The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Turkey:
The Army Poses as the Defender of Secularism and Democracy

Apr 28, 1997

Less than a year after its installation in June 1996, the coalition government led by the secretary of the Turkish Islamic Party, Necmettin Erbakan, has already been considerably discredited, particularly after the so-called Susurluk affair.

Ironically, the crisis is now being exploited politically by parties which, although they are currently part of the opposition, are at least as heavily involved in all these scandals as the parties now in the government. And the army now presents itself as the defender of public freedoms, particularly as the defender of secularism against the Islamic fundamentalists of Erbakan's party.

The Susurluk Affair

Last November, a truck was hit by a Mercedes in Susurluk, a town in western Turkey some 90 miles from Istanbul. Three bodies and one injured person were pulled out of the wreck. The presence of these particular four people together in the same car set off the scandal.

One of the dead was an extreme right militant, Abdullah Catli, contract killer wanted among other things for the murder of seven militants of the Turkish Workers' Party before 1980, and also wanted by Interpol for drug trafficking. Catli had in his possession a forged diplomatic passport and six different identity cards, all of which had been issued by Turkish authorities and with which he could travel around the country and across its borders without fear of being questioned. The second dead person was a former beauty queen who apparently was an international courier for Mafia smuggling. The third was a top police official, Huseyin Kocadag.

The fourth occupant of the Mercedes, Sedar Bucak, who escaped with injuries, was a deputy of the DYP, Tansu Ciller's "True Path Party," a party of the liberal right which is part of the coalition government alongside the Islamic party. But Bucak is also a Kurdish tribal chief from the Urfa region; as such he has 1000 armed men at his disposal in the auxiliary forces of repression which the army had set up to combat the Kurdish nationalist guerrillas of the PKK. The "village militias," using "volunteers" drawn from the Kurdish population, have become notorious both for their brutality and for their tendency to indulge in pure gangsterism and a variety of smuggling activities, the drug trade in particular, from which their leaders profit.

Thus, a deputy and pro-government militia leader and a police official were found in the same car with a drug smuggler and extreme right bandit with a completely official false passport; this confirmed the well-documented collusion between these militias, criminal gangs, the extreme right and sections of the state apparatus. Moreover, the trunk of the Mercedes contained other compromising documents and, above all, weapons which had already been used in murders characterized up until then as "unsolvable."

Following this accident, the press published a series of revelations concerning links between the police, the extreme right and the Mafia gangs. It was revealed that murderers and mafiosi arrested by the police had many times been released when they presented papers indicating that they were protected persons, papers bearing the signature of the Minister of the Interior Mehmet Agar himself. Agar was forced to resign and the government suspended several police chiefs.

This collusion has a political basis. The secret services had already used extreme right militants as contract killers long before the military coup of 1980. After 1984, with the beginning of the guerrilla campaign in Kurdistan by the PKK, these killers were used widely to eliminate left-wing militants and Kurdish militants whom the army could not itself openly attack. The press is now reporting that over 1400 people disappeared in this way. The police and the army thus used and provided cover for networks of extreme right killers, who took advantage of their impunity to make money for themselves, and probably paid out a share of their gains to some of their protectors in high places.

This had all been going on long before the Susurluk affair. What is new is that a great many details about this collusion have become public knowledge. The very fact that such an accident, with its embarrassing consequences, was not hushed up, and that the people killed were not disguised in one way or another indicates that full-scale gang warfare is going on within the state apparatus itself. Obviously different sections of the police and the judiciary are leaking revelations and secrets to the press concerning the misdeeds of their rivals.

This reflects the battle for power going on between the two main parties of the right, Ciller's DYP and Mesut Yilmaz's ANAP. Yilmaz was relegated to the opposition last June, when his partner Ciller reached an agreement with the Islamic party. Wanting to settle accounts with Ciller, he is using all these revelations to pose as a white knight fighting against corruption and for "clean politics."

The result is a sickening but instructive series of revelations concerning the corruption and complete rottenness of Turkey's power structures. This casts even more discredit on the politicians who continue to call on the population to roll up their sleeves and tighten their belts in order to put the economy back on its feet and fight against inflation, which is still running at around 100% per year – all the while, covering up for killers, drug smugglers and crooked police officials.

