Will Turkey take the Yugoslavia option? Kerem Oktem on a country caught between Islam and ultra-nationalism
Altinova is a pleasant market town in Turkey’s northern Aegean region, a few miles from the Greek island of Mytilini. During the summer the town teems with holidaymakers from the nearby beach resorts and shoppers from the surrounding villages. On the last day of September, however, Altinova’s high street was taken over by a mob, smashing shop windows and hurling stones. This was the latest in a series of pogrom-like attacks on Kurds that have been proliferating in Western Turkey, parallel to the rising numbers of Turkish soldiers killed in the war against the Kurdish separatist PKK. This particular incident was sparked by the murder of two local youths by the son of a Kurdish immigrant. For three days, Kurdish businesses in the town were looted and Kurds attacked on the streets, while the police and security forces looked the other way.
Xenophobia and racism have become a serious problem in a country whose citizens are used to thinking of themselves, particularly in Germany, as the victims of racist abuse. According to the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey, Turkey has become one of the most xenophobic countries in the world. More than 70 per cent of Turkish citizens dislike both Christians and Jews, almost 70 per cent think unfavourably of Hamas, the cause célèbre of virtually any Muslim society, around 45 per cent dislike Saudi Arabia and, believe it or not, almost 10 per cent disapprove of Islam, in a country whose population is nominally 99 per cent Muslim.
These figures fly in the face of marketing narratives of Turkey as “the mosaic of religions”, a “country of tolerance”, and Istanbul as a city where mosques, churches and synagogues sit back-to-back peacefully. But counter-evidence, like the Altinova attacks, has been amassing in the last few years: since 2006, two priests have been killed, many more attacked, and three Christian missionaries, two of them converts from Islam, slain. The most prominent murder of a Christian was that of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who advocated a new approach to history based on the recognition of Turkish atrocities, an advocacy that flew in the face of the state-enforced denial of the 1915 genocide.
The present state of affairs seems to confirm the worst fears of Turkish secularists, who have always argued that the government of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), who have now been in power for six years, would lead to a rise in religious tensions, and precipitate the destruction of the secular Turkish Republic and establishment of a theocratic regime based on Sharia law. In this light, the legal proceedings brought against the party earlier this year, which threatened to outlaw the AKP (and were only narrowly averted by a majority of one in the constitutional court), would appear almost justified. It would also be a justification for the secular-minded army taking further steps to prevent Turkey from slipping any further down the road to regime change.
But this picture is far too simplistic: neither the AKP proper nor rogue elements within the party are behind the recent religious hate crimes. Nor are the military command the doughty champions of secularism they claim to be. Indeed the idea that Turkey has ever been a secular country is itself a myth. The Turkish version of state secularism foresees neither separation nor disestablishment, but rather the state-financed administration of a certain type of Sunni Islam. This is beaucratically entrenched through the Diyanet, a vast religious services agency with more than 80,000 imams on its payroll, which provides substantial state support for religion across Turkish society, and imposes its orthodox version of Islam on all communities in Turkey, including those of different beliefs, like the Alevis, and the non-religious.
The diyanet’s foundations go back to the early Republic, but it became a much more powerful institution of the state, both in terms of financial resources and public visibility, after the military coup of 1980. The generals of the 12 September Putsch, despite their lip service to secularism, promoted Islam in order to quell the rising tide of socialist and other political and identity-based movements of the 1970s, including Islamism. They instituted the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” as Turkey’s semi-formal state doctrine. Combining a tightly-controlled “High Islam” with Turkish nationalist rhetoric, the generals deemed this the most appropriate way to counter both socialist opposition and Kurdish claims for autonomy.
There is little doubt that the rank and file of the AKP have found encouragement in the wave of religious conservatism the generals unleashed in the 1980s. Yet the murderers of Christians, as well as the mobs attacking Kurds, hail from quite another movement. Against the ideological back-drop of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis has grown a fascist movement, distinct from the AKP’s more moderate, European-focused Islam, and driven by notions of ethno-religious supremacy. Members of this movement have been enlisted by what is commonly referred to as the “deep state”, a clandestine network of retired army generals, liaison officers, extreme nationalist media strongmen and politicians, as well as members of the secret services, which was first established as a semi-legal network to fight communism during the Cold War and has now gone out of control.
A recent court case about the operations of this network revealed a series of narrowly aborted military coups and suggested that its actors are responsible for the spate of murders as well as for other plots targeting Kurds and particularly Kurdish politicians. The larger aim of this network is to obstruct Turkey’s EU-membership process in order to secure vested interests. But it might not have been as successful in winning over large parts of the public had it not found supporters elsewhere. Hostile continental European public debates and the venomous rhetoric of leaders like French President Nicholas Sarkozy have driven ordinary Turks into the arms of isolationist Europhobes.
