Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a man full of surprises. He surprised the world four months ago in Davos by bashing Israeli President Shimon Peres for "killing children" in Gaza. The way he stormed the international forum came as a relief to most Middle Easterners, but raised eyebrows among many Westerners. Last week Erdoğan made another surprise move, defending the right of an Israeli company to invest in Turkey, and criticizing the history of his own country, and his own political tradition, for having a "fascist mindset." While this comment came as a relief to Turkey’s liberals, it not only raised eyebrows, but also prompted heated protests among the country’s more numerous nationalists.
Border as ’honor’
The issue at hand was the minefield on the Turkish-Syrian border. This 500-meter wide and 510-kilometer long "security zone" is full of thousands of landmines, a relic from Turkey’s "enemies, enemies everywhere" era. The mines have not only been lethal to nearby villagers, they have also rendered this fertile strip of land useless. Moreover, the Ottawa Treaty that Turkey recently signed obliges the country to clear all its mines by 2014.
Something had to be done. The government asked the military, and learned that clearing the mines would necessitate the purchase of very expensive technical equipment that would be used only once. So outsourcing the job to an expert company made more sense. That would cost a lot of money too. But the government had a smart idea: Turkey could make back the expenses of de-mining by leasing the land to the same company for some 49 years, or perhaps less, for organic agriculture. We would get rid of the mines, people in the region would find new jobs and the foreign company would make money. Everybody would be happy.
But, well, it is hard to make Turks happy. Sharp criticisms arose that accused the government of "selling Turkish land to foreigners" Ğ particularly, to the not-much-loved Israelis. That is what brought about Erdoğan’s comments on "fascism." He rightly tied these reactions to the phobia against minorities and foreigners, and said:
"Something has been done in this country for years. People with different ethnic identities were expelled. Have we gained anything by this? No. This, in fact, was the result of a fascist mindset."
Erdoğan also explained the logic of free-market capitalism:
"Money has no religion, nation or ethnicityÉ Global finance wants to come and invest in our country. But some people say, ’No, we don’t want that, that is Jewish finance.’É Look brother, let him come and invest in the country, whoever that person is. They will create jobs for our own citizens."
Needless to say, I fully agreed with the prime minister on both approaches, political and economic liberalism. Yet for many people in Turkey, both are treacherous ideas. No wonder speakers from both opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, made furious comments about how unpatriotic the prime minister is. CHP member Canan Arıtman, who recently "accused" President Abdullah Gül of being of Armenian descent, summarized the opposition’s position by saying, "Our borders are our honor; we can’t sell them to foreigners!"
What was more interesting was the reaction Erdoğan received from some pundits in the Islamic/conservative camp. Four different columnists in Yeni Şafak, an Islamic-leaning daily that is often pro-AKP, raised strong objections to the possibility of an Israeli company getting the job. Daily Hürriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan argued that this rift might bring some extra votes to the Saadet (Felicity) Party, which holds to the old-school Islamist line. He is probably right.
After all these criticisms, and also some apparently valid objections involving the nature of the complicated job, Erdoğan backed off. The draft law about the mines will be written again in the Parliament. And I am really no expert on most of the technicalities that people are speaking about.
What I know a bit better is the underlying mindsets in these debates. And this recent one highlights what I have been arguing for a long time: The most crucial gap in this country is the one between nationalists and globalists. You can find both Islamic and secular figures on both sides. And the AKP, to its credit, is still the least nationalist political party on the scene.
Taking my leave
Finally, I must apologize to regular readers of this column, because I am taking a book leave for the next four months. I am working on a book on Islam and liberalism, so I really need to spend the summer concentrating on it, and not much else. In other words, my next column in the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review probably will not appear before October. So, have a nice summer and "see you" soon.
Yesterday was May 27, the 49th anniversary of Turkey’s first military coup. It was launched against the first non-Kemalist, center-right political party of the Republican era: the Democrat Party. The Democrats had come to power in 1950, after a quarter of a century of single-party dictatorship, with an impressive slogan: "Enough! The nation has the word!" But when they won three elections in a row, the powers that be decided to say "enough" to them, too.
After the military coup, all MPs of the Democrat Party were imprisoned on Yassıada, one of the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara. A show trial was set up, and they were tried for "high treason." In one of the sessions, a remarkable scene took place. One of the accused, Samet Ağaoğlu, objected to one of the peculiarities in the case and asked why. The president of the court, judge Salim Başol, gave a bold answer. "It is that way," he said, "because the power which brought you here demands that way!"
Protecting the state
In other words, Mr. Başol was serving not justice but the power that executed the military coup. He was his master’s gavel.
Mr. Başol is dead today, but his spirit lives. There is a very strong tendency among Turkey’s judges and prosecutors to protect "the regime" rather than the rights of its citizens. They in fact proudly declare that they are not impartial when it comes "to the principles of the Republic."
A recent study that sheds light to this problem is the survey titled, "Justice Can Be Bypassed Sometimes: Judges and Prosecutors in the Democratization Process." Authored by Mithat Sancar and Eylem Ümit Atılgan, both of Ankara University’s Faculty of Law, and published by TESEV, Turkey’s leading liberal think-tank, the report is based on interviews with 51 Turkish judges and prosecutors. "I am the prosecutor of the Republic," one of these men says, "of course I will not be impartial when the state is involved."
This should explain why so many people or organizations that happened to clash with the state ideology have been persecuted by courts in Turkey. It should also explain why criminals within the state (such as torturers, coup makers, extrajudicial killers) have almost never been sentenced. The legal system is designed to protect the state from society, not the other way around. The crucial point here is that this is not just a system, but also a mentality. As seen in the TESEV report, many men of justice genuinely believe that their first and foremost duty is "to protect the state."
But where does this mentality come from?
One common answer is that, with some notable exceptions, Turkey’s judicial class has not been able to internalize the liberal democratic norms of the modern West. That is definitely true. But it only explains why the problem remains unsolved. It does not explain its origin.
To see the origin, we have to look at history. And when we do, we see something very interesting: The unsuccessful transition from the shariah, i.e., Islamic law, to modern law.
Noah Feldman, professor of law at Harvard University, has an interesting analysis on this in his book, "The Fall of Rise of the Islamic State." As he explains, shariah, as a God-given law "discovered" and interpreted by independent scholars, served as a check on political authority during the Islamic Middle Ages.
When Ottoman Sultan Yavuz (the Grim) decided to convert all Christians under his empire to Islam, for example, the gatekeeper of shariah, the Sheik-ul Islam, had objected by noting, "This is against shariah." No one, including the Sultan, could rise above this divine code.
From shariah to tyranny
"But the scholars did not manage to retain this role," Feldman recalls, "at least not in the Sunni Muslim world." And he explains the consequence: "The judicial function was eventually taken up instead by a new class of judges trained in modern law, which is to say Westernized law. Unlike the scholarly class, the new judges had no tradition (however attenuated) of independence from the state.
To them, Law emanated not from God but from government; and ... this worldview often translated into a reluctance to treat the organs of the state as subordinate to the law."
This is the origin of the tragedy of Turkey’s judicial class. They have abandoned the traditional divine norms of justice, but have not been able to grasp its modern liberal norms either. The type of modernity they adhere to is strictly authoritarian, and therefore their justice is designed to serve the authority they uphold.
Is there any way out of this problem? I am not sure. And not very optimistic, either.
Article 105 of the Turkish Constitution notes that a president can only be tried for "high treason." And that is possible only "on the proposal of at least one-third of the total number of members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly." The reasoning behind that legal shield is obvious: The president is the very symbol of the Turkish Republic and his status should not be infringed upon unless there is a very compelling case for a very serious crime such as high treason.
No wonder no president, except the current one, has ever been tried for anything. Even Kenan Evren, the maker of the 1980 coup, during which thousands of people have been tortured, has never ever seen a courtroom.
The unwanted president
Yet the current president, Abdullah Gül, is a curious exception. He was first tried in the closure case opened against the governing Justice and Development Party, AKP, last year. The indictment was asking that he should be banned from politics for "violating secularism."
The court did not accept that appeal, and the infamous closure case ended with the president’s acquittal.
But it was a scandalous event, for that the very Article 105 of the Constitution, which prevents any trial except for "high treason," was violated by the very Constitutional Court of the country.
And more was to come. About a week ago, the First Criminal Court in Sincan, a province of Ankara, took yet another unbelievable decision by ruling that the president needs to be tried for his possible role in what is publicly known as the "missing trillion case."
That case comes from the closure of the Welfare Party, or RP, in 1998. As you might know, the draconian courts of the Turkish Republic often close down the parties whose ideologies they find deviant. And when that happens, the state not only ends the life of a political party, but it also confiscates its funds. To avoid that, apparently, the RP emptied its own funds, and transferred the money to personal accounts. Some of the administrators of the party, including its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, were later tried later for this sleight of hand and sentenced for a few years in prison.
Gül was not responsible for financial matters
Abdullah Gül was a high level administrator in the RP at the time. But since his membership in the Turkish Parliament continued, and that gave him legal immunity, he was never tried for the "missing trillion liras."
Yet Abdullah Gül was only responsible for the party’s foreign relations.
Moreover, the court that sentenced Erbakan and a few other party officials in the "missing trillion lira" case decided that those who were not responsible for financial matters were not guilty.
