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Sinan Ciddi on the Current State of Turkish Democracy: Summary and Assessment

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Last Thursday March 19 Sinan Ciddi of the Georgetown Institute of Turkish Studies spoke at Boston University on “Elections and the Struggle for Political Legitimacy.”  His focus was the current state of Turkish democracy, namely how and why current President Erdogan has come to dominate all aspects of the Turkish government and the likely course of Turkish politics in the near future.   Ciddi offered some thought-provoking and timely insights into the current trajectory of AKP rule and the possible outcome of the June 7th general elections.

Erdogan’s rise to power was until recently enthusiastically supported by Western governments and, despite his increasing authoritarianism, Ciddi reminded us that a large plurality of Turks still enthusiastically support Erdogan and his party.  During the last ten years the AKP has transformed the economy and infrastructure of Turkey.  Lower class and rural Turks in particular have seen a significant, positive change in their income and access to necessary services.  Those Turks whose lives have been significantly bettered under Erdogan’s leadership are extremely loyal to his party and him personally and care little about the more abstract political issues at stake.

Ciddi characterizes President Erdogan’s efforts to convert the Turkish government into a Presidential system as “regime change.”  The change is already de facto, but it is important that it has not yet been legally established.  In other words,  though Erdogan operates as if he already the official head of the Turkish government, the office of the Presidency still retains only limited official abilities to influence legislative functions.  During the early years of AKP rule, the party and its leadership were hailed as denizens of [relatively] liberal, democratic change and shining examples of how Islam and democracy could co-exist.  Now Erdogan is daily, and not undeservedly, characterized as an aspiring dictator by the international media.

Erdogan’s seeming transformation from a committed democrat to a committed autocrat has been distressing and puzzling to many of his former Western allies, but Ciddi believes that Erdogan’s current trajectory was in many ways set before he even ascended to the office of Prime Minister.  Ciddi identifies Erdogan’s Islamist background as a significant influence in his current political vision and the instigator of his authoritarianism.  For Turkish Islamists, Kemalism and its program of modernization and Westernization serve as their political foil, and Erdogan’s current political agenda is still significantly motivated by opposition to everything the “old” Turkey represents.  Ciddi points out that though Erdogan insisted that he had accepted the secular, democratic nature of the Turkish state, he provided no proof of his reformation besides his declared conversion.  Ciddi asserts that Erdogan never reformed his beliefs and deep down still maintained a commitment to the illiberal Islamist political vision.  Ironically Erdogan is attempting to eradicate the monolithic ideologically of Kemalism, only to replace it with his own monolithic vision for a “new” Turkey.

Erdgoan’s actions are not pure motivated by political ideology however.  Ciddi believes that there are two other significant factors driving Erdogan: a desire for revenge and the need to escape criminal inquiries.  Turkey’s Islamist movements were subject to decades of political oppression and marginalization.  Erdogan’s mentor, who was also the first Islamist Prime Minister of Turkey, was forced out in a virtual coup and the AKP party itself narrowly avoided being shut down by the constitutional court.  After the constitutional court case against the AKP, Erdogan set about systematically crushing or usurping the power of all the institutions that previously targeted the AKP or its predecessors, in particular the military, the judiciary and the presidency.  But Erdogan may have some even more unsavory rational for curtailing the independence of Turkey’s political institutions.  The corruption charges that were brought to light a little over two years ago were never full investigated.  While Ciddi refuses to say definitely that Erdogan, his son and his closest ministers were involved in graft, he rightfully insists that the allegations need to be fully investigated.  However, it is very clear that the investigation will never see the light of day so long as Erdogan maintains his grip on power.

