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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 309-332

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Turkey 2002:
Kemalism, Islamism, and Politics in the Light of the February 28 Process

Ümit Cizre and Menderes Çınar


In the 1990s, Turkish politics witnessed the fragmentation of the political center and the rise of the Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi, or RP) from fringe party to a major partner in the coalition government, Refahyol, it formed with the center-right True Path Party (Dogru Yol Partisi, or DYP) in June 1996. With the benefit of hindsight, one might suggest that the Turkish military took the accession of the RP into government as confirmation of its belief that Islamist reactionism, irtica in Turkish, had become a substantial threat to the secular character of the republic. Consequently, on February 28, 1997, the military-dominated National Security Council (NSC) issued the Refahyol coalition government with a list of measures designed to nullify the supposed Islamization of Turkey and fortify the secular system. Subsequent pressure from the NSC, in tandem with the civilian component of the secular establishment, led to the collapse of the coalition government in June 1997.

The ousting of the Refahyol government signaled the start of the military's plan to refashion Turkey's political landscape along Kemalist lines [End Page 309] without actually having to take over power directly. Hence, the phrase "February 28 process" was coined to indicate not only the far-reaching implications of the NSC decisions, but also the suspension of normal politics until the secular correction was completed. This process has profoundly altered the formulation of public policy and the relationship between state and society. No major element of Turkish politics at present can be understood without reference to the February 28 process.

This essay takes issue with three things. First, it seeks to unpack the rationale that underpins the February 28 process and critically assess its impact on Turkish politics and society. Next, it examines the way in which the February 28 process has afforded the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) even greater scope to influence public policy and to do so with virtually no oversight by the civilian constitutional authority. Finally, it addresses the ways in which political Islam has responded to the process.

Reconfiguring Politics

Since the inception of the republic, Kemalism has comprised its guiding vision. It is in essence a Westernizing/civilizing ideology whose incontrovertible maxims are secularism, understood as the separation of religion from political rule; a modern/Western identity and lifestyle; and the cultural homogeneity and territorial unity of the nation. Because the Kemalist Westernization project has relied more on symbols than substance, it has associated publicly visible instances of Islamic identity with reactionism. The ideology is also marked by a visible distaste for politics as a societal activity, and an ambivalent attitude toward the notion of popular legitimacy. Over time, it has been adjusted, at times stalled, but never abandoned or discontinued. Even if the TAF has at times deployed the Kemalist doctrine to suit its own agenda, its basic tenets have not lost their power of appeal and legitimacy both across classes and across the civilian-military divide.

Kemalism Redefined or Entrenched? The architects behind the February 28 process grounded their actions in the need to ensure the "continuity" of the basic assumptions of the Kemalist model. The Turkish military, former President Süleyman Demirel (1993–2000), the civil societal network of the secular establishment, media, and large sectors of the populace believe that Islamic reactionism constitutes the chronic, if at times undetectable, [End Page 310] [Begin Page 312] malaise of the Turkish polity. The former Chief of General Staff General Hüseyin Kıvrıkoglu expresses this sentiment: "Radical Islam may appear gone one day to reemerge the next day . . . it is not possible to say that the danger has vanished." 1 As a result, the secular establishment's natural reflex is to remain in a permanent state of alert. They also hold that by sticking to a "purist interpretation of the Kemalist bases...


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pp. 309-332
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