To what extent should national security trump democracy? Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, this question has been pertinent everywhere, but it is especially pressing in Turkey.

Turkey’s ambition to pursue full integration into the European Union means that Turkey must adopt democratic reforms that empower society vis-à-vis the traditionally strong state. According to EU membership conditions, the state must display greater tolerance for freedom of expression and speech, must respect minority rights, and must establish a more accountable, transparent mode of governance. As Turkey’s European aspirations pull in one direction, however, the post-September 11 global war on terror pulls in another. The war has fortified Turkish defenders of the old Kemalist model which, in privileging the state over society, sanctions undervaluing human rights, suspending civil liberties, silencing expressions of identity politics and dodging democratic controls over security functions.

The struggle in Turkey between the forces that would “bring society in” and those that would preserve a state-centered polity became pronounced after the “soft Islamist” Justice and Development Party swept to power in the November 2002 elections, introducing in rapid succession reforms to meet the criteria for EU membership. The tug of war has intensified further since the Turkish government opened accession talks with the EU on October 3, 2005. At one end of the rope strain those who believe the country’s priority should be democratic consolidation, through a stronger society, while tugging against them are those who believe Turkey must remain state-centered in order to combat terrorism. Since the inception of the republic, statist defenders and guarantors of the Kemalist vision have sought to mythologize and homogenize the “nation” by smothering cultural and political expressions of pluralism, and opted to construct an illiberal democracy in which democratic freedoms and representative institutions are subordinated to security considerations without compunction.


Under the mantle of an unlimited war on terrorism, the public discourse in liberal democracies, especially the United States, has been saturated with messages that undercut democratic values. Such messages convey the need for surveillance, order and greater disciplinary controls, and are expressed as an imperative not to be contested. It is not uncommon to hear these ideas conveyed in terms of zero-sum tradeoffs. So one might hear that, yes, freedom of expression and free speech are fundamental rights and must be protected in a democracy. Yet it may be necessary to constrain individual liberties in order to meet the requirements of preserving internal civil order. Likewise, tolerance of social pluralism and recognition of difference, including minority rights, are essential to the functioning of a democracy. Yet preserving national solidarity and unity are critical to buttressing national security. Finally, one might hear that, yes, transparency and accountability in government are the hallmarks of a democratic polity. Yet secrecy and the concealment of government operations from public view may be justified as necessary and effective tactics for fighting terrorism.

The Turkish political establishment is struggling with each of these tradeoffs as parts of it push to transform the country into a more liberal democracy. Since 2002, the Justice and Development Party (in Turkish, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) govern- ment has taken many significant steps toward EU membership by adopting laws to enhance democratic freedoms, but it also faces a quandary in that forward progress is being stymied by anti-reform, conservative nationalists in the judiciary, bureaucracy and military. State-defending circles, having adopted the premise that liberal democracies are havens for terrorist networks, are making the case that the war on terror warrants stronger measures to augment national security. In contrast to the US and the EU, where debates are raging over the extent to which democratic values are being sacrificed in the war on terror, debates in Turkey demonstrate that consensus has yet to be reached over whether civil liberties are to be prized or whether there is virtue in diversity and societal pluralism. Moreover, civilian checks upon the military and security policy have yet to become embedded. The war on terror has reinjected Turkey’s state-centered political model with a strategic relevance that threatens the democratic potential of the society-centered alternative that the AKP was believed to endorse when it came to power.


Freedom of Expression

Turkey’s democratic reforms have opened up new opportunities for breaking free of the rigidities of Kemalist dogma, the basic tenets of which are that the nation is culturally and ethnically homogeneous and that radical secularism is a prerequisite for modernity. But defenders of the Kemalist project increasingly play on fears and insecurities about loyalty and dissent stoked by the war on terror climate, so as to tilt the balance between democratic freedoms and national security in the direction of the latter.

