Constantinos P. Kavafis

The "Barbarians" arrived in an early autumn morning, with the people of Turkey waking up to the roar of military tanks. The calendars were showing the date September 12, 1980, and as Kavafis’ lyrics above suggest, the first thing they did was to close down Parliament while abolishing all political parties.

Road to Coup d’Etat

This was not the first military intervention that the Turkish public had witnessed. In fact, since May 27, 1960, starting each decade with a military takeover had become a tradition of Turkish political life. Turkey entered the 1970s by coming out of an extraordinary regime as she had done in the 1960s. The 1973 elections carried the Bulent Ecevit-led Republican People’s Party (CHP) with a quasi-socialist platform to power. Ecevit had promised "enlightened days" in which peace, democracy and prosperity would prevail, but these hopes receded soon with the combined effect of the American embargo after Turkish troops landed on Cyprus in 1974 and the oil crisis, which shook Turkey as elsewhere in the world.

Within a few years, Turkey became a country of shortages of all basic consumer goods, including oil, electricity, cigarettes and even margarine, and the CHP-led coalition would pay the bill at the ballot box. But the criticisms of Turkey’s problems were not limited to electoral attitude: Social opposition, led by trade union and youth movements with strong socialist tendencies, flourished around the country, taking over the CHP’s unfulfilled tasks and adding new ones to them by putting the very system–and the possibilities of transforming it–into question.

This political renewal did not last long: The massive May Day rally of 1977 turned into a bloodbath in Istanbul, leaving over 30 demonstrators dead, and would be blamed both on the conflicting left-wing groups and the secret services. After this incident, Turkey entered a period of unprecedented violence. Growing intra-left antagonisms and clashes between far-right groups and the left led to the alienation of the public from politics–a term that became increasingly associated with "terrorism."

The vision of a better common future thus degenerated into a danger of disintegration, which would prove to be a real danger not limited to political polarization, with the 1978 Kahramanmaras massacre–a provocation based on Sunni-Alevi tensions that claimed over a hundred lives from the Alevi community. Neither the CHP nor its rival Nationalist Front led by the Justice Party (the AP led by Suleyman Demirel) was able to provide sufficient alternatives to this social disintegration and political polarization, nor were they able to cope with the traumatic effects of embargo and permanent economic crisis.

The Septemberist discourse and practice

It was this episode of late 1970s that was concluded with a coup d’etat on September 12, 1980. The military takeover brought the whole nation under the command of the then Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Kenan Evren. Gen. Evren swore that he would pull out the roots of the political left from Turkish soil.

The military regime externalized in its discourse from the "nation" a totality representing national enemies consisting of "subversive and separatist forces" (meaning trade unions, left-wing and Kurdish groups, parties and intellectuals), their "foreign masters" (meaning in particular the Communist Bloc) and "corrupt and impotent politicians."

The implication of this discourse was to turn the whole country into a huge prison. Sustained curfews and military control of social life aimed to restore the nation as an aggregate of disciplined bodies, while systematic brainwashing through constant nationalist-militarist indoctrination aimed to furnish these submissive bodies with obedient soles. Those who were found unfit for this social therapy would receive the largest share from the wrath of the sadistic generals. Six-hundred-and-fifty-thousand people were detained and systematically tortured. More than 1,000 people died in the hands of the torturers; 171 of these deaths have been admitted as resulting from maltreatment, while the rest were recorded as "suicide," "shot while trying to escape" or "death from natural causes."

The whole country was practically a prison, but the "real" prisons of the September 12 regime were particularly horrific. Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners were constantly subjected to a treatment comparable to that in the Nazi concentration camps. Diyarbakir, Elazig, Mamak (Ankara) and Metris (Istanbul) prisons were the most notorious of these concentration camps. In addition to systematic maltreatment, the use of perverted methods of torture and degradation, including rape and sexual abuse, forcing to eat rats and excrement, were practiced under the military junta’s supervision. The ruling generals of the National Security Council had obviously used the prisons as laboratories to conduct experiments of their sadomasochistic fantasies over the left-wing and Kurdish youth, politicians, trade unionists and intellectuals.

