Books on Turkey
Update No: 129 - (29/02/08)
There are two grave crises afoot in Turkey at the moment, one military, the
other religious. Actually this is an over-complication. They are both about
One concerns counter-insurgency against Kurdish rebels, who are definitely using
Northern Iraqi bases to launch attacks against Turkey. The Turkish army invaded
their bases in Northern Iraq at the end of February, but it is not yet clear
what the scale of the operation is or with what effect.
The Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) have been keeping up the struggle, despite, or
rather because, of the fact that their popularity among the Turkish Kurds is
waning. At elections last year the majority of them, 52%, voted for the
incumbent government of the moderate Muslim party, the Justice and Development
Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The other concerns the integrity of the secular status of the Turkish state, the
heritage of Ataturk. Some 100,000 people marched in protest on February 2
against the Islamicist government's plan to remove the head-scarf ban at
Religion is a very sensitive subject indeed in Turkey. The army chiefs regard
themselves as the guardians of secularism. There is bound to be tension when a
religious- inspired party, however moderate, is in power. But the army has so
far refrained from outright political intervention here.
The threat from Northern Iraq or Kurdistan
The army is intervening all right in another direction, but with the approval of
the government. The PKK, listed by the United States and Turkey as a terrorist
group, took up arms against Turkey in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic
homeland in the south-east of the country. More than 30,000 people have been
killed in the two-decade conflict.
The PKK militants have used the fact that there are now places for them to
operate from in Northern Iraq as a golden opportunity to wage guerrilla warfare.
They have mounted attacks on Turkish forces from there ever since the US
invasion in 2003 consolidated the de facto independence of two Kurdish provinces
in the north of the country. Tensions were particularly high in October and
November, when the PKK carried out raids in which about 30 Turkish soldiers were
The PKK is one of the last political groupings to have survived the Cold War in
a more or less unreconstructed shape. It has a Marxist-Leninist ideology. Its
founder, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured and imprisoned years ago. He counsels
moderation from his prison cell. But his voice is ignored. He is not after all a
There is a certain similarity to the Chechen conflict in the Caucasus, with
militants insisting on a military solution that is implausible against a giant
army. The cause of Chechen independence has been set back by the fanatics. So,
it looks like it will be the cause of Kurdish quasi-independence, but in Iraq,
certainly not Turkey.
In 1998 Turkey announced a ten-year $31bn programme of military modernisation to
come to fruition this very year. It has involved new tanks, fighter jets,
helicopters, submarines, warships and assault rifles. Turkey is also a Level 3
contributor to the Joint Strike Fighter programme, gaining an opportunity to
develop and influence the creation of the next generation fighter spearheaded by
its close ally, the US. Naturally, the armed forces have been itching to try out
all this dazzling new weaponry in real combat.
The conundrum for the politicians has been how to react to the twin pressures of
militant Kurdish secessionists and a belligerent Tukish military. Ankara has
shown great restraint for a long time.
But at last its patience broke.
The second invasion of Iraq
The conflict has taken a new turn. An unspecified number of Turkish troops
invaded in force at the end of February (1,000 -10,000). They intensified their
offensive against the PKK guerrillas in northern Iraq, commenced on February 21.
Backed up by warplanes, artillery and combat helicopters, troops killed 153
rebels in the remote mountainous area, the Turkish General Staff said, for the
loss of 17 Turkish soldiers in the first five days.
The objective of the operation is to extinguish the main PKK headquarters in the
Qandil mountains and ancillary bases too. It will aim, in effect, to smash the
PKK machine of guerrilla war to smithereens.
Turkey has assured the US-backed Iraqi government that the operation, its first
major ground incursion against Kurdish rebel bases in Iraq in nearly a decade,
would be limited to attacks on rebels. Iraqi and Kurdish officials, however,
have expressed misgivings about Turkey's military action, as could be expected.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al Dabbagh said Turkish commanders had assured
Baghdad that the "operation will be a limited one and will not violate
certain standards that they have set." He added: "We know the threats
that Turkey is facing, but military operations will not solve the PKK problem.