A spate of free speech cases initiated by nationalist prosecutors illustrates the clash between those who would prioritize democratic values and those who would privilege state order over individual rights. Although the Turkish penal code was revised in July 2003 as part of the EU reform process, the government failed to repeal articles that infringe on free speech. These are Article 299, which outlaws insulting the president, Article 300, which criminalizes insulting the flag, and Article 301, which forbids insulting Turkishness or state institutions. As a result, people continue to be indicted for expressing opinions that are interpreted as being anti-patriotic. The most publicized case has been that of renowned novelist Orhan Pamuk, who was charged with “public denigration of Turkishness” for remarks made months earlier in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Das Magazin. Pamuk was outspoken on two taboo topics in Turkey: the fate of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman government during World War I, and the high number of ethnic Kurds killed in the fighting in Turkey’s southeast since the 1980s. In the interview, Pamuk spoke of the rise of nationalism and fascism over the past two or three years in Turkey. Then he was asked by the interviewer, “Do you want to involve yourself in [talking about Turkey’s past] regardless of the [personal] cost?” He responded: “Yes, everyone must do so. 30,000 Kurds were killed here. And one million Armenians. And almost no one has the courage to express this. Now I am doing so. And for this they [nationalists] hate me.” [1]

At the highest levels of government, Turkey has yet to prove its commitment to free speech. Justice Minister Cemil Çicek, while preparing to drop the case against Pamuk on a technicality, voiced his discomfort at having to defend the right to express opinions that “insult” or “denigrate” Turks or Turkey by calling on Pamuk to apologize to the nation for insulting Turkishness. [2] Nor has the AKP stood up for the many scholars and journalists whose free speech rights have been compromised. Despite the fact that more than 50 cases involving free expression remain pending, Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has responded to a growing chorus of disapproval by criticizing the pressure brought to bear by the EU and human rights groups. In a live broadcast on CNN-Turk, Erdoğan defended Turkey’s conduct in the Pamuk case, protesting: “Freedoms are not limitless, in freedom there’s a definite limit.” He added that it was wrong for others to try to influence the Turkish judiciary. [3] Erdoğan has also refused to scrap Article 301, insisting that it is still too soon to amend the new penal code. Moreover, while the prime minister insists that he is an advocate of free expression, having served jail time for a poem he recited, his sincerity has been called into question by his thin-skinned propensity to fire off defamation lawsuits against cartoonists, newspapers and publishers for depicting him in unflattering ways. Musa Kart, a political cartoonist for the newspaper Cumhüriyet, which is known for its staunch secular (and anti-AKP) orientation, was fined 3,000 euros for drawing Erdoğan’s head on a cat’s body entangled in yarn. In the balloon, Erdoğan is saying: “Don’t create tensions. We promised that we would settle this matter.” This was a dig at the prime minister’s failure to satisfy Islamist voters after the president vetoed legislation that would have made it easier for graduates of imam hatip (religious) schools to enter universities. Kart responded to the lawsuit saying, “I was merely trying to show that he had become trapped in his own rhetoric.” [4]

The AKP government’s failure to clearly and unambiguously affirm the principles of free speech and the right to express dissenting views gives purchase to the conflation of dissent with the unpatriotic acts of disloyal citizens and of unregulated speech with fomenting public disorder. There is no doubt that the war on terror helps foster a climate of intolerance of dissent, and that when public discourse is restricted, democracy is under attack.

Minority Rights

In addition to raising the specter of an unruly public if civil liberties are uncontrolled, the climate of insecurity engendered by the global war on terror has fueled anxieties that provisions for the expansion of minority rights included in the package of EU reforms are hampering efforts to combat terrorism. Protection of minority rights covering communities that are linguistically, religiously, culturally and/or ethnically different has long been opposed by state-centric forces, since Kemalist reforms gave precedence to inventing a homogenized national “Turkish” identity that repudiated any claims to subnational loyalties. Following a series of uprisings in the 1920s that climaxed in the 1925 Kurdish Revolt, articulation of a Kurdish identity, whether communicated by speech or print, or expressed through other cultural practices, was banned. Although EU membership represents the culmination of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s dream of Turkish Westernization and modernization, membership conditions like recognition of Kurdish cultural rights are perceived by right-wing nationalists as a threat to national sovereignty derived from a belief that national unity and integrity will be undermined. An extreme nationalist view, shared by part of the Kemalist establishment, cleaves to an image of a conspiratorial West bent on the destruction of Turkish national integrity with the collaboration of internal enemies (read, the Kurds). Contestation between essentialist and pluralist visions of Turkish identity and culture has been intensifying as Turkey moves closer to grasping the brass ring of EU membership.

