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Turkey at the Turning Point?

Abdullah Gül’s home province of Kayseri, in the middle of Anatolia, over three hundred miles from Istanbul, has emerged on the winning side in this conflict. During twenty-five years of demographic and economic development, Kayseri has transformed itself from a backward region, dependent on the state for agricultural subsidies and industrial investments, into a place where one can see the private sector at its most ambitious and imaginative, and home to several of Turkey’s most profitable companies. Back in the 1980s, when Turkey was first exposed to global competition, Kayseri’s entrepreneurs invested in machinery and know-how; nowadays, the province’s industrialists, notably its furniture and textile manufacturers, are respected internationally. For sugar producers in the province, the recent phasing out of subsidies has turned out to be a blessing. Newly privatized, thriving in a competitive environment, Kayseri’s big sugar refinery has doubled its daily processing capacity. It is now Turkey’s second-most-profitable refinery.

Prosperity has changed the provincial capital, also called Kayseri. Having been, as recently as the 1960s, a modest little town, it has grown into a modern city with a population of 600,000 and amenities to match. Literacy rates have risen sharply, among women as well as men. The city has a well-established university, which receives private as well as public funding.

Why do many Turkish secularists feel uneasy as they view the strides taken by Kayseri and several comparable Anatolian towns? The answer lies in the growth of Islamic cultural autonomy that the new wealth has generated, and its apparent conflict with the principles of the secular state. Many of Kayseri’s top entrepreneurs are members of an association of religious-minded businessmen. They go on the pilgrimage to Mecca and host lavish breakfasts during Ramadan. They contribute to the building and upkeep of mosques, finance courses on the Koran, and help poor young people to attend university. The entrepreneurs of Kayseri are rich enough to buy large houses in Istanbul and villas on the coast, and to send their daughters to private universities—in this way, they can circumvent the head-scarf ban. Some are affiliated with Islamic religious brotherhoods, outlawed by Atatürk, that have been accused of undermining the secular order. The AKP is their natural political home.

Even when I visited Kayseri back in 1996, when Welfare was in power nationally and in the city, there seemed to be little appetite among residents for a full-blown Islamic regime. A report by the European Stability Initiative in 2005 described the people of Kayseri in an even more moderate light, as a community that has, by emphasizing Islam’s historical affinity to mercantilism, “made its own peace with modernity.”2

This cannot be said for many other parts of Turkey where change has been much more erratic and unsettling. Long before the AKP came to power, Turkey’s economic leap began with the partial economic liberalization of the 1980s and the beginning of the mass migration of poor people from the countryside to the cities. Under Erdogan, liberalization of the economy has gone faster and deeper. Backed by the International Monetary Fund, with which it has a standby agreement, the AKP has shown more fiscal and monetary discipline than any recent government. It has accelerated privatization and attracted record levels of foreign direct investment. The government has brought down inflation, which averaged almost 70 percent between 1996 and 2001, to below 10 percent. The economy is growing strongly.

Not all Turks have reaped the benefits, and many have felt only the costs. The increases in new jobs in private factories and the service sector have been offset as agriculture has shrunk, and thousands of small shops, unable to compete with new supermarkets and US-style malls, have closed. Despite the boom, unemployment has hovered around 2.5 million—10 percent of the workforce—since 2002; and unemployed workers have minimal benefits or none at all. Rural communities have continued to empty. The province of Cankiri, for instance, which once survived on agriculture, is now dependent on the remittances of some 700,000 migrants to Ankara and Istanbul.

The AKP is also the party of these migrants. Confused, alienated, and far from home, they find in the AKP an outlet for their conservatism and a vehicle for their material aspirations. In Erdogan, the son of a migrant to Istanbul, they have an example to admire. Their feelings are not shared by the established urban middle class. Many educated secularists deplore the newcomers’ manners and customs, and they resent what they perceive as an erosion of civic and urban values. Having to act as unwilling hosts to wave after wave of Anatolian yokels seems to them like a cruel ending after the leadership that the Kemalists once benevolently exercised over the country. These same urban Turks participated in the huge antigovernment protests of the spring. Combined with the actions and statements of the armed forces, secular groups, and President Sezer, their openly expressed concerns about Islamism contributed to the impression that a very large coalition was forming.

The coalition turned out to be smaller, and less able to rally other Turks, than the protests suggested. One reason for this is that for all their rhetorical defense of “modernity,” the Kemalists have a limited program, founded on paranoia and opposition to change. The leader of the CHP, for instance, the party that Atatürk founded, has claimed to be the target of a CIA assassination plot. During the election campaign, the newspaper Cumhuriyet, a bastion of the Kemalist left, competed with far-right publications in its chauvinistic denunciation of such institutions as the IMF and the EU.

