Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part 3 – From Republican to Neo-Ottoman

Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part 3 – From Republican to Neo-Ottoman

(Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4.)

Coups are a constant reference point in Turkish politics. This is not surprising given the fact that the country has experienced three of them, plus a military intervention into politics in the late 1990s that has been dubbed a “post-modern coup.” The 1980 coup occupies a uniquely salient position in Turkey’s historical memory and contemporary politics. It was the most far-reaching in terms of its remaking of the Turkish polity and the most heavy-handed.  Its masterminds – real and imagined – are routinely condemned and disparaged for their repressive measures. Just this past summer, the two surviving coup leaders, including General Kenan Evren, who served as Turkey’s self-appointed president for most of the 1980s, were sentenced to life imprisonment.  In 2010, amidst efforts to reform the Turkish Constitution, which was heavily revised by the 1980 coup leaders, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused those opposing reforms to be defenders of the coup. He read aloud letters from people who were executed during the coup with tears welling up in his eyes and described the constitutional referendum as a way to “face the torture, cruelty, and inhuman practices of Sept. 12, 1980.”

Ironically, surveying the landscape of Turkish history, it is clear that no event contributed to the rise of Turkey’s new, Islamic-oriented strategic culture more than the 1980 coup. Given the fact that the coup was launched precisely – like those before it – to maintain and defend the republican order, how can this be?

In the previous entries in this series I explained the concept of strategic culture and how it can illuminate our understanding of Turkish national behavior. I discussed the roots, rise, and character of Turkey’s republican strategic culture out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, World War I, and the violent struggles that followed. In this entry, I will examine the roots, rise, and character of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategic culture. And in pursuit of that aim, no event is more crucial to understand than the 1980 coup and the political reforms that followed.  But how can we characterize the neo-Ottoman strategic culture?

  • Accepting of diverse identities internal to Turkey, including ethnic and especially Islamic identity.
  • A rebalancing of Western-Eastern orientation.
  • A desire to become the region’s major political, military, and economic power.
  • A related ethos of international activism and even interventionism, particularly in the Middle East.
  • A conception of security interests reaching far beyond territorial integrity.

If republican strategic culture was a rejection of Ottoman universalism and expansionism, neo-Ottomanism is, in turn, a return to these qualities and a rejection of republican constraints. This neo-Ottoman strategic culture (Malik Mufti calls this an “imperial” strategic culture in his excellent Daring and Caution in Turkish Strategic Culture, which has heavily influenced my thinking here)* is a major departure from the republican strategic culture. Now, the external world is a source of opportunity for the spread of Turkish power. And the very idea of Turkish power is now more imperative and far broader in its application. It includes Turkey’s ability to realize its will outside of its borders, even  intervening in internal political matters in other states across the Muslim world.

How does this bring us to the 1980 coup? The coup kicked off three intertwined developments that enabled the rise of a new, Islamic-oriented elite that has come to change Turkey’s strategic culture: the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, the transformative leadership of Turgut Özal, and neo-liberal economic reforms.  These will be discussed below to explain the rise of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategic culture.**

The late 1970s were turbulent years for Turkey. From December 1978 to the coup in September 1980, there were nearly 9000 violent incidents across Turkey, with over 3500 people killed and over 10,000 people wounded.  By 1980, almost half of Turkey’s 67 provinces contained so-called “liberated zones.” The far left battled the nationalist far right. The economic turbulence of this period played no small role in driving the political violence of the 1970s. The Turkish economy languished, feeding instability.  While industrialization and production proceeded, the expansion of the manufacturing sector was not met with a growth in jobs sufficient to take in the labor force bleeding out of the shrinking agricultural sector. Foreign trade was dismal. Unemployment reached 11 percent. Seven months before the coup, consensus formed for a transition from centralized planning of industry and import substitution industrialization to an export-led neo-liberal development model. Özal, during this period, was an economic technocrat with political ambitions. In January 1980, he was charged with implementing a liberalizing economic reform program spurred by the IMF as head of the State Planning Organization and Deputy Under-Secretary of the Prime Minister (then Demirel). 

In the context of the Cold War and Turkey’s own internal divisions, the greatest concern for the Turkish Armed Forces was the far left. They saw far left militants and activists as serious threats to the internal unity of the state being sponsored by a fundamentally hostile Soviet Union. The religious right armed itself as well, but was not a major player in the political violence that wracked Turkey. They did, however, hold a series of provocative rallies during which they chanted for sharia (Islamic law) and the remaking of the Turkish state into a theocracy. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran had provided an example that no one in the Turkish Armed Forces cared to emulate.

