Young people in Turkey besieged by militarism: Past and present

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Serdar M. Değirmencioğlu -

Militarism has a long history in Turkey. It is therefore surprising that there are very few studies in the Social Sciences and in Education on how the militarisation of young people has operated. With a few exceptions, social scientists have remained silent when it comes to questioning the military and the way militarism has been instilled in young people, one generation after another.

Militarism after the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire lasted for centuries and always relied on its military might, but militarism was not a part of everyday life. Militarism was only introduced into daily life with the advent of modern institutions, particularly schools, which became part of the state apparatus when the Ottoman Empire was succeeded by a new nation state - the Republic of Turkey - in 1923. The founders of the republic were determined to break with the past and modernise the country. There was, however, an inherent contradiction in that their modernist vision was limited by their military roots. The leading reformers were all military men and, in keeping with the military tradition, all believed in the authority and the sacredness of the state. The public also believed in the military. It was the military, after all, who led the the War of Liberation (1919-1923) and saved the motherland.

The founders of the new state believed in education: the new republic could only be built through an educational campaign. Recurrent wars of the late Ottoman period and the War of Liberation itself produced a large number of orphaned, sick or frail children, who needed the protection and education that the state could offer. The authoritarian regime assumed that discipline was essential to creating a modern citizenry (well-educated, healthy and dutiful men and women) from the largely uneducated masses, and that quick but orderly social progress could be achieved through regulating many spheres of life.

Two primary goals, establishing national unity and modernising the country, were often conceived in a militaristic framework: the transformation of the human body in line with modern, rational and scientific values in many spheres of life - including clothing, aesthetics, health, reproduction, childcare and housekeeping. Disciplining the public through body politics was essential to creating modern citizens. These notions evolved in the 1930s into eugenics. Eugenics was popular in the modern world and the republican leaders imported eugenics to support the state’s regulation of the human body: abortion was abolished, pre-marital examination of couples was mandated, childcare institutions were established. Prevention of epidemics and alcoholism became a priority. Under the nation-building frenzy, a collectivist and authoritarian discourse emerged, producing an ultra-nationalist ideology that bordered on racism. Militarism thrived in this climate.

Militarism after 1945

A new world order was established after World War II. In Turkey a liberal government that aligned itself with conservative social forces ended the single-party regime. The new government was not against militaristic practices in schools, except those that did not fit with gender segregation. The new government pushed some of the reforms back but the military coup in 1960 put an end to this.

The military coup introduced yet another contradiction. It paved the way to a progressive constitution. But it also legitimised the role of military forces as protectors of the state. Using this role, the military would intervene in 1971 and 1980. The military always did its best to gain public support before and after each intervention.

With the 1960 constitution a vibrant political climate emerged. However, two parties dominated politics until 1980: a left-of-centre party that represented the heavy-handed and authoritarian republican tradition, and a right-of-centre party that aligned with conservative forces – including religious movements – in the service of capitalism. Both parties regarded schools as the breeding ground of social forces, and schools became the battleground between so-called 'progressive' and 'reactionary' forces.

The regime change and the political debates that followed did not influence militarism in schools. By 1945, militarism was part-and-parcel of school life and the progressive 1960 constitution did not challenge that. It was military intervention, after all, that had made a new constitution possible, and many regarded the military as a progressive social force.

The coup

In 1980, the political regime was transformed. First, a set of 'liberal reforms' was introduced. Next, a military coup imposed a reign of ruthless terror. The military eliminated all political movements and democratic institutions. As the military cleared the path to a neoliberal economy, it solidified ideological control over all scientific, cultural and educational affairs. In 1982 a new constitution established an authoritarian framework, which increased the power of executive bodies. In 1983, Turgut Özal, chief architect of these reforms, came to power, serving as prime minister for two consecutive terms and later as president (1989-1993).

The new authoritarian regime promoted 'Turkish-Islamic Synthesis', a conservative doctrine that was produced to offset socialist influences. The official ideology had always promoted nationalism and militarism. Ultra-nationalists propagated the idea that Turks were a 'military nation'. But nationalism was not sufficient to deter socialism. Religion would be a much stronger antidote. In line with this doctrine, the 1982 constitution mandated religious education in schools.

Teacher training institutions were always seen as a key way of producing the ideal teacher. In the 1970s, these institutions became a major battleground between 'progressive' and 'reactionary' forces and were controlled by ultra-nationalists by the end of the decade. After the coup, these institutions were officially cleansed of the leftist elements. Soon these institutions were producing large numbers of teachers who were equipped with the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis. By 1984, these new teachers were in classrooms. The military government introduced strict dress codes for teachers and students, and got rid of leftist teachers. Özal’s MPs endorsed these policies; schools turned into more dogmatic and militaristic institutions.