Yasar Büyükanit, the chief of the armed forces, is deeply skeptical about the European Union. He has hinted that the EU is trying to dismember Turkey by supporting Kurdish nationalists and other minorities, and by demanding a formal recognition by the Turkish government of the 1915 Armenian massacres. In 2005, while Büyükanit was head of Turkey’s land forces, he aroused concern in Europe by praising a military agent who had been arrested after bombing a bookshop owned by a Kurdish nationalist. Immediately after Gül’s election, he warned that “crafty plans” were being hatched to “destroy the gains of modernity.” This was interpreted as an allusion to a new constitution, currently being drafted behind closed doors, which Erdogan has proposed to adopt next year. This document is expected to subordinate further the armed forces to civilian authority, and to give the Kurds unprecedented cultural recognition—reforms that the European Union has long advocated.3

There is a consensus among many Turks, and among Europeans friendly to Turkey, that the Kemalist elite must continue to give up power. At the same time, even Turkey’s small number of genuine liberals grudgingly appreciate that were it not for the armed forces and some judges, the Islamists might not have moderated their message or their policies to the extent that they have. Had the armed forces not intervened in 1997, and the courts not banned the Welfare Party and jailed Erdogan, Turkey’s political life would indeed have become more Islamist in character. While many distrust the Islamists’ actions, innocuous as they are, it is the intentions and sincerity of Erdogan and Gül that are the real source of anxiety—and which the armed forces use to justify their continuing involvement in public life.

Many pro-EU Turks link their country’s future development to its joining the European Union. According to this view, membership would prevent the resurgence of radical Islamism and force the armed forces to assume the diminished powers, accountable to elected civilians, that they have in other EU countries. But entry into the EU, in spite of the AKP’s recent pledge to redouble its efforts to meet the EU’s criteria, seems a long way off. Since 2006, negotiations have been frozen on several of the “chapters” of EU law that countries must adopt in order to be admitted, and which would require the Turks to make further improvements in human rights and to promote the cultural rights of minorities such as the Kurds. In part this freeze is punishment for Turkey’s refusal to open its ports to Greek Cypriot ships unless the EU lifts its thirty-three-year-old trade embargo on the Turkish-run northern third of the island, a self-styled republic that the EU does not recognize. It is also a response to Turkey’s shortcomings in other matters, including human rights. The EU leaders are particularly unhappy about the AKP’s failure to scrap a notorious article of the penal code under which several people, including the 2006 Nobel laureate for literature, Orhan Pamuk, have been charged with “insulting Turkishness,”4 often because they denounce Turkey’s massacre of Armenians in 1915.

Mutual hostility between Turks and some countries in the European Union has risen in recent years. According to a recent poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Compagnia di San Paolo, an Italian foundation, 49 percent of people in France, and 43 percent of people in Germany, where there is widespread hostility toward the country’s large number of immigrant Turks, regard the prospect of Turkish membership as a “bad thing,” while a mere 40 percent of Turks support membership in the union—a big drop from the 73-percent figure for 2004. Turks’ enthusiasm for the union seems to have fallen in proportion to their declining confidence that they will be admitted. According to the same survey, barely a quarter of Turks expect the union to let them in. Since coming to power, Nicolas Sarkozy has said that he may not carry out his campaign pledge to block accession negotiations on further “chapters,” but he continues to favor a “privileged partnership” for Turkey, not full membership.

The irony is that in Abdullah Gül Turkey finally has a president who is an avowed Europhile and an advocate of human rights and other European ideals. It is possible that the AKP, emboldened by its second mandate, may do what Ali Babacan, the new foreign minister, recently said it would, which is to accelerate the reform process and promulgate a new constitution, “to prepare a better…environment for our own people,” so Turkey is “perceived more and more as an asset for the EU.” Equally, it is possible that some members of the government will revert, at least partially, to their former Islamist selves. On September 19, for instance, Erdogan announced that he wanted the new constitution to allow women to wear head scarves in universities. He described the issue as one of individual liberty.

In his inaugural address, President Gül defined secularism as “a rule for social peace no less than it is an empowering model for different ways of life within democracy.” This definition, with its suggestions of political and social pluralism, was seized on by some secularists in the press as fresh evidence that the government and the President are intent on dismantling the secular system in the name of increasing rights and, eventually, undermining democracy itself. That seems unlikely. Having identified the democratic process as an ally in their rise to power, many of Turkey’s mainstream Islamists have become convinced of its superiority to other systems of government. These men and women say they must face the challenge of reconciling Islam with a free politics. Whether they intended to or not, the Islamists have changed.

The AKP itself performed remarkably well on July 22. The party won 47 percent of the vote, 12 percent more than in 2002, but the entry into parliament of the far-right MHP, and some independents, meant that it got slightly fewer seats, 341 of the 550 available.

The election was not a contest between Islamism and secularism. Although the antigovernment protests of the spring were impressive, they were held in relatively progressive parts of western Turkey, underscoring the absence of large numbers of passionate secularists in central and eastern Anatolia. The largely secular CHP campaigned on issues such as corruption, the lot of the poor, and the government’s handling of the Kurdish problem. The MHP taunted the government for not hanging Abdullah Öcalan, the incarcerated leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose long, ongoing war against the Turkish state has so far cost around 37,000 lives. The CHP won ninety-nine seats, the MHP seventy-one.