Today, just as free expression has become associated with disloyalty, support for minority rights is linked to separatism, and thus support for terror. The unraveling of Iraq, the prospect of an independent Kurdish state emerging there, the specter of a
“Shiite crescent” running from Iran through Iraq and reaching into Lebanon, as well as worry that the US may push for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, have all contributed to a rising sense of insecurity and exacerbated apprehensions that educational and cultural rights for minorities will advance non-Turkish identities and lead to the country’s fragmentation. Whereas democratic reforms have expanded minority rights, in particular the right to use the Kurdish language in education and the media, defenders of a political model that would subordinate group rights and liberties to national security demands have revived the Sèvres syndrome.

Sensitivities toward minority issues are rooted in the circumstances surrounding the birth of the new Turkish Republic after World War I. Specifically, the Sèvres Treaty of 1920 would have partitioned Anatolia at the whim of the Western powers had Atatürk not countered with a declaration of territorial sovereignty and led a war of national independence. The Sèvres syndrome refers to the paranoid beliefs that today’s EU has similar imperialist designs on Turkey and that pressure on Turkey to remove the Kurdish issue from the security file is evidence of European intentions to promote separatist terrorism and divide the country. Charges were filed against two university professors, Baskın Oran and İbrahim Kabaoğlu, who were accused of “inciting hatred” and “insulting Turkishness” and faced five-year jail terms because they presented the findings of a government-sponsored report on minority rights, illustrating the fierce resistance to delinking the issue of treatment of minorities from national unity and national security concerns. [5] (On May 11, 2006, the two were acquitted on the charge of inciting people to hatred while the second charge, insulting Turkishness, was dropped because the Justice Ministry decided not to push forward.) The report’s recommendations, advising that equal rights be granted to non-Muslims, that Muslim groups, such as Kurds, be recognized as minorities, and that the exclusionary term “Turk” be replaced with “citizen of Turkey” were incendiary. To its detractors, the report resembles the Sèvres Treaty and its authors are regarded as traitors to the republic. Such beliefs may not be mainstream, but they have apparent adherents in high places. On January 1, 2004, Fahrettin Yokuş, general secretary of the Public Sector Workers’ Union and a member of the Prime Ministry’s Human Rights Advisory Council, ripped up the pages of prefatory remarks in front of cameras at the press conference where the report was made public. In the indictment of Oran and
Kabaoğlu, Ankara prosecutor Nadi Türkaslan wrote, “When confronted with such a similarity [between the report and the actual Treaty of Sèvres], there should be no reason to accuse critics of having a Sèvres paranoia.” [6]

Though not necessarily expressing this paranoia, top military brass have been outspoken in warning the government that expanding minority rights will jeopardize the unitary structure of the state and destroy the territorial integrity of the nation. Gen. Hilmi Özkök, chief of the general staff, while known as a moderate on the issue of democratic reform of civil-military relations, has complained that expansion of cultural rights for the Kurds furthers the separatist goals of the Kurdistan
Workers’ Party (PKK). In a speech delivered at the War Academy in Istanbul on April 20, 2005, Gen. Özkök evaluated the problem of terrorism and the PKK in Turkey, criticizing the EU for “initiatives” by which “the organization [has] furthered its demands [related to the Kurdish question] under the guise of democratization and human rights so as to claim that they [these rights] should be recognized and included in the constitution as one of the main founding elements of the state and to step up their [Kurds’] cultural rights and political demands gradually. All these developments plainly target the unitary structure of the Republic of Turkey…. We should not let those who wish to destroy our unity deceive us.”

