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Triumphant Turkey?

Any discussion of openness and tolerance in Turkey quickly turns to the Kurdish question. There are more than ten million Kurds in Turkey, concentrated in the impoverished southeast. The state has traditionally insisted that they assimilate into Turkish society. Many refuse to do so. Their resistance set off a rebellion that raged for more than a decade and cost tens of thousands of lives. There has been little fighting in recent years, and for a while it seemed that Erdogan would take decisive steps to end the conflict. In 2005 he declared in Diyarbakir, the main Kurdish city, that he was ready to rectify “mistakes and sins of the past.”

Much has changed since then. The use of the Kurdish language was once sharply restricted, but now there is a Kurdish-language television station. A university in the ancient town of Mardin has been allowed to open a center for Kurdish studies. During the recent election, Kurdish candidates were allowed to campaign in their own language. None of this would have been possible a decade ago. Still, Erdogan has not done enough to satisfy many Kurds.

I’m not going to vote for him,” a Kurd from the long-oppressed town of Hakkari told me before the election. “He doesn’t keep his promises. He said he would bring true democracy, but we haven’t seen it yet.”

Under Turkish law, parties that receive less than 10 percent of the vote are excluded from parliament. As this year’s election approached, leaders of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), recognizing that they could not reach that threshold, decided that their candidates should run as independents rather than on a party slate. Thirty-six were elected. Many have alleged ties to the outlawed Kurdish rebel group, the PKK.

Their attempt to take their seats in parliament did not begin well. A dispute erupted over whether a deputy charged under the draconian antiterror laws of the 1980s could take his seat. When parliament was sworn in on June 28, all Kurdish nationalists stayed away in protest. A day that might have shown the strengths of Turkish democracy became an embarrassing reminder of the country’s internal conflicts.

Attacking the government on sensitive issues like Kurdish rights, criticizing its handling of the Ergenekon case, and ridiculing Erdogan personally are not the only ways Turkish journalists can endanger themselves these days. There is another subject some fear to probe too deeply: the power of Fethullah Gulen, a shadowy but immensely influential Turkish religious leader. From a secluded estate in Pennsylvania, where he moved to escape possible prosecution for alleged antisecular remarks in the 1990s, Gulen directs a worldwide movement that is one of the most remarkable forces in modern Islam.

According to Carter Vaughn Findley, the movement has millions of followers, owns newspapers and television stations in Turkey and beyond, and claims to oversee more than one thousand schools in more than a hundred countries—including the United States, with thirty-three in Texas alone. It sends doctors to Africa and elsewhere when disasters strike. After the September 11 attacks, Gulen took out an advertisement in The Washington Post declaring that “Islam abhors such acts of terror.” He has good relations with non-Muslim religious leaders—in 2003 he met with Pope John Paul II—and rejects fundamentalism.

In his native Turkey, Gulen’s movement has become a uniquely influential force. Both Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul are said to admire it. A cable written in 2006 by an American diplomat in Ankara, released by WikiLeaks, cited

reliable reports that the Gulenists use their school network (including dozens of schools in the U.S.) to cherry-pick students they think are susceptible to being molded as proselytizers, and we have steadily heard reports about how the schools indoctrinate boarding students.

Press reports suggest that graduates of these schools have risen to important posts in government and the bureaucracy. Secularists see them as foot soldiers in a quiet but insidious campaign to penetrate the state and, ultimately, make it more religious.

No one can be sure, because the movement resists scrutiny. Somebody presumably oversees Gulen’s worldwide education network, for example, but no one knows who that is. Scholars who want to visit dormitories where Gulen’s students live have been denied permission. He rarely grants interviews, and his long-term goals are unclear. This movement may be, as its sympathizers insist, a benign force that stabilizes Turkish life. But some Turks mistrust it, and their suspicion deepened when it turned out that one of the journalists arrested in March, Ahmet Sik, was about to publish a book about its rising influence called The Imam’s Army. Police confiscated advance copies. The text, which among other things alleges that Gulen sympathizers dominate the Turkish police, quickly appeared on the Internet, setting off what one blogger called “a frenzy of downloads.”

The popularity that propelled Erdogan to his remarkable victory at the polls in June derives from his personal charisma, his astute blend of religious devotion and old-style Turkish nationalism, his party’s unrivaled organizational skills, and the failure of opposition parties to provide a credible alternative. His most important asset, however, is the economic boom over which he has presided. The best way to see what this boom has meant to ordinary people is to visit cities in the interior. A generation ago, no one would have imagined that dusty Anatolian outposts like Konya, Denizli, Malatya, Eskishehir, Kayseri, and Gaziantep would one day become rich, but that has happened.

While I was in Turkey I rode a new train—it is faster than any in the United States—from Ankara to Eskishehir, 150 miles westward. Until a decade ago, Eskishehir was little more than an oversized village. A swampy stream that runs through town emitted a nauseating stench, and after heavy rainstorms, rotting houses along its banks would flood or collapse. Now Eskishehir is home to two thriving universities and dozens of plants that produce aircraft engines, locomotives, farm machinery, cement, chemicals, refined sugar, and even meerschaum pipes. The creek has sturdy stone walls, leafy parks line its banks, and trams run along main streets. Tourists arrive by the thousands from Ankara and Istanbul every weekend, eager for river tours aboard Amsterdam-style boats and Venice-style gondolas. There are half a dozen theaters, and an opera company brings Verdi and Donizetti to an increasingly sophisticated population. Students fill bars and clog the streets at night.

The mayor, Yilmaz Buyukersen, a former university rector, told me that while some other Turkish cities are not as open to pastimes like late-night drinking, he has no doubt that Eskishehir represents Turkey’s future. Like many Turks who are not part of the ruling party or the Gulen movement, though, he worries about what is happening in Ankara.

Reading the newspapers depresses me,” he said. “Everything is about accusing, arguing, fighting.”

There is pressure on the press, on labor unions, on professional organizations, on NGOs, on universities. The justice system responds to the ruling party. All of this creates fear in people’s minds. But I’m still optimistic. The new generation is aware of everything, open to the world, and totally in favor of freedom and democracy. Journalists and others are resisting the pressure they’re under. There is absolutely no going back.

Regional differences are still stark in Turkey. Kurdish towns like Hakkari, where there has been little public or private investment, remain poor. Schools churn out students drilled in rote memorization and unaccustomed to critical thinking. The unemployment rate has climbed to a troubling 11 percent. Chauvinistic nationalism remains strong. Many newspapers serve political causes and private interests rather than reporting news.

One of Erdogan’s most tantalizing campaign themes was his pledge to promulgate a new constitution to replace the undemocratic one imposed by generals three decades ago. This will set off debates on questions ranging from free speech to headscarves to Kurdish nationalism. Erdogan has made no secret of what he wants from a new constitution. Party rules forbid him from seeking a fourth term as prime minister, so his dream is to replace parliamentary democracy with a presidential system like the one in France and then run for the presidency himself, perhaps in 2014, when the next presidential election is expected to be held.

Under Turkey’s weighted electoral system, Erdogan’s party won 326 seats in the 550-member parliament. This was far short of the 367 that would have allowed him to push through whatever constitution he wished, and also shy of the 330 that would have allowed him to call a referendum on a draft of his own. So his triumph at the polls was mixed and his authority is not absolute. Turkey has great potential as a twenty-first-century power, but can only fulfill it by reuniting its own fragmented society.

—July 19, 2011

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