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The arrest and indictment of top military figures in Turkey last week precipitated potentially the most severe crisis since Atatürk founded the republic in 1923. The weeks ahead will probably indicate whether the country continues its slide toward

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The arrest and indictment of top military figures in Turkey last week precipitated potentially the most severe crisis since Atatürk founded the republic in 1923. The weeks ahead will probably indicate whether the country continues its slide toward Islamism or reverts to its traditional secularism. The denouement has major implications for Muslims everywhere.


"Taraf" broke the Balyoz conspiracy theory on Jan. 22, 2010.

Turkey's military has long been both the state's most trusted institution and the guarantor of Atatürk's legacy, especially his laicism. Devotion to the founder is not some dry abstraction but a very real and central part of a Turkish officer's life; as journalist Mehmet Ali Birand has documented, cadet-officers hardly go an hour without hearing Atatürk's name invoked.

On four occasions between 1960 and 1997, the military intervened to repair a political process gone awry. On the last of these occasions, it forced the Islamist government of Necmettin Erbakan out of power. Chastened by this experience, some of Erbakan's staff re-organized themselves as the more cautious Justice and Development Party (AKP). In Turkey's decisive election of 2002, they surged ahead of discredited and fragmented centrist parties with a plurality of 34 percent of the popular vote.

Parliamentary rules then transformed that plurality into a 66 percent supermajority of assembly seats and a rare case of single-party rule. Not only did the AKP skillfully take advantage of its opportunity to lay the foundations of an Islamic order but no other party or leader emerged to challenge it. As a result, the AKP increased its portion of the vote in the 2007 elections to a resounding 47 percent, with control over 62 percent of parliamentary seats.

Repeated AKP electoral successes encouraged it to drop its earlier caution and to hasten moving the country toward its dream of an Islamic Republic of Turkey. The party placed partisans in the presidency and the judiciary while seizing increased control of the educational, business, media, and other leading institutions. It even challenged the secularists' hold over what Turks call the "deep state" – the non-elected institutions of the intelligence agencies, security services, and the judiciary. Only the military, ultimate arbiter of the country's direction, remained beyond AKP control.

Several factors then prompted the AKP to confront the military: European Union accession demands for civilian control over the military; a 2008 court case that came close to shutting down the AKP; and the growing assertiveness of its Islamist ally, the Fethullah Gülen Movement. An erosion in AKP popularity (from 47 percent in 2007 to 29 percent now) added a sense of urgency to this confrontation, for it points to the end of one-party AKP rule in the next elections.


Gen. Ibrahim Firtina, a former head of the air force, was questioned in court about a plot to overthrow the government.

The AKP devised an elaborate conspiracy theory in 2007, dubbed Ergenekon, to arrest about two hundred AKP critics, including military officers, under accusation of plotting to overthrow the elected government. The military responded passively, so the AKP raised the stakes on Jan. 22 by concocting a second conspiracy theory, this one termed Balyoz ("Sledgehammer") and exclusively directed against the military.

The military denied any illegal activities and the chief of general staff, İlker Başbuğ, warned that "Our patience has a limit." Nonetheless, the government proceeded, starting on Feb. 22, to arrest 67 active and retired military officers, including former heads of the air force and navy. So far, 35 officers have been indicted.

Thus has the AKP thrown down the gauntlet, leaving the military leadership basically with two unattractive options: (1) continue selectively to acquiesce to the AKP and hope that fair elections by 2011 will terminate and reverse this process; or (2) stage a coup d'état, risking voter backlash and increased Islamist electoral strength.


Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Abdullah Gul and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ met on February 25.

At stake is whether the Ergenekon/Balyoz offensives will succeed in transforming the military from an Atatürkist to a Gülenist institution; or whether the AKP's blatant deceit and over-reaching will spur secularists to find their voice and their confidence. Ultimately the issue concerns whether Shari'a (Islamic law) rules Turkey or the country returns to secularism.

Turkey's Islamic importance suggests that the outcome of this crisis has consequences for Muslims everywhere. AKP domination of the military means Islamists control the umma's most powerful secular institution, proving that, for the moment, they are unstoppable. But if the military retains its independence, Atatürk's vision will remain alive in Turkey and offer Muslims worldwide an alternative to the Islamist juggernaut.

War Academies Commander Gen. Bilgin Balanlı, under arrest.

May 30, 2011 update:Balyoz keeps rolling along: less than two weeks before the general elections comes news today that Gen. Bilgin Balanlı, commander of the War Academies, has been arrested, making him the highest ranking active duty officer yet hauled off to prison. More broadly, 29 out of approximately 300 flag officers are under arrest.

July 5, 2013 update: The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) has issued a blistering report on the Balyoz accusation, despite Ankara putting its best arguments forward. Its conclusions:

The deprivation of liberty of the 250 detained defendants in the Balyoz or Sledgehammer cases is arbitrary. … Consequent upon the opinion rendered, the Working Group requests the Government of Turkey to remedy the situation of these 250 persons in accordance with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Working Group considers that, taking into account all the circumstances of the case, an adequate remedy would be an enforceable right to compensation.

Aug. 5, 2013 update: Despite the weakness and fraud of its case, the AKP government has plowed ahead and today pronounced prison sentences in the other plot, the Ergenekon one dating from 2007. It includes top military officers, opposition politicians, and journalists. As Hürriyet Daily News summarizes the case, "A total of 275 suspects, 66 of them under arrest, were awaiting rulings this morning. Some 33 indictments have been submitted in the course of the Ergenekon trials, which saw over 130 witnesses testify at hearings."

The most spectacular piece of news is the life sentence given the former chief of general staff, İlker Başbuğ, but the list is a long and severe one. An excerpt from the Hürriyet Daily News article:

Journalist Tuncay Özkan, retired general Veli Küçük and lawyer Kemal Kerinçsiz were sentenced to aggravated life sentences. Özkan was also sentenced to an additional 16 years.

Workers' Party leader Doğu Perinçek received aggravated life sentence and an additional 30 years in prison.

Retired colonel Fikri Karadağ and retired general Hasan Ataman Yıldırım also received aggravated life sentences.

Retired General Hurşit Tolon was sentenced to life in prison while another retired General Levent Ersöz was sentenced to 22 years six months.

The court handed down life sentences to the retired generals Hasan Iğsız and Nusret Taşdelen, as well as retired colonel Fuat Selvi. …

Writer Yalçın Küçük was also sentenced to 22 years and six months in prison.

On similar charges, the court sentenced former head of the Higher Education Board of Turkey (YÖK) Kemal Gürüz to 13 years and 11 months, historian Mehmet Perinçek, who is the son of Doğu Perinçek, to six years, and alleged mob leader Sedat Peker was given a 10 year sentence.

Former North Sea Field Commander Mehmet Otuzbiroğlu was sentenced to 20 years and 6 months.

Journalist Erol Manisalı was sentenced to nine years. Author Ergün Poyraz was handed down a 29 years and four months sentence while journalist Güler Kömürcü was sentenced to seven years and six months.

Workers' Party (İP) executives Hayrettin Ertekin was sentenced to 16 years, Hikmet Çiçek was sentenced to 21 years and nine months. The party's lawyer Emcet Olcaytu received 13 years and two months.

Former rectors Ferit Bernay and Mustafa Abbas were each sentenced to ten years in prison. …

Former police chief Adil Serdar Saçan was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Former mayor Gürbüz Çapan received one year.

Comment: Seen in the light of June's Gezi Park demonstrations, these sentences imply that Erdoğan is further doubling down to discredit, marginalize, and criminalize his political opponents. It's not a tactic that will end well for him.