Why the top general was arrested
The arrest of retired Gen. İlker Başbuğ, who used to be the chief of the General Staff of the Turkish military until a year ago, created shockwaves both in Turkey and abroad. Some hailed it as the ultimate triumph of Turkish democracy against an overbearing army. Others condemned it as the latest encroachment of Turkey’s new elites who are creating their own autocracy.
I, for my part, had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I, too, hailed the questioning of Başbuğ by civilian prosecutors as a sign of the taming of a military that used to be both arrogant and untouchable. But on the other hand, I found the accusation against the retired general (“creating a terrorist organization”) overblown. I also thought that his arrest – like many other arrests these days – was unnecessary and unfair.
Let me explain. Başbuğ is accused of two specific things that happened under his command: The “black propaganda websites” opened by the chief of the General Staff, and the “action plan against reactionary forces” allegedly prepared by some officers in the staff. The prosecutors take these as evidence that the retired general was conspiring in a military coup.
The first of these, propaganda websites such as “irtica.org or “turkatak.com” (domain names that mean “reactionism” and “Turkish attack”) are not denied by the military. The institution opened dozens of such websites in the late 1990s in the aftermath of its “post-modern coup,” to bash the social groups that it considered as “internal enemies.” A major theme was “irtica” (“reactionism” or “backwardness”), which, in the military’s language, implied all conservative, observant Muslims.
Things became grimmer when the anti-irtica websites began to write false news stories designed to vilify the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP), some of which were used as “evidence” in the 2008 closure case against the governing party. (The Constitutional Court, which ultimately decided not to close the AKP, dismissed these stories as false.)
Now, these websites were of course unacceptable in any democracy. (Imagine the American military opening up websites condemning the Southern Baptist Church or the Republican Party. It is unimaginable.) But, to me, they also did not look like “coup attempts.” Psychological war against “internal enemies” used to be, unfortunately, one of the very job definitions of our officers.
The second thing Başbuğ is accused of, a plan that includes planting bombs and other weapons in the homes of “reactionaries” in order to depict them as terrorists, is of course much more worrisome. But the military denies its existence, and the document outlining the plan has been a matter of controversy. It will be up to the courts to decide whether it is authentic or not.
In any case, Başbuğ seems not to be one of the architects of all these bizarre phenomena. He actually closed most of the propaganda websites in 2009 after they were exposed in the media. And his angry words denying the “action plan” looked to me more like an effort to save his institution’s image than anything else.
As for the bigger picture, here is my honest take: The Turkish military, which has repeatedly attacked and threatened Turkish democracy since 1960, had to be tamed. So, these “coup cases” are neither fake nor unnecessary. But there is a growing risk of overdoing this “civilian takeover” and harming the officers that are innocent.
For the excesses in this process, some blame the AKP. I disagree, for the AKP is actually often soft against the military (as Erdoğan’s criticism of Başbuğ’s arrest has once again shown). Others blame the allies of the AKP, such as the Gülen Movement. But I rather blame the common Turkish political mindset, which sees the whole world through conspiracy theories and has more passion for revenge than justice.