With alleged support from the United States, General Kenan Evren planned and launched a coup on September 12, 1980. Tens of thousands were arrested, weapons were seized, and politicians were deposed.

From 1980 to 1983, the Turkish Armed Forces set about remaking the country’s social and political fabric into something more durable. Schools were purged, curricula rewritten, and existing political parties banned. General Evren became president and stayed in that role, wielding veto power until 1989. A new constitution was approved in 1982. Leftist leaders and groups bore the brunt of the crackdown. After the coup, Özal was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Economic Affairs.  The military regime, in a departure from its preference for state planning, chose to continue down the path of liberalization.  As a part of its transition to a neo-liberal development model, Turkish imports and exports took off in the post-coup period, more than doubling from 1979 to 1981. And GNP rose, although inflation remained high (but far lower than it had been in the late 1970s). Trade took off.

Evren’s regime attempted to bolster the Turkish right and infuse it with Islam in what became known as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis. This ideology, intended to counter leftism, had its roots in the Intellectuals Hearth, a movement started in the 1960s that sought to bridge the divides across the political right between far right nationalists and the devout. Banu Eligur, in her excellent study of Turkish Islamism, explains, “The nationalist intellectuals associated with the Hearth viewed Islam not only as a crucial part of Turkish culture, but also as a part of the ideological context of society.” Like elsewhere in the Muslim world during this time, Islam was understood to provide a strong barrier against communism. This is not to say that the Turkish state began to sponsor and endorse Islamism, but it became far more tolerant of a spectrum of Islamic political activism as a bulwark against subversive leftism. Tapper, in his classic volume Islam in Modern Turkey, tells us “Proponents of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis wanted an authoritarian but not an Islamic state: religion, the essence of culture and social control, must be fostered in schools, but it must not be politicized.” Still, Eligur argues that this “represented a fundamental shift in state ideology away from Kemalist secularism.” This led to a few contradictions in Turkish policy (religious principles were still constitutionally banned from political life) leading left wing secularists and Islamists themselves to criticize the state.  Eligur explains, “As a result of the military’s strategy, the process of Islamization in society grew stronger than ever.”

Civil elections took place in 1983 under very strict controls. Only three parties were permitted to participate. Among them was Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party. His party won a majority of seats and he formed a government by December. He was therefore able to solidify and sustain the liberalizing economic reforms as Prime Minister once the transitional period was over. The Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party, founded by Necmettin Erbakan in 1983, was one of the parties that was at first banned from national elections, but it was allowed to be otherwise active. Martial law remained in effect for some years after. Key reforms were enacted that made religious education mandatory and provided religious groups more room to maneuver. 

Özal himself embodied many of the reforms of the period beyond just economics. He, the first neo-Ottoman national Turkish leader, set the stage for Erdoğan’s successful offensive against the republican strategic culture. Özal was devout without being an Islamist, although he ran in the 1970s unsuccessfully on the Islamist National Salvation Party ticket before going to work for Demirel’s Justice Party. As Metin Heper explains (pdf):

[Özal’s] father, Mehmet Sıddık, was a devout Muslim, having played a significant role in Özal’s religious beliefs and practices. At different periods in his life, Özal regularly attended the Naksibandi Brotherhood’s İskenderpaşa Dergahı (Seminary) in Istanbul. Özal had connections with Mehmet Zahit Kotku (1897-1980), who was the Shaykh of the İskenderpaşa Dergahı.

Kotku was the spiritual guide of Erbakan, the founder of Turkey’s preeminent Islamist movement, Milli Görüş (National View, or Outlook).  Heper continues:

Although Özal opposed certain Republican ideals and policies, his reservations about those…were not informed by religious considerations. Particularly in the early Republican period, the Ottoman past had been relegated to the attic of Turkish history, as those centuries were considered a complete failure. In contrast, Özal held the Ottoman past in high regard.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey was faced with a turbulent Middle East and Özal often strained to get more involved in matters beyond Turkey’s borders, for which he was criticized by Turkey’s republicans for “adventurism.”  The Middle East had been mostly ignored by Ankara in the Cold War era, but Özal was not merely being an adventurist. He was, in part, responding to the fact that Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors – namely Iran, Iraq, and Syria – had developed strong and capable military forces, to include ballistic missiles that could threaten Turkey. Özal had a vision to make Turkey “one of the [world’s] ten or fifteen leading nations,” as he said in a 1992 speech. He said, “In the years of the Republic, we see a timid Turkey; a Turkey that remained closed in on itself and…that took care to have as little contact as possible with the outside world. We have constructed a kind of wall around ourselves….” Özal aimed to take down that wall.

