Democracy will win if Turkish ruling party AKP hangs the 1980 junta and frees the all the journalists from the jail asap…

2 Oct

This is very nice piece from Kerem Oktem. I will add my points here. First, Turkey is angry nation because Ottomans did not know how to democratize their economy basically even though they established political elections in the system. It did not matter much without opening up the public lands to the peasants who did so many unsuccessful revolts against poverty and hunger. They all went unanswered. That is why Ottomans lost the struggle against the big powers of the world and the resulting Republic of Turkey established by all traumatic and paranoid and angry guardians. This came up until today and these guardians are still struggling against the elected ruling party control.

Now what will happen next depends on whether we can shift this power from the guardians to a political player to balance the elected ruling party AKP. This player must depend on economic emerging reality in Turkey. Yes Turkey is sixteenth biggest economy in the world with a population nearly 80 million. But the problem is this growth is extremely unbalanced. 20 percent of population owns 80 percent wealth. Most people are slaving their lives just to survive. Unless a legitimate political movement grows powerful against the ruling party AKP Turkey will most likely become another dictatorial state with never-ending internal and external problems. We need to unite and move the poor against the rich in Turkey to balance and democratize the system which can healthily grow and cooperate in the region and the world scene. This will also be an open door to build the final quantum democratic society.

First step here in the United Nations I will cooperate with friends to demand death penalty for the 1980 junta and the Chinese Communist Party for all crimes against humanity. Move to get the junta leaders and perpetrators to be hung first. Oktem is right that we should have a Truth Commission to deal with all issues about the 1980 junta. Ruling party AKP is very harsh on the journalists but too soft on the junta with crimes against humanity. How so? None of these journalists are perpetrators of the crimes against humanity, but still they are in the jail while the junta is still free for so many years. We need proof from the government that they are really for democracy.



‘To see junta leader Evren in the dock would be massive catharsis for Turkey!’



Kerem Öktem

If the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup leader, Kenan Evren, is tried in a court for his crimes against humanity, this will be a healing experience for Turkey, according to Kerem Öktem, author of


I do hope the prosecutor acts fast now. To see junta leader Evren in the dock would be a massive catharsis for Turkey. But it doesn’t stop there. What about the thousands of military commanders, policemen and jail officers who engaged in torture and committed murder? New forms of justice need to be found, and they are being discussed. Maybe a truth and reconciliation commission can be a way forward’



Speaking to Today’s Zaman for Monday Talk, Öktem was referring to the investigation of the Sept. 12 coup that a prosecutor in Ankara recently started based on criminal complaints against the perpetrators. This came as a result of the Sept. 12, 2010 referendum on a constitutional reform package paving the way for the trial of the leaders of the 1980 coup.

“I do hope the prosecutor acts fast now. To see junta leader Evren in the dock would be a massive catharsis for Turkey. But it doesn’t stop there. What about the thousands of military commanders, policemen and jail officers, who have tortured and murdered? New forms of justice need to be found, and they are being discussed. Maybe a truth and reconciliation commission can be a way forward,” said Öktem, who examines the junta regime in detail in his book.

Öktem made headlines recently when he cancelled a book launch at the prestigious National University of Ireland, Maynooth, upon learning that Ireland’s minister of European affairs, Lucinda Creighton, was going to introduce his book. Creighton is known for her strong opposition to Turkey’s EU membership and her skepticism towards Turks. “There is a difference between a radical critical approach, which I follow in my book, and an essentialist anti-Turkish position, which I find populist and ill-informed. Ms. Creighton would have been the wrong person to host me,” Öktem told us.

Answering our questions, Öktem elaborated on “Angry Nation” and on the pressing issues on Turkey’s political agenda.

Angry nation! It’s a direct statement. Do you think Turks are prone to being irritated?

True! When I first proposed it to the editors at Zed Books, they thought it might be too strong. But after they read the manuscript, they dropped their objections.

