TROUBLE BREWING BETWEEN STATE AND ‘DEEP STATE’ IN TURKEY
July 14 2008
The Ottoman Empire had already been in retreat for over a century
when the Young Turk revolution broke out in July 1908.
Some of the Young Turks hoped to save the whole empire; others
wanted to abandon the empire and rescue an independent Turkey from
the wreckage. The latter group won the argument, in the end, and
although the rest of the empire fell under European imperial rule
ten years later, Turkey itself was saved.
Now, exactly 100 years after the Young Turks, the country is plunged
into another constitutional crisis.
In March, the public prosecutor brought a case to Turkey’s highest
judicial body, the constitutional court, demanding that the ruling AK
(Justice and Development) Party, re-elected only last year with an
increased majority, be shut down for trying to subvert the secular
He also wants Prime Minister Tayyib Recep Erdogan and 70 other senior
AK party members banned from politics for five years.
Last week the government struck back, arresting two retired generals
and 23 other people on the charge of "provoking armed rebellion
against the government."
One, Gen. Hursit Tolon, was the former second-in-command of the
army. Police allege they were members of a state-backed gang that is
suspected of a number of murders of prominent public figures, with the
aim of destabilizing Turkish society and forcing military intervention.
But wait a minute. "State-backed?" Isn’t the government itself the
embodiment of the state?
In Turkey, not necessarily.
The conspirators, it is claimed, belong to what Turks call the "deep
state," the alliance of senior judicial and military figures who still
see themselves as the guardians of the secular Turkish republic that
was the ultimate result of the Young Turk revolution.
What the rebellious Young Turk officers demanded in July 1908 was
the restoration of the constitution that had been suspended 30 years
before. It brought a rough kind of democracy to the multinational
empire, but the various ethnic nationalisms, Bulgarian, Kurdish,
Greek, Arab, Armenian – and, above all, Turkish – were already too
strong for a unified state to survive.
The Ottoman empire went under at the end of the First World War,
leaving a decimated Turkish population (only eight million in 1918)
to fight for its independence against British, French, Italian and
Greek invaders who sought to carve Turkey up between them.
The man who led that independence struggle, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk,
founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, and he made it one of the most
rigorously secular states in the world.
Ninety-nine per cent of Turkey’s citizens are Muslims, but political
parties are banned from appealing to religion. Even religious symbols
are seen as dangerous: women wearing "Islamic" head-scarves are not
allowed inside state institutions, including universities.
Initially, this militant secularism was a tactic for wrenching
a largely illiterate and deeply conservative peasantry out of its
medieval ways and catapulting the country into the 20th century. Turkey
must never be weak again, and to be strong it must be "modern."
But as the decades passed, the reformers turned into a self-selecting
"republican" elite who justified their privileges by claiming that
they had a mission to defend the secular state. What they have ended
up defending the state against, in fact, is democracy, which challenges
their arbitrary power.
Faced with a democratically elected party that has Islamic roots
(although it has been staunchly loyal to the secular constitution),
they have begun waging an open war against it in the courts. They have
also launched a secret and violent struggle against it in the shadows,
a struggle that has already cost lives.
Some fear that it could end in a military coup, but that time has
A hundred years after the Young Turk revolution, the Turks are again
at a crossroads. It is quite possible that the court will decide to
ban the AK Party later this year, just as it rejected the new law
allowing female students to wear the head-scarf at university last
month. Many senior judges are part of the "deep state."
But it is not 1908: the outlook this time is a lot brighter.
The 75 million Turks of today have about the same per capita income as
Russians or Romanians, and about the same range of social attitudes,
too. Turkey is not going to turn into a theocratic dictatorship,
because very few of them want such a thing.
However, quite a few of them do want a state that does not despise
or penalize them for being publicly pious.
Quite a few others who are not at all devout support the AK Party
anyway, because they know that in the current crisis it represents
democracy, tolerance and the rule of law.
It will turn out all right because the self-nominated defenders of
secularism are transparently cynical in their attempts to manipulate
And it will be all right because the AK Party leaders have clearly
decided that it’s not worth having a bloody political battle now,
when it’s obvious that they have already won the war.
If the court bans AK, they will all resign from power peacefully,
in obedience to the law. Then those who are not banned from politics
entirely for five years will reform the party under another name,
and fight and win another election.
And bit by bit, the "deep state" will wither away.