Archive for May 2013
Over the past four days, a peaceful protest against the destruction of a public park off Taksim square in Istanbul has exploded into mess of pepper spray, tear gas, water cannons and general police brutality.
So why are Istanbul’lu’s so upset over the destruction of a small park? It is not the physical park so much as what it represents. Gezi park is the last green space in central Istanbul (not including the old city) and it is being destroyed to build retail space. Over the last 10 years or so, Istanbul has been in the midst of a construction boom. This has resulted not only in its outward expansion but razing and conversion of old buildings in its core. Building after building has been turned into shopping space, much to the chagrin of local residents.
But it is not only the fact that a mall will replace Gezi park. Much of the focus of the protests have been on the destruction of the trees rather than the park itself. The destruction of trees has been a hot topic in Turkey recently. Two new projects, the third Bosphorus bridge (for which there was a ground breaking Wednesday) and the new Istanbul airport will result in the razing of hundreds of thousands of trees. Residents of Istanbul are feeling powerless in the face of the increasing homogenization and concrete-ification of their city. The threat to this small piece of open space and these few trees has become the perfect stand in for much larger changes and projects. This protest is about residents of Istanbul trying to regain a small measure of control over the destruction of the city they know.
The disproportionate response of the police to this relatively small, local protest a sign of insecurity, not strength. Now is the time for Turkey to prove that it is indeed the model Muslim democracy that it has claimed to be. Prove that the average Turk does indeed have the right to freedom of assembly, speech and peaceful protest. Prove those of us who have warned that Turkey is slipping toward authoritarianism wrong. Prove that the Turkish Republic has the strength to bend to the will of its people.
On Friday a guest post by Alexander Slater on the blog Ottomans and Zionists explored the question Are Turks and Americans Friends? This is a reconsideration of that question. I am not calling this a rebuttal, because I can’t argue with the statistics on which the post was based. I disagree with Slater that the White House’s statement emphasizing “the close friendship between the United States and Turkey” is essentially wrong. However, it certainly should be accompanied by a number of asteriskes.
Far from being exceptional, the friendly relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan is typical of interactions between individual Turks and Americans. As anyone who traveled to Turkey or spent time with Turks will tell you, Turks are extremely welcoming, friendly and even excited to meet Americans and are curious about American culture. The lived experience seems to contradict the Pew Forum Survey which found that only 13% of Turks have a favorable view of the American people. I agree with Michael Koplow and Steven Cook’s explanation, namely that Turks are able to separate American foreign policy from individual Americans. The Pew Forum questions were simply not worded in a way that would discern the fine but important distinction between a nation as a whole and the individuals that comprise it. In order to measure this distinction the survey should have included questions such as: Have you ever met an American? If so, do you have a favorable opinion of him or her? Do you have a desire to visit the United States? Do you have favorable or unfavorable impression of everyday life in the United States? I suspect questions such as these would elicit much more favorable responses from Turks than those in the original survey.
However, the fact remains that the vast majority of Turks have a negative opinion of the United States and its foreign policy. This begs the question that Slater addresses in his post: Given the close relationship between the governments of our two countries, and a similar business and political culture, why do such negative opinions persist? More importantly, what can be done to cultivate a more favorable and accurate image of America among Turks? As I’ve written previously, Turkey has an ingrained suspicion of foreigners and their motives, often referred to as Sevres Syndrome. This phenomenon goes far in explaining the fact that Turks not only report a dislike of Americans, but foreigners in general. Slater rightly points out that the majority of Turkey’s population now lives in urban areas and that the urban vs. rural population split continues to widen. However, I think it is incorrect to automatically expect Turkey’s city-dwellers to hold cosmopolitan world views. Turkey’s urbanization was the result of a mass internal migration from the countryside to the cities in the mid to late 20th century. While younger Turks may overwhelmingly be city-dwellers by birth, the majority of the older generations are transplants who spent their formative years in villages despite their current urban residence. Therefore, many urban Turks still take a provincial view of the world, unlike the political and business elites with whom he interacted.
However, this perception problem goes both ways. Turkey was not included in the list of countries in a recent Gallup poll gauging American perceptions of foreign countries. However, I suspect that Americans’ opinions of Turkey would place it nearer Egypt or Russia rather than Germany or France, that is generally unfavorable. Popular perceptions of Turkey in the United States are based largely on its geographic location, Muslim population and depiction in films. Slater calls for bilateral action emphasizing the numerous political, business and cultural commonalities between Turkey and the United States. While I am unclear as to what this action might entail, I fear it would only be effective at the micro level. I believe that the United States bears much of the responsibility for effecting large scale changes in Turkey’s perception of American as well as American’s perception of Turkey. Turks will always to view the United States in a negative light as long as our foreign policy continues to vacillate between violent disasters like Iraq and impotent attempts to secure peace, such as the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turkey’s xenophobia is something that as a nation Turks must work to overcome. However, Americans must also work to end our notoriously poor knowledge of the world and ever persistent Islamophobia. Unfortunately, all of these changes will take a great amount of time and effort to come about and may in fact not be realized for many years. In the short term at least we can take comfort in the fact that our respective leaders, and many lay individuals, share an open and friendly relationship.
