The stern voice of Turkish secularism

Turkey’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff Yasar Buyukanit unequivocally defended modern Turkey’s secular tradition last Thursday when he stressed the importance of protecting the values espoused by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Buyukanit’s warning, that Turkish armed forces would strike Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq, generated concern in Washington, which has assumed responsibility for the security of the war-ravaged country. Meanwhile, Buyukanit’s assertion that the new president of Turkey – to be elected in May – must respect the basic principles of Turkey’s Kemalist republic, was a clear message to Islamist-rooted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was inevitable that certain commentators would remark on the «undemocratic» spirit underlying Buyukanit’s comments, just as others believe such stances raise further obstacles to Turkey’s EU accession aspirations. Such opinions may be valid. But it is not only Erdogan who represents modern-day Turkey, and it would be a mistake – indeed a potentially disastrous one for Greece – if Athens were to undermine the role of its neighbor’s traditional regime and insist that Ankara follow the democratization procedures outlined by the EU. Modern Turkey, like the Ottoman Empire of old, has a particularity: It must strike a precarious balance between East and West, constantly negotiating the strategic importance of its geographical location with the powers of the day, while underlining the catastrophic consequences if Turkey’s traditional regime were to crumble. Seen in this light, the convictions expressed by Turkey’s armed forces chief last week constitute an attempt to defend his country’s secular tradition. His initiative highlights the fact that the crisis Turkey is experiencing is severe, if not unprecedented. As early as the late 1950s, signs of a burgeoning clash between the Kemalist regime and growing Islamist-rooted political forces were evident. The trend toward change was first expressed by former Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes, who was hanged in 1961 following the 1960 coup. Later, President Turgut Ozal rallied the country’s Islamist forces to counter the threat of powerful communist organizations. He was followed by another president, Necmettin Erbacan, who brought Islam into the political spotlight before being removed from power following the military’s intervention in 1997. Now the problem is the Islamist premier, in whom the EU and Greece have placed their hopes for Turkey’s modernization. Buyukanit simply reminded all that Turkey was not ruled solely by one reformist prime minister or another. It is an extremely clear message which everyone, Athens included, should take seriously.

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