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Turkey: ‘Surreal, Menacing…Pompous’

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Antigovernment protesters at Taksim Square, Istanbul, July 20, 2013

Now, more than ever, it is harder to argue for the compatibility of political Islam and democracy. The ejection of the Muslim Brotherhood from the government of Egypt has delivered a heavy blow to the prospects of an accommodation between the two. The Brotherhood came to power democratically, governed dismally and repressively, and was toppled in a bloody military coup. Many Egyptian Islamists now associate democracy with pain, humiliation, and death.

The effects of the Egyptian debacle have been widely felt. Saudi Arabia and Jordan feel more politically secure than at any time since the start of the Arab Spring, although Jordan has the heavy burden of absorbing some 500,000 Syrian refugees. The prospect of a democratic Syria has in any case long since disappeared behind the blood and smoke. But now another nightmare may be emerging in Turkey, the Middle East’s most prominent proponent of what might be called Islamic democracy. The stability and prosperity that Turkey has enjoyed over the past ten years had associated the country with a type of political arrangement known flatteringly as the “Turkish model.” This summer, the model came unstuck.

On May 27, small numbers of environmentalists occupied Gezi Park, in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, protesting against plans to replace the park with a shopping center inspired by the design of an old Ottoman barracks. Over the next few days they were joined by others expressing dissatisfaction with what they regard as the government’s meddlesome Islamist agenda. The police responded violently and the agitation grew; by the time of the brutal eviction of a huge crowd from Taksim Square, more than two weeks later, some 3.5 million people (from a population of 80 million) had taken part in almost five thousand demonstrations across Turkey, five had lost their lives, and more than eight thousand had been injured. Clearly, the “Gezi events” were about more than trees.

The unrest of this summer divided Turks on the same issues that have caused civil strife elsewhere in the region: among them political Islam, ethnic and sectarian divisions (involving the Kurdish and Alevi minorities), and authoritarian rule. Although a meltdown on Egyptian lines is implausible, a transition to Islamic authoritarianism is not. That would do further injury to the idea that Islam and democracy can share the public sphere. It would also be the end of an experiment of which Turks are justifiably proud.

The reforms that Turkey embarked upon in the mid-2000s were long overdue. For decades, the country’s pious majority had been suppressed by a secular elite claiming to uphold the values of the republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In 1923, Atatürk set up the Republic of Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire; he spent the rest of his life secularizing institutions and propagating European education, mores, and dress. Atatürk was a visionary and a genius, but Kemalism, the credo built around his memory, had degenerated into ancestor worship long before I was first able to observe it, after moving to the country in 1996. Atatürk’s picture and sayings were everywhere; the country’s leaders made countless pilgrimages to his tomb and used his memory to defend measures such as a ban on the Islamic head-covering in state institutions, which effectively denied millions of young women a university education.

The country’s powerful generals were the ultimate Kemalists. They kept the elected politicians to heel by using the threat of a military coup. (The army overthrew four governments between 1950 and 1997.) All the while, a dirty war against Kurdish rebels fostered a sense of beleaguerment that excused human rights abuses. Torture, miscarriages of justice, state-sponsored assassinations—Turkey was a leader in all.

And in little else. The country was an economic basket case. Foreign diplomats saw the capital, Ankara, as a hardship posting. There, amid the brutal architecture of the ministries, under a severe Anatolian sky, one had the sense of a secular elite’s loathing for the people it claimed to represent—their Islamic modes of dress, their guileful provincialism, and above all their belief that religion was the answer to the country’s problems. “Two-legged cockroaches,” some of my secular friends called the fundamentalist women in their black sheets.

Kemalism started to drain away with the victory of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). in the general election of 2002. In not the least of Kemalism’s follies, Erdoğan had been jailed for declaiming a poem that could be interpreted as an Islamist call to arms; but the message he conveyed after he was released and became prime minister was not one of revenge. On the contrary, in the aftermath of September 11 and amid the widening perception in the West that Islam equaled jihadi Islamism, his stress on moderation, democracy, and the rigors of the free market was welcome not only to waverers inside Turkey, but also to the United States and its allies.

Over the next several years, in election after election, the will of the pious majority was reflected at the ballot box; political stability brought investment and wealth creation. At the same time, the AKP pushed through important pro-democracy reforms. Torture and extrajudicial executions declined. The dirty war lost intensity as Kurds were granted some cultural rights, and Kurdish nationalists, long denied parliamentary representation, became a voluble presence in the Ankara assembly. All the while, the army was being stripped of its political authority, a process that concluded this August with the jailing of dozens of retired officers, including a former chief of the general staff, on charges of plotting against the government. The case, known as “Ergenekon” after the mythical Central Asian home of the Turkish nation, was based on the claim that there was a widespread conspiracy, involving not only the army but also sympathizers in parliament and the media, to destabilize the government and overthrow it in a coup.

