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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.

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

Turkey still has a Refugee Crisis

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Some very harsh light has been cast on Turkey and its malignant neglect of its ISIS problem over the past week.  Turkey joined the US led coalition against ISIS only to almost immediately backtrack.  Whether or not this was the right decision for Turkey to make, and in the long term I believe it is not, is complex and the subject for another blog post.  In addition, investigative reports,  in Newsweek by A. Christie Miller and Alev Scott and in the New York Times today by Ceylan Yeginsu, have made it clear that ISIS has successfully convinced thousands of vulnerable Turks and Turkish Kurds to join their nascent state.  Miller, Scott and Yeginsu’s reporting has not only proven that Turkey’s boarders remain dangerously porous but also reveal that despite Turkey’s notorious internet censorship and surveillance the Turkish government has neither been able to identify  potential ISIS recruits nor stop ISIS propaganda. Why Turkey has not stopped virtual ISIS infiltration is again the subject for another blog post.

Turkey’s undoubtedly serious ISIS problem has diverted attention from the fact that is still also facing a serious, and continually growing, refugee crisis.  In addition to the more than a million Syrian refugees already residing in Turkey, ISIS’s rampage through northern Iraq has driven yet another wave of refugees into Turkey, the Yazidis.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are outside of the highly lauded refugee camps, living mostly in Turkey’s southern cities or in Istanbul.  Syrian refugees have swelled the population of cities like Reyhanli, Killis and Gaziantep.  Despite the largely welcoming attitude of the Turkish population toward the refugees, recently tensions have been rising.  In August there were violent anti-Syrian protests in Istanbul and riots targeting Syrians went on for several days after a Turkish landlord was murdered by his Syrian tenant in Gaziantep.  In order to try to prevent even more Syrians from entering the country, Turkey has encouraged the building of refugee camps just inside the Syrian border.  The conditions in these camps are decidedly worse than the camps located inside of Turkey.

After Kurdish fighters pushed back the ISIS invaders which had displaced and killed thousands of Yazidis, members of this religious minority began fleeing over Turkey’s southeastern border.  Official estimates put the number of Yazidi refugees at 16,000.  Camps are being set up for this new refugee group but like the Syrians many find themselves living either in ad-hoc shelters or in camps inside Iraq.

Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority whose religious beliefs are widely misunderstood.  Yazidis follow a syncretic religion that is based on pre-Islamic, Pre-Christian Zoroastrian beliefs.  They speak Kurdish dialects and most (but not all) consider themselves to be ethnic Kurds.  Muslim Kurds for their part appear to embrace Yazidis as their ethnic kin, fighting heroically to allow trapped Yazidis to escape from the barren Sinjar mountain and even training Yazidis who volunteered to fight against ISIS.  Kurds inside Turkey have gathered donations and personally delivered necessities to Yazidi refugees.

The Turkish government is already overwhelmed trying to manage the Syrian refugees inside its borders.  It needs a new strategy in order to effectively manage and accommodate a vulnerable refugee group like the Yazidis.  I wrote an unpublished policy paper last fall addressing the issue of Turkey could better accommodate other ethno-minority refugees, specifically the Alawite and Alevi refugees from Syria.  The data is somewhat dated, but the essential argument I make still stands.  In brief, I assert in this paper that the most productive and efficient plan of action for Turkey regarding minority urban refugees is to work with Turkey’s own indigenous Alevi and Alawite minority communities to provide services to these refugee groups.  This proposal is doubly beneficial.  It not only addresses the problem of these under-served refugee groups who are hesitant to ask for assistance directly from the Turkish government but also, in working together to address the needs of refugees, it also would build trust between the Turkish government and its long marginalized Alevi and Alawite citizens.

This proposed plan of action can be directly translated for the current situation of Yazidis, who have taken refuge in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast provinces. Kurdish municipalities and individuals have been providing aid independently but do not have the resources to deal with a crisis of this scale in the long term.  The Turkish central government on the other hand has the resources but not the contacts on the ground.  In order to address this crisis effectively, the two need to work together.  Additionally, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, while not yet broken, has stagnated.  Partnering with local Kurdish authorities and civil society organizations to asses and address the needs of this latest group of refugees would be just the kind of good-will initiative that the peace process so desperately needs right now.  The Turkish government needs to set aside its phobia of everything Kurdish (read: anything with the remote possibility of being affiliated with the PKK) and directly engage with all willing partners in order to both manage this crisis and demonstrate that there can be a lasting peace between Turks and Kurds.

