by Eric Margolis © 1997 Eric Margolis
A creeping military coup has been underway for months in Turkey that raises serious concerns about the long-term stability of this important and enormously strategic nation.
The generals of 508,000-man Turkish armed forces, the second largest in NATO, have gravely undermined the democratically elected coalition government, led by Prime Minister Necemettin Erbakan's Refah (Welfare) Party. Turkey's irritable generals have staged three coups in the last 37 years. Their current threats to oust Refah by a coup finally compelled Prime Minister Erbakan to announce yesterday that he would resign early and call new elections.
In 1995, Erbakan, a grandfatherly politician with a fondness for loud ties, formed a shaky coalition government with the secular True Path party. Erbakan is no firebrand: he advocates very modest restoration of some traditional Islamic values and practises into Turkish life, - such as religious schools, and allowing Muslim women to wear head scarves.
But the generals erupted in fury, claiming Turkey faced mortal threat from `radical Islam.' They unleashed a relentless war of nerves against the elected government. People accused of being `Pro-Islamists' were purged from government, schools and the military. A broad series of anti-Islamic measures were enforced.
Next, the generals subjected PM Erbakan to public humiliation. He was compelled to fire officers accused of pro-Islamic views, and forced to officially approve military treaties with Israel.
The generals launched a law suit to drive Refah from office. Coalition partners were pressured to resign. Tanks rolled when a cheeky Iranian diplomat called on Turkey's generals to stop attacking their elected government and instead go liberate Jerusalem.
Most recently, the hapless Erbakan was further humiliated by being made, on national TV, to kowtow before Attaturk's tomb. The symbolism was clear.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's draconian but highly capable military dictator of the 1920's and 30's, was a successful version of Mussolini. He made Turkey run on time. Ataturk westernized Turkey by eradicating all manifestations of Islam. His ruthless anti-Islamic campaign paralleled Stalin's persecution of Christianity and Islam in the Soviet Union.
Kemalism, worship of the dictator, replaced Islam as Turkey's state religion and continues to this day, enforced by its high priests, the generals. Turkey's thoroughly westernized military, political, media and business elite use Kemalism and secularism to protect their status and privileges.
Though furious at Erbakan, the generals hesitated to oust him at gunpoint for two reasons, First, an overt coup would endanger Turkey's ardent desire to join the European Community. Turkey's elite still deludes itself into believing Europe will eventually admit 62 million Turks. Europeans want no more Muslims or farmers.
Secondly, a coup would anger the US Congress, which gives Turkey military aid. The Clinton Administration has remained mum about the general's near-coup. The Israel lobby, delighted at the growing military-political alliance between the generals and Israel, has deflected criticism of Turkey. But an outright coup would inevitably provoke anger and consternation in the US.
Hence the creeping coup. Turkey's brass forged the alliance with Israel primarily to counter growing Islamic political expression in Turkey. It also targets Turkey's unfriendly neighbors, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Israeli political and military backing against Greece in war over Cyprus would also be highly useful.
The new Turkish-Israeli military alliance has had a negative impact on the Mideast. The entente has encouraged Israeli PM Netanyahu and fellow Likud hardliners to continue opposing and undermining the foundering Oslo peace process, while intensifying Israel's war of nerves against Iran.
Israeli military advisors are helping Turkey in its long campaign to crush Kurdish rebels - which just led Turkey to mount a sizeable invasion of northern Iraq. Under the guise of combatting Kurdish rebels, oil-poor Turkey may one day seize and annex Iraq's northern oil fields near Kirkuk and Mosul.
The new alliance with Israel, loudly trumpeted by Turkey's generals, will likely prove a poor strategy that could backfire dangerously. It certainly produces a very sharp feeling of deja vu.
In the 1970's, the Shah of Iran, urged on by his generals and secret police, forged a secret alliance with Israel. Iran's rulers believed the pact with Israel would make them safe from both Arab enemies and internal Islamic opposition.
Iran's generals and ruling elite became increasingly alienated from their own country and lost all touch with reality. They waged a relentless cultural war to eradicate vestiges of Islam. Iran's ruling class utterly failed to see the onrushing Islamic tidal wave that culminated in Imam Khomeini's 1979 revolution. Opinion polls then showed only modest support for Islamic forces - as they do currently in Turkey.
Iran's `Islamic' revolution was actually an explosion of pent-up nationalist and cultural fury against exploitation and degradation by foreigners, and their perceived agents, the nation's elite. Islam was the banner under which the forces of change rallied.
Turkey, which has large and stable middle class, is not in the position of pre-revolutionary Iran in the late 1970's. But many of the early warning signs seen during the Shah's era are visible today in Turkey.
Like the Shah's generals, Turkey's increasingly out-of-touch military is leading the nation in the same direction as Imperial Iran. Perpetuating Kemalism, and trying to tear out every manifestation of Turkey's Islamic roots, won't solve the nation's serious internal and external problems.
Change is coming to Turkey, as it did to Iran, albeit more slowly and moderately. Flexible, democratic government, not a hamhanded military junta, is needed to manage this inevitable process.
The US and Europe should strongly urge Turkey's generals to do everyone a favor by getting out of politics and returning to their barracks.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]
[Although the amount of water to be imported only amounts to 3% of Israel's
current needs, it is expected to cement the growing relationship between the
two countries and lay the foundations of long-term water security for
Israel.--John Vidal, "
Israeli 'water for arms' deal with Turkey," Guardian, January 6, 2004]