North Africa, West Asia

Reconsidering Turkish military culture and secularism after the coup attempt

How did Turkish military culture transform under the rule of AKP? And what will be the impact of the failed coup attempt on the results of the upcoming referendum in Turkey?

Hakki Goker Onen
4 April 2017

People gather at Konak Square against military coup attempt, in Izmir, Turkey, July 20, 2016. Picture by Depo Photos/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Military culture refers to a combination of specific ethoi that shape the military’s institutional behaviour toward inside and outside stimulants including politics. These ethoi can be norms, values, beliefs, ideals and political ideologies that are shaped by historical experiences, geopolitical vulnerabilities, religious as well as national concerns that show themselves through martial rituals, symbols, discourse, formal statements and eventually actions. In the civil-military literature, military culture has recently increased its importance as an effective variable to explain civil-military relations.  

In this regard, it is generally accepted that Turkish military culture is deeply embedded in the secularism principle of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the founder of the Turkish state). Although the modern Turkey, as the successor of theocratic Ottoman monarchy, was founded as a western-orientated secular state by Atatürk, religion and religious class still maintained their influential position, especially in rural areas and villages. This provided a major advantage to the right wing parties which traditionally present themselves as more sensitive to religious values. Indeed, starting from the Democrat Party (1950-1960), the right wing parties began to tolerate Islamist movements and created suitable conditions for Islamists to institutionalize themselves under religious brotherhoods. Over the years, the anti-secular groups became more effective by actively getting involved in politics under political Islam. 

At this point, the Turkish military, which formally considered secularism a vital tool for the survival of the Turkish Republic, appeared as the main deterrent and coercive force against political Islam. This deterrence, indeed, caused the military to topple elected governments four times in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, by claiming responsibility for preserving the secular nature of the regime. Additionally, by creating the necessary legal mechanisms to supervise politics, the military got directly involved in the decision making process. The National Security Council which was founded by the military during the 1960 junta, became a military dominated supreme body that reviews whether governmental decisions are against secularism or not. 

In this regard, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) came to rule in 2002, as the last representative of political Islam. Nevertheless, unlike its predecessors, the party offered a highly liberal programme by promising liberties to religious people and minorities. The party and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also stated their commitment to secularism and desire for EU membership by portraying themselves as a typical conservative democratic party which is closer to the Christian Democrats in Europe. This liberal discourse enabled the AKP to have a growing support from businessmen, intellectuals and media. In addition to this, the western states welcomed the AKP’s efforts seeing them as a democratic compromise between seculars and religious that can save the Turkish state from further military interventions.  

Accordingly, in parallel with the EU goals, the AKP implemented various reforms in several fields. These had to do with civil-military relations by making the National Security Council a civil institution, removing the military’s inspection on media and universities, and bringing the security expenditures under civilian control. Therefore, by the second term of AKP (2007-2011), most of the military’s political powers had already been removed. Yet, the military was still influential enough to give specific briefings about politics, arguably, by trusting in its image as ‘ultimate decision-maker’ in the eyes of people. At this point, the main developments that ended military influence came during the Ergenekon-Balyoz indictments (2008-2010). According to these indictments, the Chief of the General Staff, the Head Commanders of First Army, Navy and Air as well as a number of active and retired senior officers had prepared a coup plan to overthrow the AKP and Erdoğan. Indeed, the process created three important repercussions for the military: first, the accusations, trials and arrests during the indictments, did serious harm to the military’s image; second, the arrests provoked a major change in the commanding elite; third, the military has never been the same reactive army regarding secularism.  

The above-mentioned changes in the commanding elite prepared the suitable conditions for removing the military tutelage. The newly appointed commanders were known with their ‘moderate personalities’ unlike their secular predecessors. Accordingly, they appeared in harmony with the government and avoided making comments about secularism and political Islam. However, this trend was finally broken by a coup attempt on 15 July 2016 allegedly by the Islamist Gülen Brotherhood which was claimed to have secretly infiltrated the military. This organisation had been founded by the religious leader Fethullah Gülen whose disciples had already been known for their ambitious attempts to obtain key positions in the state. Due to this fact, the military authorities had previously warned the AKP government against the Gülen infiltration. Yet arguably, the AKP ignored these warnings, because the Islamic line of the Gülen followers, at those days, were increasing the AKP’s popularity within the media, state departments, security forces and the military. However, since 2013, the Gülenists and the AKP have been involved in a noticeable conflict given their clashing interests. Erdoğan and Gülen began to speak to one another in a highly accusatory tone. In the meantime, the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases were dismissed by the Turkish courts. Ironically, the AKP's earlier tolerance of these allegedly Gülenist prosecutors had enabled the arrest of many innocent secular commanders.  

More interestingly, the elimination of secular commanders and the recent wave of AKP authoritarianism came almost simultaneously. Erdoğan intensified his Islamic rhetoric stating that he wants a “religious generation”. Also, the AKP were limiting fundamental freedoms by cracking down on internet use, alcohol, and protests. During the massive Gezi protests in Istanbul, the police used excessive violence against protestors. Nevertheless, despite all of these developments, the military remained silent which would not have been the case in the previous decades.   

At this point, can we talk about a possible desecularisation in the main ethoi of military culture? If we look at the developments from the Ergenekon case to the 15 July attempted coup, the answer would be yes. Arguably, the AKP tolerated the Ergenekon-Balyoz by considering it an opportunity to undermine the military’s secularist culture. Then, after removing the main obstacle, the AKP began to increase its Islamic-orientated authoritarianism. Yet, after Erdoğan and Gülen began to disagree with one another, Erdoğan lost his popularity among the Gülenist officers who allegedly attempted a coup d’etat to overthrow Erdoğan but failed. In this regard, the aforementioned tolerance of the AKP to the Gülenist movement, had enabled the latter to infiltrate the military and, ironically, had opened the path for this alleged juntaist establishment.  

Following the unsuccessful coup attempt, the AKP started a big operation to remove Gülenists from the military and state departments. Nevertheless, there is still not a remarkable decrease in the AKP’s Islamic-oriented authoritarianism. In contrast, by demanding a presidential system, Erdoğan, now, wants to collect most parliamentary powers into his hands. At this point, what may be the military’s take on this? The military today is definitely not the Atatürkist military that presents itself as the guardian of secularism especially in light of the aforementioned developments. Will Erdoğan win the referendum for the presidential system? Will the AKP’s Islamic discourse continue? If so, what will be the military’s reaction? Silence, reaction or obedience? The answers to these questions may give us clear clues about the current status of military culture and the destiny of a secular Turkish democracy. 

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