Of course I am not trying to say that Turks are angry by nature. I am describing how a particular regime and its ideology have created a political space that is characterized by manipulation and violence. In terms of ideology, it is the legacy of Unionism, of 1915 and of the unfortunate alliance of modernism and extreme nationalism. In terms of politics, it is the struggle between elected representatives and the unelected guardians in the military, the judiciary and the bureaucracy. It is the sanctity of the state. All these have shaped modern Turkish politics and produced the conditions for manipulation and anger.

You often refer to acts of mass violence, murders and extrajudicial killings in the book…

Yes, those have determined the experience of Turkey’s recent past. Look at the pogroms against non-Muslims in İstanbul in 1955, the murder of Catholic priests in 2006 and the slaying of Christians in Malatya in 2007. Remember the massacres of Alevis in Sivas in 1993, or the assassination of Hrant Dink. None of these crimes were committed by lunatics who kill out of hatred. Young men were set up by others. They were lured into committing crimes because they were told that they were defending the state and their religion. I believe that the revelations of the Ergenekon investigation are significant: It is not the people who are full of hatred, but the state and its guardians, who incite them to violence. And where there is manipulation and injustice, there is anger.

‘Ergenekon is complex’

Amid controversy surrounding the Ergenekon investigation, what would you say about its reality, as you find it more complex and flexible than a strictly controlled terrorist organization?

To think of this network as a hierarchic terrorist organization is more a reflection of the mindset of the prosecutors. This is not how people organize themselves, especially if they act clandestinely. Turkey’s modern political life began with secret organizations like the Young Ottomans and the Committee of Union and Progress. Professor Şükrü Hanioğlu’s work gives us a crucial insight into the history of clandestine structures and their role in running the state.

In the 1950s, you had the Special War Office, in the 1980s and 1990s you had JİTEM as executioners. As far as I can see, “Ergenekon” is a continuation of those early parallel state structures, with guardians in the bureaucracy, the high judiciary and, of course, above all, in the military. They work together, with people in the media, in the universities, even in the parties and NGOs. We have seen it all during the 1997 intervention against the Welfare Party [RP], and again in the mid-2000s. These are flexible, adaptable structures with shifting geometries and changing actors.

If you assume a hierarchic structure, you are bound to misunderstand it. And the recent course of the court case suggests precisely this. It would be good to remember Aristotle here. He asserted that only in a state governed by law, God and reason alone rule. Yet, passion perverts the minds of rulers, even if they are the best of men. There is too much passion around the case, and too much partisanship.

You also argue that the root cause of tension and anger in society is the power struggle between elected governments and non-elected guardians of the state — namely, the military and the bureaucracy. What is happening in that regard? Is the ruling Justice and Development Party [AK Party] government trying to remove the old guardians?

As far as I can see, there has been a change of heart. The AK Party started off with a mandate of weeding out the guardians and paving the way for a fully democratic system. I am not sure the resolve is still there. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan comes across as much less interested in democratic reform, in stabilizing the rule of law and in ensuring accountability. But there are not that many alternatives: Either you continue the reform agenda, invest in EU accession, even if the EU itself is a mess now, and prepare a liberal constitution that will protect the individual against the state and minorities from majorities — this is the democratic scenario — or you become like the illegitimate guardians of the Kemalist system, but with an Islamist twist. This is a purely majoritarian democracy with religious brotherhoods and networks running the show, a new guardian scenario maybe. The government has been wavering between the two for some time now. Anywhere else in the world these two scenarios would be mutually exclusive.

With general elections coming up, do you expect more anger to come out?

If history is anything to go by, the buildup to elections in Turkey tends to be a time of polarization. This is a time when all political actors get nasty and issues take on an existential significance. And then there is election day, a sigh of relief and, suddenly, everything looks different. It never is, of course! There are too many pressing issues that cloud the horizon: From the concerns of the non-religious segments of society to the unresolved status of Alevis, from socially conservative policies to the depth of Kurdish rights, a lot remains contested. As long as injustices remain unaddressed, and politics is considered a zero-sum game, the anger will remain entrenched.

‘On Kurdish policy’

What are your thoughts about the acts of civil disobedience of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party [BDP]? Do you think such acts have the potential to turn violent?

