Including the 27 May 1960 coup d’état, the Turkish military has publicly intervened into Turkish politics five times. In addition to 1960, and again in 1971, 1980, and in 2007 the Turkish military either took power directly or released public statements essentially ordering the civilian politicians to “shape up” or face the consequences.
The fifth intervention took place on 28 February 1997. On that day the Turkish military released a public announcement stating its displeasure with the government led by Necmettin Erbakan. That announcement led to a months-long political process during which Erbakan resisted the military’s efforts to eject him and his Refah (Welfare) Party from Turkish politics. In the end, the military’s efforts would triumph, the Refah Party would be forcibly closed, and Erbakan would be banned from active participation in politics. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, at that time İstanbul’s mayor, would also be banned from politics and jailed. The main charges against Erdoğan stemmed from his recitation of a poem, written by a foundational figure of Turkish political thought, Ziya Gökalp, at a political rally. The entire period is remembered in Turkish history as the “postmodern coup.”
Turkey’s “28 February era” was naturally reported on by the foreign press. And, as was the case in the other similar situations in Turkish history, the foreign press engaged in entirely regrettable attempts to apologize for the Turkish military’s actions. Because today is the 19th anniversary of the Turkish military’s 28 February 1997 intervention, we want to remind readers of the NYT’s reporting, much of it shameful, on Turkish politics in that era:
For months now, Turkey has used the threat of rising Islamic fundamentalism at home to warn Western allies of the consequences of leaving this Muslim country out in the cold.
Now, with national elections scheduled for Sunday, that threat is knocking at the door of this bastion of secularism, as the staunchly Islamic Welfare Party stands poised to enter Parliament as a major player.
The militantly Islamic Welfare Party finished first in Sunday’s elections, its strongest showing ever, opening a difficult new phase in Turkish politics. Even though the party drew only 21 percent of a fractured vote, it invokes the Muslim faith professed by 98 percent of Turkey’s people. Its success threatens the long-term viability of the secular republic established 72 years ago by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The Welfare Party’s gains also threaten Turkey’s international and economic policies since the party is hostile to NATO, Europe, Israel and entrepreneurial capitalism.
The strong showing of an Islamic party in this week’s national election has thrown Turkey’s politics into turmoil, and posed difficult questions about the future role of religion in national life. No one here believes that this country, which has been strictly secular since Kemal Ataturk proclaimed the Turkish Republic in 1923, is about to fall under fundamentalist Islamic rule. But an Islamic party has emerged as a vigorous new political force to challenge the tired and largely corrupt secular parties that have run the country for most of this century.
An Islamic party strong enough to win power might provoke a strong reaction from the military, which is profoundly committed to secular Government and since 1960 has staged three coups against Governments it disliked.
Turkey’s resolutely secular military, however, would look with great disfavor on actions that would turn the country away from the West. Army officers have seized power three times since 1960 when they disapproved of elected governments.
The modern Turkish state, founded in 1923, has held secularism and pro-Western foreign policies as fundamental principles.
His critics say he (Necmettin Erbakan) poses a mortal threat to secularism and to the balance of power in the Middle East. Some political analysts, however, doubt that he will move quickly to reverse Turkey’s traditional course.
The Cabinet list that Mr. Erbakan announced after cementing his coalition suggested that the military, which is resolutely secularist, is wary. Turkey is a NATO member with close ties to the United States and Israel, and military officers evidently want it to remain so.
But he( Necmettin Erbakan) evidently now feels strong enough to press ahead with other plans that, taken together, strike secularist Turks as little short of terrifying:
*He is urging the construction of a large mosque in Istanbul — in Taksim Square, the cosmopolitan heart of modern Turkey — and another in the Cankaya quarter of Ankara, where the presidential palace, a commanding symbol of secularism, is now the most important building.
*He wants to repeal laws that forbid female civil servants and students at public universities to wear veils or head scarves.
*He has built a corps of uniformed Welfare Party bodyguards and has begun to rely on them rather than on Government security agents.
*He is encouraging young people to study at religious academies, and says graduates of such academies should be eligible for appointment as military officers.
*He recently invited the heads of several militant sects to a dinner at his official residence.
*He is quietly moving Islamists into positions in many Government agencies, slowly changing the character of some and meeting bitter resistance in others.
These steps, coupled with outbreaks of fundamentalism like the one in Sincan, have led many Turks to fear that the secular identity of their country is under threat. Many others — it is impossible to know how many — welcome the moves.
Thousands of Turks, most of them women, marched through the streets of Ankara today in the first major public protest against the policies of the Islamic-led Government.
Marchers carried signs and chanted slogans condemning what they believe are efforts to move Turkey closer to Sharia, the strict law of the Koran, which imposes many restrictions on women.
Turkish secularists fear that moves toward Islamic fundamentalism here may set an example for other moderate Muslim countries, and the organizers of today’s march hoped the protest would prove that anti-fundamentalist sentiment remains widespread in Turkey.
He (Necmettin Erbakan) contends that he is simply defending freedom of choice, but critics believe he is using the issue as part of a campaign against secularism.
Angered by what it views as efforts to impose a form of religious fundamentalism in Turkey, the military command here has issued a sharp reprimand to the Islamic-led Government.
Tension between military commanders and the Government has grown steadily in recent weeks, and it surfaced at a meeting Friday meeting of the National Security Council, which is composed of senior military and civilian leaders.
Since Mr. Erbakan took office in June, his Government has taken steps that while mainly symbolic have conflicted with Turkey’s image as a bastion of secularism. Mr. Erbakan and some of his leading advisers have encouraged young people to attend religious academies, sought to permit religious observances in Government buildings and military bases, and advocated the construction of large mosques in areas of Istanbul and Ankara that are known as centers of secularism.
No one knows how many unlicensed Koran courses exist, but at least some are evidently being used as training grounds for militants who hope to impose an Islamic-based political order here. Military commanders find that intolerable, and want all the courses shut immediately.
The hundreds of religious academies that function legally pose a more complex challenge. They offer religious teaching and a full curriculum similar to that of other schools. The military has decided that they are shaping fundamentalists, and insists that the Government close or restrict them.
As the above excerpts illustrate, the NYT long stoked its readers’ fears of the Islamic Threat in the years before February 1997, and then prepared its readers for the coup in the weeks before 28 February. After the Turkish military’s ultimatum, the “paper of record” then moved to coverage intended to justify the Turkish military’s actions. Unfortunately, in the nearly two decades since 1997, and in the 55 years since the first Turkish coup in 1960, the NYT has maintained a steady pro-military attitude. Because its coverage did not truly inform readers about the historical, political, and social realities in Turkey, most readers probably never guessed that the NYT was actually providing them with a perspective that was fundamentally anti-democratic.