Turkish Democracy - A contribution in a divided world

Masanori NAITO 16.07.2020

Turkish Democracy - A contribution in a divided world

byProf. Dr. Masanori NAITO

(Tokyo, 16 July 2020)

Exactly four years ago yesterday, on July 15th, a terrible coup attempt took place.

I express my sincere condolences to 251 people wholost their lives during this act of violence, and wish well being to over 2000 people who got injured and to the people of Turkey.

I also express my deepest respects for the sacrifices made by the people of Turkey who rose to protect their democracy.

Well, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cold War and almost 20 years have passed since the start of the 21st Century. When we look back on Turkey's relations with the world as well as with the Islamic and the Western states, in past 20 years we witnessed a drastic change, one that is hard to put into words.

The Berlin wall collapsed and the Cold War between the East and the West came to an end. For a brief moment, there was an expectation that this would ease the tension. However, on September 9th, 2001, the world was shaken by the terror attacks in the United States. In 2005 terror attacks occurred in London. As the terror attacks by the so-called Islamic extremists intensified, the relationship between Islam and the West started to worsen which created further tensions.

In the 2010s, this time the Arab Nations experienced a series of movements demanding democracy which came to be known as "Arab Spring". With the only exception of Tunisia, where it all began, in most cases the democratic movements failed and created miserable consequences.

In Egypt, President Mubarak's dictatorship was ended with the will of ordinary people and President Morsi was elected in the first free elections. Yet, the military and the secular elite felt dissatisfaction towards the newly elected Government and within a year Egypt was robbed of its democracy in a military coup.

This is one of the important points to take into consideration when thinking about Turkey's democratization. Needless to say, democracy cannot thrive in an environment where the army rules over the politics.

In Syria too, in a city called Daraa in the south of the county, the youth voiced their demands for freedom. This was a peaceful request at the beginning until it was violently crushed by the Assad regime. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war which claimed up to 400,000 lives, forced 6.7 million people to take refuge abroad. Another 7 million were internally displaced. The Assad regime is responsible for these massive casualties - a hugely sad situation for the people of Syria. Moreover, Russia and Iran also have huge responsibility due to their military backing of the Assad regime.

There was a widespread view that refugee issue was caused by the rise of Daesh in 2014. Indeed, Daesh'satrocious and brutal actions forced many innocents to take refugee. However, there is no doubt that even more refugees and deaths were caused by the barrel bombs used by the regime with its airpower and by the Russia's bombardments. One million people had already taken refuge in Turkey by that time.

Turkey is hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world who had to confront their terrible fate. This number now has reached to 3.6 million. If we consider the total number of Syrian refugees in the Middle East, which is thought to be around 5.5 million, the scale of Syrian refugees received by Turkey becomes clearer.

At this point, we must point out another important fact as we reflect upon Turkish democracy. Despite hosting 3.6 million refugees, not single political party emerged in Turkey calling for the expulsion of foreigners or refugees.

One can not deny that the presence of such a large number of refugees is a huge burden. Most probably, deep inside, some citizens do not welcome this situation. However, it is a basic principle for Muslims to accept those who were forced out of their homes, suffering from pain and misery. Turkish people may think this approach is very obvious and natural, but when we look at the world this is not the case.

Let's have a glance at the European countries. During the 2017 general elections in Germany, a political party called Alternative for Germany (AfD), which campaigned for the expulsion of refugees and among them Muslims, became the main opposition and won 94 seats. In the same year during the general elections in the Netherlands, the incumbent Prime Minister Rutte said that, "shaking hands is part of the Dutch culture and if you have problems with it you better leave". This was a criticism directed towards Muslims refraining from physical contact with the opposite sex.

Long before these developments, in France, where there is hostility towards not only Islam but also to the concept of religion itself under the secular constitution, moves to ban Muslim women's cover intensified in the 1990s. In 2004, wearing Muslims’ head scarf at public schoolswas banned. Furthermore in 2010 even a law was enacted banning religious cover in public places. The level of hostility towards Muslim women's covers is derived from ignorance about the essence of Islam. There is a conviction in France to regard what they call as Islamic veil (foulard islamique)", whether it is veil or scarf, as if it is the symbol of Islam. This is despite the fact that a material cannot symbolize Islam whether it is Muslim women's cover or men's beard. It is a ridiculous thought.