The idea of civil disobedience is, I believe, a great step forward. It is about nonviolent politics, about standing up for your rights by disobeying the state. This really tests the government’s Kurdish policy: How much violence can a government use against peaceful protests, especially at a time when protests are taking place all over the Middle East?

The government’s Kurdish policy is a curious mix of a courageous extension of minority rights on the one side and a massive oppression of the Kurdish national movement on the other. From the launch of the Kurdish language TV channel TRT Seş to the opening of university departments of the Kurdish language, the government has made great steps. A new generation of provincial governors has become much more welcoming towards Kurdish citizens. The government has hence gone a long way in ending the state denial of Kurdish identity. Yet, it has done so in parallel to a massive legal case which has put hundreds of Kurdish representatives in jail, often under humiliating circumstances. One wonders: Who are you going to speak to, if not to these democratically elected representatives? It is they who have chosen to engage in legal politics in the Turkish Republic. Why would you try to ignore, even silence them? Engage with them, integrate them into the mainstream, if you want to see politics as a way of solving problems.

How do you see the new probe into perpetrators of the Sept. 12 coup?

The 1980 coup is the turning point of modern Turkey. It is the big rupture, and one which people have been forced to forget. In my first year at Oxford, in 2000, I came across a lecture by Norman Stone, organized by the Turkish students’ club. Stone argued that the coup helped Turkey’s future by bringing stability and prosperity. I wondered what he would like to say to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who were tortured in the prisons of the regime. Responding, he asked me whether I have any documents to prove my point! Today, no one in his right mind would question what happened in 1980. There are a growing number of films and testimonies that deal with the trauma of the junta years. I do believe that many citizens voted “yes” in the referendum because they want to see the generals tried.

I do hope the prosecutor acts fast now. To see junta leader Kenan Evren in the dock would be a massively cathartic experience. But it doesn’t stop there. What about the thousands of military commanders, policemen and jail officers who engaged in torture and committed murder? New forms of justice need to be found, and they are being discussed. Maybe a truth and reconciliation commission can be a way forward. I am of the opinion, though, that no crime against humanity, no act of torture or ill-treatment should ever lapse and should ever be left unpunished. Let’s hope that the investigation will pave the way for a coming to terms with this darkest moment of Turkey’s recent past.

Do you have doubts?

The dominant mindset in the Turkish judiciary remains authoritarian. We have to wait and see whether the investigation will be spared the fate of the Ergenekon case, which is increasingly turning into a sham. For justice to be done, prosecutors and judges need to move beyond the reflex of defending the state, its agencies and employees, or any other religious or political group. They need to defend the individual against the state and the weak against the powerful. I am not too confident that this is happening, but I would like to keep my hopes up.

‘Image of “Midnight Express” is gone, but…’

Please elaborate on the change you talk about in the book. How are the people and state attitudes changing?

The Turkey of the late 1970s, of the “Midnight Express,” no longer exists, and this is something to be proud of. People are not summarily executed and torture is not endemic, even though ill-treatment in custody and police brutality remain endemic. Turkey is not a liberal democracy, its institutions remain contested and its politics extreme.

At the same time, the industrialization of the Anatolian heartlands since the Turgut Özal years, the 1980s, are breathtaking. Just think of the success stories of Gaziantep, Kayseri, Kahramanmaraş, Denizli, Kütahya, Afyon — all landlocked, formerly isolated cities which had lost their Armenian, Greek and Jewish middle classes after the tragedy of 1915 and through the extreme centralization of the republican era. They have now become bases of globally operating entrepreneurs. This is a shift of paradigmatic proportions. Recall the discussion on “Islamic Calvinists” which the European Stability Initiative began a few years ago: Many of these stories are based on the successful alliance of religion and capitalism. Yet, as in the Geneva of John Calvin, there is also a downside, and that is the imposition of conservative communitarian values.

The image of Turkey in the Western eye was usually and for a long time based on the movie “Midnight Express,” don’t you think?

