Politics & Policy

Turks & Tolerance

Putting Islamist victory in Turkey in context.

The ballots are in, and the Turkish electorate this week decisively reelected Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a second term as prime minister in Ankara. Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development party rose to power — first as the Welfare Party, till it was forcibly disbanded, and then in its current guise — amid fears that it would depart from the Kemalist vision that undergirds the modern Turkish state. (The party is more commonly known by its Turkish acronym, “AK.”) Certainly it did not help that he was prone to public statements such as, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers,” nor that he has declared that he seeks God’s forgiveness each time he shakes hands with a woman. When Westerners envision Muslim leaders with whom they may do business, Prime Minister Erdogan is not the sort who comes to mind. Still less, despite his stated ambition for his country, are he and his the men who will lead Turkey into Brussels’ version of “Europe.”

But if Turkey’s elected leadership seems an unwelcome religious throwback after decades of familiar generals and gray-suited bureaucrats, and if Turkey itself has not been a model of pluralist democracy under AK rule, neither has it slid backward into the much-feared Islamist grand vision. The popular metaphor for Turkey has it poised between two worlds: Europe on the one side, and Asia on the other. The media narrative in the U.S. and Europe would have us believe that Erdogan and the AK party represent the latter, drawing Turkey away from us in its ambition and program. Their opponents, therefore, are our friends, or at least are benign toward the West. This narrative is simple and comprehensible. It is also false.

The reality is that Turkish state and society are precariously balanced between three distinct visions: the aggressive chauvinism of its Kemalist founding; the Islamist ambitions of its resurgent religious consciousness; and the secularist ambitions of its burgeoning entrepreneurial and urban classes. Each of these strands has its pull, and barring unlikely catastrophe, none will wholly dominate the others. For all the ink spilled over the pros and cons of Islamist rule in Turkey, it is the Kemalist element that represents the most meaningful threat to a Turkey that may join Europe. Understanding that threat is key to understanding AK’s victory this past weekend.

The maverick Turkish historian Taner Akçam, in his book From Empire to Republic, explains the basic premises of the Kemalist worldview. Turkish nationalism as expounded by Mustafa Kemal, better known as Atatürk, arose in the context of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. The empire’s loss of territory in Africa and the Arab Middle East was discouraging, but not nearly so traumatic as its dramatic rollback in Europe, where millions of Turks and Islamized Europeans lived. (Atatürk himself was a native of the now-Greek city of Thessaloniki.) As the empire tottered and fell, the Entente powers of the First World War decided to extend the process of dismemberment to Turkey’s Anatolian heartland. The Allies occupied Istanbul; Woodrow Wilson advocated an Armenian state on the eastern third of modern Turkey; France and Italy attempted to carve up southwestern Asia Minor; and most famously, Greece landed an invasion force at Smyrna (modern Izmir) and advanced nearly to Ankara in pursuit of a reborn Byzantine Empire. It was only the organizational and political genius of Mustafa Kemal that saved Turks from having nothing more than a rump state deep in the interior: He cowed the Allies into abandoning the country, and crushed the Greeks in a campaign that ended in the massacre of thousands on the quays of Smyrna.

The lesson that Kemal’s Turkish nationalists drew from the trauma of their republic’s birth was twofold: first, that religion in public life is a retrograde force; second, that non-Turks are a tremendous existential danger to Turkey. This outlook contained in itself its own contradiction: the definition of a “Turk” in this context is a Muslim who speaks Turkish. Given the polyglot nature of the Ottoman Empire, this means that those considered Turks are not all ethnically Turkish: Slavic, Caucasian, Arab, and Greek blood are all part of the national heritage. Thus, the Kemalist project attempted to simultaneously suppress faith, and posit faith as the defining characteristic of national identity. Though the state formally recognized non-Muslim citizens, it also suppressed and expelled them as much as possible, in a process beginning with the expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor in 1923, continuing with the pogrom eliminating the Greek community of Istanbul in 1955, and proceeding into the modern day with the slow push to eliminate the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate in Istanbul. Muslim citizens of the Turkish state would receive similar treatment if they dared seek autonomy — see the Kurds for a prime example — but if they refrained, they were generally left to pursue a quiet existence, as the thriving Arab population of Antakya, near the Syrian border, testifies.

The baleful effects of this sort of nationalism are on display today. Religious freedom is severely restricted, and the country has a history of outright prohibition of missionary activity. As previously noted, the Turkish state actively seeks to eliminate the patriarch, senior bishop of the world’s Orthodox Christians, whose place of office has been in Istanbul since a millennium before the Turks conquered that city. A combination of legal restrictions and tightening controls mean that the pool of state-approved candidates for the patriarchate is rapidly shrinking, and unless these policies change, there will probably be no one left to become Patriarch before this century ends. The slow ending of an ancient Christian institution may seem, in the modern media narrative, an ambition of Islamists, and perhaps it is: but the responsibility here is squarely on Turkey’s Kemalist heritage, and its legacy of nationalist paranoia.

