The past week or so witnessed what the New York Times described as history quietly passing in Turkey when police officers fanned out to make dozens of arrests of chief active and retired military personnel. For Turkish citizens, the newspaper images were unforgettable: young police officers, some not even born at the time of the last major military coup in 1980, rounding up white-haired retired Turkish generals. The unthinkable happened; the untouchable and largely unaccountable military had come under public scrutiny, exposing shameful and troubling plans. The arrests came as part of a larger investigation into the so-called “Operation Sledgehammer” and possibly connected with another investigation called “Ergenekon” that has uncovered evidence pointing to a widespread attempt by military members to create internal insecurity as an excuse to oust the current AK party government of Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan. The plot includes accusations that the army intended to blow up two mosques full of worshipping Muslims on a Friday and provoke Greece into shooting down a Turkish warplane. The Turkish military has been involved in several coups since the founding of the republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the latest of which was the 1997 overthrow of the Erbakan government. Each coup has resulted from the army, considered the guardian of secular Kemalism, deeming that Islamic powers were becoming too strong.
Since the 2002 victory of the Islamic leaning AK party, it has gained momentum, placing its own members throughout key posts in the government, courts and education system, including its own president Abdullah Gul, whose Islamic wife is the first covered woman not only to enter the luxurious presidential palace but actually reside in it. The AK party dominates the seats in the parliament, and though it suffered some setbacks in the last provincial governor elections, continues to hold the support of the majority of traditional, Muslim Anatolia Turks. Much speculation surrounds the upcoming elections as to whether the AK party can hold the support and its dominance in the parliament.
Under the AK party the rise of Islam in public life has come mainly in the form of proliferation of private, unregistered Qur’anic courses and cemaats or informal Islamic congregations. Many of these are affiliated with Feytullah Gul, a Turkish religious leader exiled from Turkey currently residing in the US. He directs an international religious organization with a worth of up to fifty billion dollars, hundreds of schools throughout Central Asia, Africa and Europe and even the US. Many accuse him of trying to position himself as the next Ayatollah Khomeini who would return from exile to Turkey to take the country into Shariah law. His organization vigorously denies the accusations, saying he is an ambassador of peace and dialogue between civilizations. The current law of Turkey is based on French and Swiss models, clearly not from an Islamic source, as Ataturk wanted it to be in setting up the modern republic of Turkey with a West-ward looking stance.
The military and millions of secularists (including the Alevi minority, a different kind of Islam related to the Shiites) have grown increasingly vocal in their concerns that the AK party has a long-term agenda of moving Turkey away from Ataturk’s West-ward looking secularism and back into the Muslim world governed by Shariah. This concern at times has erupted into massive street protests in the past couple of years, with as many as a million people taking to the streets in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara. But generally the secularists have not called for any disruptive overthrow of the government, hoping that the legal system in place would help protect against any excesses. The revelations of Operation Sledgehammer and Ergenekon have caused deep insecurity and uncertainty. Others have reacted defensively, saying the investigations are simply conspiracy theories trumped up by the ruling party as a means of quashing dissent and further weakening the military as a guardian of Ataturkism.
Since the investigations have been going on for nearly two years, it is unlikely that they will be quickly resolved. Meanwhile, with the latest arrests of top officers, Turkish history has taken an unprecedented turn. For the first time in a century since the founding of the republic, the army seems either helpless or unwilling to stop the steady advance of an Islamic-leaning political party whose ideological commitments to the old order of Ataturk are questionable at best. History may be passing quietly in Turkey, but the change is profound.