Atatürk's Republic

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Posts Tagged ‘secularism

Religion and the Gezi Protests

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Note: I have had to take a hiatus from blogging during the last few months to focus my energy on a number of other writing projects.  One of these was a paper I presented for the “Religious Symbols and Secularisms: Contemporary Perspectives from Canada and Turkey” panel at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting.  I have revised and condensed some of my research for this paper into the blog post below.  You can read the paper as it was presented on my Academia page.

Religion has played an important if under-studied role in the series of protests that have swept the globe over the last several years. During the Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring and Euromaidan protests, religious actors served to legitimize and at times even directly participated in the protests. In contrast, during the Gezi Park protests that took place in Istanbul during the summer of 2013, official religious actors were peripheral. Instead, these protests produced the unique phenomenon of lay persons utilizing religion as an instrument of protest. Religion has deep political undertones in Turkey and the Gezi protesters deftly manipulated these subtexts in order to make specific political statements.  The AKP recognized the protester’s use of religion as a challenge to its hegemony over the political use of Islam in Turkey.  Hence why some of the most particularly virulent denouncements of the protesters by the government specifically aimed to characterize the protesters as sacrilegious.  

The rise to power of the current AKP administration marked a significant shift in the politics of religion in Turkey.  Though the majority of the population has always been pious, for most of the history of the Republic the secular elites controlled the country’s political, educational and even religious institutions.  When Mustafa Kemal established the Republic of Turkey in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he subordinated and integrated the institutions of Islam into the Turkish state. To this day, the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs, known colloquially in Turkey as the Diyanet, is solely responsible for training imams, maintaining mosques and distributing pre-approved Friday sermons. This bureaucratic arrangement explains the absence of official religious actors at the Gezi protests.

The AKP has worked to break the previous social and legal conventions that restricted public piety.  AKP members frequently use religious symbolism in their official statements high government officials conspicuously pray and their head-scarved wives appear at affairs of State. Despite their claims to represent the masses, it is important to note that the style of Islam that characterizes the AKP is not analogous to the traditional Islam of the lower classes. The AKP represents a “conscious,” modern interpretation of Islam that grew out of twentieth-century Islamist movements. Their brand of Islam is the Islam of the urban, educated nouveau riche that embraces the trappings of elite lifestyles. A whole industry has sprung up catering to the tastes of the pious upper classes. There are Islamic fashions, Islamic resort hotels and Islamic gated communities. As a lifestyle, it is just as exclusionary of the lower classes as the secularism of the old Turkish elites.

The Gezi protesters targeted the AKP’s elitists Islam with the most well-known of its religion-infused protest activities, the iftar dinners that were organized on Istiklal Avenue.  The Istiklal Iftar meals were purposely arranged to create a sense of radical egalitarianism. Diners sat facing each other in two long lines along much of the length of the almost mile-long boulevard and ate donated food from paper plates set on table cloths or even just newspapers spread on the ground. All were welcome to attend, whether religious or secular, protester or bystander, those who had fasted and those who had not. The image of hundreds people sharing food while seated on the street was purposely meant to contrast the catered, closed, official municipal AKP iftar dinners that were taking place nearby. The iftar celebrations served to temporarily sacralize a formerly profane space, creating a peaceful haram (sacred) space in the midst of what at times was a violent and deadly period of protest.

Though the protester’s primary goal was to challenge the AKP and the current neo-conservative Turkish state, their acceptance of acts of public worship and accommodation of religious allies demonstrates that they were more than simply a reconstitution of the old secular elite.  There are numerous documented incidences of secular protesters going out their way to going out of their way to include pious citizens in their midst.  For example, on the night of the Mirac Kandil holiday, the park was declared an alcohol free zone and those who wished to could attend a sermon and communal worship service.