The Japanese are not very different in that one can find many Japanese people refraining from exposing their bodies in front of the opposite sex or not wanting to shake hands with them. Forcing anyone to expose parts of their bodies they feel ashamed of or forcing anyone for physical contact with the opposite sex is considered sexual harassment. One serious problem with the West today lies in the fact that some countries as a policy insist on continuing this act of abuse.

Nowadays, making those statements to get more votes is not unique to far-right parties. Liberals and the left in Europe are also going in the same direction trying to get rid of Muslims. This trend has obviously increased since the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe.

This is the same Europe which self-proclaims to be the leader ofdemocracy and freedom in the world. Of course, many people across European societies oppose xenophobia. However, when it comes to Islamophobia, such voices are remarkably low.

Turkish people should take pride in the fact that xenophobia never emerged in their societies despite the presence of a massive refugee population. EU had 28 members during the 2015 refugee crisis. These 28 countries together were not even able to accept 1.3 million refugees. Passing the responsibility on each other, they began to say that "they are in fact not refugees but economic migrants and Europe has no place to offer to Muslims". What happened to those ideals of human rights, diversity and tolerance Europe was once proud of? Over the recent years, it became clear that Europe lost the right to criticize Turkey time and again over human rights or tolerance.

This also has to do with the fact that democracy has taken root in Turkey. Democracy does not mean that citizens can say what they want and do as they wish. Nazism or fascism did not come out of absolute rule. People's demands were met by the emergence of dictators. One cannot talk about a healthy system without first having ethics as human beings before democracy in politics. Who would take a society's democratic credentials very seriously if it shouts "get out" in the face of refugees? Here the West's double standards have come into view quite clearly.

I must mention one more thing when talking of double standards. Syrian civil war has created a huge burden and risk for the neighboring Turkey over its 10-year course. The biggest risk is the attempt by the Kurdish armed groups YPG and PYD to establish an autonomous region supported by the United States. Both YPG and PYD are identical with PKK, the terrorist organization that has killed Turkish citizens and continued to bring destruction over many years.

The world is yet to recognize that YPG/PYD and PKK are one and the same organization. The United States and the EU, despite designating PKK a terror organization, does not recognize YPG as a terror organization. This is because they use YPG in the fight against DAESH.

Many European countries, particularly France, made YPG a hero fighting DAESH in Kobani (Ras Al Ayn) and continued their propaganda for PKK - even creating videos. This is an absurd propaganda. There are not only women but also children among the YPG soldiers. The use of child soldiers is a war crime, a fact criticized by Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group.

The US support to Syrian YPG, both financially and militarily, meant militias and arms made their way into Turkey and to be used for repeated terror attacks. This forced Turkey to take the decision to launch cross-border operations in Syria, namely Operation Euphrates Shield, Operation Olive Branch and in October 2019 Operation Peace Spring. The US later on renamed YPG as SDF to make it not look like a Kurdish armed group. In fact, this changed nothing substantially.

Turkey, on national security concerns, has sent troops to Syria to clean up YPG terror organization from border region with Turkey. The US support to YPG caused tension between Turkey and the US.

Let's not forget. "war on terrorism" was led by the US after 9/11 and initiated in Afghanistan and Iraq. This time the US is openly applying double standards when it comes to "war on terrorism" and threatens Turkey's national security, a NATO ally. Let me point out one thing here. The Turkish word for "war on terrorism" is "terörle mücadele", not "terörle savaş". War or "savaş" in Turkish is about a nation-state fighting another state based on its sovereign rights. "War on terrorism" is about a state struggling to find a way to stop an act of terror from happening, thus "terörle mücadele".

War on terrorism, as the US calls it, by definition is about the US army or a coalition of the willing destroying a terrorist organization by means of military. No alternative way is considered. Over 30 years, the US's repeated military operations in the Middle East overturned the already vulnerable regional order. Yet, terrorism is still there. Turkey kept pointing out this fact for half a century.

I am convinced that the world order collapsed after the end of the Cold War. Alliances no longer means securing the trust of the other and moral ground does not exist anymore.

Turkey exercises utmost caution when it comes to the use of military force against a foreign state. Turkey refused to take part in coalition led by the US during the Gulf War in 1991.

After the terrible terror attacks on 9/11 in 2001, the US attacked Taliban. Turkey deployed troops to ISAF but did not take part in the fight against Al Qaeda or Taliban. The Turkish troops enjoyed the trust of both Afghan citizens and the government. The fact that even Taliban chose not to attack Turkish soldiers testifies to this. It clearly showed the Turkey’s determined attitude against terrorism.