However, I can almost without a doubt predict that Turkey will continue its current plan of action, or lack there of, regarding both Iraqi and Syrian refugees.  Over the past year Turkish efforts to address both Sunni and minority Syrian refugees have flatlined.  The only discernible change stems from disconcerting reports that urban refugees, particularly those begging on the streets, have been rounded up and sent to camps against their will.  I have yet to see any investigative reports regarding these camps, if they do indeed exist.  I certainly hope that when the current crisis cools down that both the Turkish government and the media will realize that the Syrian refugee crisis is turning into a permanent population displacement.  Sending refugees to camps is not a long term solution, no matter how good the conditions in said camps may be.  Major policy changes, such as issuing work permits for refugees, need to be paired with creative grass-roots based solutions in order to prevent Turkey’s refugee population from becoming a major, and likely long-term, social, economic and political burden.

Written by ataturksrepublic

September 16, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Turkey’s Options in Iraq

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The ongoing crisis in Iraq has led to an explosion of op-eds and policy pieces discussing the future, or lack thereof, of the Iraqi nation-state and the implications this has for foreign policy-makers.  Steven Cook echoes many thinkers when he warned that Iraq is on the verge of breaking apart.  As he and Nick Danforth rightly point out, the international borders created by Western powers a hundred years ago were largely arbitrary, more so than elsewhere.  Cook sees the eventual break-up of Iraq as practically inevitable given the disunity of it’s various factions and compares it to the former Yugoslavia.  However, as Danforth points out the involvement of ISIS in particular creates the possibility of alliances and shifting borders outside of the confines of ethnic and religious allegiances.

As many have also pointed out, the most likely “winners” in this situation, and the most likely to successfully create their own breakaway state, are the northern Iraqi Kurds.  The Kurdish para-military forces, known as peshmerga, took advantage of the chaos and successfully gained control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.  Kurdish leaders have declared that this is not a temporary security measure and they plan to hold on to the city even if the threat of ISIS subsides.  The Kurd’s ascending power, coupled with their record of stable governance of northern Iraq, has resulted in a number of calls for greater international support of and recognition for the Kurd’s claims of sovereignty.  Dov Friedman and Cale Salih argued that if the US wants the Kurds to help defeat ISIS, instead of simply defending their own territory, the US government needs to pull back on their support of Maliki and all but recognize the Kurds as sovereign in their territory (though, crucially not independent).  Developments today indicate that the Obama administration is taking at least the first half of Friedman’s and Salih’s advice and may be orchestrating the ouster of Maliki.  Similarly, writing in regards to Turkey’s policy options, Michael Koplow suggested that it is “Time for Turkey to Support an Independent Iraqi Kurdistan.”

The foreign policy options for the US regarding Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are much more numerous and complicated and, frankly, lay outside my area of expertise.  Turkey, bordering both ISIS and Kurdish controlled regions of Iraq and having much less influence over Baghdad has a limited number of routes it can chose.  Koplow’s proposal is bold and well-intentioned but I don’t think it’s an idea whose time has yet come.  It is only a week into the crisis and it is much too early to declare the death of the Iraqi nation-state.  As Danforth points out, ISIS brought a number of parties who were formerly at odds together in the fight against the invasion.  Even if Kurdistan does manage to gain it’s independence as a result of this incident (and I do believe Iraqi Kurdistan has a very good chance of becoming its own state sooner or later) Baghdad will likely remain in control of most of the rest of Iraq in the short to medium term. As Danforth also states, despite the media’s new found interest in discussing the potential for a plethora of new states in the Middle East, the idea that there are “natural” and homogeneous enthno-religious nation-states waiting to be born is a myth.  The idea of the nation-state is surprisingly tenacious, even in states where it was imposed from the outside.  Breakups in the model of Yugoslavia are rare.  If Iraq were to split, I foresee an outcome more akin to either the break-away provinces in Georgia or the bi-lateral split in Sudan.   Ankara should not risk cutting its already stressed relations with the Iraqi government over a pre-emptive declaration of Kurdish independence.  Turkey should of course continue to build ties with the KRG, but its current wait-and-see approach is the best way to keep it’s long term options and political ties open.