The "Secular" Campaign

It was in this situation that leading circles of the bourgeoisie, the state apparatus and even the army launched a campaign in February against the Islamic party. This campaign appears to be an attempt to divert attention from what the Susurluk affair really demonstrated. It is also aimed at preparing an alternative solution to the current Islamic prime minister.

The movement, known as "a minute's darkness for permanent light," asks people to switch off their lights for one minute each evening, at exactly 9 p.m., as a symbolic protest. "We want a transparent, democratic and modern state of law, we want light to be cast on the Susurluk affair," declared the lawyer Ergin Cinmen, the spokesman for the so-called "civil initiative for light" group which launched this campaign through advertisements in the press. This movement is in no way a spontaneous protest independent of the main political parties. It is openly supported by the bourgeoisie, notably by big capitalist groups such as the one headed by Sabanci, and by Mesut Yilmaz's ANAP. According to a survey in the Turkish daily Hürriyet, 84% of company heads support the movement.

This initiative, clearly emanating from a section of the liberal bourgeoisie, has been joined by the two social democratic parties, Baykal's CHP and the DSP led by Ecevit, who himself headed a coalition government with the current Islamic prime minister, Erbakan. The initiative has also been supported by left-wing intellectuals and by the "DP, the left-wing social democratic party which calls itself "the party of love and revolution" and which a number of far left militants have joined. All of this offers left-wing backing for the movement, but does nothing to change its political and social nature. It is mainly in affluent neighborhoods that lights can be seen going off for one minute at nine o'clock in the evening. According to the press, they are also seen going off in buildings housing the employees of the MIT (the Turkish secret police) in the capital Ankara.

Although it has already been at the center of a number of corruption scandals, the Islamic party, which has been in government for only ten months, is certainly far less involved in the shady relations revealed by the Susurluk affair than its partner in the government coalition, Tansu Ciller's DYP, or even Mesut Yilmaz's ANAP, which has frequently been part of the government in recent years. However, the initiators of this movement have rapidly made the Islamic party one of the main targets of this "movement for light."

The Army Steps onto the Scene

For several months, press campaigns have been targeting Islamic fundamentalism, for example by highlighting cases of sexual abuse committed by gurus of Islamic sects linked in varying degrees to the party led by the Prime Minister, the RP. Young girls, wearing head scarves, appeared on television, explaining how they were "manipulated' by such individuals. Of course, the aim is not to question religion, but to cast doubt on the sincerity of the fundamentalists for whom religion serves as a cover for less reputable objectives.

The army itself has stepped in to lead this campaign. On February 4, some forty tanks demonstratively took up position around the town of Sincan, near Ankara, after the fundamentalist mayor of the town publicly called for the sharia, the Islamic law, to be applied in Turkey. Army chiefs made further declarations condemning Islamic fundamentalism. During a visit to Washington, the army's second in command, General Bir, declared that the army "would make no concession on the principles of Atatürk concerning democracy and secularism." He also said that he expected "the government to comply totally with these principles." He added, "The Turkish armed forces are the guardian of our Constitution.... we will never allow women to be deprived of their civil rights."

These warnings were made official at the February 28 meeting of the MGK, the national security council. This body, set up after the military coup of 1980, periodically brings together the army chiefs of staff with the President and the Prime Minister. It is, in fact, a kind of supreme government whose meetings serve to make the army chiefs' wishes known to the incumbent government and the public, as well as to dictate their decisions.

The February 28 meeting, which exceptionally lasted nine hours, was presented as a "stern warning to the religious leaders," the generals saying they had "reasserted the firm attachment of the Republic to the principle of secularism." The MGK also demanded, in a twenty-point document, "legal changes so a fight can be made against those who threaten secularism, together with a strict interpretation of existing laws, notably those which forbid the wearing of religious clothes or the veil."

