Support antimilitarists in Turkey

In January 2007, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg decided on the case of Turkish conscientious objector Osman Murat Ülke, who between 1997 and 1999 spent 2 1/2 years in military prison on numerous charges of „disobedience". The court ruled: „The numerous criminal prosecutions against the applicant, the cumulative effects of the criminal convictions which resulted from them and the constant alternation between prosecutions and terms of imprisonment, together with the possibility that he would be liable to prosecution for the rest of his life, [...] were more calculated to repressing the applicant's intellectual personality, inspiring in him feelings of fear, anguish and vulnerability capable of humiliating and debasing him and breaking his resistance and will. The clandestine life amounting almost to "civil death" which the applicant had been compelled to adopt was incompatible with the punishment regime of a democratic society." In conclusion this amounted to a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

So far, so well, one could say. After more then seven years, the case finally comes to an end. However, this unfortunately is not the case. Osman Murat Ülke is still living the clandestine life the European Court complained about, although he received compensation from the Turkish state. And in June 2007 he received a new arrest warrant, ordering him to serve outstanding prison time from 1999. When Osman Murat Ülke's lawyer appealed against the arrest warrant to the Eskisehir military court, the court decided that everything is fine with the arrest warrant, because the ECHR did not order a retrial, and therefore the earlier sentences are still enforceable, even though that might amount to a violation of Article 3.

This blatant affront to the ECHR by a Turkish military court is not a coincidence: through their conscientious objection, objectors attack the very heart of Turkish militarism.

Militarism as state doctrine

Militarism is the main founding principle of the Turkish Republic, only to be matched by laicism, of which the military is the self-appointed guardian. The Turkish Republic was formed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on 23 October 1923, following four years of "war of independence", lead by Atatürk. The new Turkish state implemented a series of reforms to break the power of Islam, and to "modernise" - "westernise" - Turkey: adoption of the European calendar (1926), change from the Arabic to a Latin based alphabet (1928), new civil and penal codes based on the Swiss and Italian codes (1926), among others. However, the new Turkish state was far from being democratic: "From the promulgation of the Law of Maintenance of Order in March 1925, Turkey's government was an authoritarian one-party regime, and, not to put too fine a point on it, a dictatorship" (Zürcher).

However, these reforms went hand in hand with the creation of a "myth of a military nation" (Altinay), with obligatory military service for men as a centrepiece. As soon as practically possible - with the first census of 1927 - the new Turkish Republic introduced universal conscription, boosting military strength from around 78,000 in 1922 to 800,000 in 1939/40. Along with this went the creation of the myth "every (male) Turk is born a soldier" - something today deeply ingrained in the dominant Turkish culture.

The Turkish military until now plays an important role in Turkey's public and political life. Since the beginning of the Turkish Republic, the military took power three times (1960, 1971, 1980), and staged "silent coup's" several times, forcing its will onto the civilian political elite. According to the Turkish constitution, the General Staff is not accountable to the Ministry of Defence - it only has to coordinate with it.

The events of this year around the election of the new Turkish president Abdullah Gül - member of the moderate Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) - not only highlighted the power struggle between the military, guarding what it interprets as Atatürk's principles - and an increasingly powerful moderate and modernised Islam in Turkey, but also the power struggle between the military and civilian political institutions in general.

The Kurdish issue

Kemalist Turkish nationalism is at odds with the multi-ethnic reality in Turkey. In recent months, the issue of the Armenian genocide in 1919, and the re-emergence of the Kurdish guerilla of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) made the news.

Since 1980, PKK waged a guerilla war against the Turkish state, first with the aim of Kurdish independence, now aimed at autonomy within a Turkish state. The Turkish military responded with full-out war in the Kurdish provinces, a state of emergency and a policy of ethnic cleansing. In 1999, Turkey seized Abdullah Öcalan, then leader of the PKK, who was subsequently sentenced to death, which was commuted to life-long aggravated imprisonment.

While this was a major blow to PKK, the guerilla has since reformed and regained strength. The recent attacks within Turkish territory, and the capture of Turkish soldiers by PKK guerillas, who operate out of Kurdish northern Iraq, sparked tensions between Turkey and Iraq - and subsequently between Turkey and its NATO allies, especially the USA and Britain.

While this issue of the Broken Rifle is going to press, Turkey has amassed 100,000 troops at the border to Iraq, ready to invade, to "root out terrorism". First air strikes on Iraqi territory already took place. Initially, the AKP government had been opposed to a military solution, but the power of the military in Turkey forced it to embrace the position of the military - or to be ignored and sidelined by the military driven agenda. Now, the government is publicly taking an absolute hardline position. As we go to press, the Turkish government had just rejected an Iraqi proposal to solve the conflict.

Andreas Speck


Ayse Gül Altinay: The Myth of the Military-Nation. Militarism, Gender, and Education in Turkey. New York, 2004 Erik Jan Zürcher (ed.): Arming the State: Military Conscription in the Middle East and Central Asia 1775-1925. London and New York, 1999