In the military courts of the September 12 regime, 230,000 people were tried. During these show trials, the right to defense was seriously breached. Many defense lawyers were arrested and charged with membership to the groups that they legally defended. These courts sentenced 517 people to death. Fifty of these executions were carried out. One of the victims, Erdal Eren, was hanged when he was a juvenile. Kenan Evren defended this illegal execution by saying, "Shall we feed this enemy of the state instead of hanging?" The executions were halted under international pressure in 1984.

Ataturk’s Generals and the Islamist revival

The primary task that the September coup pronounced for itself was to bring social peace by decisively erasing social polarization and political conflict. On his first public appearance as the new leader of army and nation, Evren cited a number of reasons for the coup, including the "anti-secularist threat against Kemalism." The junta stated that "depolitization" of society was necessary in order to end polarization. It revitalized the myth of Kemalism–now pronounced Ataturkism in order to avoid the left-wing connotations of the term–which signified national unity and security.

But the military regime would soon realize the shortcomings of their Ataturkism in filling the vacuum left from the physical elimination of the socialist influence on social and political life of 1970s Turkey. Their anti-socialist stance consequently led the generals to favor the religious right in their search for legitimization. In these circumstances, the "Turkish-Islamic Synthesis" offered a perfect content for the junta’s Ataturkism. The "Sythesis" had been produced in the 1970s by conservative-religious intellectuals organized in the "hearth of intellectuals" with an emphasis on authoritarian politics and social control through the use of cultural and religious codes. A 1983 State Planning Institute document clearly enunciated the importance of religion in "safeguarding the state and national unity" under circumstances of "rapid industrialization and social change."

Accordingly, religious and "moral" instruction began to enjoy a much larger share of the education system. Dozens of religious secondary schools were established and Q`ranic schools enjoyed an unparalleled boom in an atmosphere that encouraged their expansion. In a political climate where any other political tendency was practically banned, the conservative-religious political elements, on the other hand, were able to obtain positions in key parts of the state bureaucracy and educational apparatus where the left had previously been influential.

The consequences of the religious move at the centre of Turkish political life in the 1980s went beyond all expectations. For over a decade, Islamist publications and radical Islamist groups proliferated around the country elaborating a discourse of traditionalism and anti-secularism. The Welfare Party (RP), acting as an umbrella organization for various Islamist and conservative tendencies, gained unprecedented strength through the articulation of not merely the demands of its traditional constituency, consisting of degraded provincial merchants and middle classes, but also the urban poor and to a certain extent the Kurds.

The military, which claimed as the primary reason for the coup d’etat the threat of an Islamist revival, thus paradoxically promoted this very Islamist revival. The results of this paradox are so ironic that the party that, to a certain extent, is the continuation of the political movement that the military regime initiated the coup d’etat over (AKP) is now the ruling party in Turkey.

In short, Gen. Evren tried to Kemalize and nationalize society; in effect, he Islamized it.

The Junta and the Kurds

Another primary target of the 1980s junta was "separatism," which the generals held largely responsible for late 1970s disintegration. Consequently, the military regime commenced a campaign to penalize the Kurds for breaching the Ataturkist principles. The logic of this punishment was that the Kurds had failed to assimilate to Turkish identity by refusing to realize that they were in fact "mountain Turks." Kurdish politicians and political activists of every tendency were detained and severely tortured for a decade, particularly in the notorious Diyarbakir Prison. Kurdish villages were systematically raided and searched by Turkish troops claiming to be searching for weapons. Both oral and written communication in Kurdish language was banned and penalized.

It was under these conditions that a guerrilla group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), launched an armed struggle against the Turkish forces in 1984. In parallel to the increase in PKK activities through the 1980s, the military presence in the region grew dramatically, intensifying the state terror over Kurdish civilians. Kurdish people were forced to choose between joining the government militia (village guards) or being labeled PKK supporters. The intensification of oppression provoked the Kurdish youth further to go to the mountains.