Militarism in schools

Schools around the world provide fertile ground for militarism: there is a captive audience, a comprehensive mandate, a hierarchical structure and a clear power differential between students and professionals. Schools can easily be turned into paramilitary institutions.

Militarism is often not transmitted or sustained by direct contact with the military. Rather, schools and other civilian institutions help military approaches to permeate daily practices and belief systems. Unlike mandatory military service, schools are very systematic and persistent: mandatory schooling reaches almost all children, and does so over many years. Children as young as 5 or 6 can encounter militarism at school.

School as a boot camp

A typical school has elements of militarism such as domination, submission, discipline and violence embedded in it. Violence towards students produces violence among students, and student violence is used to justify institutional violence in the form of militarism.

A typical school provides a wide variety of militaristic experiences, some more obvious than others. School life is supposed to be 'orderly' and 'disciplined': students are expected to follow military-style rules and routines and expect punishment if they do not.

Inside the school, flags and symbols of nationalism are everywhere. Kings and their conquests are glorified on the walls. Commemorations are common and they are either about military victories or performed in military style. A typical school has very little to remind students of peace, nonviolence and youthfulness.

Physical education is where military order - such as forming ranks and marching in unison – is taught. From early on, students learn to stand to attention immediately when they are told to. A typical student has to do this countless times in both elementary and high school.

Students are just like foot soldiers. They can be 'at ease' only when adults are not around. They are expected to be respectful, and respect begins with submission. Students stand up when a teacher walks in. The curriculum emphasises duties and obligations much more than rights and freedoms. Overall the curriculum is now less nationalistic, but these military-like practices endure on a daily basis.

Ceremonies and uniforms

Ceremonies – such as those in schools - are important for militarism; they help it to grow. The school week in Turkey opens and ends with a ceremony. In the opening ceremony the flag is raised and the national anthem is sung. In nationalist eyes, this is a sacred ritual. Everybody has to stand to attention. Students often get scolded, humiliated or disciplined for not being 'solemn' enough during the ceremony. In elementary schools each day begins with an archaic nationalist pledge.

Students are also expected to participate in certain official ceremonies outside of the school. On various occasions students are asked to wear a military uniform and hold a weapon. During Police Week it is common to see children in police uniforms. On Children’s Day (23 April) until recently a very militaristic official event was held in each city in a sports stadium.

Conflict and martyrdom

Militarism needs conflict. Open conflict is best because it justifies the war machine. If martyrdom is embraced by tradition and propagated in schools, casualties can also fuel militarism.

The Republic of Turkey was founded after the War of Liberation and martyrdom has been an element of the nationalist ideology ever since. With time, martyrdom has become a legitimising tool for the Armed Forces. Now, martyrdom is a versatile tool for politicians who want to to justify violence and its natural outcome, death.

The state has been fighting with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) since 1984.[1] While dead bodies piled up and millions of civilians suffered human rights abuses, martyrdom was used to glorify death, thereby legitimising the ongoing violence. Massive public relations campaigns were launched to fuel militarism, including the coordinated effort to commemorate the Battle of Gallipoli, which in Turkey is often called the Çanakkale Victory. This was not an ordinary battle. It was a war of attrition in which thousands of soldiers on both sides had to endure extreme conditions for months. Many died needlessly - not in combat but of hunger, disease or from falling into open latrines and drowning. But the commemorations framed it as a victory achieved through martyrdom.

Militaristic school ceremonies were organised on the day associated with the victory (18 March 1915).[2] Many schools organized trips to Gelibolu (Gallipoli) to commemorate the victory and pay homage to the martyrs. Soon this was transformed into a continuous pilgrimage. Huge numbers of students and adults were taken there. The message was clear: 'We are a strong nation and even the mightiest power cannot conquer us. We are all ready to fight and to die, if necessary.'

The effort to polarise public opinion was nasty. During a demonstration in Mersin in March 2005, two youths were handed a flag, which they soon destroyed. This was portrayed in the media as a desecration of the Turkish flag by Kurds. It turned out to be a setup, but not until after it had had its desired effect: flags started appearing everywhere, including schools. Schools were infused with even more signs of nationalism and militarism. About two years later, another school commemoration was instituted: 12 March - the day in 1921 when the national anthem was adopted.

Private schools

Private schools in Turkey are often portrayed as model schools. Private schools used to serve the children of the elite and therefore it was assumed that they were less militaristic. This is not true. Many private schools organise pilgramages to Gelibolu. A very expensive private school in Bodrum, for instance, held an event where pre-school students were dressed in military uniforms or flag dresses.[3]

A trip organised by a private school in Kayseri illustrates the problem. Students in uniforms were taken to nearby Mount Erciyes, where they re-enacted a battle under snowfall. Local authories and media were present. Also invited were the director and the leading actor of a film glorifying ‘child martyrs’.[4] The head of the Provincial Education Directorate was very happy. The ceremony, he said, taught children 'love for the homeland, the flag and the country'.