So, although Abdullah Gül was never tried, it is very safe to assume that he was innocent, because he was not responsible for financial matters.
Moreover, he is now the country’s president, who is protected by the Constitution!
But none of these matters, apparently, for the judge in Sincan. He refers to the president five times in his indictment as "suspect Abdullah Gül," and asks for his trial.
What is really going on here?
Well, you decideÉ I should just note three facts:
1) The creators of Turkey’s political regime have designed the presidency as a post reserved for Kemalists. No wonder that most of our previous presidents were either retired generals or their best friends. Abdullah Gül is the first president whose political views fall outside the Kemalist camp, and whose wife wears what the Kemalists can’t stand to see: the Islamic headscarf.
2) Just a few weeks before the Sincan decision, Abdullah Gül noted, "The Kurdish question is the biggest problem of Turkey," and implied that it needs to be solved in a liberal and peaceful paradigm. Since then, the Kemalist/nationalist media has been attacking him. One such newspaper, Yeniçağ, even implied that this might be the very "high treason" that the Constitution is speaking about.
3) The Sincan judge who decided that Abdullah Gül should be tried, Osman Kaçmaz, is known to be a committed Kemalist. Kemal Kerinçsiz, the ultra-nationalist lawyer who sued dozens of liberal intellectuals for "insulting Turkishness" and who is now a suspect in the Ergenekon case, is apparently his good friend.
In the Ergenekon indictment, there is a tapped phone conversation of Mr. Kerinçsiz, in which he says that he met Mr. Kaçmaz in the 11th Turkish World Conference held in Baku, was very impressed with his views, and said, "Our country needs judges like you."
Perhaps not "our country," but the Kemalist autocracy definitely needs judges like Osman Kaçmaz and lawyers like Kemal Kerinçsiz. They are the ones who make the legal system serve their ideology and prevent it from serving what it should really uphold: justice.
If you are well versed enough in the Turkish language to follow the Turkish media (and also happen to have the stomach for it), I strongly recommend reading Milli Gazete. The daily newspaper of Milli Görüş, the Islamist movement of Necmeddin Erbakan, which is currently represented by the marginal Saadet, or Felicity, Party, Milli Gazete acts almost like a party organ. It often tries to convince its readers that the 82-year-old Erbakan’s victory over the forces of "global Zionism" is imminent. The writers of Milli Gazete dislike two groups in Turkey. The first, as you can guess, is the hard-line secularists. The second group, which you might not guess right away, is what the hard-line secularists themselves most despise: the "moderate Islamists," such as the incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and Islamic individuals or groups with "modernist" attitudes. For Milli Gazete, these misguided Muslims are the enemies within who dilute the Islamic cause and make it subservient to the demands of the Western infidels.
Reform or reinterpretation?
One of the heavyweights of Milli Gazete is Mehmet Şevket Eygi. To his credit, Eygi has some good insights about pious Muslims in Turkey, such as his critiques of their "lack of a sense of aesthetics." But on matters of theology and jurisprudence, he is way too conservative. Any deviation from the classical sources and norms of Sunni Islam is, for him, a dangerous heresy.
For some time, Eygi has been harshly criticizing the "hadith reform," as he, and the Western media, call it. This is a project initiated by Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs (also known as the Diyanet) and its aim is to revise, re-catalog and re-interpret the sayings, or hadiths, of Prophet Mohammed. Right after it began in 2006, the project made global headlines because it aimed to deal with some of the misogynistic statements in the classical hadith literature, spurring Western media, from the BBC to the Christian Science Monitor, to start talking about a "reform" in Islam.
In the Western sense, that wasn’t an incorrect statement. One of the project’s goals was to put some apparently misogynist hadiths into their rightful historical context and thus keep them from being used in the modern world to suppress women’s rights. But the term "reform" does not sound nice to Muslim ears. When they hear this word, most Muslims think that it is about excluding a fundamental part of their religion for some secular, if not completely wicked, agenda. Therefore, from the very beginning, Diyanet officials took great pains to emphasize, "This is not a reform at all."
But they could not persuade Eygi. He has been repeatedly writing about "this treacherous project carried out by Orientalists, free thinkers and even atheists," and calling on fellow Muslims to take a stand against it. "They are deleting our Prophet’s words simply to succumb to the Europeans," he argued in one of his articles, continuing:
"O Muslims! You are in deep sleep. You sleep in bed, you sleep when you are awake, you sleep when you talk. You sleep on land you sleep on the sea. But they are not sleeping! They are working day and night to delete the prophet’s hadiths!"
This ranting went on for a while, and led Diyanet Deputy President Prof. Mehmet Görmez to write a long response, which Eygi published in his column last Friday. Prof. Görmez took great pains to argue that devout Muslims (rather than "Orientalists and Jesuit priests") were carrying out the project and that its aim was not to delete the hadiths of the prophet, but to interpret them rightfully. If Eygi continued with his "unjust accusations," Prof Görmez warned, he might be held responsible for this in the eyes of "divine justice."
Whether this will convince Eygi and other conservatives in the Muslim world remains uncertain. What is certain is their reaction to the idea of "reform." Since the 19th century, modernist Muslims have repeatedly faced this hostility: They have been accused of being paid agents of the West, crypto freemasons with sinister goals and apostates who sold their souls to the devil.
There are two lessons to be inferred from this. First, Muslim would-be reformers should be careful in how they frame their arguments. There are tools for change within the Islamic tradition, and using them is more legitimate and efficient than pushing for revolutionary steps.
The second lesson is for Westerners. They, too, should be careful with the language they use. And they should not engage in religion building that is really not their business. Their concern over extremely conservative, sometimes violent, interpretations of Islam is quite understandable. But they should also understand that they only empower those interpretations by appearing, at least in the eyes of oversensitive beholders, as the architects of reform in a religion they don’t subscribe to.
One of the narratives about Turkey that we hear very often these days is the "Western orientation" of its Kemalist revolution. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, we are told, Mustafa Kemal and his followers emerged as the saviors of the country by recreating it as a modern republic and turning its face to the West. This story is often followed by alarmist comments about the current destination of Turkey under its current government. The Kemalists are not in power anymore, we are warned, and the new non-Kemalist elite is changing its orientation from the West to the East.
Unfortunately, the commentators who publicize this narrative hardly note the fact that most Kemalists in contemporary Turkey have become diehard opponents of the European Union accession process. They also rarely speak about the fact that the latest Kemalist attempt to overthrow the current government (aka "Ergenekon") was also planning to make the country an ally of Russia and China rather than the EU and U.S.
But that is the smallest of the flaws in their argument. The bigger problem is their dismissal of the problems in Kemalism’s "Western orientation."
Let me explain what I mean. Today when we use the term "the West," the political system that comes to our mind is often liberal democracy. But during the formative years of Kemalism, i.e., the late 20s and 30s, that was not the case. In fact, liberal democracy was a growingly marginal model in Europe at time. The ascendant model was totalitarianism, as exemplified first by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. And these two had some considerable influence on Kemalist ideology and practice.
First came corporatism, the economic model of Fascist Italy, which was based on Mussolini’s fundamental idea: "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." As scholars Taha Parla and Andrew Davison explain in their book, "Corporatism in Kemalist Turkey," Turkey adopted this state-dominated way of organizing the economy by orchestrating social segments and interest groups. The authors, as the book’s publisher note, illuminate "Kemalism's emphatic and self-conscious, corporatist ideological core," and "require a rethinking of its democratic, secular, and modernist reputation."
But this was not the most problematic theme that Kemalism incorporated from "the West." A worse one was racism. Although they never became a full-fledged policy, racist theories that gloried the "Turkish stock" became popular among the Kemalist elite in the 30s. In 1932, the First Turkish Historical Congress was held in Ankara under the auspices of Atatürk. Afet İnan, one of Atatürk’s protgs, presented a "scientific" paper in which she argued that the Aryan race, whose "brachycephalic skull" made it superior to others, included the ancient Central-Asian Turks. Another speaker at the same congress, Dr. Şevket Aziz Kansu, shared his extravagant studies on the features of the "Turkish skull." He had measured the skull sizes of 50 "pure Turks," half male, half female, and found them to be of pure European "Alpine race."
These nutty race theories influenced official policies. Some government advertisements in newspapers for new personnel noted that applicants had to be from "the Turkish stock," in addition to being a citizen of Turkey.
In 1935, the "third man" of the regime, Recep Peker, the general secretary of Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party, or CHP, had a long trip to Nazi Germany, and came back with a deep sense of admiration. He wrote a long report suggesting that Turkey should adopt the principles that made this new Germany so "efficient." He also started to promote the idea of "disciplined liberty" and denounced liberalism as a deviant idea. In 1936, Turkey adopted the hallmark of all totalitarian regimes: The unification of the ruling party and the state.
The heads of CHP’s local branches became governors of their cities.
Luckily, Atatürk did not really embrace these racist and totalitarian visions. After toying with them for a while, he decided to take a more moderate path, which was paralleled by his decision to approach Britain, rather than Germany, on the eve of World War II. When he died in 1938, however, the fascist tendencies within the CHP were still alive and were soon emboldened by the Nazi’s initial success in the war. In 1942, in tune with the zeitgeist, the CHP government issued the infamous "wealth tax," a very heavy levy on the non-Muslim, especially Jewish, minority. Some who failed to pay were sent to a labor camp established in eastern Turkey.
