By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
November 6th, 2015
FROM a distance, Turkey seems like a country worth emulating, especially for Pakistanis who salivate at the combination of Muslim ‘culture’, fervent nationalism and a strong army that characterises the Turkish model. The urbane segments of the Pakistani elite in particular like to play up Turkey’s secular foundations, and it is not uncommon to hear pseudo-intellectuals insist that all of Pakistan’s problems would be solved if we had an Ataturk running the show.
In fact, two men who have ruled Pakistan for 20 years between them have directly or indirectly drawn inspiration from Ataturk — Ayub Khan and Pervez Musharraf. I suspect the third and most ruthless of our uniformed autocrats, Ziaul Haq, secretly admired Ataturk too, but kept this to himself because his public pronouncements and actions were always laced with a heavy dose of Islam.
In other words, our chattering classes’ lament notwithstanding, we have had more experiences with home-grown ‘Ataturks’ than we otherwise tend to think. Indeed, a very strong case can be made that the Pakistani army has generally maintained a secular outlook, even though it has instrumentalised Islam in a way that its Turkish counterpart would never imagine doing.
In any case, Pakistan and Turkey both maintain powerful armies that have historically dominated comparatively weaker political elites. The feeling has been that Turkey has made much more progress in cutting praetorian tendencies down to size, especially during the relative stability of the Erdogan years, whose AKP party won another majority in parliament last week.
We are more familiar with home-grown Ataturks than we think.
Yet a closer reading of recent events confirms that reports of the Turkish army’s demise are greatly exaggerated. For the most part the army is still considered the country’s most prestigious institution, and the guardian of Turkey’s (secular) ideological frontiers. Sound familiar?
One of the most significant developments to have taken place in the past year of Erdogan’s rule has been the military crackdown against Kurdish separatists, and the attendant closing of space for the mainstream Kurdish HDP, which garnered enough of the vote in last year’s parliamentary election to deny Erdogan the big majority that he craved (which explains the holding of another election last week barely a year after the previous one).
The renewal of hostilities against a Kurdish population whose relationship with the Turkish state has been lukewarm at the best of times is very agreeable to the Turkish army. Indeed, some observers would argue that the launching of the military operation actually represents a form of surrender by the Erdogan regime insofar as it has willingly relinquished control of some strategic and foreign policy decisions to the army.
Here again it is difficult not to pay attention to the obvious parallels with the Pakistani case. The mobilisation of the state’ s coercive apparatus against ‘troublesome’ ethnic minorities in the name of protecting ‘national security’ is a tried and tested strategy of the Pakistani army. In recent times, such operations against Baloch nationalists have intensified, and it is no surprise that it is in this same period that GHQ has reasserted its power over the civilian government (with, it should be noted, the wilful support of international patrons harbouring economic and strategic interests in the region).
Containing ‘terrorism’ has quickly emerged as another major mandate of the Turkish army, just like it is in Pakistan. On the surface there is nothing insidious about this fact, with the IS threat in neighbouring Syria apparently spilling over into Turkey, as evidenced by the horrific bomb blast in Istanbul last month targeting a peace rally. But progressive Turks reading between the lines have claimed that the bomb blast was the work of the ‘deep state’ which didn’t like the idea of Kurds and ethnic Turks coming together demanding an end to hostilities between the Turkish army and Kurdish militants. Sound familiar?
Of course, there are clear limits to the analogies that can be drawn between what are admittedly two substantially different societies with diverse histories. But those in Pakistan who go on about the appeal of the ‘Turkish model’ as if to suggest that country’s state is fundamentally more democratic and/or tolerant of difference than ours ought to be careful what they wish for.
The secularists amongst us should in particular note that the Turkish army has acquiesced to a power-sharing arrangement with a mildly Islamist AKP, which is to suggest that state establishments are always happy and willing to foment configurations of power that are anything but ideologically coherent.
Certainly there are contradictions within the structure of power in Turkey, just as they are in Pakistan. But any model that is praetorian in nature must ultimately be based on the negation of fundamental democratic freedoms, whether of ethnic/religious minorities, other underprivileged groups or even society at large. The truth is that we have emulated Turkey for years, with great success.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar teachers at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.