The image of “Midnight Express” is gone, but today, there are two countries: a self-confident growing Turkey that inspires the world and a semi-democracy that has some of the highest rates of incarcerated journalists in the world. Turkey is both.

In addition, throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, when the conservative but hardworking Turkey emerged, the Kurdish war was taking place with its tens of thousands of dead, and millions of refugees. The Kurds of Turkey went through uprooting and eviction. Much of the Kurdish region, with its cities, villages and landscapes, has suffered greatly.

So, different parts of the country have developed in different contexts. The Kurdish provinces are now catching up, but the scars remain. And still, there is no question that İstanbul has become a global city that excites people from all over the world and Turkey a country that governments and people elsewhere take seriously. But it is still very much a work in progress. Accidents can always ruin it.

‘Turkey My Paradise’

Öktem uses a wide range of material and methods, from interviews, films, music and media to field research and weaves them into a compelling narrative. Here is an excerpt from the book:

“Throughout the years of military rule, state TV regularly featured a clip with the singer Müşerref Akay. Dressed in a red uniform complete with the crescent and star, a blonde curly haired Akay performed the song ‘Turkey My Paradise,’ while tanks and soldiers in combat uniform marched on in the background, alternating with touristic images of Turkey’s monuments.

Betrayal has infiltrated my heroic race

My enemies are not brave, they are cowards

There is no friendly nation to the Turk. […]

Let us celebrate the principles of our father [Mustafa Kemal]

Let us run toward the goals he has shown us

Turkey, Turkey my paradise

“‘Turkey My Paradise’ was commissioned by the generals and used systematically throughout the junta years during torture sessions. A survivor of such torture, the music producer Cem Yılmaz, bought the rights to the song in 2007 to prevent any further performance of it in public.”

Kerem Öktem, author of ‘Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989’

A research fellow at Oxford University’s St. Antony’s College, he teaches Politics of the Middle East at the Oriental Institute. He studied Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, where he also completed his Ph.D. in 2006. In his doctoral work, he explored the destruction of imperial space in the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent construction of an exclusively Turkish national territory. His research interests range from nationalism, ethno-politics and minority rights in Turkey to the country’s tormented relations with Armenia and Greece. He now works on a project called “Europe’s Muslim Neighborhoods,” in which he discusses the role of Islam and Muslims in the politics of the Balkans and Western Europe.

‘Women are also participants in the political space’

On the cover picture of “Angry Nation” are women carrying Turkish flags in what looks like a demonstration. Öktem said his publisher suggested a cover photo with many Turkish flags and very angry men, but he didn’t want to go for that cliche. “You know, somehow every book on Turkey that is published in Europe or the US has to have at least a mosque in the background, Turkish flags and lots of edgy men with moustaches. I thought, why don’t we shift the perspective a bit? After all, women are also participants in the political space, and now increasingly also in formal politics.”

The Turkey Analyst on Angry Nation

I have published a brief piece in the Turkey Analyst of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute. Thanks to Halil Karaveli!


Kerem Öktem

Turkey remains an “Angry nation”, tormented by the many ghosts of its history, some of which still lurk in the shadows. Its political system is characterized by deep polarization, and it is by no means certain that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will go on to dismantle the edifice of state tutelage bequeathed by the “guardians” who have now been put on the defensive as never before in the history of the republic. Yet even if the country’s immediate prospects remain ambiguous, the people of Turkey have nonetheless used the ballot box several times to successfully defy authoritarianism and military diktats. That deserves to serve as an inspiration for others in the Middle East.


BACKGROUND: In these days of revolutions in the Arab world, Turkey would probably not be the first country to come to mind when talking about an ‘Angry Nation’. With a rapidly growing economy, a massively expanding middle class, a more or less stable democratic regime that has found ways of accommodating political Islam into mainstream politics and an increasingly self-confident foreign policy, Turkey would appear to be a model.  Yet, despite a decade of rapid development, despite newly polished and rebuilt cities, injustice, exploitation, state brutality and memories of torture and maltreatment  continue to shape the consciousness of the country.

