The Coup That Wasn't

By Akyol, Mustafa | Newsweek International, March 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Coup That Wasn't


Akyol, Mustafa, Newsweek International


Byline: Mustafa Akyol

Turkey finally outgrows Ataturk.

Last month, some-thing unprecedented happened in Turkey: more than 50 high-ranking military officers, including several retired four-star generals, were detained and questioned by prosecutors over an alleged coup plot. Codenamed Sledgehammer, the conspiracy supposedly aimed to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which many Turkish secularists find too Islamic.

Turkey's military has toppled elected governments four times over the decades, so that part was no big surprise. The shocker was that, for once, the generals are actually being held to account. "Everybody should get this right," wrote Gulay Gokturk, a prominent liberal: "the military guardianship regime is now history." One could add that Turkey is finally be-coming a more democratic place, where elected politicians, not self-appointed officers, will have the upper hand.

The old military "guardianship regime" was based on the idea that the Turkish people and their elected representatives were not wise enough to govern the country. The generals who established the system rooted in it the persona of Kemal Ataturk, the war hero who saved Turkey from occupation after World War I, founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, and then carried out an extensive Westernization program.

What's rarely understood in the West today is that while this Westernization had its benefits (especially for women's rights and education), it was neither democratic nor liberal. That's because the West in the late 1920s and '30s, which Ataturk looked to for guidance, was not a haven of liberal democracy; it was the golden era of authoritarianism, and that was the lesson Ataturk and his aides followed in creating a new Turkey.

The resulting system was based on a personality cult around the "supreme leader" and three other pillars: an authoritarian secularism that suppressed even the most moderate religious groups; an assimilationist nationalism that outlawed all non-"Turkish" identities such as that of the Kurds; and a dominant role for government in the economy. After World War II, the Kemalists were forced to accept a multiparty system. But Kemalism remained the official ideology, and if democratically elected governments strayed too far, the military would intervene--as it did on several bloody occasions. …

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