What’s in a name?

Militarism thrives on hatred. Public areas can be used to mark a conflict and instil in daily life elements that remind everyone of conflict and hatred. As institutions central to public life, schools can be used as markers of conflict and serve the function of perpetuating hatred and violence.

That is exactly what has happened in Turkey. Many schools across the country are now named after a military martyr, transforming them into public tombstones. Some other public areas (such as parks) and institutions (such as health centers) have also been targets of this sort of militarism.

Militarism is still strong

For more than ten years the Justice and Development Party (JDP) has been in power. The JDP appears determined to dismantle old institutions, including the constitution put in place by the military government in 1982, and has earned a reputation as a pro-democracy party despite the fact that it is clearly the product of the political climate that the military regime created.[5]

Because the military has always defined itself as a secular power and a protector of secularism, and forced a coalition government led by a predecessor of the JDP to resign in 1997, the JDP has seen the military as an obstacle and curbed its power drastically. For many, the JDP’s reforms and election victories are democracy in action. To more crticial observers, however, the JDP agenda reflects authoritarian and oppressive policies that serve a neoliberal and a neo-conservative order. As the JDP’s hold on power has been consolidated, the regime has become more and more like single-party rule. Party leaders allow little criticism or debate, even within their own ranks.

The apparent reformist character of the the JDP stems from the determination of its leaders to break away with the heavy-handed Republican tradition. It relies less on the state apparatus and more on local government, local conservative NGOs, and an obedient media. Until recently the army was used as the ultimate force whenever needed. The new order regards the police as safer to deploy because the police is directly controlled by the government. The ultimate force that sustains the neo-conservative order is, of course, religion.[6]

Many observers fail to understand the fact that militarism in Turkey is alive and well. The military has lost its power but efforts to glorify martyrdom and to pump up nationalism and religion still continue. Over recent years increasingly bigger commemorations have been held in schools for the martyrs of the Battle of Sarıkamış (December 1914 - January 1915). In January 2013, the Ministry of Youth and Sports organised the largest commemoration in history, accompanied by a number of religious ceremonies.

One of the most popular policies of the JDP has been the creation of the Housing Development Administration (HDA), which is overseen by the Prime Minister’s Office and is in charge of all major construction projects across the country. The HDA has built many new residential areas, each with a mosque and often with a school; many of these schools are named after a military ‘martyr’ who was killed in the war against the PKK.

The leader of the JDP himself is not shy about employing militarism. He has used martyrdom regularly in his speeches and boasts of his party’s intentions to produce 'faithful and vindictive' generations.[7] The JDP is eager to leave old-style nationalist militarism behind and replace it with a militarism guided by militant Islam.

Militarism is also very visible in local government. Across Turkey, most municipalities are controlled by the JDP. Its mayors are consolidating an authoritarian conservative order in their area. Sincan, for instance, is a big municipality in metropolitan Ankara and is the bastion of JDP, boasting more than twenty parks all named after ‘martyrs’.

These developments are very worrying. As militant Islam replaces militant nationalism as the overarching ideology, militarism is becoming ever more dangerous. Nationalism is a human product. Islam, on the other hand, is portrayed as God-given and therefore cannot be challenged. Religion can provide militarism a very effective shield and access to various domains that militarism was not previously able to penetrate. This mix of militarism and religion is harder to resist and to defeat. As the state in Turkey becomes less secular, young people in particular are being subjected to an increasingly more militaristic and totalitarian order.


[1] As this article was being written, a truce came into effect and an agreement was being neared.

[2] Videos of these ceremonies are available on YouTube. A very recent example is a private school performance of a play called 'Gözlerim Çanakkale'de Kaldı' (My heart is with you in Çanakkale) [Online at (accessed 15 May 2013)].

[3] Many private schools in Turkey are now associated with religious movements and the degree of militarism in these schools varies according to religious beliefs.

[4] The children were martyrs because they supplied ammunition to troops during WWI and froze to death in a blizzard.

[5] Over the years the JDP has benefited from a power vacuum and unfair election regulations – both a product of the 1980s. The fact that only fifteen months after it was founded in 2001 the JDP received about a 35 percent vote is a clear indication of the volatile political climate. In only three years, the JDP gained control over municipalities in most major cities, with about 42 percent of the vote. In the 2007 elections the JDP increased its vote to about 47 percent. In 2011 it received almost 50 percent of the vote.

[6] The JDP’s economic policies produce more wealth, but it is distributed unequally, as reflected in the increase in poverty. This appears to contradict the popular support for the JDP, which has not declined. It seems that it has the tools to achieve popular consent despite the fact that millions live in poor economic conditions.

[7] Ekin Karaca, 'Religious Generation versus Liberal Education?', bianet, 8 February 2012. (accessed 15 May 2013).


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