05 October 2019

Turkey: Secularism, Nationalism, and Democracy (2)

Written by 
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, c. 1016 (1881-1938) Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, c. 1016 (1881-1938) http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/ataturk_kemal.shtml

In the first installment of this post I showed how the extreme secularism imposed on his nation by Kemal Attatürk, borrowed from the French ideology of laïcité, could not hold forever. The world dramatically became more religious starting in the 1970s (see my blog post on this) and social science scholars began to describe a wave of “fundamentalism” sweeping over Christians (think of the global Pentecostal movement), Jews (e.g., the ideological settler movement in the Occupied Territories), Buddhists, Hindus, and others. The so-called “Six-Day-War” in 1967 seemed to awaken a deep and radical soul-searching among Muslims. Besides, the pan-Arab socialist regime of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was quickly losing steam, and his successor, Anwar As-Sadat, initiated an opening with the Muslim Brotherhood and the growing popular religious movement in general, while also liberalizing the economy.

In fact, the Turkish economy is where I want to start. I mentioned in the first part how the dramatic expansion of Tayeb Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its influence on Turkish society in the 2000s coincided with economic policies which very much played to his political base initially fired up by the “Anatolian Tigers” and helped to lift the working class. His erstwhile alliance with the Gulenist movement was a powerful way to leverage the support of the small business class – at least until 2013 after Ergogan realized that the Gulenists who were widely represented in the army, police and lower levels of government, were actively investigating the corruption in his administration. To what extent they were involved in the failed 2016 coup attempt is a matter of debate, but what is sure is that it provided Erdogan the perfect pretext to purge the top army brass, higher education, and state institutions in general of its Gulenist elements. Yet on the economic front, Turkey, which was admitted into the club of G-20 countries in the mid-2000s, is now facing an economic crisis.


Erdogan’s “unorthodox stewardship of the economy”

A New York Times article written after the 2018 referendum on the presidency had this title, “The West Hoped for Democracy in Turkey. Erdogan Had Other Ideas.” Perhaps Peter S. Goodman’s rhetoric is a bit overblown: “Whatever was left of the notion that Mr. Erdogan was a liberalizing force has been wholly extinguished.” Still, there is much truth in his seeing him as “another autocrat whose populism, bombast and contempt for the ledger books have yielded calamity.” And this despite the AKP’s efforts to align Turkey with many democratic standards which had been urged by the European Union in the 2000s: “To win European favor, Turkey abolished notorious state security courts, elevated human rights and scrapped the death penalty.”

On the economic front, however, Erdogan “has run the economy like a patronage network, lavishing credit on companies controlled by cronies, while yielding growth through debt.” Let me explain. The state went on a spending spree, building hospitals, road infrastructure, and huge projects like Istanbul’s gigantic new airport. In effect, all these “government credits and guarantees” lured large companies to take on unsustainable levels of debt. And ominously, this coincided with a precipitous drop in the Turkish currency’s value, thus multiplying the debt incurred in US dollars.

Following the 2008 Great Recession, Turkish banks eliminated all interest on bank loans, fueling in part a boom in construction across the nation. But all this free money also created another vulnerability. Erdogan’s use of state money for political advantage also meant that the global market place would dictate its conditions on Turkey; and especially after the Federal Reserve and other central banks raised interest rates, Turkey’s was facing a debt crisis.

Add to that two other headwinds: the flow of refugees from Syria streaming in and the Trump administration doubling the tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum. Now the Turkish lira was plunging. But instead of reigning in the spending, Erdogan doubled down on his populist policies and proceeded to blame his economic woes on foreign enemies. Goodman writes that Erdogan’s economic philosophy is “unorthodox,” to say the least:


“As of June, Turkish private companies carried foreign currency debts reaching $220 billion, according to government figures, or roughly one-fourth of the overall economy. Persuading international investors to extend these debts and spare companies from bankruptcy requires that the central bank lift interest rates. But Mr. Erdogan has refused to go along, claiming — contrary to basic economics — that inflation is caused by high interest rates.”


