09 September 2019

Turkey: Secularism, Nationalism, and Democracy (1)

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A helpful article in the Russian press, days after the failed coup: “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the uprising on Fethullah Gulen, a retired Islamic cleric and former political ally, who once had a sizeable following in the Turkish police, judiciary and military.” A helpful article in the Russian press, days after the failed coup: “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the uprising on Fethullah Gulen, a retired Islamic cleric and former political ally, who once had a sizeable following in the Turkish police, judiciary and military.” https://www.geopolitica.ru/en/article/why-erdogan-shifting-coup-blame-fethullah-gulen

I begin here a two-part blog post on Turkey. What has captured the headlines is the Trump administration love affair with Saudi Arabia (apparently uninterrupted by the grisly murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggji) and its support of its proxy war against Iran in Yemen, now in its fifth year. But it is not just the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran battling for preeminence in the wider Middle East. You have to add Turkey to the mix, the heir of the Ottoman Empire, and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who would like to revive some of its past glory.

So much could be said about Turkey, about the Syrian civil war next door, and especially about its 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees. That is almost four times the total number of Syrian refugees now present in Europe. Despite the agreement with Europe in March 2016 to halt the flow of refugees in its direction in exchange for a substantial aid package, Turkey is now moving to expel many who were not registered and who may lose their lives once back in Syria. There are no good or even foreseeable solutions to the human disaster caused by Russian-backed dictator Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria.

The purpose of my blog is always to look behind the news headlines and consider the wider context, and in most cases as it touches on contemporary Islam and Muslim-Christian relations. So here and the next installment, I want to look at …

1) The meteoric rise of a moderate islamist party in the Muslim world’s most secular nation;

2) The evolution of President Erdogan from a staunch defender of democracy and human rights to a decidedly more authoritarian ruler

3) Erdogan’s foreign policy seeking to increase its influence in the ME and beyond

4) The curious phenomenon of white supremacy amidst a revival of a “clash of civilization” campaign by some of Turkey’s ruling elites

The last two points I will reserve for the second half, but here allow me to start and give you a skeleton version of Turkish history, from Ottoman Empire to the fierce secularism of modern Turkey’s father, Ataturk, to the soft islamism of Erdogan and his AKP party.


How religion gradually crept back into the Turkish republic

My last duty (I hope) as translator of Rached Ghannouchi’s classic book, The Public Freedoms in the Islamic State, is to be one of its proof readers. As I was in the second chapter the other day (“Human Rights and Freedom in Islam”), I reread this section:


“In the West, they [human rights] originated in the struggle against the Church and the absolute rule of kings, who both had a share of political authority, though it was later entirely snatched away from the former and given to the people; still, one source of authority remained. This marked the Western state with an individualistic stamp and with a nationalist, secular, and legalistic spirit. The situation in Islamic countries, however, is different, as they did not experience this avoidance of religion nor for the most part the split between political power and the religious community. Even in periods of oppression, the Shari‘a continued to constrain the political ruler in two important areas: the authority to enact laws and the imposition of taxes.”


If you read my trilogy of blogs on “The Impossible Islamic State,” you will know that Ghannouchi’s last sentence has some historical truth to it but also that the reality is more complex. Historically, there was indeed a tug-of-war between the religious scholars (ulama) and the rulers who derived a good bit of political legitimacy from their good relations with the former. But there were always tensions between them, and no two regimes – from large empires to local petty dynasties – were alike in this regard. Still, his main point here is valid, namely that democracy in the West grew out of a long history of autocratic rulers using Christianity to keep their realms under control. Think of the Emperor Constantine, or of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, or of the medieval popes who until the Reformation held sway over the kingdoms of Europe.

Ghannouchi as a Tunisian likely sees the breaking point as the French Revolution. That would be true. Marie Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI were executed by the revolutionaries and the French Catholic Church suddenly lost all political connections. The division between religion and state in France is the most extreme among all Western nations (laïcité). Unlike Britain and Germany, for instance, it has no national church, and unlike the US, religion is completely banned from the political arena, except when it comes to blackballing Muslims. But as you know, the relation between religion and state, and indeed the origin of human rights before and during the Enlightenment is much more complicated than Ghannouchi lets on here.

That said, Ghannouchi’s point is that religion and politics have always comingled to some extent in Muslim lands is true. But then Turkey is the great exception, or is it? And that matters too, because Ghannouchi saw Turkey’s AKP as a model Islamic parties elsewhere could emulate. In this part of my post I quote from a very readable piece written by liberal Turkish Muslim writer Mustafa Akyol who resides in the US. He is most famous for his Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (now only available as an Audible Audiobook – see also this intro from the New York Times). I encourage you to read the full text of his essay https://tcf.org/content/report/turkeys-troubled-experiment-secularism/ , which was a policy report part of a project launched by The Century Foundation supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, “Citizenship and Its Discontents: The Struggle for Rights, Pluralism, and Inclusion in the Middle East.”