In 2003, not long after Justice and Development Party was founded, war in Iraq broke out and the Turkish parliament, at the end of a long and intense debate, decided against sending troops.

At the time, I thought Turkey would greatly change with the founding of the Justice and Development Party. I was paying close attention to see what decision Turkey would make in response to attempts by the Bush administration to pull Turkey to their coalition forces.

I believe it was a right decision not to send troops to Iraq. Turkey knew that if a war broke out, Saddam Hussein would fall. Turkey was concerned that Iraq's integrity would be lost. Kurds in northern Iraq supported the US consistently and when the war ended succeeded in creating an autonomous Kurdish administration which became de facto an independent state with its own army. Just as Turkey feared Iraq was split into three parts, majority Shia Arabs, Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

Sunni tribes that once formed Saddam's support base felt very dissatisfied with the loss of power.Let's not forget that this later on sow the seeds of Islamic extremist group, “Daesh, Islamic state”.

Turkey's fears come true between 2006 and 2007. A series of PKK terror attacks took place. It became clear that arms and explosives were made in the US and flowed into Turkey from the autonomous Kurdish region. Chief of Staff Büyükanıt during an international meeting of chief of staffs, stated that "It is deeply concerning that our ally is supporting PKK terrorist organization".

Turkey's restraint on the use of military force in turn is supported by the trust with which the people of Turkey view the army. But at the same time, the Turkish army had a political side too. The army regarded itself as the guardian of secularism as the basic principle going back to the foundation of the republic.

Unfortunately, however, this characteristic led the army to intervene in politics time and again from 1960 and 1980 coups, to 1971 military memorandum, 1997 postmodern coup and 2007 e-memorandum issued by the Chief of Staff.

As I explained at the beginning in the case of Egypt, when an army intervenes into politics of a democratically elected government and overturns it, democracy can never succeed. After the introduction of parliamentary system with multiple parties in 1950, Turkey maintained a democratic system. However, as long as army's repeated intervention continue, the will of the people can never be reflected on politics.

When I lived in Turkey in the 1990s, I knew that the people of Turkey had high morals, which had its roots in the faith in Islam. But the army intervened whenever religious values overstretched into politics. Untangling this issue is the key to Turkey's democratization.

Welfare Party Prime Minister Erbakan's forced resignation at the National Security Council meeting on 28 February 1997 came as a shock. I met Erbakan several times when he was the Prime Minister. He was known to be a traditional Islamist politician, but as a Prime Minister, he surprised me when he said "Turkey first, then Islam".

President Erdoğan was also from the Welfare Party and Istanbul Mayor until he was imprisoned for reading a poem from Ziya Gökalp.

I saw these actions by the army and the judiciary as an impediment to Turkey's democratization.

Later on, the Welfare Party was ordered to close by the Constitutional Court. Today's Justice and Development Party consists of young politicians from the Welfare Party but they drew a clear line between themselves and Erbakan's traditional Islam and emerged as a modern and innovative party. Justice and Development Party recruited businessmen, engineers, economists and experts among others and targeted national development rather than focusing on a kind of Islamism that sought to introduce Sharia. Yet at the same time, they made it clear to the public that they were a party of "Islamic justice" in its moral sense.

There was a momentous change. The problem of Gecekondu, where people with a farming background settled around major cities without any permission, was solved overnight with the establishment of a new institution called TOKI. There are many other problems that piled up in Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, such as access to water and transportation. The introduction of Metrobus as a means of transportation was a bold and groundbreaking move and improved the lives of many ordinary people who did not have a private car and had to commute for hours. Daily water shortages were solved. With the further examples of underground railways, construction of a bridge over Bosphorus, the opening of Marmaray, under the 20-year rule of the Justice and Development Party, Turkey's infrastructure improved remarkably and its economy developed further.

Over in foreign policy, a major change was seen. EU decided to launch accession negotiations with Turkey in 2004. The launch of accession negotiations was made possible by Turkey's fulfillment of what was called Copenhagen Criteria such as protection of human rights, rule of law and democratization. This decision was made against the backdrop of EU's intention not to alienate Turkey, a country from the Islamic world willing to join EU in the post 9/11 period. UK's Blair government, France's Chirac and Germany's Schroder all wanted Turkey to be a full member of the EU.