But either way, a Turkish economist notes that since last year Turkey’s GDP has shrunk by 1.5 percent. The second quarter of 2019 was the third one in a row showing a contraction in economic output. The jobless rate is now over 14 percent with no end in sight, especially because foreign investment has plunged – 23 percent less in this second quarter than a year ago. Something has got to change.


Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy

Turkey’s most pressing issue is resolving the Syrian civil war now in its eighth year. The issue of its 3.6 million Syrian refugees has become a serious domestic liability for the AKP. When the secular candidate for mayor of Istanbul won the election in March, the AKP cried foul and insisted on another election in June. But that second election handed the secular party a decisive victory. This is bad for Erdogan, if only because he once was mayor of Istanbul and this has always been home turf for him. What turned the tide? Likely a combination of frustration with the high number of refugees, high unemployment and a sluggish economy.

The next issue is the Kurdish one. Turkish Kurds, about 18 percent of the population, or around 14 million people, have several groups that have resorted to violence to oppose the Turkish policies which have consistently repressed their language, culture, and people. By far the strongest group is the PKK, which has a military presence inside the border of Iraq and which has been repeatedly been bombed by the Turkish military. Since the open hostilities in 1984, two ceasefires were declared by the PKK (most recently in 2013), but fighting has been ongoing since 2015 (see this Wiki article). Since the 1980s, over 40,000 have been killed, most of them Kurdish civilians.

This fight has spilled over into Syria, especially when the Obama administrating teamed up with the Syrian Kurds to fight the Islamic State. These are the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which is an alliance of mostly Kurds, but including Arabs, predominantly Christian (the Syriac Military Council).

With regard to Syria, Turkey has been involved over the last two years in trilateral talks with Iran and Russia. The UN says up to half a million refugees are massed on the border with Turkey, which has threatened Europe with opening the floodgates if they don’t increase their aid to them inside Turkey. Yet Ankara’s involvement with Russia and Iran is crucial, if only to counterbalance their unconditional support for the Asad regime. Erdogan, a Sunni islamist, has called for Asad to step down from the beginning.

Russia, which supported Asad from day one, intervened militarily in September 2015, quickly turning the war to Asad’s advantage. One hopes Turkey can keep pressure on Russia and Iran to ensure a more peaceful and just transition to a new Syrian postwar reality, despite Asad still being in charge. But the presence of al-Qaeda-related terrorist groups in Idlib province on its border is still a big challenge for Turkey.

Just now President Trump announced that the US would be pulling out its troops from Syria (and likely will also leave the 200 spec. ops originally sent in by Obama). Middle East scholar Juan Cole argues that the only winners in this abrupt change of policy is Turkey (definitely not Russia or its protégé Bashar al-Asad, nor Iran). Why? Erdogan has long wanted to create a "safe zone" on the Syrian side of its border in order to ... 1) invade and neutralize the YPGs militarily, whom he considers allied with the Kurdish PKK fighters in eastern Turkey; 2) more or less force a million Syrian refugees to resettle there ... 3) thereby easing the number of refugees at home and diluting the Kurdish population so as to stave off their independence quest both there and in Turkey. Many fear with reason that this will kill many civilians as well as YPG fighters. Also tragic is the way the US used the YPGs to get rid of ISIS and now feel completely betrayed. Finally, ISIS is sure to regather in some form in Syria.

So far, this is all defensive foreign policy. But Turkey has long looked to expand its influence far beyond its region. A background paper written by a Turkish scholar appointed to Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, calls it “An Ambivalent Religious Soft Power.” Erdogan, for instance, visited Cuba in 2015 and is competing with Saudi Arabia for building its main mosque, mostly for students from Africa. Similarly, Turkey has built a large mosque in Albania’s capital Tirana which bears a striking resemblance to mosques in Istanbul. But like in Austria where Chancellor Sebastian Kurz shut down seven mosques run by the Turkish Diyanet (Ministry of Religious Affairs) because of their political Islam or islamist orientation, some Albanians also fear that Turkish money comes with strings attached.