The Gezi park protests were a remarkable moment in Turkish history because they brought together elements of a number of previously mutually antagonistic classes of Turkish citizens.  Represented among the protesters were environmentalists concerned about the destruction of the forests surrounding Istanbul; secularists and nationalists convinced that the AKP is undermining the secular nature of the Republic; minorities such as LGBTQ individuals, Kurds and religious such as Alevis who continue to be face institutional discrimination; and leftists and anti-capitalist Muslims who are opposed to the governments neo-liberal economic policies.  Much has been made of the detente between the Kurds and nationalists in the park, while the interaction between secular and religious Turks has largely been dismissed as trivial.  Most research done on the participants does indeed suggest that the majority of active protesters were both young and secular.  However, ignoring the very real and significant shift in the treatment of public religion and its use as a method of protest during Gezi simply plays into the AKP government’s that only they can truly represent and protect the rights of pious Turks.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

December 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Ergenekon is not Gezi

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In the few days since the initial sentences were pronounced in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases, the media has been inundated with articles about this years-long judicial saga (or at least as inundated as the media ever gets regarding news about Turkey).  Most experts acknowledge that Turkey’s Deep State was a very real and powerful entity that has to some degree been tamed by these trials.  However, there is also widespread consensus that the net cast by the investigation also caught up many government critics that most likely had nothing to do with the deep state or coup plots.  Given the timing of the case and its targeting of journalists, academics and politicians critical of the government, it is all too easy to try to draw a straight line between Ergenekon and the ongoing Gezi movement.  Some media coverage of the case has done just that, juxtaposing a picture of an Ergenekon defendant with a story about Gezi-related media censorshipOthers are more subtle, emphasizing demographic and political commonalities between the protesters in Gezi and those outside the Ergenekon courthouse.

However, as with most things in Turkey, the connection between Gezi and Ergenekon is far from simple.  Though arguably they both can be cited as examples of the AKP’s suppression of its critics, Ergenekon and Gezi represent two very different moments in Turkish political history.  Ergenekon and those who passionately defend or disparage the handing of the case represent the old Turkey and it’s strict Kemalist/Pro-military vs. Islamist/anti-military political divide.  In contrast, Gezi is the first truly liberal and diverse widespread political movement in Turkish history.  The “polarization” that is so stark in the case of Ergenekon is much fuzzier in Gezi.  Those who oppose the Ergenekon trials are generally affiliated with the old Kemalist secular elite who were very much already politically aware and active.  In contrast, Gezi is overwhelmingly young, the majority of which claim no political affiliation and were not politically active before the protests.

While it is fair to assume that anti-Ergenekon secularists would support the Gezi protests, the same does not hold true for the reverse scenario.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Gezi leadership has refused to get involved in the Ergenekon protests.  While at least some of those facing prison terms in connection with Ergenekon or Sledgehammer are the victims of injustice, they don’t represent the same kind of injustice the Gezi movement was built around.  Gezi resonated amongst those who felt they had no voice in politics.  In contrast, many of the non-military defendants in Ergenekon became targets because of their prominence as outspoken nationalists and government opponents.  Despite the involvement of MHP (nationalist) and CHP (Kemalist) in Gezi, the movement itself eschewed these labels.  Polls have shown that participants in Gezi are not keen on voting for any of the existing parties.  CHP parliamentarians have noticeably become more liberal in their rhetoric since Gezi in an effort to attract it’s stubbornly politically independent demographic.

In short, Gezi supporters seem to be happy to watch Turkey’s political battle royale from the sidelines with no particular concern for the outcome.  After all, the two sides represent illiberal, if opposite, political positions.  If we learned from Gezi, it is that the next generation wants to free itself from state paternalism and authoritarianism, whether it be in the name of Islam, capitalism or secularism.

