The debate about secularism has a unique history in modern Turkey – one in which appeals to the secular tradition have been used by the military to crush the political left and Kurdish resistance.
The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One resulted in a military invasion of its territories by Britain, France, Italy, and Greece. In what is now modern Turkey, a resistance movement led by army commander Mustafa Kemal Atatürk successfully defeated the invading powers and established a secular Turkish republic. Despite the majority of the population identifying as Muslim, the republic was founded on secularist ideas resting on a military apparatus to suppress internal dissent.
Alongside Sunni Muslims, Kurds and Alevis (comprising around 20 percent of the population) joined the fight for Turkish independence. However, their very existence was denied by the new republic. Kurds were referred to simply as “mountain Turks” and forbidden to speak their own language or to express their culture. In 1925 thousands of Kurds were massacred for demanding their rights. Over 1.5 million were deported. In 1937-8, up to 70,000 Kurds and Alevis were massacred in Dersim as Atatürk’s army used poison gas, bombs, and artillery against them.
The Turkish military has a history of not only being used against the Kurdish and Alevi population, but against all domestic opposition. Under the banner of secularism and Kemalism, the military has overthrown four democratically elected governments in the post-war years.
The 1960s and 70s were a time of political radicalisation. The growth of both the far right and socialist left, combined with an upturn in workers’ strikes, led to an increasingly polarised society. Fearing a social upheaval against the right wing Demirel government, the military warned about the growth of Islamic groups. Appealing to “Atatürk’s views”, they forced the government to resign in 1971. Thousands of leftists were arrested and the Workers’ Party was banned after expressing support for the “democratic aspirations of the Kurdish people”.
The political radicalisation continued until the military staged a coup in 1980. The coup leaders made the same arguments about upholding the secular republic against supposed Islamic threats. In practise the political left was suppressed. Across three years of military rule, up to 650,000 were arrested and 50 executed. In the trials that followed, 98,404 were charged with being members of political organisations and 1,683,000 people were blacklisted.
The most recent coup in 1997 began just four days after a government-supported demonstration against Israeli human rights abuses. Army tanks rolled through the streets, and once again the imagined threat of growing Islam was used to force the government to resign. As one of the coup leaders Çevik Bir stated, “In Turkey we have a marriage of Islam and democracy ... The child of this marriage is secularism. Now this child gets sick from time to time. The Turkish Armed Forces is the doctor which saves the child. Depending on how sick the kid is, we administer the necessary medicine to make sure the child recuperates.”
Appeals today to restore the secular state against Erdoğan’s right wing neoliberal government have to be seen in light of this history. The invocation of Atatürk’s legacy and secularism has always been a means of silencing the Kurdish struggle, the workers’ movement, and the socialist left. The military has never been a progressive force. It is the enemy of those wanting a truly democratic society.