But it isn’t just propaganda. It’s also setting up beach heads to spy on and subvert Gulenist influences in the area. In Germany where the Diyanet built and runs 1,000 mosques for the Turks and other Muslims, the government has launched an investigation into the spying in which many of these imams have been engaged. These kinds of investigations are ongoing in several other European countries “from Bulgaria to France, where Turkey has been successfully serving Muslims and trying to remain an influential actor since the late 1970s.” The mosques and their imams combine with other Turkish institutions to project Turkish “soft power” in over 50 countries, asserts Öztürk.

In fact, the Turkish Diyanet has exercised religious soft power for over four decades, mostly exporting its secular brand of Islam. But since 2002, notes Öztürk, together with its unofficial partner, the Gulen movement, it has initiated a pro-democracy agenda paired with humanitarian aid, which as he shows, has translated into some spectacular influence worldwide:


“With its ascendant economy, domestic reforms aimed at the EU accession process, and a global climate proposing the compatibility of Islam and democracy, Turkey rose as a soft power with religious tools at its disposal. In this, Turkey has become publicly almost more visible than the other Islamic soft power actors in continental Europe, in the Balkans, and in some particular countries like Somalia. The Diyanet has used its attaché offices in Turkish embassies and the Diyanet Foundation to forge agreements with the authorities of many different countries, Austria included, to train imams and provide other religious services. It has opened branches in more than 40 countries, publishing and distributing Qur'ans and religious books in more than 25 languages. It also provides financial support to official Muslim representative institutions in the Balkans, continental Europe, and Africa. Furthermore, the state-run construction companies TOKI and TİKA have been constructing mosques around the world.”


On the flip side, Öztürk documents some of the “ambivalence” of Turkey’s projection of religious soft power since about 2010, particularly as it is perceived in Europe, partly due to Erdogan’s move toward authoritarianism and his brutal repression of the Gulen movement. Still, considering “the increasingly competitive market of Islamic soft power,” Turkey has done very well. But it would do better, he concludes, if it returned to a more “moderate” version of Islam coupled with a stronger commitment to democracy.

I offer one last foray into Turkish foreign policy: Libya. Erdogan had taken a conciliatory attitude toward Muammar Gaddafi, even receiving the 2010 Al Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights (I won’t even touch that profoundly ironic prize name!). Naturally, there had been significant trade relations between the two nations and as a result 20,000 Turks were working in Libya.

Today, eight years into the profound instability Libya has been experiencing (which is why Turkey opposed NATO’s intervention in 2011) and five years into the civil war between the UN-sponsored government in Tripoli and the forces of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya’s west, Turkey, Qatar and Sudan back the former, while the Emiratis (and by implication the Saudis) back the latter. But it’s much more complex than this. [The Wiki article” is very helpful]. Yet what is relevant here is Turkey’s support to the Government of National Accord (GNA) backed by the UN and its strong opposition to General Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). Add to that Turkey’s military involvement by proxy, as it provides weapons to the GNA and logistical support from its military bases in Qatar and Somalia.

A little-known fact in the low-level battles between the GNA and LNA is that they are mostly drone battles since June 2019. Neither side possesses any sophisticated aircraft (several dozen antiquated models with not enough qualified flight crews). The UAE supplied Haftar with Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, which he began using in April 2019. But then in May Turkey delivered a number of its Bayraktar TB2 drones to the Tripoli government. Most of the action has consisted in either downing each other’s drones or bombing each other’s airports and destroying valuable aircraft. Ukraine, which has been working closely with the Turks, had one of its Russian transport planes destroyed on August 6th, for instance.