Such fears have been invoked to obstruct implementation of language reform legislation that was passed in 2004, and which granted the right to broadcast in languages other than Turkish. Of the 12 applications for private licenses, only three have been approved (all in March 2006), and the stations are encumbered by strict regulations that limit the numbers of hours of non-Turkish programming, require Turkish subtitles and prohibit the broadcast of any program that teaches the Kurdish language. The battle over minority language rights and broadcasting continues, with the government branding the Copenhagen-based station Roj TV a PKK mouthpiece and demanding that Denmark revoke its broadcasting license. A December 2005 letter signed by over 50 mayors from Turkey’s southeast sent to the Danish prime minister, urging him not
to silence the station, drew retaliation from the government, in the form of a criminal investigation being launched against the signatories. Instructional teaching of mother-tongue languages in private language courses is now legal, but none of the Kurdish-language schools have managed to keep their doors open, largely due to bureaucratic hurdles, as well as to poor enrollment. The latter is supposedly caused by lack of interest, but more likely results from the distinction between being taught one’s mother tongue and being educated in one’s mother tongue. The demand among Kurds for mother-tongue education in public schools and universities is becoming more vocal, but is not supported by the Turkish constitution. In the fall of 2005, Turkey’s largest public-sector union, the Teachers’ Union, was forced to remove an article in its bylaws that advocated education in languages other than Turkish, or face closure by the Supreme Court.

Speaking in Diyarbakır the preceding summer, Prime Minister Erdoğan appeared to side with the EU, delivering a highly publicized speech in which he promised that his government would handle the Kurdish problem with “more democracy.” However, the prime minister’s move to separate the Kurdish issue from the problem of terrorism and his pledge to seek resolution of the Kurdish question within a democratic framework were severely criticized by proponents of a national-security state as a step in the direction of enabling Kurds to reach their separatist aims through democratic means. There have not been any follow-up initiatives for the southeast by the government since Erdoğan’s address. Meanwhile, since June 2004, when the PKK abandoned its unreciprocated, unilateral ceasefire and returned to its campaign of violence, tensions have mounted between the government and the military over whether to press forward more vigorously with implementation of minority rights and to narrow the scope of what is defined as terrorism in the new anti-terror law (in line with UN and EU recommendations), or whether to rebalance group rights in favor of national security interests and amend the anti-terror law to grant security forces more extensive authority to deal with terrorism. (The government’s resistance to the military’s proposed amendments stems also from fear that the changes would be used against Islamist groups.) As of May 2006, controversy over the bill continues to rage as the bill makes its way through Parliament. The government is feeling heat from two directions. The military and the main Kemalist party want the government to remove an article that would grant leniency to leaders of terrorist organizations if they cooperate with security forces. Some even claim that this could be interpreted in such a way as to lead to the release of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Others, such as human rights organizations, are unhappy, believing that, as written, the bill leaves the door open to lumping conventional crimes together with terrorist attacks.

The window for the AKP to affirm its commitment to minority rights is closing by the day. In the keynote speech at an international symposium on global terror held in mid-March, Gen. Özkök underscored that “terrorism is the biggest social malady of the century. Terrorism exploits ethnicity and religious differences, polarization in right and left ideologies and economic collapse. A joint solution cannot be found unless there is a mutual understanding on what terrorism is.” [7] The view of the military is that Turkey’s unity must be inviolate. With presidential and parliamentary elections coming up in 2007, Erdoğan has become increasingly conciliatory to nationalist forces within his party, more accommodating toward the military and inert with respect to offering democratic solutions for the Kurdish issue. [8] The outbreak of several days of riots that began in Diyarbakır at the end of March and spread to other southeastern cities, which were touched off by a funeral held for several PKK rebels killed in renewed fighting in the region, has clearly frightened the government. Assigning generic blame for the violence to separatist terrorists, Erdoğan dispatched special security forces to the region to restore order, and indicated that the shelved anti-terror law would be put on a fast track to passage. The AKP’s drift toward conflating Kurdish ethnic nationalism with separatism furthers reification of the Kurdish problem as a national security concern. When minority rights are construed as threats to national unity and solidarity, then tolerance of plural identities is more easily construed as a vice rather than a virtue.