In the 1990s, Turkey was effectively waging a civil war in its Kurdish southeast, a war in which close to 40,000 died. Since the early 1980s, millions of ethnic Kurds were forced to flee their villages and ended up in the poor suburbs of Istanbul, Izmir and further afield. Just two decades ago, Kurdish, the mother tongue of close to 15 million citizens of the Turkish Republic, was officially forbidden.

Without due appreciation of the causes, actors and consequences of the military takeover in 1980, Turkey in the 1990s and 2000s would make little sense. The brutal coup was a most significant rupture in Turkey’s recent history. It came close to creating, for a second time in a century – the first being the proclamation of the republic in 1923 – a tabula rasa. The military rulers stayed in power until 1983, but retained their grip on the political system well into our days. With all political movements, whether of socialist, Islamist or nationalist persuasion outlawed in 1980, political leaders incarcerated, tens of thousands of activists fleeing the country and hundreds of thousands of citizens being tortured in the prisons, the generals had a free hand to shape the direction of political and economic developments of the decades to come. Ironically, the IMF-supported mix of neo-liberal restructuring on the one side and the chauvinist new hegemonic ideology of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis on the other eventually also created the conditions of their contestation and eventual demise. The first challenge to the generals came with the elections of 1983, when the people of Turkey voted for the only party that was not actively endorsed by the generals, and brought to power Prime Minister Turgut Özal and the Motherland Party (ANAP). Özal facilitated the emergence of a pious but hardworking middle class and followed a pro-active foreign policy that anticipated the policies of the current government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The guardian state, best described as a triangle with the armed forces at the top end, and the high judiciary and bureaucracy working at its lower ends, have for decades ensured that elected governments did not steer away from the status-quo of a tightly controlled security state, where key policy areas like minority and human rights were kept off limits to elected governments. The guardian state was empowered during times of the military interventions of 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, and it was challenged and sometimes weakened during strong civilian govern ments. Those of the Democrat Party under Adnan Menderes in the 1950s, the rule of the Motherland Party and Turgut Özal in the 1980s and the Justice and Development Party government of the 2000s stand out.

In the times in between, fragile coalition governments fell under the spell of the guardians’ manipulations, and failed to establish control over escalating political unrest, often instigated by the guardians in the first place, to perpetuate their hegemony. These are, in fact, classical modes of governance employed by authoritarian regimes: We have recently seen the thugs paid by the Mubarak regime, who attacked the demonstrators on Tahrir square. The core difference, however, is that Turkey has not been a dictatorship since 1950, but a multi-party system, in which people’s electoral choices really did make a difference. Hence the guardian state’s particularly sinister and clandestine nature.

IMPLICATIONS: Indeed, many of the political twist and turns in the country’s history since 1980 can be traced back to the conspiracies of the guardian state, from the massive brutalization of Kurds and political activists and the series of political assassinations in the 1980s and 1990s, to more recent events where its involvement is alleged, such as the slaying of Christian priests in 2006 and the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007.  However, too much has changed in Turkish society and the underlying social and economic processes are too powerful to be subverted by a coalition of actors intent on regime preservation: the new conservative middle classes have been emboldened under the AKP government. They have changed the appearance and outlook of hitherto isolated small towns. Today, cities like Kayseri, Denizli or Gaziantep might strike the visitor as socially conservative and religiously observant, yet also as efficient and wealthy: Shopping malls, international hotel chains and posh, if mostly tee-total, restaurants abound. Most importantly, these cities sport industrial zones and thousands of small and medium sized companies, which operate globally.

Anyone who has witnessed Istanbul’s exit from the state of pervasive melancholy, which Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk so brilliantly has captured, to become the thrilling metropolis it is today – the many urban conflicts created by gentrification and rent-maximisation notwithstanding – would be hard pressed to shed tears for times gone by. The cultural vibrancy, which Istanbul exuded throughout its turn as ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2010, re-established it firmly as a European city. New high-rises, reconstructed historical buildings, traffic infrastructure, metros and fast trains are increasingly displacing the drab concrete blocks of the 1960s and 70s and the bus-dependent transport system, which had shaped the modern city’s physiognomy until recently.

