The means and ends in Turkey

TW: 1980 Turkish coup

Turkish prosecutors pushed yesterday for extensive sentences for a significant number of the former military and security forces members, who are alleged members of the shadowy ultranationalist network known as Ergenekon, the name of which alone explicitly taps into an almost fascistic ideas of a Turkish national rebirth. International press has been quick to characterize public reaction in Turkey as having been largely negative – with protests in Silivri, where the trial is being conducted.

Türklerin ergenekon'dan çıkışları
(It’s hard to view an organization named for a mythic, exclusively Turkish place as anything but ridiculously ultranationalist. From here, this picture depicts “the Turkish emigrants of Ergenekon,” who were ostensibly the ancestors of modern Turks.)

It’s difficult to not see this as fitting into a broader discussion about legal rights and expectations in contrast with the political culture that surrounds and interacts with those rights. As I mentioned a few months back, Turkey’s recent democratization has largely been focused on challenging norms, not questioning laws or revising the constitution. The current trial is more of the same with its focus on rooting out the Ergenekon organizers and their intents without substantively challenging the power and practices of many of the same individuals, but while actively serving in the military or security forces. There is an obvious point to that – discouraging a murky underworld from trying to fill the roles of official representatives of the state. In some sense, this trial could be seen as a defensive measure against even more untethered actors entering the political fray.

But is what Turkey really needs right now more work on its broader political culture? As the Johannesburg Times suggested – this case is understood by many as a strike against the more secular and undemocratic military and surrounding political power. To what extent is this an effort to maintain law and order on the current Turkish government’s part? And to what extent is this an expansive effort to assert a more religious and civilian soft power where military soft power once ruled?

It seems in some ways that this current trial is an attempt to reinvent the political context surrounding the trial against the leaders of the 1980 coup last year. The case against them was much stronger, however, and was situated differently. A demand for justice for the thousands of Turks tortured or even killed to a large extent forced the trial to occur, with the aim of in some sense altering the political reality that both of those Turkish leaders had lived with impunity for decades following their crimes. Out of recalling and joining in the accompanying national discussion of how many lives were impacted by the coup, a bit of skepticism against the military seemed to become quite nakedly popular at the time.

It seems as though Erdoğan’s government is trying to rebuild or further that indirect outcome of the 2012 trial. The means are hoped to be the same (although the different public responses seem to suggest gross miscalculation on the government’s part), but the ends are ultimately different. Instead of seeking justice, it’s hard not to see this as either a defensive effort to contain the political situation if not a claim of political power over the military. Perhaps there’s a need for that, but it’s worth remembering that that’s what Turkey’s former President, Kenan Evren, allegedly hoped to similarly restore or preserve political order.

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