Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the new hero of the Islamic world. With his rude manner in criticizing Israel, he has won sympathy among Arabs. His main career in this line began at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, when he angrily left a panel discussion that included Shimon Peres. The Israeli military action aboard the ship Mavi Marmara ended with Turkish dead, and aggravated Turkish outrage. Israel now generally lacks a positive image in Turkey. Israel's policy towards the Palestinians is perceived as unfair. For Erdogan, his policy toward Israel provides a welcome opportunity to divert attention from domestic problems.
With the electoral success of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, the Turkish military began to act as guardians of Kemalist secularism against Erdogan's Islamists. Following three military coups (1960, 1971 and 1980) had come the fourth in 1997 – the so-called "post-modern coup." At that time, the military simply demanded that prime minister Necmettin Erbakan and his party Welfare Party or Refah Partisi resign; the armed forces did not take power; and anti-secularist intrigues and the process of Islamization of Turkish society increased.
Many current AKP deputies had been active in Erbakan's party, and regrouped after the "post-modern coup." They were cautious and skillful in their proclamations of respect for Kemalist secularism and for the image of Ataturk as elements of institutional ideology. Pragmatism, rather than dogmatism, is crucial to the AKP understanding of politics, although the party shares the Islamist vision of Erbakan and the National Vision (Milli Gorus) movement. To their eventual chagrin, the Kemalist elite mocked the Islamists as rural "Anatolians" –- but the Anatolians won success with the public.
The AKP, founded in August 2001, proclaimed as its goal the democratization of Turkey and the development of civil society away from the military. The power of the armed forces, and their interference in politics, would be restrained. The arrangement, made after the "post-modern coup," held until the beginning of government arrests and the trial of military officers last year, in the "Ergenekon Case," in which, since 2007, military officers, members of the judiciary, political functionaries, and journalists have been charged with belonging to the Ergenekon secret society and sharing the goal of sowing disorder, provocations and massacres, social discontent, hysteria and fear in the people. Its final aim is allegedly to destabilize the state, providing the military with the legitimacy it needs to carry out another full-fledged coup in political life and therefore again assure safety and public order. Ergenekon, the name of a mythical valley deep within Asia where Turks pursued by Chinese took refuge, is now a code term for what has also been called Turkey's "deep state" –- the military and its supporters among politicians, academics, and media figures.
The AKP's opponents accuse it of seeking to dismantle the military and erect an Islamic state. President Abdullah Gul, has, however, emphasized that both the democratic reforms begun in 2002, and the demilitarization of the legal system that was a precondition for Turkish accession to the European Union, were accepted by the AKP.
Yet the Ergenekon case continues as a test of strength between the military and AKP. For this reason there is also suspicion that the AKP wants to finish not only with this struggle but with the rest of their critics.
Ergenekon actions allegedly include, among others, the murder of the Catholic priest Andrea Santoro (February 2006); an attack on the Kemalist daily Cumhuriyet (The Republic) and the killing of the administrative judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin (both in May 2006), and the slaying of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink (January 2007). In April 2007, three Christian missionaries were murdered in the town of Malatya. In May 2007, three million Turks demonstrated against the AKP. Allegedly, snipers were supposed to fire on the crowds, to accelerate unrest. Another element in the purported military Ergenekon plan would have is supposed to havr been violence against the leading figures in the heterodox Alevi movement, which has more than 15 million members and combines Shiism, Sufi mysticism, and traditional Turkish and Kurdish sacred practices. All this would supposedly provide a pretext for a military coup.
Does the conspiracy exist, or only the frightening belief that an underground network acts deep within the state? The current investigation began with the discovery of grenades in a house in Istanbul in June 2007. According to the police, the explosives were military in origin. Caches of weapons were then found. After a six month investigation, police arrested several people, among them the lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and retired General Veli Kucuk. Kemal Kerincsiz was the prosecutor in the case mounted against the journalist, Hrant Dink, and the Nobel laureate for literature, Orhan Pamuk, on charges of violating Section 301 of the Turkish legal code, which makes it a crimes to "insult Turkey." In the mind of many extremists, Hrant Dink and Orhan Pamuk, because they wrote about crimes against Armenians at the end of the 19th and early in the 20th centuries, should have been killed.