Turkish Airlines, named the best airline in Europe for 2012, has also drawn its share of negative national and international attention in recent months. First it faced vociferous criticism for the conservative look of its proposed new uniforms for flight attendants. Then it was reported that the airline would ban bright colors of lipstick and nail polish. Both of these incidents provoked accusations that the airline was imposing conservative Islamic values on its flight attendants.
Turkish Airlines is just the most recent focus of accusations of creeping Islamization in Turkey. Though some examples used to prove the thesis that Turkey is sliding toward Sharia are gender neutral, like restrictions on alcohol, most often critics focus on real or perceived restrictions on women, and more specifically women’s appearance. The most civil criticisms of the proposed Turkish Airlines uniforms deemed them too “conservative.” There is no denying that they are a departure from the bright pink mini-dresses worn by the company’s flight attendants in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, what most likely caught the attention of Turkish critics of the uniform were the long coats worn by some of the women in the pictures from the company’s fashion show. In Turkey long overcoats are part of the everyday outfit of religiously conservative but fashionable young women who also choose to wear a headscarf. Women who cover their heads have long been banned from state jobs including teaching, law and even serving as an elected official. Though not officially excluded in the private sector, many face discrimination and often were unofficially excluded from working with the public. The first “covered women” began working for Turkish Airlines just in September of last year. These long overcoats most likely were designed to cater to the fashion sensibilities of these women specifically as most of the other styles shown, while modest by most standards, show too much leg for the vast majority of covered women. However, since the coats were shown without a scarf, some may have interpreted this as a sign that women who do not cover will be forced to dress like those who do.
Seemingly unaware that Turkish Airlines had backed down on the red lipstick ban, yesterday the Ukrainian feminist protest group FEMEN posted a statement and pictures to its website in protest of the ban. FEMEN’s trademark protest is publicly bared breasts, symbolizing their demand that women be able to control their own body and appearance. Lately they have made the international news for protesting against what they perceive as Shariazation in the Arab Spring countries. FEMEN is an extreme example, but its stance that by definition nudity is freeing and modesty is oppressive is an intellectual current that runs through mainstream secular feminism. While the right of a woman who chooses to dress in revealing clothing to be free from harassment has been championed by mainstream feminism, the right of a woman who chooses to cover her body and hair to work or go to school has been largely ignored. For example, there was no similar media frenzy when rectnly a Turkish lawyer in a headscarf was dismissed from a courtroom by a male judge, despite the fact that the ban on female lawyers wearing such attire had been lifted. Turkey’s entry into the EU has been stalled for years, in part due to Turkey’s illiberal record in areas like freedom of the press. However, in 2005 the European Court of Human rights upheld a ban on students wearing headscarves in public universities (the ban was lifted by the government in 2010).
Those that consider themselves liberals and feminists need to realize that in liberal, secular societies women should have just as much right to cover as to uncover themselves. If the right to wear red lipstick to work is inalienable, then the right to wear a red hijab should be too. Organizations like FEMEN that campaign against Islamic inspired dress distract from the deeper and universal issues of domestic violence, pay discrimination and access to maternal and reproductive services. Turkish Airlines has received a lot of negative press over its recent fashion faux pas, but it has also benefited from the fact that these controversies have also served to distract from more pressing issues facing its employees. Unionized members of Turkish Airlines began a strike early this morning. However, the strike has no connection to the regulations on appearance that have gripped the attention of conventional and social media. Statements from Hava-Is union representatives make it clear that Turkish Airlines history of repressing employees right to strike through layoffs and the company’s dubious safety record is a bigger threat to employees than any of the recent proposed changes to their dress code. Public outcry gave Turkish Airline stewardesses back their right to wear bright lipstick, but it is a hollow victory considering the larger issues at stake.
While in Turkey last year, I had the opportunity to visit Iznik, known better to Christians as Nicea. In my travel blog I discussed the trip, which included a visit to the ruins of the church of Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), the site of 7th and final ecumenical council in the pre-schism church. This history of the building is typical of many ancient churches in Turkey. The present 11th century structure was built as a church but was converted to a mosque during Ottoman times. The building eventually fell into disrepair and disuse and was a ruined shell when it was reopened as a state run museum in 2007. However, in October 2011 it was refurbished in order to serve as a mosque.