When the Nazis started to lose the war, the CHP government silently changed sides, and soon accepted a multi-party system in order to cope with the new global trend. But it never questioned the nasty stuff in its past.
Regrettably that nasty stuff still lives on among Turkey’s dogmatic Kemalists, who still idealize an authoritarian state, a xenophobic nationalism and a tyrannical secularism. Drifting away from their understanding of Kemalism will only be a blessing for this country.
Can Turkey make peace with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is defined as a terrorist organization by Ankara, Washington and Brussels? That very idea is heretical to many Turks, who believe that the only way to deal with the PKK is to kill its militants one by one. But that is an option that we have tried, and failed at. In fact, since the mid 1980s, almost 30,000 PKK guerillas have been "captured dead" by the Turkish Armed Forces, but the organization has not ceased to exist.There are still an estimated 5,000 PKK militants, based mostly in the mountains of northern Iraq. And you can be sure that if they are eradicated, others will replace them soon, because the PKK is not a group of isolated bandits. It is an organization rooted in a sympathetic population. No wonder pro-PKK parties always get a little more than 2 million votes in Turkey’s general elections.
leaders recognize this social base behind the PKK’s terrorist acts, the more they become open to the idea of a "political solution," rather than a military one.Just last week, journalist Hasan Cemal, one of the few liberal commentators for daily Milliyet, opened a new path for such a peaceful option. He went down all the way to the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, where the PKK has its headquarters, and interviewed Murat Karayılan, the acting leader of the organization. (The real, and "eternal," leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been in jail since 1999.)
In the interview, Karayılan said important things. The first time the PKK militants "went up the mountains," he acknowledged, their goal was to create an independent Kurdish state. But now, he said, they realize that this is unrealistic and instead seek political rights within the boundaries of Turkey. Moreover, he said that his organization is ready to bid farewell to their arms, if Turkey shows some goodwill and engages in a dialogue.
But dialogue with whom? "The first address is İmrali," said Karayılan, referring to the prison where Öcalan is being held. But he also gave other options. "If that is not accepted, then us. If we are not accepted, then the politically elected will," Karayılan said, referring to the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, or DTP. "If that is not accepted either, then a council of wise men can be appointed, which will include people from both sides, and the state can take that as a counterpart."
This was an important breakthrough. Liberal commentators argued that it is time to consider Karayılan’s ideas. Prime Minister Erdoğan said that he "noted" the PKK leader’s remarks. And President Gül, who recently said that the Kurdish question is "Turkey’s most important issue," spoke of a "historic opportunity" to solve the problem. So, you may ask, is Turkey really on the verge of ending the PKK’s terrorism by adopting new liberal reforms and, perhaps, an amnesty for PKK members?
Well, it is possible, but don’t hold your breath. First of all, Kurdish nationalism is hard to satisfy. Moreover, there is another nationalism on the other side that sees any reconciliatory steps as "treason." I am talking about Turkish nationalists. Politically, this group is spearheaded by the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP. The other day, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli gave a furious speech at the Parliament on this issue, accusing both the president and the prime minister of "high treason." He clearly opposed some possible reforms, such as Kurdish classes in schools, and characterized them as "the destruction of Turkey under the cloak of democratization."
The problem is not only that Bahçeli’s party gets 15 percent of the votes and that its grassroots members have a reputation for violence. The bigger problem is that with this fierce rhetoric, Bahçeli can discourage the government from taking the necessary steps. The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP’s, own electorate is not free from nationalism, and the idea that "the country is being sold to the PKK" could influence some AKP supporters as well. In other words, implementing the necessary reforms to resolve the Kurdish question might cost Erdoğan some votes.
The nationalist front
The other problem is that the other leading opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, is not too different from the MHP. Actually, these two parties are similarly nationalist, with the only difference being the CHP’s slightly more polite and refined tone. Especially when it comes to "defending the foundations of the Republic," which include a bunch of authoritarian nonsense, the CHP is no better than the MHP. The only good news is that the Turkish military, which traditionally has been the main obstacle to reform, is acting a bit better these days. (Perhaps the purging of Ergenekon-related hardliners among the officers has been helpful.)
The chief of general staff is still behind the level of democratic attitude we need to see from the state, but, relatively speaking, he sounds open-minded. That is why we can be cautiously optimistic about a new and better era with regard to Turkey’s decades-old Kurdish question. But for this to happen, the country needs political courage from its government, and especially from the prime minister. Does Mr. Erdoğan have that courage? I hope he does, but we will see...
KUALA LUMPUR - Prime Minister Erdoğan, as you would know, broke with his former guru Erbakan’s anti-Western, Islamist line to found the AKP and to follow a liberal policy. This transformation has had influence outside of Turkey as well. It has changed the terms even in a far country like Malaysia It is my first time in this fascinating city, and I just hope that it won’t be the last. Thanks to the invitation from a Malaysian think tank, a pioneering organization dedicated to popularize classical liberal ideas in Malaysian society, I had the chance to come here all the way down from Istanbul. And I was impressed by not just Malaysia’s common tourist attractions (gorgeous nature, great food, and diverse society) but also for the lessons it tells us about the interaction between Islam and modernity.
Let’s start with a little bit of encyclopedic information. Malaysia is often defined as an "Islamic country," but Muslims make up only 51 percent of the population. The rest is Chinese with 27 percent, Hindu with 8 percent, and many other smaller groups. What is curious in this composition is that "Chinese" is an ethnic category, while "Muslim" is a religious one.
That apparent contradiction has a reason: Here, in a way which is a bit similar to Bosnia, being a Muslim corresponds with an ethnic identity: that of the Malays, the dominant group.
In other words, it is in the very definition of being a Malay to be a Muslim. And this is not just custom, but also law. Article 160 of the Constitution defines a Malay as "a Muslim Malaysian citizen born to another Malaysian citizen."
But what happens if a Malay wants to change his religion, and became, say, a Christian?
What happens is a big problem. The ex-Muslim is required to take "permission" from Islamic Shariah courts to convert. But since he or she is not a Muslim anymore, that is absurd. Moreover, the courts are generally not willing to give permission. The consequential limbo can last for a long time. Moreover, the same courts do not allow a Muslim Malay (which is a redundant term, actually) to marry a non-Muslim.
Since I learned a little bit about this problem, I decided to address the issue of apostasy at the speech I gave last Tuesday at a public panel on "the role of religion in a plural society." First I argued that a secular (not secularist!) political system is the best option for Muslims, because it allows them to practice their faith freely, without any compulsion from state. In return, I noted, Muslims should not exert compulsion on others, too. The latter idea included granting people freedom from Islam, if they decide to leave it. And what would we achieve, after all, keeping people in the faith by force other than hypocrisy?
The comments and the questions from the audience showed that this was a sensitive topic. And those who sounded critical confirmed my gut feeling: This was more of a political issue rather than a theological one. What would happen to "Malay identity" if some Malays stopped being a Muslim? Weren’t they threatening "national unity" by abandoning their faith community? And shouldn’t the state take precautions to protect this unity?
This was no surprise. The ban on apostasy in classical Islam came from political, not religious, sources as well. There is nothing in the Koran or the practice of the prophet that supports it. It rather came from the political wars of the early caliphs, during which the abandonment of religion was deemed synonymous with treason to the political community. In the modern world, in which a change of one’s belief system has nothing to do with high treason, Muslims should take a much more relaxed attitude.
But do these arguments make sense to the Muslim opinion leaders in Malaysia?
To some, definitely yes. One of them is Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and an important figure in PAS, the Islamic Party of Malaysia.
AKP as role model
We actually spoke on the same panel with Dr. Ahmad and he tended to agree with what I said on religious freedom. He further defined himself an "Islamic democrat" who strives for a democratic political system, not an "Islamic state." When I asked how popular these liberal views are in his party, he gave an interesting answer. "It is popular among the Erdoğanists," he said, "whereas the Erbakanists strongly oppose them."
These witty definitions clearly referred to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, and his former guru Necmeddin Erbakan. Erdoğan, as you would know, broke with Erbakan’s anti-Western, Islamist line to found the Justice and Development Party, or AKP and to follow a EU-oriented, liberal policy. This transformation has had influence outside of Turkey as well.
It has changed the terms, apparently, even in a far country like Malaysia.
That’s why the AKP experiment (that of synthesis between strong Islamic identity and democratic politics) is crucial for not just Turkey but the world.
It would only be a pity if it is sacrificed to the pettiness within AKP’s own ranks, or to the obsessions among Turkey’s secular fundamentalists.
One of the great things about the Hürriyet Daily News is that it opens its pages to differing, opposing and even battling views. If you are a regular reader, you might have already noticed this diversity in the paper’s opinion pages. But today I will take another step and explain you why I strongly beg to differ from one of our recent headline stories. That story was published on the Daily News’ Web site on Saturday and its gist was captured in its bold headline: "New cabinet revisions radicalizes Turkish government." The change of almost a dozen seats in the Cabinet had, according to the story, "radicalized the government with the appointment of conservatives to replace liberals."