Among the social and political consequences of economic liberalization championed by Özal was the growth of wealth and economic activity outside of traditional, state controlled networks and other business networks close to the state.  This began to expand the middle class and awaken the political influence and awareness of segments of Turkish society that had thus far been far more peripheral.  Erbakan’s Welfare Party was one of the beneficiaries of these developments. Özal became Turkey’s president in 1989 and served in that capacity until his untimely and suspicious death in 1993. Upon becoming president, Özal began to acknowledge and even foster Turkey’s sub-national identities, admitting publicly that he himself was partially of Kurdish extraction.

But something else happened: the Cold War ended. And with the end of this era, the Russian threat to Turkey suddenly and dramatically withered.  The end of this era left Turkey’s elites both relieved and vulnerable. They were of course pleased that an expansionist communist empire was longer at their border, but there was also concern that Turkey would now be seen as a less important ally to the West in a post-Cold War world. Özal said, “[I]n the balance of the future…we will hold two cards. One is the card we hold with the Western countries, and the other is the card we hold with these Islamic and Arab countries. Turkey is obliged to carry both these cards.”

Erbakan’s Welfare Party went from success to success in the 1990s and he even captured the prime ministry, only to be deposed by the 1997 “post-modern coup” after proposing educational reforms that displeased the military and pursuing openly Islamist foreign policy aims. In the years following the coup, Turkey’s religious right reconfigured itself and some younger Islamist leaders, including Turkey’s former and current presidents – Abdullah Gül and Erdoğan – broke from Erbakan and the Milli Görüş to form the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which promised to be Islamic without being Islamist and would embrace rather than heap scorn upon the West. Among some key early AKP leaders were former members of Özal’s inner circle from the Motherland Party.

Erdoğan and the AKP went from victory to victory at the ballot box since the 2002 national elections, making Erdoğan Turkey’s most powerful leaders since Atatürk and the AKP the most successful political party since the multi-party period began in the 1940s. The character of the AKP has evolved from a center-right party that attracted both liberals and the devout to a conservative party with mild authoritarian tendencies and an appetite for greater risks abroad. Many of the liberals who joined with the AKP out of exasperation with the military’s role in politics and the tiresome antics of the established parties have since left the AKP.

In the context of Turkey’s strategic culture and approach to foreign policy, there are some interesting parallels between Özal and Erdoğan besides their piety. In some cases, where Özal fell short, Erdoğan has succeeded. But in others Erdoğan has fallen into the same traps. Both sought to confront the military and shake up military personnel at the highest levels of leadership. Özal, as president, overruled the recommendation of the outgoing chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces and appointed his own choice, which was described by the media at the time as a “civilian coup.” He sought unsuccessfully to reduce the military’s influence over Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Erdoğan cooperated with the Gulenist-influenced police and judiciary to imprison nearly 15% of all Turkish generals and flag officers in an effort to coup-proof the state to protect the AKP’s democratic gains. One of Erdoğan’s most loyal lieutenants now runs the MİT. Both Özal and Erdoğan sought to bury old problems with neighboring states. When Özal ascended to the presidency, in the words of Mufti he “installed an underling in the prime ministry and ran Turkey “virtually by decree, and began agitating for a formal shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system.” Erdoğan has followed the same script. Özal tried and failed to smooth things over with Greece and Syria. Erdoğan implemented Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy (described here by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and evaluated less charitably here), which imploded with the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.

Regardless, the republican elite that once governed the country and maintained its particular strategic culture has now been supplanted. They have been defeated at the ballot box and republican military guardians have been jailed, cowed, and largely silenced for the time being. Turkey has not totally abandoned its republican strategic culture, but it now has a stronger competitor evident in Turkey’s contemporary behavior, which I will discuss in the next entry in this series.


Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


* Many of the quotes in this article are translations from Mufti’s book and I recommend it highly.

** Rather than trying to discuss every major foreign policy event or crisis during the period under discussion in this article, I focus on the drivers and factors shaping this new, rising strategic culture.