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Shifting Minority Politics

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After more than a decade in power, what can we make of the AKP’s relations with Turkey’s ethno-religious minorities?  On the one hand, certain properties confiscated by the state from Christian minorities have been returned.  Journalists have documented on multiple occasions the rare but real phenomenon of Greeks migrating to Turkey to work or in some cases to return to the homeland their ancestors were forced to abandon.  The Turkish government has pledged to protect all Syrian refugees that seek shelter within its borders, no matter their ethnicity or religion.  On the other hand, both the government and its army of sycophantic journalists have engaged in anti-Semitic fear-mongering as a retort to any and all criticism or protest against the current government.  The minority that has arguably suffered the most under the AKP are the Alevis.  The vast majority of those killed as the result of the past year’s anti-government protests were young Alevi men.  In a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle, the deaths of Alevis have resulted in protests and unrest in Alevi towns and neighborhoods, triggering harsher police crackdowns and ultimately the deaths of more Alevis.

Despite the laudable actions the current government has taken regarding the return of confiscated properties and the welcome it has extended to non-Sunni Muslim minorities fleeing Syria, the AKP has failed to change the national cultural attitudes that ultimately undermine the status of ethno-religious minorities.  Of the multiple cultural and historical factors that inhibit the acceptance of minorities, it is the threat of international sabotage, a neo-Sevres Syndrome, that is the current AKP favored political red herring.  Erdogan’s nearly daily speeches accusing foreign elements of instigating everything from the Soma disaster to the corruption probe to the Gezi protests attests to the fact that this kind of rhetoric still holds significant political sway over hearts and minds of Turks.  Jews and Alevis have simply replace the Greeks in the Sevres narrative.  Turkey’s current tolerance of native Christian groups does not signal a greater opening toward ethno-religious minorities, no matter what the pro-government press may claim.  Greek-Turk relations have improved over the years and in its current economic and political state, one would be hard pressed to make the case that Greece and Greeks are still the perpetrators behind Turkey’s woes.  Erdogan and the AKP have simply replaced one boogeyman with another.

Populations that exist on the margins of the majority, blurring the lines between the categories of “us” and “them” often become the targets of violent identity politics.  Therefore, Turkish acceptance of religious pluralism hinges largely not on its relationship with Christians or Jews but Alevis.  A fuzzy symbolic boundary can become a severe existential or even political threat to socially constructed groups.  The centuries-long persecution of Alevis by Sunni Muslim authorities is a prime example of this phenomenon.  It is often easier for religious plurality to exist when beliefs and practices are very distinct, and thus establish clear boundaries.  However, it is not impossible to overcome these kind of existential issues.  For example, if the Turkish government would offiicially recognize the Alevi house of worship, called a Cemevi, as a legitimate worship space, this legal act could also serve to create symbolic boundaries between Sunnis and Alevis.  Currently the government argues that Alevis are Muslims and the only appropriate worship space for Muslims is a mosque.  Recognizing Cemevis would not preclude Alevis from self identifying or being identified by the state as Muslims, but would create a boundary marking them as a distinct type of Muslim.

This kind of recognition of a group as “same but different” has worked to reconcile other boundary groups to a hostile majority, a prime example being the Mormons in the United States.  I would of course not be a magic cure for anti-Alevi sentiment and would have to be accompanied by pluralistic educational initiatives as well.  As evidenced by this recent piece in Al Monitor falsely equating Alevis with Syrian Alawites, even educated elites in Turkey lack a clear understanding of Alevism.  In general, Turkey has a long way to go in embracing and understanding the diverse ethno-religious groups that historically inhabited its territory.  The AKP has made only symbolic gestures toward its original platform promise of creating a pluralistic Turkey.  Hope for real change must be shifted to Turkey’s recently politically-awakened youth demographic.  It has become cliche, but all credible sources agree that Gezi was a rare moment of true pluralism.  We can only hope that youth aspirations toward pluralistic ideal will survive subsequent avalanche of xenophobic propaganda that has come in Gezi’s wake.

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Power, Paternalism and Fate in Soma

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Modern Turkey was founded and shaped by the innovative but paternalistic regime of Ataturk.  The tradition of Great Man and paternalistic politics was carried on by Ataturk’s successor Inonu and many of the democratically elected governments that followed him.  Turkey’s secularist governments never fully shook the paternalistic tradition, earning them limited popularity among the masses.  Part of the hope that surrounded the AKP in its early years was that they promised to break this tradition by liberalizing the laws governing social and political life.  After over 10 years of as the dominant political force in Turkey, few of these promises have been kept.  Particularly since the 2011 election, the leadership of the AKP has proven that they are as much a product of Turkey’s paternalistic political tradition as any of the secular predecessors.  Erdogan’s actions in the wake of the Soma tragedy are just the latest and most startling manifestation of this long Turkish tradition.

