[Marxism] Triumphant Turkey?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 29 07:33:36 MDT 2011


Triumphant Turkey?
August 18, 2011
Stephen Kinzer

Turkey and the Dilemma of EU Accession: When Religion Meets Politics
by Mirela Bogdani
I.B. Tauris, 228 pp., $92.00; $28.00 (paper) 

The Mobilization of Political Islam in Turkey
by Banu Eligur
Cambridge University Press, 317 pp., $85.00 

Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity: A History, 1789–2007
by Carter Vaughn Findley
Yale University Press, 527 pp., $40.00; $30.00 (paper) 

Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in 
by Amy Mills
University of Georgia Press, 288 pp., $64.95; $24.95 (paper) 


Against the backdrop of bloody upheaval in the Arab world, 
Turkey’s national election in June seemed a triumph of democracy. 
Candidates for parliament were secular and religious, pro-military 
and anti-military, in favor of Kurdish rights and opposed. Fifty 
million people were eligible to vote, and 87 percent turned out. 
There were no serious incidents. Votes were counted quickly and 

The result was a decisive victory for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip 
Erdogan. His party, Justice and Development, failed to win a 
supermajority in parliament that would have allowed him to 
promulgate the country’s much-anticipated new constitution almost 
by decree. Nonetheless it won more votes than all other parties 
combined, winning its third election in a row and making Erdogan 
the most powerful Turkish leader in more than half a century to 
win three consecutive terms. He now enjoys more power than any 
Turkish leader since Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Republic in 1923.

This victory was testimony to Erdogan’s accomplishments. Before 
Justice and Development won its first national election in 2002, 
Turkey had spent years under weak coalition governments servile to 
the military. It suffered periodic economic crises and was almost 
invisible on the world stage. All of that has changed. Erdogan’s 
strong single-party governments have broken the army’s political 
power, turned Turkey into an economic powerhouse, and made it a 
major force in the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Balkans, North 
Africa, and beyond.

Yet despite this, many Turks are uneasy. Some worry that the 
economy, which grew at a spectacular 8.9 percent last year, may be 
overheating. Others fear that Erdogan’s renewed power will lead 
him to antidemocratic excesses. A boycott of parliament by dozens 
of Kurdish deputies cast doubt on his willingness to resolve the 
long-festering Kurdish conflict. There is also a new source of 
uncertainty, emerging from uprisings in Arab countries. For the 
last several years, Turks have pursued the foreign policy goal of 
“zero problems with neighbors.” In recent months they have been 
forced to realize that they cannot, after all, be friends with 
everyone in the neighborhood.

Politically Turkey has changed more in the last ten years than it 
did in the previous eighty. For generations the army was able to 
enforce strict secularism in the tradition of Ataturk, but a new 
ethos, more open to religious influence, has changed the terms of 
politics and public life. Erdogan prays daily and his wife wears a 
headscarf. In some Turkish towns, Justice and Development mayors 
have sought to restrict the sale of alcohol or establish 
single-sex beaches. This has alarmed many secular-minded citizens. 
Erdogan could help calm their fears, but instead he has become 
increasingly strident. Turkey has emerged from the shadow of 
military power, a breakthrough of historic proportions. Whether it 
is moving toward an era of European-style freedom or simply 
trading one form of authoritarianism for another is unclear.

Erdogan is often angry. Some Turks attribute this to his 
background. His family comes from the Black Sea region, a 
stronghold of aggressive nationalism, and he grew up in a 
rough-and-tumble Istanbul neighborhood, Kasimpasha, whose 
residents are known as easily offended and quick to fight. For a 
decade he was a close follower of the only true Islamist 
politician Turkey ever produced, the late Necmettin Erbakan, who 
was prime minister for a year in 1996–1997 until pressure from the 
military, which feared he was leading the country toward religious 
rule, forced him to quit. Erdogan attended an Islamic academy and 
then studied “commercial sciences” at an obscure school. Although 
he served as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, he knew little of the 
outside world when he became prime minister in 2003.

Another explanation for Erdogan’s intensity is politics. During 
the election campaign, he sought to draw votes away from 
ultra-nationalists—part of his attempt to obtain a supermajority. 
That led him to use harsh rhetoric. In March, for example, two 
journalists were arrested on charges that they had been in contact 
with military officers who were plotting to overthrow the 
government. Soon afterward, several thousand people marched down 
Istanbul’s main street protesting the arrests. They held placards 
reading “Free Press, Free Society,” and “Turkey Rates 138 in Press 
Freedom”—a reference to a recent ranking by Reporters Without Borders.

