Mehmet Ali Birand, The Generals’ Coup in Turkey: An Inside Story of September 12, 1980 (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1987).

Irvin Cemil Schick and Ahmet Ertuğrul Tonak, eds., Turkey in Transition: New Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Turkey suffers more than its share of stereotypical reporting, and much of the material available in the US tends to reinforce linear and simplistic explanations. Though differing in style and outlook, both of these volumes go beyond mainstream perceptions of developments in Turkey.

Mehmet Ali Birand’s book is a revised edition of the Turkish original which first appeared in 1984. A new introductory chapter provides a historical outline, but the book concentrates on the personalities of the late 1970s, in considerable detail, rather than attempting a deep analysis of the social and political roots of that period’s turmoil. Birand, the doyen of Turkish foreign correspondents, interviewed almost all of the major actors, including many leading military figures. The reader finds here an excellent account of the motivations of the principals involved, a rare window into the military establishment.

The book outlines well the process through which the political system gravitates towards military solutions in times of crisis and, to a lesser extent, the degree to which the military has become part and parcel of the Turkish political system in crisis-free periods. Birand’s account also brings out clearly the extent of Turkish dependence on Western political and economic support, exemplified in the late 1970s by the imposition of IMF austerity measures.

Turkey in Transition offers a deeper, analytical interpretation of events preceding the 1980 coup. It is the fruit of what the editors term a revisionist school of Turkish scholars, and despite receiving almost no attention in the US, it has caused a furor in Turkey among right-wing academics. Many of the authors in the book are among the hundreds of prominent academicians forced out of universities in the wake of the 1980 coup. The book’s Turkish critics tend to be those lesser lights who rose to prominence thanks to the transformation of universities into barracks.

The volume offers a comprehensive look at social transformation and capitalist development in Turkey. The first section examines the consequences of Turkey’s Ottoman background and the establishment of multiparty rule. Cem Erogul’s analysis of the multiparty regime is particularly useful in clarifying the complex relationship between the liberal atmosphere of the post-1960 era and the pervasive military influence that lasts to this day.

The 1960 constitution introduced many new actors to the political stage; These “political forces” are the focus of the book’s second section. Ahmet Samim’s article on the left is the best English-language guide for navigating the faction-ridden history of the Turkish left. Samim’s article is also important in that it presages Murat Belge’s newly released book on the theoretical foundations for a resurgent socialist vision.

Mehmet Ali Ağaoğullari analyzes the Nationalist Movement Party — outside of Argentina’s Peronist movement probably the largest mass fascist movement in the world in the post-war era. While the NMP’s Francoist strategy failed to catapult it to power on the coattails of the military, the coup did provide the religious right with an unexpected opening. Unfortunately, Binnaz Toprak’s useful article on the political history of Islamist movements in Turkey stops short of this period. The current situation, in which ruling circles manipulate Islam as an agent of social control and many religious brotherhoods enjoy unprecedented freedom to organize and propagate their views, may eventually provide the Islamists with the potential to challenge Toprak’s assertion that the movement lacks the prerequisites to become a viable political alternative.

Finally, Semih Vaner’s article on the army in this section complements the Birand book with its analysis of the social basis of the military and the various ideological cleavages within the armed forces. The third section tackles issues of economic development — the agricultural sector is covered by Ronnie Margulies and Ergin Yildizoğlu, the industrial sector by Çağlar Keyder, and the working class by Alparsan Isliki. The book’s final article, by the editors, traces the international dimensions of the economic crisis which beset Turkey in the post-war period. While this chapter does much to elucidate the ties between Turkey’s periodic crises and the role of institutions such as the IMF, it also underlines the book’s one glaring deficiency. Clearly a chapter on Turkey’s foreign relations would have added much to this sort of “reader.”

Both these volumes introduce authors who command great respect in Turkey but are relatively unknown in the US. It is this generation of intellectuals which has put its imprint on serious academic work in Turkey and the overall intellectual climate there. While the 1980 coup dealt a heavy blow to intellectual and academic life, these authors continue to exert a powerful pull on public opinion — no easy matter given continuing political restrictions. Even Birand, with his popular TV news show and unimpeachable establishment credentials, currently faces a trial for interviewing the leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party.

Birand’s current troubles underline the state of flux which Turkey finds itself in today. While the Kurdish issue is now discussed with unprecedented openness, it remains divisive — and the boundaries of the permissible are difficult to discern. Schick and Tonak observe in their conclusion that precisely this inability of the ruling alliance in Turkey to reach an understanding over basic economic and political issues has provided the military with the opening to exercise its commanding role. They note that capitalist development could lead to “new modalities” for securing “the hegemony of the ruling classes,” eclipsing the role of the military. Discussions of the Kurdish issue might represent part of the process, since it is one issue over which the military has long held sway.

How to cite this article:

Ömer Karasapan "Recent Books on Turkey," Middle East Report 160 (September/October 1989).

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