Well, that "radicalization" was news not just to readers like you, but also to me. Because, with the debatable exception of newly appointed Labor Minister Ömer Dinçer, I saw no trace of "radicals" in the design of the new government that Prime Minister Erdoğan announced last Friday. I rather saw just the opposite. You might think that I am a biased observer, but I should inform you that quite a few pundits in mainstream Turkish media agree with me. I am not speaking of people who are labeled as "AKP lackeys." For example, İsmet Berkan, a secular democrat and the editor-in-chief of Radikal, one of the very few papers in this country whose editorial line can come close to being defined as "liberal," wrote the following in his Tuesday piece:
"After his election victory in 2007 É the prime minister developed an exclusivist style: In his government, in his party, and in state administration, he was attaching no importance to views other than his own, he was confrontational, he was taking any criticism as an attack to his own personality, and he was totally dismissing political opposition. Now, many people, including myself, see the entry of Bülent Arınç to the Cabinet and the appointment of Ali Babacan to the management of the economy with extended powers, as a return back to Erdoğan’s first term, to his desire to become a reconciliatory prime minister who listens to everybody rather than seeks to confront them.
In the papers of Sunday and Monday, many prominent columnists who have written about this tend to see Erdoğan’s move as a sign of retraction from confrontationalism and thus give him one more chance."
But why, then, the aforementioned Daily News story saw a "radicalization" in the Cabinet? Its writer, Göksel Bozkurt, whose journalism I have great respect for, and from whose reports I often learn a great deal about Ankara politics, seems to have gotten a few signals wrong this time.
One of these is the entry of Bülent Arınç to the Cabinet, one of the three original grandees of the AKP, along with Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül. The Daily News story was alluding to Arınç’s "radical" thoughts on "the headscarf issue." But that would be valid statement only if you assume that the criticism of Turkey self-styled, almost-Soviet-like secularism makes one a radical. Because what Arınç simply did was to call for freedom to wear the headscarf on campus and suggest that the notion secularism that doesn’t allow this "needs to be refined." Yet in the past two years, Arınç has emerged as a voice of wisdom and deliberation even in the eyes of Turkey’s committed secularists. He criticized the growing corruption and nepotism in his party, and his modest personal life made his remarks highly credible. He is also known be to critical of Erdoğan when he sees necessary, and this is something very few, if any, can dare to do in the ranks of the AKP.
Therefore, Arınç’s inclusion to the Cabinet as deputy prime minister should be seen as Erdoğan’s willingness to work with someone who will not be his yes-man. That is in fact a liberal move, because the diffusion of political power is always an antidote to authoritarianism. Another significant revision in the Cabinet was the appointment of Nimet Çubukçu to the Education Ministry. This post is always a hot button in Turkey and a battleground in its culture war. Hüseyin Çelik, who had been the education minister since 2002, just added to the tension.
In fact, he was doing fine as a minister, but his religious conservatism and roots as a "Nurcu" (follower of late Islamic sage Said Nursi) had irritated the secularists. Çubukçu clearly lacks such baggage. Moreover, she is now joined by Selma Aliye Kavaf, the newly appointed state minister, to double the female power in a Cabinet of males.
Welcome to Davutoğlu
On a final critical note, the Daily News story also surprised me by defining state minister Cemil Çiçek as a "liberal." I have respect for Çiçek, but calling him a "liberal" would infuriate all Turkish liberals that I know. The best term for him, I believe, would be "nationalist."
If you ask my opinion, by the way, I would say the new Cabinet actually looks pretty good. And its most important name is none other than Ahmet Davutoğlu, the new foreign minister. This erudite and creative scholar had already been shaping Turkish foreign policy behind the scenes as a "top adviser" to the prime minister. Now he is in full charge. We can expect him to make Turkey an even more important "soft power" in its region. I wish good luck to him, and the whole not-so-radical new Cabinet.
Quite a few people in Turkey are upset with President Barack Obama these days for using the term "Meds Yeghern" to describe the tragedy that befell on Ottoman Armenians in 1915. The term means "Great Catastrophe" in the Armenian language and it refers to the "genocide" of 1915. Some Turkish commentators unhappily argue that although Obama did not directly use the "G" word, he said what amounts to that.I, on the other hand, saw a reasonable nuance in Obama’s rhetoric. If he had used the "G" word, that would have amounted to a legal definition. Yet his choice of words shows that he didn’t want to take that step. It rather indicates that he sees the tragedy of 1915 in a way totally different than the common Turkish view, but does not wish to enforce that by bringing up a legal definition that would make Turkey politically uncomfortable.
And I think that this stance by Obama should be welcomed. His rhetoric is true to itself (because we know that Obama sees 1915 as genocide), but is also considerate to the Turkish position. What more should we expect from the American President? To deny or overlook something which he sees as a bitter historical fact? This question brings me to the other side of the issue. Most Turks, too, see a different historical fact when they look at 1915. Or, perhaps, 1917.
The latter was the year when Armenian militants committed mass atrocities in Eastern Turkey on the Muslim population to take "revenge" for what happened two years earlier. Every Turk is told about those horrific episodes, in which men, women and children were brutally tortured and slaughtered. When you mention a "great catastrophe" that took place during World War I, Turks remember this Muslim tragedy, not the Armenian one.
The reason is obvious: Every society remembers the evils done to them, rather than the evils they do. Turkish society is especially prone to thinking this way, because it hardly has a taste for self-criticism.Therefore it would be wrong to blame Turkish society for "denying" the Armenians’ Meds Yeghern. You deny something when you know it is true, but you don’t want to openly accept it for other, mostly selfish, reasons. Most Turks don’t do that, because they genuinely believe there was no Armenian genocide, and whatever happened was some form of collective vendetta during the years of war and conflict.
What needs to be done in this whole debate is to help Turks understand the pain of the Armenians, and help the rest of the world understand the pain of Turks. There are two opposite narratives on both sides, and both sides need to take steps in order to discover the narrative that it does not know.
The Turkish narrative starts not in 1915, but 1878, when the Ottoman Empire lost a great deal of its Balkan territories to newly created nation-states such as Serbia and Bulgaria. These Russian-supported Slavic nations continued to push forward, and the empire continued to shrink gradually. The big loss came during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when the empire lots all of its Balkan territories except Eastern Thrace, which continues to be the western edge of modern Turkey.
In all these lost lands the Muslim population was subject to horrific campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Many were killed. Others fled to Turkey proper telling the horrible stories of the "Christian onslaught against the Muslims."
When Armenian nationalists started their agitations in order to terrorize the Empire and to force the intervention of Western powers, many Muslims perceived this as yet another repetition of a nightmare that they had seen before: The terror would continue until an independent Armenia could be formed and all Muslim populations ethnically cleansed. Fear was the main motivating factor in the "pre-emptive" expulsion and the massacres.
War and death
In his book on "The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922," historian Justin McCarthy says the following:
"In 1895 in Anatolia and in 1905 in the Caucasus, inter-communal warfare broke out. Prior to that time, Muslims and Armenians had supported either the Russian or the Ottoman Empires. Now the Muslims and Armenians had set about killing each other in their villages and cities. This war was not a thing of armies, but of peoples.
It had been building for almost a century, brought about by Russian invasion, Armenian nationalism, and Ottoman weakness. By 1910, the polarization that was soon to result in mutual disaster was probably inevitable. Blood had been shed and revenge was expected and desired.
Whatever their individual intentions, Muslims knew they were at risk from the Armenians, and Armenians knew they were at risk from the Muslims. Once World War I began, each side naturally assumed the worst of the other, and acted accordingly."
Let me note: This does not justify the Meds Yeghern. It just tells us that there is a Turkish side of the story, too. And the best way to make Turks more empathetic to the Armenian side of the story is to take theirs seriously as well.
Like every other April 23, last Thursday was Turkey’s National Sovereignty and Children's Day. There were celebrations throughout the whole country to honor this national holiday. The one in Istanbul’s Taksim Square was a bit ironic, though. There were thousands of children from various Istanbul schools who were in uniforms tailored for this special occasion. The uniforms were bright and eye-catching, but also as thin as T-shirts. And, unluckily, it was a very cold day. No wonder the teachers and the bureaucrats who overlooked them were wearing thick coats. "We are almost freezing," said a little girl to the cameras. "I wanna go home."
Fun or indoctrination?
This reminded me of my own April 23rds, way back in the 80s. Like every other elementary school student, I, too, was made to join the compulsory celebrations. Actually it was a national holiday, so our classes were off. But we were still instructed to come to school early in the morning to join the ceremonies. "Those who don’t show up will go to the discipline council," our teachers would threaten us. And that scary council was a place where they would give you all sorts of "punishments."
That’s why all kids would come to school on this "holiday" and line up in the schoolyard to listen to the never-ending talks by the director, the vice director, various teachers and a few students who were made to memorize poems that praised Atatürk, our heavenly father.
In fact, the praising of Atatürk was the main theme of the whole extravaganza. After the speeches, students would make choreographed dances around his posters. In stadiums, where bigger celebrations were held, they would line up in the steps with colorful boards to form slogans such as, "O Atatürk, we are on your path." And at the very end of the day, we would all thank the Supreme Leader for "giving us this children’s festival, the only one in the world."