Ciddi concluded his talk with general observations and predictions about political future of Turkey.  Turkish society is currently extremely polarized politically. largely thanks to Erdogan’s handling of the Gezi protests and his subsequent consolidation of power.  Though the opposition parties remain divided, unpopular and ineffective, Erdogan has been unable to crush the grassroots opposition.  The individualistic, disorganized nature of the popular opposition actually works in its favor.  Erdogan can and will continue to arrest individuals who dare to speak out against him but the lack of organization and leadership means that he will never be able to silence even a fraction of his citizen critics.  In this line, Ciddi expects that there will be social and political turbulence in Turkey for the foreseeable future.  The Gezi protests made clear that Erdogan does not know how to manage popular protest movements, and indeed they are a new phenomenon in Turkey.  Previous opposition movements were institutionally based, organized through unions and fringe political parties, and Turkish politicians have no political playbook for dealing with disorganized popular movements.  Turkey has not seen such social unrest since 1978.  At this point, “anything can happen.”

I am in general agreement with the majority of Ciddi’s analysis, with my major point of contention being the origins of Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions.  I have argued elsewhere that it is the illiberal nature of Turkish political institutions, not his Islamist roots, that set the stage for Erdogan’s consolidation of power.  Ciddi’s introduction of the idea that revenge was a motive in Erdogan’s campaigns to crush the power of the military and judiciary is an interesting one.  I don’t rule out revenge as a factor, in all probability it did play a role.  However, I still believe that the major motivating factor behind the efforts to subvert the power of the military and judiciary, not to mention Erdogan’s coveting of the presidency, was simply to consolidate and retain power.

There were several interesting points brought up during the Q&A after Ciddi’s talk.  Prescient of yesterday’s very public intra-AKP spat, Ciddi asserts that there are very real fractures within the leadership of the AKP and that the rank and file of the party are increasingly unhappy.  He attributes some of this frustration to the fact that since become president, Erdogan has closed himself off to all but his most inner circle of advisers. During his years as Prime Minister, Erdogan had a very open and even collaborative relationship with his advisers and other party members according to Ciddi.  He characterized party divisions and infighting as natural given Erdogan’s de-facto one-man rule.  Such a political system is inherently a house of cards and all those within the system are aware of its weakness.  Ciddi also posited that Davutoglu may not be the simply Erdogan puppet many are making him out to be and he may assert his independence after the upcoming election.

Regarding the most talked about component of the election, the Kurdish vote, Ciddi urges caution.  He reminded us that the HDP and its leadership have their own ideological agenda centered around Kurdish nationalism and autonomy. and predicted that even if the HDP breaks the 10% threshold and is able to seat its candidates in parliament, they may very well be induced into forming an alliance with the AKP in return for greater Kurdish regional autonomy.  Ciddi added that this would ultimately be a misguided political gamble as he believes that Erdogan in the end is not truly committed to meeting Kurdish demands for equal rights and political autonomy.

I agree with Ciddi’s assessment of Erdogan’s position on this issue but would posit that the HDP leadership, and even most ordinary Kurds, are well aware that Erdogan is largely disingenuous in his efforts toward Kurdish-Turkish reconciliation.  It is like the Turkey-EU assention situation, Turkey knows that the EU will never actually allow it to join them but is unwilling to fully pull out of the assention process.  In both situations the spurned party is willing to let talks go on as there is no desire to upset the status quo and risk returning to the bad old days.  The HDP will indeed bring their own agenda if their candidates are seated in parliament, but unlike Ciddi I don’t believe they would acquiesce to being the AKP’s puppets. To become a partner in the AKP’s illiberal policy agenda would be to support policies that are likely to be disproportionally used against Kurds.  If the Kurdish party earns more than 10% of the vote, and this is still a big if, it will be a significant net positive for Turkish democracy.

Ciddi believes that the AKP will still enjoy a majority in parliament after the June 7th elections, though they will not have enough seats to pass the constitutional changes needed to create a presidential system.  As he himself confessed, Ciddi is not a fan of the AKP but he also could not envision any other current Turkish political party actually governing.  The CHP is notorious among Turks for being corrupt and inefficient and the MHP is more than happy to remain a minority opposition voice. The takeaway from Ciddi’s talk: the AKP is not going anywhere, but that does not mean that Turks will sit by idly as Turkey is transformed into a one-party state.