Written by ataturksrepublic

August 8, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Happy is he who calls himself a Turk

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With the hangover of the election upon, it is easy to feel like America has become a hopelessly divided society.  Left and Right have become identity markers that at times can seem to trump all other factors pulling people together or driving them apart.  The divisions currently plaguing  America were recently put in perspective by the sharper, more violent divides plaguing Turkey.  Turkey’s independence  day, known as Republic Day, celebrations last Monday marked by stark displays of Turkish disunity.  At center stage was the long-standing rivalry between the Islamist ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) and Turkish secularists, historically organized under Ataturk’s People’s Republican Party (CHP in Turkish).  Previous to the holiday, PM Erdoğan had announced that public celebrations in the capital would not be permitted due to vague threats of violence.  This ban unsurprisingly angered secular citizens, who hold state holidays in a quasi-sacred regard.  Erdoğan’s banning of independence day celebrations could be compared, over-dramatically but not inaccurately, to informing devote Christians that they would not be allowed to publicly celebrate Christmas.  The ensuing clashes between the police and protestors last Monday overshadowed the official ceremonies conducted by the Prime Minister, President and members of the military.  Simultaneous to the controversies surrounding the Independence Day celebrations, another protest with life or death consequences has been playing out in Turkey’s southeast.  For almost two months now, imprisoned ethnic Kurds have been engaging in a hunger strike.  Their demands for Kurdish language and cultural rights, namely Kurdish-language primary education and the right to use Kurdish when mounting their defense, seem ridiculously basic to an outsider, especially an American.

These two protests may seem to be completely unrelated, but they both highlight Turkey’s painful internal divisions.  The division between religious and secular as well as Turk and Kurd dates to the founding philosophy of the Republic.  Atatürk was a true believer in the ethnically homogeneous nation-state model.  After having lived through the violent shattering of the Ottoman Empire along ethno-religious lines, it is not surprising that Atatürk believed that a strong Turkey could only be built upon a base of national ethnic unity and modern sensibilities.  In theory, anyone could/can be Turk so long as they accepted boundaries defined by Atatürk, namely that a true Turkish citizen is someone who speaks the Turkish language, practices Turkish cultural norms and is nominally Muslim but secular in practice.  For decades pious Muslims, though undeniably “Turkish” in every other way, were considered an “outsider” group.  They were (are) members of the “unconverted” masses that were expected to eventually see the light of Kemalist secularism and join the ranks of their “modern” Turkish brethren.  Kurds were similarly expected to be converted into Turks.  In the early Republic, Kurds were denied to exist.   They were deemed to be “mountain Turks,” semi-savage Turks who had forgotten their heritage.  To help them “regain” their Turkishness, Kurdish cultural practices and the public use of the Kurdish language were outlawed.

Now that the AKP is in power, the oppressed are becoming the oppressors.  Though they rose from the ranks of the marginalized pious classes, the AKP is a product of Turkish emphasis on uniformity.  They have shown that they have only marginally more sympathy for other oppressed groups in Turkey than previous governments.  Less surprisingly, the AKP, like the secular governments of the early Republic, is attempting to make it’s version of Turkish history the dominate narrative.  The Republic Day incident is simply the latest in a long line of historic and cultural spin in Turkey, which has included the building of museums, mosques and a general emphasis on Ottoman (read: Turkish Muslim) history over other aspects of Turkey’s rich heritage.

Despite the recent exchange of choice words between Erdoğan and the leader of the CHP, I have hope that pious and secular Turks can work out their political difference because they are just that, political.  However, it seems almost too obvious to state that Turkey’s Kurdish minority will continue to undermine the stability of the Republic until Kurds are given the full rights they deserve.  The AKP and its leaders need to draw empathy from its own experience as political outsiders and give in to the demands of the Kurdish hungerstrikers.  The acceptance of Kurds as both a distinct minority and full Turkish citizens is the only way to defeat the PKK and ensure the future strength and stability of the Turkish state.  If Erdoğan could achieve this, and I believe that he has the power to do so, he could become the founder of era of e pluribus unum in Turkey.

Written by ataturksrepublic

November 8, 2012 at 9:44 pm