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Revolution by Way of the Justice System: A Look at Turkey’s Recent Struggle

A high profile and potentially politically transformative court case is taking place in Turkey at the moment. The plot is fit for the most sensational conspiracy film yet the theatre of action is in Turkey’s judicial system.

The government, under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has accused 86 suspects of plotting to overthrow the Turkish state through a series of assassinations and economic turmoil leading to a military coup. The group of alleged conspirators is called Ergenekon. The gaggle of 86 suspects have appeared in 11 hearings together and stand trial for terror charges for actions over a period of two decades. The first day of the court case descended into chaos. Ebru News states that only twenty gendarmes, all traffic patrolmen, were present to keep order, and that spectators were allowed into the court without adequate security checks.

It’s hard to imagine how the government could not have predicted that thousands of emotionally charged people both for and against the accused would not press toward the jail house turned temporary court in this case. The situation could very well have sparked wider action and even violence, though it did not.

The accused include retired senior generals, journalists, lawyers, and politicians. It appears that the majority of these individuals, if not all, were critical of the current government: criticism of course a prerequisite to any plot.

It’s alleged that the final stage of the plot would have resulted in a military coup capped by the installment of two civilians as the president and prime minister of a realigned country.

A move to ban the governing party

Turkey’s courts and people have seen months of volatile hearings. Prior to the Ergenekon case, the governing party, the AK Party, faced the Constitutional Court. The court ruled that prime minister Recep Tayyip Ergodan was involved in anti-secular activities.

According to the Constitutional Court, religious issues were “turned into central issues in politics at a scale leading to social divisions.” Financial restrictions were slapped onto the governing party though the ruling came short of banning the AKP because it was deemed to have only used non-violent means to inject religion into Turkish society and politics.

The AKP will now receive only half of the usual state funds earmarked to it for this year.

This case was widely believed to have been a battle for the future of Turkey’s social and political direction, between secular military elites empowered under the modern state’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and Islamic resurgence led by the AKP.

The Ergenekon trial immediately follows the Constitutional Court case against the AKP, the timing suggesting a reprisal from the government. Turkey’s military power bloc has traditionally been seen as the guardian of secularism and of the modern state, resorting to brief coups in order to keep the civilian government in line with Ataturk’s particular brand of modernization and Westernization.

What does it all mean for Turkey and others?

That the prosecutor is charging Ergenekon for two decades of activity is an important point.

The AKP is new, entering politics only in August of 2001, though its members are certainly not new to politics. In November of 2002 it won general elections and formed the national government. This was accomplished in opposition to the efforts and will of the military elite, which resisted the rise to power of a modern party with a religious base.

The prosecutor’s rehashing of plots from as far back as two decades predates the current government and is in effect an attack on the very notion of the military’s activism in the form of coups or plots to change government and control the state. The military’s intervention has generally been accepted and expected as a core function of the broader political system established under the iconic Ataturk, following the foundation of modern Turkey after the First World War.

If the alleged Ergenekon members are found guilty, then the judiciary will have effectively criminalized some of the key tools to power that are invested in the military. A guilty verdict can very well establish a new Turkish republic, with a dominant civilian government, a politically reduced military, and an affirmation of religion in social and political life. In this scenario, Turkey may well serve as an example to other Muslim states who may seek an alternative to Western styles of modernization by following a path that may well recognize the cultural and religious significance of Islam in the foundation of government.

Western principals of modernization for the Middle East have most often depended on strong military or police action, such as in the Shah’s Iran. If this latest case results in a rejection of this model then yet another Muslim country would have turned its back on this system of government and yet another alternative will present itself for possible emulation.

A prosecution victory may well signal the waning power of Western ideals in Turkey and in the Muslim world in general, as country after country seeks to find an alternative to Western style democracy or modernization through an injection of Islamic culture into the political system. Various experiments, many radically different from each other, have been taking place throughout the Muslim world as secular and Western-backed Muslim states fail to meet the basic needs of their people and are replaced (the Shah’s Iran), are facing increased popular revolt (Mubarak’s Egypt), threatening to implode (Lebanon), or suffering from convulsions of an unpredictable transition period (Iraq). Afghanistan and Iraq may well serve as a warning of how difficult it has become to impose a Westernized political model backed by military force in the Muslim world today.

Turkey and the European Union

Turkey applied to join the European Union in 1987 and there has since been a rough ride for all parties involved in the accession process. Without going over the details of reforms required of and implemented by Turkey, and the sometimes heated debate within Europe, it’s enough to know that tensions have been increasing.

The tensions coming out of the EU accession process may well be the nail in the coffin of Ataturk’s brand of Westernization for Turkey. Not only have most partial emulations of Westernized governance in the Middle East (sometimes with a military or authoritarian bent) failed to retain power, maintain legitimacy, or meet people’s essential life needs, but the continued cat and mouse game of protracted accession negotiations between the EU and Turkey may well inflame Muslim perception that the West could also fail to accept as equal member a culture different from itself.

The Ergenekon trial should be closely watched since its outcome may well define the future of Turkey and have serious consequences for Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and NATO, which Turkey is a member of. Turkey could well shift its focus from west to east, and whatever state emerges from this could well serve as an example for the rest of the Muslim world.


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