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The politics of Suleyman Shah

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Saturday night to Sunday the Turkish military carried out an operation into Syria to evacuate its remaining personnel at the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman Shah.  Before they left, they removed the remains and destroyed the building.  These events came on the heels of rumors that the Turkish guards stationed there had been trapped by the Islamic State, rumors the Turkish foreign ministry denied Friday.  The Kurdish PYD forces which control a defacto autonomous region in northern Syria aided this operation by allowing the Turkish military to pass through their territory on the way to the tomb and after the operation was over set up a new Turkish enclave in their territory to house the recovered remains.

Much was written about the history and importance of the Turkish enclave in Syria back in the Fall when the area was first overrun by ISIS- you can read more here and here.  Certainly the tomb had/has symbolic significance for Turkey, especially fervent nationalists, and the decision to evacuate it may have political repercussions domestically.  However, the transfer of the enclave to another location inside of Syria seems to be a satisfactory solution to the dilemma of how to protect Turkey’s pride while also relieving a dangerous flashpoint.  What is most interesting and most consequential for the future policies are the specifics of how and when this operation was executed.

For long time Turkey watchers, one of the most striking elements of this story is the fact that not only did the Turkish military cross through PYD territory, and specifically the recently besieged town of Kobane, and that they are also allowing Turkey to reconstitute their enclave on their territory.  The Turks and the Kurds have a fraught history, to put it lightly.  During the siege of Kobane, Turkey was heavily criticized for not intervening on the side of the Kurds and the frustrations of Turkish Kurds boiled over into deadly riots.  This act of cooperation between the PYD and the Turkish military initially hinted at the possibility that Turkey is seriously changing its attitude toward what now seems like the inevitable reality of living with an autonomous Kurdish enclave on its southern border.  More cynically, the current Turkish government could use its cooperation with the PYD to try to win back the political support of Turkish Kurds, who in the past supported the AKP in significant numbers.*

However, the political posturing that has come in the wake of this operation complicates the picture significantly.  President Erdogan’s spokesman vehemently denied today that there was any cooperation with the PYD and called them a terrorist group.  The PYD has stuck to its frankly far more believable claim that they coordinated with the Turkish military and the operation could not have been a success without such cooperation. The PKK for its part has suggested that Turkey must have notified and coordinated with the Islamic State as well in order to have evacuated its troops so smoothly.  IS denies the PKK’s claims.

After official government communications showed and spoke of PM Davutoglu personally directing the Suleyman Shah operation on Saturday, today the President’s office claims that it was in fact Erdogan who personally oversaw it.  It was also announced today that Erdogan will be chairing the next Cabinet meeting, something that it is within the powers of the presidency, but was only done in extraordinary situations in the past.  This flexing of political muscle on the part of Erdogan could perhaps indicate a rift between himself, the Prime Ministry and/or the military.  The potential to convert this successful operation and its aftermath into political gains with Turkey’s Kurds seems high, and Erdogan’s instance on burning bridges strikes me as shortsighted.

Meanwhile, whether it was preplanned or not, Turkey’s parliament took advantage of the distraction provided by the Suleyman Shah operation to Wag the Dog. The AKP members of parliament pushed through 10 parts of the controversial and illiberal security bill in an all-night session Saturday.  As could be expected, the Turkish military incursion into Syria is top billing in the news today, rather than the legal encroachment on democratic freedoms.

*The upcoming June elections are a linchpin in the ruling AKP’s plans to amend the constitution to make President Erdogan the du jour instead of just the de facto head of state.  The Kurdish party in Turkey, the HDP, has decided to run candidates in the upcoming election not as independents, as it has done previously, but as officially affiliated with the party.  According to the election rules, if the Kurdish party fails to gain 10% or more of the total votes in the election, it will not be able to seat any of its members.  The seats that it theoretically did win will go to the runner up in any given election, most likely the AKP candidate.  Therefore, the future ambitions of Erdogan and the AKP are tied closely to how Turkish Kurds vote.

Written by ataturksrepublic

February 23, 2015 at 7:56 pm

Erdogan’s Turkey: De-moderation or Consolidation of Power?