That this is a proxy war between Turkey and the UAE is not a hidden fact. On June 10th, Erdogan acknowledged to twenty journalists, “We have a military cooperation agreement with Libya. We are providing to them if they come up with a request, and if they pay for it. They really had a problem in terms of defense needs [and] equipment.” Think about it. Just like in Yemen where the KSA and UAE (which seems to be pulling out these days) have been fighting the Houthis backed by Iran, these are Muslim nations fighting other Muslim nations. But here the sectarian element is absent, that is, Sunnis are fighting Sunnis. Here we are bumping up against the KSA, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt which all decided to blockade Qatar in June 2017. The biggest disagreement is Qatar’s (and Turkey’s) support for a democratic political Islam. These are all autocratic regimes that stand too much to lose from an open political field in which the people are free to choose between them and a party based on Islam.

Here’s a sign that Erdogan has been in power too long (17 years and counting): he has two daughters, the oldest of whom is married to the current Treasury and Finance Minister, Barat Albayrak and the second daughter’s husband is a star in the defense industry that could grow up to 20 percent this year. This son-in-law is the CEO of Baykar, the company that develops drones, among other weaponry. They are about to sell a more developed one (named Akinci, or “Raider”) and already have secured orders from Qatar and Ukraine. Turkish drones, after all, are a “family affair.” If this all smells like nepotism to you, perhaps it is …


Turkey’s quest for “whiteness”

I end with two related pieces on Turkey and the ideology of whiteness. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I thought discrimination based on skin color was limited to North America and Europe. Admittedly, after several visits to West Africa I do know that it’s an issue there too, but still, it’s not “white supremacy” question. This is where history is useful guide. The first piece is an essay by Murat Ergin, sociology professor at Koc University in Istanbul, also author of the 2016 book, Is the Turk a White Man?”  Race and Modernity in the Making of Turkish Identity (Brill). The question in the title is an actual title of a 1909 New York Times article which reported on a decision made by the US Circuit Court in Cincinnati on a case involving a Turkish immigrant. The journalist put the yes and no answer this way:


“The original Turks were of the yellow or Mongolian race [and they] are a cruel and massacring people … But they are also Europeans, as much ‘white’ people as the Huns, Finns, and Cossacks.”


So Ergin’s essay (“Turkey’s Hard White Turn”) sets out to highlight the Turkish case of modernization by whiteness as part of a wider trend in the colonial era:


“In the late-19th and early 20th centuries, modernizers from Iran to Afghanistan, and from Japan to Turkey, turned to Western race science to bolster their efforts to establish the whiteness of the their nations in Western eyes, inject a much-needed confidence to their population in anticolonial struggles, and strengthen their bid for civilization with racial credentials. While race science aimed to classify the world into the superior races of the West and the inferior races of the rest, modernizers around the world appealed to these same scientific precepts as authority for their campaigns. The Turkish case is a compelling one because of the magnitude of the whiteness campaign.”


Though I cannot go into any detail, the story starts with the 1839 Ottoman edict to modernize the Empire (the Tanzimat mentioned in the first part), which started a flurry of (pseudo) scientific activity seeking to bolster the claim that “Turkishness” was what united a very diverse Empire, both ethnically and religiously. Istanbul, in fact, was half non-Muslim until around 1900. Turkish scholars drew much of their inspiration from European Orientalists. A French one in particular Léon Cahun) asserted in a lecture in 1873 (“Life and Prehistoric Migrations of the People Called Turks”) that indeed, “Turks are native Europeans.”

That lecture would be republished years later in 1930. But this is because, writes Ergin, Atatürk sent his adopted daughter, Afet Inan, to do a PhD in history at the University of Geneva under a scholar “friendly to the idea that Turks are white.” Just one of the “fantastic proportions” and “truly creative turns” Turkey’s search for whiteness assumed over the decades is illustrated by Afet Inan’s speech at the 1937 History Congress in Istanbul. Among other things, Inan asserted the following:


“The obvious characteristic of this Central Asian race is brachycephalic; its corporeal formation, despite fabricated legends, is proportional; and its skin has no relationship with the colour of yellow; it is mainly and generally white.”


