Looking at Turkey from the outside can be a baffling exercise for anyone used to the usual political categories of the West. At first sight, everything seems to fit neatly into place. There is a sort of Islamic party in government. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a conservative neoliberal party.
Not surprisingly, it does many of the things a democratic European mind would find unacceptable. Kurds, journalists and lawyers are frequently jailed; the deaths of 34 innocent Kurds bombed by the Turkish Air Force go unpunished; the murderers of an Armenian newspaper editor killed six years ago remain at large except for the actual hit-man/fall-guy; journalists critical of the government tend to get sacked by newspaper bosses wishing to stay on good terms with prime minister Erdogan; national and family values are constantly harped on, with Erdogan himself urging women to have a minimum of three children and expressing his desire to curb the country’s liberal abortion laws.
Then there is an opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which claims to be social democratic. It draws a dark picture of the country and argues that everything is getting worse, with the “enlightened” Western values of the republic daily being eroded. In the first few years of the AKP government, from 2002 on, the opposition’s single line of argument appeared to be that the country was being dragged back into the “Islamic darkness of the Middle Ages”.
The “social democratic” CHP gets most of its support, around 20 to 25 percent, from the upper middle class in the wealthier coastal areas of the country and the richer districts of the big cities. The party’s fear and dislike of anything vaguely Islamic are shared by this Westernised, educated, well-dressed section of the population. Much of the rest of the population, around 50 percent at the last general election in 2011, supports the AKP, which has won three elections on the trot, increasing its share of the vote each time.
There is also the military, traditionally an integral part of any discussion of Turkish politics. We now know that throughout the AKP years, particularly in the period 2002 to 2007, many plans were hatched for a military takeover and much clandestine work was done to create the conditions in which a military coup would be welcomed by the population at large.
A state against the people
This is the AKP’s eleventh year in power. One would expect, then, to see an increasingly Islamicised country, with the middle class’s fears of being forced into veils and deprived of alcohol realised, and all democratic freedoms curbed. In fact, none of these have happened, and certain other things have happened which one would only expect under a left social democratic government. Things are much more complicated than might appear to the careless Western journalist.
We need first to understand what the AKP’s rise to power represents. Modern Turkey was founded upon the ruins of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious Ottoman Empire. It was founded, however, as a Turkish-Sunni Muslim-secular nation-state. The founding cadres, led by Kemal Ataturk, had a clear vision of what a modern state would look like. It would be ethnically pure, made up of Muslim Turks; it would be secular, which meant that religion would be frowned upon; and it would be “civilised”, meaning Western.
There were several problems with this. First, the population were not all Turkish. Something like a fifth were Kurds, and there were many other ethnic groups in smaller numbers.
Second, not all were Muslims. There were large numbers of Armenians (even after the late-Ottoman genocide of more than a million Armenians), Greeks and Jews, as well as smaller communities of Assyrians and others. Third, a large part of the Muslim population were Alawites (similar to Iran’s Shiites) and not Sunni Muslims. Finally, even the Sunni Muslim Turkish majority did not fit the Kemalist state’s picture of a “modern” population. It was too religious and too “Eastern”.
The legacy of Ataturk
With Ataturk as effective dictator, a one-party state proceeded to mould the population to its own design. The Kurds, being Muslim, could be assimilated and “Turkified”, it was thought. Their existence was thus denied, theories were developed to prove that they were “mountain-Turks”, their language was banned and any resistance to assimilation was put down ruthlessly. The non-Turkish, non-Muslim minorities had to be forced to leave. Policies were implemented to ensure that they did. A population exchange with Greece got rid of 1.2 million Greeks, a wealth tax was levied on non-Muslims in 1942, property owned by churches and synagogues was confiscated, and pogroms were organised by the secret services in 1934 and 1955. These and similar policies were successful – there are only tiny communities of non-Muslims left in Turkey today.
In 1938 a small Alawite uprising was put down by extreme military force, with 13,000 civilians killed and 12,000 sent into internal exile. Alawite places of worship were not recognised by the state, and mosques (which have no place in the Alawite faith) were constantly built in Alawite villages. It is worth underlining that all this was done not by any kind of Islamic state, but by a “modernising”, militantly secular, nationalist regime.
The Sunni Muslim Turkish majority were also given a hard time by the Kemalist state. Laws were passed banning the traditional headgear (the fez), changing the alphabet (from the Arabic to the Latin) and the calendar, and even the traditional Turkish musical instrument was banned on state radio for a time! Opposition to this enforced Westernisation was costly.
Most importantly, a largely peasant and largely religious population were excluded from political and public life and they were looked down upon and patronised by an urban elite around the Kemalist bureacracy.
No woman wearing a headscarf and no man wearing the typical believer’s beard or peasant-looking clothes was ever allowed anywhere near the levers of power. While this was always an unspoken rule, there were even times when it was written into law – the headscarf was forbidden in the public domain, and women wearing it could not work in the public sector or attend school and university until recently. And this in a country where well over half of women have always covered their heads in one way or another.
Democracy and the military
A state which is at odds with practically all of its citizens, because they are non-Turkish or non-Muslim or non-Sunni or too Muslim, can only sustain itself through a powerful repressive apparatus and no democracy. At the pinnacle of this apparatus always stood the military, guardians of the “modern, secular, Ataturk-nationalist” republic, described as such by the first three articles of the constitution. The fourth article says that the first three cannot be amended and that it cannot be proposed that they be amended!