However, 9/11 dramatically changed public opinions across Europe. Islamophobia was on the rise. This coincided with the change of government in France and Germany and right after the establishment of Sarkozy and Merkel governments Turkey's accession negotiations were abruptly suspended. France also pointed out that Turkey's refusal to recognize Cyprus Republic, which was not part of preconditions originally set out accession negotiations. In other words, France changed rules of the game after the game kicked off. Germany offered "privileged partnership" rather than official EU membership. Of course, the EU had no such status as privileged partnership. Turkey immediately refused this. Unfortunately, the accession negotiations came to a halt in 2006.

The EU is not a league of Christians. It is supposed to be a union of states sharing common values such as freedom, democracy, diversity and tolerance. However, the EU later on lost such universal values. The EU become to be seen as a union of Christians by excluding Turkey. This was the most terrible mistake made by the EU.

Turkey's reform process under the current government was not always smooth. In 2007, the army and the judiciary yet again intervened in politics. A memorandum was published on the website of the Chief of Staff criticizing backward activities at schools that were against secularism and emphasized the Turkish army's role as the absolute guardian of secularism.

However, the economy at the time was doing well. There was no hyperinflation of the likes seen in the 1990s. The livelihoods of the poor remarkably improved and the lives of the middle class were stable. Under such conditions, the public would not have supported a military interference in the politics.

The military memorandum came in the midst of presidential elections. At the time, unlike the current system, the president was not elected by a direct popular vote but by the parliament. The Justice and Development Party then did not have enough seats in the parliament to elect a president in the first round. The secularist opposition party, the Republican People's Party, was aware of this and because of its boycott the parliament could not elect a president. The Republican People's Party, arguing that the presidential elections were invalid as no one could be elected as president, took the case to the Constitutional Court, which in turn handed down a decision in favor of this argument.

Such acts as refusing to attend parliament and boycotting crucial presidential elections are, on their own, against democracy and rule of law. The military backed these acts by issuing the memorandum.

It goes without saying that these were instances of injustice. There were criticisms against the action taken by the Republican People's Party even among the secularist population. Prime Minister Erdoğan then dissolved the parliament and called for early elections. Justice and Development Party won the elections and this time Abdullah Gül was elected as president.

After the introduction of presidential elections by popular vote, Erdoğan was the first to be elected president in 2014 under the new system. One may say Turkish democratization process reached a climax. After transitioning to a multiparty system in 1950, Turkey experienced repeated coups military intervention in politics. This old period was over and a new era was born.

Yet even after this, the new democratic nation-building process faced challenges time to time. Following the 2007 military memorandum, a series of strange incidents shook Turkey. One was "Ergenekon" incident where secularists and nationalists attempted to instigate social disturbance. Another was a coup plan under the name of "Sledgehammer".

The army reportedly plotted the two incidents. But I was not convinced. I used to exchange opinions with the military leadership as well. The military knew, after the memorandum, the public did not support their involvement in politics. I did not think the army would plot to create social disturbance under these conditions.

I came to notice that insider information from the police and the prosecutor’s office in connection with these "incidents" leaked strangely from one particular media outlet. These were newspapers and TV channels controlled by a group worshipping Fethullah Gülen, or FETÖ later to be designated as a terrorist organization. They owned a large media company for propaganda purposes.

At that time, they seemed to go along with the government. However, any cult that grows very large in size will one day want to seize power. To the conservatives, they tried to appear as devoted Muslims while to the foreigners, they tried to be seen as moderate and tolerant Muslims, which were not particularly a problem if it stopped there. However, in Turkey they were gaining influence and placing their own members in police force, prosecutor' office and courts as well as other administrative bodies. They also seem to have had many ardent followers in the army. However, these kinds of things are not well understood by people outside of Turkey.

Erdoğan’s government gradually became aware of the danger and tried to cut them off. The government shut down cram schools, important financial source for the organization. Since then FETÖ began attacking the government and eventually attempted the coup on 15 July 2016.

As I explained at the beginning, this incident that claimed 251 lives and left more than 2000 people injured, has clearly shown how a cult of this kind can transform into a lunatic group once it exposes its teeth. However, it was hard to detect this including for the public until right before the incident.

Japan had a similar experience in the 1995 sarin gas attack perpetrated by Aum Shinrikyo. Despite a number of incidents caused by Aum Shinrikyo in the lead up to the terror attack, the whole picture of this secretive cult was not easy to grasp. Because it maintained a religious facade, Japanese police could not thoroughly investigate this heinous terrorist organization whose sarin attack claimed 14 lives and injured 6300 people and left many still suffering from its aftereffects.