The AKP has become Turkey’s first party in decades to have support from all parts of Turkey. This was illustrated by its impressive showing in the eastern and southeastern provinces whose inhabitants are mostly Kurdish—provinces that have given a great deal, in lives, suffering, and perennial underdevelopment, for Öcalan and his cause.

On election night I was in the headquarters of the Democratic Society Party, Turkey’s latest Kurdish nationalist party, in Varto, a rural district in the mainly Kurdish province of Musåü. The party had nominated some of its leading members as independent candidates, hoping to circumvent an electoral rule preventing small parties from entering parliament, and there was at first much optimistic talk in the room. But the results were extremely disappointing. In a district that has provided the PKK with hundreds of recruits, the AKP vote rose at the expense of the Kurdish nationalists. And the electoral strength of the AKP generally came as a shock. The party won more than 50 percent of the vote in several overwhelmingly Kurdish provinces.

The AKP has used its power cannily in the Kurdish provinces, extending free health care and giving out schoolbooks as part of a campaign to persuade people in the partly illiterate region to send their children to school. The AKP’s reputation for piety has not harmed it since many Kurds, despite the PKK’s disapproving attitude toward religion, are pious as well. The Kurds appreciate the government’s resistance to pressure from the armed forces to authorize an attack across the border into northern Iraq on PKK camps there.5 But the main explanation for the AKP’s popularity among the Kurds is that Erdogan, unlike his predecessors, recognizes that the Kurdish problem turns on respect for Kurdish ethnic identity, not economic and social backwardness. The government has modestly increased the Kurds’ linguistic and cultural autonomy and much reduced torture in police stations, a major change. The fighting, although it continues, is less intense than it was.

The new constitution will allow, so some have said, the teaching of Kurdish as a second language in Turkish schools. It will also redefine Turkish citizenship without any reference to ethnicity. Such reforms would be popular among the Kurds, who resent the current constitution’s emphasis on Turkish culture. The PKK, which has stopped demanding a separate Kurdish state, could hardly complain.

A danger for the future is that as the PKK watches the AKP gain popularity in the southeast, it may intensify its attacks on the security forces, hoping that the reaction will radicalize normal Kurds, who are mostly fed up with war. Another danger is that the Turkish army could decide to intensify the war against the PKK. That would strike another blow at Turkey’s already frustrated European aspirations.

A third danger is that Erdogan and his allies will recklessly allow some of their old Islamist instincts to reassert themselves. There is little doubt that, if Erdogan insists on reversing the ban on head-scarved women in universities, there will be another crisis. It would be a mistake for the AKP to assume brazenly that the age of coups is over. On balance, however, Turkey gives ground for hope. It is possible that an Islamist movement with a history of intolerance and bigotry will succeed in transforming Turkish politics along genuinely democratic lines. This seems to be the task that the AKP has set itself; with what degree of determination, time will tell. The 2007 general election, as much a triumph for democracy as it was for the AKP, may one day be seen as a turning point.

—September 27, 2007

  1. 2

    See Islamic Calvinists: Change and Conservatism in Central Anatolia (Berlin and Istanbul: ESI, September 19, 2005), available at www.esiweb.org. A recent comparative study by the Türkiye Ekonomik ve Sosyal Etüdler Vakf? (Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation), an Istanbul think tank, supports the contention that Turks generally are becoming more moderate as well as more religious. In 1999, the study found, 86 percent of respondents expressed some degree of religiosity; in 2006 the figure was 93 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of respondents opposed to the setting up of a religious state went up from 68 percent to 76 percent.

  2. 3

    It should not be assumed that the armed forces are the generally disinterested Europhiles described in Foreign Affairs last year (see Ersel Ayd?nl?, Nihat Ali Özcan, and Dogan Akyaz, “The Turkish Military’s March Toward Europe,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006). The authors are informative on the AKP’s trimming of military powers and privileges, but they are excessively optimistic when they suggest that the armed forces want Turkey to join the EU and believe that membership could solve the problems of Kurdish nationalism and rising Islamism. My impression is that General Büyükan?t and other senior officers fear that membership will exacerbate these problems and challenge Turkish sovereignty. Junior officers are, if anything, even blunter than Büyükan?t in their hostility to the EU.

  3. 4

    Criticism is not restricted to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which has been used to prosecute Pamuk and other writers: see Amnesty International’s recent report on abuses in the Turkish justice system, “Justice Delayed and Denied: The Persistence of Protracted and Unfair Trials for Those Charged under Anti-terrorism Legislation.”

  4. 5

    The government, it is reported, believes that an incursion by the Turkish army would harm relations with the US and, to a lesser extent, the EU. Erdogan, for his part, is said to want a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

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