The first democratic national elections in Turkey were held in 1950. A large majority voted against the CHP, then as now seen as the party of the Kemalist state and voice of the military. The party which came to power was overthrown ten years later by a military coup.
This was a pattern frequently repeated thereafter, in 1971, 1980 and 1997. People vote in the party not supported by the state, the military overthrow it, tighten up the constitution to avoid a repeat, and call new elections.
In 1996 the election of an openly Islamic party for the first time got the usual wheels turning. The military issued a memorandum and the government was overthrown in 1997. However, a breakaway from it, the AKP, came to power in 2002. Now, the chiefs of staff realised they would have to do more than simply issue a memorandum. They did a number of things.
They went on a propaganda offensive against the government, using fair means and foul, to make people believe that the AKP would turn Turkey into an Iran-style, repressive Islamic country.
They used a variety of civilian organisations to mobilise the middle classes scared by the “Islam is coming!” propaganda. Mass demonstrations were organised which resembled seas of Turkish flags and pictures of Ataturk. These were clearly designed to create the popular basis for a military coup.
They organised a wide-ranging and clandestine network of military personnel and committed civilians which carried out murders and bombings. Murders of a prominent Armenian editor and Protestant missionaries could be blamed on “Islamists”, and the generally chaotic atmosphere caused by them could be used to legitimise a military takeover.
The military finally also used its influence among the judiciary to start a legal case for closing down the AKP and, later in 2007, to prevent an AKP member from becoming president.
The AKP stood its ground on the presidency. A general election was held three months later, and the AKP’s vote went up from 34 percent to 43 percent. People were obviously happy to see their government standing up to the military.
A series of court cases were launched, clearly with government backing, which put a large number of generals and other officers, as well as their civilian backers, into prison for plotting to overthrow the government and countless other “black operations”. We know the accusations are true, as a result of diaries (one by the Chief of Staff of the Navy in 2002-2003) and military documents leaked once the atmosphere in the country turned against the military. One should never say “never again”, but a military takeover would be very difficult now, and the government has largely succeeded in pushing the military out of the country’s politics.
Erdogan and his party are conservative and religious. They are also nationalists, though this is somewhat tempered by their religious beliefs. They are, by background and inclination, neither radical nor reforming. Upon coming to power, had they been left to rule in peace they would have been no different from any European Christian Democrat party.
Proof of this is that Turkish capital has been very pleased with the AKP all along. This is a party of big business and has served its interests without fail. The complete neo-liberal economic programme has been implemented unflinchingly and, through a series of lucky breaks, the Turkish economy has so far avoided the ravages of the world crisis. While the economy slowed down last year and is expected to do so again this year, Turkey enjoyed the world’s second highest rate of growth, after China, in previous years. But the AKP was not left to rule in peace. As the Kemalist state with its military and its bureaucracy attempted to overthrow it, the government was forced to defend itself, talk about democracy, mobilise its popular base and seek new alliances. It was forced to behave almost like a government of reform.
The struggle between the state and the government, hard to imagine in a Western European context, opened all sorts of cracks in the edifice of an oppressive state and its official ideology. Oppressed groups of all types found it possible to push through the cracks. The genie was out of the bottle. The past ten years have seen issues come onto the political agenda which it would have been unthinkable even to mention in the previous 80 years of the republic: recognition of the Armenian genocide, the return of confiscated Greek, Jewish and Armenian properties, the trial of military personnel by civilian courts, the preparation of a new constitution with its first three “unchangeable” articles changed, and much more.
The Kurdish question
Chief among the breathtaking changes of the past decade is the move towards the resolution of the Kurdish question. As with all the changes, this is not something gifted to us by the AKP’s reforming zeal or love of equality, but a result of 30 years of struggle by the Kurdish movement, both political and armed. The Turkish establishment realised long ago that there could be no military solution to the Kurdish problem. But recognition of the Kurds and their acceptance as equal citizens could not be pushed past a recalcitrant nationalist state apparatus. No government could risk doing so without facing the wrath of the military.
Having taken the upper hand against the military, this government could. And in doing so it has enjoyed the support both of big business and of a population tired of a war which has claimed at least 40,000 lives. Talks have been carried out with the PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah öcalan, who until this year was routinely referred to as the “murderer of babies” and “terrorist in chief”. It seems almost certain that the Kurds’ main demands – recognition of their national identity, equal citizenship, education in their mother tongue, stronger local government, removal of the emphasis on “Turkishness” from the constitution – are going to be met as part of a peace deal.
Opposition to this, as to other changes, comes from the “social democratic” CHP and parts of the left! Whatever terms their opposition is couched in, it arises in essence from Kemalist nationalism. Such opposition has no chance of success. On the contrary, it has eroded any support social democracy and the left used to enjoy, with all opinion polls now putting the AKP above 50 percent.
It is precisely because he is seen to be taking on Kemalism and the state that Erdogan is popular. Building an opposition on the left must involve support for the AKP’s peace initiative and its policies on the military, while at the same time fighting its neo-liberalism, conservatism and imperial ambitions in the Middle East.
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