Kurdish language during the oath-taking ceremony.

The Turkish government’s policy of forcible assimilation of Kurds and other minority groups caused a great deal of resentment and anger. From time to time there were strong and sometimes violent reactions against the government’s policies, especially from the Kurds and the Sufis of the Naqshbandiya order. In 1930, Dervish Mehmed, a Sufi leader, mobilized a large number of people and called on them to overthrow the Kemalist regime which was widely perceived as anti-Islamic.

The Kemalist project of nation-building was fraught with certain inherent contradictions. It was marked by a glaring disconnect between a Western-oriented and zealously secular elite and a religious-minded population. The top-down model of secularism and Western-style modernity espoused by the Kemalist regime was elite-driven and had little or no appeal for the large masses of people, especially in the Anatolian countryside. The trappings of Western modernity – sporting European attire, adoption of Western manners and etiquette, clubbing and wine-drinking, free mixing of the sexes – remained confined to a small section of the urban elite. Ataurk’s extreme antipathy towards the Ottoman Empire beclouded his vision and prevented him from appreciating and appropriating any of the positive features of the Ottoman legacy. The Kemalist ideology drove a wedge between the Westernised elite, including the educated middle class, the army and the courts, and the masses. Laicism or secularism became an instrument for the control and manipulation of religion and for the suppression of people’s religious and cultural rights. The monolithic, centralized state suppressed the multiple identities of the Turkish people. However, these identities refused to go away. Despite the Kemalist elite’s relentless pursuit of secularism and Western-style modernity, a large majority of Turks continued to cherish Islamic values and traditions and Islam remained a core component of their personal and collective identities. Notwithstanding the Kemalist regime’s tirade against the wearing of the headscarf, more than three-fourths of Turkish women cover their heads, and the number of headscarved women is growing even in the metropolitan cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

The Kemalist model of secularism, which was essentially derived from the French laicite, was used as an instrument for the control and manipulation of religion by the state and the removal of religious symbols from the public domain. This elitist and totalitarian model of secularism caused a great deal of resentment and anger among a large majority of Turks. Erdogan and the ruling AK Party have sought to redefine and adapt the principle of secularism in the context of changing circumstances and the perceptions and aspirations of the Turkish people. According to Erdogan, who is a practicing Muslim, there is no inherent or necessary contradiction between secularism as a matter of state policy and religion, which is matter of democratic freedom and which is protected by the constitution and the state. He has said, “Only states can be secular, not individuals.” During his visit to Egypt in September 2011, Erdogan described himself as a Muslim prime minister of a secular state. He called on Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution, emphasizing that secularism did not mean renouncing religion. Drawing a distinction between secularism as a personal ideology and as state policy, he added, “As Recep Tayyip Erdogan I am a Muslim, not secular. But I am a prime minister of a secular country. People should have the freedom to choose whether or not to be religious in a secular state. Turkey defines secularism as the principle that the state is equidistant from all religions. Secularism is not atheism.”

Erdogan’s reconceptualisation of the principle of secularism in the context of Turkey provides a much-needed corrective to the contested discourse on secularism, which mirrors two extreme views: an omnibus, totalitarian model (represented by the French laicite and the Turkish laiklik), and a flexible, accommodative perspective (as reflected in the views of Erdogan and Rachid Ghannouchi). There need not be a universal, omnibus model of secularism. Rather, there can be “multiple secularisms,” which reflect the political, social and cultural contexts and specificities of different nations. In other words, the metanarrative of a universal model of secularism needs to be replaced by a context-specific and pluralistic vision of secularism.

A Turning Point

The historic victory of Erdogan and the AK Party in the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections is undoubtedly a momentous event in the history of modern Turkey. Since the 1960s until 2002, Turkey has been ruled by coalition governments, which were fraught with conflict and political instability, which in turn prevented them from addressing issues of national importance with a sense of urgency, clear-headedness and determination. An executive presidency, backed by the AK Party’s majority in Parliament, augurs well for political stability. The new system now in place will ensure smooth and harmonious coordination between the presidency, the council of ministers, military, judiciary and bureaucracy. The new system will enable Erdogan to deal decisively and effectively with current issues and challenges, including terrorism, the long-standing Kurdish problem and issues arising out of the Syrian war. It will also enable him, in the course of time, to attend to the unfinished business of constitutional reforms.

An urgent issue, which needs to be addressed in a determined and far-sighted manner is the threat of the Trump administration to impose sanctions on countries that carry out trade with Iran after November 4. Turkey is the biggest importer of Iran’s oil. It is heartening to note that Turkey has defiantly turned down Donald Trump’s dictate and has declared that it will continue to import oil from Iran. Turkey’s commercial relations with Russia, particularly in energy and defence imports, have been strengthened in recent years. Turkey has reiterated that it will continue to buy arms from Russia. Turkey has been working closely with Iran and Russia to explore ways and means by which the Syrian war could be brought to an end.

Western media take delight in dubbing Erdogan as a dictator. They conveniently forget the fact that Erdogan has been elected by the Turkish people in a fair election with a clear majority and that he represents the hopes and aspirations of the Turkish people. Unlike the Kemalist elite, Erdogan does not belong to a privileged class. He was born in a working class family and grew up in Istanbul’s poor neighbourhood of Kasimpasa. This background has provided him with an intimate, first-hand knowledge and understanding of poverty and deprivation and has facilitated his personal connect and rapport with the masses.

Erdogan represents Turkey’s middle and lower classes (who were contemptuously labelled as ‘black Turks’ by the Kemalist elite), which form the bulk of the population and which are deeply committed to Islamic beliefs and values and cherish their religious and cultural traditions. For more than seven decades, these classes were excluded and marginalised by the secularist establishment. The ascendancy of the AK Party and Erdogan symbolise the rise and empowerment of these classes in particular and of the Turkish masses in general.

In many ways, Turkey stands out as a shining model for Muslim nations.

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