In addition to the contestation between guardians and elected representatives and remarkable economic development, another constant fixture of Turkey’s recent past is its relation with the European Union. Turkey’s Europeanization got a considerable boost in 2005 with the start of accession negotiations with the EU. The expansion of human and minority rights and the deepening of the rule of law of first years of the AKP government owed much to the ‘European anchor’, but recent events have rendered this ‘anchor’ almost obsolete. The European rejection has been partly compensated by a more intensive engagement with Turkey’s eastern neighbours and the Middle East. Despite its growing role as a regional power, however, the question arises whether further democratisation is a credible prospect without the commitment of European institutions.

The enormous changes in Turkish society have coincided with and have been reinforced by the Islamic conservative government of the AKP since 2002. Yet, they are underwritten by political conflicts, which have been shaped in the preceding decades. And by no means are the manipulations and policies guided by” state reason” over. The struggle between elected representatives and the guardians of the state is continuing. Currently, it increasingly looks as if the stakes are too high for a smooth resolution. It remains to be seen whether the AKP will be able to push the guardian state back and guarantee civilian control over the state and its institutions – and hence potentially clear the way for a liberal democracy – or whether it will, like some of its predecessors, use the confrontation to settle its scores and perpetuate its own grip on power. The latter outcome would probably not be  surprising. After all, as  historian Margaret Macmillan has recently remarked  with regard to the great transformations of the last century, ‘[h]ow often have we seen revolutionaries, committed to building new worlds, slip back unconsciously into the habits and ways of those they have replaced?’


CONCLUSIONS: Turkey remains tormented by the many ghosts of its history, some of which still lurk in the shadows. Its political system is characterized by deep polarization, and it is by no means certain that the ruling AKP will go on to dismantle the edifice of state tutelage bequeathed by the guardians who have been put on the defensive as never before in the history of the republic. Yet, and despite all the simmering anger – which in turn is also a heritage of the rule of the guardians, who for so long managed to safeguard their hold on power by pitting different parts of society against each other, there might nonetheless be one source of inspiration: Turks and Kurds have made no revolutions on squares and streets.

Istanbul’s Taksim square or Diyarbakir’s streets have hosted demonstrations, which toppled no one but were often brutally suppressed. Some of the constituent moments in modern Turkish history – the proclamation of the constitution of 1908, the foundation of the republic in 1923 and of course the subsequent coups – were all overthrows of governments by members of the military elites. These momentous changes did not come about as the result of popular revolutions. Yet, the people of Turkey have nevertheless significantly changed the country’s fortunes thrice, in 1950, in 1983 and in 2002, when they elected parties that were opposed by the state guardians.

Even if the country’s immediate prospects remain ambiguous and the absence of a credible social democratic opposition a major impediment to a democratic evolution, the notion of the ballot box as a place, where history can be made, deserves to serve as an inspiration for the newly emerging and hopefully democratic regimes in the Arab world.

Kerem Öktem of St Antony’s College, Oxford, is the author of “Angry Nation – Turkey since 1989” which is published this week. The article is an introduction of the main themes of the book.

Since its re-emergence as nation-state in 1923, Turkey has often looked like an odd appendix to the West situated in the borderlands of Europe and the Middle East. Economically backward, inward looking, marred by political violence, yet a staunch NATO ally, it has been eyed with suspicion by both East and West. The momentous changes in the regional and world order after 1989 have catapulted the country back to the world stage. Ever since, Turkey has turned into a major power broker and has developed into one the largest economies in the world. In the process, however, the country has failed to solve its ethnic, religious and historical conflicts peacefully. At this historical turning point, Kerem Oktem charts the contemporary history of Turkey, exploring such key issues as the relationship between religion and the state, Kurdish separatism, the relationship between Turkey and Israel and the ongoing controversy over an entry into the EU. Readable but comprehensive, this is the story of contemporary Turkey retold from the margins as well as from the centre, and the definitive book on the countrys erratic transformation from a military dictatorship to a maturing, if still troubled, democracy.


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