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My latest piece for ForeignAffairs.com, Dreaming of Russia in Ankara, argues that Turkish politics is drifting not toward Islamism but secular authoritarianism; in more concrete terms, the Russian rather than the Iran political model.  I have made similar arguments previously on this blog and wanted to take the opportunity to directly address the theoretical debate I am in conversation with, namely inclusion-moderation theory.  Inclusion-moderation or moderation theory holds that if groups holding extreme political positions are included in the institutions of governance they will be forced to moderate their ideological positions due to the demands of practical politics, namely attracting votes, working with other political groups and addressing practical issues of governance.  This theory was developed from the experience of religiously-based political parties in Europe but is most often discussed in the context of Islamist parties in Muslim-majority countries.

Needless to say, moderation theory and the mechanisms it describes have examined and re-examined by political scientists and I won’t subject you to the full debate here.  I will address just one element that is the subcontext of my Foreign Affairs, namely whether power can make an Islamist party de-moderate, ie revert to more conservative and religiously-influenced positions. One of the latest contributions to this debate , and one that my arguments directly relate to, is Shadi Hamid’s Temptations of Power.  Hamid draws on extensive fieldwork done in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia with the largest Islamist political organizations in each respective country.  Drawing on his interviews and the historic trajectories of these parties, he argues that “Islamists are Islamists for a reason.”  We should take the religious roots of these parties seriously and not be surprised when, if and when they gain significant political power, they institute religiously-informed and illiberal policies, even if they had previously disavowed such policies.

Hamid makes a very convincing case and some commentators have suggested his analysis explains Turkey’s current political situation.  However, I argue that the phenomena he is describing is not de-moderation but continuation of the current (secular) authoritarian Arab political tradition and therefore rooted in an Islamism per se but in the institutions these Islamist groups inherit when they come to power.  In the case of Turkey, the AKP is succumbing to the “temptations of power” that are already embedded in the institutions and traditions of the Turkish Republic: state control of religion, media censorship and a reverence for strong and authoritative political leaders.

Ultimately, only time will tell whether it is Hamid, myself, or neither of us who are right about the motives and trajectory of Erdogan and the AKP.  The best case scenario, the one that I am holding out hope for, is that events intervene before it becomes clear who “won” this debate.

Written by ataturksrepublic

February 17, 2015 at 12:04 am

Last Week in Turkey

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The start of a new year brings with it the alternately loved and loathed tradition of year-in-review listicles.  During the course of last week, the first full week of 2015 (Monday, January 5 to Sunday, January 11), the major events in Turkey provided a ready-made listicle of the political highlights of the previous year.

The December 13, 2013 Corruption Probe
Though this case broke in 2013, it continued to dominate headlines throughout 2014.  Over the course of last year, thousands of judicial and law enforcement officials were demoted, transferred and/or arrest as a result of their involvement in the case or connections with the Gulen Movement, which the government believes is the motivating force behind the corruption charges.

On Monday, a parliamentary committee voted not to pursue charges against four former government ministers indited in connection with the corruption probe.
Also on Monday, 20 police officers in districts across the country were arrested and accused of illegal wire tapping in connection with the case (much of the evidence in the case came from recorded phone conversations, transcripts of which may be soon slated for destruction).  Meanwhile, the central implicated figure in the case bought a new private jet for himself.

On Thursday, six private Turkish TV broadcasting companies were fined for reading the testimony of the ministers accused in the corruption scandal on air.

Suppression of Civil Society, Free Speech and Freedom of the Press
This has been an ongoing problem in Turkey, arguably going back to the founding of the Republic and beyond.  However, after the Gezi protests of summer 2013, the government has been quick to subject protests directed against them with liberal doses of tear gas and high pressure water.  Ordinary citizens, even children, have been brought to court for anti-government statements, particularly when these are posted on social media.  The targeting of citizen free speech has gone hand in hand with a crack down on freedom of the press, with Turkey ranking as the top jailer of journalists for the first half of 2014.

On Monday, a protest organized by civil society groups against the jailing censoring of journalists was tear gassed and water cannoned, despite the freezing temperatures, outside the Constitutional Court.  It is likely that these groups are connected to the Gulen Movement, who’s publications and journalists were particularly targeted throughout 2014.

