As the threat of a physical war with Syria literally shook the ground along the border, there was and still is another battle that has dominated Turkish society for decades, the outcome of which may well have been the verdict in the Sledgehammer coup plot, sentencing those responsible to long prison sentences.
Sledgehammer is the bookend for modern Turkey. Throughout the modern era, Turkey has struggled with secularism. The battle initiated with many radical reforms that were implemented during the early years of the republic spelled the beginning of an era where religion was oppressed. This oppression was given legal authority and power through the use of military and political might. With the weight of constitutional authority, the military was allowed to enforce this oppression through the deployment of the forces of armed coups in 1960, ‘71, ‘80 and ‘97.
What is often not understood by pundits outside of Turkey in the West is that the idea of secularism that they so cherish as a freedom to practice faith is not what secularism has been for Turkey over the last nine decades. Physical threats, death, coups and the banning of political parties have been the rule of the day, all in the name of secularism. But this was never true secularism. It has always been the elimination of freedom of faith.
This battle came to a head in 2003 when members of the highest ranks of the military, along with others in an elite power structure, sought to overthrow a democratically elected government. Ostensibly this was done in the name of a pure Turkish state, such as the one envisioned by Atatürk. But in fact, this was a violent attempt to desperately hold onto power that had been jealously hoarded throughout modern Turkish political history. This was to be carried out by the use of violence in the form of assassinations of Turkish civilians and terrorist acts, such as the blowing up of an airliner in flight, terrorism in its harshest form. In no way, shape or form were these acts in support of secularism. These were acts committed purely in the pursuit of political domination.
The internal Turkish battle is not known by many outside Turkey. The verdicts in the Sledgehammer case did not make headlines beyond Turkey’s borders. When they did make the news outside Turkey, often the analysis was alarmist or weakly informed.
The stripping away of a power structure that sought to oppress for decades through the verdicts in Sledgehammer represents an important step for the consolidation of democracy in Turkey. It can be seen as the beginning of a non-oppressive state that does not interfere with people’s freedom to practice their faith, and in which the military does not attempt to overthrow political parties that are democratically elected. Where once the Western pundits embraced their flawed notions about Turkey and pluralism, through these verdicts in the Sledgehammer case Turkey has taken an important step in shutting the door on religious oppression and entering into an era of a secular, and distinctly Turkish, constitutional democracy. Turkey now begins the work of improving its own democratic standards, moving away from the era in which groups within the military attempted to hijack its burgeoning democracy.
*Thomas Sorlie is a public lecturer and writer whose specialization is in Islamic theology and history. His focus is on Islamic development in the modern era and the Arab Spring. [email protected]