The next day, Erdogan delivered a speech in Istanbul. It was an 
ideal moment for him to reassure panicky citizens and foreigners 
worried about press freedom in Turkey. Instead he denounced 
defenders of the arrested journalists, accusing them of launching 
a “systematic defamation campaign against Turkey” shaped by 
“evil-minded intentions and prejudices.”

This demagogic language disturbs many Turks, including some who 
admire what Erdogan has achieved. “I have never been as positive 
and enthusiastic as I am now,” one of the country’s visionary 
business leaders, the octogenarian Ishak Alaton, a lifelong human 
rights campaigner, told me in his office overlooking the 
Bosphorus. But he also lamented that Erdogan has begun to govern 
with “the sense that he’s invulnerable and omnipotent and 

Because Erdogan has a background in Islamic politics, and because 
he has pushed for wider acceptance of the Muslim headscarf, it is 
tempting to see the central conflict in Turkish society as pitting 
secularism against growing religious influence. This is 
misleading. None of the dozens of people I met during a recent 
visit suggested that Turkey is in danger of slipping toward 
Islamist rule. Turkish society has defenses that most Arab 
societies lack: generations of experience with secularism and 
democracy, a growing middle class, a booming export economy, a 
still-lively press, and a strong civil society based in 
universities, labor unions, business associations, and civic, 
human rights, and environmental groups. The emerging conflict in 
Turkey is not over religion, but styles of power.

During Erdogan’s first term, Turkey made great strides toward 
consolidating its democracy. The death penalty was abolished, 
restrictions on free speech were loosened, and the scourge of 
jailhouse torture was all but eliminated. But the momentum did not 
last, and in his second term, Erdogan turned to other projects. 
Now some Turks fear that with this third four-year term will come 
a third Erdogan, emboldened by his biggest electoral victory yet 
and increasingly autocratic.

It is no accident that these changes coincide with the rise and 
fall of Turkey’s campaign to join the European Union. Parliament’s 
burst of reform between 2003 and 2005 came when Europe seemed 
tantalizingly ready to embrace Turkey. The pace of reform slowed 
as Europe’s enthusiasm weakened. Now, largely due to resistance 
from France and Germany, there is little prospect of Turkish 
membership during the coming decade. Croatia has just been 
approved for membership in 2013, but Europe is in no mood to 
accept 75 million Turks who would have the right to live, work, 
and vote in EU countries. “The combination of (Muslim) religion 
with (large) size seems to create the problem,” Mirela Bogdani 
concludes in her study Turkey and the Dilemma of EU Accession.

Partly because the EU has slammed its door in Turkey’s face, 
Erdogan’s government has been looking elsewhere for friends. This 
has helped draw Turkey away from half a century of subservience to 
Western foreign policy. Its first act of defiance came in 2003, 
when parliament voted against allowing American troops to invade 
Iraq from Turkish soil. Since then, Turkey has broken ranks with 
the West on two important issues. It favors negotiation with Iran 
and stronger pressure on Israel to change its policies in Gaza and 
the West Bank.

This newfound independence was reflected in last year’s effort by 
the Turkish freighter Mavi Marmara to break the Gaza blockade, 
which led Israel to send commandos to attack the ship; nine 
Turkish civilians were killed. In 2010 Turkey made a failed 
effort, along with Brazil, to broker a nuclear deal between the 
United States and Iran. These steps made Erdogan immensely popular 
in the Muslim Middle East. They also set off a burst of anger in 
Washington—not from the Obama administration, which still 
considers Turkey a valuable partner, but from anti-Obama and 
pro-Israel politicians and groups who believe that Turkey is 
abandoning its secular heritage and Western-oriented foreign policy.

Some scholars share this fear. Banu Eligur, who has taught courses 
on political Islam at Brandeis University and is the author of The 
Mobilization of Political Islam in Turkey, believes that Erdogan’s 
government has “mobilized against the secular-democratic state” by 
naming pious Muslims to be “high-ranking civil servants in public 
administration” and by bullying the press, the judiciary, and 
universities. In fact, much of what Erdogan is doing seems 
popular. A recent opinion survey taken by an outside group found 
62 percent of Turks in favor of Erdogan’s foreign policies. In 
another, when people were asked to rate their level of religious 
belief on a scale of one to ten, 71 percent rated themselves at 
seven or higher. In Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity, the 
historian Carter Vaughn Findley observes that Erdogan’s government 
has surpassed the old secular establishment “both in recognizing 
the value of a religiously neutral government as a guarantee of 
pluralism and in espousing the reforms required to advance 
Turkey’s EU candidacy”—even if that candidacy is now a long-term 
project at best.