His first main point is that in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had embarked on series of reforms, partly under Western and Russian pressure, aiming to give all of its Muslim and non-Muslim peoples equal citizenship rights, including “more rights and opportunities for women, and the annulment of some of the illiberal aspects of sharia, such as the death penalty for apostasy.” Yet these reforms (“Tanzimat”) were imposed from the top down, without any participation from the traditional Islamic scholars (ulama). The result was a bloated, “overempowered state,” which in the hands of Attatürk, the general who by dint of military conquest reclaimed some territories from the Greeks in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s humiliating defeat in WWI as one of the Axis Powers.

So this legacy of bureaucratic centralization and state overreach was passed down from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic, which Akyol calls “revolutionary.” Why? It was an all-powerful, autocratic state that sought to transform society through and through. The caliphate was abolished in 1924, and “Atatürk’s ideological blueprint, which came to be known as ‘Kemalism,’ rested on two main pillars: Turkish nationalism and secularism.” This was completely new: “Nationalism implied a nation-state built for Turks, in contrast to the multiethnic Ottoman Empire. And secularism implied that Islam would not be allowed to have any significant public role in this new, modern, Western-oriented republic.”

Secularism for Atatürk meant dismantling most all of the institutional structures of religion: he dissolved the “ministry of Sharia” and banned the Sufi brotherhoods and schools of religious learning (madrassas). The Turkish language from now on would no longer be written in the Arabic script but in the Latin alphabet and the Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian one. Men had to adopt Western clothing and women had to uncover their hair. All of this was in the name of progress and it was called laiklik, a version of the French laïcité.

Kemalist nationalism (“We’re a Turkish nation”) met with mostly approval and still does – except of course, for the large Kurdish minority, which has taken up arms multiple times to claim its independence, or at least a larger measure of autonomy.

Kemalist secularism, by contrast, has consistently been opposed by most Turks, who have remained on the whole quite religious. Akyol lists several Center-Right political parties since the 1950s that have pushed at minimum for a more religiously-friendly secularism. But then you have those who outright opposed it, those in favor of a state run by religious principles, or the islamists who consistently polled between ten and fifteen percent of the electorate. They hail from several currents:


“These Islamists consisted of Sufi orders; the popular “Nur” movement led by Said Nursi (1877–1960), along with its various offshoots, including the Gulen Movement; intellectuals, some of whom got inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979; and ordinary pious Turks who felt humiliated by a Westernized elite.”


The political founder of this movement was “Necmettin Erbakan (1926–2011), who first appeared in the late 1960s with his National [here, code word for ‘Islamic’] Order Party.” He founded various parties, which the military (always in charge up to the 2000s) closed down one after the other. But in 1996, he managed to be named prime minister. But this was too much for the military, which forced him to resign. This event is recalled in Turkish history as the “post-modern coup.” But these secular ruling elites, particularly in continuing to back the ban on women wearing the hijab in public buildings, including the universities, were by this time overplaying their hand. This kind of imposition of laiklik was, as Akyol puts it, was clearly “about the state’s duty to secularize society by imposing a “way of life” that had no visible trace of traditional religion.” Or put differently, “The main concern of Turkish secularists was freedom from religion, and almost never freedom of religion.”

Here I have to add a little known fact about the Shia-related sect, the Alevis who make up over 15 percent of the population. Distinct from the Alawis in Syria (also about 17 percent, including dictator Bashar al-Asad), they trace their teachings and practice from the 13th century Sufi saint, Haji Bektash Veli. But they have also incorporated insights and practices from Buddhism, Shamanism, Zoroastrianims and though self-identifying as Muslims, they worship in cemevis instead of mosques, do not pray five times a day nor fast during Ramadan. Staunch supporters of Turkey’s secularist state, like other religious factions they too found their religious activities curtailed but were also persecuted by the majority Sunni Muslims. Under Erdogan (see next section), they have enjoyed more security but they have also suffered from the ruling party’s deliberate “Sunnification” of public education. Then in 2013, when state subsidies were expanded for Sunni institutions, they were deliberately overlooked. Turkish Alevis, more than ever, feel not just discrimination but the total erasure of their distinct and proud identity. The history of Turkish secularism, to say the least, has many twists and turns!


The soft Islamism of the AKP

At the turn of the new millennium, two movements coalesced to craft a message that appealed to the majority of Turks: the Development and Justice Party (AKP) and the Fethullah Gulen movement (a quasi-Sufi movement under Gulen’s leadership which by then had followers in the millions mostly in small business circles). These two remained close allies till about 2013. They defined their position as followers of the British and American versions of secularism, obviously in opposition to French laïcité.

