Since the founding of the Republic of Turkey 85 years ago, the Turkish Armed Forces (Turk Silahli Kuvvetleri–TSK) has seen itself as the guardian of the nation’s secular Kemalist traditions. The unresolved tension between the country’s Islamic heritage and its secular traditions is rising due to issues such as the government’s ban on headscarves at the university and its move to ban the ruling AKP party; and the mounting tension has now ensnared General Ilker Basbug, current commander of the Turkish Army, who is slated to succeed General Mehmet Buyukanit in August as chief of the general staff.
Turkey’s Islamic press has made much of Basbug’s three meetings earlier this year with Osman Paksut, vice chairman of Turkey’s Constitutional Court, seeing a dark conspiracy between the military and the judiciary to thwart Islamic values (Yeni Safak, June 15). As Yeni Safak is close to the AKP, its comments have some influence.
According to the Islamist, anti-Semitic Vakit daily newspaper, another sin laid at Basbug’s door is his membership in Istanbul’s exclusive Buyuk Kulup (Vakit, June 16). The Buyuk Kulup, originally known as the Cercle d’Orient, is Istanbul’s oldest social gentlemen’s club and was founded in 1882 by the British ambassador Sir Alfred Sandison. It name was changed after the founding of the republic (www.buyukkulup.org.tr/). According to Vakit columnist Ali Ihsan Karahasanoglu, Basbug’s membership in the Buyuk Kulup violates Turkey’s 1961 Internal Service Law’s Article 43, which forbids military personnel to engage in politics (Vakit, June 16). Observers with a sense of irony might note that Article 43 has been criticized during Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union for proscribing the political rights of members of the military.
The conservative press’s greatest ire, however, was reserved for a trip that Basbug made to Jerusalem, where he visited the Wailing Wall. Vakit published a front page story containing three purported photographs of Basbug visiting the site; while his name was omitted, the story was picked up and the general identified on many fundamentalist websites (Vakit, June 13).
Publication of the photographs roiled the Turkish media, provoking outrage on the left and right, so much so that three days after the images appeared Hasan Karakaya, editor-in-chief of Vakit, published a lengthy piece on how the journal obtained the photographs and why it published them. Karakaya asserted that while Basbug did not wear a yarmulke when visiting the site, he nonetheless doffed a cloth cap during his visit to the Wailing Wall in deference to a rule requiring visitors to cover their heads. In a fit of pique Karakaya asserted that for a pious Jew, touching the Wailing Wall is what touching the Kaaba shrine in Mecca is for a Muslim; he concluded that it was “obviously news” if a prominent Turkish military figure visited the Wailing Wall and touched it “as required by Jewish rituals” (Vakit, June 16).
Turkey’s progressive press swung into counterattack, with Mustafa Balbay of the staunchly Kemalist Cumhuriyet writing that the articles were part of an effort to smear Basbug in order to thwart his succeeding Buyukanit. He further criticized President Abdullah Gul for failing to lessen tensions and normalize relations between the military and Gul’s AKP ruling party (Cumhuriyet, June 16).
The moderate pro-Islamic daily Zaman saw the threat to Basbug as closer to home, accusing unnamed cabals within the military of conducting a “smear campaign” against Basbug and Deputy Chief of the General Staff General Ergin Saygun by leaking the photographs and a health report about Saygun saying that he recently suffered a diabetic coma. Columnist Mumtazer Turkone asserted that the images were published as evidence of the “ridiculous” conspiracy theory that “the Jews are so much in control of the world that they can even have one of their number elected as chief of staff in Turkey” (Zaman, June 17).
Turkey’s top circulation paper, the center-right daily Hurriyet, labeled the press attacks on Basbug’s visit to Jerusalem, his Buyuk Kulup membership in a club and meetings with Paksut a deliberate “campaign” and “organized attack,” concluding that Basbug was being portrayed as a supporter of Jews, possibly a covert Free Mason, and someone trying to influence the Constitutional Court. Columnist Enis Berberoglu believes that the campaign was instigated by “those who wish to create a rift between the government and the military,” adding that “a religious community that has influence over the government and the AKP is acting on the assumption that the party will be closed” and believes that Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan is “dispensable” (Hurriyet, June 15).
The controversy over Basbug represents a new development in Turkish civil-military relations, where the military, the traditional guardian of the nation’s secularist Kemalist heritage, is pondering its relationship with a moderate, pro-Islamic ruling party that has achieved genuine economic advancement. That economic progress has translated into electoral power for the AKP, while Islamic elements have increasingly used the popular media to publicize their agenda in a country that is 99.8 percent Muslim.
The TSK is clear about its mission. It states on its website, “Strictly adhering to the great Ataturk’s principle, ‘Peace At Home, Peace In The World,’ the Armed Forces of the Turkish Republic do not have any aggressive intentions, but is employed when its independence, nation, country and honor are under threat or in parallel with the common ideals of international organizations of which it is a member.” The current confrontation with Islamists is certain to be causing thoughtful officers to consider whether the “nation, country and honor are under threat” if the current political situation becomes increasingly confrontational. At the very least, Turkey’s Islamist tabloid press has impugned Basbug’s honor.
Basbug’s critics should note that for the present, the TSK is mindful of the old Turkish proverb, “Conversation doesn’t make dinner.” If, however, fundamentalists continue to irritate and defame the TSK, they should remember another proverb: “Listen a thousand times, speak once.” If the TSK’s patience does indeed run out, the fundamentalists may well hear a response to their maligning the military that will most certainly not be to their liking.