The Ergenekon case has shaken Turkish domestic politics to its foundations, leaving the people doubtful of everything they hear. It is shocking that many in Turkey claim to justify the supposed actions of the Ergenekon defendants as a necessary defense of the political system against the radical nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Conspiracy theories reflect a fear of Kurdish separatism, as well as anxiety over the subversion of Turkey by foreigners. Unofficial, undemocratic countermeasures are therefore presumed vindicated if undertaken by ultranationalists.
The longer the Ergenekon case continues, the more intriguing details come to light. It is surprising how Turkish media now deal with events in southeast Turkey during the war against the PKK. Evidence indicates that accused PKK members were liquidated extrajudicially in the 1990s, with as many as 1,500 Kurdish dissidents killed and their bodies thrown into a so-called "death pit" at Sarnak. Most of the killings took place during the political administration of Tansu Ciller, prime minister from 1993 to 1996. The Turkish government cooperated with the Turkish underworld and the Islamic fundamentalist, Turkish Hezbollah, against the PKK. Turkish official cooperation with the criminal underworld is not new.
The Susurluk scandal in November 1996 revealed relations between criminal networks, the police and politicians in Turkey. When a government car crashed, found at the scene were: Abdullah Catli, internationally wanted as an alleged murderer; police officer Huseyin Kocadag; Gonca Us, a well-known dancer; and Sedat Bucak, deputy for the True Path party (DYP); and the alliance of political representatives with gangsters in combating the PKK was exposed.
The political establishment in Turkey has since been faced with many questions. Then-Foreign Minister Ciller, Mesut Yilmaz, chairman of the Motherland Party or Anavatan Partis and Interior Minister Mehmet Agar tried to calm the public and cover up the facts. Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan held back discreetly, and hoped that through this scandal his political reputation would grow.
Secularists fear greater Islamization of the country. The struggle of the AKP with the military over democratic rights of criticism is seen merely a means to an end, a detour through democracy en route to a theocracy, as a a stage in the religious agenda.
The hope of the Kemalists is the opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP). Deniz Baykal was recently removed as head of the CHP by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is a decade younger than his predecessor; now the main question in the mind of the public is whether the transfer of leadership means a real change in the political fortunes of the CHP.
As accession to the EU has slowed, and clashes with the PKK in eastern Anatolia have increased, parties in Parliament have responded to the increased attacks -- but their rhetoric is quite different. For the CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu said, "one cannot wash away blood with blood," and he referred only to the economic problems of the Turkish Southeast region as the cause of protest. Nationalist Party (MHP) chairman Devlet Bahceli called for restoration of the death penalty (which had been abolished at the instance of the EU in 2004) and the imposition of a state of emergency in the provinces, where conflict has broken out. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is aligned with Kurdish interests, regrets the renewed fighting.
For the past year, a "process of openness to the Kurds" has been discussed in the media. The initiative began with Erdogan's interior minister, Besir Atalay; but with the arrival of Kurds from northern Iraq to participate in the program, it stalled. The Iraqi-Kurdish group included "peace ambassadors" from the PKK, who were released at the Turkish border after a brief interrogation, and welcomed enthusiastically by a delegation of the Peace and Democracy Party. Turkish public opinion was devastated.
In the months that followed, a legislative effort was put on hold that would have prevented young people who threw stones at police from being charged under Turkey's Anti-Terrorism Act. Only at the beginning of July 2010, was the bill reintroduced in a modified form, with the approval of the parliamentary committee for the judiciary. Measures are underway, however, to increase the political influence of the judiciary, which is controlled by Gul and Erdogan of the AKP.
At the same time, Turkey is undergoing frequent mass demonstrations against unemployment, and for social improvements, especially in Eastern Anatolia, where clean water and reliable electric power are scarce.
Next year, a new Turkish Parliament is to be elected, and Erdogan wants to maintain his absolute majority in the House of Representatives. Turkish-Western ties continue to be tested. Although Turkish support for Iran has nearly destroyed the Turkish-American relationship, the shift in Turkish political interests is most evident regarding Israel and the Jews. Turkey was a refuge for Jews during the Holocaust, and was the first Muslim country to recognize the Jewish state. The Turkish-Israel alliance has purpose and value; it has been supported by secular elites in both countries for some 60 years... and will endure.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk said, "Turks have always moved in one direction – to the west." Now, after seven years under Erdogan, Turkey is moving east.