The year 2003 marks the beginning of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rising star, first as prime minister in 2003, then after successfully pushing through a constitutional amendment, as president since 2014. His platform from the start was full acceptance of a secular constitution with an emphasis on democracy and the respect for human rights. The latter, however, include religious rights, so gradually the Turkish culture wars tipped to the advantage of the religious. Here are some of those signs:


“In the early 2010s the headscarf ban gradually vanished in all state institutions. Sufi orders and other Islamic communities found more freedom—and in fact, privilege—than ever before, at least as long as they supported the government. . . . The Sunni majority keeps enjoying the blessings of state support for their faith—evident everywhere from the huge budget of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which finances all mosques with taxpayer money, to the education system, which includes compulsory pro-Sunni religious education.”


Notably absent from the AKP’s agenda is any tampering with the state’s laiklik ideology. He doesn’t need to, says Akyol. Kemalist secularism has been essentially “defanged.” This is largely because of the amazing success of Erdogan and the AKP, which reinforced Turkish democracy and liberalized the economy. Emmanuel Karagiannis from Kings College London explains in his recent book, The New Political Islam: Human Rights, Democracy, and Justice (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), that the AKP’s rise can be credited to the “Anatolian Tigers, namely the small to medium-sized export-oriented businesses based on family networks in Anatolia [central Turkey].” In essence, you had “a class of entrepreneurial Muslim bourgeoisie” that was “seeking political emancipation.” They represented “a kind of Islamic Calvinism that urges devout Muslims to work hard while abiding by Muslim values” (87). But then after winning the 2007 parliamentary elections by garnering 46.6 percent of votes, the AKP “was able to expand its support base and reach middle-class and professional Turks from urban centers.” The next year Turkey joined the Group of Twenty (G-20) major economies and seemed even closer in its official bid to join the EU.


Creeping authoritarianism

The AKP’s nearly fifty percent win in the 2011 parliamentary elections apparently signaled a green light in Erdogan’s mind to begin settling scores with political enemies. The 1997 military coup mentioned above was the third such military intervention in Turkish politics. Erdogan had already begun using evidence of a fourth coup, this time aimed at him, in a series of trials beginning in 2008 uncovering a military plot known as the Ergenekon case. Guney Yildiz for the BBC in 2013 writes that “[f]ollowing five years of legal proceedings, the court delivered 17 life sentences to formerly prominent figures of the military establishment, along with politicians, academics and journalists.”

During this struggle to limit the power of the military in the late 2000s, the powerful “Hizmet” (“Service”) movement, founded and spearheaded by the Sufi-like cleric Fethullah Gulen (living in Saylorsburg, PA), had become an ally Erdogan firmly counted on. In fact, Gulenists helped to fill many government positions of people sacked by Erdogan without due process. But already in 2010, the AKP “discovered” some heavy-handed investigations into their affairs by a police force largely in the hands of Gulenists. Erdogan then began accusing Hizmet of being a “parallel state.” The official split didn’t come till 2013, but with that in mind, the reaction to the attempted military coup of July 2016 makes complete sense.

Written a year later, this article sums up nicely what we know about the coup attempt. The bloodiest of all previous coups, a section of the Turkish army coordinated attacks in Ankara and Istanbul, with explosions coming from tanks and even fighter jets bombing the parliament building in the capital. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was even kidnapped for a while. Yet, miraculously it would seem, Erdogan slipped through unscathed, warned by his brother-in-law (to this day no one knows how or why Turkish intelligence didn’t manage to alert the president). Then too, crowds supporting the government flowed into the streets of Anatolia, Ankara and Istanbul. The dramatic end came swiftly:


“The crowds resisted tank fire and air bombardments and, with the help of loyalist soldiers and police forces, they defeated the coup attempt in a matter of hours. The government swiftly declared victory and scores of troops that had taken part in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul.”


Yet in those few hours, 241 people had died and 2,194 others were injured. Erdogan’s reaction was just as swift. He blamed the coup on Hizmet, though Gulen has denied any involvement in it, and then embarked on an unprecedented crackdown on perceived political enemies, while declaring a state of emergency. Almost two years later, just before the referendum on the presidency, the BBC offered some numbers: over 107,000 public employees (soldiers, police officers, teachers and judges) were forcefully dismissed from their jobs; over 100,000 appealed via the state of emergency commission; 19,600 cases were reviewed, but only 1,010 were reinstated. According to the main opposition party, the Republican’s People Party (CHP), over 5,000 academics and 33,000 teachers lost their jobs. A New York Times article from March 2018 chronicles the sentencing of 24 journalists to prison for their alleged role in the coup. More were sentenced before and after that as well, so that Turkey has the highest number of any country of jailed journalists. Altogether, Turkey now has over 50,000 political prisoners pending trial.

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board had this to say after last year’s presidential election and referendum on the expansion of presidential powers: “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory means a five-year term in an executive presidency of expanded powers. How he will use those powers has been amply telegraphed by his actions in recent years, especially after the failed coup attempt of 2016, when he imprisoned or silenced his critics and attempted to neuter civil society. The strongman just got a new lease on a bigger place.”

Much more could be said about this, naturally, but I will end the first installment here and begin the second one with Turkey’s foreign policy aspirations.