These are the same people who, after the military coup of 1980, made lessons in the Islamic religion compulsory in schools. Their aim at that time was to combat communist and socialist ideas, and left-wing ideas in general, which had become too influential for the generals' liking. In that case, the generals were ready to use religion. The military governments, followed by the "civilian" governments to whom they handed over power, encouraged the creation of Koran schools and thus the creation of an environment and material resources which the Islamic party has used to extend its membership and influence and eventually come into government. On March 7, the bourgeois daily Hürriyet presented the following statistics: there are presently 5,241 Koran schools in Turkey whose purpose is to train religious officials, with 177,120 students; the paper compares that to the 389 state secondary schools, with 50,277 students destined to be the cadres of the bourgeoisie. The growing strength of the fundamentalist party is thus no accident.

What has brought both the military and the bourgeois political parties to engage themselves together in this campaign against the fundamentalists is not so much attachment to the "principles of secularism" or to the rights of the population, for which they have frequently shown their lack of concern. What concerns them is that the fundamentalists are now in power, and their influence grows at the expense of the military and the ordinary bourgeois parties.

One of the main parties engaged in the "campaign for light" against Ciller's party and the fundamentalist is Mesut Yilmaz's ANAP. This party, whose name means "Motherland Party," is itself no more than a motley collection of politicians drawn from the extreme right or the fundamentalists. This party was itself in government for a long time. Promoted by the army to restore a facade of "civilian government" after 1980, it collaborated in policies which encouraged the rise of the religious party. Under these circumstances, seeing it presenting itself today as the champion of "secularism" is something of a bad joke.

All these forces, from the army to the ANAP to the social democratic parties, who were themselves largely discredited in past governments, are trying to use the fundamentalists as a foil to give themselves a new democratic halo. This is a bit steep, coming from people and parties who bear considerable responsibility for the increasingly reactionary climate which has allowed the Islamic party to develop; not to mention the army itself, which has instigated so many coups and so much repression, and is currently responsible for the bloody war in Kurdistan.

The Islamic Fundamentalists, a Foil for Equally Dangerous Forces

The "campaign for light" and the "secular" declarations of the army are aimed at the same goal: diverting the embarrassing revelations resulting from the Susurluk affair onto particular politicians. This scandal has made public the ties between the extreme right, organized crime, the police and the army, and it has demonstrated the complete rottenness of the state apparatus. But the avalanche of revelations concerning Susurluk, which have been filling the pages of the newspapers for several months, finally is being used to hide the essential aspect of the matter; i.e., that the police, the army and the state use what is most barbaric in society, encouraging both fascist-type extreme right groups and Islamic reactionaries because they can thus best defend capitalist power, forcing the working class to submit to exploitation, perpetuating the oppression in which the population of Kurdistan lives.

These campaigns "for light" and in favor of secularism are aimed above all at preparing a political alternative to the current coalition of Ciller's DYP and the Islamic fundamentalists, and at giving this political solution a democratic sheen. Even the Turkish army tries to be seen as a defender of freedom.

If such parties are returned to office, the Turkish government would probably be more presentable, particularly to its western allies, who could then claim that the regime is moving in a democratic direction and, of course, try to encourage this trend by establishing close (and profitable) relations with the regime.

But from the point of view of the poorer classes in Turkey, and especially the working class, the question does not present itself in these terms.

If, in the coming months, the government is replaced by one emerging from the current opposition, more or less discretely helped by the army, this government will not be any more favorable to the working class; the state will not be any less infested by the extreme right, the Mafia and crooked police chiefs; Kurdistan will not be any less controlled by the army nor less subjected to its arbitrary rule and the rule of the paramilitary forces the army secretly supports. The working class, the Kurdish population and the poorer classes in Turkey in general will not have any more real political rights or better economic and social conditions. And it is not even certain that religious reaction would have less power in the society than it currently has under the Erbakan government, given the extent to which all the bourgeois political forces have encouraged it over the last few years. They will probably continue to encourage it all the more in response to pressures and competition from the fundamentalists if the fundamentalists are pushed out of the government and into opposition.

The working class has to fight the reactionary danger represented by religious obscurantism, but it cannot afford to forget that these reactionary tendencies in society are fed by the policy carried out by the bourgeoisie, its state apparatus and the army. That is why the working class can carry out this fight only under its own banner, putting forward its own values, its own class interests and its own objectives for transforming society.