If you were to ask me which national day is observed with the liveliest fanfare in Turkey, I would answer Victory Day. Celebrated annually on Aug. 30 to mark the day in 1922 when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk ordered the grand offensive against occupying Greek forces, it is popularly known as Army Day.
In recent years, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had declared the last week of August as Victory Week, making it even more prominent. In that week, we always had the colorful graduation ceremonies of army, navy and air force academies with newly commissioned lieutenants joining the TSK, parades in cities, visits to military installations, exhibits to introduce new weapons, concerts by military bands in city squares and shopping malls, and air shows. The TSK used those occasions to boost its visibility and add to its public prestige.
But this year’s Aug. 30 was a dismal, dull occasion. The daily Hurriyet in its Aug. 31 report noted this was the first Victory Day observed in the shadow of the July 15 coup attempt.
Photographs that accompanied news reports were unprecedented. All officers, including the senior ranks, coming to Ataturk’s mausoleum where the first ceremony of the day is always held had to go through identity and X-ray checks by the police, while a heavy presence of special operations police erected a veritable wall between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the military. No soldiers, apart from the guard detail of the mausoleum, were allowed to carry weapons, and security of the entire ceremony area was provided not by soldiers as usual, but by the police. Everyone noticed the heavy weapons of the police, including shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles that are used against, among other things, drones.
Moreover, the traditional military parade in Ankara that normally is an occasion for the Turkish military to show off its newest hardware was canceled because the parade ground was deemed insecure.
Many wondered what caused this year’s Victory Day to be observed so lifelessly. There were two basic reasons.
The first, without doubt, was security. Nowadays in Ankara many people remember the assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat in 1981 as he attended a military parade. Especially after the National Intelligence Organization issued warnings that there could be assassination attempts against top politicians, the government took steps to keep soldiers distant from politicians. This was an important indicator that the crisis of confidence between civilian decision-makers and soldiers has not been overcome and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government still doesn’t trust the military.
Another reason for the uninspired celebration was the AKP elites' ongoing determination to suppress the rising secularist-Kemalist sentiment that emerged after the coup attempt. Aug. 30 has held major symbolic importance, as it brings to mind the "golden years" of the declaration of independence. For AKP people, however, it appears to be more important to ensure that the joy of Aug. 30 not overshadow the suppression of the coup attempt — a suppression they attribute to their supporters.
Many feel that a ghost we believed had long disappeared has made a comeback in Turkey. This is the ghost of political and societal polarization between conservatives, who want Islam to be prevalent in all facets of life, and dedicated secularists, who want the state to be free from what they perceive as shackles of religion.
After the failed coup, the debate over possible motivations and leaders resurrected the ghost and opened the way for a new wave of polarization in Turkey.
For secularists, who identify themselves as the "last soldiers of Mustafa Kemal" Ataturk, the cause of the coup attempt was the infiltration of the state and especially the military by a religious cult and the AKP’s tolerance of this infiltration. According to dedicated secularists, the coup was foiled by Kemalists in the army, and Turkey has to revert to its "factory settings" — that is, to secularism, Kemalism and the founding values of the republic. This, above all, calls for urgent freedom from the pressure of religion on the state and society.
But to the generally pro-AKP, conservative-Islamist crowds that hit the streets on the night of July 15 and for days afterward, they are the guardians of democracy. Those who put their lives at stake confronting the coup plotters are the ones who foiled the coup. This segment says those who defended the democracy and state were conservatives, and they should dominate the state. According to this line of thought, Turkey must not remain a country where Muslims pay the price at tough times, but secularists enjoy life in good times.
This fault line between secularists and conservatives became undeniable in recent events: when a female, headscarf-wearing civil servant was assigned to represent the state in the ceremony of handing over all military hospitals to the Ministry of Health soon after the coup; the government changed the name of the 150-year-old Gulhane Military Hospital of Istanbul to Sultan Abdulhamid Hospital; retired Brig. Gen. Adnan Tanriverdi, notorious for his religious-conservative opinions, was appointed the chief adviser of the presidency on military and security affairs; and the government said female police officers can wear headscarves — and made sure they were visible during Aug. 30 observances.
Journalist Metehan Demir has been drawing attention to this growing polarization, which he said is political.
“In Turkey, all political leaders grandstand to their own audiences. Even if senseless, they use narratives their bases like to hear. The polarization that was ignored for years is now flourishing. Perhaps this is all for the better, as Turkey is finally tackling unsettled accounts of years,” Demir told Al-Monitor.
Demir is particularly concerned with the tendency to drag the army into debates on critical issues of the country. Tarik Celenk, a retired major and an important name of rightist ideology in Turkey, agrees with Demir. “Political cadres that were seriously affected by the trauma of July 15, and the conservative majority that feels that they had saved the state on that night, have set as their primary target [to make] the state totally a civilian one.”
Celenk said the reconciliation process most felt after the Aug. 8 Yenikapi-Istanbul peace rally, which assembled millions of people and all political parties except the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, is not an organic one because it has not filtered down to the masses. “It is not pleasant to see the government undertake reforms to impose civilian rule by telling secularists, ‘We did it despite you’ and ‘We made you bow.’ The government must abandon its prevailing perception of seeing anyone who criticizes it as a traitor, an enemy and separatist.”
In short, the marginalized Victory Day further delineated the new fault line that appeared after July 15. The danger is that the TSK is in the center of the raging debate, which increases the danger of politicizing the TSK.
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