On Tuesday, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, the only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir, the defacto capital of Turkish Kurdistan, was briefly detained and had her housed searched by the Turkish anti-terrorism police squad.  She was accused of spreading negative information about the Turkish state as well as PKK propaganda.

On Wednesday, another Dutch journalist was detained and released pending his appearance at court in relation to an act of journalism committed in 2013.

On Thursday, it was announced that Turkey had bought 1.9 million new tear gas canisters from a manufacturer in South Korea.

Environmental Degradation
The destruction of trees and the degradation of natural areas in the service of economic and industrial progress was a major source of controversy throughout 2014.  The start of construction on the new Istanbul airport, the ongoing work on the third Bosphorus bridge and the completion of the new presidential palace as well as smaller incidents like the cutting of olive groves for the building of a new power plant meant that hardly a week went by in 2014 without a story featuring a photo of muddy, clear-cut land.  Many infrastructure projects, including the ones mentioned above, went ahead despite court orders and civilian protests.

A large number of cedar trees in an old growth forest were cut over the previous weekend to make way for a marble quarry, triggering a protest by hundreds of locals on Monday.

On Friday, there was a rare victory for environmental activists when a court order suspended the sale of coastal land that was slated for development.  The land in question is a sea turtle nesting ground and beloved by locals and tourists alike.

Gender Equality
2014 was the year of President Erdogan and the AKP making decidedly illiberal and downright silly statements about relations between the sexes.

The proposals for maternal leave and parental accommodation in employment announced Thursday were greeted with skepticism as they came on the heels of many statements by the government encouraging a more maternal, traditional role for women.

The Kurdish Settlement
The ongoing dialogue between the government and the long-oppressed Kurdish minority population was on shaky ground for most of 2014.  A number of Kurdish civilians were killed by police and police and military personal were killed in attacks which likely linked to the PKK.  Little to no progress was made on allowing for greater cultural rights such as Kurdish-language primary schools.  Most notorious was the actions of the Turkish government after the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane was attacked by the Islamic State.  While Turkey did allow civilians to flee across the border in fits and starts, the Turkish government’s refused to let Turkish Kurds cross the border to join the fighting and made it clear that it had no interest in providing official military aid.  The Turkish government brought into question its commitment to the peace progress when President Erdogan equated the PKK (whose jailed leader was critical to starting and sustaining the peace process) with the Islamic State.  The situation in Kobane, and the widespread (mis)perception that Turkish government was secretly supporting the Islamic State, lead to riots in Kurdish majority areas.  Dozens of civilians and two police officers died and scores were arrested.  There were also deaths as the result of intra-Kurdish violence.

On Monday, a pro-government paper announced that there would soon be a new set of laws introduced that “will put an end to the country’s Kurdish issue.”  According to the article, the new laws will include measures to disarm, repatriate and reintegrate into society members of the PKK, though exactly how this will be carried out is unclear.  It was not announced when this legal package would be introduced in parliament.  Previous legal packages meant to reconcile previous legal discrimination of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have been met with mixed reviews at best.

On Wednesday, a 14 year old boy was shot and killed by police during intra-Kurdish clashes in the town of Cizre.

International Diplomacy or Lack There Of
Turkey’s international relations continued on their downward spiral in 2014.  Relations were strained even with long-time allies such as the US and efforts to restart Turkey’s long idle EU ascension progress basically went no where.  True to form, Erdogan and members of the AKP made multiple un-diplomatic statements that only added to Turkey’s perception problem abroad.

After the attack last week in Paris on the staff of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, Prime Minister Davutoglu released an unequivocal condemnation while other members of the government, including President Erdogan, choose to try to shift some of the blame for the attacks to what they perceive as Europe’s widespread Islamophobia.  Other members of the AKP speculated that the attacks were staged and/or part of an elaborate conspiracy.