I wrote the following observations shortly after my visit to Iznik:
We visited Iznik on a Friday, the Muslim day of communal prayer. Outside the Green Mosque, which was already filled to capacity, men lined up dozens of rows deep for the mid-day prayer. The call to prayer echoed from the Ottoman minaret of what a sign now identifies as the Aya Sofya Mosque, however the area was nearly abandoned, with just a few men hanging around outside. It certainly appears that locals prefer to pray at other mosques, even when they are overflowing, rather than use this church turned mosque turned ruin turned museum turned mosque. My pious host family was shocked and surprised to hear that the church-museum was now a mosque. Because hardly anyone actually uses it as a prayer space, the re-sanctification of the building made little real impact on our ability to visit and look around the building. There is even a small benefit to the visitor. Since the building is now a mosque rather than a church, there is no entrance fee.
The lack of interest in using the building as a prayer a space that I observed, combined with the opposition from locals as reported in the Times article convinced me that this kind of “re-Islamization” of historic buildings was unlikely to become a trend. However there have recently been actions taken toward converting a second recently restored Aya Sofya church-cum-mosque in the Black Sea city of Trabzon. In both cases the impetuous for the conversion of restored churches to mosques has come from the General Directorate of Foundations, a somewhat shadowy government agency which is officially in charge of Islamic religious foundations. In the last year the General Directorate has also taken up what was formerly an extremely fringe position and has begun advocating for the re-conversion of the most famous Aya Sofya into a mosque.
News of moves made toward converting the Trabzon and Istanbul Aya Sofyas forced me to reconsider my dismissal of the Iznik conversion as an isolated incident. An article Thursday by Andrew Finkel characterizes the Iznik’s Aya Sofya’s conversion as well as the threat to convert the two others into mosques as another sign of creeping Islamization and general government mismanagement of cultural treasures. I share Finkel’s despair regarding the irreparable damage done to historic sites. Ill conceived restorations are all too common in Turkey and little has been done to reconcile the problem. The General Directorate is indisputably overstepping the bounds of its authority as well as acting against both the interests and wishes of the Turkish people. Though I believe most accusations of creeping Islamization in Turkey are overblown if not downright false, in the specific case of the General Directorate it appears that there is Islamic ideological as well as Turkish nationalist bent to their recent actions (see Turkish-Islamic Synthesis). By returning these buildings to use as mosques the Directorate is not only creating more Muslim religious spaces, but imposing a Turkish and Islamic history on the buildings and the cities themselves, whitewashing both the Byzantine Christian history and the Ottoman cosmopolitan legacies.
Despite the damage that General Directorate has done and may still do to Turkey’s historic churches, I don’t yet believe there is reason to panic regarding the Aya Sofya in Istanbul. In setting its sights on one of the world’s most famous landmarks, and Turkey’s most visited site, the Directorate may have set the stage for its own undoing. The ecumenical service cited in the beginning of Finkel’s piece did not propose that all Turkey’s important churches that were then in use as mosques be returned to the Orthodox community, just Istanbul’s Aya Sofya. The congregation that gathered in 1921 were not interested in reclaiming the Aya Sofya for Christendom just because of its fame, but because it symbolized a lost outpost of Christianity. “Capturing” it would pave the way for the reconquest of this territory from the Turkish Muslims. Today, the conversion of the Aya Sofya Museum into a mosque would serve a similar symbolic purpose for Turkey’s fringe Islamists. The Aya Sofya was “secularized” when it was opened as a Museum in the early days of the Republic by Ataturk himself. It therefore has subsequently come to symbolize the secular values of the Republic as opposed to officially Muslim Ottoman state. The reversion of the space into a mosque would be an unquestionable victory for Islamistsover the nearly sacred principle of Turkish secularism.
Erdogan may be happy to allow the General Directorate to quietly go about its Islamization campaign in small towns, but he could never allow such a public affront to the principles of the Turkish state and the near sacred legacy of Ataturk. Additionally, Turkey cannot risk alienating its Western, Christian allies during a period of such regional turmoil. Whether framed as an affront to the separation of church and state or against Christianity as a religion, US public outcry against the conversion of Istanbul’s Aya Sofya would be swift and loud. The US would certainly exert diplomatic pressure to keep the conversion from going through. If the General Directorate would succeed in getting to the planning stages of the conversion, Erdogan would be forced to finally check the out of control actions of the Directorate. If the Directorate is smart, it will not force Erdogan’s hand in such an international crisis. Right now, except for a handful of tourists and dedicated Turkey watchers, the world is largely oblivious to the archaeological, cultural and economic destruction it is causing. The Directorate could potentially go on with its museum to mosque campaign indefinitely, unless it lets its power go to its head.
*A previous version of this post had stated that the Trabzon Aya Sofya was also a ruin. It has been recently restored but was an intact building before restoration began. My references to its condition has been corrected.