The Kurdish conflict escalated in parallel to the military authorities’ claims each year that the "separatist terror organization" would be finished off "by next year," claiming more lives from both sides and most dangerously polarizing society on ethnic lines. Today, the balance sheet of the Kurdish conflict shows 40,000 dead, mostly Kurdish civilians, thousands of villages burned down and evacuated, and millions of Kurdish villagers forcibly displaced.

What the September coup succeeded in delivering to the Turkish state and society was not a decisive solution to political polarization, but a decisive mentality that leads to a certain understanding of the roots of terrorism not as a real social problem, but as "a bunch of bandits looking for trouble and blood"–with the consequent reliance solely on military methods for coping with it.

In short, Evren legitimized his state terror by claiming that it was necessary to reclaim social peace; instead of social peace, however, his junta brought about a far larger political conflict in Turkey.

A horrific balance sheet

A significant part of the problem with any balance sheet of September 12 is that Turkey could not take major steps to go beyond the legacy of that day. On the contrary, Turkish society still suffers from the results of the September regime, "depolitization," Islamist revival and the Kurdish conflict being three of them. An additional one of such results is the continuation of the authoritarian structures that were installed in the administrative functioning of the Turkish state.

There is one distinguishing difference between the 1980 takeover and other military interventions, and that is that the laws and institutions, including the Constitution, the National Security Council (MGK), the Higher Education Authority (YOK) and the High Council of Referees (YHK), still prevail as the primary institutions representing political authority in Turkey.

The MGK prevails as a decision-making body that includes the members of the Cabinet along with the military chiefs, and whose decisions overrule in most cases those of the elected governments. The YOK, as a regulatory body, members of which are assigned by the political authority and which denies academic and administrative autonomy to universities, and the YHK as the final authority to resolve disputes between the employers’ and workers’ unions with extraordinary powers, including banning industrial actions, also prevail. These Septemberist institutions are under legal protection by the 1982 Constitution, which with some minor amendments is still in effect.

Changes have of course taken place in these 29 years, varying from constitutional changes to the abolishment of the death penalty. These, however, fall far short to enable us to claim that the traces of the authoritarian September 12 regime have been erased decisively from Turkish political and social life through what is referred to as "democratization."

"The Prison House of September"

So, to a large extent, the people of Turkey are still the inmates of "the prison house of September." One proof of this is a monument of "Martyrs" built last year in Fatih, central Istanbul. On this monument, among the names of the "martyrs" appears Major Esat Oktay Yildiran. Yildiran was the sadistic governor of Diyarbakir Prison, where perverted torture methods were practiced and Nazi-like experiments were conducted over Kurdish political prisoners. Imagine the contemporary German state erecting a monuments in the memory of the Nazi butcher Josef Mengele, or the current Iraqi government building a Chemical Ali monument to commemorate its "martyr"!

The "martyr" monument in Istanbul was discovered in the midst of discussion over what to do with Diyarbakir Prison. The government proposed to convert it into a school, which immediately received heated objection from Kurdish circles asking "what do you expect our children to learn in a place where their fathers and grandfathers were tortured?" Kurdish intellectuals demand that this prison should be converted into a museum, similar to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

Government’s proposal seems to be an attempt to offer an alternative to opposition leader Deniz Baykal’s recent demand that the September 12 coup-makers be taken to courts. In fact, Baykal’s statement should not have been categorically dismissed but appreciated as the first and only democratic demand that his party, CHP, has ever raised during its long experience as the main opposition party. With the leader of the Septemberist regime, Gen. Kenan Evren, still alive and free, any moves toward democratization and social peace, such as the government’s recent "Kurdish initiative," would seriously suffer from lack of credibility.

The authoritarian institutional legacy of the Junta still shapes the political structures and institutions of the Turkish state, while the ideological legacy of "depolitization" is largely responsible for the social and political portrait of contemporary Turkey. But most important of all is the fact that the painful post-traumatic effects of the September 12 regime are still alive in various sectors of contemporary Turkish society.
The Kurdish Globe
September 12, 2009