Terrorism
This is one of the few categories in which last week unfortunately stands out from 2014.  The major terrorism related incident of 2014 was the kidnapping but eventual safe release of the staff of the Turkish consulate in Mosul.  However, there had not been a major terrorist attack targeting civilians in Turkey since the attempted suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Ankara and Reyhanli car bombings in February and May respectively of 2013.

On Tuesday, a woman walked into a police station in the old city area of Istanbul and blew herself up, killing one police officer and seriously wounding another.  The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front, the militant leftist organization that perpetrated the 2013 US Embassy bombing, initially took credit for the attack.  However, it was latter forced to retract its statements when it was revealed that the bomber was not a member of the group as originally thought, but likely a Chechen in Istanbul on a tourist visa.

On Saturday, two bombs were found in two different Istanbul shopping malls but safely removed and destroyed before they could explode.  It is unclear who planted the bombs and why.

What’s Missing
It is important to note that there were a few major issues and events of 2014 that was noticeably absent from the major stories last week, including the ongoing refugee crisis and the Soma disaster.

What’s in Store for 2015 
It’s likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of the same. Most if not all of the issues above, including suppression of the press, lack of environmental stewardship and failing foreign relations are chronic problems that will take years to fix.  Despite their absence from the headlines last week, both refugees and industrial safety problems are guaranteed to make an appearance multiple times in 2015 as well.  There is a general election coming up in June of this year, and due to the main opposition’s lack of organization, popularity and general political acumen, in all likelihood we can look forward to continued political domination by the AKP.

The serious new developments from last week were the bombings in Istanbul.  It is unclear what motivated the suicide bomber.  There are speculations she may have had connections to the Islamic State, though IS has not taken responsibility for the attack.  This may very well be an isolated incident but the second attempted bombing coming close on its heels makes it more worrying.  Unfortunately, we again don’t know what motivated the bomber or bombers in the second incident and no one has taken responsibility.   These two incidents mark a fairly ominous start to 2015 for Turkey and we can only hope that they are indeed an anomaly.  Istanbul has experienced and recovered from terrorist attacks in the recent past.

The possible involvement of IS, until ruled out, is deeply troubling.  The lack of credit for the bombings could be a deliberate strategy on the part of IS.  If they are indeed behind the attacks, the Islamic State might be trying to avoid drawing the direct wrath of Turkey.  IS’s territory shares long borders with Turkey and is reliant on foreign recruits and supplies being funneled through Turkey.  Turkey has faced harsh criticism for not doing more to stop the flow of foreign fighters, including those loyal to the Islamic State, across its southern border.  If IS has started targeting Istanbul, it may hard to thwart them.  Turkey would have to finally plug the leaks in its admittedly very long and hard to defend southern border.  Perhaps more dangerous are the IS sympathizers, both Turks and foreigners, already in Turkey.  As the attacks in Paris demonstrate, even terrorists already under suspicion by the state can manage to pull off deadly attacks.

No Where to Hide

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The anniversary of last year’s Gezi protests has reopened the lively debate regarding what if anything these events say about the changing nature of Turkish society.  The political impact of the protests is highly debatable but there is no doubt that Gezi marks a turning point in the relationship between the AKP government and it grass-roots opponents.  The Gezi movement initially caught the government off guard and put them in a defensive position.  In Turkey, with its history of strong-man politics, being put in a defensive and weak position can spell death for a political party.  The AKP’s need to maintain its aura of power doomed the chances of a peaceful and productive ending to Gezi from the start.  The AKP sprang back with an offensive campaign designed to crush Gezi physically and politically and reassert its power.

Unfortunately for opponents of the government, this offensive campaign hasn’t ended.  The AKP has allowed and probably encouraged the police to adopt a shoot first ask questions later strategy when dealing with any government opposition groups.  It is this kind of reckless behavior that has led to the vicious cycle of protests and deaths, particularly in Alevi towns and neighborhoods.  The government did not even bother to take a more nuanced approach to the understandably angry crowds that gathered in the wake of the Soma disaster.  Many outside observers were shocked by these tactics, but most Turkey watchers have come to expect nothing less from the current government.  Erdogan has made it clear in his nearly daily speeches that all opposition or discontent will be considered traitorous.  Grief over the preventable death of a loved one is no excuse for lashing out against the AKP or its leadership.