The AKP grew out of Turkey’s Islamist political tradition.  As result, many in the Western media have interpreted the AKP and Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian governance as a sign that they are preparing to institute “sharia” rule in Turkey.  However, a review of the party’s political legacy and current initiatives reveals a government that is more interested in expanding its power than spreading Islamist ideology.  The party first attempted to consolidate power through the drafting of a new constitution. The proposed constitution would have reconstructed the balance of power in the government, redefining the position of President as a strong executive without building in checks and balances. After the proposed constitution failed to make it past the drafting committee, the party has pursued other means of consolidating power. A recent law subjugated the judiciary to the executive branch, seriously compromising one the few effective checks on the AKP’s power. Erdogan, up against internal AKP term limits, has strongly hinted that he plans to be a candidate for President in the upcoming elections. He has also stated that if elected he will not conform to the traditional role of President in Turkey, that of an impartial, non-political moderator. Instead he promised to “use all my constitutional powers” as president, alluding in later speeches to either an official or unofficial expansion of the powers of the office of President.

Historically, the AKP has quashed any internal dissent from or debate of party policy, maintaining a strict hierarchical structure that it is now trying to mirror in the government as the whole. In the past year the party has subjected the country to an obsessive campaign against political dissent.  The AKP has compulsively repeated the claims that any and all of its political opponents are engaged in a conspiracy to launch a coup against the current government and destroy the democratic system.  The AKP’s war against political plurality has naturally led to further restrictions on media freedom and independence. Conglomerates sympathetic to the government have been buying up newspapers, leading to a dearth of critical reporting. All media outlets face pressure from the government, in some cases being personally scolded by the Prime Minister for not toeing the AKP line. Notoriously, the social media platforms Twitter and You Tube were banned for a period coinciding with the recent local elections.

Particularly over the past year, Erdogan’s attempts at paternalistic social engineering have triggered warnings from both in and outside of Turkey that the country’s secularism is under threat.  The most prominent example of “Islamically-inspired” legislation is the new restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcohol.  Though annoying to secularists and largely unnecessary, these laws seem to have had little real impact on the ability of both Turks and tourists to enjoy a drink.   Most concerning have been reports that reports that abortion has been de facto banned in state hospitals.  However, Erdogan’s successes at passing conservative social controls have been few and far between.  Those areas in which there has been change, such as alcohol and family planning, are favorite targets of conservatives the world over.  The conservative shift over the course of the AKP’s time in office is real but stems more from Turkey’s tradition of paternalistic governance than Islamism.  Arguably, the AKP’s Islamist heritage is distracting observers from the most likely explanation for Erdogan and the AKP’s political recent trajectory: the consolidation of power for the sake of power itself.  Erdogan has made no secret of his conservative political and social positions and is not hiding a secret Islamist agenda.  As evidence by the lengths he has gone to to break down checks on his power, Erdogan is more concerned with, and been more successful at, finding a way to maintain his control over the country than instituting elaborate Islamist social programs.

Erdogan’s infamous reaction to the tragedy in Soma can only be fully explained in the context of Turkey’s tradition of paternalistic politics.  For most politicians elsewhere in the world, the obvious first reaction in the wake of a tragedy is to console the survivors, shed tears for the victims and promise them and their families justice.  Instead, Erdogan condescendingly informed the gathered mourners and survivors that it is the fate of miners to live and die in such tragic circumstances.  As cogs in his program of fast-paced economic and infrastructure growth, Erdogan, needs working class Turks such as miners to accept their “fate” and keep on working despite the unacceptably high rate of occupational injury and death in Turkey.  They need to trust that Erdogan knows what’s best for them.  Ironically, Erdogan’s attempts to pacify Soma with references to “fate” rings strongly of the neo-Orientalist stereotyping that the AKP and the Turkish media outlets which support them have so vocally condemned.  Soma should be a wake up call for Erdogan and the AKP.  There is a limit to Turk’s tolerance for government suggestions about how they should live (and die).  Erdogan may be free to suggest what Turks should eat or how many children they should have, but Soma has made it clear that Turks are willing to fight for the right to have agency in their own fate.

Written by ataturksrepublic

May 19, 2014 at 6:42 pm

The Book on the Sidewalk

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It’s been a while, but M. James is back with a new post.  You can check out his regular blog here: http://28east.wordpress.com/

Seçmeler, by Peyami Safa

Seçmeler, by Peyami Safa

Weather-permitting, it is not uncommon to see a young man selling books outside of the Nâzım Hikmet Cultural Center in Ankara. As in many places in Turkey, the wares are carefully assembled on a repurposed aquamarine* bed sheet and laid out on the sidewalk for passers-by to politely ignore while the peddler busies himself with something else—in this case, reading.

On one particular late-May afternoon, I happened across this man after a perplexing transaction with an unctuous electronics salesman and a relatively gratifying transaction with a tobacconist. The point being, I was in a good enough mood to stop and look. I’d always found these displays somewhat romantic, yet crude. So while interested, I didn’t want to be seen patronizing the odd practice. I would rarely stop to look.