From the start, Inan was involved in the forefront of this Turkish quest for whiteness. The official book came out in 1931, The Central Themes of Turkish History, and Inan was one of several authors. Ergin notes that a number of its hyper-nationalistic themes were incorporated in the curriculum of Turkish schools of the time:


1) Turks are the original white race;

2) Turks are the descendants of an ancient, central Asian civilisation, which is the oldest and most advanced in the world;

3) Turks spread civilisation to the rest of the world when they migrated out of central Asia, their mythical homeland;

4) when they encountered other races, ancient Turks assimilated and Turkified them.


It is not surprising, therefore, that the Turks deemphasized their Ottoman past as well as their Islamic civilization. After all, that was the main premise of Atatürk’s Kemalist, secular ideology. But also, in the light of this blog post, you are guessing that when the islamist opposition, present since the early 1980s, finally came to power in 2002, the Turkish elites turned their eyes again to their Ottoman and Islamic heritage. Or as Ergin has it, “The whiteness campaign that went along with modernisation had repudiated the Ottoman empire as an aberration in Turkey’s long history. The rise of ‘Ottomania’ today rehabilitates the Ottoman past, and roots Turkish identity in it.”

That said, not all Turks believe the same thing. That 2019 mayoral campaign in Istanbul laid bare some of those stark differences. In a fascinating essay, University of Notre Dame Turkish American scholar Perin E. Gürel connects the dots between modern Turkey’s quest for whiteness, the clash of civilization thesis made popular in the 1990s by Samuel Huntington, and the resurgence of white nationalism and sexism in the West. In particular, the Australian who massacred worshipers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, wrote in his rambling manifesto: “Until the Hagia Sophia [a Byzantine Church, later a mosque under the Ottomans, and now a museum] is free of the minarets, the men in Europe are men in name only.” Besides the flagrant sexism of that statement, this threat later become more precise: all Turks must flee to the Asian side of Istanbul “or face violence.” Gürel, a female scholar who grew up in Istanbul, sees this obsessive patrolling of the “white” borders, the limits of “Western civilization,” as particularly ominous.

However distasteful and alarming that kind of vitriol is, it is not entirely surprising. It has a long genealogy. What was more surprising, at least until I read Ergin’s essay, was the clash of ideologies in the mayoral race of Istanbul this year. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” as they say. Gürel offers two viral memes from the CHP campaign [secularist party of the candidate who eventually won, Ekrem Imamoglu] to illustrate her point:


This meme translates as, “Bro, look at the family! In one instance, we progressed 100 years. We became like Finland, Sweden and Norway!” Plainly, northern European whiteness guarantees all kinds of other qualities! We couldn’t imagine this kind of imagery or rhetoric in the US, at least not in public. The second one is just as racialized, and with its light versus darkness trope, even more egregious.


 This reads, “Wait for us Istanbul.” One cannot miss the secularist trope of white European as light and progress, and the Ottoman and Islamic identity as a sign of darkness and backwardness.

With this I end my collage of Turkish modern history, and in particular the transition from the hard secularism of Kemalism to the soft islamism of Erdogan’s AKP. Perhaps its loss of Istanbul’s mayoral seat is a foretaste of changes to come. But then Turkey’s growing economic woes might also point in the same direction. What is certain, however, is that Turkey’s key geopolitical location between Europe and Central Asia and its rich historical and cultural heritage will guarantee its continued influence both in the Middle East and in the Islamic world. To be sure, like any other society, issues of national identity are often shifting, evolving, depending on both domestic and international conditions and pressures.

I just hope and pray all of us – and I might sound hopelessly naïve – will link up with the elements of civil society worldwide committed to mutual listening, to a dialog of civilizations, and to actively working for peace. Together with God’s help we can model love of neighbor and continue to work for greater peace and understanding.