Some experts who have scrutinized the relevant court documents believe that the conspiracy was greatly exaggerated and used by the government as a means of destroying the old Kemalist elite and severing its ties with the public.1 And this is what seems to have happened, as the muted public reaction to the Ergenekon verdicts suggests. Back in the 1990s, polls had shown the army to be the institution most trusted by Turks. Its final humiliation this autumn elicited hardly a murmur from a population that has now rejected the old presentation of the army as embodying a virile, honorable Turkishness essential to the country’s survival.

Although Erdoğan came from a political tradition, that of Turkish Islamism, that was hostile to the West, his government pursued good ties with Europe and the United States, notwithstanding some prickliness over the question of Turkey’s long-standing application for membership in the European Union. (France and Germany are against, and Turkey’s chief negotiator recently acknowledged that the country will probably never join.) Previous Turkish governments had cold-shouldered the Muslim Middle East. No longer; rather than contain neighbors such as Syria and Iran, the AKP government penetrated them using trade and engineered a rapprochement with the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Erdoğan also pleased many Turks by allowing his country’s historically good ties with Israel to deteriorate.

Naturally, the people who benefited most from Erdoğan’s rule were his own supporters, not only because specific measures like the headscarf ban fell into partial disuse—universities now admit women in headscarves, as do many courts—but because the tenor of public life became more pious. Erdoğan and his ministers did not conceal their links to religious orders—such as the Nakshibendis—that the Kemalists had regarded as a major threat to the state. God, rather than Atatürk, was invoked at groundbreaking ceremonies; new mosques rose in the big cities. All the while, the prime minister’s friends in the private sector—often pious businessmen from the interior of the country who bankrolled his election victories—were rewarded with contracts for building, improving infrastructure, and producing energy. Turkey gained a new elite, both brassy and devout.

The army fought several unsuccessful rearguard actions, including a threat—empty, as it turned out—to launch a coup in 2007, but the secular rebellion that some had anticipated didn’t happen. An important reason for this was that other, non-Islamist groups were also benefiting from the dismantling of Kemalism. The old establishment had given protection but no dignity to members of the Alevi sect, who practice a highly eclectic version of Shiism and make up between 15 and 20 percent of the population. Fearing assimilation, the Alevis have long demanded recognition of their separate status; these efforts were stepped up during the 2000s and Alevi organizations increased in size and visibility.

Human rights groups had been another bugbear of the Kemalists, who regarded them as special pleaders for the Kurds or, more generally, a carrier of Western values in their dissolute, morally degenerate form. Such groups multiplied under the AKP; Turkey now has the most exuberant feminist, gay, and environmentalist movements in the Middle East. In the new atmosphere it became more possible for people to argue—as did a small but growing number—that the massacre of Armenians in 1915 was a case of genocide. That, too, had been taboo.

Perhaps most important of all, Erdoğan’s Kurdish policies marked the end of the state’s policy of denying legitimacy to the Kurds. Ministers I had visited in the late 1990s had been unable to utter their name, referring to them as “our brothers in the southeast.” Now, no one would dream of denying Turkey’s multiethnic, multicultural composition. This March, the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK, according to its Kurdish acronym), which began its bloody war against the Turkish state in 1984, announced what may end up being its final cease-fire. A peace process between the government and the PKK has been slowly and fractiously advancing since then.

The most remarkable thing about the diversification of Turkey is that it happened under a socially conservative Islamist. When Erdoğan became prime minister, the question being asked was whether this highly effective and popular leader would use his new authority to impose an Islamist vision. As the 2000s wore on and the economy grew by an average of 5 percent a year, attracting some $100 billion in foreign investment, Erdoğan felt able to voice a different kind of aspiration: to regional leadership and a level of prestige that Turks had not enjoyed since the Ottoman heyday.

Naturally, many citizens were pleased by the rise in the national fortunes, but others felt unease at the prime minister’s increasingly hubristic manner. This unease was strong among the minorities and interest groups that had benefited from Erdoğan’s reforms but felt no affinity with the man or his ideals. Together, these people—including members of the Alevi and Kurdish minorities, as well as secular-minded journalists, entrepreneurs, and many young people—made up something Turkey had not had before: a liberal constituency.

It was this liberal constituency that clashed with Erdoğan last May, and that now continues its campaign of opposition and dissent. Small-scale protests have been taking place every week since the beginning of September, some of them violent, and armed police are present in big numbers in the country’s big cities. The government continues with its policy of limiting freedom of expression. The government, its media supporters, and the judiciary combine their efforts against people and groups associated with the opposition; the latest target is the Koc Group, a secular-minded conglomerate whose hotel in Taksim Square opened its doors to protesters during the Gezi events. Since then, the Koc Group had to give up a defense contract it had won, and it is being investigated for fraud and plotting against the government.

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    The Turkey analyst Gareth Jenkins is one of the few outsiders to have studied the Ergenekon case, as it is known, from all the angles, and his 2009 report on the subject depicted it partly as the product of a fevered prosecutorial imagination. “The indictments,” he wrote, “are so full of contradictions, rumors, speculation, misinformation, illogicalities, absurdities and untruths that they are not even internally consistent or coherent.” See Gareth Jenkins, “Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation,” Central Asia–Caucasus Institute and Silkroad Studies Program, July 2009. 

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