Yesterday, 86 people went up on trial in Turkey in what the Telegraph called the country’s “most important political trial in a decade.” The mass of defendants, including journalists and former generals, are charged with assassinations and bombings in an effort to overthrow the government. The case focuses on a shadowy ultra-nationalist organization called Ergenekon, allegedly made up of police, military officials, and businessmen. The first journalist to report on the network described Ergenekon as “above the general staff, the MIT (national intelligence organization) and the prime minister.” The ultra-nationalist gang is at the core of the 2,400-page indictment, which includes charges for killing a judge, priest, journalist and three Christian publishing house employees in an effort to destabilize the government.
It’s been a busy few years in the Turkish judiciary. Last year, three teenagers with alleged ties to nationalist groups were charged with the murder of prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Dink was best known for his articles about the Turkish mass killings of Armenians in 1915, still a central issue in Turkish political culture. In 2006, Nobel winning author Orhan Pamuk was tried under the controversial Article 301, “insulting Turkishness,” for raising the Armenian issue in an interview. (The case was dropped.)
All of this brings us to the bigger question of Turkish political culture. The country is currently governed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP,) which the Turkish Daily News helpfully summarizes as a “liberal party…with ‘Islamist roots,” a “pro-Western mainstream party with a ‘conservative’ social agenda but also a firm commitment to liberal market economy and European Union membership.” AKP is currently an observer member of the European People’s Party, and while this is a rash oversimplification, it helps to think of the AKP as a Muslim version of a European-style Christian Democratic Party. Critics of AKP, however, compare it to the now-banned Welfare Party, the last major Islamic-oriented political movement in the country. AKP has already faced the courts repeatedly on allegations of promoting an Islamist agenda. Despite this, the party remains popular and recently won elections by a large margin. Groups like Erganekon, as well as any number of better-meaning secularists, still have doubts about AKP’s intentions.
The main opposition is the Republican People’s Party (CHP,) founded by national hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. CHP is the heir to Kemalist secularism, and while it historically billed itself as social democratic has moved to embrace free-market positions in recent years. CHP’s base is urban areas, the western part of the country, and Istanbul, and it has always been most popular with the educated classes and white-coller workers. The party’s Kemalist perspective places it neatly in line with the military, traditionally the strongest defender of secularism in the country and author of the awesomely-named “post-modern coup” against the Welfare Party government in 1997.
Party politics take place under the dual clouds of the military and the “deep state,” a unique Turkish phenomenon. Multiple former presidents have referred to the deep state, which consists of some combination of the military, the intelligence services, and the bureacuratic structure. Political leftists claim that the deep state is hyper-nationalistic, corporatist, and anti-democratic, while supporters of parties like the AKP accuse this shadowy entity of promoting secularism through force. This may sound a bit paranoid, but most Turks believe it exists in some form and its existence holds a regularized place in the political discourse. President Erdogan claimed that the deep state has its roots as far back as the Ottoman Empire.
What makes all of this so fascinating is the way that this entire political dialogue seems to clash with the ways that left and right, democratic and authoritarian, secular and religious work elsewhere in the Middle East. The AKP is an Islamic-oriented party, with huge constituencies among the poor and working-classes, including the legions of headscarf-wearing women in rural areas, while the CHP’s secularism is built around a coalition of well-educated urbanites in a way resembling a sort of Turkish laïcité. But despite all manner of allegations about a hidden sharia agenda, it is the AKP that has been the strongest supporter of European Union integration and shown the best commitment to democratic practices. It’s also hard to find a modern regional parallel for CHP. Despite its anti-democratic tendencies, CHP has also peacefully ceded power a number of times and hardly resembles the outright authoritarians of something like the Ba’ath Party family. CHP also has historically decent relations with Israel (downright sunny for any ruling party in a Muslim country) including recognizing the state in 1949; while the radically nationalistic military has direct ties to the Jewish state.
The Ergenekon case arises from this unique atmosphere. Prosecutors are comparing the organization to the Italian Gladio network, an anti-communist organization that carried out assassinations and bombings through the 1970s. Interestingly, many of the alleged crimes were not targeted at the government directly. Attacks on the offices of the pro-military newspaper Cumhuriyet, as well as plans for”shock assasinations” of Greek, Jewish, and Armenian religious and business leaders, were intended to discredit the regime and move public opinion towards a stronger enforcement of secularism.
So here we have a country where the state’s chief prosecutor accuses the government of attempting to implement Sharia; while radical secularists themselves try to discredit the regime by assassinating non-Muslim religious leaders.
But here’s the good news! As weird as it all looks, Turkey actually has a very successful model of blending religion with modernism compared to many other Muslim-majority countries, and they’re working on exporting it. So read up on the Turkish schools in Pakistan, as well as the most important man you’ve probably never heard of — especially as Turkey begins to expand its role in regional diplomacy.