After a century has passed, Young Turks at a crossroads

by Gwynne Dyer

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 10 years later, Turkey itself was saved. Now, exactly a hundred 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 state. He also wants Prime Minister Tayyip 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 that 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 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 World War I, 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 percent 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 passed.

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 women 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 popular opinion. 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.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His latest book, “After Iraq,” was published in London recently by Yale University Press.