Civilian Control of the Military

Of all the democratic reforms the EU has demanded of Turkey, limiting the autonomy of the military by erecting tighter mechanisms of civilian control is the most challenging, for it goes to the heart of expunging the state-centered political model. The political autonomy of the military is to a great extent responsible for the country’s democratic deficiencies. Although multi-party democracy was introduced in 1945, there have been frequent episodes of intervention to correct what the military alleged were violations of the Kemalist constitutional order by civilian governments, through seizures of power (1960–61, 1980–83) as well as “coups by memorandum” (1971, 1997). In addition, the military-dominated National Security Council (in Turkish, Milli Güvenlik Kurulu, or MGK) established in 1961 guaranteed the Turkish Armed Forces ongoing influence over public policy by providing a venue through which senior commanders could pressurize civilian governments. In line with European harmonization requirements, the structure and function of the MGK has been constitutionally amended. A civilian now leads the MGK, military representation has been reduced and the Council’s executive influence has been diminished to an advisory role. Military representatives have been removed from non-defense related government bodies, notably from those bodies tasked with enforcing secularism such as the Higher Education Council, and civilian oversight of military expenditures has been instituted. Although many in the military objected to these reforms, claiming that their implementation would threaten national security, Gen. Özkök’s favorable stance on reforming civil-military relations prevailed.

Nevertheless, the military continues to enjoy significant autonomy and influence over the political processes as the reforms leave the military with plenty of means for evading civilian controls. The civilian minister of defense does not have command power over the general staff, and while formally the prime minister has veto power over military promotions and retirements, in practice and by tradition the military maintains authority over personnel issues. The officer in line to replace Özkök as chief of general staff is Commander of the Land Forces Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt, who has been outspoken about the shortcomings of the government’s response to the threats that Islamic fundamentalism and Kurdish separatism pose to national security. On a number of occasions, without consulting the government, he has expressed his disagreement with the AKP government’s policies on Cyprus, northern Iraq and the Kurds. [9] Known to be a hardliner, Gen. Büyükanıt has attracted strong backing from anti-EU nationalists and is considered to be an important stumbling block for a presidential bid by Erdoğan. Despite the AKP’s fear that replacing Özkök with Büyükanıt will undermine civilian dominance over the state, and a profound mutual dislike between Büyükanıt and Erdoğan, a backstage warning from Özkök to Erdoğan to obey the traditions of the Turkish Armed Forces has made it clear that the military continues to hold sway over civilian rulers.

The civilian government’s inability to check the military’s appetite for intervention in the political arena stems partly from the failure of civil-military institutional reforms to either disengage certain informal mechanisms or to establish control over behind-the-scenes operations that the military uses to influence policy. The “mini-MGK” terrorism summits that the military began to convene after reforms diminished the Council’s influence are an example of the military’s end run around formal constraints on its national security role. Turkey’s “deep state,” referring to a shady, interwoven network of interests resistant to attempts to displace a state-centered political model, remains entrenched and highly adept at dodging democratic scrutiny. In November, the chance arrest of two gendarmerie intelligence officers and a PKK informer at the scene of a bookstore bombing in Şemdinli sparked suspicions that this was a “deep state” covert operation designed to stir up Kurdish civil unrest in the region and to deliberately provoke clashes between the security forces and the PKK, in order to trigger European condemnation and thereby undermine Turkey’s EU membership bid.