Turks, like almost everyone else, were unprepared for the turmoil 
that erupted in the Middle East early this year. Erdogan was quick 
to demand Hosni Mubarak’s resignation after protests began in 
Egypt, but in Libya, where much Turkish money was invested, he 
tried a conciliatory approach for a couple of weeks before 
swinging behind the opposition to Qaddafi. In neighboring Syria, 
after years of cultivating the Assad regime, he could not induce 
it to adopt serious reforms when protests broke out.

Sectarian violence and the possible breakup of Syria would 
threaten Turkey. Seeking to avoid that—and eager to limit the 
growing influence that Iran exercises through Syria—Turkey has 
supported Syrian protesters and opened its borders to thousands of 
refugees. Besides serving its own interests, this is a valuable 
way for Turkey once again to cooperate with the West. There is 
even hope for better relations with Israel. Two weeks after the 
election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter to 
Erdogan saying that he was ready “to work with the new Turkish 
government on finding a resolution to all outstanding issues 
between our countries.”

Shortly before Erdogan won his first national election in 2002, 
prosecutors charged that he was plotting to subvert the secular 
order, and asked the Constitutional Court to shut down his party 
and ban him from politics. He survived by a single vote. That 
apparently led a cabal of officers to discuss the possibility of 
deposing him by force. Documents implicating these officers and 
others in a host of crimes—not just plotting to overthrow the 
government, but also organizing horrific murders like that of the 
Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007—have been leaked to 
the press. The first hearing in 2008 set off a cascade of legal 
charges, an indictment that runs to several thousand pages, and 
the arrest of hundreds of suspects, including at least thirty 
active-duty generals. The plot to destabilize the country, and the 
cases connected to it, are popularly known as “Ergenekon,” a 
reference to a mythic Turkic homeland and the name that plotters 
allegedly gave to their subversive plan.

Mike King

Many Turks greeted the opening of this case with both astonishment 
and jubilation. Investigating the military and its corrupt allies 
in the judiciary and bureaucracy was widely seen as a major step 
toward consolidating democracy. As the case has dragged on, 
however, it has taken on a different tinge. The authenticity of 
some incriminating documents has been challenged. Prosecutors have 
cast their net so widely that people have begun to wonder whether 
the true purpose of the case is to punish conspirators or to 
intimidate critics of the government. Since the government has 
been slowly replacing prosecutors with people it favors, there is 
suspicion that politics is once again intruding into the judiciary.

The cases of the two journalists arrested in March, Ahmet Sik and 
Nedim Sener, show the complexities of the sprawling Ergenekon 
case. Evidence against them, like evidence against most other 
defendants, is secret. A judge has rejected an appeal for their 
release pending trial, meaning they are likely to be held for many 
months. Both men have devoted their careers to investigating the 
hidden forces—military, economic, and religious—that work 
insidiously to undermine democracy in Turkey, so the suggestion 
that they are part of antidemocratic plots strikes some Turks I 
met as dubious. They suspect that the journalists have either 
upset powerful people or are being used as examples to frighten 

“I can no more believe these two guys were part of Ergenekon than 
I can believe Obama is part of the Ku Klux Klan,” said Hakan 
Altinay, a former director of the Open Society Foundation in 
Turkey, which is supported by George Soros. “It’s an important 
episode for left-liberal opinion, which has up to now been part of 
this government’s core support. It’s a tipping point.”

If intimidation is a goal of this case, it may be working. “I 
wonder, is my phone tapped?” a young journalist told me at the end 
of an interview in Istanbul. “Should I censor myself?”

Intolerance is nothing new in Turkey. In Streets of Memory, a 
recent study of cultural attitudes in an Istanbul neighborhood 
that was a jumble of nationalities, Amy Mills writes:

     The price of belonging, in Turkey, comes at a cost—the 
forgetting of particular histories at the expense of the frequent 
retelling of others and the silencing of particular memories that 
cannot entirely be repressed.

She finds troubling evidence of “polarization in thinking about 
national identities and minority histories.” People shy away from 
recalling, for example, the infamous pogrom in 1955 when rioters 
backed by police attacked homes and businesses owned by Greeks, 
Armenians, and Jews. But she also notes “an increasing curiosity 
and desire among Turkish citizens to learn more about places and 
pasts in 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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