Needless to say, an extraordinary incident of this kind inflicted serious damage on Turkish society, politics and economics. The 15 July attempt coup, which occurred at a time when democratization process was well close to completion, meant further work was needed to make Turkish nation-state more resilient.

Because of its extensive influences outside Turkey, FETÖ continuously criticizes Turkey saying that journalists and freedom of speech are oppressed. PKK members and sympathizers who fled Turkey in the 1990s did the same. They led anti-Turkey campaigns in countries like Sweden and Germany which were at the time proactively accepting refugees and political asylum seekers. Some took part in leftist political parties.

Fight against PKK in Turkey was fierce in the 1980s and 90s when nationalism was strong and, as I explained earlier, the army was powerful and did not obey civilian-control.

In 2000s, Justice and Development Party implemented a major policy change. What is the reason behind any ethnic conflict? It is true for any country or nation that fighting along ethnic lines makes any conflict difficult to bring under control . This type of nationalism was introduced in the Middle East by the Western powers as a part of a strategy to weaken the Ottoman Empire which included "awakening" various nation in the Balkans and Arabic speaking regions. It was never a spontaneous process.

Justice and Development Party government changed this altogether by rejecting the nationalism exported to the Middle East by Europe. Wouldn't it be better to accept Turks and Kurds as Muslim brothers and sisters, they suggested. This argument is an expression of how peace in Islam is viewed and is the only way to ease ethnic conflict in the Middle East.

From 2012, Turkish government launched a reconciliation process with PKK. That is to say, "Çözüm Süreci". But the message did not have effect on PKK, atheist by nature. On top of this, for worse, PKK intensified its activities again as YPG received support from the West including the US in the Syrian civil war. In 2000s, Turkey's efforts to tackle the issue was given a cold shoulder by Europe and the US. European countries in particular viewed Turkey with the same eyes as they did in the 1990s over the old Kurdish issue. PKK affiliates continued their criticisms of Turkey and politicians in Europe did not see that Turkey had changed in the 2000s.

The idea of Islamic peace resembles the principle of tolerance and coexistence practiced by the Ottoman Empire. Europe did not show any sign of recognition that Turkey was in fact trying to reimplement this idea from 2000 onward. It was only unfortunate that the establishment of Justice and Development Party almost coincided with 9/11.

Europe began to express hatred whenever Islam was mentioned. Having changed the old dogmatic secularism and tried to implement a kind of Islamic peace that was in line with the idea of coexistence, Turkey this time was criticized for abandoning secularism for Islam. This is a huge contradiction. Europe started to give up faith in favor of secularism as the modernization progressed and called it enlightenment. Here we must remember that 18th century onwards, the period of enlightenment, Europe divided Middle East, Africa and Asia on ethnic lines and ruled over them brutally and cruelly. Up until today, the Western World is yet to reflect on the consequences of "divide and rule".

Today, across the Middle East, from Syria to Libya and Yemen, countries after countries fell into disorder. In Egypt, the voice of the people is not reflected in politics. Democracy cannot succeed in nation-states where order has collapsed. Turkey is not just a strong state in the Middle East, a region rife with division and collapsing orders. Equally important is that Turkey maintains its order based on the will of the people and that it has a maturing democracy. It carries a very significant meaning that, in a continuously divided world, the will of the people is supported by various values based on Islam.


Monday - Friday

09:00 - 12:30 / 14:00 - 17:30

Application Hours for Consular Services: 10.00-16.00
1/1/2021 1/1/2021 New Year Day
1/11/2021 1/11/2021 Coming of Age
2/11/2021 2/11/2021 Foundation Day
2/23/2021 2/23/2021 Emperor's Birthday
3/20/2021 3/20/2021 Vernal Equinox Day
4/29/2021 4/29/2021 Showa Day
5/3/2021 5/5/2021 Golden Week
5/12/2021 5/12/2021 Ramadan Holiday
7/19/2021 7/19/2021 Eid al-Adha / Marine Day
8/11/2021 8/11/2021 Mountain Day
9/20/2021 9/20/2021 Respect for the Aged Day
9/23/2021 9/23/2021 Autumnal Equinox Day
10/11/2021 10/11/2021 Health and Sports Day
10/28/2021 10/29/2021 Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Republic of Turkey
11/3/2021 11/3/2021 Culture Day
11/23/2021 11/23/2021 Labour Thanksgiving Day