Soma proved that no one is immune from the AKP’s offense against opponents, but those with any association with Gezi, however tenuous, have been the target of an organized government legislative and propaganda campaign.  The AKP’s strategy for preventing another Gezi is to eliminate all places of refuge for protesters, whether they be physical, legal or social.

The government eliminated physical refuges by outlawing the emergency treatment of injured citizens without authorization.  Part of the impetus behind this law is to force injured protesters into state owned hospitals where the police can document and arrest them.  Erdogan has also done his best to discourage private or religious institutions from offering protesters shelter during clashes with the police.  The Koc conglomerate, which owns the hotel off Taksim square which allowed protesters to take shelter in its lobby, was hit with an unexpected audit.  One of Erdogan’s favorite antidotes regarding Gezi is the instance where protesters turned a historic mosque into a shelter and triage site.  Erdgoan has accused these protesters of not only desecrating the building but also drinking inside the mosque.  The muezzin of the mosque, who had reportedly invited the protesters to take shelter there, was soon after exiled to a small town. The protesters themselves are also facing criminal charges.

Desecrating a mosque isn’t the only crime Gezi protesters have been charged with.  The AKP has used every legal maneuver and thrown every criminal charge they can at protesters, from creating an illegal organization to wearing inappropriate clothing.  The Turkish government has also prosecuted dozens of people for “thought crimes,” prosecuting or suing twitter users who dared criticize the government.

The social offensive against Gezi protesters and their supporters may be the most damaging in the long term. Erdogan has ensured the continued political domination of the AKP by characterizing “Gezi People” as the ultimate “other” from good Turkish citizens. They are traitors who burn the Turkish flag.  They are terrorists.  They are guilty of murder and assault.  No one in their right mind would support the goals of such people.

Despite this multifaceted attack on grass roots opposition in general and protesters associated with Gezi in particular, Erdogan has failed to eliminate the serious undercurrent of discontent in Turkey.  Instead, he has created a dangerously polarized society, with supporters of the AKP convinced of evil of government opponents, and opponents of the AKP (correctly) convinced that the government is out to get them.  This is unfortunately the contemporary legacy of Gezi: a government which is determined to reinforce its power through the persecution, prosecution and demonization of the opposition.  The good news is that grass-roots opposition to the AKP has not been crushed and barring a catastrophic crackdown, most likely will remain active.  The AKP and Erdogan in particular have compromised their moral and politically authority in the process of undertaking this blanket offensive against opponents.  Soma starkly highlighted that the government has overstepped the boundary of who and what they can legitimately include in their smear campaign.  As I stated previously, Soma will not bring down Erdogan.  However, it would be ill-advised for Erdogan to repeat the performance he put on for the crowds gathered at the mine.  Telling mourners that certain people are simply fated to die tragically, then kicking and punching members of the angry crowd that subsequently gathers is not the way to win votes; and Turkey is (still) a democracy.

Written by ataturksrepublic

May 30, 2014 at 10:43 pm

US Diplomacy and Turkish Democracy

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February 11, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Alevis: Past, Present and Future

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I previously blogged about the plight of minorities in Turkey.  However that post fails to mention Turkey’s largest religious minority, the mostly invisible Alevis.  Similar to the United States, the Turkish government does not collect data regarding the religious affiliation of its citizens.  Estimates of the number of Alevis in Turkey vary greatly, ranging between 10% and 30% of the total population.  A secret Turkish military survey revealed by wikileaks places the number at 7 million out of a total of about 75 million citizens.  However, even the smaller estimates place the number of Alevis in Turkey far above the number of all other religious minorities combined.  Despite their large numbers, Alevis are still widely misunderstood both in and outside of Turkey.  Although their names are similar, Alevis  are not analogous to Alawites, the religion to which Bashar al-Assad and his family belong.  Alevism is not a “tribal” or ethnically exclusive religion; it is practiced by Turks as well as Kurds.