The bizarre thing was, and still is, this: April 23 is defined as the "Children’s Festival," but it really is not designed to entertain children. If that were the main goal, the best thing to do would be to bring up clowns to hand out candy, and then head to a theme park. But, no, the festival is not about kids having fun. It is about them being indoctrinated. In fact, all "national festivals" of Turkey are designed to indoctrinate society with the official ideology and its underlying cult of personality. After April 23 comes May 19, the day of the "Remembrance of Atatürk, Sports and Youth." It is another must-see. This time high school students line up in schoolyards and stadiums to sing the praises of Atatürk. Muscled young men make acrobatic shows in order to show how "fit" the Turkish nation is. And young girls in almost-mini skirts march in parades in order to assert the "modern" identity the national father has blessed us with.
The two other national festivals are August 30, the day when Atatürk won the greatest battle during the War of Liberation, and October 29, the day when Atatürk announced the Republic. A fifth "national day" of sorts is November 10, the day that Atatürk regrettably died. At 9:05 a.m., the very moment that he passed away, sirens go off and citizens stand up in silence and tears to mourn for the loss of "the greatest Turk ever."
As you can see, all these "national days" are designed to venerate Atatürk. Special care is given to children and the youth because they are "the future of the regime," and it is clever to engineer their minds when they are still fresh. "A tree can bend only when it is young," reads a Turkish proverb, and the Turkish Republic seems to know that well.
It is impossible to miss the similarity here with the usual methods that totalitarian regimes use in order to brainwash their societies. Indeed, both visually and verbally, Turkey’s "national days" very much resemble the ones in Mao’s China or Kim Il Sung’s North Korea.
Leader or demigod?
In fact, there would be no harm in respecting and honoring Atatürk, who, indeed, was a great leader who served the nation. Democratic societies have their heroes, too. George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would be good examples in the United States. But none of those heroes are elevated to demigods. And none of them are depicted as the only source of wisdom that the nation needs. In Turkey that is exactly what is done. The respect Atatürk rightfully deserves is raised to the level of worship. This gives Kemalism, the ideology created in his name, an aura of sacredness. And it gives the Kemalists an inherent right to rule. That is what our "Children’s Day" is really all about.
Are you familiar with the strange notion in Turkey called "accreditation?" I am not sure what the term means in other countries, but here it refers to the military’s customary method to discriminate against certain segments of the media. The generals divide the newspapers and TV channels into two categories: the "accredited" and the "non-accredited." The latter are simply not allowed, let alone invited, to press conferences and other occasions of the military. Moreover, such media sources are literally banned from entering military zones. You simply cannot read or watch them in a military school or a barrack.
As you might guess, these "non-accredited" media sources are the ones which the generals see as ideologically misguided. Besides marginal ones such as the pro-PKK Gündem and the hard-core Islamist Vakit, even mainstream Islamic or conservative papers such as Yeni Şafak or Zaman are strictly banned. Zaman’s case is especially curious for that this newspaper, and its English-language off-shoot, Today’s Zaman, would be defined as moderate and sensible by most observers. The problem lies somewhere else, though, for the military: this paper is known to be associated with the Fethullah Gülen movement, Turkey’s largest Islamic community. The same movement would be defined as moderate and sensible by most observers, too. But according to Turkey’s draconian doctrine of secularism, being a religious movement of any sorts is enough in itself to be considered heretical.
In the US, this story would be paralleled only if the American military decided to "non-accredit" the Washington Times because of its connections with the Moon Church, or the Christian Science Monitor because of its roots in the Christian Science movement. Yet that is simply unthinkable.
In Turkey, many unthinkable things are the norm, though. In fact, the military not just "non-accredits" media sources such as Zaman, but also openly defines the faith communities behind them as "threats" to the country. For the taxpayers in these communities, the whole political system is one big irony: with the taxes they pay, they are financing the very institutions which lead a cold war against them.
Last month, a new and interesting episode was added to this long-seated policy of official discrimination. It happened on the top of a cold, snowy mountain, where a helicopter carrying the leader of the Grand Union Party (BBP) had crashed. The whole country held its breath for the rescue efforts, which, regrettably, would end without success. Besides rescue team, which included military helicopters, dozens of journalists hit the road to reach the insurmountable mountaintop. One of them was cameraman and reporter Lütfi Akyurt, who works for Cihan News Agency, which is connected to daily Zaman.
In his column in Today’s Zaman, Abdülhamid Bilici, Cihan’s director, explains the rest of the story as follows:
"By the time [Akyurt] finished his job at 3:30 p.m., not many people were left on the mountain. Standing at an altitude of 2,500 meters in freezing weather, a gendarmerie search and rescue team told Akyurt it was getting too cold and that they did not want to leave him there, so they offered to bring him down with their helicopter. As Akyurt prepared to get on the helicopter, a general asked him which news agency he worked for, and when Akyurt said Cihan they said they could not carry a civilian and did not allow him to board the helicopter. Akyurt kindly pointed out that the other reporter on the helicopter, a DHA (Doğan news agency) reporter, was also a civilian. But the gendarmerie refused to allow him to board the helicopter and left him on the top of the mountain. This was their response to a reporter who had covered their search and rescue efforts all day long."
End the discrimination
The weather conditions were getting so bad that Akyurt could have not survived. Luckily he did. And for a few weeks he kept silent about this story, which came out only last Wednesday. Bilici wrote about this in his column addressed to the Chief of Gen. Staff, General Başbuğ, and headlined with a question: "Pasha, Would You Rescue Me If I Was Stranded on a Mountain?" No reply has come from the military yet.
This is a deeply disturbing incident. It suggests that the discrimination against "backward-minded" (i.e., too religious) members of the media has reached the level of contempt. Interestingly, about ten days ago, Gen. Başbuğ had made a speech in which he criticized "the wrong view that the military is against religion," and then bashed those people who "propagate" this view. Well, perhaps it is also the military’s job to correct the "wrong view" by taking active steps to show that it does not have any bias against the more religious segments of society. Abandoning the discriminatory policy of "non-accreditation" would be a good first step.
It is always news in Turkey when generals speak. For when they speak, they always say important things. Not necessarily intelligent, but important. The speech given last week by Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ was remarkable because it was intelligent, too. Although I strongly disagreed with some of the points he raised, which I will address in a minute, if you kindly keep reading, I was positively surprised by a groundbreaking remark he made. He, in a quite unconventional way, proposed the concept of "the people of Turkey," instead of "the Turkish people."
The difference between the two is greater than it may sound. The former term, (Türkiye halkı) refers to a country. Accordingly, everybody who lives in Turkey, regardless of their ethnic identity, is a member of the "people of Turkey."
The latter term (Türk halkı), though, refers to an ethnic identity: our much-celebrated "Turkishness." Moreover, when nationalist speak about the "Turkish people," or its sister term, "Turkish nation" (Türk milleti), they refer to Turks or even Turkic peoples living outside of Turkey as well. This definition, as you might expect, doesn’t inspire other ethnic groups in Turkey such as the Kurds. In fact, I never heard a Kurd defining himself as a member of the "Turkish people." But quite a few them are happy to be part of the "people of Turkey."
One person who understood the importance of this nuance well was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founder, to whom Gen. Başbuğ referred in his speech. During the years of the War of Liberation (1919-22), when he needed the full support of all groups in the country, Mustafa Kemal generously embraced them by speaking about "the people of Turkey," which included "Turks, Kurds, Circassians, the LazÉ and all other components of Islam." But once the war was won, and the republic was established, this pluralist rhetoric rapidly waned, and the whole populace started to be defined as "the Turkish people." The goal was to assimilate all other "components" into the largest one, the Turks.
Although Gen. Başbuğ denied that assimilation has ever been the policy of the state, he seems to have inferred the necessary lesson: the right way is integration, not assimilation. He defined the former as the way to "accept the individual’s cultural identity, while uniting them under a common super-identity of citizenship." This would allow someone to say, "I am proud to be a Kurd, but also happy to be a Turkish citizen."
When Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan made a similar comment in 2005, he was bashed by the nationalists for "undermining the Turkish character of the nation." That’s why it is good to hear a similarly pluralist message from the chief of general staff. That will raise the standards of the discussion to a new level. It will be harder to depict pluralists as "separatist traitors." Who can be more patriotic, after all, than the very top general?
Yet as I said in the beginning, the top general also said things that I disagreed with. And this came when he spoke about the other headache the military has after the Kurdish issue: the role of religion in public life.
Here, Başbuğ did not sound embracive at all. He defined religious communities as social forces which "try to become economic powers, then try to shape the socio-political life, and assert their identities as a way of life based on religion." This all amounted to, according to the general, "exploitation of religion."
Well, and this whole idea amounts to illiberalism. In a liberal order, the religious communities should of course have the right to become a socio-political power with their distinct way of life. Secular circles would have the same right too. The society which is open to all these different political actors and their nonviolent ambitions is called the open society. And it is a very good thing.
'Not against religion'
The problem here is the utterly wrong conception of secularism in Turkey. It is understood not only as the secularity of the state, but also the society. Religion is allowed only in the private sphere. Hence comes the Turkish clich, "we are not against religion," which Gen. Başbuğ reiterated in his speech. But religion is not only a private matter, and people have the right to organize socially according to the values and dictates of their faith. That is why you have numerous churches, religious schools, charities, communities and networks in free countries. And this is a contribution, not a threat, to democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed almost two centuries ago in his magnum opus, "Democracy in America."
That is the example Turkey should follow vis-?-vis it much debated, and scapegoated, religious communities. And if the Turkish military is really willing to embrace the whole "people of Turkey," it should change its mind on not just Kurds but also the religious communities.
If you want to understand why the Halki Seminary, the main school of theology of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Istanbul, remains closed for decades despite international pressure, you might take a look at the writings of the 5th century theologian St. Augustine. Writing at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, St. Augustine was not just a church father but also a political thinker. In his magnum opus, the "City of God," he underlined a temptation that the "City of Man," i.e., the temporal order of the earthly rulers, often exhibits: "libido dominandi". The Latin term meant "lust for power."
The rulers who suffer from this, according to St. Augustine, would be in a never-ending desire to dominate, control and manipulate everything that they could. So, they would try to govern not only what was the Caesar’s, but also God’s. Of course lust for power can be exercised in the name of God, too. That’s is the hard lesson that St. Augustine did not dwell upon, but we moderns have learnt from centuries of painful experiences with theocratic rule. Yet when we became fully modern, our aversion to theocracy started to blind us to the danger coming from the secular version of libido dominandi. These days, those who are obsessed with the exaggerated fear that Turkey is being "Islamized," and then see the country’s freedom deficit as a result of this perceived tendency, are in that exact error. They don’t understand that the main obstacle to freedom and democracy in this country is the libido dominandi of its much-praised secular republic.
The story of the Halki Seminary, which is on the off-shore Istanbul island of Heybeliada (Halki), is the perfect case study to get this matter right. Do you know who, in the first place, allowed the founding of this important center of Greek Orthodox learning? Secular authorities? No. It was the proudly Islamic Ottoman Empire, under whose auspices the seminary was opened in 1844. Yet more than a century later the might of the secular Turkish Republic would step in. The fateful year was 1971. It was also the year of a "soft" military coup, during which the military forced the democratically elected center-right government to resign and then formed a "technocratic government" that would obediently bow to the will of the generals. The military also started a witch-hunt against political dissidents, and forced the parliament to curb some of the civil liberties that were introduced in the 1961 constitution.
One such measure aimed at disciplining the society was to nationalize and monopolize all forms of education. All colleges of "foreign origin," which were opened during the Ottoman times, were converted into Turkish institutions. The university section of Robert College, which was founded in 1863 as the oldest American high school outside the borders of the United States, was turned into Boğaziçi University.
The basic idea was that the state had to control all education in order to raise "properly guided" (i.e., single-handedly indoctrinated) generations. The Halki Seminary fell victim to this general wave of nationalization. Interestingly it was the all-secular CHP (People’s Republican Party), which put the first nail on the coffin. As it is today, the CHP was in an ideological alliance with the Constitutional Court, one of main guardians of the official Kemalist creed. So, the CHP took the case of the seminary to the Constitutional Court, and the latter decided upon its closure. Halki's Board of Trustees refused to accept the suggested alternative, which was to become part of the University of Istanbul. In short, the seminary’s closure had nothing to do with religious conservatism. It had everything to with secular nationalism.
To date, the scene has not changed. Those who oppose the seminary’s reopening are nationalists, not Islamists. They have two main arguments: the first and more nationalist one is their principle of "reciprocity" between Turkey and Greece. The Muslim Turkish minority in Greece is not fully free either, they say, so we should not give our Greek citizens more than what our kinsmen get on the other side of the border. Well, shame on Greece for its own illiberalism. It does not justify ours. And the Turkish citizens of the Greek Orthodox persuasion are our citizens, for God’s sake, not the fifth column of someone else. The second argument against the seminary’s reopening is a direct product of Turkey’s bizarre conception of secularism. Its proponents simply don’t want to allow any form of religious education. The CHP’s second man, Onur Öymen, put this frankly a few years ago.
"If we allow the Halki Seminary," he said, "then we will have to allow Muslim schools, too." That is perhaps why conservative and Islamic circles often tend to be more sympathetic to the reopening of the banned institution. They, after all, know well that there is a problem with the state’s fervent libido dominandi.
The boldest headline that President Obama’s visit to Turkey gave the world media was a simple reaffirmation. "The U.S is not and will never be," he said, "at war with Islam." For many Muslims, it was good to hear this because they had really started to suspect that there was a "war on Islam" launched by the American government. In fact, no significant U.S. official had ever said anything close to that. Some of the policies of the Bush administration, from the Iraq War to Guantanamo to "rendition" created doubts and fears. Moreover, some Republican pundits and ideologues, which people perceived as the real mind of the Bush team, engaged in fear mongering about Islam. All these, at the very least, left a bad taste in the mouths of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.
Interestingly, this was precisely what al-Qaeda was hoping for when it planned its deadly 9/11 attack on America. According to Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein, who spent time with al-Qaeda members in a prison cell, the terrorist group’s master plan was based on provoking the United States against the Muslim world. Hussein writes, then "the Islamic nation," which was "in a state of hibernation," would "awake" and unite under the banner of Osama bin Laden and his fellow jihadists.
That’s why Obama’s election, and the reconciliatory tone he has used since his inauguration, has been the best remedy to al-Qaeda’s agitation. He apparently understands that the best way to "fight terror" is to marginalize the terrorists by winning the masses that they want to take to their side. That’s why he was wise to proclaim "no war with Islam" and to call on the radical actors of the Middle East to "unclench their fists." To make a small contribution to his effort, let me say something else: It is good that America is at not war with Islam because the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims are not at war with America, either.
In fact, the values that the U.S is built upon are appreciated by most Muslims who have a chance to learn about them. Take religious freedom. Most Muslims living in America appreciate that they have the full liberty to live according to demands of their faith. They have the right to not just to religious practice but also to creating institutions such as mosques, community centers and religious schools. Meanwhile, such liberties are hardly found in "the Islamic world," in which you are almost always restricted by an official doctrine that is imposed on society. In Europe, basic civil liberties exist, of course, but almost none of the European nations are as welcoming as the Americans to cultural diversity. That’s one reason Muslims in America are much better integrated than the ones in Europe. In other words, what the U.S is hardly comes across as a problem to most Muslims. Problems rather arise from what the U.S does. Or, in other words, from its foreign policy. Yet there is no black-and-white in this matter, either. If you go to the Balkans, especially to Bosnia and Kosovo, you will actually find a quite sympathetic attitude toward America. The reason is obvious: America helped halting the Serbian onslaught that the Bosnians and Kosovars faced during the ’90s. For them, American power implies peace and security.
The core of the problem:
Yet things radically shift when you look at the Middle East. The main reason, as anybody from that region would tell you, is America’s unilateral support to Israel. But please get this right. The problem is not America’s support to Israel’s right to exist. (I am a supporter of that, too.) The problem is America’s (at least perceived) support for Israel’s defiance of Palestine’s right to exist. Since the war of 1967, Israelis are continuously creating "facts on the ground," i.e., illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian territories, and Washington hardly does anything substantive to stop this ongoing and expanding occupation. This only compels the Palestinians to resist by all means necessary, including, regrettably, terrorism. And when Israel hits back on the "terrorists," who often include tragic numbers of women and children, America, too, gets the blame for the bloodshed. This is really the most acute problem that makes Muslims distrustful, and sometimes spiteful, of America. Add to this the support that successive American administrations have given to dictators in the Middle East, and you will see why the perception of the U.S. in the region is so negative. The good news is that since foreign policy is the root of the problem, it can also be the way to solution. Foreign policy can be changed. And that’s why the "change" that Obama has promised, and seems committed to bring, matters a lot.
The trip to Turkey by President Barack Ğ Hussein Ğ Obama, as people loved to emphasize here, was a big success. Except for a few hundred "anti-imperialist," lefty protestors who hit the streets chanting, "Yankee go home," most Turks welcomed him calmly and some even fondly. Some nationalists, including Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, leader Devlet Bahçeli, didn’t like what he said about Turkish-Armenian relations Ğ or rather the lack thereof. But that’s quite normal. The Armenian lobby in the United States, which is no fan of Turkey, didn’t like the way he handled that issue either. The disapproval of extremists on both sides of a question is often the indicator of a fair position.
Personally speaking, I very much liked Obama’s messages. The steps he suggested that Turkey take were completely reasonable. Of course, we need to introduce further reforms to honor the rights of our Kurdish citizens and religious minorities. To be sure, the Halki Seminary, unwisely closed by the Turkish authorities in 1971, needs to be reopened. This is all Democracy 101.
Enter ’secular democracy’
Democracy 102, if you will, was hidden in Mr. Obama’s semantics. In the speech he delivered at the Turkish Parliament, for example, he used a term that we Turks should well note: "secular democracy." This came as he was speaking about the heritage of Atatürk, the country’s founder. "His greatest legacy is Turkey's strong and secular democracy," Obama said. "And that is the work that this assembly carries on today."
While it may not seem like rocket science, that formulation is actually quite brilliant. Because the term, "secular democracy" is not common in Turkey’s political language. We generally, rather, use two different terms: "Secular republic" (laik cumhuriyet) and "democracy" (demokrasi). And these two are sometimes seen as alternatives to each other. Military coups are made, and justified, in the name of the secular republic. And democracy is often loathed by the latter’s zealous defenders as a counter-revolution to theirs. But what is good in a secular republic if is not democratic? The Soviet Union, for example, was a secular republic, but it really was not the place you would want to live in if you have an aspiration for things like civil liberties. The same can be said for North Korea, Red China or Saddam’s Iraq. They all had official ideologies (Kim Il Sungism, Maoism, and Baathism, respectively) that were as secular as they could be. And they all defined themselves as republics. Are you impressed?
What is much better, of course, is to have a democratic ideal, not an official ideology, as the basis of a state. And secularity is only meaningful if it serves this democratic ideal. What secularity does in that context is to save the state, and thus the society, from the dominance of a religious doctrine. But if secularity becomes a doctrine in itself, which aims at suppressing or manipulating religion, then it becomes a threat to the democratic ideal. That is exactly what has happened in Turkey, and that’s why we Turks need to re-understand secularity ("laiklik" as we call it) in a democratic, not autocratic, way.
Obama’s speech not only included a semantic eye-opener in this respect. It also implied that Turkey’s secular state does not have to clash with, and should not blind us from, the Muslim identity of a large portion of its people. Nine times in his speech he referred to Islam and Muslims. And he gave messages that went to not only the Turks but the whole Muslim world: "The U.S. is not, and will never be," he said, "at war with Islam." There is a reason why he said that not in London or Prague, but in Ankara.
The American president also disagreed with those fear-mongering pundits who constantly pump out the idea that Turkey is "turning its face to the East" under its current government. "I know there are those who like to debate Turkey's future," Obama noted, "they wonder whether you will be pulled in one direction or another." And he explained why they were wrong: "Here is what they don't understand: Turkey's greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide Ğ it is where they come together. In the beauty of your culture. In the richness of your history. In the strength of your democracy."
Absolutely. The mistake of those "debaters" is to force Turkey to fit into a single identity that they pick and choose. They tend to define it only as a Western ally, a NATO member and a secular republic. This is all true, and very good, but there is more. Turkey is also the heir of the Ottoman Empire, a leading member of the family of predominantly Muslim nations, and the testing ground for the synthesis of Islam and democracy. That is what makes her special. That is what gives her a meaning that goes way beyond its borders. Obviously the American president gets that right. Perhaps it is time for Turks to get it, too.
Dear Mr. President, The last time I saw you, you were in Manassas, Virginia, talking to a crowd of almost 100,000 people, including my humble self. It was the very last night of your election campaign, which promised a change that the whole world could believe in. Luckily, you won the elections, and thus strengthened the hopes of not only millions of Americans but also billions of others from the four corners of the world. The latter includes many Turks, too. As indicated by a recent survey (by the Infakto Research Workshop), you are now the most popular foreign leader in the eyes of the Turkish people. In this highly skeptical nation, that is really a very hard reputation to get.
Turkey and Hamas
That is one of the reasons why I will be happy to see you in my country this Monday. I hope your visit will transform the image of the U.S for the better. Because, as you might have guessed, that image has been severely damaged in the past eight years. The military adventure that you wisely opposed from the beginning, the Iraq War, made most Turks quite disturbed with, and even provoked against, America.
The ongoing plight and tragedy of the Palestinian people, as you would know, also matters much. And while it is mostly related with Israel, it affects not just the image of the Jewish State, but also the whole Western world, and particularly the United States. A recent poll has shown that the attitude toward the West worsened dramatically during the recent Gaza War, in which 1,300 Palestinians were killed. If you can’t help bring some "change" on the Arab-Israeli conflict, this part of the word will not really change that much. But how? I have just read that a group of American foreign policy experts, wise people like former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, have concluded a "Bipartisan Statement on U.S.-Middle East Peacemaking." They call for intense American mediation for a two-state solution, and "a more pragmatic approach toward Hamas." Their latter idea includes bold suggestions such as the following:
"Shift the U.S. objective from ousting Hamas to modifying its behavior, offer it inducements that will enable its more moderate elements to prevail, and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might test its behavior." This is interesting, because Turkey’s foreign policy makers, especially the prime minister’s chief foreign policy adviser, Dr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, have been saying these things all along. Indeed, Turkey itself has been acting as a "third party" that engages with Hamas in order to pull it to a more moderate line.
The previous administration in Washington didn’t like this effort very much, because it was rather focused on "isolating" the groups or countries that it disapproved. Since you are much more willing to engage in dialogue, I believe you can use the help of "third parties" such as Turkey to reach out to actors like Hamas, Syria, and Iran. Even in Afghanistan, Turks have a much better image than other NATO members. What makes Turkey so unique is obvious: It is a predominantly Muslim country having strong ties with other Muslim nations. It is, of course, a Western ally and a secular democracy, too. The combination of these two paradigms is very powerful.
Your advisers might have told you that there is a risk in articulating this fact: Some Turks actually don’t like to hear anything from Americans, or from anybody actually, about the Muslim identity of their country. They believe in a bizarre version of secularism, in which the secularity of the state is expected to define the nation as well. You can either dismiss their paranoia, or, perhaps, help them understand that the secular state does not need to create the society, and the individuals, in its image.
Ah, before I forget, here is a final note on the way we deal with the Armenian tragedy of 1915. I know that you see those events from a different perspective than most Turks, and I respect your willingness to stand by the truth. But please also note that an imposed truth is hardly appreciated, and when political figures make strong comments about what happened a century ago, it is perceived here as an imposition. It also blocks the rapprochement that we need to have with our Armenian neighbors Ğ something our President recently, and wisely, initiated. Finally, let me extend my best wishes for your time in my country. Enjoy the people, the place and the food. And, if you can, spare more time to Istanbul than Ankara. The two are really incomparable.
During Turkey’s "post-modern coup" of 1997, one of the powerful generals, Çevik Bir, said something remarkable. "What we are doing," he pompously argued, "is to do some fine-tuning to democracy." One of his colleagues, Gen. İsmail Hakkı Karadayı, is also reported to have explained the need for this military intervention in politics. "The problem," he said, "is that the people in this country are ignorant." The case for the same "fine-tuning" in the face of a dumb society was championed again, more recently, because of the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Some pundits have been telling us that the AKP was "fooling the unwashed masses" by either "exploiting religion" or bribing them with welfare campaigns. Democracy was "luxurious" for Turkey, according to this line of thinking, because society was simply not mature enough to make sensible choices.
I think that argument was refuted, for the umpteenth time, in the local elections of last Sunday. The decline in the votes of the incumbent AKP, a remarkable 7 percent, indicated that the electorate is neither foolish nor blind.
The reasons for that decline are hotly debated in the Turkish media these days. Some pundits argue that the secularists’ fear that the country is being Islamized manifested itself in the polls. (While I find that fear often paranoid, I believe the fear itself is a fact that deserves attention.) Others think that the economic crisis, and the unimpressive way the government has handled it, played a big role. The prime minister’s unnecessary war of words with the media, and his chronic problem with anger management, is also shown as a factor. Others point out that the AKP’s rhetoric on the Kurdish question has retreated from its previously more liberal line, and hence the Kurdish electorate moved away from the party.
I believe there is truth in all of these, and they underline what I just have said: People are not dumb, and they judge the government according to pretty rational criteria. Whenever we need a "fine-tuning" in politics, in other words, the only thing we need to do is run to the ballot box. Nothing can humble a prime minister more than a decrease in his votes. That was what I observed in Prime Minister Erdoğan on Sunday night, when he promised to "take a lesson" from the election results.
Having said that, let me also note that the AKP’s decline is not a downfall at all. Some exaggerated comments, and perhaps wishful thinking, are presenting that case in the media these days. People are speaking about "the beginning of the end" and even defining the elections as a "Stalingrad" for Erdoğan’s party. That is of course a possibility, and the AKP might indeed go down that road if it does not take lessons and shape up. But the party’s current support is still strong and should be considered as success. Thirty-nine percent of the votes is a remarkable mandate in Turkish politics. Many of the previous governments came to power with much smaller margins. Moreover, whether you like the AKP or not, you have to see that it is still the only party that promises a solid future for Turkey. If the AKP declines too much, three years from now, we will probably find ourselves in yet another era of coalitions, which have always been bad.
Imagine a coalition with the AKP, and, say, the MHP, the Nationalist Movement Party. Many of the EU reforms, which are not going terribly swift anyway, would be stalled because of MHP’s ideological "red lines" on "Turkishness." That’s why most foreign observers think that the best option for Turkey is still the AKP, but its tendencies to become arrogant and domineering must be checked. And that check is exactly what the voters brought to the table last Sunday.
The case in Şanlıurfa, especially, is very revealing. The city used to have a very successful and popular mayor, Ahmet Eşref Fakıbaba, who had ran on the AKP ticket in 2004. But a little while before the recent elections, other AKP grandees in the city disputed with Fakıbaba. They soon convinced Erdoğan that they didn’t need him, and anybody that the AKP will show as its candidate would win. "Even if we show an jacket (without a person inside!) as a candidate," one of them famously said, "we will win."
Yet look what happened: The abandoned Fakıbaba decided to run as an independent candidate. And he won the elections with an amazing 44 percent of the votes. It was a perfect response of the Şanlıurfa people to the arrogant tone of the AKP, which took them for granted.
That is the biggest lesson of Sunday’s elections: Nobody should take the people for granted, and nobody should assume that they are fools. The real fools are those who insist on making these mistakes.
In the heydays of Turkey’s first "post-modern coup," the "Feb. 28 process" of 1997, the then chief-of-staff Gen. İsmail Hakkı Karadayı uttered a revealing sentence. "If necessary," he proudly said, "this process will go on for a thousand years." That idea of a militarist dictatorship that would last for a millennium reminded me, at times, of the Nazi’s Third Reich, which was, again, supposed to last for a thousand years. To be sure, the Turkish reich would have been much softer than the German one. Its ethnocentric nationalism would never go as insane as the Nazi’s biological racism. Its extrajudicial murders and killing fields would be nothing when compared to the latter’s gas chambers. And the limited war it could possibly have launched against Iraqi Kurdistan would be utterly minuscule when compared to World War II.
Yet still there was a notable similarity in the regime that the Turkish militarists envisioned and the one the German Nazis realized: totalitarianism. Students of political science know that totalitarianism is a unique phenomenon, and it is different from the more common alternative to democracy, i.e., authoritarianism. Authoritarian regimes simply suppress the society by using crude power. But the totalitarian ones go beyond this; they not just suppress, but also transform and "re-educate." An authoritarian regime would do just fine with draconian laws and powerful guns. But a totalitarian regime also needs means of mass propaganda and social engineering in order to create the New Man.
I personally experienced a glimpse of this "re-education" during my days in the Turkish army. In the summer of 2000, I spent four weeks in a land forces barracks in Samsun, as a part of the compulsory military service. I was just expecting to dodge a few bullets, and wash countless numbers of dishes, which I both did. But there was also an unexpected and quite revealing experience. At the end of the second week, the general who overlooked the whole military base in the city, Osman Doğu Silahçıoğlu, gave a "conference" to us, the soldiers in uniform. To a packed hall of at least a thousand privates, he made a four-hour-long Power Point presentation.
The content of the speech was simply amazing: Gen. Silahçıoğlu started by telling how such a big conspiracy was the Ottoman Empire against "Turkishness." The Ottoman Sultans, according to him, were ethnically impure cosmopolitans who looked down upon the authentic Turks of Central Anatolia. Then he moved on to argue that the real root of the problem was Islam. After presenting some apparent contradictions in the Koran, he argued that it was "a product of Muhammad, an Arab" who allegedly wanted to "Arabize" other nations in order to deprive them from their "national soul." After other negative comments about "Muhammad’s religion," there came the positive stuff: The motivated general started to praise Shamanism, the ancient faith of the pre-Islamic Turks, as a very open-minded, "modern" and rational creed. At the very end, he even made us take an oath, which included clearly Shamanistic themes and compelled us to sacrifice ourselves to "Turkishness."
I must admit that it was one the most eye-opening experiences I ever had in this country. Anyway, the Islam-bashing and Shamanism-praising Gen. Silahçıoğlu soon retired and started to write for daily Cumhuriyet, the bastion of secular nationalism. In a column dated Feb. 3, 2008, he had an interesting suggestion:
"The supporters of the Atatürk Republic should take all the necessary measures in order to stay in power until a new generation is raised." Raising a new generation? With the extravagant ideas that Gen. Silahçıoğlu generously shared with people under his command? Now, this made even more sense to me, when I read a particular sentence by one of the several coup-craving generals in the second Ergenekon indictment. "We need to come and stay [in power] for 10 to 15 years," that general apparently said, "and put things in order."
Of course, this dream did not turn into reality. Due to various factors, such as democrat generals who resisted this plan, the lack of support from outside world, and the level of development the society has achieved, the coup plans failed. That’s why some (and probably not all) of the coup-plotters are facing justice now in the Ergenekon trial.
Against wrong ideas
Yet if things had worked fine for them, the "10 to 15 year long" regime that they would establish to "put things in order" and perhaps to "raise a new generation" would be nothing shorter than totalitarian. Its aspiration for "a thousand years," like that of the Nazis, would be limited to rhetoric, but the way it would try to shape the mind of the society would be similarly ambitious. Political opposition would be wiped, civil society would be crushed, and those who mislead the public with the "wrong ideas" would be silenced. I, personally speaking, probably would not be around to write what I have been writing.
This is really what we seem to have survived from. Thank God.
Have you been following the recent "excavations" in southeastern Turkey? They are horrifying. Things started about 10 days ago, when the police unearthed a curious a piece of skull, burned clothing, a glove and various pieces of bone near BOTAŞ, the state-owned Turkish Pipeline Company. The research continued and soon 20 suspected human bones were discovered close to a village near Cizre. Moreover, a shocking confession came from Abdülkadir Aygan, a former Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, member who later joined security forces and finally settled in Sweden as a "victim of war."
"During the ’90s," Aygan said to the press, "many people were burnt in acid wells and then were buried underground." The bones that were just found are now thought to be the remnants of those real victims of war.
’Counter-terrorism’ via terror
For those who know the ugly truth behind Turkey’s "counter-terrorism" campaign, this is not a big surprise. The climax of that campaign was during the ’90s, when the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a truly terrorist group, raised its ongoing insurgency to the level of civil war. In response, Turkish security forces not only carried out massive raids in the country’s mountainous Southeast and even in northern Iraq, but they also decided to deal with the "support base" of the PKK. And horrible human rights abuses came from the latter decision.
What really happened was that the security forces started to kill anybody who was suspected to be a PKK supporter. "A list of Kurdish businessmen who financed the PKK was prepared," says Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a lawyer, writer and human rights activist. "Then these people were shot one by one, in the middle a street, or near a highway." Yet most of these poor victims had no option other than financing the PKK: The organization had threatened to kill them and their families had they not supported the Kurdish "national cause." They were simply trapped between two warring parties.
In late ’90s, the Turkish Parliament established a commission to investigate these "unsolved murders." A staggering figure of 17,500 came out as the death toll. These victims included Kurdish businessmen, intellectuals, journalists, activists or simply peasants who made the mistake of giving food and shelter to PKK guerillas when they came to their villages and asked for it. (Had they said no, they then probably would have been killed by the guerillas.) The organization, which is believed to responsible for these extra-judicial killings, is the notorious and murky JİTEM, or the Gendarme Intelligence Organization. The funny thing about JİTEM is that the Turkish military categorically denies that it ever existed. But everybody in the Southeast talks about JİTEM and how its officers killed this or that person.
"They would often shoot someone in the head," notes Cengiz, "and then call his family or relatives to say, ’Your corpse is on that street, go and take it.’" But apparently they used various techniques for execution, Cengiz adds, and the acid wells and the killing fields might be one such atypical method. Killing 17,500 people one by one demands a lot of hard and, sometimes, "creative" work. This was all known in the ’90s, and Parliament’s Unsolved Murders Commission learned that the head of JİTEM was a certain general named Veli Küçük. So, Küçük was invited to testify to Parliament, yet he never bothered to even give an answer. And that was it! Nothing happened. The generals are (or at least they used to be) the highest power brokers in this country, and they have been simply untouchable. But, as you know, thing started to change in the 2000s, and the power of the civil authorities began to grow. That’s why Küçük is now in prison as a crucial suspect in the Ergenekon trial.
Why Ergenekon is crucial
In fact, we have been able to disclose the killing fields thanks to this trial, too. One of the secret witnesses in the Ergenekon investigation told the prosecutors about the story and the location of these wicked places, and that’s how the excavations started. After the discoveries, a colonel, named in the press now only as "C.T.," and who used to be the head of the gendarme forces in Cizre between 1993 and 1996, was arrested. In his confessions, PKK informant Abdülkadir Aygan describes this colonel and his team as follows:
"They really terrorized the people in that area. They threw some people into acid wells simply for being suspected to support to PKK or even having a brother in the mountains. É They also threatened people in order to take their money. Once they dressed up as PKK militants, stopped a bus on the road between Cizre and İdil, and took all the women’s golden bracelets and necklaces."
It sounds pretty awful, right? Well, this is just a glimpse of the way business used to be done in the old Turkey, in which men in uniform were not accountable to anybody. But things are changing, and those who created the killings field or conspired ,m military coups are facing justice for the first time. That’s why the Ergenekon trial is crucial, and that’s why there are so many people around who are doing everything they can to make it fail.
I just listened to the remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama in celebration of Nevruz, the Middle Eastern holiday of spring. And I really liked what I heard.
Nevruz is celebrated by quite a few people in this part of the world, but it is first and foremost a Persian tradition.
The Iranians, whose civilization is truly deep-rooted and well-established, started to celebrate this festival of the "New Day" at least 2,000 years ago and they have defined its meaning and content.
A troubled feastIn Turkey, Nevruz used to be a mainly a Kurdish tradition. No wonder in the 80's, as a Turk growing up in Ankara, the citadel of Turkishness, I had heard nothing about it. Yet toward the 90's Nevruz started to make the headlines, because its celebrations, at which Kurdish youngsters jumped over burning tires, turned into a manifestation of Kurdish identity.
In the face of that, Ankara chose do what it knows best: banning. Finally, in the mid-90's, a "reform" came about and it was declared that the previously outlawed holiday was actually "a well-established Turkic tradition" which we should all honor. Then I saw bureaucrats and ministers jumping on fires in order to celebrate this "national" holiday.