Turkey has resorted to military options, but this never resulted in a good
thing," Al Dabbagh said.
Rebel hideouts with ammunition and explosives inside them were bombed by fighter
jets, helicopter gunships and artillery. Turkey's state run news agency,
Anatolia, said. Warplanes bombed suspected rebel bases in the Qandil mountain
range, near the border between Iraq and Iran. West of Cukurca, soldiers in Besta
swept roads for land mines. Dozens of troops carrying assault rifles, light
mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and sleeping mats patrolled near mountains
with snow-covered peaks. That merely describes the ongoing operations.
However, there have been conflicting reports about the scale of Turkey's
military operation. The General Staff has not said how many troops are involved,
though it said fighting was raging in four different areas of northern Iraq,
suggesting a large-scale operation.
A Turkish military source said two brigades made up of 8,000 troops were taking
part. Turkish media have put the number of troops at 10,000, though a senior
officer with US-led forces in Baghdad said the number was less than 1,000.
Washington is sharing intelligence with Nato-ally Turkey on PKK movements in
Iraq. It has urged Ankara to limit the campaign to precise rebel targets and to
bring it to a swift conclusion.
Protests in Istanbul
Several hundred people protested on February 23 at a tense rally watched over by
police in Istanbul against a Turkish offensive to root out Kurdish rebels in
Protesters chanted "the operation is a problem, not a solution," and
"State, Assassin: you must account (for your actions)," at the rally
by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society.
The United States and the European Union consider the PKK a terrorist
organization. The group is less powerful than in its heyday in the 1990s, but
still commands the support of a significant, though possibly dwindling, segment
of the Kurdish population.
Is Ataturk in retreat?
The military are also closely involved in domestic politics. When Premier
Erdogan first proposed Abdullah Gul, a former foreign secretary and an observant
Muslim, for president in April, 2007, the army issued a statement that hinted at
intervention. That was no small threat in a country that is no stranger to
The ensuing crisis forced Erdogan to call an early general election. The ruling
party's landslide victory resurrected Gul's presidential bid and Parliament
voted him into the post in August, last year.
Secularists unsuccessfully opposed Gul's candidacy partly because his wife wears
a head scarf. She challenged Turkey's head scarf ban at the European Court of
Human Rights — after being barred from university in 1998 — only to withdraw
her complaint when her husband became foreign minister.
After the elections, the AKP began preparing a new constitution that will
replace the current one, written during military rule following a coup in 1980.
One thing that Ataturk taught the Turks is that having a sound constitution is
central to having a sound state.
The head-scarf again
The head-scarf is a symbol of Islamic piety. The right to wear headscarves is
one of which human rights advocates could make a good case in defence. But the
issue is immensely sensitive in secular Turkey.
Erdogan has accused opponents of his government’s plans to end a ban on
Islamic headscarves in universities, of dividing society. It would be truer to
say that he is being divisive in introducing the idea in the first place.
For more than 100,000 Turks rallied on February 2 in a massive demonstration
against the planned reform, which they claim will erode the strict secular
system of the mainly Muslim country and put pressure on women to cover up. The
protest came a day after leading academics warned that lifting the ban would
lead to chaos and clashes in universities and pave the way for Turkey to become
a religious state.
“Are you not dividing society by accusing those who do not think or dress like
you, of being enemies of secularism and the state,” said Erdogan in reply.
Erdogan argued that secular forces had nothing to fear from the religious masses
and said his ruling AKP would make sure that the rights of everyone, regardless
of their religious convictions, would be protected. “People who are devout and
who cover their hair are in favour of secularism just like anyone else. They are
committed to the values of the Republic,” he said.
Secularism versus piety
The following brings the whole explosive matter vividly alive:-
In a small ritual every morning in downtown Istanbul, church and state collide:
As the streetcar stops at Bosporus University, dozens of young women remove the
colourful scarves from their heads, fold them and put them in their handbags.
Then they are ready to step through the campus gates - and across the sharp
dividing line that has held firm for decades in the Middle East's oldest
democracy, which forbids any signs of religion in any government-funded places.