It is not merely the patriarchate that is under threat: Anyone deviating from the accepted mode of Kemalist Turkishness is liable to harassment or worse. Turkish converts to Christianity Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal are presently on trial under Article 301, a newly drafted (as of 2005) Kemalist legal legacy that prohibits “insulting Turkishness.” Turkish media fixture Kemal Kerincsiz, who is participating in the case, has told the press, “Christian missionaries working almost like terrorist groups are able to enter into high schools and among primary school students … They deceive our children with beautiful young girls.” Though this may sound like Islamist rhetoric, the impetus for the prosecution comes from nationalist adherents of Kemalism who are vastly more concerned with the protection of Turkey than the defense of Islam. Kerincsiz himself represents an element of Kemalism so zealous that he regularly seeks the prosecution of Muslim Turks who do not hew to the strict Kemalist line: the authors Elif Safak and Orhan Pamuk are among many hauled before courts in recent years to defend their fidelity to Turkishness.

For all their misfortunes, at least Tastan, Topal, Shafak, and Pamuk are alive. Father Andrea Santoro, a Roman Catholic priest, is not: He was shot dead in the Black Sea city of Trabzon by a Turkish youth motivated by a mixture of nationalist and Islamist sympathies. An April 9, 2006, Washington Post story on the killing laid forth in stark terms the perceived linkage between Turkish patriotism and Islam:

[Isa Karatas, spokesman for Turkey’s perhaps 80 evangelical Protestant churches], said fellow Turks often ask him: “‘If there is a war, whose side are you going to fight on?’ I just couldn’t get them to understand that even though I’m a Christian, my feeling for my country is the same. They just don’t understand this.”

Behnan Konutgan, an official with the Bible Society in Turkey who has said every Christian is obliged to spread the Good Word, has been arrested repeatedly. “When I am preaching,” he said, “people think I’m an enemy of the country.”

That the consequences of this perceived enmity are dire is illustrated in more than just Fr. Santoro’s case. This past April, in the city of Malatya, deep in the eastern Turkish interior, a German minister and two Turkish Christians were tortured and murdered. A July 12, 2007, editorial in Christianity Today described the horrifying event: “The two Christians were bound hand and foot to chairs, and the Muslims began stabbing them, slowly and deliberately … Finally, three hours after the torture began, police were called. The captors then slit the Christians’ throats, killing all three.” The killers’ note explaining the deed was not one of jihad, but of plain Kemalist nationalism: “We did it for our country. They are trying to take our country away, take our religion away.” Within days of the killings, anonymous Turks sympathizing with the murders were reportedly threatening media outlets in Ankara who dared report on the case.

Finally, the murder of Istanbul newspaper editor Hrant Dink has attracted some notice in Western media. Dink was Turkish by citizenship, and Armenian by ethnicity — and as such, he was something of an alien figure to both milieus. He made his name by challenging the nationalist tropes of both Turkey and Armenia, demanding that Turkey acknowledge its history of repression, and asking Armenians to let go of their bitterness. For his lifetime of effort, he was repeatedly put on trial, and on January 19th of this year, he was shot dead by a Turkish nationalist youth named Ogün Samast. The killer was swiftly apprehended by authorities clearly sympathetic to his blow for Kemalism: on February 2nd, the Turkish publication Radikal published photographs of Samast in custody, flanked by smiling policemen as he hoisted a Turkish flag. A mere ten days before, a hundred thousand Turks had turned out for Dink’s funeral in Istanbul. In the throng were placards reading, “We are all Hrant Dink.”

The hundred thousand of Dink’s funeral are the hope of Turkey’s future: They are the third element of the three-way struggle for the national destiny, mostly young and mostly educated men and women who reject the paranoid strictures and heavy-handed demands of Kemalist nationalism. This past weekend, they mostly voted for Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK party, not because they are Islamists, but because in the Turkish context, it’s not the Islamists who have brought repression to modern Turkey. Though it is true that many of the incidents of Kemalist-inspired repression cited here occurred under Islamist governments in Ankara, past and present, it must be understood that the Turkish parallel state, in which the military and nationalist elder figures assume the role of guardian of the republic, remains tremendously strong — and the Kemalist ethic is profoundly powerful and enduring. Even in leadership, the AK party is not able to impose a non-Kemalist society upon Turkey any more than American Democrats may work their unfettered will as a Congressional majority.

Our true friends in Turkey are neither the Kemalist nationalists nor the Islamists, but the post-nationalist secularists who enliven Istanbul’s trendy districts, populate the Aegean resorts, and produce the literary genius of the likes of Pamuk. For now, that group has endorsed the AK party’s Islamists. It is a choice we should respect — even as we hope for more.

This is not to be naïve or starry-eyed about Erdogan or the Islamists. They may proclaim their desire to join the European Union, and they may model themselves after the Christian Democrats in Europe. But Islam and Christianity make rather different claims on the state and society; and we should have enough experience with political Islam by now to regard it with wary skepticism until given reason to trust. And — let us note — we do not know whether, in a generation’s time, Turkish minorities may still be repressed, only in Islam’s name rather than Mustafa Kemal’s. This is regrettably possible, but it is not inevitable. If Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to show that it will not happen, than he would do well to begin by listening to the message of the hundred thousand of Hrant Dink. He could give the patriarchate in Istanbul its liberty; he could give Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal their freedom; and he could seek the old Ottoman tradition of social pluralism over the Kemalist legacy of homogenization. It would not be an easy thing for him to do — but it would be right.

Joshua Treviño is the vice president for public policy at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, California. He has professional experience in the Muslim world in Asia and Africa. In fall 2006, he led a delegation to attend the papal-patriarchal events in Istanbul, Turkey.


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