Turkey was in the news last month, for putting on trial the two surviving generals who helped lead a successful coup against a popularly-elected government in 1980. Terrible thing, isn’t it, for unelected generals to undermine democracy like that? Or is there more to the story than meets the eye?
The story begins at the dawn of the twentieth century, when Turkish army officers, then the most well-educated, forward-looking people in the Ottoman Empire, overthrew centuries of rule by Muslim sultans. There isn’t space to talk about that in detail here, but you can sneak a peek at a chapter from my forthcoming book to get the full story. Ultimately the military, led by the extraordinary Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, established a secular republic, in a revolution more sweeping (and less bloody) than anything that occurred in America, France, Russia, or China. Not without intense resistance, though, from the Muslim God experts displaced from power, who forced Atatürk to put down a number of armed revolts. When his successor allowed free elections in 1950, a party dominated by imams took power, and promptly began whittling away at the provisions of Atatürk’s secular constitution for their own benefit.
God expert power in Turkey waxed and waned over the next two decades. A tectonic shift occurred in 1973, though, as a result of the stunning success of the Arab oil embargo (which in turn had resulted from Muslim fury over American military support for Israeli God experts). Suddenly, Saudi Arabia had more money than it knew what to do with. While some of it went to race horses and yachts, much of it was plowed into propaganda to increase Muslim political influence around the world. The campaign kicked off with a 1976 conference in Pakistan, under the auspices of the Saudi-funded “Muslim World League,” attended by representatives of Turkey’s religious political party. The goals the conference decided upon were straightforward:
1. The constitutional frameworks of the Islamic countries should be restructured according to Islamic principles and the Arabic language should be spread among the people.
2. Civil laws should be replaced by the Sharia.
3. Women should obey Islamic restrictions.
4. Necessary economic and political steps should be taken to establish modern Islamic states based on the Sharia.
5. At every level of educational training, Islam should be taught as a mandatory subject.
6. The five principles of Islam should be memorized by all primary school students.
7. Secondary school students must learn the entire Koran.
8. In order to promote these goals, Islamic educational institutions must be established in each country.
9. In order to recreate Islamic unity, all Muslim states should first recognize and accept their Islamic attributes and then establish a confederation under the guidance of a commonly elected Caliph.
Saudi oil money began pouring into Turkey. If the shining example of Atatürk’s achievement could be smashed, humanist reformers in other Muslim-majority countries would be marginalized. Some of the money went to capitalize Islamist entrepreneurs; some went directly to Turkey’s religious political party; some went to illegal groups associated with that party, sporting colorful names like the Rapid Freedom Fighters of Islamic Revolution, the Global Brotherhood Front Suicide Squad of Sharia, the Fighters of the Universal Islamic War of Liberation, and the Sharia Liberation Army of the World.
One predictable result of this cash influx was that the religious party grew in electoral strength, becoming a partner in a series of unstable coalition governments. Another predictable result was that political violence soared, especially because the Soviet Union was simultaneously funding its own underground groups. Thousands of political assassinations occurred in Turkey from 1975 to 1980, including parliament members, professors, journalists, and even a former prime minister. By 1980, the assassination pace reached over 20 per day. The combination of the lunacy of Sharia finance and the loss of personal security laid waste to the Turkish economy, which began to experience triple-digit inflation.
Meanwhile, the Muslim World League initiative was having stunning success in other countries. Pakistan turned to radical Islam in early 1979, when General Zia ul-Haq seized power in a coup and imposed Sharia law, which remains in place today. A few months later came the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic revolution in Turkey’s neighbor Iran, which also remains in place today.
Turkey’s military leaders, who saw themselves as the custodians of Atatürk’s revolution, were gravely concerned. In December 1979, they wrote a letter to the president, warning bluntly that:
Our nation no longer has the patience for people who sing the communist international instead of our national anthem; who invite the sharia; who want to bring all sorts of fascism by replacing the democratic regime; and who want anarchy, destruction, and separatism by misusing freedoms that are provided by our Constitution.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came in September, 1980, at a mass rally to protest Israel’s announcement that Jerusalem would become its capital. Backers of the religious party openly called for the destruction of the secular Turkish state, shouting slogans such as “Sharia will come, brutality will end,” “Sovereignty belongs to Allah,” “The Constitution is the Koran,” “Secularism is atheism,” “Government with Allah’s rules,” “We are ready for jihad,” and “Sharia or death.” The Islamists refused to sing the national anthem, instead declaring “We want the call of prayer, we do not sing this anthem.” A few days later, a military junta led by Gen. Kenan Evren took away democracy by seizing control of the state from its duly elected officials.
The Affront to Democracy
Winston Churchill smugly observed in 1947 that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Maybe so. The point to be made, though, is that “democracy” covers a pretty broad spectrum of possibilities, some of which are not really any better than other forms of government.
Suppose the people voted, and those responsible for counting the ballots simply lied about the results. Would that be a good form of government? Of course not; it would be fraud. One step further: suppose there were two otherwise evenly matched candidates, and one candidate prevails by spreading false information that his opponent was a serial child molester. Anything admirable about that? Again, no. Now go one step further: picture the same two evenly matched candidates, and one of them succeeds in using revered God experts to spread the message that God is on his side, and against the other guy. If you want to get in good with God, you’d better vote the right way. Is that a lot different from the first two cases? It’s still fraud, isn’t it? And it happens all the time, not only in the Muslim-majority world but right here in the United States. Which presidential candidate is it who boasts that “We do what we do because God is with us”? (Hint: he kicked off his re-election campaign yesterday.)
Atatürk understood this. He tried, twice, to have free elections in Turkey with a robust but loyal opposition. He abandoned both efforts when he saw that opposition being hijacked by God experts intent on having one election to get back into power, and then staying there permanently to carry out God’s will. Instead, he installed rules in Turkey’s constitution that in their current form state that “No one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion, in any manner whatsoever, for the purpose of personal or political influence, or for even partially basing the fundamental social, economic, political and legal order of the state on religious tenets.” That’s a sound rule that eliminates a huge impediment to real democracy – but only if it’s enforced.
Turkey’s military and judicial authorities in 1980 and at other times have used their muscle to enforce this rule. Unfortunately, though, Evren was no Atatürk. Once in power, he discovered that he rather liked Saudi money, so long as he could channel it into what he thought would be a “moderate” Islam that he could control. He was ruthless in cracking down on the communist element of Turkey’s instability (which helped him attract American money as well), but he oversaw a massive program of mosque construction and reintroduction of Islam into public education that would have enraged Atatürk.
Now Evren is discovering that he didn’t use Islam; Islam used him. Levels of religiosity in Turkey grew rapidly in the 90s, and the successor to the religious party Evren broke up in 1980 won a sweeping “democratic” victory in 2002. Leading secular generals were forced out of office last year. Dozens of other humanist journalists and politicians have been clapped into prison. Evren himself, now 94 years old, is being subjected to a show trial from his hospital bed so the Islamists can prove to Turkey’s humanists that “No matter how long it takes, we’ll get you someday.”
If Evren had shown a little more Atatürk steel in dealing with Turkey’s God experts in the years after 1980, do you think he’d be on trial today?