This wait and see policy should not be applied to the ongoing ISIS hostage crisis however.  As I wrote earlier, the AKP and Erdogan are at a loss as to what to do and therefore have resorted to their tried and true blame and divert tactics.  Erdogan has even managed to impliment an official media blackout regarding the hostages, even as credible reports claim that 15 more Turks have been captured by ISIS.  The longer the hostages are held, the more likely there won’t be a happy ending to this story.  ISIS is no friend of the Turkish government, despite what pro-government talking heads on Turkish TV may think.  ISIS is ruthless, brutal and stubborn.  Treating them with kid gloves may keep the Turkish hostages alive for now, but does nothing to guarantee their ultimate safe return.  Turkey needs to draw on its ties with Kurdistan and work with the peshmerga, how ever distasteful that may be, to locate and recover their citizens.  This is both the best of the bad political options for the AKP and the best chance for the captured Turks to return home.

Stunned Silence

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Update: Since writing this post last night, Erdogan has finally addressed the Mosul crisis publicly.  The context and content of his speech only reinforce my main points below.  It took him two days to speak publicly about the kidnapping of Turkish diplomatic staff but his speech lacked the depth and details you would expect at this point in the crisis.  He briefly reassured the public that every effort is being made to free the hostages, a statement that should have been made immediately after the kidnapping, then went on to slam the CHP for criticizing the response of AKP officials to the crisis.  He accused them of being allies of Assad and claimed that their criticism of the government would “provoke” ISIS.  Erdogan now only has one mode: blame and distract.  He and his government’s policies have failed and he is doing everything he can to avoid addressing the justified criticisms of the opposition.  Erdogan, his government, and Turkey are in an extremely vulnerable position at the moment, a situation of their own making.  Distraction may work for now, but if (God forbid) the hostages are harmed or killed it will be very difficult to shift the blame for such a blow to Turkey’s honor to a weak and divided opposition (which is what he is setting up to do).  Mosul, like Soma, is another sign of the slow decline of the power of Erdogan and the AKP both at home and abroad.

 

Erdogan is known for his fiery and frequent speeches.  Since last year’s protests, his conspiracy-laced pontifications have become nearly a daily occurrence.  However, the crisis in northern Iraq has literally left Erdogan dumbstruck.  Since ISIS stormed into Mosul, taking several dozen Turkish truck drivers hostage Tuesday and 49 Turks affiliated with the consulate hostage Wednesday, we have heard nary a peep from the Prime Minister.  Instead, Erdogan reached out to the United States government Thursday.  I am sure it is an understatement to say that he must have felt slighted to be connected with Vice President Biden and not President Obama.

The weaknesses of the AKP government in general and Erdogan in particular are being bared in quick succession.  Just as Soma revealed the shallow and inhumane nature of the AKP’s neo-liberal domestic policies, the crisis in Iraq is the consequence of Turkey’s poorly managed foreign policy.  Though Turkey never directly supported ISIS and its activities, the Turkish government’s all but open boarder policy for anti-Assad militants allowed many foreign fighters to enter Syria and swell ISIS’s ranks.  ISIS was always open with its hostility toward Turkey, declaring Erdogan an apostate, despite Turkey acting as as rear base for their fighters.  The fact that ISIS’s recent hostility toward Turks and Turkey seems to have taken the Turkish government off guard demonstrates a frightening level of naivete on the part of officials.

The Iraq crisis is another event in the series of Turkish foreign policy breakdowns that began with the Arab spring.  The beginning of the Arab spring marked the height of Turkey’s influence in the region and their neo-Ottoman ambitions.  As Syria and then Egypt descended into political chaos, Turkish power became all but illusory.  Some pro-government news outlets continue to publish fantastical, Turko-centric visions for a “new” middle east.  However all but the most delusional in the Turkish government must see that the loss of stability in northern Iraq, a region that was key to Turkish trade with the region, puts Turkey in its weakest international position since the rise of the AKP.  The AKP will not be resurrecting the Ottoman Empire.  They will be lucky, and smart, to maintain their one solid relationship with a Middle Eastern neighbor, namely Iraqi Kurdistan (but that’s another blog post).

Erdogan’s stunned silence in response to this crisis speaks volumes.  Over the past year, he has been doing everything possible to stir up domestic crises, involving the Gulen movement, Gezi protesters, foreign journalists and many others, which he can then go about “solving” through ministerial purges, police crackdowns and repressive laws.  Erdogan didn’t even shy away from tackling the Soma disaster head on, though his approach left something to be desired to say the least.  Now, when Turkey faces a real threat with citizen’s lives on the line, he cannot even find the time to reassure the public that the government is working to resolve the crisis.  Though some AKP ministers have tried, Erdogan’s usual tactics are not sufficient to address this serious of a situation.  Mosul is a real test of the political meddle of Erdogan and the AKP and thus far they have been found wanting.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 13, 2014 at 4:02 am

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

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.