Yeah I know: typically conspiracies are the topics of fantasy and belong within the realm of literary fiction, not area studies. But in the case of Turkey, conspiracy theories, at least in recent years, have found a bit more merit than elsewhere. Thus, I present to you, the story of Ergenekon. For many of you, as it was for me until recently, the name probably means little. However, for the Turk’s that may be reading this, it represents the story/case that has been omnipresent in Turkish media for the better part of the last three years.
But first, a short history of Turkey:
The Turkish Republic was founded following World War I upon the principles of (among others) nationalism and secularism, despite possessing almost an entirely Muslim population. Obviously, some issues ensued, namely how the secularism was to be upheld by the government and to what extent religion was to present in government affairs. Consequently, the twentieth century represented a continuing struggle of balancing both Islam and secularism in the country. As with any other political struggle, there is of course a spectrum of participants in the debate. There are the ultra-secularists and the corresponding ultra-Islamists and the moderate left and right leaning groups in-between. But for all intents and purposes, Turkey still possesses a constitution that defines it as a secular nation and includes provisions to limit the influence of Islam on government affairs and within the public sphere.
Here’s where the issue arises: In November 2002, the Justice and Development Party (or by the Turkish acronym, AKP) was elected into power by a decisive vote in the Turkish general election. The AKP is also an Islamist political party. Much to the collective dismay of the secularist fringe, the AKP proved to be both an effective and pragmatic political institution. In the past, Islamist political parties had come to power, the Welfare Party of the 1990s being an example. However, the Welfare Party did not command the same level of pragmatism that the AKP would later have and pushed their Islamic agenda a little too far. Long story short, in 1997 there was a coup (described as “post-modernist” by many scholars as there was no actual take over by the military but merely the threat of one) on the part of the secular, military elite that removed Welfare from power.
The AKP of the twenty-first century took a different approach. Continuing the successful social programs of the Welfare Party while also dialing down their outward Islamic approach, the AKP commanded a high level of popularity and an effective government. Their platform has been shaped by the recent surge on the part of the Turkish Republic to gain entry into the European Union, and many citizens have backed them in this approach.
Despite the AKP’s popularity and pragmatic approach, there is still a significant contingent of the population that wishes to see such a party with Islamist roots removed from power. As shown above in the case of the coup that brought down the Welfare Party, this secularist segment of society has also traditionally held the majority in the military, namely at its most elite levels. I’m pretty sure you can see where I’m going with this.
The word “Ergenekon” is a reference to a legend about the genesis of the Turkish people and is the suspected name of a criminal organization within Turkey that has slowly but surely been linked to members of the government at the highest levels. According to the formal indictment that was brought against the members of the group, its intention was to bring about as much chaos as possible in Turkey in order to justify yet another military coup (there have already been four since 1923). The investigation and its consequent trial have been referred to as the case of the century, having exposed a shady and somewhat disturbing conspiracy to control and shape the progression of a government and society that has tried several times to prove to the world its commitment to democracy.
For example, the original indictment that was brought against the organization by the government in the summer of 2008 outlined a number of different plots that had a number of high profile targets in mind. These featured both the current Prime Minister of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the world-renowned novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk. In addition, murders that had already been committed and the bombing of a newspaper were included in the charges. The campaign of destabilization had raged throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century and, despite the open investigation, is believed to continue until the present day.
Just this past week, another indictment was submitted to a Turkish High Criminal Court implicating 3rd Army Commander Gen. Saldıray Berk and 12 other suspects in a plot to frame the police force in the city of Erzincan. Weaponry had been planted near a dam in the city as a means of discrediting the police department and raising suspicions of its actions. What would this accomplish, you ask? Well, the Erzincan Police Department has been aiding prosecutors in the Ergenekon investigation. Furthermore, Erzincan possesses a diverse group of peoples, featuring Sunnis, Alevis, Kurds, and the plotters believed that fragmentation of public opinion made it more susceptible to manipulation. Despite the failure of many of the efforts of Ergenekon, the plots as exposed in the indictments cited above, if they are in fact completely true, are a bit frightening in their precision and calculation. One can only hope that conspiracies like this one can be uncovered and stopped before they can succeed, not merely for the lives that are immediately at risk, but also for the threat it poses to the democracy of the Turkish people generally.