[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Turkey’s latest national controversy over the alleged coup plan codenamed “Sledgehammer” will probably remain as just that: a controversy. The generals who seem responsible will probably not face any trial, for the military remains as an untouchable institution, especially after being saved last week by the Constitutional Court from civilian scrutiny. A bit like the ancient legal maxim, “The prince is above the law,” Turkish laws place the generals above the justice system that we, the lesser mortals, are subject to.
In the media, too, the controversy will probably remain as a controversy, because people will continue to make judgments solely based on their pre-existing convictions. Those who believe that the military is indeed a crucible of coups and other crimes will be convinced in the reality of the Sledgehammer scheme. On the other hand, those who see the institution as the heroic savior of Turkey, or at least their own social class, will refuse to believe that some generals actually sat down and made plans that involved the killing of innocent citizens.
After all, it is almost a national custom of us, the Turks, to have strong convictions without adequate facts.
The ideology in arms
However, beyond all these uncertainties behind the alleged coup plan, there is a fact on the ground that is bitter enough. There is an elephant, as the saying goes, in our living room: The Turkish military exists not just to protect the nation from foreign threats. More than that, it exists to protect a certain ideology from the citizens who happen to have different ideologies.
This ideology, as we all know, is Kemalism, which is inferred from the policies of Mustafa Kemal, modern Turkey’s founder. Radical secularism, assimilationist nationalism and “statism” are its main pillars. It is not my cup of tea, to be honest, but there are many Turks who see it as the best idea that ever befell on the nation – or even any nation.
The party most Kemalists often vote for is the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, which was founded by Mustafa Kemal himself in 1923. And it is perfectly fine for the CHP, or other political forces, to support and advance Kemalism within Turkey’s multiparty politics. But it is not fine for the military to do the same thing.
Because the latter means that the political parties and social groups that disagree with Kemalism are challenged not only by the democratic politics of the CHP, and other similar parties, but also the tanks and guns of the military. The latter has staged four military coups since 1960, and all of them were directed against non-Kemalist (center-right or pro-Islamic) governments. Moreover, the fear that it can launch new coups, stage assassinations or do other nasty things is constantly in the air, like a Sword of Damocles over the whole nation.
The only other political ideology in Turkey that enjoys similar support from an armed organization is – guess what – Kurdish nationalism. The armed organization here is the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Its terrorist attacks are widely (and rightly) considered as big a problem for Turkey, because it not only costs innocent lives but also constantly sabotages democratic politics with violence. That’s why Turkish democrats call for the disarmament of the PKK, and invite its sympathizers to do politics without leaning their back on “the mountains” – a reference to Kurdish guerillas.
In the same way, Kemalist politicians and ideologues, too, need to learn to do politics without constantly leaning their back on “the barracks” – a reference to Turkish officers.
What this practically means is that, for Turkey to become a real democracy, the military needs to be de-ideologized, and turn into a politically neutral organization doing its democratically defined professional job: to protect the nation from potential foreign threats.
Of course, how to force the Turkish military into that great transformation is the million-dollar question. But that’s another debate.
Here let me just make another point. If this transformation ever takes place, and thus Kemalism gets disarmed, it will be good for not just Turkey, but also this very ideology. Losing the support of the authoritarian state, and becoming an equal player in the marketplace of ideas, can push Kemalism to reconnect with society, rather than looking down upon it, and start to change.
Economics can give us a perspective here. One of the success stories of free market capitalism is privatization, for it has often turned stagnant and sinister state enterprises into booming and smiling private companies. What I am talking about here is a similar “privatization” of Kemalism, which can help ideology move forward from its archaic dogmas, and come to the realities of the 21st century.
Kemalist parties might then try to win new voters by pragmatic stances on real issues, rather than dispersing fear and calling the generals to “duty.”
They might even start to think that democracy is really not that bad.