So is the AKP really the embattled party of democracy, struggling to keep the country on the path to Europe, against the odds of anti-Western secularists? Some liberals still hope that the answer may be a cautious “yes”, but evidence to the contrary is now impossible to ignore. True, the AKP has carried large sections of Turkey’s marginalised groups into the centre of power, thereby enfranchising hard-working, pious Anatolians who felt alienated by the elitist cultural policies and the anti-traditionalist feel of the Republic. It has thereby expanded the redistributive capacity of the state and increased access to education, health services and social housing for large segments of society. The AKP government has also encouraged internal modernisation within the more religious communities, on whose electoral support it relies, by making mosques more welcoming for women, by supporting the work of female preachers and by trying to discontinue – unsuccessfully so far – the ban on headscarves on university campuses.
However the AKP ethos of inclusion might turn out to be a zero-sum game: while empowering the pious Sunni majority, the AKP seems to be disenfranchising others. Despite an unambiguous ruling of the European Court of Human Rights and campaigns from the non-orthodox Alevi community, it has continued to enforce mandatory religious education with a Sunni Muslim content in schools and to build mosques in exclusively Alevi-populated villages. More importantly, many institutions and public bodies close to the party have started to impose their own notions of modernity.
In most AKP-run municipalities lacking a powerful secular middle class, the consumption of alcohol is not banned but heavily discouraged, and in Istanbul the municipality has recently been cancelling lease agreements with cafés and restaurants serving alcohol in municipal properties. In the up-market neighbourhood of Moda, many residents have been joining sit-ins every Friday since August to protest the conversion of a seaside restaurant into a municipality-run teetotal café. When I visited in late September there were at least 50 policemen in heavy combat gear blocking the 200 protestors from accessing the pier on which the café is located. The atmosphere was relaxed, in part due to the fact that the protest slogan “Come with your can of beer” was taken literally by the protesters. Despite the farcical feel to the setting, however, it does not require too much imagination to foresee how it could turn ugly: only a dozen angry young men from the suburbs, agitated by an “elder brother” with shady connections, would suffice to spark mayhem.
As always seems to be the case, these battles over religion and identity are also fought out over the female body. The initial Republican icon of the “modern Turkish woman” was that of a modestly dressed yet bare-headed female, with almost equal rights, free to mix socially and work outside the house, if always in the service of the nation and the family. The recent AKP model is quite different: she is a modestly dressed woman with a headscarf, expected to pray regularly, allowed to study and sometimes even to work in order to support her family or husband, but definitely not seen as equal to her male peers. If you do not conform to this new orthodoxy, you might be treated less favourably in municipalities and state institutions that employ a high number of AKP appointees, a fact liberal members of the middle and upper-middle classes can escape by opting out of public services.
Although reputable surveys indicate that religiosity as such is on the decline, the signs of a religious revival are everywhere. The headscarf is now seen in fashionable restaurants, more people seem to be fasting during Ramadan, many now pray, mosques overflow with families during religious holidays and some state-owned TV stations let reborn Muslims lecture about the marvels of the good Muslim life and the evils of alcohol.
More troubling is the desecularisation of the public debate and the encroachment of banal religiosity. Creationism has made serious inroads into education and the media. Infamous in the UK thanks to his Atlas of Creation, Adnan Oktar aka Harun Yahya – certainly no enemy of AKP core ideologues – has managed to have Richard Dawkins’s site banned by an Istanbul court, even though the Turkish translation of The God Delusion remains a nationwide bestseller. The denial of evolution, however, is slowly creeping into the curriculum and threatens to dull the scientific and intellectual curiosity of a generation of school children.
Some wonder whether the AKP has accepted a horse-trade with the military and the powers that be: “Drop the democratisation agenda, give up on Europe, leave Kurdish concerns to us. Then, but only then, may you feel free to partake in the pleasures of power, feed your clients and extol the marvel of Muslim democracy!” Having all but lost the enthusiasm for reform and the commitment to Europeanisation, the AKP does indeed seem to be transforming into a party that has increasingly less sympathy for its own liberals and little time for the plight of citizens beyond its core support group.
As it appears now, the two large blocs vying for hegemony are not secularists and moderate Islamists, but isolationalists and nationalists – ranging from the military to the Republican People’s Party – on the one side and authoritarian Islamists on the other. Both blocs are determined to impose their ideological straitjacket on society, both are ready to use religion for their political ends, both base their politics on the vilification of others and both are happy to exclude the two large minority groups, the Kurds and the Alevis, without whose enfranchisement Turkish democracy will remain incomplete. Yet both blocs are also Machiavellian enough to drop almost any ideological commitment, if this would bring them closer to power.
Turkey might soon be waking up to a sinister spectacle: a wave of ethnic and religious violence erupting in its main cities and in areas where Kurds or Alevis are sizeable and visible minority communities. This would be a sad repetion of the inter-sectarian and political violence that almost ripped the country apart and culminated in the military coup of 1980. Against this worst-case scenario one can count the immense progress in civil society, liberal thinking and independent academic institutions that has been made in the last decade of rapprochement with Europe.
Lurking in the background is one terrifying possibiity. It was summed up by one AKP liberal, frustrated by the lack of progress regarding his government’s policy towards religious minorities, who told me recently during a visit to Ankara, “Yugoslavia always remains an option.”