As usual, the books were mainly either beyond my linguistic abilities of comprehension or counter to my sense of propriety. One, however—an older, water-damaged paperback—caught my attention. It was a compilation, a volume of the collected newspaper articles and columns of the late Peyami Safa, journalist and novelist extraordinaire. An unusual find.

After several more minutes of nervous browsing, I picked the book off of the sidewalk for the third and final time, leaving a conspicuous aquamarine gap, like a missing tooth. The young man looked up from his book only when I approached him with my selection. He asked for three lira. I gave him five—it was worth far more than five lira to me.

A few days ago, I found the time to give that book some of the attention it deserves. Here’s one of the more serendipitous, yet disturbing, selections I found, titled “The Book on the Sidewalk.” I will let it speak for itself, perhaps to be expanded on later:

THE BOOK ON THE SIDEWALK

In yesterday’s article, “Book Morgue,” Salâhaddin Güngör had this to say about the book displays that have cropped up on nearly every street-corner: “There are so many valuable and rare books in those displays that one would be shocked what can be had for the price of a glass of Hamidiye water.”

 In Turkey, there is nothing that suffers as much indignity as books. Not just Hamidiye water, but cigarette butts, filthy rags, old shoes, empty bottles, and even the broken wood and iron scavenged from rubble will all fetch a higher price than their own raw materials—and more buyers, too. Only books, only those damned, wretched books are placed on the same ground as dog waste and put up for sale without so much as a piece of cloth beneath them. When a country gives the same position to knowledge and literature as it gives to its heels, and places the nourishment of its mind underfoot, that suggests that books have about as much dignity as the brooms in grocers’ shops (at least the brooms are hung one or two meters off the ground).

 Script both new and old, authors both great and insignificant, works from both east and west, compilations, translations, and every variety of writing, writer, and quality—all underfoot.

 Fellow-citizen! There is a danger as dreadful as an enemy invasion hidden in this tragedy. Fellow-citizen! Great catastrophes will utterly destroy the progress of any nation where books crawl on the ground. Fellow-citizen! Good, bad, valuable, worthless, compilation, and translation, buy your share of these books! Sell your bedspreads if need be, but buy these books and get them off the ground!

 Tan, July 23rd, 1935

*I.e., the color of public pool locker room tiles. No, the peddlers’ bed sheets are not always aquamarine, but when they are, I remember it.

†A high-mineral-content water piped from Istanbul’s Belgrade Forest since 1902; apparently a subject of derision for quite some time now.

‡Referring to both Latin and Arabic script, the latter of which was officially canned in 1929 and replaced by the modern Turkish language.

Written by ataturksrepublic

January 31, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Posted in History

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Museum or Mosque?

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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.

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May 7, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Sevres Syndrome

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The tragic story of Sarai Sierra has been all over the Turkish and American media.  Until the discovery of her body on Saturday, her fate was a matter of speculation.  Some of that speculation ran toward the absurd.  One notable example attempts to prove that she was in fact a CIA operative.  Though this theory is patently ridiculous, similar conspiracy theories are all too common in Turkey.  I myself have been asked half seriously if I worked for the CIA.  Recently, members of the CHP even publicly questioned whether Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian visit to the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey was evidence of a CIA connection.

On the surface, this obsession with American covert infiltration and manipulation of Turkey’s government seems puzzling.  Turkey and America are close allies and have been so since the Cold War.  President Obama, in his address to the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 2009, praised the fact that, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey had “…freed [itself] from foreign control, and [had] founded a republic that commands the respect of the United States and the wider world.”  Turkey and America’s relationship is not without its problems, but there is certainly no reason to believe that the CIA would feel it necessary to intervene in Turkey’s elections in order to ensure PM Erdogan is reelected (another common rumor in Turkey).

The frequency and quotidian nature of these conspiracy theories in Turkey inevitably leads one to wonder what is fueling this paranoia.  Though there are certainly more recent events that come into play, such as the United States’ invasion of Iraq, I posit that the primary cause of Turkey’s collective fear of foreign interference derives from the division of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I in the Treaty of Sevres.   Despite the fact that the Turkish War of Independence effectively annulled the Treaty of Sevres and replaced it with the Treaty of Lausanne, the fear of territorial division and loss of sovereignty remains deeply imbedded in Turkish politics and culture.  Now it is the US that has the power to interfere with and overthrow  foreign governments and Turkey’s Sevres Syndrome now manifests itself as CIA centered conspiracy theories.

Given the heartbreaking outcome of this story, the above analysis may seem beside the point.  Indeed, I don’t believe ingrained cultural paranoia justifies the lack of basic human empathy exhibited by the article in question.  However, part of the aim of this blog is to acquaint English-speakers (read: Americans) with the history and culture of Turkey in order to dispel some of wide-spread myths created by America’s own historical and cultural baggage.  At the very least, if Turk accuses you of being a CIA agent, you’ll have a better understanding of why.

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February 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm