The ongoing trial of ‘Ergenekon', a clandestine Kemalist ultra secular radical group that has close ties with Turkey's military and security apparatus, has been rightly noted as the ‘biggest trial of modern Turkey'.
The trial of 86 people including former top military generals, a head of political party, important journalists and members of Turkish press and business giants started last week and sparked fierce clashes between ultra nationalists and Islamists. Ergenekon is alleged to be involved in political assassinations, terrorism, and collaboration with enemies of states i.e. PKK and propaganda missions in order to create an environment to overthrow the Islamist government by yet another direct or indirect military coup. Ergenekon existence is mostly noted from late 90's but some Turkish sources maintain that the ‘Gladio' has existed since 1960's and has been involved in most of the military coups against elected governments, four to be precise.
Modern Turkey, where Ergenekon operated, came into being from the ruins of Ottoman Caliphate, relinquished anything that was once religious for centuries, under the banner of Kemalism. Kemal Ataturk, a unifying figure for many Turks, changed anything or every thing that related to the past of Caliphate, whom he served as a solider.
The language script was changed from Arabic to Latin, call to prayer were performed in Turkish than Arabic, religious courts were closed, headscarves (Fez) were banned and people were imprisoned for wearing them, the trend that continues today in Turkish universities etc., all in the name of modern ‘secularism'. But Turkish secularism is not the secularism you will find in US or Europe i.e. instead of granting an individual religious freedom, Turkish secularism promoted absolute domination and control of religion by the state at every level.
The existence of such a group in a country that lives in the shadow of such Kemalist's cult is not surprising, but what is surprising is the fact that the Turkish elite class of every walk of life is said to be involved in criminal and terrorist activities in the name of defending nationalism for such a long time without going un-noticed or un-punished.
For Turkish radical secularists, Islamism or anything that resonate with religion is anti-constitutional, therefore anti-Turkish. But despite above noted effort to secularise Turkey, a process that took decades, Islam and Islamism was back not only in the society but to their extreme despair in the government. Although Erbakan's government was overthrown by an indirect military coup, most probably encouraged or even initiated by Ergenekon, the Islamists were back with even bigger majority in the government few years later.
Erdogon's AK party has not only won majority of votes but has recently struck another success by winning Presidency of Abdullah Gul as well. Despite the claims of ultra-secularists that Islamists are the radicals of Turkish society or anti-constitutional, AK party's record has been quite the contrary - i.e., it has even worked more fiercely towards the membership of EU than its secular predecessor and has achieved better recognition if not the full membership from the Europeans. It has brought Turkey once again closer to the East as well as the West i.e., its mediation between Syria and Israel and Syria and the EU, its re-established links with Iraq and Iran and other Middle Eastern states are all but signs of its strategic success. To put it in simple words, Turkish Islamists are the real moderates and have been more successful at every level than their secular predecessors and enjoy larger mandate from the public than seculars.
Therefore, the trial of Ergenekon is a response of Islamist government against ultra-secular elite who seek not only the destruction of AK party or role of religion in Turkish society but also the freedom and true democracy in Turkey. Many questions however need addressing i.e., what will the trial produce, an end of radical secularism and illegitimate organisations under the cloak of Kemalism or yet another abrupt end to elected government in Turkey? What will the future be for Turkish ambitions to EU's membership in above both scenarios?
What Turkish experience of both moderate Islamism and hardcore secularism say to the rest of Middle Eastern region, the region that has many more comparable regimes to Turkish ultra-secular elite, although in different forms? And finally what of the Turkish Justice system? Could the same system that withheld many democratic fundamentals including headscarf ban in the universities in the name of defending ‘secularism', produce free and fair trial and justice?
Only time will give the answer to many of the above posed questions, but one thing is absolutely certain that if the criminal and terror network of Ergenekon is not stopped by the Turkish government and society in general, the outcomes will be horrendous to Turkey's internal security, democracy, freedom of expression and regional/international standing. A Turkish columnist ‘Ekram Dumanli' rightly notes in ‘Daily Zaman' that ‘Whoever fails to purge its gang will be purged by that gang, whoever fails to dismantle its Gladio will be dismantled by that Gladio, whoever fails to beat its junta will be beaten by that junta. That is the rule'.
There is however another lesson that some Middle Eastern regimes particularly in Northern Africa can learn, that no matter how long and how hard you try to stay in power whilst condemning religion in the shape of fundamentalism and its role in the society and whilst creating similar Gladio's (i.e. Mukhabrat, elite ultra secular politicians, Army, autocracy etc), there may be a time when your ‘Ergenekon's' will be discovered, publicised and put on trial for justice. They mustn't forget that Turkey, the country many boasted for a long time as the only working secular model in the Muslim world, the country that shredded its glorious past behind and went over the limit towards secularism to become ‘modern' nation, is today modern not because of its ultra secular past and military interventionism but because of majority of public will, that has elected Islamic-oriented party, and that sees nothing alien in the role of religion in their society.
Usama Butt is a research scholar based in the UK