Alevism is a syncretic religion, meaning their traditions and beliefs draw from a number of different faiths.  Many Alevis will quite proudly attest to the fact that throughout its history it has incorporated elements from a diverse array of religions including but not limited to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Altaic Shamanism.  Alevis do not believe that praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan or performing the pilgrimage to Mecca is required by God.  They do not condemn Muslims who do worship in the traditional ways but consider the Alevi worship as being on a higher level and therefore closer to the divine.  Alevis also have  a more relaxed attitude in regards to proper interaction between the sexes in both sacred and secular spaces.  Alevi women worship side by side with men, are less likely to veil and more likely to freely interact with unrelated men.

Alevi worship does not take place in a mosque.  In traditional Alevi communities, families with large enough homes would volunteer to host the central Alevi worship ceremony, called a Cem.  During the ceremony, worshipers sit in a circle and participate in cycles of sacred readings, music and dance.  The Dede directs the ceremony and recites from the works of Hacı Bektaş and other sacred Alevi figures.  Most of the time the Qur’an is not cited, nor do the worshipers ever engage in Sunni-style prayer cycles.  For majority of Alevi history the Cem was closed to outsiders.  Even outsider Alevis were barred from attending local ceremonies.  One of the mandatory preconditions for a Cem was a state of peaceful relations between all people in the worship space.  The presence of a stranger added enough reasonable doubt to prevent a verdict of community harmony.  The secretive nature of Cem ceremonies led to rampant speculation and suspicion on the part of outsiders.  Accusations of immoral acts, particularly orgies, were common.  Even today it is not unusual for Turkish Sunni Muslims to infer that a Cem concludes with an orgy.

The state provides official funding and support of all recognized religions in Turkey, including those of the dwindling Jewish and Christian communities.  However, Alevism has never been recognized as a separate religious tradition.  Alevis have always been lumped into the catchall of “Muslim” in 99% Muslim Turkey.  Alevis rarely if ever utilize Sunni Muslim mosques and institutions but their Cemevis (Cem houses) and organizations receive no government funding.

In the past few years certain Alevi organizations have worked with the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in an attempt to resolve the prejudices against and unequal treatment of Turkish Alevis.  In 2009 and 2010 a series of “workshops” addressing the grievances of Alevis took place.  However, the vast majority of Alevis feel that these workshops had little effect on the discrimination they encounter.

The workshops, despite their ultimate ineffectiveness, were at least a step in toward addressing discrimination against Alevis.  As in the case of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, the AKP has recently been back sliding toward a more repressive position on Alevi rights.  An Alevi member of the Turkish National Assembly recently requested that worship space be provided for him in the Assembly building.  His request was denied by both a ranking member of the Assembly and the local court because “it is not possible to consider cemevis and other [such] premises as places of worship, because Alevism, which is a sub-group of Islam, cannot have a place of worship other than mosques or mescits, which are common places of worship within Islam…”

Because of their more “liberal” beliefs and practices, they are often portrayed by the Western media as the “good” Muslims.  Time described as Alevis as practicing “… a faith-based humanism big enough to incorporate both piety and modernity” and a version of Islam that is “unflinchingly progressive.”  This simplistic depiction of Alevis does nothing to help their position.  Alevis themselves are struggling with how to define and take ownership of their religious traditions.  The last thing they need is for the Western media to hold them up as a shining example of what we think Muslims should be.  Defining Alevis as “good” Muslims is on par with the Turkish government’s insistence that Alevis are Sunnis.  Both of these assertions stem from an urge to shape Alevis to preconceived ideologies.  When the West seeks out “progressive” Muslims such as the Alevis they are reinforcing the notion that “fundamentalists” Muslims are in the majority.  When the AKP insists that Alevis are Sunnis, they are protecting the appearance of a unified and uniform ethno-religious nation-state.  The AKP and the West alike must acknowledge and accept that Alevis fit within the broad spectrum that encompasses Muslim belief and practice in Turkey (and the Muslim world at large) and allow them to freely define and practice their religion without ideological interference.

Written by ataturksrepublic

December 21, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Religion

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