At one time, Turkey was one of the most powerful countries in the world, and the Turkish people have never forgotten this. Turkey headed the Ottoman Empire, which at its peak extended from just east of Vienna, across Hungary and the Balkans, through the Middle East and into modern-day Iraq. It included Baghdad, Mecca and Medina in the Arabian peninsula, most of modern-day Egypt, and extended across the northern coast of Africa through Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers. But the Ottoman Empire broke up after World War I.
The current Turkish Republic dates back only to 1923. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded this republic with a very rigid system that did not allow Islam to play a role in government. He changed many things in the country, such as the alphabet (a switch was made from Arabic to a Latin-based alphabet), and set Turkey firmly on a track to being more westernized.
For decades, the military vigilantly guarded the country’s secularism, and was not shy to overthrow governments or even assassinate people who were perceived as threatening the existing order. Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim, and many of the more conservative Muslims who came from smaller towns in Anatolia rather than the big cities resented the military’s control. They wanted a bigger role of Islam in public life. They also wanted their share of power, both economic and political. As Turkey became more prosperous, this "Anatolian bourgeoisie" become more prosperous too, and began to flex its muscle.
At first, Turkish political parties who wanted a greater role of Islam in the government were open about it. However, the military would crack down very severely on them. For example, Necmettin Erbakan, the first Islamist prime minister, was forced out of office, and his political party was banned.
The Islamists came back wiser from these experiences, and realized that to succeed they would have to hide their true intentions and work within the system. They also realized that they could exploit the voters' frustrations with the military's tight control of the country, and with some corruption among the secularist elite, who had the upper hand politically and economically for so long.
Today, Turkey's ruling political party, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partesi, or "Justice and Development Party") is believed by many to be covertly Islamist. However, party officials generally avoid any overt statements that could give this impression. The AKP party has promoted the idea of Turkey joining the European Union.
Turkey has to bring itself in line with many requirements to join the European Union. Not all are economic. Some of the requirements are political reforms. The European Union does not accept military interference in government affairs, and favors granting minorities rights. This is in conflict with the old style of Turkish government that started with Ataturk. Under this system, the military was the guardian of the state's secularism, and any government that appeared to threaten this would have to be stopped by the military.
When Ataturk created the Turkish Republic, he viewed a nationalistic identity as essential "glue" to hold the country together. One unfortunate side effect of Ataturk’s vision was the insistence on a Turkish cultural identity for everyone. The Kurds, a large minority who constitute almost one-fifth of Turkey’s population, have been severely repressed. In fact, Article 222 of the Turkish Constitition makes it a crime to use the letters Q, X and W! This law is only applied to the Kurds, and was instituted to prevent the Kurds from using their own language and alphabet.
The AKP party says it is in favor of the reforms needed to join the EU. On the surface, it may look as though a loosening of the military's control over Turkey is a good thing. Obviously assassinations and military coups are not the best way to run a democracy. Also, easing up the repression of the Kurds (and other minorities) by allowing them to speak their own language and broadcast in it is surely a good thing too.
It is important, though, to examine carefully what the AKP party's true goals are. Turkey is unlikely to join the EU anytime soon; the obstacles are just too immense. The main effect of the EU reforms has therefore been to shift power away from the secularist elite towards the AKP and its base - the pious "Anatolian bourgeousie."
Over the last several decades, the AKP's base, which includes the followers of Fethullah Gulen, have managed to infiltrate many of the country's institutions. This infiltration was done clandestinely, to avoid a repeat of the earlier crackdowns on Islamists. It could be thought of as Darwinian selection for political groups - only the groups who had adapted successfully to the repressive environment were able to survive and grow. The arrests in February 2010 of a number of top-level military officials in connection with the so-called "Ergenekon" plot were a final sign that the military no longer has enough power to control Turkey.
The "Ergenekon" plot has been major news in Turkey recently. At first, many Turks believed it was about finally bringing the "deep state" under control. The "deep state" is a term used to describe a shadowy underworld of high-level military and government officials who are alleged to have ordered political assassinations, some of which occured even in the last decade. However, the net of "Ergenekon" widens with each passing month, the evidence appears more and more contrived, and it is starting to look more than coincidental that the individuals being arrested just happen to be political opponents of the ruling AKP party.
There are some reasons to think that the AKP government may be headed in a direction that will be even more repressive than the military-controlled secularist government that it supposedly wishes to improve on.
Here is some worthwhile further reading on this subject:
"Secular Turks Facing Prejudice" BBC News Dec 19, 2008
"Being Different in Turkey," a report detailing increasing discrimination against secular Turks under the AKP government, can be downloaded at this link:
"What's Really Behind Turkey's Coup Arrests" Foreign Policy, Feb 25, 2010
"How Turkey Manufactured a Coup Plot" Foreign Policy, April 6, 2010
"Army Ebbs, and Power Realigns in Turkey," New York Times, March 1, 2010
"Turkey and the Army", New York Times, March 8, 2010
"In Turkey, Proposed Changes Aim at Old Guard", New York Times, April 2, 2010
"Constitutional Debate Looms in Turkey" Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2010
"Divisive Turkish Vote sets Stage for Referendum on Constitution" Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2010
"The Death of Turkey's Democracy," Dani Rodrik, Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2010
"The craziness in Turkey reaches new heights," Dani Rodrik, Professor, Harvard University, Sep 28, 2010
"Press Freedom Alla Turca," Claire Berlinski, Standpoint Magazine, Sep 2010
For developments in Turkey from September 2010 to the present, particularly focusing on issues of human rights and press freedom, please see the pages Repression in the Name of Tolerance and More Repression, Turkey and the Gulen Movement.