The Şemdinli affair illustrates that the military’s weight in the political sphere is on the upswing. It is also an indication that the AKP’s vulnerabilities on national security issues are increasing. Regardless of whether or not the bombing was a rogue operation, the military has taken advantage of rioting and other disturbances in Kurdish communities across the region to insist that handling the Kurdish problem requires wider powers to combat terrorism rather than the government’s EU-backed approach of expanding democratic rights. The military has used the incident to bring the issue of fighting terrorism to the forefront of the political agenda and to undermine support for the EU process. They have filled the vacuum of Erdoğan’s lack of follow-through with a concrete threat-based formula for action. Furthermore, the Şemdinli indictment of Büyükanıt initiated by a Van public prosecutor, charging the general with involvement in illegal covert undercover operations, rather than discrediting and preventing Büyükanıt from promotion, has backfired against the government. Gen. Özkök has vehemently defended Büyükanıt’s integrity and ordered Erdoğan not to sow discord between the government and the military, virtually guaranteeing Büyükanıt’s promotion in August. [10] Perhaps most tellingly, the “deep state” in Turkey is unlikely to be counterbalanced by more open, transparent government, for if both the public and the government are uncertain or unconvinced as to whether or not the deep state was involved in Şemdinli, then it is fair to say democratic civilian control over the military remains at bay.

Hard Choices

As in Turkey, governments in liberal democracies are now presented with hard choices in determining the tradeoffs between security and democracy, and since September 11, examples abound of these governments leaning to the side of security at the cost of democratic freedoms. In the US, there has been a proliferation of violations of individual liberties including: interception of private communications through warrantless wiretapping, which contravenes the right of free speech; searches and seizures without probable cause that infringe on the right to privacy; and arbitrary detentions that suspend the right to due process. In addition, there has been a failure to protect minorities from the majority, such as in racial profiling. A lack of transparency undermining government accountability was seen in the misleading and trumped-up evidence cobbled together by sectors of the intelligence community to lay the grounds for going to war in Iraq. However, despite the setbacks to civil liberties caused by the war on terror, citizens in liberal democracies are habituated to the virtues of limiting state power and are practiced in contesting the abrogation of democratic freedoms by the state.

The politics of balancing tradeoffs differ in Turkey, although the tradeoffs confronted are similar. Political resistance to the corrosive effects of the war on terror on democracy is predictable where societies have deeply rooted beliefs in the value of defending civil liberties, where there is a strong civil society base from which to organize dissent, and where there are embedded mechanisms of civilian checks and oversight over security policy and the military. In Turkey, the values and norms that support individual freedoms and minority rights have yet to be firmly fixed, a social consensus over identity politics has yet to be reached and civilian-dominated governance has yet to triumph. In other words, the Turkish polity has yet to wholeheartedly commit to a society-centered political model. During the global war on terror, courage will be required to resist the exhortations of those who insist that a war on democracy is the best way to wage a war on terror.


[1] The quote is from the Turkish translation of the interview that ran in Hürriyet, February 9, 2005.
[2] Radikal, January 7, 2005.
[3] Guardian, December 22, 2005.
[4] Andy Davey, “Turkish Cartoonists Face Lawsuits,” (Federation of Cartoonists’ Organizations), April 7, 2005.
[5] The report, “Rights of Minorities and Cultural Rights,” was never published, but the full text (with commentary) is accessible at the website of the Health and Social Services Employees’ Union,
[6] Zaman, November 16, 2005.
[7], March 23, 2006.
[8] One step in the direction of a democratic solution could be to lower the 10 percent threshold, which would most likely bring the Democratic Society Party into Parliament and thereby give the Kurdish ethnicity political representation. See M. Hakan Yavuz and Nihat Ali Özcan, “The Kurdish Question and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party,” Middle East Policy 13/1 (Spring 2006), pp. 113–114.
[9] Evren Değer, “Büyükanıt Move Was Pre-Planned,” The New Anatolian, March 10, 2006.
[10] Hürriyet, March 14, 2006.


How to cite this article:

Marcie J Patton "Turkey’s Tug of War," Middle East Report 239 (Summer 2006).

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