That line has become something of a militarized zone, threatening to pit
Turkey's army and the nationalist old guard against the pro-European government
dominated by moderate religious Muslims, although Europe is hardly the issue
Prime Minister Erdogan launched a bold, multiparty bid to rewrite some of the
laws that have defined Turkey's secular state, starting with the one that
requires female university students to bare their heads on campus. His new law
would allow head scarves, but not any other Muslim head coverings, such as the
burka or the chador.
As modest as it sounds, the head scarf has become an issue that is threatening
to split Turkey in two. The bill received an explosive response yesterday from
Turkey's secular establishment, who see it as a menacing incursion of Islam into
a country that has kept religion at bay since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's democratic
revolution in 1925.
"Turkey is headed step by step toward becoming a theocratic state,"
one MP, Onur Oymen, said during the parliamentary debate.
The head of Turkey's army issued a veiled threat yesterday. "All segments
of Turkish society know very well the position of the military on this
issue," General Yasar Buyakanit told reporters, somewhat cryptically.
Turks were well aware of his meaning: On several occasions, most recently 1997,
elected governments have been expelled by the army for attempting to change
these laws. There have been three full-scale military coups since the 1960s, all
of them related to perceived incursions of Islam into Turkish politics.
And the head scarf bill is only one of Mr. Erdogan's changes. He has also vowed
to eliminate most of the laws that offer harsh punishments for "insulting
Turkishness" or insulting the memory of Ataturk.
Those laws have become an embarrassment for many European-minded Turks. On
February 5, an Ankara court sentenced the philosophy professor Atilla Yayla to a
15-month suspended sentence for having suggested, in a 2006 panel discussion,
that Turkey wasn't entirely democratic under Ataturk's leadership. (He is now
living in exile in London.) Courts have also attempted to press similar charges
against novelist Orhan Pamuk, who was the object of an assassination plot by
ultranationalists, 13 of whom were arrested at the end of January.
Mr. Erdogan has vowed to eliminate these laws, but was forced to delay that
legislation, in order to pass the head-scarf-ban bill.
While a military coup is always a possibility, there is reason to believe that
Mr. Erdogan will be successful in these changes. The head scarf bill was a
compromise reached between his Peace and Justice (AKP) party, a pro-European
liberal party dominated by conservative Muslims from rural areas, and the
opposition Nationalist Action Party. Together, they garner two-thirds of the
vote, enough to pass a constitutional change in parliament.
Second, Turkey's desire to become a member of the European Union has tended to
trump the church-and-state debate, even within military circles. When his party
was elected in 2003, it was seen by many as a closet Islamist force. Mr.
Erdogan's wife wears a head scarf, and his followers are dominated by
ex-villagers who have brought conservative Muslim lifestyles to the city.
But his pro-European and economically savvy policies have neutralized many of
those fears. Some Turks have come to see religious Muslims less as a threat than
as a harmless minority. Statistics support this view: 11 per cent of Turkish
women currently wear head scarves or veils, down from 16 per cent in 1999.
But Turkey is caught in a geographically uncomfortable position, with Iran,
Syria and Iraq on three of its borders, and the European Union on the fourth.
That has led many politicians to worry that Mr. Erdogan's changes could open the
country to an Islamist assault from below, not really likely, we would say,
since Iran is Shia, Turkey absolutely is not. Syria is famously irreligious, and
Iraq doesn’t know what it is, except a divided religious mess.
"We made the choice that religion belonged to individuals and our state
would have no religion," said Deniz Baykal, leader of the Republican
People's Party and the head-scarf bill's main opponent. "What is being
freed now is not the traditional head scarf of Anatolian women, but a product of
the Wahabi [Saudi Arabian] Islamic interpretation, imposed on Turkey as a
foreign, political uniform."
This conjuncture marks the beginning of a lengthy struggle between those, like
Mr. Erdogan, who see Turkey ready to move into Europe, and those, like Mr.
Baykal, who fear that it will be overtaken by its eastern neighbours.