Rethinking Turkey's Past

Bulent Kilic / AFP-Getty Images

It’s not often that Turkey’s tough prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, weeps in public. But a few days before a referendum on overhauling Turkey’s Constitution in September, Erdogan broke down as he read out excerpts from letters written by young men condemned to hang in the aftermath of Turkey’s last military coup, in 1980. Twenty-two-year-old Mustafa Pehlivanoglu was one of 49 suspected leftists and nationalists executed by the military junta. “The men responsible for this unjust sentence will answer to God one day,” wrote Pehlivanoglu in his parting letter to his family. Now, with the Constitution written by the generals about to be scrapped and three decades of legal immunity for the coup’s leaders ended, the usually stone-faced Erdogan teared up: “The day this young man spoke of has come.”

No historical episode is more emotive—or politically charged—for modern Turks than the legacy of the 1980 coup. Though the issues and the political labels may have changed, Turkey’s politics continue to divide along the same lines as those of 1980. The center-left secularist Republican People’s Party, or CHP, is a strong supporter of the military. Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, by contrast, has made it its mission to dismantle the Army’s behind-the-scenes hold on political power. At the same time, this fight over the past is really a battle over different visions of Turkey’s future. In one vision Turkey is ruled by a clique of paternalistic military rulers who protect the people from their own foolishness; in another, Turkey gets the government its people vote for—even an Islamist one.

The latest constitutional reform has finally given Turks the right to put the Army’s historical legacy on trial. The day after the reform package was passed, Sept. 12—30 years to the day after the Army’s coup—hundreds of criminal complaints against the coup’s leaders and a host of individual officers allegedly involved in torture were filed by victims’ families across Turkey. This winter a top court in Ankara is due to rule on whether the coup’s leader, 93-year-old Gen. Kenan Evren, can stand trial for treason and abuse of office. The day of reckoning Pehlivanoglu predicted has come. The question now is whether it’s a day to heal the country by laying to rest the ghosts of the past—or reopening old wounds in order to settle today’s political scores.

The spate of lawsuits has exposed the raw roots of Turkey’s present-day culture wars. Some analysts, like European M.P. Heidi Hautala, a Finnish Green who chairs the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, believe the new Constitution is “a great victory over the shadow state and a great step towards a truly democratic Turkey.” Erdogan’s opponents, though, see it as revenge for years of Army-backed pressure on political Islam in Turkey, the background from which most of the current AK leadership came. Indeed, for many AK Party M.P.s this process is very personal—the AK government’s culture and tourism minister, Ertugrul Günay, was one of the thousands of young activists summarily detained and tortured in 1980. And though Erdogan stayed out of trouble in 1980, he has personal scores to settle too. In 1997 his political mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, was ousted as prime minister in a “soft coup” orchestrated by the military. Erdogan himself was imprisoned for nine months in 1999 for reciting a religious poem. “Erdogan is cynically using the Army’s past crimes as a modern-day political weapon,” says CHP leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu.

But the real controversy goes deeper than the AK Party’s score-settling. At base, it’s about whether Turkish voters can be trusted with democracy—or whether they have to be protected by guardians of the state’s identity. This ideological battle divides Turks on their views of the military’s role in society. “The national narrative has been for decades that the armed forces were the vanguards of modernization and Westernization,” says Suat Kiniklioglu, the AKP’s deputy chairman of external affairs. Indeed, in 1980 the Army cast itself as a guardian of democracy against the twin evils of extreme left and right—and ceded power after organizing semifree elections in 1983. In recent years, though, “the institution that once proclaimed to lead the country toward modernization has become a force of reaction,” says Kiniklioglu, “intellectually left behind regarding what its place in a normal democracy should be.”

In truth, it’s become increasingly hard to argue that the Army is a progressive force. Instead of respecting the Turkish people’s democratic choice of the AK Party, the military has fought a rear-guard action to undermine Erdogan. Officially, the military gave its blessing to an ultimately unsuccessful prosecution seeking to ban Erdogan and top AK Party members from office for “violating the principles of the secular State.” Unofficially, prosecutors have uncovered evidence that several dozen active and retired Army officers allegedly plotted a series of bombings and murders in order to destabilize the AK Party and set the stage for another military intervention. The 86 defendants in the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy, who include generals, party officials, and a former secretary-general of the National Security Council, are currently on trial. A separate conspiracy to blow up mosques, known as Sledgehammer, also involved military officers.

Turks’ respect for the Army has eroded—and calls for the truth about the events of 1980 have mounted. A recent poll showed the number of Turks who believe the military’s impact on society is “very good” has declined from 57 percent to 30 percent since 2007. The constitutional referendum also showed broad support for reforming the system left in place by the generals, which some argue has been the root of all of modern Turkey’s conflicts. The coup leaders’ “irrational and extremist positions fueled and ignited the Kurdish guerrilla war…it has also fueled political Islam,” says Kutlug Ataman, one of Turkey’s best-known filmmakers, who was tortured for 28 days in 1980 and fled the country soon after. “As the Turkish public only now starts to realize the true dimensions in which their lives had been curtailed, anti-Western and anti-U.S. sentiments are now on the rise—the public perceives the West as the allies of the Turkish military.”

Erdogan’s decision to put the whole of Turkey’s recent history on trial may be political dynamite, setting off a flood of coup-related lawsuits and reprisals. Exposing painful truths about the past is a gamble that many countries, including South Africa, Argentina, and Spain, have taken in recent years, with varying levels of success. Dealing with the living memory of a fascist past is hard—especially when, as in Turkey, the system and even the people installed by the junta of 30 years ago are still in place. “Some people say it is better to forget,” says Ahmet Tasci, an Istanbul high-school teacher who was jailed for 11 months in 1980 for being a member of the U.S.S.R.-backed Peace Association. “But if we forget, there is no justice. And people in the future can say, ‘That’s not a bad idea, let’s try that again.’ ” Hasan Kurumahmutoglu’s brother Huseyin was killed during the 1980 coup; now Hasan says he backs the idea of lifting immunity on the coup leaders so that “what happened then never happens again.”

Ultimately, the outcome of Turkey’s ongoing culture wars between the ultra-secularists who defend military dictatorship and the Islamists who seek to jail the officers who overturned Turkey’s Constitution is about more than coming to terms with the past. It’s about the country’s coming of age as a democracy, unchaperoned by a Big Brother military. If Turkey can show the way to peacefully overcome the legacy of authoritarianism and military rule, that would be a truly inspiring lead for others in the region with even more painful pasts, such as Syria or Iraq, to eventually follow.